The Superhero Costume
By Anna Wyckoff, February 11, 2011
Beloved from childhood, the idea of the superhero conjures hope, expectation and excitement from our collective psyche. The genre is seemingly ubiquitous: “Captain America: The First Avenger,” “The Green Hornet,” “The Green Lantern,” “Spiderman Reboot” and “Thor” are presently in theatres or on the horizon. Between deep-pocketed budgets, box office records and blistering failures, superhero franchises become the stuff of studio lore. But with great anticipation comes great responsibility, and Costume Designers tackling the enigma have come down on both sides of the sword. Ours is a sophisticated and vocal movie audience, quick to praise and quicker to condemn.
All of this power converges on a single costume. In addition to the design, producing the garment is a complex endeavor—leather, latex, spandex and foam often coexist in the same suit. Additionally, there are multiples, masks, gloves, the crucial cape, and sometimes muscle suits or armor. If done correctly, these divergent elements accomplish the most unlikely byproduct: believability.
We spoke to several CDG members in an effort to understand how to tackle one of the most formidable challenges in Costume Design.
The Iconic and the Cutting Edge
A decade ago when “The Matrix” reinvented the superhero film, Costume Designer Kym Barrett redefined its iconography. Eschewing briefs and head-to-toe spandex, she dressed the film’s main character, Neo, in blank sunglasses and a sweeping black duster that doubled as a minimalist cape. The costume revolutionized the traditional superhero in both silhouette and color.
“The Green Hornet” features another superhero Barrett clad in nearly civilian clothing. But in “Spiderman Reboot,” which will be released this summer, Barrett contends with the classic superhero costume paradigm in the wake of three highly acclaimed Spiderman films.
In her words, the challenge was to “stay true to the inspiration and keep it recognizable, while making it credible to a new audience.” Barrett also wanted to capture director Marc Webb’s vision of the technologically complex world of today’s teenager. While the look is definitively Spiderman, “in the film the suit is designed in the computer, and that high-tech feeling is unmistakable,” Barrett explains. “Our world of Spiderman is the world of now, and a little bit of the world of tomorrow.”
It takes Barrett about four months to produce a superhero prototype allowing for approval and changes in the script. After considering the director, actor and the character, she works backwards from the dictates of the script and the practicalities imposed by the inevitable stunts and special effects. In the instance of Spiderman, one of the many requirements was functioning web-shooters which had to built into the gloves in conjunction with the prop department. After those considerations are met, Barrett feels she can subtly put an individual stamp on the character.
She works with different specialty costumers in order to achieve “a stylistically unique costume,” and feels Los Angeles and London are the two best places to fabricate superheroes. Barrett has teamed up with everyone from traditional builders to couture leatherworkers who constructed garments for Alexander McQueen. Proportion is crucial in a skintight suit because there is very little leeway, and sometimes corrections are needed which require a bit of “visual trickery.”
“It would be very easy to just say ‘Oh god, I have to reproduce another version of Spiderman—how boring,'” says Barrett, “But, you have to fall in love with the idea.”
Physical Versus Digital
Surprisingly, Costume Designer Ngila Dickson, whose credits include the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy and “Blood Diamond,” had an affinity for the superhero genre thanks to her background in fan comics.
As she began research on “The Green Lantern,” Dickson discovered that—but for a few minor lines—the title character’s costume had not changed since the 1950’s.
“[Creating the world] was a hugely collaborative effort, particularly with Grant Major, the production designer,” says Dickson. “We worked closely just to develop an original narrative for the costume and the look of the aliens in this film.”
In the end, Dickson decided that the costume had grown onto the hero, Hal Jordan, on the planet Oa, where new Green Lanterns are created. “I was trying to imagine what the process would be,” Dickson explains, “I had to design costumes for all manner of alien creatures and I thought it would be a very interesting thing if the elders of the planet Oa inspected the DNA of this new creature, took an interest in his psyche, and then put those two things together.” Because Hal Jordan was a fighter pilot, that covering became an aerodynamic superskin grown on his body.
The executives in charge of production approved the concept. Subsequently, the green light enabled Dickson to visit specialty build houses in Los Angeles, an endeavor which she describes as “a fabulous little period.” She had each shop produce an arm—from shoulder to hand—as a sample, and found each fabricator to have an intriguing and distinctive approach. It had always been her hope to make the ambitious costume, and then to use visual effects to “tidy it up.” But one day she had to choose between a costume created completely with visual effects, or a physical costume.
Dickson recalls that “ticking the CGI box” was an eye opener. Plumbing the depths of the visual effects world, she educated herself on CGI by watching “how-to’s” online. She encourages Costume Designers to understand the relevance of their craft to digital effects. “It is a new world—and I think it is one we need to involve ourselves in, offering new design solutions in that arena.” Dickson found herself simultaneously designing costumes and textures in the computer for the Green Lantern, and creating actual costumes for Hal Jordan and Carol in the real world.
While a Costume Designer is accustomed to taking a costume from inception to completion, Dickson had to walk away at the end of filming. She describes the process as akin to “letting your baby go.” In her opinion, the CGI world seemed to have an unlimited number of tools, but “like a garment is made up of thread, fabric, and dye—visual effects are effectively the sum of their parts, it is just a different medium.”
Vulnerability in the Hero
For Louise Mingenbach of “X-Men” and “Superman Returns,” the most difficult aspect of the superhero costume is the technical execution. She describes it as “…making something unique that addresses the fan base so that they recognize it as their beloved superhero—finding the balance between making it new, different and iconic.”
There have been several sequels to the X-Men franchise, including “X-Men: First Class” which is slated for a June 2011 release. In a departure from the original comic book versions, director Bryan Singer sought more reality-based superheroes. Mingenbach had previously worked with Singer on “Superman,” and says she benefited from his strong vision.
Singer added another layer to the quest for effortlessness. “He wanted them to be able to walk down a city street—maybe not in St. Louis, maybe in Hollywood, and not necessarily be stared at,” says Mingenbach. What was crucial was the feeling of “getting away with it.” Another important distinction is that X-Men can die. As a result, Mingenbach didn’t want to dress them in spandex, seemingly impervious to fear like many other superheroes. Instead, she gave them protective gear and leather because they need it. The clothing lends the characters an urban familiarity, while still maintaining the feeling that they are a team.
Mingenbach notes that when a character wears one costume for most of a film, it is important to have the discretion “not try to say too much with one costume.” The elements held in precarious balance are the desire for the extraordinary and the feeling of naturalness. Suspended disbelief is a cornerstone of any film, but in a superhero movie, everything hinges on creating characters that lure the audience into their world.
Adversaries and Friends
In the first “Iron Man” film, the protagonist wore an actual superhero suit. However, in subsequent sequels the costume was entirely created in digital motion capture. Because so much of the budget was allocated towards post-production, Costume Designer Mary Zophres constructed ancillary costumes including Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow character, and Samuel L. Jackson’s look for the Nick Fury role.
Director Jon Favreau preferred computer sketches, so Zophres worked with illustrator Christian Cordella at the onset. She notes the larger budget of the superhero film allowed for more experimentation. “On ‘True Grit,’ I couldn’t make any mistakes,” she remarks. “But on ‘Iron Man 2,’ there was room for a little bit of trial and error.”
The script demanded highly physical stunt sequences, requiring great mobility in the Black Widow costume. The original comic books featured the character in blue and in black. Zophres rejected straight black as too common and wanted to inject texture into the costume. Her solution was to silkscreen a black, four-way stretch fabric with dark navy to create subtle dimension through very fine vertical stripes printed onto the fabric. The team at Marvel Comics loved it. Mary Ellen Fields at Bill Hargate Costumes built the bodysuit to flatter Johansson’s voluptuous figure, and the stunt double needed hips built into her costume to mirror Johansson’s physique. Zophres had Western Costume’s Mauricio Osorio create a platform wedge boot. Only the gun belt and arm patches were molded. The overall effect of the Black Widow costume was the successful pairing of sexiness and function.
For Samuel L. Jackson as spy-chief Nick Fury, Zophres used what she considered “the most arch option.” Combining several renderings, she settled on a leather jacket with a channel-quilted collar over a black turtleneck, wool cargo pants and an eye patch. The unusual collar became refined through multiple fittings with the tailor. “Sam’s tall and has a grand personality,” Zophres comments, “He can definitely pull off something dramatic.”
Both adversaries and strong foils are pivotal to the superhero movie; without them, the hero has no sparring partner, no context, and no purpose. Thanks to careful design, both digital and real costumes effortlessly cohabitate in the “Iron Man 2” universe, reinforcing the relationships between the characters.
Leaping off the Page
Costume Illustrator Constantine Sekeris comes from a background of creature design with experience extending into fabrication, fitting, sculpting and foam carving. He uses both traditional drawing and computer sketches as a starting point, and has worked with designers from James Acheson (“Spiderman”) and Alexandra Byrne (“Thor”) to Ngila Dickson (“The Green Lantern,”) among others. Because he comes from the world of practical effects, understanding how materials work and how things move in a specialty costume is a natural offshoot of his illustration.
In a physical suit, Sekeris feels that understanding the line and proportion in relation to the flexibility of the fabrics is crucial. A sculpted foam suit has a tendency to buckle around joint areas—the armpit, mid-section and the crotch. He tries to anticipate if certain style lines will be in conflict. Also, Sekeris attempts to help find answers to construction questions: which elements will need to be sculpted, molded or vacuformed? Mastering the potential of the components is essential for the success of a constructed superhero suit.
On the other hand, while the possibilities of a digital costume seem endless, it still must “function on the human body.” Sekeris says that the advantage of the digital approach is the ability “to have some areas of translucency and illumination. Also, it doesn’t buckle like a physical suit.” Additionally, proportions can be more easily adjusted in a digital realm. However, like the relationship between hand drawing and computer sketches, understanding the real world rules makes exploiting digital solutions easier.
Costume Designers help fabricate the dream, which begs the question: why are superheroes so popular? An audience may be intrigued by unusual powers or the idea of immortality, but in the end, those attributes prove unattainable. Perhaps, in the crucible of disaster, the audience hopes, like the superhero, to rise to the very best part of themselves. It is a worthy inspiration.