I didn’t imagine that Stan Winston Studio would be tucked away amidst a series of warehouses just a block away from a quiet residential Van Nuys street. The building itself is the epitome of nondescript, but inside is an amazing display of special effects magic that made me remember what it was like to be a 12 year old kid ordering liquid latex in the mail and devouring every page of Dick Smith’s book.
The DVD and Blu-Ray release of Iron Man was what brought me (and a ragtag group of journalists) to the studio, but as soon as I stepped foot in the conference room, which was ringed with memorabilia of Stan Winston’s incredible work (see my shitty photos from that day right here), I was glad that the press day was running late and I had time to explore every object in the room. There was the T-800 endoskeleton. There was the Predator. From Johnny Depp’s Edward Scissorhands suit to a crispy burnt Tom Cruise from Interview With the Vampire (the only thing we weren’t allowed to photograph, on Cruise’s orders) to unused Howard the Duck maquettes (I was told that Stan was so proud of them he kept them on display even though they were rejected) to huge Jurassic Park dinosaur heads, every inch of that conference room was stuffed with magic. I couldn’t imagine having a meeting in there – how would I not geek out on the regular.
And in one corner sat Stan Winston’s empty chair, with Teddy from AI perched on it, an all-too sad reminder of the recent death of the FX giant. But even with him gone the company worked at full-speed; beyond the conference room was a giant workshop filled with people creating the kind of practical effects that fired up my imagination as a kid and got me into this business in the first place.
I also got a chance to check out three of the actual costumes from the movie. The Mark I, a giant monstrosity of metal that Tony Stark creates in a cave in Afghanistan, sits in the conference room. When we arrived the Mark II, the silver suit, had just returned from a stint at the Met in New York, where it had been part of a display about costumes. It was literally put together while we conducted our interview. And finally I got to stand in the shadow of the Iron Monger suit, a gigantic towering outfit. It turns out that the Iron Monger (like the Mark III armor) had not been intended to be worn by anyone, and that because the folks at Stan Winston Studios are so detail oriented they gave it moving parts anyway. Eventually it was decided to stick Jeff Bridges in and make the suit real, moving part of the movie.
Eventually it was time to get down to business and we formed a semi-circle around model shop supervisor David Merritt and key artist Christopher Swift. I’m foregoing the standard Q&A format for a breakdown of what everybody said.
The Iron Man suit wasn’t always intended to be practical.
Swift: Due to the expectations of what they were looking for, I don’t think it made sense for them at that point to think of it as a practical suit, whether we could actually get a person in it, can he move… being the fact that it’s such a slick design, it’s almost like a car body that has to have joints in there. It’s not like an armored suit in the knight days, where you have a lot of pieces that you could see the movement happen within those. This was a slick suit. It was like, “How can you make all of that stuff move, and make it practical.” So I think the idea was that it was going to be digital, and that we would get insert shots from the suit that we made as well as reference points for lighting, for digital, and all of that. Again, except for the Mark I, which was always… that one does make sense; that’s more built like an iron suit from the knight days.
The directive from Marvel and production was really to put the emphasis on it being a superhero. The idea of fitting someone in there wasn’t as important. So once we nailed down that design from Phil Saunders and moved on to building a 3-D model, we were able to then start taking scans of the body, and starting to… see how things were going to work. Through that process, we were able to kind of get an idea that this might work. Meanwhile, as they were working out their budgets for digital, I think they came to the realization that whatever we could get practically would only help the movie. So they really started embracing that.
Swift: I would love to say that – being that the majority of us who worked on it are pretty seasoned as far as doing a lot of suit work and things like that – it was like, “Oh, we’ll just make this and go on our expertise and our talent.” But there were many, many nights where we were here late pulling our hair out going, “How are we going to do this!?!?””
Merritt: It was so tight.
Swift: It really was tight. We didn’t know that from the very beginning, so we didn’t… move over to that ideology until well into the building part of it. We had very little time to actually do this. There was a lot of engineering as we went along. We literally built it piece-by-piece and part-by-part. We would solve problem-by-problem instead of looking at it as a whole, like “How do we solve the leg problem?” So we would literally get a guy in here and put the legs on him, and let him walk around. “He can walk. Can he run?” We literally built it up piece-by-piece the same way you’d engineer the suit for real – although we didn’t have the robots welding it all together. That was all of us as the taskmasters.
Merritt: But we did start out using robots in a way. We utilize a lot of rapid prototype process machines here as a tool for us to get our job done. And when we started getting into actually fabricating for the Mark III, we were able to… start refining the surfaces and really treating it like an automotive body, making sure the lines were clean.
Once we got ahold of it and made our 3-D model, we worked with Phil [Saunders] to make some modifications so we could start to realize how joints were going to truly move, how plates were going to open up, how the hips were going to work so they wouldn’t crash into each other. We’d make those modifications and run them by Phil, and he would make little changes. We went through that process for two or three weeks until we came up with something they were happy with.
On the possibility of an Iron Man with rollerskates in Iron Man 2.
Swift: No, but there is talk of an Iron Chimp that roller skates and smokes cigars. I don’t know if that’s going to happen, but I, for one, am looking forward to that.
On the first camera test of the suit.
Merritt: The first camera test we went to, everybody was there: Marvel, production and so on. So we took him down there, and we had the green-screen suit on, so we had holes in it and everything. We put it on, they do the camera test, and when everyone saw him they were just kind of blown away by for the first time ever seeing Iron Man walking. The next day, we went down for the screening; we all took our notepads, and we’re all ready. And the first time they saw Iron Man, I remember Favreau goes, “That’s our guy!” And we walked out of that screening room without a single note.
Swift: The funny part was that… Shane [Mahan] is a really good showman, so we put the guy in the suit in a tent. And when he walked out, he walked out [in the suit]. I remember we were so not ready for this test. He walked out of that tent, and everybody just went, “Oh, that’s it!” Then he took ten steps and like, eight pieces fell off of him. Jon was like, “Guys, you did an amazing job, but… those parts are going to stay on in the movie, right?”
The stuntmen in the suits.
Swift: Mike Justus, I would have to say, was pretty much solely [the guy in the suit]. When you don’t see Robert Downey Jr. actually lifting his head up, it’s pretty much Mike Justus.
Merritt: Oakley [Lehman] also.
Swift: Oakley was also in there, but I think Mike was the one who fell [in the bulky Mark I suit]. He said he fell like a sack of potatoes. He made one misstep, and he stopped, but the suit kept going.
Merritt: We had to switch Mike and Oakley out. You could only be in the suit for three hours before you just got tired. I know this is getting off-track a little, but when we were talking about the weight before, there’s a difference between having, like, an eighty-pound backpack on and eighty pounds just wrapped around you, it’s just totally different.
Swift: It really worked out to our advantage. At the point in the movie where the Mark III suit comes out, and he’s going out doing all of these things, Jon’s very good about keeping things very organic and realistic. He never came to us, like on a lot of movies, and said, “I want this to always be pristine and shiny.” So if it gets a nick, and it gets a scratch, and it falls down, keeping continuity might be a problem, but if it gets a nick, it’s okay. Let the suit be an iron suit; it does get nicks, and it not only shows reality, but vulnerability – which is important to the storyline. If you think he’s invincible, then what’s the point? That really helped us out: the fact that we could expand upon when suits would get nicked up and broken and things like that, we ran with that. We allowed it to be part of the suit and the look of the suit.
On getting to work on Iron Man 2.
Swift: We’ve gotten very little information. The most I’ve heard is the possibility of the War Machine, and that it’s Terrence Howard in this one. I have to say, I talked a lot with Terence on the set, and I said, “Get ready. Because in the comic books, you end up in the suit.” And he said, “Really!?!? I love the idea! I want to be in that suit!” And you know what? He’ll probably get his opportunity. He’s got a great build; he’s very skinny, so we wouldn’t have a hard time fitting him in the suit.