Why Doctor Strange's Costume Was A Big Challenge To Adapt For The Big Screen

Academy Award-winning costume designer Alexandra Byrne has worked on a bunch of the previous Marvel Studio films, but the challenge to adapt Doctor Strange's costume for the big screen was harder than even she could have imagined.

We conclude our on-set coverage from Doctor Strange with a brief chat with Doctor Strange costume designer Alexandra Byrn. We usually talk to costume designers on our set visits but don't typically post the full interview transcripts, often incorporating the information into our set visit reports. But this interview I found more interesting and thought you might as well. So here is our Alexandra Byrn Doctor Strange interview.

Kevin Feige said that we need to ask you about the cloak.Alexandra Byrn: Yeah, thank him for that.Can you talk about the challenge of creating the cloak and turning it into something cinematic?Alexandra Byrn: Yes, that was a big challenge. It's amazing in the comic book and, obviously, we have practical limitations. The collar in the comic is enormous and if you had something that big, you'd never see your actors' faces. It's about getting the spirit and, for want of another word, the magic. To be entranced by the cloak. The cloak is sentient, so it has its own character. You want something that has an amazing sense of history, antiquity and that is a relic in itself. It's a mixture of drawing and building not the body. You can draw a lot, but it's ultimately the drape of a fabric that is going to dictate how the cloak works. We tend to attack it on two fronts. Then, really the feel I wanted is that you learn more about the cloak the more you saw it.

Obviously, there's a color palette within the comics. I think red and gold has an immense amount of baggage that isn't particularly helpful to this film, so I decided to keep it basically monochrome so that the detail is all there. As you go more into closeup, you gain more from the cloak. The big challenge was the idea of asymmetry, whether that's just me asking, "What can be different about this cloak?" It had a good feel to it. In order to achieve that, it has a semi-tailored shoulder on one side. That's a whole new game that I had never tackled. I won't call it a graveyard, but we certainly have a rail of prototypes, all of which taught us something. It really is about working with the fabric and the processes. Every time you add something else to the cloak, it changes the weight, the balance, and the behavior.

How many prototypes did you go through before landing at this final design?Alexandra Byrn: Well, some of them never quite made it to being fully realized. You go, "No, that doesn't work" or "Yes, that does work." Probably half a dozen, but more kind of tabletops and ideas. Practice versions. The fabric, the wool that it came from, comes from Japan. I go to a textile fair in Paris called Premiere Vision where they launch all the new fabrics. Nothing is made in sample length. If you choose something, you have to commission it. It's quite hard making a decision about something as big as the cloak from a hunk of thread that you see is going to be 90 meters woven. You really need to see the two colors together and all that kind of thing. That was quite a gamble. The deadlines of waiting for the fabric to arrive gets quite scary.Are you going to create the cloak's powers practically?Alexandra Byrn: It's a mixture.There appear to be a lot of unified elements for the individual sorcerers as well as their own individual flair. How do you go about considering both when developing their look?Alexandra Byrn: Basically, it's about constructing Kamar-Taj, where you have the different levels. You have novice, apprentice and disciple and then the masters about that. Obviously, you want the masters to have their individuality and character. There's a sort of increasing individuality as you move up through the school. But it's all grounded in the ethos of the Kamar-Taj. That's the reference that you come back to every time. I look at comic books, and I do very eclectic mood boards with ideas and images that have to do with a character or story point. It's a bit like spinning plates. You gradually just steal your ideas. Certainly, since the first Thor, which was my first with the Marvel Universe, I've learned a lot. I think that kind of becomes embedded in you. A lot of it is quite instinctive. People ask, "How do you arrive there?" Sometimes, I look at the costumes that we delivered and ask myself, "How did you get there?" You can't just go from A to B. It's a journey of evolution.There's what looks like brass knuckles on the belts. What is that?Alexandra Byrn: Hmmm...Is that top secret?Alexandra Byrn: It might be. I think it's a wait and see. I might be spoiling things if I told you about those.How long did it take to fabricate the cloak in its final form?Alexandra Byrn: In it's final form, once everything is decided, it's about five days. But that's with quite a lot of people working on it. A lot of departments. We have stitchers, embroiderers, leather workers, cutters, textile — because all the lining is printed, dyed and overdyed. There are happy accidents in there that then become part of how it's made. It's a very organic process. There are things that you intend to do and other things that you learn on the way. Then other things were you go, "Oh! That works!" That was Thor's cloak in the first place. When the pleats all fell into place in the back, that was very much a draping exercise. We went, "Just stop there!"Are there lots of variations of the Strange costume for different scenes?Alexandra Byrn: It's basically one. Otherwise, I don't think you would believe that it's his clothing if it keeps changing drastically. There are different versions because you want to accommodate harnesses and things like that, but intentionally we tailor them so they always look the same. Practically, there are some differences, but not really.Is there a significance to the patterns in the lining of the tunic?Alexandra Byrn: No, that was embroidery on the chest of the Strange tunic, which is based on the comic book logo. I wanted to pay respect to the comic book, so we developed this idea of embroidery and symbols within the Kamar-Taj. But again, like the cloak, I wanted it to be something you learn more about.Before he's in the iconic outfit, how does Strange the neurosurgeon approach getting the costume?Alexandra Byrn: He goes to Kamar-Taj to learn, and he progresses through the ranks.But it's still very odd?Alexandra Byrn: Oh yes. And there's actually quite a big story about him and the cloak.When you're designing for a uniquely visual character like the Ancient One and a uniquely visual actress like Tilda Swinton, how do you approach the costume?Alexandra Byrn: Usually when you start the characters, the first thing is the script. Your design work is about telling the story. It's later that casting comes into play, but it's a huge component. I work quite organically with the actors. It's about their scale and promotion. Their movement and their coloring. You couldn't put some colors on some people or particular shades of colors.We're hearing that she's a Celtic sorceress. Is any of that informing the costume design?Alexandra Byrn: I wouldn't say it's a huge influence. It certainly plays in there. I think all these costumes evolve. You try to set up contradictions and juxtapositions, so it's kind of combined information. It's not just one nail on the head.Are there any other cultural elements that are explored for any of the other characters' costumes?Alexandra Byrn: I'm going for a larger picture. Like I said, I do these mood boards. After a while, you've lived so long with these ideas that they distil more and more. It is spinning plates. You're picking things and balancing them. You're mixing ideas so that it's true to the story of the comic as well as the story of the film.

(Byrn is told that she's allowed to discuss the Sling Rings)

Alexandra Byrn: They are Sling Rings. They are part of the equipment that you gain through the Kamar-Taj once you ascend past a certain level. I'll let someone else explain what they do.Did you design each individually? They're each different.Alexandra Byrn: Yeah.Do they reveal something different about each of the characters?Alexandra Byrn: Yes. Yes. You can see me panicking.Can you talk about how you're using color and fabric to inform specific characters?Alexandra Byrn: Yeah. I use color very instinctively. I didn't even realize that when I was doing Guardians of the Galaxy. Everyone had different skin colors. I spent weeks just paralyzed about what color to put people in because I wasn't working with skin tone anymore. I think color, for a costume designer, is one of your biggest storytelling devices. You're pulling focus and playing with composition. The main way I start to allocate color is that it comes from the comics. That's where it all starts from.How do you then shape those costumes to reflect who the character is in the movie?Alexandra Byrn: They're both components. It's like adding ingredients to a cake. It's about balancing that. I would say that a lot of the practical decisions I make are in the fitting. They're on the body and usually, have to do with movement. In this film, I think silhouette is important, probably coming from that idea of the cloak.Do you have to think about the idea that your work is going to live on in future Marvel films?Alexandra Byrn:  No, I love that being someone else's challenge. I went through that on the first Avengers. I think the origin stories have to be true to themselves. You do them as best you can for that story. That is the big challenge of when the universe starts to come together, and you ask, "How on Earth does this work?" Good luck!How much time do you spend on the more mundane stuff?Alexandra Byrn: In the fitting room, it's as much time. But in the lead time, it's much less time because you can go buy it. You can buy options and pick what you like. But in this, you're building prototypes and the lead time is much longer.