The believability of an alien planet is of great importance in a television show like Stargate, and that means the demands are great on its costume designers. Christina McQuarrie was with the show for over ten years, and in that time she developed literally thousands of costumes for hundreds of races.
From the System Lords to the miners of P8X-412, McQuarrie’s team was responsible for kicking out convincing civilizations every week on Stargate SG-1 and Atlantis. This meant designing not only human costumes but the many alien races we encountered — save for the Asgard, of course, who wore nothing.
GateWorld took time with the costume designer to discuss her journey in the Stargate franchise and her current assignment on the SyFy hit Sanctuary!
This interview runs approximately 26 minutes and is available in audio. It’s also transcribed below!
GateWorld: Christina, you have been designing costumes for over 20 years. How did you get into this?
Christina McQuarrie: Well, it started a long time ago. I was in theater for 10 years and as the film industry started to grow in Vancouver, a lot of us migrated over into that. It was sort of a natural transition at the time. I loved it and never went back to theater.
GW: How did you get into theater, originally? Was it your pursuit to get into costume design or was it just something you fell into?
CM: No, I absolutely fell into it. I didn’t quite know what I was doing, although I’d always loved theater and I’d always loved clothing. Then by sheer happenstance I ended up working in our major theater company. I worked with a woman who was out from London and she taught me an awful lot. It was in the days when you could almost apprentice. So I did a lot of theater work and did do some design for theater, then made the shift over.
GW: What kind of differences were there between doing design work for theater — costume designing — and then for television and movies? Are there timetable differences? Lighting? How does that work?
CM: Well, it’s quite hugely different. The theater that I was involved in, it’s very period oriented and a lot of that sort of approach is very overdone if you see it on film. On film, everything has to be very real, even if it is like a period costume. You have to change your theatricality, you have to tone that right down — unless you’re doing a very special piece. You’re dealing with much more reality.
However, as time passed and science fiction started to come into my life, then there’s a different kind of theatricality, which I absolutely love because we got back into what I call “real costume.” It’s fabulous. Although it’s not specifically period, it’s extremely creative and it can be very, very strange — and very challenging — in a really wonderful way.
GW: You worked on Highlander. That was one of my favorite television series when I was growing up. You can tell how young I am that way.
CM: Oh that’s OK, I was young then too [Laughter]. I loved that. That still is one of my favorite shows partly because it had this wonderful time travel and we got to go to different parts of the world and different periods and it was just totally something I loved. That was before I had discovered this other science fiction world, but at that point that was my favorite show. I did love it.
GW: Would you have preferred science fictions shows or doctors and lawyers shows where you could basically go to a store or specialty shop and buy whatever?
CM: No. I love the challenge and I love the creativity of the science fiction world. It’s fabulous. I’m very happy with the fact that I’ve been able to do it for quite a long time now. I don’t mind having the odd break from it because sometimes your mind begins to seize up with trying to find something new to do.
I must say that over the years I was on Stargate there were times when it was like, “Oh my God, how many ways can you cut the cloth?” There’s only so many things you can do so the challenge is huge! So it’s almost relaxing to be able to do a show where everybody’s wearing a suit. It’s like “Yahoo!” [Laughter]
GW: Exactly. Apophis is coming in in gold trim every single week, wouldn’t you just like him to show up in jeans and a t-shirt for once?
CM: Exactly! Absolutely! It’s nice if there’s a bit of a mix and you can sort of go both ways because each thing offers its own challenge.
GW: Michael Shanks was talking about when he was playing Daniel earlier in the show, the show was much more based in ancient Earth cultures and as the show grew, you guys began to develop your own mythology.
CM: That’s very true. Totally. In the beginning, because that’s where the movie started, we were in the ancient world, and then we started creating worlds. Boy, that was fun and interesting and, again, hugely challenging. And that carried on through into Atlantis because, of course, those were totally created worlds.
GW: When you would do a planet, like Pelops’ planet in Season One, I think the episode was “Brief Candle”, it has a very strong Greek mythology. Would you get Greek books and look there for inspiration or would you just go from scratch?
CM: Actually a lot of the reference work was artwork, and not specifically historic, because that’s scratchings on a wall …
GW: Hieroglyphs and carvings!
CM: That’s right! But there are some wonderful paintings, and I think that one in particular, I seem to remember that there was a painting from probably the 19th century, because they romanticized the Greek era. There were some really beautiful paintings from that period, from the early 19th century or something like that, and I think that was where I took my lead, from that, for that particular episode, because it was all flowy.
GW: Would you work pretty closely with [Stargate SG-1 Production Designer] Richard Hudolin to make sure that the sets matched the costumes reasonably well, that they fit into the same universe?
CM: Yes, it is important to work with your production designer, art director and your set decorators, just so that you’re all trying to keep the color palette together. And obviously the style. Some production designers are more involved and more concerned about costume than others, which is a different sort of situation, but you do have to work with them, absolutely.
GW: When you were brought aboard to do Stargate obviously they did go back to Abydos for a little bit in that pilot. Did you go over the film with a fine-tooth comb?
CM: We did. We definitely were looking at the film a lot and in the very beginning we actually had some pieces that we worked from for the beginning of Stargate. They were … some of those … what were they called, the big heads that we used …
GW: The Horus guards.
CM: The Horus guards. Of course, that goes into the prop cost. There were so many elements of costume in that show, I did not do the big prosthetic heads and things like that. We had the whole model shop that did a lot of costume pieces and elements. It was fabulous. A lot of the armor, headpieces, all that kind of stuff would come through the model shop.
GW: So the art director designed the Serpent heads, for instance?
CM: Absolutely, yes. And sometimes I would design things that they would create or it would be a combination of the art department and me, for armor. So there was a big interdisciplinary department. It was fabulous. It was absolutely a wonderful experience.
GW: You had a real trial by fire for “Children of the Gods”. Obviously we visit Abydos in the second act or so, but then when we get to Chulak and we see all of Apophis’ legions, you have tons. Not only do you have Jaffa costumes, but then you have the escaping people, and then on top of that you have the Goa’uld lords with all of their extravagant costumes. How did you get through that?
CM: Well, it’s all a very faint dream now. I remember it was a relatively tight time frame and we had to be very creative in a very fast way. I did rent a lot of unusual pieces from different companies and put them together in ways so that they looked unusual. We did not make everything. The System Lords we made. But all the people that were escaping, that was stuff that we managed to find, a rather large stock, and then we put it all together so it just didn’t look like Earth.
GW: You went to these other vendors to get this stuff, was this because of the time constraints or was it because they were mostly background players that weren’t going to get a lot of focus?
CM: A bit of each. There’s the budgetary constraint, but it was really very much a time constraint. I don’t remember exactly, but we were working in a tiny space with the carpenters next door and things changed hugely over the years but in the beginning, like most beginnings, it was relatively small. And we had to do it quickly so that was probably the guiding force there.
GW: The model makers, at least in the olden days, referred to it a lot as “kit bashing” but I remember seeing you in the DVD special features for the early SG-1 seasons and you were showing off Amonet’s headpiece and you had attached a snake head to her headpiece, so did you do a lot of assembling to get a lot different styles and different ideas for the System Lords? Because we didn’t know really who the Goa’uld were at that point.
CM: Absolutely. We just pulled out all stops trying to find ways of creating news things and using different materials, whatever we could lay our hands on.
GW: My favorite episode to this day is the two-parter in Season Five, “Summit” and “Last Stand” with, as Daniel put it, “the Goa’uld Mardi Gras.” [Laughter] You had a bunch of different Goa’uld there from all different backgrounds. Was that an interesting challenge as well?
CM: That was a fabulous show. I remember I loved that. By that time, we had a big staff and we had more facilities and we were able to put a lot of detail into quite a lot of those costumes. It was really rewarding. On those kinds of costumes, they’re one-offs so you put a lot of detail into it. It’s not like you’re doing a mass world where you’ve got to create a feeling, a flavor. And you’re going to see a reasonable amount of each costume so we often manipulated fabrics, and it was a wonderful challenge.
GW: When it comes down to it, you have no choice but to work with Earth materials.
CM: Exactly! And then, of course, the challenge sometimes is to make Earth materials look like not-Earth materials. I can remember a couple of episodes, and this goes way back into the early days, where things did not work out the way they were supposed to and it was quite panicky because you’re trying to do something that will look interesting, good, and fit the story and then suddenly, three or fours days into it, it’s obviously not working and you’ve only got two or three days left.
GW: Do you remember any specifics?
CM: This is probably going back to year two or three of Stargate but I remember one in particular. I don’t remember the name of the show but we were doing these mud heads and, my gosh, it didn’t work.
The mud heads didn’t work, and there was another, which I can’t remember exactly, but we were doing something and the material literally was not doing what we wanted it to do. I had to go to the producer, at the time it was Michael Greenburg, and he was fabulous, and I said, “This isn’t working!” He said, “What can we do?” and we came up with a simplified version. Nobody knew that there was a mistake, but we had to pull right back and go in a different direction, instantly.
GW: One of my favorite costumes was in Season Two, you guys did an episode called “One False Step” where you basically had these naked people running around who had paint all over their bodies from head to toe. What an extraordinary job.
CM: That was fun. We’d made nude body suits and put the paint on that because these people couldn’t be naked. So it was finding a fabric, and I had a fabulous cutter at the time who managed to make those suits with virtually no exterior seams. So all the seaming, normally you have seams here, seams there, we had to hide it so it looked as much like skin as humanly possible. And I thought she did a fabulous job.
GW: That was a really good show.
CM: Yeah, it was. That was a huge challenge and that was fun. [Laughter] You’re bringing back all sorts of good memories, actually. It’s great.
GW: Well at least I’m not bringing back nightmares!
CM: No! Some of them are like, “Ooh God, how did we do that?” but it’s all good in the end, because it was fun.
GW: Exactly. Cliff Simon is a friend of mine who I’ve spoken with on numerous occasions and he has always praised you and your team’s work, for all the different costumes that you did for Baal. In “Reckoning” in Season Eight, he had these beautiful boots under this gold robe that he had and he said, “I want people to see the boots! They’re so extraordinary!”
CM: [Laughter] When he first came on the scene, he was always one of our favorites because he was evil and elegant.
GW: He looks good in the clothes.
CM: And he wore clothes brilliantly. Sometimes you get the odd actor who, for some reason, it doesn’t matter what you do, it looks awkward. But he wore clothes, or “wears” them, not “wore” them, but he wore those clothes brilliantly. It was a pleasure working with him.
GW: What are some of the people who you’ve enjoyed designing clothes for? Rachel Luttrell, she looks great in anything you put her in.
CM: She was fabulous. I’m not sure I have specific favorites. They all offer their challenges and some more interesting than others. Christopher Judge was actually a fabulous person to dress, too. He wore his robes beautifully. He was the kind of person you could put anything on and he would look good. There was the odd time we stepped out and put him in something else and it was fun. But they all look good.
CM: He’s a bit of a clothes horse. He loves clothes [Laughter] and looks fabulous all the time.
GW: With SG-1, did they advise you on what the uniforms would be, what to wear? Everyone at the base had to wear very specific air force style clothing, vests, armor. Was that like a breathing space for you where the Air Force gave you instructions, or did it make things more complicated?
CM: Well, it was totally the opposite end of the spectrum, challenge-wise. We worked very, very closely with the Air Force. We had to try and make things exactly right because we were representing the US Air Force. We had a lot of help from them, they would come up, they would answer all our questions. We had wonderful liaisons that would answer our questions regarding insignia.
I had to put it in somebody’s hands so that they would focus on it because it’s the minutiae and, like all rules, there’s always the little sub-rules that break the big rules. [My assistant] was very, very good about following it and was a very meticulous person, so we managed to get through, although there were a couple of bad mistakes we made along the way. The only thing that was not quite in that line was the base uniform that they wore, which was an amalgam of the BDU-type uniforms.
GW: They had their greens and their blues.
CM: Their greens and their blues. We made all of that to work for our team. It was obviously done with the approval, but that was not off the racks. But their dress uniforms were actually like the real dress uniforms and if we had any kind of big assembly of military types it was all absolutely what the US military would wear. But our SG-1 team had specially modified uniforms.
GW: For Atlantis you did a new version of uniforms because this is an expedition team, they had the two-piece with the triangular colors on the front to identify either military or science or whatever. Tell us about that process.
CM: Martin Wood, our director, and I talked about that and it wasn’t a military outfit, so we were trying to make something that had a uniform but a civilian sensibility to it. We thought of taking some elements from sporting clothes and making that work with the uniform. It had its good bits and its bad bits, but that was where we started it.
GW: The Wraith were such a different nemesis that the Goa’uld.
CM: I know, I loved them. I loved them!
GW: Tell us about creating those costumes. Obviously, you’re working with make-up extensively because those appliances have to go on right down to the hands.
CM: A lot of what you do is you look at artwork and get feelings. They were sort of like insect, bat, all sorts of weird creatures that gave you feelings, I mean in the original basic concepts. I know I had a bat feel. Just trying to get ideas for where to go, but I loved those characters. They were so much fun and they were so evil and beautiful at the same time. That was my feeling — they were evil and the Wraith Queen, I just loved her, she was just a lot of fun to do.
GW: Andee Frizzell is pure awesomeness!
CM: Wasn’t she fabulous? Yeah, I absolutely loved her a lot. And just the Wraith and their great robes. And the guys that were the guards, they were very creepy, and of course that was all the model shop — did a fabulous job of creating all of that. It was sort of like bone armor, it was so weird.
GW: I loved the Ori, how the missionaries had very simple clothing, but there’s a sinisterness behind it. Was that an interesting direction to explore? Dressing the Doci, Julian Sands, he has these very ornate, flowing robes, very different from the Goa’uld.
CM: Yes, very much so. That evolution seemed like another direction that we needed to explore. I think it did work.
GW: I believe you handed the torch to Valerie Halverson when you left Atlantis in mid Season Four, I believe?
CM: Yeah, I did three seasons and then I was able to do the two Stargate movies, because I went back to that. It was just like the whole thing got too big — obviously, we were doing two shows and then we had a little offspring in the background here, which turned out to be Sanctuary. I haven’t mentioned that one yet.
GW: I’m going to get to that in about two minutes.
CM: They offered me the two [SG-1] movies and I was very honored to be able to go back and do that because I loved that show, and it was at that point that it seemed like a good time to pass on and let somebody else take over.
Sanctuary was in its infant stage and I was very interested in that because there were people I had worked with and it was another totally new concept, so it seemed like a really interesting thing to explore.
GW: So you were looking for new challenges?
CM: I was looking for new challenges, and I think I needed to move. I think it worked out really well. Certainly, for me it did. It was fabulous. I mean, I miss Stargate, I miss a lot of that, but because of the…
GW: A lot of them are there.
CM: Well, that’s the whole thing. It’s almost like this extended family. Some of the fabulous people I’ve worked with over the last years are here and this is also a really wonderful new show.
GW: Tell us about some of the challenges of working on this show. It’s much more Earth based and it has a lot of historical roots, especially with the legends of The Five, invisible woman and Tesla. You guys are going into Season Two — what are you most excited about this year?
CM: We’re almost finished! We’ve only got three weeks left. Well, it’s grown hugely. When I think of where it started with the webisodes on the Internet, that was quite fabulous because from an art point of view it was very, very different.
It was a combination of TV and the gaming world and we had a very different vision, and it was very exciting because it was trying out something very, very different.
Then last year when it went to TV, to some degree it modified it a little bit, but it also gave us the opportunity to do more because there was more “capability,” shall we say.
GW: Yeah, you’re going from computer to television, did you have to start from scratch, at all? Was it like, “Oh man, this worked out so well!”?
CM: What they did was, basically, we took those two hours of webisodes and we re-did them for television for the first season. So the story was maintained but expanded a bit and, literally, they inserted the few of the original scenes that they could but the rest of it was completely re-shot. So it started it all over again from scratch for television. And then this year it’s expanded it considerably. The first year, our green screen was like a postage stamp, and now we’ve got this huge stage that’s all green screen!
The other very interesting thing about this is we’re exploring different parts of the world and different ethnic peoples. This has been really quite wonderful this year because we’ve explored South Africa. The one we’re finishing of with is East Indian, it’s the slums of Mumbai.
We’re building this whole slum out in the back and we’re doing a lot of extras — huge. It’s going to be our biggest thing yet. We’ve done New Mexico, and we did some zombies. So, although it’s not quite on the scale of [SG-1] and Atlantis, it’s still exploring some really interesting characters and different parts of the world, different areas. I’m loving it.
GW: It’s a very respectable variety of stuff. Again, it’s not a doctors and lawyers show.
CM: No! But it’s interesting when you brought that up, because this is the first time in a long, long time that I’ve been going for what I’ll say in quotation marks, “regular clothes,” but it’s not like suits. We have the odd suit, but it’s much more interesting, that.
The new character that was introduced this year, Kate, the young woman, East Indian woman, I’ve just enjoyed dressing her so much because it’s a bit of a mix of Western with little tiny elements of her homeland. It’s been extremely interesting. And then dressing Amanda [Tapping] as Magnus, what fun! The change!
GW: I know! That leather two-piece suit of hers! I was there earlier this year and the smell coming off of her! I just want to respect her personal space, otherwise I just wanted to go up and touch it all over the place!
CM: [Laughter] I know, but it’s been fun because it’s such a different from Carter. The process of doing that with her, I’ve been really thrilled by it. She looks so different. So that’s been a lot of fun. A lot of fun.
And then we have Christopher Heyerdahl, who was in Atlantis. He was the Athosian when we first met him.
He was this long-haired almost hippy type in the very beginning and now he’s this sleek, evil, wonderful character. It’s been just fabulous working and changing people that you worked with a long time in a different context. That’s been a lot of fun.
GW: You have done an extraordinary job on Sanctuary. Helen’s outfits have been great, John Druitt, specifically, is one of my favorites with his coat. You get the wind going on that guy and, man, he looks awesome!
CM: [Laughter] So we still do make quite a bit, but not in the volume. The other thing I look at, I sincerely hope we have a bit more life and shows grow [and] as you grow things change. When we started Stargate, we’d have one or two or maybe 10 or 15 people, but not a lot. So it’s interesting how shows grow if they have a chance to evolve. And your own area opens up a lot in that process.
Interview by David Read. Transcript by Lahela.