In a land not quite far, far away (Canada, to be specific), there's a place where the houses look like pastry, an oven is made to measure for the witch who will meet her demise inside it, and gowns fit for a queen — whether she's good or evil — are both beautiful and fireproof
On the Vancouver set of Once Upon a Time, the wardrobe and production departments are largely responsible for the visual aspects that turn fiction into reality (and vice versa). And how they make it all happen is nothing short of magic.
”The great thing about fantasy is that there is no real playbook for it; it’s not like a police procedural,” says the show’s production designer, Michael Joy. ”Anytime you can force the viewer into a dreamscape where things don’t really make sense or fit together, it helps sell fairy-tale land.”
For Once costume designer Eduardo Castro, the journey from imagination to completion usually involves a race against the clock. ”It’s always the challenge of time. The writers have an idea, but it doesn’t gel until a certain point,” says Castro, who, even under the most desirable of circumstances, has about two weeks to sketch and construct the costumes for a new episode (though often the time frame is more like five days).
Among the challenges Castro and his team — which numbers between 8 and 20 people, depending on the scale of the task — have faced: designing a wedding dress and fireproof cape, reimagining Rumplestiltskin, and building armor out of 500 metal belt conchas for new character Mulan (Jamie Chung). Castro says he’s never sure what surprises new scripts will contain, so he does his best to be prepared for anything. ”The workroom takes great pride in finishing things off quite beautifully,” he says. ”Because we do that, costumes can work for long stretches of time.” Even when they’re not meant to. One example, says Castro, was learning that Snow White (Ginnifer Goodwin) would appear as a bandit during a flashback scene in season 1. ”We had no idea it was going to play through [several episodes],” he remembers. ”Thank God it worked, and we made it of a certain quality [so it held up].”
Conjuring the world where these costumed characters live is often a complicated process that involves a marriage of physical sets with postproduction visual effects. Still, everything begins with a simple sketch, or, as Joy describes it, ”an emotional response to the material.”
Joy’s instincts serve him well when it comes to building sets like the gingerbread house for season 1’s Hansel and Gretel-themed episode. Though the exterior seen by the audience was actually a computer-generated image based on Joy’s concept art (rule of thumb: If the actors don’t interact with the set, it is often virtually constructed), the interior was a real-life ”inside-out cake” constructed by Joy and set decorator Mark Lane. ”The cookies glued to the walls are the same cookies from an earlier scene in the episode where Hansel and Gretel are [seen baking] at Mary Margaret’s,” Joy explains. ”We’re always trying to find ways to link the two worlds. The audience loves that kind of stuff.”
The smallest details are key, and the result is often — corporate-partner reference not intended — ”like being in Disneyland,” says Lane, who despite having a behind-the-scenes view of the entire process still finds himself bewitched by the finished product. ”Last season we waited until the show came on Sunday nights and I sat down and watched it with my kids. When you see it all come together, with the lighting and the visual effects, it’s exciting.”
After using season 1 to introduce viewers to the show’s key characters, Lane hints that season 2 will take the audience on a journey to new lands … once the production team dreams them up, that is. ”There usually comes a point in the middle of an episode where we think, ‘Can we even do this?”’ admits Lane. ”And it always gets done. It always looks great, and it’s just hugely gratifying afterward.” Call it a Storybrooke ending.
We shine the spotlight on the top behind-the-scenes talent helping to create TV, movie, and music magic through set design, costumes, and more
Designer/president Tracy Reese
My Design Inspiration
”I have always loved Daughters of the Dust, an independent film by Julie Dash. It is set at the turn of the 20th century on the islands off the coast of Georgia and tells the story of the Gullah people. In addition to being a rich historical film, the cinematography, costumes, and hairstyles are amazing!”