Unexpected company


Matthew Simonelli dishes on New York's rudest neighbors

Recently I learned that one of my favorite artists is from the Detroit suburbs, not far from where I grew up. Yes, Detroit. In fact, some of his best work is in Styrofoam and basic cotton flannel.

I’m talking about Matthew Simonelli, the guy who created the dinosaurs for Trevor Moore's legendary Dinosaur Rap video. The video was produced for the second season of the New York-based sketch comedy show, The Whitest Kids U'Know, which airs on the Independent Film Channel. Simonelli was the show's costume designer. 

The lyrics are a thing of mad genius. The costumes deserve their own day at the MoMA.

Sometimes things just come together like that.

Rule of the Thumb

Now, Michigan is a tough place. Anyone who's seen a Michael Moore movie knows that. The state consistently leads national statistics in violent crime, unemployment, housing foreclosures and murders per capita. More kids in Detroit end up going to prison than go to college.

But when it comes to putting on a show, Michigan, for some reason, comes up with the goods. The state's creative alumni include Aretha Franklin, Stevie Wonder, Iggy Pop, Diana Ross, Madonna, Eminem, Anthony Kiedis, Ted Nugent, Kid Rock, and film makers like Jerry Bruckheimer, Francis Ford Coppola and John Hughes. And artists like Matthew Simonelli who make it all happen. 

So how does a guy from St. Claire Shores end up in New York designing kit for an irreverent cable show? Simonelli was kind enough to give some background on his work and to offer some pointers for aspiring costumer designers. 

A graduate of Wayne State University, he was attracted to costume design because it offered a chance to create new characters and all the details of the worlds they live in. Getting caught broke in New York one summer turned out to be the break that would let him do that professionally.

Hard work and a little New York luck

TC: How did you end up designing costumes for television?

MS: I moved to New York to water a friend's plants while she was overseas. It was supposed to be just for the summer, house sitting. I had very little money. After three weeks, I had burned through all my savings. 

I found a job at a costume house that had an amazing stock of vintage costumes, from the Metropolitan Opera to old Hollywood movies. Every day I would discover a new treasure. Not only did I really get to touch and see the construction of these amazing pieces, I developed a more in depth understanding of costume history. I got to see how other costume designers perceived various periods. It was amazing.

I made a point of helping other costume designers when they'd come in to do pulls (assembling collections for clients). I wanted to assist so badly, so I would make myself available after work, on holidays, weekends, whenever! I didn't stop working! One thing lead to another, as it does in New York, and before I knew it, I had to leave the costume house. I was too busy with my own projects!

TC: What was it like designing for a sketch comedy? They change sets and characters every few seconds.  

MS: Designing the series for TWKUK posed several challenges. We had a very small budget and only a three people. The shooting schedule was merciless. 

I remember trying to outline all the costumes we needed at the start of production. My jaw nearly hit the floor! There where hundreds of costumes needed, everything from full-on period scenes staring a plus-sized Marie Antoinette and a plus-sized Jackie Kennedy in full pink suit, to a moon landing with very detailed space suits. The turn around time was fast and we had to make almost everything ourselves. I was calling in favors left and right to get things for free or at a deep discount!

Thank god I had the support of two amazing assistants. Jeriana San Juan was my design assistant, she helped me create the look for the show. Karen McGovern was in charge of dressing all the guys and making sure everything was ready on the set.

Because we were working at a such a frantic pace, I had to nail a look for each sketch, execute it, and move on. I tried to keep the color palette and mood consistent from scene to scene, but it was hard!

Clay animation out. Hoodies and flannel in. 

MS: Then, halfway through shooting, came another production meeting. We needed to add even more sketches. Among the new scenes, Trevor had come up with this dinosaur rap. This was to be an epic rap video. It called for specific species of dinosaurs who were distinct characters in the performance. The man had either done his research or he was a totally obsessive dinosaur junkie as a kid. I remember sitting in that office wondering how we were going to make this happen, begging them to animate it instead! Make it in clay-animation! Anything but this...

I started researching like crazy by grabbing books, finding images, ordering masks from online, anything. 

I soon realized it all needed to be built from scratch. For help with fabrication, I ended up reaching out to my friend Sam Hill at Izquierdo Studios. Sam is an extraordinary sculptural costume craftsman. He's worked on everything from creating the wings for the Victoria's Secret fashion shows, to the Met's last performance of Hansel and Gretel, creating completely mind boggling prosthetics and weird puppet heads.

I told Sam about our crazy budget restrictions, showed him my research and we spoke about the flavor of the show. He totally understood what I was going for, and after some begging, he agreed to do it. Everything was made of Styrofoam and acrylic paint, with these little metallic jewels for eyes. 

As for the look of the costumes, Sam and I agreed, we needed the dinosaurs to be halfway between cartoony and real. We used bold colors and sharp lines.

They knew how to open doors

TC: Most of the characters are in street gear, except the raptors. They're in bodysuits. Was that intentional? 

MS: Trevor and I talked about making the dinosaurs kind of look like pot smoking college dudes. I thought it would be funny and not so literal, just a couple of dino's getting high at the house, like it was nothing out of the ordinary. But the raptors I wanted to appear a bit more severe. Sam and I brainstormed and came up with the hand painted bodysuits to contrast against the others.

TC: What was the reaction when you brought these to the set? 

MS: When I brought those masks to set, the paint was still drying, we had turned them over so quickly!

The cast and the producers couldn't believe their eyes, everyone was completely floored. I remember our producer Abby was actually giddy with excitement. I felt great! However, I gotta tell you, it was the middle of August and the set was not air conditioned. Those poor actors really pulled that video together!

TC: Any professional tips for aspiring costume designers? 

MS: The most important thing is to meet working professionals, be it at a job, or a master class, or in a graduate program. If you're not meeting working professionals, people whose work you admire, you're going to be stuck. That goes for all the creative arts. You have to put yourself out there. You have to be in a place where you can not only meet these people, but also work and learn from them!


Not to get all academic, but costumes topped with a basic, one-piece mask are among the oldest artifacts of cultural expression, with a history in western theater dating back more than two millennia. There's nothing more functional or less pretentious. As far as I’m concerned, Moore and Simonelli’s brilliantly ridiculous translation of the ancient Greek method is a perfect moment of modern visual art.

And I’d applaud too, if I didn’t have these little arms.

# # # 

For the lyrics to the video click here.

The Whitest Kids U'Know is in its fourth season on the IFC. You can see more of Matthew Simonelli's work on the hit series, Gossip Girl, on The CW Television Network.


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Slobodan Jovanović's picture
Slobodan Jovanović
15:52 31/12/09


It is so good to have you here with us Tim! An honor.

Thank you for fantastic posts and Happy New Year!

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Leonardo da Vinciviše
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