October 2, 2015
Director Ridley Scott’s new space epic, “The Martian,” is a story of man against the elements. On a surface exploration of Mars, astronaut Mark Watney (Matt Damon) and his crew are caught in an intense storm. Presumed dead, Watney is left behind as his colleagues seek safety, leaving Watney stranded with limited supplies. His wardrobe is just as restricted—a couple of spacesuits.
Given the enormous amount of screen time the suits would require, Costume Designer Janty Yates was careful to make the suits highly functional and visually interesting. She started with the experts.
“We basically got into bed with NASA. They couldn’t have been more helpful. They put me onto everybody who was anybody at NASA,” Yates said from the United Kingdom. She also visited the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena where she “took away great hordes of atmosphere and research.”
The space agency has been developing a next-generation spacesuit intended for working and living on Mars. For inspiration, Yates studied prototypes of an advanced spacesuit design meant for deep space exploration, the Z-1 and the Z-2. The Z-1 looks like a cousin of Buzz Lightyear and the Z-2 has a sci-fi B-movie look with its articulated legs and sleeves. Though NASA’s designs might support humans on the Red Planet, both potentially thwarted filmmakers.
The NASA prototypes encase the head and neck from shoulder to shoulder in a casing like a turtle shell. “You couldn’t get any movement in the head or a close-up,” Yates said.
“It was very kind of NASA to say we could use those images, but they would not have worked for us,” Yates said. “So it was back to the drawing board.”
Yates turned to FBFX, a U.K. special effects firm that also manufactured space suits for Yates on Scott’s 2012 sci-fi adventure, “Prometheus.” They used vacuum casting to mold the helmets; their visors were crafted by a company that makes headlights for Aston-Martin and Bentley vehicles.
Yates’ External Vehicular Activity suits recall the familiar doughboy suits that have been a hallmark of the space program. “We made them up, but they were based on the real NASA ones,” she said.
For surface explorations, Yates blended the look of a motocross racer’s suit, with its reinforced knee and shoulder pads and a high-tech hard-shell yoke. “We did a huge amount of 3D printing on fabric,” said Yates.
A combination of orange and silver, the suit wears its frequent coatings of red Mars dust well. Though they may not keep an astronaut safe in deep space, the suits were self-contained environments perfect for a movie set.
“We had to pack the helmet with 1,000 L.E.D. lights in order to light them. And we had wired them for sound so they could hear Ridley and speak to each other,” Yates said. “Then we had to keep them alive—so they had two huge air pumps in the helmet, and the batteries in the backpack.”
For all of the high-tech work that created the frame of the suits, human hands gave them their realistic finish. Yates credits the work of associate spacesuit costume designer Michael Mooney and her crew’s hand-applied dot gradient designs on the fabric surface.
The costume department skipped the computer-generated graphics to make a functional spacesuit. In all, Yates made five or six spacesuits for Damon, and the same number for his stunt double.
Yet the hardest part of the costume process wasn’t in the concept or the execution: it was in the wearing. The white, EVA costumes needed to stay pristine amid the grime of the dusty stages. Yates and company found themselves with a very Earth-bound issue: how to keep whites white.
“The Martian” is now playing in theaters nationwide.