Focus On Superhero Costume Builders
By Anna Wyckoff, February 11, 2011
Supernatural… residing in a world of hyperbole… dueling with diabolical foes—the superhero is just another archetypal character, albeit one who completely enraptures audiences and reliably fills movie theaters. The cult of the superhero is stronger than ever, stoked by fan web sites, events like Comic-Con, and an endless sea of ancillary merchandise.
Specialty builders who fabricate superhero costumes wield great skill to lend credence to the fantasy. The labyrinthine process culminates in satisfying not only the expectations of the Costume Designer and studio, but also a vigilant fanbase.
We spoke with four resources whose art and artifice vivify the illusion.
Mary Ellen Fields
Bill Hargate Costume
Owner Mary Ellen Fields runs Bill Hargate Costumes, a union costume house which opened twenty-five years ago. Renowned for their fine couture work for female stars, the shop builds everything from pregnancy pads to superhero costumes.
Traditional technology submits to the cyclical nature of fashion; as it rockets forward, our eye becomes quickly acclimated, and the past suddenly seems dated. The suggestion of future technology is crucial to a superhero costume, which makes it imperative to invent a look which projects the future and reinforces believability. Fields explains, “Superheroes are never based on anything that has been done before. The shape might seem familiar, but the fabrication is like trying to reinvent the wheel.” She adds that, “They are the ultimate one-off.”
Fields relishes the entire build process, and in a film landscape which sees the dwindling use of custom made pieces, she finds the superhero is an opportunity to make something unusual that’s specific to a unique character. Starting from the Costume Designer’s sketch, Fields begins research and development, or “R&D.” Her focus often encompasses rarely implemented construction methods—from atypical materials and new inks and leathers, to uncommon vaccuform techniques. Because the creative process is often proprietary, there are several design spaces within Bill Hargate Costumes which are top secret. The mystery surrounding superhero costumes seems only to foster the excitement and all-important “buzz” that precedes a film’s release.
While Fields has worked on “Ironman” for Mary Zophres, “G.I Joe: The Rise of Cobra” for Ellen Mirojnick, and the recent Broadway production of “Spider-Man: Turn Off The Dark,” she has other superhero vehicles brewing which she can’t freely discuss. “I’ve signed non-disclosure forms,” she says with a chuckle.
Bill Hargate Costumes
1111 North Formosa Avenue
West Hollywood, CA 90046
Quantum Creation FX
Quantum Creation FX came into being as a creature shop, but superhero costumes were a natural progression because their construction techniques tend to cross over. “We did specialty costumes for Michael Wilkinson on ‘Tron’ and ‘Watchmen,’ and have worked with Michael Kaplan on ‘Star Trek,’ among others,” says Christian Beckman of Quantum Creation FX. The company builds costume elements like armored vests and helmets, as well as produces complete costumes—in the case of “Tron,” about 125 total.
The procedure for fabricating a superhero costume is intricate. After a bid is greenlit, Beckman does extensive R&D based on a 2-D sketch. 3-D scanners take complete measurements of an actor in minutes. These figures are used to make a foam representation of the body before bodyforms are cast.
A team of sculptors shape all of the elements—torso, arms, legs, boots and gloves—separately on the bodyforms, allowing for specific shrinkage in each different material. The resulting suit is not only molded on the exterior to fit the design, it has a core mold which conforms to the actor’s body. The core sock is the innermost layer of spandex which is permanently attached to suit’s interior, and becomes the vehicle for fasteners and zippers. Multiple fittings commence with a mock-up of the suit, while R&D continues on fabrics, paints, and finishing details. Finishes can vary wildly, depending on the Costume Designer’s vision; for instance, automotive paint was used to create the beautiful metallic surface finish on the Nightowl character in “Watchmen,” while a matte version helped lend a futuristic quality to the space suits in “Tron.”
In the final analysis, Beckman sees the superhero costume as “psychologically enabling an actor,” and he revels in conquering the challenge.Quantum Creation FX
3210 West Valhalla Drive
Burbank, CA 91505-1236
T: (818) 846-6740
“When it comes to a superhero, there is no such thing as usual,” says Jose Fernandez of Ironhead Studios. “It is always different, which is part of what keeps me interested.” Fernandez’s involvement varies depending on the project, but Ironhead Studios is a full service shop, equipped to handle all aspects of a specialty build. Although he prefers to focus on construction, Fernandez is also a Costume Designer in the Costume Designers Guild.
Fernandez cut his teeth with one of the legendary founders of modern fantasy and superhero design, Bob Ringwood (“Batman.”) He has collaborated with designers on key costume elements, including Alice’s armor in “Alice in Wonderland” with Colleen Atwood, Kato’s mask in “The Green Hornet” with Kym Barrett, and various pieces for “Thor” with Alexandra Byrne. He also designed the superhero costumes in “X2” and “Fantastic Four.” “If they have a design, we’ll take it and decipher it,” he says enthusiastically.
Designs are divided into hard and soft parts. Hard parts include sculpture, mold making and casting, while soft parts encompass fabrics and foam. According to Fernandez, the superhero costume is comprised of ordinary materials used in exceptional ways, and an unlikely combination of elements. “I’ve incorporated things like foam, leather, latex and spandex in one suit,” he says.
Rather than a linear design procedure, Fernandez likens his workflow to a constant back-and-forth volley of cause and effect. He begins his process with drawings, which are followed by two foot-high maquettes. Construction commences once the design is approved.
Fernandez notes that, “In three passes, you can correct almost anything.” Adjustments are more time consuming than in conventional costume building, where a pattern is modified and the garment restitched. If a sculpture isn’t perfect, it may require weeks for retooling, with costs that escalate accordingly.
“My main focus is specialty building, or assisting designers. Concepts can get pretty outrageous, and I really enjoy the process quite a bit.”
7616 Ventura Canyon Ave.
Van Nuys CA 91402
After a degree from Fashion Institute of Technology in New York, Stacia Lang immediately bypassed the field of fashion for Costume Design, and went to work on Broadway musicals. She began to focus on specialty costume, which led her to relocate to Los Angeles. After a stint at the Muto-Little costume shop, Lang began freelancing on a film-by-film basis, and is currently a member of Local 705 and 892. She has been on the teams of many superhero films including “Superman Returns” with Louise Mingenbach, “X2” and “Fantastic Four” with Jose Fernandez, and “Spider-Man Reboot” with Kym Barrett.
It takes an army of people to realize a superhero costume. While Lang works in any and all aspects of garment production, one of her personal delights is glove-making. On “Spider-Man Reboot,” she worked under the guidance of Costume Designer Kym Barrett whose glove design featured intricate seaming, appliqués, and colorblocking. Also needed was a physical mount for a working webshooter, created in conjunction with the prop department. Using lead actor Andrew Garfield’s measurements, Lang worked with illustrator Felipe Sanchez to develop style lines from Barrett’s initial sketch—which they continued perfecting on stretch fabric muslins.
While an original comic book has a simple feel, part of the design problem is translating the graphics into something innovative and modern. It takes many components to create the illusion of perfection. On “Superman,” Lang finished numerous capes developed by Jill Thraves and Mike Mac Farland to achieve the look of one perfect cape. “We had beauty capes, stunt capes, special effects capes in both half and full circles depending on the shot, and the inevitable multiples for fight scenes and blood,” she explains.
Lang has full appreciation for the need for complexity in a superhero costume. She notes, “It’s a challenge for everyone involved. The public has more of an attachment to superhero suits than almost any other costume you can make, because there is a preconceived notion of what it should be.”