Costuming the Animated World: Computer-Animated Films

Computer-animated films, just like other types of animation, don’t have an established role of a costume designer, or at least that is how it is in most cases. Creating costumes has been part of the character design process, which the animator or character designer will do. However, this is slowly changing, and costume designers are starting to gain their own spot in animated films. After all, the main purpose of a costume designer is to help bring a character to life and tell its story through costumes.

With the technological advances from the past years, computer-animated films are now as real as they have never been before. We are witnessing the most glorious moment of technology, where computer-animated films look so real you feel that you live in that same world. Textures, shapes, and colors are now so close to reality that the digital-animated world becomes almost palpable. Costumes on their own have gained a lot more importance as details are now more essential to the audience, and in the same manner, they have become a stronger part of storytelling. Each seam, trim, stitch, jewel, buckle, and button are so precise that you want to grab those costumes from the characters and put them into your wardrobe. To get these details as precise as the animation demands, costume designers must step into this process, just like we saw in the past article from this series “Costuming the Animated World: Stop-Motion Animation” with productions like LAIKA.

Right: Edna Mode, The Incredibles. Gif: © Disney/Pixar

“The costume design is an essential part of this process: the clothes the characters wear reflect their personality and support the narrative in many ways”. -Maarit Kalmakurki

Computer animation has not always been as we know it today, it started around 25 years ago, and it is evolving at an impressive rate. Pixar Animation Studios is a pioneer and leader in this technology. Back in 1995, the company released the first computer-animated feature film: Toy Story. In those days, animating clothes was very time-consuming, so there are many hands and feet shots from a toy’s or children’s perspective. But things started to change, and from learning to animate humans, fur, hair, water, and certainly fabric, making costumes gained more importance and recognition. With time, Pixar has developed stitching, lace, leather, mesh, and veil textures. They even developed software to “sew” the garments together to achieve a real approach to costume construction.

Left to right: Andrew Stanton, Pete Docter, John Lasseter, and Joe Ranft. Photo: Michael Ansell – Courtesy of Pixar Animation Studios

Toy Story

In Toy Story (1995), despite the main characters being toys who never change their costumes, all contribute to storytelling. Woody’s costume certainly rings a bell in all of us: a mustard checkered shirt, blue jeans, cow-print vest, hat, boots. The intricate details, such as his red handkerchief, buttons, belt, gun holster, and sheriff plaque, contribute to character creation. In terms of storytelling, his cowboy hat, for instance, is the only accessory that he can take off. Whenever he doesn’t have it, he is missing part of his identity, and it is something that he misses, but his owner does too. 

Left to right: 1: First sketches for Woody’s character. Photo: © Disney/Pixar. 2: Woody – Toy Story. Photo: © Disney/Pixar. 3: Process of animation for Woddy’s character. Photo: © Disney/Pixar

“The last step is the fitting process, where we lay the garment on the character and make her walk just to see how it fits, how it lays, and then go back to the original 3D model and make any changes. At Pixar, which may or may not be different for other studios, we still flatten the meshes into 2D texture. That 2D pattern is what we send to the simulator. This way the simulator understands the grain direction of the cloth which is very important to represent sewing in real life”. Claudia Chung, Pixar (Interview: Clothes on Film, 2012)


In Brave (2012), to create the tartan kilts, which used around 8 yards of fabric, a draping process had to be implemented. This meant creating pleats manually around the character’s waist in the fitting process so that the fabric would lay properly and thus, create a real effect of a kilt. 


Later on, with Coco (2017), a different challenge came along: there were many skeletons, and dressing them was certainly different from dressing humans. Besides having differences in body shapes, the costumes would often get caught between individual bones creating an irregular drape to the fabric. This was a detail that animators thought crucial to the story, and it worked so well that to the audience, it looked real.

The Incredibles 2

The Incredibles 2 (2018) brought together a group of amazing designers that contributed deeply to the film’s costumes, including the beloved character Edna Mode. The immense amount of research that involved the costume design started by researching the time period that inspired the film around the 1950s and ’60s and giving the costumes an iconic twist. Some of the things that the team did consist of analyzing sewing patterns and garments from this time and diving into magazines to learn about family customs and behaviors. This not only helped them design the main characters but also the background characters’ costumes. “I took note of the boldness of shape, and the silhouettes, the perfectly tailored fit. This was the most defining quality I found,” said Deanna Marsigliese, character designer at Pixar Animation Studios

With a fifteen-year span between the first and second movie, the details incorporated into costumes are evident and exquisite. In the case of superhero suits, they were actually part of the character’s skin in the first movie, which made the logo stretch unusually. However, all supers have a separate costume for the sequel, which has been observed and perfected by Fran Kalal, character tailoring lead, Bryn Imagire, shading art director & costume designer, and their team. They supervise that every seam, every fabric, and texture are as close to real-life as possible. They even have some garments at the studio to imitate the textures, creases, lights, and shadows. 

As mentioned before, there was an immense amount of time dedicated to background characters. They are actually the ones that enhance this 1950s decade. There was a lot of mix and match between men’s suits and women’s skirts and blouses, but that made it possible to have more than 60 unique designs for males and more than 60 unique designs for female background characters. 

The Incredibles 2 had an important addition, the character Evelyn Deavor. She is not only the smart and creative mind behind the entire plot but has a bohemian and luxurious style to die for. Her entire wardrobe is a mixture between masculine and feminine details, bold prints, and faux zebra coats. Evelyn is actually the character with most costumes changes throughout the film, with 20 costumes which are insanely huge for an animated character. The detail on her costumes is flawless. 

Finally, there is Edna Mode, the famous superhero designer who not only served as an inspiration for the creative team at Pixar, but they had to get into her mind to design a fashion show for a scene (which unfortunately didn’t make it to the final piece). However, creating this scene served during the character creation process where animators had to dive deep to design Edna Mode’s costumes and her own creations.

“She says she wants things to be ‘bold, dramatic and heroic.’ So I figured Edna would use her fashion line as a vehicle to celebrate superheroes and her powers. Once I realized that, the designing fell into place on its own.” Deanna Marsigliese, character designer, The Incredibles 2

Left to Right: 1: Evelyn Deavor. The Incredibles 2, 2018. Photo: © Disney/Pixar 2: Costume designs for Evelyn Deavor. The Incredibles 2, 2018. Photo: © Disney/Pixar. 3: Edna Mode. The Incredibles 2, 2018 Photo: © Disney/Pixar. 4: Costume designs for Edna Mode. The Incredibles 2, 2018. Photo: © Disney/Pixar.

Toy Story 4

In Toy Story 4 (2019), Pixar animators included recently extraordinary storytelling with the costumes of the beloved character: Bo Peep. In movies 1 and 2, she wears a pink polka-dot skirt, a pink bodice with a blue camisole underneath, a bonnet, and her cane. Her skirt is full, and she is wearing layers of petticoats underneath, probably a crinoline, and blue bloomers.

When she is presented again in Toy Story 4, her character has undergone many changes; she has transformed into an adventurous lost toy. In the same way, she transforms her costume. Now her skirt is a cape, which is worn inside out, displaying a dark purple lining, her blue bloomers and camisole are now used as a blue jumpsuit, and the cord she used to lace her front bodice is now wrapped around her cane. The latter item is now used for much more practical purposes. Her bow, belt, and button are probably items she has collected through the years to complete her outfit. For the Pixar Animator’s team to understand and finalize Bo Peep’s costume, they had to make the costumes in real life to see how they would look like a doll’s size. 

Left to right: 1: Bo Peep character transformation. Toy Story. Photo: © Disney/Pixar. 2: The Toy Story 4 art gallery, as seen on March 18, 2019 at Pixar Animation Studios in Emeryville, Calif. (Photo by Deborah Coleman/Pixar) © Disney/Pixar. 3: Bo Peep Concept Art by Carrie Hobson and Daniela Strijleva. ©2019 Disney/Pixar. All Rights Reserved. 4: Woody and Bo Peep. Toy Story 4. Photo: © Disney/Pixar

How to Train your Dragon

Other studios have created amazing computer animations with incredible detail incorporated into costumes. DreamWorks Animation’s How to Train your Dragon trilogy (2010, 2014, 2019) is an amazing example of a costume being used for character creation and transformation. Hiccup starts as a timid boy wearing a long shirt, trousers, boots, and a fur vest. His costume is simple, with dull colors and textures. In the first movie, he starts incorporating some accessories to appear braver and prepared for battle. Slowly, as his character becomes more mature and fearless, his costume basically transforms into armor that provides him strength, protection, and empowerment. His silhouette broadens, giving the character a much more determined look.

The classic textures and elements from Vikings, such as fur, leather, and helmets, are enhanced with metallic and dragon-scale texture. This texture was actually real dragon scales that Hiccup and the rest of the characters incorporate into their armors to have a scarier look. Also, they evolve the helmet shape into a mask that hides their identity with not only horns but scallops, wings, and fins. By the end of the third movie, we witness the final growth of the character. His costume is now a mixture of all stages of his life, incorporating details that he used in the past that define his own character.

Frozen 2

Walt Disney Animation Studios started releasing their own computer-animated films not a very long time ago. The development in detail approach has also been astonishing, but the movie that got the bar higher than ever was Frozen 2 (2019). The evolution of the two main characters, Anna and Elsa, through their costumes is absolutely impeccable. This is due to the extraordinary research and dedication that the team put into this. They traveled to Norway, Finland, and Iceland as part of their creative process to get design ideas and inspiration for the film’s overall look. In the costumes specifically, the Norwegian and mystic elements are evident both in Anna’s and Elsa’s outfits and the rest of the characters.

In addition, Anna and Elsa are now on an adventure into the unknown, which means they need comfortable costumes that will allow them to run, swim and jump, which wasn’t as simple as rising hemlines. Since the first movie, both characters had a defined style, which helped designers Brittany Lee and Griselda Sastrawinata-Lemay.

In Frozen 2, they are older and braver, and thankfully the technological advances in computer animation helped add more details to their costumes that contributed to character creation and storytelling. Part of the film’s realistic approach is the way the fabric moves and drapes in different situations. This is possible once more due to the technological advances in CGI, which imitate different fabrics, and animators can determine their movement depending on its weight, composition, and medium. “Something that is meant to be a velvet shouldn’t be moving as if it was tulle or if it was cotton,” Lee explains.

 “On this film, we could really be elaborate and add a lot of extra bead work or sequins that wouldn’t have been possible to do on the first film. We really tried to meet technologies’ needs in creating more art work and more design where appropriate.” – Brittany Lee, visual development artist, Frozen 2 (2019)

Anna’s costumes always have warm colors and a playful and classic silhouette. For most of the film, she is wearing her travel costume consisting of a deep purple cloak, a black dress with long sleeves, mustard high-neck blouse and pants underneath, a brown obi belt, and tall black leather boots. Her costume is inspired by the traditional Norwegian folk wear known as the “bunad,” a long A-line dress made of wool with embroidered flowers. In this case, she has wheat and crocus (Arendelle’s national symbol) designs embroidered through the dress and cape. “Anna is all about Arendelle,” Sastrawinata-Lemay said. The addition of pants, which Elsa wears as well, allows the characters to get involved in really adventurous journeys without being the main focus of attention on their costumes.

On the other hand, Elsa has a cool color palette since almost everything she wears was created using her magic: ice. Her outfits are always enhancing her mystic, sensitive and powerful character, and she has an elegant and linear silhouette, perfect for the Snow Queen. Elsa’s gowns are actually inspired by haute couture fashion houses, like Alexander McQueen and Ellie Saab, “just in their mystic grand silhouettes and bold statements,” Lee says.

Her travel costume consists of a light blue tailored coat with a belt and a paneled veil cape that hangs from the shoulders. These have jewels encrusted, forming a snowflake and an angular-broad shape, giving a look of “militaristic epaulettes,” which undoubtedly provide her with authority and determination. As mentioned before, she has pants underneath and sparkly snowflake adorned blue boots. Her costume respects that linear silhouette that gives Elsa her stamp as Queen of Arendelle, but it now shows her transformation towards a more confident and fearless woman. 

Left to right: 1 and 2: Anna. Frozen 2, 2019. Photo: © Walt Disney Animation Studios. 3 and 4: Elsa. Frozen 2, 2019. Photo: © Walt Disney Animation Studios.

Over the Moon

Lastly, Netflix Animation’s Over the Moon (2020) has some jaw-dropping costume designs created by the internationally acclaimed fashion designer Guo Pei. Director Glen Keane knew he needed someone with costuming experience to take the lead on what the costumes of Chang’e were going to look like. Since the movie has so many elements from China’s culture, it was reasonable that a Chinese designer would be the one jumping in for the process. Guo Pei has always embraced her culture in her designs, and Over the Moon was no exception to this.

The costumes of Chang’e demanded a lot of attention to detail, symbolism, and sophistication since she is no other than the Moon Goddess. As it was her first time working in animation, she spent a lot of time with artists to ensure that they were animating the entire costume just as she had envisioned it. Part of the process involved lots of research by going to museums and making several sketches to achieve the desired costume design. This last process was, in fact, the perfect way of communicating their ideas since Guo Pei doesn’t speak English and Glen Keane doesn’t speak mandarin. 

The most iconic costume worn by Chang’e is her royal gown, made of red silk and intricate embroidery. This gown is bold, vibrant, and powerful. It enhances the Chinese culture in every aspect, including the embroidered motifs on her back, which actually tell her dramatical love story. “I designed some elements of ancient Chinese royal dresses in Chang’e’s costumes, such as wide cuffs, long tails, and a stand-up collar like the tail of a phoenix. These elements all strengthen the dramatic tension and contrast her image as a god and as a human being,” Guo Pei shared in an interview. 

Costume design in animation is slowly gaining the recognition it deserves. Even if a costume designer is not leading the process, the research and dedication incorporated into it must be recognized and respected. The entire team’s effort and dedication to costume design for the films mentioned here is absolutely astonishing and sometimes underestimated. Since it has always been part of designing the character, costumes are not appreciated the way they should. On the other hand, with such amazing, fantastic worlds created in animation, costumes are sometimes plain or abandoned. Having unlimited possibilities in terms of technology and imagination on the way costumes can help with storytelling by introducing superpowers in characters or being extremely detailed in the time period where the story is taking place. Sometimes, costumes do not enhance as much as they should, and it’s at this point when the expertise of a costume designer is much needed in the animated field. 

However, things are really starting to shift. With films such as The Incredibles 2, Frozen 2, and Over the Moon, where costume design undergoes deep research and construction, it is necessary to dive into its process and understand its importance. Even more than that, make sure that future animated productions follow suit and involve costume design the way they are supposed to make their animations even more amazing than they already are.

“People tend to think of costume design in terms of an end product. It’s a garment. But costume designers think of costume as part of the character that they’re creating, so it’s the hair, the costume, the props, the makeup, the way they move, whether these costumes and props are ever physically made or not.” – Camille Brenda, CalArts Institute


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