Costume Designer Paco Delgado Thinks Like a Cat

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Belief surely has to be suspended in order to convince oneself that all six-foot-two-inches of Idris Elba has been shrunken to a pet-sized feline in the new movie adaptation of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Cats, but that exercise of imagination is what adds to the theatricality of the production. For costume designer Paco Delgado, the movie magic that transformed Elba and the rest of the star-studded cast–including the likes of Judi Dench, Jennifer Hudson, Ian McKellan, Jason Derulo, Taylor Swift, James Corden, and newcomer Francesca Hayward–into cats requires the audience to have the same approach to watching the film as the stage would demand. “With theater you can believe things that in movies you don’t,” Delgado tells CR. “As the audience, it’s like another layer of involvement of your mind and it breaks the boundaries of reality.”

Those who have witnessed Lloyd Webber’s campy hit musical are familiar with this, watching the stage actors embody the Jellicles with an abundance of spandex, makeup, and faux fur. To convince movie audiences, director Tom Hooper opted for a digital approach, altering the characters through CGI and Digital Fur Technology in post-production. Delgado, who also worked with Hooper on the acclaimed 2012 movie adaptation of Les Misérables and award-winning film The Danish Girl, therefore had the singular task of skirting between creating human-like cats and cat-like humans. To do so, the costume designer found himself constantly getting into the mindset of the characters, thinking about their animal instincts and their anthropomorphic self-awareness. With the movie’s wide release tomorrow, Delgado tells CR about this process and all the questions that went behind the costumes or lack thereof.

In the movie, the characters have all been made into cats through CGI , so many of them aren’t wearing costumes at all, but have been transformed through digital technology. How did this affect your approach to costuming?
“It was a different project for me because I’ve never been involved with something where the CGI techniques were so important and so dominant. It was a learning process. From the very beginning I was involved in the creation of the characters, deciding what cats should be in costume, the hair, the color, the markings, all these things that affected them.”

What was the research process for the costumes like?
“We wanted to explore many directions, and one of them was to think of what type of cats they would be. For example, we asked ourselves if you are a cat that lived with a magician and have a costume, should the costume come from the cat and could they decide what to wear or has it been given to them by their owner? Most of the conversations me and my team had we were thinking if someone was listening to us, they would think we were crazy. We did the research on one side as you would do with another movie, thinking about the costumes, and on the other side I researched the cats and the kind of kingdom they live in. We were trying to get into an unrealistic, fantastic world where cats behave like humans, but we didn’t want to have a cartoon approach. So we went through a very different process than anything I’ve done before.”

Some of the characters wear clothes and some don’t. Why is this?
“It was difficult because we didn’t want to humanize them. Because they are already very human, we were always questioning whether the cats should be dressed. And if they do [wear clothes], are they a free character who chooses how they dress? And if a cat has a collar does it belong to him or has it been given to him by his owner? We tried to minimize the costumes for a more interesting approach.

We had a lot of meetings with the director about which cats would have clothes and which didn’t, and we finally decided that the characters that have some sort of human aspirations should have costumes, and the ones that just behave like cats shouldn’t. Also, for example you have Bustopher Jones, and in his lyrics he says he’s very well dressed, so obviously he had to have a costume. Then, Grizabella had almost a human story behind her and so she should have costumes as well. Characters for example like Rumpleteaser and Mungojerrie were more playful cats that are jumping and stealing things and breaking into a house, so we decided that these cats shouldn’t have any costumes on because they were behaving more like cats and less like humans.”

Some characters also wear fur coats, which seems kind of strange to think about a cat wearing fur.
“We were thinking of humans and what things we like. For example, silk is a really interesting material because it’s soft and it might feel good against the skin. So we thought if you are a cat, maybe you’re interested in having things that match your real coat. Things that had a pile, like velvet or fur, would be much more interesting for a cat than for a human. We also wanted to create the feeling that it was a continuation between the cat’s fur and the furry costume that they were wearing. It had to be almost the same.”

What was it like adapting such a well-known piece of theater for the silver screen?
“I started working in theater, so all of my training was in the theater. Not on a bigger scale, but I did a lot of work with little companies and I worked like that for years and years and years before I started on movies. I really love Andrew [Lloyd Webber] and really love this show particularly. It has such an amazing songbook and I also like the fact it comes from T.S. Elliot’s poem. It couldn’t have more pedigree than that. The theater is very interesting because you have a bigger imagination, a bigger impact on the final project. Movies are more based on a realistic approach. In the theater you can have a person with a feathered hat and believe that that person is a bird. You have to put more of an effort into believing the things that are being presented in front of you. Whereas in the cinema it is already digested for you.”

Did you want to preserve any elements of the stage production of Cats for your costumes?
“The influences were there, but we didn’t want to copy anything. In the [stage] musical, Old Deuteronomy is a very big cat with lots of fur, and in our version we created a coat that looks the same color as the cat played by Judi Dench. So it was influenced, the play was an important part–seeing as the musical has become a very iconic piece of entertainment we didn’t want to kill it. We wanted to pay homage to it.”

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