Fea­tures Leg­end: Dar­rell Warner

The Bri­tish artist’s cos­tume de­sign con­vinced an A-list ac­tor to join the new Pi­rates of the Caribbean film. Gary Evans finds out how he did it

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We talk to the opin­ion­ated artist whose cos­tume de­signs are be­hind many a Hol­ly­wood block­buster.

Pi­rates of the Caribbean needed a new vil­lain. The team be­hind the fran­chise wanted a big name to play a cut­throat ghost-pi­rate named Cap­tain Salazar. A con­ver­sa­tion be­tween the film’s di­rec­tors and cos­tume de­sign­ers landed on a cer­tain lead­ing ac­tor they hoped to re­cruit. But a cast­ing agent said it would be dif­fi­cult to per­suade him to move to Aus­tralia for film­ing, be­cause his wife had just had baby. And that’s when Dar­rell Warner stepped in.

“It wasn’t the first time I’d been asked to ex­e­cute a draw­ing of this na­ture,” says the Bri­tish artist and cos­tume il­lus­tra­tor. “And I’m pretty sure it won’t be the last.”

Dar­rell worked on all four of the pre­vi­ous Pi­rates of the Caribbean films. He also counts among his film cred­its Thor: The Dark World, Guardians of the Gal­axy and forth­com­ing Marvel movie Doc­tor Strange. A mem­ber of the cos­tume team on Dead Men Tell No Tales – the fifth Pi­rates movie, which is due out in May 2017 – came up with an idea.

She pro­posed that I do an all-singing, all-danc­ing il­lus­tra­tion to per­suade the ac­tor to take on the role

“She pro­posed,” Dar­rell says, “that I do a bit of an all-singing, all-danc­ing il­lus­tra­tion to present to the ac­tor, to per­suade him to take the role. Whether it ac­tu­ally had any­thing to do with me, I don’t know. But he was shown the il­lus­tra­tion and a deal was struck and he did take the part.”

“I want the viewer to au­to­mat­i­cally and sub­con­sciously re­tain a char­ac­ter’s pro­file as if etched in their mind – like a Bat­man or Jack Spar­row. You’re em­ployed not sim­ply for your abil­ity to draw, but also to con­vey ideas.”

Doc­tor Strange

Dar­rell worked as cos­tume il­lus­tra­tor on up­com­ing Marvel movie Doc­tor Strange. Un­like art depart­ment em­ploy­ees – who work on a film project for around two years – Dar­rell’s role in the cos­tume depart­ment usu­ally lasts about three months. Doc­tor Strange took nine.

He en­joyed the “com­ing to­gether of a group of in­di­vid­ual ar­ti­sans”: jewellers and em­broi­der­ers, shoe mak­ers and leather work­ers, spe­cial­ists in many and var­ied fields, more than 40 peo­ple in­volved in the fab­ri­ca­tion process alone. But in the be­gin­ning, there are only around eight. Dar­rell and this small team gath­ered re­search as it looked at the script and char­ac­ter break­downs.

“At this point, quite of­ten we’re at­tempt­ing to get to the core. Not just the cos­tume, but the over­all flavour of the char­ac­ter. When it came to the Zealots, the dark force in the story, the in­flu­ence very much came from sim­ple tra­di­tional Chi­nese and Nepalese lay­ered gar­ments. They had a given qual­ity that was im­me­di­ate. Thus a ba­sic lan­guage for our char­ac­ters was born and de­vel­oped into a lan­guage. The de­vel­op­ment of in­di­vid­ual cos­tumes can be very or­ganic. Over a pe­riod of a few months, re­cur­ring themes start to de­velop into a very strong vis­ual lan­guage.”

Through­out pre-pro­duc­tion, Dar­rell and the team pre­sented their work to the di­rec­tor, pro­duc­ers and Marvel vis­ual de­vel­op­ment depart­ment ev­ery few weeks: “Marvel has a very unique ap­proach to film mak­ing. It firmly be­lieves in vis­ual de­vel­op­ment. These guys, Marvel em­ploy­ees, they are the big-hit­ters. They know the char­ac­ters in­side out, the her­itage, the prove­nance. They have the vis­ual comic his­tory to hand and have the task of re­defin­ing the char­ac­ters for the Marvel Cin­e­matic Uni­verse. They look at pho­to­graphic ref­er­ence of where the cos­tume de­signer is com­ing from, in or­der to amend or push a char­ac­ter for­ward.”

Dar­rell worked closely with the fab­ric cut­ter to make sure cos­tume de­signs looked cor­rect on a real body. This part of the process has be­come more im­por­tant in re­cent years, he says, since con­cept artists tend to fo­cus on the power of their im­ages, rather than func­tion­al­ity. Dar­rel says it’s also im­por­tant the cos­tume makes the ac­tor feel com­fort­able and gives them a sense of what the char­ac­ter is about.

Cos­tumes usu­ally change quite a bit after the first fit­ting. But on Doc­tor Strange,

Dar­rell says the team nailed down the theme and the ap­pear­ance quite quickly. With his back­ground in por­trai­ture, he can add an ac­tor’s like­ness to de­sign, which helps to sell the cos­tume to stu­dio ex­ec­u­tives, di­rec­tor and ac­tors.

“My cos­tume work is purely in­for­ma­tion led,” he says, “pure, in­for­ma­tive il­lus­tra­tion. I like to think of my draw­ings as blue­prints of the de­sign. They are truly amaz­ing pieces of art in their own right. It’s a joy when some­thing you’ve drawn finds its way onto screen. That’s very spe­cial.”

It has to be learnt

Dar­rell first painted in oils at just nine year old. His fa­ther kept them in the house, so they were read­ily avail­able. At 13, he took life-draw­ing classes and later at­tended the Fal­mouth School of Art. Here Dar­rell made the switch from oil to wa­ter­colours, which he con­tin­ues to use to­day.

His favourite tu­tors at Fal­mouth worked as com­mer­cial il­lus­tra­tors. In the 70s and 80s, he read the So­ci­ety of Il­lus­tra­tors an­nu­als. The work of artists such as Gary Kelley, Bernie Fuchs, Michael English, David Grove and Robert Hein­del fas­ci­nated him.

Time Life Books paid Dar­rell £75 for his first com­mer­cial il­lus­tra­tion job. His se­cond earned him £1,500. “Sud­denly I was a wealthy stu­dent! It was great. My whole de­sire was to fig­ure paint. Via the ve­hi­cle of il­lus­tra­tion, I be­gan to see a way of gain­ing an in­come. I be­came hooked on earn­ing money through my abil­ity.”

Dar­rell left “the utopia that was art school” with dis­tinc­tions in paint­ing and draw­ing and spent the fol­low­ing sum­mer free­lanc­ing. In 1985, with sev­eral exFal­mouth stu­dents, he formed his own suc­cess­ful il­lus­tra­tion stu­dio. “It be­came a very ful­fill­ing, if ex­haust­ing, pe­riod of time,” he says. His spell with the group be­came a kind of “com­merce ap­pren­tice­ship”. He learned the nuts and bolts of his trade: how to give a pitch, take a brief and ne­go­ti­ate fees. But the long hours got to the group and Dar­rell de­cided to go it alone be­fore the stu­dio folded in 1990.

In the late 80s, CGI grew and the econ­omy shrunk. Dar­rell, known for his wa­ter­colours, be­gan to strug­gle for work. He wanted to step away from ad­ver­tis­ing and took more pub­lish­ing jobs. His heart wasn’t in it. But from those com­mis­sions he learned the nar­ra­tive of im­age mak­ing. “From art school on­wards, I knew I thought dif­fer­ently from oth­ers,” Dar­rell says. “I re­alised I could re­ally paint. I think vis­ual com­mu­ni­ca­tion is some­thing you

im­me­di­ately have a gift for. You in­stinc­tively un­der­stand what it takes to tell a story vis­ually, in 2D or oth­er­wise. But you have to study artists like Alphonse Mucha or the grand­fa­ther of il­lus­tra­tion, Howard Pyle. In other words: it can be learnt.”

That cre­ative feel­ing

“I love the med­i­ta­tive state of sharp­en­ing pen­cils,” Dar­rell says, “the task and smell of stretch­ing pa­per, of oil and tur­pen­tine, the feel of a brush on pa­per or can­vas, the claw of the pa­per against the drag of the pen­cil, the happy ac­ci­dent of a wa­ter­colour wash do­ing its own thing while I make a cup of tea, pa­per ev­ery­where, gen­eral stu­dio mess.”

Dar­rell paints and draws ex­clu­sively with tra­di­tional medi­ums. He likes to have a phys­i­cal ob­ject to show for all his hard work: “It’s a com­mod­ity, some­thing pre­cious. I feel that dig­i­tal art has be­come throw­away. It has a shelf life, de­spite the fact that it can be on­line for in­fin­ity. There’s also a huge amount of dross and it’s la­bo­ri­ous re­search­ing new tal­ent. Also, I’m find­ing con­cept stuff on­line chang­ing. Maybe it’s just my artis­tic third eye, but I sense that con­cept art is be­com­ing the new im­pres­sion­ism. To me, through dint of sheer vol­ume, it’s just be­com­ing noise.”

Dar­rell paints in his stu­dio over­look­ing a lake in Glouces­ter­shire. The stu­dio has no TV and no in­ter­net con­nec­tion, but is only a six-minute drive from his home. He uses sim­ple, in­ex­pen­sive ma­te­ri­als and a sim­ple setup: desk, easel, draw­ing board, a long ta­ble for ref­er­ences, plan chest, book

Don’t be afraid to talk about money. Re­search, ob­serve all forms of art, cre­ate your own brand and en­joy it

I sub­scribe to the un­fash­ion­able idea of pulling in the viewer

shelves and a ma­te­ri­als cup­board. His one lux­ury is an Artemide an­gle­poise lamp. The stu­dio has oak floors, floor-to-ceil­ing win­dows and deck­ing that leads out to the edge of a lake. “I have to pinch my­self at times,” he says. “I love spend­ing time there. It’s quench­ing for the artis­tic soul. It’s my refuge.”

Most of Dar­rell’s fu­ture film projects are top se­cret. He’s cur­rently work­ing on an in­die sci-fi hor­ror called Life, and Dis­ney’s Nutcracker and the Four Realms. What he will says is that while art be­comes in­creas­ingly more dis­pos­able, he will con­tinue to work the way he’s al­ways worked: slowly, thought­fully, build­ing up an idea un­til it’s ready to be­come an im­age, then work­ing on that im­age un­til it’s some­thing that will not only cap­ti­vate his au­di­ence, but move them in some way.

“Over the du­ra­tion of the past 16 years work­ing in film, I’ve adopted the mantra of go­ing to work as an artis­tic com­mod­ity. That’s what I do. I of­fer a ser­vice I’ve honed both prac­ti­cally and in­tel­lec­tu­ally. The viewer drives my artis­tic want. I’m re­ally about en­gag­ing them. Get­ting them to re­ally look, rather than just glance, to ar­rest their gaze and have them ab­sorb the im­ages. It takes free­dom of mind to ab­sorb a paint­ing. I levy in­tel­li­gence upon the viewer, hop­ing in re­turn that they get it.

“I’m not by na­ture a po­lit­i­cal crea­ture and have never craved pop cul­ture. So in ef­fect, I don’t stand out from the crowd. I sub­scribe to the sub­tle and un­fash­ion­able, maybe even the old-fash­ioned, idea of pulling in the viewer. This is be­com­ing in­creas­ingly dif­fi­cult in an on­line world that’s sat­u­rated with im­agery.

“What I have is an in­formed and in­tel­li­gent ap­proach, so ideas are care­fully honed and fleshed out. The ideas have to come first. Then I plan the paint­ing, hope­fully well enough that the on­looker dwells within the paint­ing, at­tempt­ing to gar­ner some emo­tional re­sponse.”

city of pi­rates Dar­rell Warner was work­ing in ad­ver­tis­ing be­fore break­ing into the film in­dus­try.

jack spar­row Cos­tume il­lus­tra­tor Dar­rell worked on all five Pi­rates of the Caribbean movies, in­clud­ing next year’s fifth in­stal­ment, Dead Men Tell No Tales.

As­gard Dar­rell of­ten draws de­tailed sketches of cos­tumes in their cor­re­spond­ing set­tings, like this draw­ing of As­gard from 2013 movie Thor: The Dark World.

Malef­i­cent The Bri­tish artist be­came in­ter­ested in il­lus­tra­tion while study­ing at Fal­mouth School of Art.

butch cavendish If the hat fits: Dar­rell’s por­trait of the ruth­less out­law Butch Cavendish from 2013 movie The Lone Ranger.

think­ing Dar­rell works solely with tra­di­tional ma­te­ri­als. He likes, among other things, the “med­i­ta­tive state of sharp­en­ing pen­cils.”

king kin­loch From the 2014 film Malef­i­cent – a part, played by Peter Ca­paldi, that was even­tu­ally left out of the fi­nal cut. colour In all of Dar­rell’s work, he doesn’t put pen­cil to pa­per un­til he’s fully fleshed out an idea. His aim is al­ways to “gar­ner some emo­tional re­sponse.”

Howard Stark Dar­rell en­joys work­ing with Marvel, as the team puts vis­ual de­vel­op­ment first.

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