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As the MD of FB-FX Ltd, Grant Pearmain has provided props and costumes to a huge variety of features from Prince of Persia and Kick-Ass to the forthcoming Prometheus and John Carter. Here, he reveals why the work of his team is so crucial to a film’s success.
What services does FB-FX provide?
We are primarily known for costume props and SFX costumes. A normal film wardrobe department would tackle all the sewn, soft costume elements that are needed, but when it comes to making armour and spacesuits and space helmets, anything of that ilk, that’s our main niche in the industry.
Are all your props and costumes built and customised for the individual production?
We have a few things around that we will hire out, but mostly it’s all custom-made and sold to the film production. We work closely [in pre-production] with the costume designer and concept artist and, to a certain extent, the director and maybe the DoP. We’ve developed new materials that are very light. For instance, a lot of metal armour isn’t metal at all—it has a metal plating, it looks exactly like metal, but it’s flexible; you can fall over on it and it won’t break, and it weighs very little. We can produce those in fairly large numbers pretty quickly. We’re quite well known for being able to work up something from nothing to fit actors to designers’ specifications.
Once you have built the requisite props and costumes, does your involvement end there, or continue on set?
Increasingly nowadays, productions prefer to keep things in-house, so they will, where possible, use their own standbys to look after costumes—but obviously sometimes it’s just not possible and normal wardrobe standby are not always happy to look after suits of armour or spacesuits full of electronics! Our involvement normally continues throughout the film in some degree. Generally, as the film goes on we’re continuing to make items as requested anyway. Nowadays it’s very seldom that they’ve requested and signed off everything prior to filming; the designs are still being penned when the cameras are rolling.
What sort of complications can there be in the operation of your props?
With the more standard armoury stuff, it’s pure maintenance. It’s just in the nature of films involving armour that there’s normally lots of stunt work and things tend to take a lot of hammering, so you’ve just got to be there to be able to maintain sometimes hundreds of suits on a daily basis. Recently we’ve been working with [costume designer] Janty Yates and Ridley Scott doing Prometheus, and we made what they’ve called the ‘life-support units’, which are the main spacesuit sections. You’ve got backpacks and frontpacks and helmets and the various stuff that goes with that. The electronics in them were almost ridiculously complex—all custom-designed, custom-made circuit boards running video LCD displays and providing cooling for the actors, providing lighting on the actual spacesuit for the DoP, so he can dim it and in some cases make it flicker. So, very complicated.
What work from FB-FX can we look forward to seeing in Disney’s upcoming John Carter?
There’s two main factions in the film with two styles of costume, and then the stuff the principal artists are wearing as well. Actually, the wardrobe department generated most of the original designs in-house, then we replicated them out here, in numbers and in our material, to make them wearable. Although a lot of the characters are clad more for hot weather, there’s still quite a lot of armoured elements, so helmets, and little breastplates and a lot of the leatherwork they’re wearing, is stuff that we’ve replicated in polyurethane—a type of plastic material that moves like leather—and then a lot of the metal plates and things they’re wearing aren’t metal at all, they’re our version of metal that’s much more comfortable to wear.
Aside from the film industry, who are some of your other clients?
Really quite a few. There’s your normal exhibition-y kind of stuff and stage productions. We’ve done a lot of work for ballet and opera—these days they have specialist costume requirements. We work quite a bit with artists at the moment as well; we’ve got quite a few new technologies that we’ve been bringing on over the last year. We can 3D scan people or objects, and then we’ve got a large robot that can sculpt for us from our digital work on the computers, so we can replicate sculptures, smaller or larger, and we can replicate human beings as mannequins that we can use for our work in costume as well, to help with sizing and that sort of thing.
That also stems from something that we started back on John Carter. In the finished film, the aliens are going to be CG. However, it’s very important that on set, for the VFX guys as well as for the actors, that there are very accurate stand-ins for the aliens. So we were supplied with CG models that were the same as what will be in the film—and those are milled out by computer, and then those milled models are finished off by sculptors here, who put all the fine details on, all the skin, and put a bit of expression into them. And then they’re moulded and cast out here and painted up to be completely lifelike so that then we have some very lightweight but very convincing aliens that can be picked up and moved around on set under the lighting, and positioned where they need to be for eyelines. It just makes the job of the VFX guys very much easier, because they’ve got a real-life reference for the lighting and the colour and the skin texture of the alien. So that’s an interesting and new area that is going to become more prevalent.
John Carter was released in the UK on March 9. Prometheus will be released on June 1.
Taken from movieScope magazine, Issue 26 (Jan/Feb 2012)