Artist Profile / Margaret Meyer
Margaret Meyer prefers designing costumes for the odd body shape, such as the very charming Mr. Peanut. Her credits include, Coraline, Robot Chicken, and Moral Orel, just to name a few.
SARAH: As a child, how did you answer the question, “what do you want to be when you grow up?”
MARGARET: I either wanted to be a veterinarian or an artist.
SARAH: I can see you have a love for animals when I look at your artwork.
MARGARET: I know! When I am not working on my artwork or working at the studio, I am volunteering at the Humane Society. Fortunately for me, my dog Wolfie doesn’t like other dogs so I can’t come home with more dogs.
SARAH: What was the artist/ veterinarian’s favorite film?
MARGARET: I can’t remember how old I was when I saw the film, but since I saw it, it has been my all-time favorite film and that is “Raiders of the Lost Ark.” Of course I also loved the “Star Wars” movies and then as I was getting older “Labyrinth,” and “Dark Crystal.” I remember when we got cable and the films that would play on HBO. “The Clash of the Titans” with Harry Hamlin was one I really liked. It had stop motion special effects. I really liked Bubo the owl. I always liked sci-fi and fantasy stuff as a kid.
SARAH: Did you also like sci-fi books?
MARGARET: Not necessarily sci-fi books. I loved Roald Dahl who wrote “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.” There was a series of books called “The Borrowers.” I loved the illustrations in those books; they were these beautiful pen and ink drawings. I think I loved that they were tiny people in a big world; I think that is how I got into miniatures.
SARAH: Did your parents encourage you to pursue artistic endeavors?
MARGARET: There was never any pressure to do a certain thing. I don’t even remember having pressure to do my homework, but I was a good kid.
SARAH: So you made your own rules?
MARGARET: It didn’t even occur to me to be bad. I was raised catholic and I would actually make up stuff during confession because I hadn’t done anything. I remember in 6th or 7th grade
saying to my mom “I’m going to act out in class because that’s what the popular kids do and I want to be popular.” My mom, knowing me really well, said “Ok honey, you do whatever you need to do.” In the end I didn’t do it.
SARAH: Did you play with Barbies or dress up or were you more of a mud pie kid?
MARGARET: Well, I did both. My sister and I actually had my Mom’s vintage barbies to play with. We also had the “Barbie Dream House” and pet mice. We would set the mice loose in the Barbie house and it would be horror movie with giant mice. We also had this Noah’s Ark set and we would build the animals houses out of rocks and sticks. Then we would create a dust storm, throwing rocks and sticks, and when it was over pick through the rubble for survivors. We would decide who survived by picking them up and examining them. I guess I was kind of a morbid kid! Actually, my sister just found that set and when I received it I realized they still have the dirt from Grandma and Grandpa’s yard on them. I should set them up with my chickens.
SARAH: Despite being slightly morbid as a child, a lot of innocence comes through in your paintings, a bunny holding hands with a blind bear for instance, it’s very sweet. How do you come up with these characters? What’s your process?
MARGARET: Most of the stuff I do, I’ll make a “ground” as I like to call it. For instance, I’ll dribble lots of different paints on a wood surface or canvas and look into the paint, the way you might look at clouds, and I’ll see things like a face. In a way it feels like cheating but I don’t generally sit down and say “ok, today I’m going to paint a bunny holding hands with a blind bear.” That’s just what I saw in the ground I made. There’s nothing planned out. If I sit down and try to plan it out, I can’t do it. I’m not an illustrator. When I get invited to be in group shows that have a theme, I hate it. I remember in college, my professor, who was kind of my mentor, could always tell when I tried too hard. She would say “You completely lost the sense of discovery in this.” That’s what I do sometimes. She was right. It ends up looking heavy handed, fake, and awkward. I still feel like I need to learn how to draw.
MARGARET: I do. I feel like I scratch these things out. I guess this works for me but sometimes I just feel like a cheat.
SARAH: How could it be cheating?
MARGARET: I just feel like I’m bringing up something that is already there. I had this same discussion with that professor, Jane Asbury. I feel like I need to describe her to you. Everything I’m about to say I mean with love. She was very short and very wide. She had frizzly dyed brown hair and she would chain smoke Eve lights through your reviews with her. She would say things like, “Have you ever thought of looking at rocks in cross-section?” This woman would not even take the stairs to the second floor; she would take the elevator! Yet she somehow went on a trip to Indonesia and came back with these phenomenal photos. I don’t know if she was carried around on a litter by two strong guys or what. She was probably the person in school that was closest to getting me.
SARAH: I particularly like the painting entitled “Lost.” Where did the idea for this one come from?
MARGARET: Some of these probably came from things I saw as a kid. I loved Beatrix Potter. Those very anthropomorphic animals had a profound affect on me.
SARAH: Do you have a favorite painting of yours?
MARGARET: I think the one called “No One Knows Where We Are”. That’s probably my favorite.
SARAH: Did you go to art school?
MARGARET: No, because I hate talking about art. Debating about art makes me want to vomit. Like artist statements; if you have to tell me that much about your process, you need to go back to your studio and focus on your work. I feel like you should be able to walk into any show, and experience it and have feelings about it without somebody to fill you in on all of this BS. I went to the University of Kansas and towards the end I spent as much time in the theatre department doing costumes as I did in the art department.
SARAH: So at that point you were making costumes for people. Do you prefer doing costumes for people or puppets?
MARGARET: Definitely puppets.
MARGARET: Well for one thing you can stick pins into puppets to hold things in place. You can’t stick pins into people. Also, actors can be really annoying and just general pains.
SARAH: Have you worked with a lot of actors?
MARGARET: My first job was actually on a Robert Altman film. The costume designer was this horribly mean lady. I had never been exposed to anything like that in my life. They were so catty. The actors would come in for fittings and they would be all sweet and nice to them to their faces and then when they left they would just savagely rip them apart. They were also mean to us. The head of the wardrobe department would not let us go to the bathroom without telling her. We couldn’t have snacks and she would make us go last to lunch so it looked like we were working the hardest. By then there wasn’t much food left. The reason I didn’t get credit for that job was because I left; I just went in and got my jacket and walked out one day. I thought “I’ll never work in this business again, I just ruined everything.”
SARAH: Obviously you did work again. What was your next project?
MARGARET: After that, I was living in Chicago and hating it. I went to visit my sister who was working on “David and Goliath” in Los Osos, CA. While I was there the director offered me a job. Initially, I was supposed to help make props for the set. I actually ended up making puppets. Fred, who was the art director, signed on to do way too many things and he thought he was going to be able to make all the puppets. It was immediately apparent that he needed help. From day one, I went in and he showed me everything he knew and then he got pulled away. So I ended up making puppets based on his lessons. That was a great opportunity because I got paid to learn. I feel really lucky.
SARAH: What was next for you?
MARGARET: My sister was friends with some guys she worked with at MTV who now have a studio called “Screen Novelties.” Through my sister I got to be friends with them. Then they put together “Robot Chicken,” and I will forever be grateful to those guys because they fought hard for me to be on it. I got to do Season 1 and 2 of “Robot Chicken” and Season 1 of “Moral Orel,” where I designed the puppets.
SARAH: What was working on “Robot Chicken” like?
MARGARET: The first season of “Robot Chicken,” was kind of like working in a sweat shop. It was a thrown together work environment. There was a long hallway-like room and we were all seated in a row. It was crazy because we were trying to turn out 100 puppets a week. I use the term puppet loosely. They were basically Mego dolls that we would cut apart and wire and try to make them stand up. Then we would roughly sculpt on their heads. I sat at the end and next to me was the “spray booth.” Scott Tom had cut a hole in the ceiling and put a box fan in. People were spray painting right next to me. But that was no worse than on my previous job; I was spray painting out a window, polyurethane sitting right next to me and baking foam latex in a toaster oven on my desk. All with only a box fan for ventilation and no gloves. After that project I was really sick; I was diagnosed with Epstein Barr. I was out of commission for months. Now I try to take better care of myself and work places that take that stuff seriously.
SARAH: What was your favorite project to work on?
MARGARET: The first three Planter’s Peanuts commercials. Robert Downey Jr. did the voice and it was a bunch of animals all in costume. I loved doing that. It was almost one of those projects I would have done for free. I love making costumes for animals. It was so much fun! Also, Mark Gustafson was co-directing them and he’s just a great person and makes every project fun; I had a lot of creative freedom. I also loved everything I’ve done with “Screen Novelties.” I love working with them. I don’t even care what we are making..
SARAH: Do you sometimes feel like it’s more important who you are working with than what it is on?
MARGARET: Definitely as I get older. I’ve been in the industry for more than ten years now and my priorities have definitely changed.
SARAH: What do you like about making costumes?
MARGARET: Part of it is that I simply love clothes. I have too many clothes. If you look at something like Coraline, they made all of the marquettes naked because, at the time, Henry wasn’t ready to finalize any costume designs on them. Coraline had a lot of costume changes so a lot of that had to be figured out. Take “Other Mother,” her costume defines her more than any other character’s costume. Normally, costume designer in stop motion doesn’t exist as much because everything is designed by the illustrator. But in “Coraline”, Henry was having trouble getting the costume designs nailed down. He then asked me to help with the designs. I was asked to work on “Other Mother” and try to figure out the progression of her costume change. I did it very old school. I xeroxed a bunch of pictures of some different dresses and I cut them up and re-worked them and put them over drawings of her body. I worked out the sequence of her transition. I remember that first meeting with Henry and I presented him with the costume progression; I remember him saying MARGARET has solved a lot of problems for us.” That lead to me being the costume designer for the better part of the production. That was one of my proudest moments.
SARAH: I like how sharp her costume becomes towards the end.
MARGARET: Henry talked about her costume being like a carapace, like an insect’s exoskeleton. I have to say I love her up until her final iteration and then I feel like it becomes cliche. At that point I was not part of the design process anymore. I had done some tests earlier on with some really different materials to make her more translucent and “insecty” but he wasn’t into them. I feel like her final costume becomes too much like a tattered halloween witch costume and that an opportunity was missed to do something really interesting.
SARAH: What’s it like communicating between the director and team?
MARGARET: It depends on the director. In commercials you’re dealing with the director, the agent, and the client. It’s the client who has the product, so that can get complicated but I’ve been designing the costumes for Mr. Peanut for their new commercials and it’s always a great experience. Those clients seem to have a good sense of fun and they give me a lot of room to do what I want. I love costuming non-traditional things. Like a peanut, with with his extreme body shape. The peanut makes everything look charming, there’s something very charming about a peanut.
SARAH: Do you find it difficult interpreting a director’s wants into direction?
MARGARET: Yes, sometimes I feel like we are speaking two different languages. Like the word for the color red, red doesn’t mean to you what it means to me. So that can be difficult. I once worked with a director who could never tell you what he wanted, he could only tell you when he saw what he didn’t want. That same director would tell you one thing in one meeting and then the opposite in the next. But I have to say, most of the time I work with great directors.
SARAH: How would you compare working on commercials compare to feature films like “ParaNorman?”
MARGARET: Well on a film, you end up making the same costume, often a really elaborate costume, ten times and it gets really tedious. It’s just not as a much fun. On a commercial I get to make lots of different things in a short amount of time and it’s all fun. It’s all enjoyable. And that’s what’s important to me these days.
SARAH: How do you work with the character designer?
MARGARET: I haven’t worked with one in a while. A lot of times I get a character handed to me and either the costume is already designed or I just get free reign.
SARAH: Your sister is an award winning animator. Have you ever made a film with your sister? Do you plan to?
MARGARET: We talked about it at one point but never got the chance. We never live in the same town and now she has kids. I’m not interested in animating. It works out perfectly because we are siblings and a bit competitive. I don’t try to make puppets and she doesn’t animate. We have a saying, “I make ‘em, she breaks ‘em.”
SARAH: Do you have any interesting projects coming up?
MARGARET: I was approached at the most recent show I was in by an artist that works in textiles with a focus on erotic art. She wants to do an erotic themed textile show. I’m thinking I might attempt it. There isn’t any eroticism in my art but this show is very open to interpretation. I don’t have the slightest idea how to approach it but it’s textiles and I love textiles. I don’t know, it could be disaster.