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Interview: The Man Who Really Built Iron Man

Illustration for article titled Interview: The Man Who Really Built Iron Man

If you don't know the name Shane Mahan, that's your loss. He's the real Tony Stark, the practical effects wizard leading the team who constructed the actual Iron Man suit for the Iron Man movies. And he's a great interviewee:

How many Iron Man suits are there? I mean, are there a lot of extras if one breaks or a piece breaks?


This is the conundrum because you always want to have a backup suit, a stunt suit, and we didn't have a backup Whiplash suit cause the Monaco scene is rough. It has a set of rubber arms as well as metal arms, but Mickey ended up wearing the metal arms most of the time. But in terms of the Iron Man suits, we had very little. We had one hero and a couple of head backups but that was it, and the same for War Machine. We had one suit kind of work for the whole show.

So are you sitting there cringing on the set?

Yeah, absolutely. Of course, because you've got to make sure that the hero shots look great and if you do some stunt work in it, you've got to fix it back up. It's challenging. Hopefully on the next one we'll get a few more pieces to spread around.


It's like having your teenagers take your Ferrari out. You don't know where it is, and when it shows up something's a little bit off... That was sort of how I felt the whole time.

So how many people are spending how much time actually constructing Iron Man ?

I think in the end, it's a revolving door, with teams that come and go. I think we had probably close to seventy people and you've got four, maybe five months. Also, you've got not just the Iron Man suit but Mickey Rourke's Whiplash suit, the drones and other aspects that you're building. You've got teams of guys working at their limits. Whiplash's suit was great fun because it was so different than anything that Tony Stark's world has.

Illustration for article titled Interview: The Man Who Really Built Iron Man

Yeah it's absolutely different; and it's probably a practical suit used in most every shot.


Oh yeah, he's wearing it. The thing is, there's electricity being animated through it for obvious reasons—you don't want to electrocute your actor. It's meant to have deathly voltage coming out of it. But the suit he's wearing with the practical chest lights, and then the arms and the chassis, that's what makes up Whiplash.

Tell me about the new suit for Iron Man 2, the Mark IV.

We had really great success with the overall design of the first film's suit, which was largely designed by Marvel's art team—a great bunch of guys who are comic book artists, or come from that aspect—that helped enormously.


Having said that, though, we learned what worked and didn't work from the first film and then wanted to employ those aspects into the second film.

You can go down the path of the first film, which was a working prototype. In the perfect world, or in the real industrial world, you'll build a prototype and then you'll build it again. And you'll probably build it one more time before you make it where it you're happy with it. In the film world, you get X amount of time and resources and you really are racing to the finish line with the one piece. So you don't have a lot of time to do a lot of experimentation. What's great about doing a sequel is you can get all the brains together in one room to talk about what worked and what didn't work before—let's be very scientific about it.


So there were certain guidelines that we created for ourselves that are within what Jon Favreau wanted from us and what the actors wanted: We made the suits lighter, and we made them go on and off quicker. That helps production and that helps everybody—at midnight on a Friday night that certainly helps the actor's backs, too.

At this juncture, in terms of physical wearable suits, we built them from the hips up there were no legs or feet on these suits. Those of the the hybrid shots, if they are together, there would be a digital hybrid where the lower legs are digital but the upper body is practical.


So Iron Man was wearing green pants?

They had black ones with little checkered markers on them. Iron man is a tall suit, it's a six-foot five comic-book proportion, so battling or having the guys in these long suits—it was unnecessary. Jon Favreau really wanted our practical suits to be for intimate work, for when the helmet or visor are up, when the guys are really talking to one another. There's lots of great examples of that in the film.


The design of the suit itself changed with minor things. Ryan Meinerding, who redesigned the suits, did a great job. We would work with him to get it to function over the actor's bodies. And then we would take his designs, 2D designs and sometimes 3D designs, and remodel them to put in the process of how we manufacture the suits.

How do you actually fabricate the suit, do you use CNC machining?

Yeah, there's just a rough pattern that's made from, not a CNC, but rapid prototyping. Taking the digital model and making sure that the math is correct and having those grown. And then there is a lot of hands-on surface work, you have to sand and do a lot of work to those pieces to get them prepped. Then you remold them, cast them up, fabricate the suits, put them together, test it and paint it. There is a lot of processes to what happens—making sure we get the gold plating correct, the interior eye light and the hand light. There's all these little details that add up and have to be very user friendly and easy to put on and off, and easy to perform in.


Do these suits really have a lot of moving parts and motors?

Well, there are joints that are moving parts. It's the illusion of a surface of moving parts contained in a sort of hard surface. Obviously, when weapons deploy, even if it's a practical shot, that's a digital deploy on top of the physical suit because there's not enough actual real-world space to put something like [missiles] in.


Basically for the suits, the moving parts are the hands, the joints, the wrist, the torso, the neck and the arms. So the actor is performing it, the actor's actually walking and doing the movements and that's the way you have to make it—very user friendly. And the more comfortable you can make the suits, the more they're going to be used, so that's really what you go in thinking.

Illustration for article titled Interview: The Man Who Really Built Iron Man

At Legacy Effects, you build actual, practical objects. How much does your team have to worry about the digital side?

There are going to be some shots that are completely animated because you can'y fly and roll through a house and come out unscathed with a practical piece of suit because it's going to break. And having said that, you want some close ups where you want to really feel that Downey is wearing the suit. Working with the digital effects teams on both movies has been great. What we do is, we build the suit, we paint it, we get it all it surfaces ready from construction. Then they scan it and take hi-res photos of all the surfaces. The model they build is really the full-size suit. That's the match, that's how it works.


Even down to texture and paint, I assume.

The texture and paint yeah. So it provides them a map of what they need and it also keeps the authenticity of how the light works on the suit in the real situations. Then they can employ that into their technology. I think that their technology has gotten better in the second film and I think ours has too. We've got a much improved suit the second time around.


That's a really cool idea—the suit is modeled in 2D and 3D by artists, it's manufactured in 3D and it's rescanned to be a 3D model again.

That's what gives it its cohesive nature. I think that we embrace the digital technology and that's why it's a comprehensive visual effect. It's one feeding the other.


A while back, you made a really interesting comment regarding digital vs practical effects. You said you knew your limitations and weren't going to try to make Iron Man fly—those shots have to be entirely done with digital animation. But given an unlimited time and resources scenario, could you make it work?

That would be brilliant if that would happen. Wouldn't it be cool to put a really great suit on one of those extreme parachuting kind of daredevil guys, and film him flying through the sky? That would be really cool. Just have some sort of hidden deploy parachute. I think you could get something amazing. But those are risky and not the sort of idea that goes well in a board meeting.


And if you haven't read our review two or three times yet, be sure to check it out.


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I am officially bored with CG. I want some director or producer or anybody with some influence to start doing all practical effects again. I'm totally okay with reducing the amount of over-the-top violence present in the average movie to make that possible, since I'm essentially bored with that too.

Maybe I'm in a minority, but I just think that CG has made special effects uninteresting. I know they can put anything on the screen that they can think of in their heads, so I'm just not impressed by the execution of it anymore. I know that a lot of work still goes into it, and it still involves lots of talented people to make it happen, but I just don't think that CG effects will ever be able to wow me the way that something like the old Star Wars movies did. Every effects-heavy action movie these days kind of feels like a glorified cartoon.