Cynthia Summers: A Series of Unfortunate Events Costume Designer (Interview)
A Series of Unfortunate Events recently returned to Netflix. The series returned with bigger characters, sets, and brighter colors. We recently interviewed Cynthia Summers, costume designer of the second and third season. You’ve seen her work in Halo and the L Word. She talks about the transition to a fantasy setting and what fans can expect in the second and third seasons.
Looking at your career, Series of Unfortunate Events seems like a big departure from the rest of your resume. Did you see it as a chance to cut loose?
Absolutely. I was on another project during season 1. There was a point during the first season where I wanted to take it but I was already booked. And the thought of switching gears prematurely would be overwhelming. Getting to season 2, I had enough time and slightly different mindset of creatively you have to tape into, and I love it. I’m so glad I didn’t but I was obviously nervous. Sometimes I even thought “Can I even pull off ?” I think any creative person can get bored with doing the same things all the time. So each new project offers something different. This one is so different that you’re tapping into a different part of your brain. And you have to rethink things, which gets those creative juices flowing. Creating costumes from the bottom up is a different process than working on a fashion driven show like the L Word. This is way more involved and hands on. I’m really excited that I did it, and I’m also really tired. Currently prepping season 3, so most of the crew is tired at this point.
You already started working on the third season?
We’re prepping the The Penultimate Peril. We’ve got two more books to go then we’re done.
I noticed in season 2 that there’s a lot more pop in the visuals.
Season 2 looks a little different from season 1 mostly in color. The sets are a bit fuller and it’s definitely brighter in the costume department. All of that is intentional. The kids’ journey is getting longer and harder. And we have a new character this season. There’s a segue after the academy episode that’s kind of a transition from season one as as far as overall look goes. After that we go to a different place and its gets crazy from there. Olaf’s disguises have become more elaborate this season. Hes den generating as a character and becoming visibly dirtier. The wardrobe reflects this and all his wardrobe changes are story driven. Also we introduce Esme, and after The Ersatz Elevator she’s on a big journey with Olaf. Her character is bigger and louder than Olaf. While Olaf takes himself seriously, even though he’s not. He’s just crazy in that way. She’s just out there, on the other hand. Everything she does is colorful and over the top.
Could you describe the process you used to create costumes for this world? Did you read the books? Did you collaborate with the set designer?
Basically for every production, we get the scripts for the entire show at once. We didn’t have to read the book much since the scripts did that for us. We did reference the books occasionally for art points. I enjoy working with Bo Welch who is the producer and director. He’s involved with every aspect of production including hair, makeup, and set production. His hands on methods are a a blessing because the nucleus for a lot of visuals for this production come from one person as opposed to a committee which is often the case. All department sit down and talk about the scripts and ideas to see what everyone wants to bring to the characters. After that, we illustrate every single costume that comes through. Neil Patrick Harris is great to work with in this regard. He comes to his fitting with ideas and we’ve been on the same page with just about everything. He’ll also get into character for each fitting which helps with the entire process. He’s such a genius and inspirational to work with. Then we do photography and the approval process. We often over dye a garment if we want a particular color to pop, and this where the lighting department comes in. The series is all about clues, so we have to work with hands or shooting people from behind. Those shots are often photo doubles because the main cast will be shooting with the main unit. Lots of multiples of the same costumes which involves a lot of work to maintain continuity. Its a really involved but gratifying process. Everything is turning out better than I could have hoped.
And lastly, you mentioned lighting. Do costume and set designers spend a lot of time with the cinematographer?
That’s defiantly a big aspect of this production, but we try to do that for every show. We talk about color arcs, and colors that go with each character. Blacks and whites often pose a problem as well as shine. It depends a lot on what the lighting plan is and how they want to see a character. On this show; lighting, costume, makeup, and hair are very one family. We really have to have our ducks in a row. We even do a lot of camera test on fabric before we even incorporate them into an outfit because we don’t know how they’re going to react to the lighting. And sometimes we don’t always know the contents of the fabric we’re working with. Sometimes it moves differently and the light will hit it a certain way which can lead to shining a green or orange light on the actor’s face. It’s a very technical production.
You can watch season 2 of A Series of Unfortunate Events on Netflix now. The third season is due to hit Netflix next year.