Adapting Character Designs for Netflix’s ‘One Piece’

The world of the popular manga and anime series One Piece is not only a fantastical setting filled with adventure, but a place populated by imaginative, larger than life characters whose presences and designs stretch (at times literally) the bounds of their mediums. So, how does one bring these characters into the real world? For the team behind costumes, hair, and makeup in Netflix’s new live action adaptation, that question brought a world of exciting artistic challenges.

“The most challenging thing was honoring something, and at the same time making it work,” said Diana Cilliers, who served as the costume designer for the series.

For Cilliers, studying the source material led her to find fully realized, three-dimensional characters within the two-dimensional medium. So, she sought to keep changes to the designs minimal in order to preserve what was already working so well on the page. But, with human actors on real sets, new considerations, such as performer safety, came into play.

Due to the action-heavy nature of the show, characters needed to be dressed in a way that allowed for more elaborate stunt work. This necessitated some deviations. One example is the choice to do away with the capes some characters wore in order to allow more movement. But a perhaps more dramatic change was the choice to also eliminate Luffy’s sandals.

Protagonist Monkey D. Luffy, played by Iñaki Godoy in the Netflix series, wears a simple yet iconic costume that is immediately recognizable to anyone with some familiarity with the series. However, giving the actor sandals on the live action show, while more accurate to the source, would have made stunts and navigating the set dangerous for Godoy. So instead, Cilliers opted to design shoes for the actor that evoke the sandal design in a move that sought to combine familiarity with a necessary deviation.

That approach to change, when it is needed, was a theme in bringing this adaptation to life. Moving beyond costumes, hair and makeup designer Amanda Ross-McDonald and her collaborators worked carefully to bring the zany and imaginative designs to the actors without tripping into the uncanny or the off-putting.

“We really did try to stay as close to the manga as possible, because you want to do it justice. It’s got such a huge following, and it’s such a brilliant show. We really wanted to do it as perfectly as possible. But there were some things where the prosthetics designer had to just cut back,” said Ross-McDonald.

In the manga, Arlong is a fish-man with a distinctive nose about a foot long with jagged, sharp twists. So when bringing this character to live action the team did translate over this unique nose, but reduced its size and adjusted its shape to avoid looking unnatural or silly. In the source material Usopp also has a similarly long nose, but here the team opted to remove that aspect altogether in order to allow audiences to better connect with the character.

This balancing act extended as well to hair designs. Ross-Mcdonald closely referenced original series creator Eiichiro Oda’s Color Walk to have a firm hold on what color everyone’s hair should be. But when making the wigs the team spent months testing various colors on screen, in the sunlight, and in-studio to land on designs that remained authentic while also supporting audience immersion.

In other cases, though, the team’s commitment to not changing things also led to unique creative deliberations. One example of this is Monkey D. Luffy’s hat, another core part of his look. While several sizes and designs needed to be made to accommodate the hat sitting on his head, flying around, or hanging off of his back, Cilliers noted that a key part of all of the designs was making sure the hat felt a little too large for him. This is because, as fans will know, the hat was not originally his.

“One wanted to retain the fact that it was not his hat. He got it from Shanks. So it was slightly too big at times,” said Cilliers.

This is a more minor detail that viewers may miss during much of the show, but when examined it speaks volumes to the lengths the team have gone to honor the lore.

When asked what part of working on this project stood out for her, Cilliers emphasized how the sheer diversity of costumes was the fun of it. From making sure all of Alvida’s people had details of pink on them to rendering Baratie people’s diverse backgrounds via their clothing, every moment was a new challenge to tackle in a project that stood out against Cillier’s long career.

“Some things were very contemporary. Some things were futuristic. Some things were period. Which made it very exciting and challenging at the same time, and it was definitely not boring for one moment,” said Cilliers.

Jumping from any medium to another will always invite necessary change as creative teams work to translate the core of a story over to a new context. So for Cilliers and Ross-McDonald both the regular and supportive involvement of showrunners Matt Owens and Steven Maeda, described as experts on the lore, helped everyone navigate these challenges while remaining true to fan expectations and the expectations of franchise creator Eiichiro Oda, an executive producer on the project, himself.

“It was just such a unique and wonderful experience to work on a show like this where your creativity’s got no bounds. I think as an artist that’s what you want in life. You want something that pushes you, and there was a lot of support from the producers to do the best work,” said Ross-McDonald.

Netflix’s live action adaptation of One Piece is now streaming with eight episodes on the platform.

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