Working with Blood on Costumes

From the Perspective of Costume Designer Diana Haberstick

Published on in Advice / Tips & Tricks

On the set of Navy SEALs: America’s Secret Warriors

In the Costume Department, along with character and circumstance, we usually concern ourselves with fit and appearance. But injury effects take a whole other level of wardrobe prep. While the payoff for an effects shot done well can be invigorating, injury effects in action and inserts take resources, planning and collaboration.

In the case of blood hits (achieved by triggering a squib so the character’s wound materializes on command), the Wardrobe Department is concerned with concealing the squib pack and preparing for multiple takes. The squib pack (which includes the blood bag, rigging, shield and small explosive) has weight and volume, so keeping the mechanism stable can take some engineering. For complex effects, wardrobe considerations in the design phase may be necessary. But even simple effects may require costume reinforcement, age and distress detail replication on multiples, and multiple fittings for the actors and/or stunt doubles.

Do No Harm - Duplicated Age and Distress Work for Multiples Age/Distress Artist - Maybelle Pineda

I worked with pyrotechnical legend Frank Pope (Natural Born Killers, Starship Troopers, Deadwood) on Do No Harm, directed by Marielle Woods.

For a blood hit to the arm, Frank asked us to cut an imperceptible hole in the costume shirtsleeve and back it with a pocket to hold the squib. The sleeve fit the actor loosely enough to hide the pack but tightly enough to hold the squib in place. In action, the hit exploded, blood sprayed from hole and the effect looked authentic. We achieved the shot in two takes.

Do No Harm - Sleeve Prep for Squib

Do No Harm, Squib After the Effect

After each take, the customer will want to get to the actor as quickly as possible to keep him from removing his costume himself. Blood soaked clothing needs to be removed meticulously so it doesn’t soil other costume pieces or ruin makeup. The actor’s pulse is usually racing. Sometimes he needs a moment to breathe and center himself. I’ve found it’s best not to rush him to change.

Throughout the process for any effect, many conversations are happening (or should be happening). If the costume selection shifts, we tell Pyro. If the effects plan changes, Pyro tells us. We’re talking with Makeup about the kind of blood we’ll use, the ingredients, how much blood will be applied and where. The pyrotechnician is in charge of the blood hit, because at the end of the day, the responsibility for achieving the effect lies with him.

One big consideration for costumes (especially rentals); is the stain factor. Most stunt blood contains some kind of red dye, which can stain fabric. We never want to expose our production to loss and damage (L&D), and rental houses can charge up to ten times the cost of the garment for L&D. To help with staining, we add detergent to our blood recipe. It tends to keep the stain from saturating fibers deeply, as does immediate cleaning.

Side note: Some rental houses charge up to a 15% cleaning fee regardless of whether the costumes are returned clean or dirty.

For Navy SEALs: America’s Secret Warriors, a miniseries of true-life stories for the History Channel, our director elected to dramatize the injuries to one soldier who tragically lost both legs in a landmine explosion. We used a technique called “cheating the practical effect” or “inserting the practical.” The edited sequence might play something like this: shot of soldier walking, close-up on the landmine, closer shot of the soldier walking, we see his foot step onto the landmine, then we see part of the explosion, injury insert, reaction shots.

To achieve the insert shot, on a hold in action after the explosion, we slit the pants (which were purchased doubles) around the thighs and pulled the pants down to the actor’s ankles. Then we applied copious amounts of blood to his thighs with paintbrushes.

Despite an initial plan, directors can expand their effects vision. While some department heads pad their budgets with a contingency fund, last-minute decisions can impact resources and the ability to stay on schedule. For any costume with a blood hit, it takes time and crew power to acquire and prep the backup costumes, change actors into doubles (calmly, so the actor can keep focused), and for the pyrotechnician to place and check the squib. A last-minute change on a time crunch puts this whole process on a tight timeline.

Although CGI blood hits are popular, I prefer practical effects. They may require additional resources and multiple changes for my department, but the result is well worth it. A practical effect brings tactile reality to a scene. It can charge the actor’s performance with realism. And, in the end, that’s really what the costumes are for.

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About the Author

Diana Haberstick
Diana Haberstick
Diana Haberstick is a costume designer and costumer based in Los Angeles and Washington D.C.​ ​Select design credits include the TV series Navy SEALs: America’s Secret Warriors, Pacific Park, Do No Harm​, Heed the Call​ and The Pirate Captain Toledano (for which she received and ActionOn Film Festival Best Costume nomination). Wardrobe credits include TURN: Washington’s Spies, Tower of Silence, and All Earthly Constraints.​ ​Diana is a member of The Costume Designers Guild, Motion Picture Costume​r​s, and the Costume Society of America.

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