Costume Designer Penny Rose Talks Designing Samurai, Working with CGI Characters, and More on the Set of 47 RONIN

     November 4, 2013


One of the things that really impressed me on the set of 47 Ronin were the costumes.   Designed by Penny Rose–who’s worked on over forty projects including the Pirates of the Caribbean movies, The Pacific, and Pink Floyd’s The Wall–the costumes were loaded with an amazing attention to detail, and they were brought to life using various colors and materials that made you feel like they were transported through time just for this movie.  And before you start to think it was an easy task, Rose revealed during an on-set group interview that her team created 998 costumes and 400 suits of armor for the production!

During the rest of the interview, Rose talked about designing the samurai, working with CGI characters, how filming in 3D changed the way they built the costumes, the use of color, Keanu Reeves’ outfits, and a lot more.  If you’re interested in how movie costumes are made, or just want to hear some interesting behind-the-scenes stories, you’ll enjoy this interview.

Before going any further, if you haven’t seen the latest 47 Ronin trailer, I’d watch that first:

47-ronin-keanu-reevesQuestion: Congrats on what we’ve seen from earlier. Those costumes look fantastic.

PENNY ROSE: Thank you.

Can you talk a little bit about… How involved were you in the color spectrum of how some are red, some are gold…

ROSE: That was a kind of Carl, Strove, Scott decision, that we would give them all a color identity and then when they were fighting we would know who was who. So it just seemed obvious so make the Shogun gold. He’s a god like figure. The acko red, which is… you know, everything is abundant and floral and pretty and purple black for the villains. There’s no secret to it. It’s kind of a cheap trick.

Could you talk a little bit about the research you did and how you decided on the look of each of these costumes and how realistic they are versus how much liberty you took?

ROSE: The start point is authentic Japanese eighteen seventy. You have to have a good start point. So we researched for quite a long time. We saw all the previous Japanese 47 Ronin movies and then we decided to give it a kick. So we went for a bit of fashion. We went for a bit of fantasy, and kind of ended up with what you watched today.

Did you do anything different knowing this would be shot in 3D, like Pirates? Is it any different?

ROSE: You just have to have more attention to detail in 3D, because you’re going to see it much closer. I mean it’s the same method of working, but just more attention to detail.

I noticed that the Ronin scenes have four or five different helmet sizes. Is that variation or is that…

ROSE: The Ronin themselves, we just decided on two shapes and it depended on what suited their faces. The centered ones don’t look good on everybody, so when they got a fitting it was literally dependent on… That’s for the actors. All the others have got the same helmet, depending on their rank.

47-ronin-poster-witchWe saw a ton of costumes out there. How many in total do you have to make for the production?

ROSE: 998 costumes and 400 suits of armor. 

How many different kinds of helmets are there?

ROSE: 13 different variations and then some of sixty of, some of forty of, some thirty of. 

There was one helmet that was really out of sight. I was really excited about it… I don’t know how to describe it. It looked like a giant star, like it was a gold helmet with this amazing… it was very tall and very extravagant. Can you tell us a little about what that represented and where that…

ROSE: It was actually… the research for that, what was an original… quite similar and Carl liked it, but the studio didn’t like it and they said they didn’t “want any Christmas decorations in the movie.”

Could you talk about Mica’s costume in particular?

ROSE: She’s all in pale peaches, pale apricots, just pale colors all in silk satins and every costume is a variation on the theme, which frames her tiny face. So that was the idea, that we would frame her. They are not authentic Japanese as you are aware. I’ve stolen a little bit from everywhere here and there quite a lot of couture and then when she goes through the movie and she’s captured by Lord Kira, he dresses her. So we go away from this pretty coutury flavor and we go into authentic kimonos, but with lots of his purple color in them and green, neither of which look very good on her. So that helped make her sad and then at the end of the movie, when she goes back to her home town, Ako, she goes into her pinks and peaches.

Did you use couture influences?

ROSE: Yes, I did. I’m trying to remember who’s collection it was. I think Alexander McQueen quite a long time ago did a Japanese… And Christian Djorn did a great Japanese. Maybe in the sixties… So we just put together all kinds of images and took a bit of this one, a bit of that one. It was mainly about the fact that Mika is so petite and so we really wanted to frame her face.

Did you have to immerse yourself in the ins and outs of Japanese, just to…

ROSE: We all had master classes. We had a Japanese costumer with us. We know how to tie an OB eleven billion different ways.  Everything’s authentic. There are no zips. There were no buttons, no poppers. It’s proper Japanese wear, but in some cases, like I think today it’s a prettied over, because I needed to put the embroidery on and it would have been really hit or miss to do it every time getting it right in the middle.

And it takes forever to get one of those on.

47-ronin-poster-keanu-reevesROSE: You’re telling me. I had a lot of costumers.

What’s the difference between your Ako at the beginning and Kira’s costume at the ending… Do a lot of the outfits change between different people with different settings in the film?

ROSE: Yeah, so in Ako, where we are now, it’s a beautiful place with lots of greenery. It’s all fabulous and we move in the second act into the countryside. They’ve been banished. It’s sadder. I’ve used much more brown and blue and sort of more peasant wear and then from there we move to Kira’s castle, which is this fortress on the top of a snow peak mountain and it’s all blacks and silvers and purples and then we come back to Ako at the end.

What about Rinko’s character? We haven’t seen much in terms of the more fantastical elements yet. I’m just curious what you worked with to design her wardrobe.

ROSE: I didn’t want to go too fantasy, because although we’ve given the film a visual twist, but we wanted to keep it reality based. However, she is a witch who becomes a fox. So we really took the kimono shape. She has this great tattoo on her back, so we re-assemble the kimono, so that it would be completely dropped to the back. So she’s got a big scoop in her kimono, which believe me is technically quite difficult to do, because one you’ve pushed it back like that, where are you going to put the arms? So we had to play with that a bit and we got it. She’s mainly in green. She kind of wears those quite a lot, but obviously very different ones and then she’s got one outfit she wears for the tournament, which is really cut wild coutury outfit, but I don’t think she’s ended up too fantasy. She’s in a traditional kimono, which has been reshaped.

What’s the tattoo of?

ROSE: “What is the tattoo of?” Good question. I’m not sure.

Of all of the other women that were in the scene that we saw, can you describe a little bit of their style?

ROSE: Each group has noble women, concubines, handmaidens, and staff. So obviously making that many costumes in a very short space of time, the secret was to give each group… It had its color identity, but then… I couldn’t purchase different fabric for every body, so they had a fabric identity as well. So when you see they are wearing red, you will notice they are all of the same embroidered fabrics. It’s easier on set, because when they bring four hundred people to set, we’ve got to keep track of them. So I tell all of them when they are getting ready “You’re a hand maiden, stand with the hand maidens. Don’t be talking to a noble lady, that would be rude. Stick with your group.” But each of the Shoguns got them. The Akas got them, and the Kiras got them. So you will see groups of women walking about who are purple or gold or red. I mean it sounds so simplistic, but it actually is not.

Did you have these fabrics custom designed?

47-ronin-poster-warriorROSE: In eight weeks? I don’t think so. No. I buy in Italy. Two shoppers went to Japan. Obviously I buy in London and Paris, but the challenge was getting enough variations, because obviously… I can’t even remember how many, but they are coming in with the fabric the whole time, like “Oh my God.” Like the nobles have all got individual costumes and in each costume there’s probably six to eight different fabrics. So it’s a real jigsaw work.

Who were the three women in blue?

ROSE: I’ve gotten rid of them. They are Kira’s handmaidens. In the story, when she is kidnapped and taken to his castle, her lovely little girls who are wearing the cream with the tree on the back, did you spot that? If they all stand together, they are actually a Japanese screen with the tree embroidered all on their backs, so when they kidnap her, to make her even more out of her comfort zone, he gives her three hags. Is that a word you know? Hags? Old Crones. So they were in that shot, but actually they were really working in the castle looking after her, so he kind of had his own spies in there checking on her.

The production moved to Budapest for a while and I know you’re used to working on a lot of productions here. How was it working over there? Was it harder getting stuff that you needed to get or was it pretty much…

ROSE: It actually suited us perfectly, because the armor was replicated in the plastic in Budapest by a near genius and actually if you look close, the gold armor and the purple armor is way superior to the red armor. I mean we make all the prototypes here in leather and we do all the enhancements and all the details, but little things… For example like on all the roping they have, on the end of the ropes it doesn’t fray, there’s a sort of gold or silver depending on who they are, end piece. Well, it’s got to be put on by hand. In Budapest labor was cheap, so we could give it that extra detail that we might not have been able to here and also great tailors there. We had a dye shop. I had to take the chief cutter who made Mika’s clothes… It was quite a good place to be really.

We noticed the animals, like the dogs and the horses had costumes too. Did you have to design that?

ROSE: No. That isn’t my department, but we talked so that they knew what I’m doing and it could match what they are doing.

When they are CGI characters, like the opening, do you get involved there at all?

47-ronin-poster-freakROSE: What happens is I usually start with a costume that they can take off, because what tends to happen in these big films is that if you just let the computer generators create the costume, sure as eggs are eggs, at one point somebody says “Actually we would like a real version.” Well for me to then create what they have digitally done is really hard, so I start and then they take it away. I mean they make it bigger and better than mine, but at least there’s a start point.

Could you talk about Keanu’s outfits and how they differentiate with the character?

ROSE: Yes. Obviously it’s very difficult when you’ve got a star and a leading man when he’s never going to look fabulous, because he is always throughout the movie playing a bit of an outcast and a peasant. So I went to meet him and put together a bag of stuff, basically his costume is ingredients of up to eight pieces, which we see the first one at the beginning and as he moves through the film he has use of the other pieces. So they come on and off, but really he never gets to dress up, that poor thing. So he’s always a peasant.

And that’s what we saw him in today?

ROSE: What you just saw today is a variation on it. There are variations on it, but he never really becomes one of them except yesterday he was fighting in a suit of armor, but he’d actually borrowed it from another character, so it wasn’t really his.

How much communication do you have with the actors? Obviously Keanu has a little more input on his costumes. Kira’s done a lot of samurai movies, so did he have a lot of input into like…

ROSE: Yeah, well as a rule of thumb irrespective of the film subject, there are three people that enter the dressing room, me, the actor, and the character. The intent is that after an hour or whatever it takes, the actor walks out looking like the character, so then I’ve done my job, he’s happy, off we go. Obviously in this instance you are slightly restricted, because you have an iconic silhouette. We didn’t want to give any of them a non-Japanese look except Lord Kira, who Carl said, “He’s a dandy… He’s almost like a rap star. Give him some bling. Go over the top.” They’ve all had something to say. In truth, they have been incredibly good natured about the fact that we’ve gone non-traditional. So while the shapes are all traditional, the fabrics are not. They are not wearing Japanese fabrics at all.

What is the most elaborate costume in this movie?

ROSE: It’s quite difficult to say, because the armor obviously is the most elaborate. I guess the wedding dress is pretty much as far as I could go. I added fur. I added…

47-ronin-posterWhen some of us spoke to you on Pirates I believe you said you got some stuff or you had done shopping before on markets or even maybe eBay. You mentioned a whole bunch of things. Were you able to apply any of that stuff to this production?

ROSE: I purchased six suits of samurai armor in China. It’s made for the Japanese market, and put them on stands and had them in the room and sort of used them for inspiration, because armor through the ages has an identity. “Is it Roman? Is it middle aged?” But Japanese is very iconically different. So I bought those, but we could never use any of those, because it’s aluminum, so it’s just not user friendly, whereas this stuff is hot, it’s relatively light. You can’t keep me away from the market ever, so I can’t think of anything particularly, but I’m always in there with a bit of braid or a bit of something. Really we had to stick within the framework of Japanese. I’m trying to think if there’s another national dress flavor that would be that restrictive, but I think probably is the most restrictive. You know, if you did Spanish, the shapes of the garments are not that different to French, but Japanese is Japanese. The sourcing, I think it’s the same thing. It just comes from everywhere. I mean when I started… Did they show you the boars, that tigers, and the devils?

Well we saw the sketches.

ROSE: If she walks you through the shop, you will be able to see. I was really struggling to come up with some interesting ideas and they are made out of bathmats, placemats, floor mats… I don’t know, I was just in the store and I said “Oh, that would be good. Let’s have some of those.” And the boys that create the armor are just magicians, so something I like the texture of, they will then make it into an arm band  or put it on a skirt flap or… It’s just… We are playing with stuff, because… The chain mail is plastic too. The chain mail guy has a shop in the north of England and he makes aluminum rings with rubber rings to create chain mail and guess what his business is? He has a huge trade in the S&M market.

[Everyone Laughs]

The hair is so fantastical. Do you have a lot of input with a certain outfit how their hair’s going to be done? Do you work really closely with the hair department?

ROSE: On any movie, makeup, hair, and costume are a trio. It is absolutely essential. I try not to lord it over them, but it’s essential. So when Mika’s close were being designed, I would say to the hair dressing department, “Look. In this scene you can’t have long hair, it will get in the way of my collar.” The witch, Rinko, I would say “This day you can bring the hair forward. That day you can’t, because there’s something you will conceal.” The most impressive work on this movie has been in the background hair and makeup. They have just got at it like they were on holiday and extreme things, fascinating things that they’ve done a great, great job.

Which of your cast members do you think is the most stylish?

ROSE: On film?

On and off?

ROSE: I think it’s got to be Mika really, yeah.

Both on and off?

ROSE: Actually I’ve never seen her off in anything other than sweats, but I gather she’s a pretty stylish girl.

Here’s more from my 47 Ronin set visit:

Latest News