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Designs on an Oscar

Double nominee's work reflects 'Rings' fantasy, 'Samurai' history

From Alesia Stanford
Daily News from Entertainment Weekly

Chain mail in "The Lord of the Rings" was hand-stitched, one link at a time.

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LOS ANGELES, California (CNN) -- A few years ago, Ngila Dickson's main claim to fame stateside was designing costumes for the cult TV series, "Xena: Warrior Princess." But today, she has the inside track on Hollywood immortality, with two Oscar nominations in a single category.

Dickson will vie with herself and three others for this year's Academy Award in costume design, having been nominated for her work on both "The Last Samurai" and "Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King."

While the recognition may come as quickly as it takes to open an envelope February 29, the work that led to it took hours upon hours of research, design and production.

For the three "Lord of the Rings" films, Dickson headed a team of 50 tailors, embroiders, cobblers and jewelers for Middle Earth's nine distinct cultures -- about 150 costumes per, according to the movies' official Web site. Many individual costumes had to be made in two sizes: one for the actor, the other for "scale doubles" often used in filming.

Each outfit required intricate detail as described by -- or, more often, inspired by -- J.R.R. Tolkein's literary epic. For example, designers hand-stitched chain mail (medieval battle armor) one link at a time to fit over soldiers' battlefield uniforms, which typically featured imagery such as the star and white tree of Gondor, one of humankind's capital cities in the film.

"We wanted to keep the soldier element with this [so that] it was true to the idea of the age," said Dickson.

Other outfits required more subtlety, such as the dress worn by Arwen, played by Liv Tyler, when her husband Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen) is crowned king in "Return of the King".

The biggest challenge, said Dickson, was creating the "the softness and the luminosity that we wanted for that moment."

"I still wanted it to be almost a bridal gown at the same time it was a coronation gown," she said, describing the long dye process to find the "right green." "I knew that this character should come from this crown and [envisioned] a huge butterfly that came out from behind her head. And then it slowly came down into something more refined, but the butterfly image is still there at the back."

Almost a decade of work

Director Peter Jackson spent parts of nine years -- including seven before even the first of the three films, "The Fellowship of the Ring," appeared in theaters -- on the $270-million "Lord of the Rings" series, with his fellow New Zealander Dickson working alongside him much of the way.

Dickson moved on to "The Last Samurai" as soon as she finished "Rings."

When filming finally wrapped on the last installment in the trilogy (which were shot back-to-back-to-back), Dickson moved on to another ambitious period blockbuster, "The Last Samurai."

Sifting through hundreds of historical images, Dickson worked for 14 months with an 80-person team to create more than 2,000 costumes that properly represented the attire of commoners, nobility and soldiers in 19th-century Japan.

The elaborate battle armor worn by Katsumoto, played by best supporting actor nominee Ken Watanabe, mirrors that worn by other samurai leaders of the period, said Dickson.

Scouring through flea markets, her team also found kimonos from the 1930s that had been crafted in the same style as those worn in 1870s Japan.

"It gave us the blueprint we needed for fabric patterns," said Dickson, noting each kimono for the movie was created by hand, just as they were in the time of the samurai.

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