Grand Theft Auto V’s costume designer Lyn Paolo talks to Pippa Day about her move from TV to video games, keeping Rockstar’s secrets, and why the evolution of gaming actually scares her slightly.
Sharp suits, greying pants and scuba gear didn’t just drop into the open world environment of Grand Theft Auto V alongside the carefully designed aesthetics. But these clothes weren’t an extra job for the character designers, either.
Instead, after more than 20 years of creating distinctive wardrobes for popular TV shows including Scandal, Southland and ER, Lyn Paolo recently changed medium to design the costumes for Rockstar Games’ fifth crime game blockbuster.
Shattering records as the fastest-selling entertainment product in history, with Rockstar winning a prestigious BAFTA Fellowship back in March, it is unsurprising that the latest instalment is at the cutting edge of costume design in gaming.
While not traditionally a much-discussed topic, the increasing importance of costume design in games is not to be underestimated. What was once a handful of sprites creating Mario’s plumbing outfit is now an expansive open world of individual characters. Until recently these clothes would be designed by a character or concept designer, but the team behind GTA V decided to hire an established film and TV costume designer for the job.
This new development, due to improvement of visuals, saw Paolo’s first venture into designing for the gamer: turning her attention to a crime-ridden, open-world, fictional satire of LA. The sandbox format of the game means that not only central characters but a multitude of people are seen on screen. This, of course, means that a great variety of costumes need to be created, from sportswear for outdoor pursuits – to smart suits for the workplace.
As one of the most closely-guarded games of recent years, even some of those working on GTA V didn’t know which game they were creating. This included Paolo (and, reportedly, even the three actors playing the central roles weren’t told which video game they were auditioning for until after the contracts were signed).
Due to the nature of the project, Paolo wasn’t allowed to know details about the main characters, even when designing their costumes.
“Because of the security concerns of not leaking anything, we had to talk about each character without me really knowing who they were going to be within the game,” she recalls. “The thing that was tricky was not knowing who the pivotal characters were to be, and not being aware of what the game really was.
“I’m used to being more involved in the character development. I had no idea what the game was going to be, so that was very much like working in the dark.”
Nonetheless, Paolo likens her role in the early design process to that of her work in film and television.
“The process begins with concept boards and conceptual discussions, then we moved onto talking in a rough way about the population in the game.
“There are so many characters who are not integral to the game, but the world still has to be populated.”
Paolo likens these characters to extras in film or television. In Grand Theft Auto, of course, the treatment of ‘extras’ is notoriously worse: characters often getting killed, beaten and abused in order for the protagonist’s goal to be reached!
Difficulties populating the world with uniquely dressed extras led to interesting dilemmas.
“We moved onto the scanning and discussion of colour, texture, and the inherent problems of the translation of the real clothing into a digital representation of fabric.”
This presented the first major challenge.
“The movement of the fabric can be tricky,” explains Paolo, whose main experience with video games before GTA was playing with her children. “I had no idea of the process or of the complications of designing for a video game.”
Fortunately, the similarities between the TV world and gaming kept her on track throughout the process.
“A great deal of research was done initially by the Rockstar team, and in the same way that I create concept boards for characters on film and television shows, they too had done the same. This helped everyone to understand what each character should wear and who each person was to be within the game.
“The main difference for me as a costume designer is that I usually work very closely with the actors on TV and film to discuss the nuances of character,” Paolo notes. “But the team at Rockstar, who lived the game for years, were the ones to add the nuances and to make the changes – as they lived it for so much longer than I did.”
This loss of control was not something Paolo found easy, especially as changes were made after her role in the project.
“I feel now, looking back at the process, that it would be a great idea to keep the Costume Designer around so that choices that are made with colour etc could be discussed at a later stage of the game’s evolution. It seems fairly obvious in many games that after the initial scanning process there is no one who is handling the ‘look’.”
Limitations and difficulties involved with designing for games in such an unusual way were to be expected, though the differences between her usual work on screen and in GTA V were clear.
“The Rockstar team could change colour, texture, etc of the clothing to create many different characters from each individual look. I did not have the same control and although it was fun, it was difficult for me to let go in the early stages of the game.”
The three main protagonists in the game gained positive feedback upon its release. Michael (weathly), Franklin (ambitious) and Trevor (crazy) were played by three actors using motion capture. They were 3D scanned for the game in costume, to accurately portray their style.
Trevor is scruffy (shown in his pants in the trailer), and is mostly seen in dirty v-necked T-shirts and jeans, or scruffy lumberjack shirts. Michael sports suits, expensive shirts with jeans, and a polo shirt for his golf (or destruction using the club). Franklin, meanwhile, has more of a street-saavy style: favouring a tank top or shirt over a long-sleeved tee, and frequently donning a cap or hoody.
Despite the teething problems mentioned previously, Paolo remains highly interested in designing for more games in the future.
“I would love to be on the cutting edge of this medium. I think it will evolve in ways that actually scare me slightly.”
Could Scandal be getting the GTA treatment at some point?
“Who knows?!” says Paolo. “All TV shows could be basically created with this format in the future! Scary – but not necessarily far away.”
Grand Theft Auto V will be out on PS4, PC and Xbox One later this year.