Laura Cristina Ortiz on time distortion in costume design for Synchronic

Laura Cristina Ortiz. Image courtesy Carissa Dorson
Laura Cristina Ortiz. Image courtesy Carissa Dorson /

Costume designer Laura Cristina Ortiz distorted time through creative design techniques for Synchronic’s time bending sci-fi horror story.

We are deep into the tail end of October, Culturess readers. Halloween is just around the corner, and with it, the increasing excitement to check out something thrilling. Perhaps our local drive-in enthusiasts already have this sci-fi horror on their list, but for those that don’t, October 23 marked the release of Synchronic.

The film centers on two paramedics — Steve (Anthony Mackie) and Dennis (Jamie Dornan) — who come across this new drug that causes the user to time travel, but it’s not as simple as being transported from decade to decade. Time bends, and with it, so do the objects around the user and their clothing, morphing and warping into different shapes.

One of the creators responsible for buckling us into a way-back machine and flipping time on its head is costume designer Laura Cristina Ortiz. Her transformative work in Synchronic helps sell the ambitious time travel visual mechanic this film wants the audience to embrace.

Synchronic. © Red Flower Film, LLC
Synchronic. © Red Flower Film, LLC /

We had the wonderful opportunity to chat with Ortiz about her design process with this sci-fi horror and the importance of ethical practices and sustainability in the industry.

Ortiz called working on Synchronic “a costume designer’s dream” because she was able to do period work along side contemporary costuming that would be distorted by the visual mechanic she and the team behind the production collaborated on.

Synchronic behind the scenes photo. Courtesy of Laura Cristina Ortiz
Synchronic behind the scenes photo. Courtesy of Laura Cristina Ortiz /

Early in the process, Ortiz sat down with directors Aaron Moorhead and Justin Benson, along with production designer Ariel Vida, to reach a consensus on how to convey the effect of time travel in the film.

“I definitely wanted the clothes to look distorted, but I also wanted that distortion to play with the material,” Ortiz said. “For instance, if a character was wearing polyester or a synthetic fabric and they traveled really far back, then that material would warp more than an organic material like cotton.”

Frequency of time travel was also a consideration, so the distortion in the clothing minor characters like Travis and Leah wore would be different from Steve, who travels multiple times in the same costume. Ortiz explained, “[We] tried to show the arc in the costumes as much as possible to know just how transformative time travel [is] and how it affected costume pieces.”

Creating the time travel visual mechanic was Ortiz’s favorite part of designing for Synchronic. In her words, “I think a lot of the time, audience members might not be cognizant of the impact of contemporary costumes in narrative films, so it was really fun to be able to push contemporary fashion.”

Synchronic behind the scenes photo. Courtesy of Laura Cristina Ortiz
Synchronic behind the scenes photo. Courtesy of Laura Cristina Ortiz /

Ortiz drew inspiration from Wilderness Embodied, a collection by Iris van Herpen. In this collection, van Herpen combined polyurethane foam, resin, and steel filings together in her work. She utilized magnets to sculpt the polyurethane onto the fabric of her garments so that it looked like it was being pulled off.

The technique was one Ortiz tried to emulate with Steve’s coats. She says, “…the idea was that as he’s going through [time], this costume goes through this kind of Cronenbergian thing where I wanted it to feel like he’s oozing out. I wanted it to feel very bulbous or like primordial oozy.”

To achieve this effect, Ortiz sculpted the polyurethane with Carhartt jackets as the base and used iron filings to manipulate the material. For her, the oozing effect also connected back to Steve’s cancer as if it’s seeping out of him, too, as he time travels.

Synchronic behind the scenes photo. Courtesy of Laura Cristina Ortiz
Synchronic behind the scenes photo. Courtesy of Laura Cristina Ortiz /

Ortiz, and the rest of the Synchronic team, refer to Steve’s time travel attire as his superhero costume. “Every time he’s suiting up and he knows he’s going to be traveling, he puts on this outfit,” she said. “He’s just like ‘I know this is the one that worked and it’s kind of all weather.’ He uses it as a functional, but also protective [outfit]” in order to try to anticipate what may come.

According to Ortiz, Steve and Dennis are incredibly depressed, practical men, so her costume choices erred on the side of neutral tones and simple pieces, especially for Steve who is battling a disease. Her instinct was similar to Moorhead and Benson’s, hence the muted color palette of the film — though Ortiz did have to overdye some pieces so they wouldn’t appear grey in the final product.

Another inspiration Ortiz drew from was Hussein Chalayan’s 2009 collection, Inertia. To her the collection resembled sound waves. She says the collection looked as if it were “moving in space,” a technique she emulated in the draping of costumes like Leah’s dress.

Synchronic behind the scenes photo. Courtesy of Laura Cristina Ortiz
Synchronic behind the scenes photo. Courtesy of Laura Cristina Ortiz /

Ortiz worked with textile artist Clay Rodery to play with prints and how to morph them from their original inception to ones specifically created for the film:

"“[Leah’s] print starts off as this floral print and then we enlarged the flowers, cut them up, made them jagged. The same thing with the stabbed man in the very beginning of the film. It was like a pink plaid shirt that we ended up warping the fabric. The collar is extended on one side and the lapel is all messed up. We did all these details where you probably have to watch the film a couple of times to really catch the smaller details.”"

Costume illustrator Aldo Katayanagi and tailor Brik Allen were also key creators in Ortiz’s process through each development of designing these stretched out and manipulated costumes. The team used road maps for each character and conceptualized how they wanted to use fabric stiffener–and the techniques Ortiz developed from van Herpen and Chalayan’s influence — to capture the strangeness of time travel in Synchronic while still maintaining an organic quality to the work.

Synchronic behind the scenes photo. Courtesy of Laura Cristina Ortiz
Synchronic behind the scenes photo. Courtesy of Laura Cristina Ortiz /

“That’s the beauty of filmmaking where I get to work with other people,” Ortiz said. “We can see their point of view and be able to work together in terms of what can make the strongest visual impact. I love being inspired by my colleagues and collaborators”

She’s also inspired by her family’s history. Ortiz is the third generation in her family to do fashion and garment work. Her grandmother moved from Puerto Rico to the mainland and was a piece-maker, working in the sweatshops of New York City. Her aunt was a fashion designer in the ’80s who worked in Puerto Rico until she moved stateside.

It’s because of this history that Ortiz sees her passion for ethical practices and sustainability in fashion as, in her words, “an intimate responsibility.” She admits it’s an added amount of work, but it’s work she sees as worth it.

She explained, “…even if we can make 10 percent of the budget toward more ethical and sustainable practices, that’s better than zero percent.”

Ortiz thrifted and rented a lot of the clothes you’ll see in Synchronic though she doubts you’ll notice since she still used name brands. Her attention to “eco-conscientiousness” is something she’d like to see more of in the film industry especially since fast fashion is becoming more and more of a conversation.

It’s a topic Ortiz believes costume designers have a responsibility to be cognizant of and is currently developing a resource for costumers and designers to reference when looking for brands. The resource will be a directory meant to elevate BIPOC brands that have ethical and sustainable practices.

“From my point of view, if I’m working on a project and I’m given a budget, I have the choice to invest in a company,” she said.

Ortiz acknowledges that working with smaller brands creates “an extra layer of logistical know-how” but believes it’s important to “support brands that aren’t employing sweatshops and are doing the right things for the environment.”

Synchronic behind the scenes photo. Courtesy of Laura Cristina Ortiz
Synchronic behind the scenes photo. Courtesy of Laura Cristina Ortiz /

This belief extends to Ortiz’s period work in Synchronic — from costuming soldiers fighting in the War of 1812 to Steve’s encounter with the KKK in1933 — as well as her work in her upcoming project Lansky, a biopic starring Harvey Keitel and Sam Worthington, set in 1980s Miami and dating as far back as 1912.

Giving some information on her work on the project, Ortiz said, “We worked with a shirt maker, Anto, that had a stock of these vintage shirt fabrics from the ‘70s and ‘60s, which was so fabulous and so fun just from a textile, nerdy, geeky, oh my god this is so cool [place]. We shopped for buttons from the 1920s [and] we put [them] on certain pieces.”

Ortiz’s philosophy on costuming, her belief that “[a] good film costume design just feels natural to the world that it’s set in,” and her enthusiasm for collaboration is what makes her work magical and innovative. She has a point of view that’s interested in experimentation whilst still honoring the narrative she’s set out to tell in her fabric choices and design.

It’s a combination that makes Laura Cristina Ortiz a stand out costume designer and one whose work we can’t wait to see more of.

Next. Bringing A Babysitter's Guide to Monster Hunting to Life. dark

Synchronic hits theaters and drive-ins Friday, October 23.