INTERVIEW: Costume Illustrator Keith Christensen Discusses Comic Book Movie Outfits

Costume illustrator Keith Christensen has worked on a slew of Hollywood big-budget films, like Man of Steel, The Avengers and Watchmen. Check out our interview with him and come see some exclusive concept art that Keith sent us.

How would you describe your artistic style?
Keith Christensen: That's tough. By necessity, it varies from job to job, and even piece to piece. Since most of the 2D work I do is as much about problem solving and translation into 3D (both digital and tangible) as it is about imagery, I have to use the most efficient method of satisfying those needs. Very little concept art can simultaneously invoke narrative and atmosphere, AND function as a blueprint for the build. I try not to concern myself with a personal style. It'll show up in some form whether I like it or not, so I try not to force it.

MAN OF STEEL Concept Art

A lot of your Man of Steel designs for the Kryptonian characters incorporated some 16th Century aesthetics and decorative motifs of twentieth century architect, Louis Sullivan. What type of look were the costume designers going for with X-Men: Days of Future Past and Amazing Spider-Man 2?
Keith Christensen: For X-Men, I worked on the post- apocalyptic stuff. Louise Mingenbach, the costume designer, wanted a darker, slightly futuristic, tactical look. I think my stuff was a bit too weird for her, but the stuff that ended up in the film looks pretty great. For Amazing Spider-Man 2, the Spider-Man suit went way more traditional, and the Electro suit (by necessity) is completely different from the comic. Even the purists should agree on that call.


Now that costumes can be created realistically with digital effects, how has that influenced your designs?
Keith Christensen: In a way, it's liberating, and in a way it's sad. I love sculpting (in actual clay) and making molds and fabricating and painting. I miss the smell of turpentine and linseed oil. There's a romanticism about the traditional art studio. I think it's safe say that most costume dept. people don't want to give up the tactile interaction with materials either.

Don't get me wrong, digital effects do make amazing things possible, and as a tool for visual storytelling, it's hard to beat for versatility. As an example, I thought the digital armor in Man of Steel was incredibly convincing.

On the flip side though, sometimes it's the removal of limitations that ends up stunting creativity. The "kid in a candy store" usually doesn't make the best choices, or show much restraint. When everything gets turned up to 11, it has a numbing effect.

Comic book fans always want to know why the costumes often differ from the source material. Is that because it won't translate well on film?
Keith Christensen: I think what hardcore fans don't realize is that they're willing to suspend their disbelief to a much higher degree than the average moviegoer. In a comic book movie, visually speaking, everything has to be different from the source material, otherwise we'd be animating. A shot for shot, absolutely faithful live action version of the Super Friends might be very entertaining, but laughable. It's a different media, a different language, with it's own rules and limitations. The changes in costume appearance are the attempt to put the essence of that character within a live action framework. If you read a literal word for word translation from Japanese to English, you might get the gist, but it's not poetry. Just like verbal language, translating from one visual storytelling media to another requires an intimate knowledge of both. Admittedly, respectful fidelity is not always the case. Sometimes the source material is blatantly ignored.

In those cases, I'm just gonna do my job. I've got a family to feed.

How did you get involved in costume illustration?
Keith Christensen: I moved to LA in '97 to work in creature/special make-up effects shops. In recent years digital effects have eaten up the majority of the creature work around town, so many of the shops have turned to specialty costume (superheros, spacesuits, armor, sci-fi, etc.). It ended up being a somewhat natural transition, as the experience I gained in the shops is a valuable asset to costume design and fabrication.


Do you think of the look of the costume first, and worry about the actor's comfort second? How much thought goes into the material that will be used to bring your designs to life?
Keith Christensen: Every job is different. Every costume designer works in a different way. Sometime the CD will give me very specific parameters, and I'll perform the job of the traditional costume illustrator by rendering their design. Other times, they'll come to me with a very vague description, and I'll get to participate more in the pursuit of a solution.

Actors comfort is always a concern, but the level of concern is dictated by the actor and situation. There is no such thing as a truly comfortable superhero suit. But there is such a thing as acting comfortable. Thank goodness we're all professionals.

Which costume design are you most proud of?
Keith Christensen: To quote Picasso, "the next one". If I have to be proud of something, I'm proud of the fact that my work changes. Connecting with one piece is an experience best left to the viewer. I have favorite pieces from a variety of artists, but focusing too much on my own previous work has a stagnating effect. I do still kind of like that transforming Zod helmet though...

I have to ask, you worked on Wolverine's costume and as I'm sure you know fans have been dying to see Hugh Jackman don the yellow and black costume (which was seen in an alternate ending of The Wolverine). Was there any attempt to adapt that costume?
Keith Christensen: Personally (for reasons stated above) I think the classic Wolverine costume is tough, if not impossible to pull off on film. I've never seen a comic convention Wolverine costume that could be taken seriously in a dramatic film (and some of those costumes are pretty good). Trying to shoehorn that design into real life is like hammering a square peg into a round hole. Changes need to be made to make it plausible.

This is, of course, relative to my own 'suspension of disbelief' criteria. Can't please all the people all the time.

One of my favorite designs in your portfolio is the trench coat that Angelina Jolie wears in Mr. & Mrs. Smith. Any interesting story behind that?
Keith Christensen: When I was working on Star Trek: Into Darkness, costume designer Michael Kaplan asked me to do that illustration. He told me he loved designing Angelina's costume, but never got a nice illustration for his portfolio. I was happy to oblige.

What's next on the horizon for you?
Keith Christensen: Just started on Josh Trank's Fantastic Four. I'd tell you about it, but then I'd have to kill you.

Unused THOR: THE DARK WORLD Concept Art

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