A successful movie or tv show is a combination of components. You need the right director, the right actors, the right music, and surprisingly enough for some people, you need the right costume designer to bring everyone’s vision to life. Netflix has struck gold when it comes to this in the form of Cynthia Summers.
We got a chance to speak with A Series of Unfortunate Events costume designer, Cynthia Summers, about what it takes to bring the world of Lemony Snicket to life and what challenges her and her team face in trying to work with such a uniques show.
Right off the bat Summers wanted us and viewers to know, “It’s not a shopping show.”
Summers and her team built about everything that you see on A Series of Unfortunate Events. From hats to shoes, to even undergarments, everything is meticulously made to fit the aesthetic of Lemony Snicket’s world.
With the amount of detail and time that it takes to make every costume on the show, it feels like they’re always go, go, go, with not a second to spare because as soon as they start an episode they’re already prepping for the next one.
“While we’re shooting one, we’re prepping the next one so it’s like a feature film but in a television series concept. So it’s pretty fast.”
This break neck speed hasn’t taken away from the quality or the time that Cynthia puts into every disguise that Count Olaf wears or every change of clothes that the Beaudelaire children wear.
“Nothing that goes in front of the camera is not broken down.”
Summers ages, paints, and even makes the fabric look filthy if needed. With how distinct this show is, they’ve had to take the extra step and create their own fabrics because they can’t find what they need a lot of the times.
If you’ve watched A Series of Unfortunate Events you’re well aware that this show has a very special looking somber light to it. It’s meant to reflect the dire situations that the children are in and the horrors that await them. This has changed the way Summers does her job.
“Our lighting, it’s a specific lighting, over this whole show. And that changes colors a lot. So, if you see Violet’s soft pink dress she wore in Season 1, in real life it’s quite bright. It’s like a real bright pink. But on the camera it looks like a dusty rose. A faded color.”
There’s a science behind what she does and it takes meticulous planning to work with such a difficult element as the lighting. Summers doesn’t just have to coordinate what costumes fit the personalities of these characters and the aesthetic of the show. She has to think about how the camera will change things and how she can still reach the vision inside of her head.
“The whole production is so rich. And every detail is thought through. Every detail, there’s nothing overlooked. You know, a lot of times, especially in making TV, they’ll say, “Don’t worry about the back because we’re probably never going to see her from behind.”
Of course even that is different in A Series of Unfortunate Events.
“On this show we see every part from head to toe, from top to bottom, and 360. We see everything, all the time. So we always have to consider every single detail.”
This is a mystery with a penchant for focusing on the smallest detail because it’s a mystery and the clues are everywhere. So Summer’s can’t slack or get away with just an ok costume department. It has to be brilliant, clear, concise, and somehow fit in with the million of others her and her team have to consider.
Even the buttons on a coat have to be constructed with a keen eye and an understanding that detail is key!
Summers admitted that Count Olaf might be her crowning jewel when it comes to designing a character costume. She’s not just building various disguises and that signature suit he wears while doing the vilest of things. She’s building a personality, a character that Neil Patrick Harris can easily slip into.
“Count Olaf in Vile Village might be my favorite look. That has a lot to do with how it came about. We’ve got a really great and cohesive team and we all seem to be really closely on the same page with everything that we’ve been designing. So that’s a blessing. But, his Detective DuPin disguise in Vile Village was the one that kind of got away on us.”
They kept revisiting this design, each time not managing to get something together or find a direction they could all agree on. The Detective wasn’t really described on page and it’s one of the instances where Summers and her team have to stray away from the book while keeping to the aesthetic of the show and the way that the lighting works.
“He’s a scat singing jazz musician detective. And what is that? We went through a lot of versions with that before we finally landed on it. And that was four days before camera. So that was extremely stressful. But it’s one of my favorites.”
They were all pushed to make a decision, but in the best way possible, and pulled through because they understood each other and are without a doubt a lean mean creative team. And although her team might disagree on her favorite pick, even Neil has a different pick as his favorite, this is the one that stuck with Summers long after the cameras were off and they were working on their next episode.
Quite frankly, what you should take away from this interview is that costume design isn’t just an easy shopping trip to the most expensive stores you can find to dress your characters.
These are creative, adventurous, and daring people who help bring to life the content we consume on a daily basis. And like the music & lighting that sets the tone, Summers work on A Series of Unfortunate Events goes hand in hand with the other elements of this show and makes for an enduring and extraordinary journey for the Baudelaire’s and the viewer alike.
A Series of Unfortunate Events is available to stream on Netflix now.