For more than a decade Leah Butler has had a very prolific career as a costume designer. She has worked on various sets from film to music videos where she’s worked with performers and directors such as Rob Zombie. Leah has also created looks for a multitude of TV shows; RAY DONOVAN and BLACKISH.
One aspect of filmmaking that has always interested me is costume design, and in a superhero film like SHAZAM!, the costume plays a very important role in informing audiences who characters are as individuals. In one look it becomes evident whether someone is the hero or villain and it’s the costume designers and their teams that create help to create these characters. With the advent of 3D printing costume design has allowed designers and creators to be more creative with not only the design but 3D printing allows for better continuity when there has to be copies of the suits for both the actors and their stunt doubles.
We all have a superhero inside us, it just takes a bit of magic to bring it out. In Billy Batson’s (Angel) case, by shouting out one word—SHAZAM!—this streetwise 14-year-old foster kid can turn into the adult Super Hero Shazam (Levi), courtesy of an ancient wizard. Still a kid at heart—inside a ripped, godlike body—Shazam revels in this adult version of himself by doing what any teen would do with superpowers: have fun with them! Can he fly? Does he have X-ray vision? Can he shoot lightning out of his hands? Can he skip his social studies test? Shazam sets out to test the limits of his abilities with the joyful recklessness of a child. But he’ll need to master these powers quickly in order to fight the deadly forces of evil controlled by Dr. Thaddeus Sivana (Strong).
Nearly a year, Blackfilm.com and a handful of journalists stopped by the set of Shazam! and spoke with Butler about her experience on the film.
Carolyn: For this type of material how do you decide how heavy it should be, I know for a lot of the costumes we’ve seen in super hero films have to be fitted with cooling technology because they get hot, did you have to do the same for Shazam’s?
Leah Butler: We were luck, or I don’t know if Zac would think so, but we’re shooting in the cold here, and yes you’re right they actually are very warm to wear because there’s the body suit underneath and then the fabric itself so they do hold in the heat. We did not have to do that, if we were shooting in the summer time we would definitely have to do that.
Carolyn: Exactly what material is the suit made of, is it neoprene?
Leah: It’s sort of a lycra/Spandex and it’s what all super hero costumes are made of these days. But we do the printing on top which is what really makes the pattern and the texture and gives it it’s richness.
Carolyn: How did you decide how bulky you wanted the suit to be?
Leah: That’s a great question [laughs] we actually went through several iterations. We went back into the comics and we wanted to be able to portray him a certain way, and definitely in the comics he stands side-by-side next to Superman and has nice beautiful muscles. So um, we did a couple iterations that were a bit smaller, we ended up landing on this itself.
What’s interesting too is their bodies [actors] start changing as they’re working out, we have to shift things around as well.
Carolyn: For the capes — and this is a completely nerdy question — but did you have to do a wind test for the capes?
Leah: Oh yeah [laughs] absolutely, and that was really important. So the weight of the fabric itself and even just different lengths, they react differently to how the wind is and all of that. So we’re really happy with how this came out.
For Dr. Sivana’s costume, Leah wanted to set him apart from the comics version. In older releases Sivana was seen to be wearing a lab coast resembling that of a dentist, and in the New 52, his costume had more of a ‘Raider’s of the Lost Arc” vibe. When Mark Strong was cast to play Sivana, Leah and the team were inspired to create a more “luxurious” feel for his wardrobe. Leah and her assistant costume designer decided that they would use the best fabrics such as silk, while also making sure that certain recognizable elements such as the stand collar on his jacket remained.
As with Shazam’s costume, every element of Sivana’s clothing was custom made right down to his buttons and cufflinks. It’s amazing when a costume can perfectly reflects the character but also the actor, and with Mark Strong, he has a very commanding and almost regal presence so Leah was very inspired by that for the structure of the costumes.
Leah: I really wanted him to be different. Renee (assistant costume designer) went through quite a bit of different fabrics and looked at them, held them up all of the leathers and various materials to see how well they would work together. I wasn’t happy with some of the more plainer fabrics, and when we found this one I loved the texture of it, I loved the pattern, I thought it would have just a little bit added color to it other than black. So I decided that it would be a full suit.
To create a bit of balance in the costuming for Shazam and Dr. Sivana, Leah noted that Sivana could have his own version of a cape, a black leather trench coat.
Leah: He’s [Sivana] up there fighting Shazam, he needs a little bit of a cape too right? It flies beautifully, it’s a lighter weight leather and we did a custom lining on it so I wanted to have some beautiful gold reflections as his jacket opens up. He has a laboratory setting so we took the logo and made custom buttons for him on his suit and his coat.
Even though the creation of costumes are becoming more technical in the tools being used to make them sometimes you can’t get any better than human hands, and when you have a character like Dr. Thaddeus Sivana nothing beats a well fitted, hand-made bespoke suit.
For the Wizard’s costume, Leah was mostly inspired by the New 52 version where he’s portrayed as an Aboriginal man. Several of the costumes had to be made due to character and time transitions. To have the costume show the deterioration a specialist was brought in, where she worked with materials such as jersey and velvet.
Leah: We had a textile artist who is with us every day, and she’s been working on braking all of this beautiful fabric down for us. They use special tools, they paint into it, they dye things, age things down and we’ll have a variety of these throughout the story.