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'Iron Man': Armed and Animated

To make Iron Man fight and fly in a convincing suit of armor required a lot of creative and complicated CG work. Thomas J. McLean gets the scoop from ILM and The Orphanage on the first summer blockbuster.


The vfx work on Iron Man had to look good for Marvel's first self-financed feature debut, and win over a CG-skeptical director. Courtesy of ILM. All images © 2008 MVLFFLLC. ™ & © 2008 Marvel Ent. All rights reserved.

It's never easy creating effects for a major summer blockbuster, but the work on Iron Man (which opened May 2 through Paramount Pictures) faced the extra burdens of putting a good face on Marvel's first self-financed feature and winning over a director openly skeptical of CG effects.

Created by Stan Lee, Larry Lieber and artist Don Heck in 1963's Tales of Suspense #39, bringing Iron Man to life on the big screen was a big job that Ben Snow, vfx supervisor at lead studio Industrial Light & Magic, says creating a character true to both the comic book and to director Jon Favreau's vision of realism was more complicated that it appeared at first.

Snow wanted to address that issue head on when the company was approached in 2006 to do a test reel for Favreau and overall vfx supervisor John Nelson. "We wanted to make Jon comfortable with the idea of Iron Man as a CG approach," he adds. The resulting one-minute clip impressed Favreau by being realistic and bringing some toughness and real attitude to the CG version of Iron Man and won the ILM the job.

Snow insists that tackling the character for a feature project raised several issues up front. "They had originally talked about doing most of him (Iron Man) in computer graphics and then reality set in, the two realities: The reality of Jon Favreau's desire for this to be as realistic as possible and needing, wanting to have something to pin that to; and also having the reality of not wanting every single shot to be a visual effects shot that featured the Iron Man armor," he says.

Stan Winston Studios created a practical Iron Man outfit for actor Robert Downey Jr. to wear on set. While the armor itself -- based on a design by comics artist Adi Granov -- was a thing of beauty with a stunning sports-car finish that took the vfx crew a lot of work to replicate, the character needed to move easily without being cumbersome.

"It sort of became clear that getting the beautiful profile of a superhero and having a suit that someone could then wear and perform like a superhero in was going to be tricky," Snow says.

Downey often wore only part of the armor, with the rest of it being created via CG using both motion capture processes and animation to make the character look appropriately super heroic. "We have motion capture at our disposal, but we did a lot of work where we needed to have Robert Downey Jr. in part of the suit or some of the suit and then replace the rest of it. That was tricky," says ILM Animation Director Hal Hickel. "Then we had other scenes where the suit was completely on him, and so he's entirely CG but wanted really naturalistic human motion. We did some of that on our motion capture stage here and some of it we just animated, depending on what the needs of the shot were."

The requirements on this movie were more demanding than the innovative on-set motion capture work ILM did for the Pirates of the Caribbean films known as Imocap. On Pirates, ILM captured actor Bill Nighy's performance on set and used the MoCap data as reference, eventually completely replacing the actor with a digital character that could deviate as needed from the MoCap data.

But to make the visible parts of Downey match with the CG parts of Iron Man required extremely accurate tracking. "On this, where you have a shot where Robert is walking around and it's basically his real head and we're adding the suit all over his lower body, it really had to be spot on or his head would slide around and it would look weird," Hickel continues.

In animating Iron Man, Hickel says they tried to give the armor a sense of weight and power without making the armor seem clumsy or slow. "If you built a suit like this, the point of which is to be kind of a battle machine, if it's actually physically restricting or slows the person down then it's kind of really not doing its job," he explains. "It really came down to the performer having the correct attitude, striking the right kind of poses and having the right kind of cool bad-ass sort of thing going on."

Animators supplemented the performances of Downey Jr. and the stunt men by donning the motion capture suit themselves to work out body language.

Similar effects were used to set apart Iron Man's nemesis, the lumbering, giant Iron Monger. "You expect him [Iron Monger] to walk like Frankenstein, but you can go too far with that and then you start undercutting how lethal he is," Hickel says. "We had to find that fine line again between making him look powerful and kind of bad ass."

Iron Man's armor also evolves through the film, going from the crude Mark I version Downey's Tony Stark cobbles together while a captive of terrorists in Afghanistan, to the chrome Mark II test model to the final red-and-gold Mark III.

Snow says the chrome Mark II suit's chrome and brushed-metal look proved especially difficult. "Our initial test was to try to reproduce that metal in CG in a way that we could get really close to and still have the brushed metal come through got us a bit worried," he suggests.


Iron Man's armor evolves through the film, going from the crude Mark I version in Afghanistan, to the chrome Mark II test model to the final red-and-gold Mark III (above). Courtesy of ILM.

Complicating the task even more was the script, which called for Stark to fly the Mark II suit at night into the upper atmosphere, where it begins to ice up. "We're talking a shiny chrome suit," says Snow. "You've got a tiny bit of moonlight and then you start faking in clouds and all this sort of stuff so we can have something so the suit will read."

Beyond creating the digital look of Iron Man's armor, the character had to fly and fight his way through the movie. For a scene in which Iron Man faces off against a pair of Air Force F-22 fighters, Snow followed Favreau's desire for realism by basing the shot on new aerial footage shoot with older jets standing in for the fighters and Iron Man.

"It was a real camera up on the Lear jet that allowed us to do the sort of things that real cameras can do and the jets are doing the sort of things that real jets are able to do," he offers. "It gave our artists really good reference for the glints and all the sort of real stuff that you get off plains that we had to really painstakingly recreate in computer graphics."

Making the armor fly like a machine was another animation challenge, Hickel emphasizes. "A lot of times with flying, you can kind of fake it, as long as it moves through the frame properly," Hickel says. "But with this, Iron Man always leaves a smoke trail behind him, so that partial trial in three dimensions in the scene had to do the right thing."

Meanwhile, The Orphanage was instrumental in developing the look of Iron Man's RT thrusters, as well as the heads-up display seen from Stark's point of view when he's operating the armor.

Orphanage Founder and VFX Supervisor Jon Rothbart says they looked at a lot of reference of thermite charges and gaseous clouds for the thrusters. The look was developed in 3ds Max using volumetric lights and then moved into their plug-in, Fume, where the fluid simulation tools were used to create a fiery, smoky and gaseous look within the beam, with some smoke lingering after the beam is shut off.


The Orphanage created the display Tony uses to control the Iron Man armor. The display became a character of its own named Jarvis. Courtesy of The Orphanage.

Rothbart adds that the weapons test sequence went through a lot of development before it was decided to go for a bunker-buster look "where the missiles would go and they would impact the side of the mountain and they would burrow in and then there would be a delay and they would basically destroy the entire mountain and you would see the entire mountain crumble from within."

The Orphanage also did extensive study in coming up with the heads-up display Tony uses to control the Iron Man armor. Dav Rauch headed up the team that did the effects of the HUD and based their initial look on real flight HUDs as well as dials and readout devices on everything from cars to the space shuttle. "HUDs are something that even though they don't really exist very much out there in the real world, they're on the precipice of exiting," Rauch says.

Rauch and his team had a major revelation when they realized part way into working on the movie that the Iron Man HUD is actually a character -- Stark calls it Jarvis, a nod to the butler character who tends to the Avengers in the Marvel comic books -- and needs to be designed and treated as such.

"I think once we realized that, really, what we were creating was a character, then we needed to figure out who is this character, what is this character, what are the story points that this character needs to support," he says. "And once we figured that part of it out, then it actually became a lot [easier] to figure out what it would look like and how it would work."

As the Iron Man armor evolved, so did the HUD, with each version having to be more advanced and cooler than the previous. "At first the challenge is to make the coolest thing that you can imagine, and is sort of around the corner and everyone knows is coming but doesn't yet exist," Rauch continues. "And then as soon as you make that, then the challenge was to make the new version of it, the next advancement of it, that's even cooler."

The vfx artists all say that director Favreau was very open to their ideas and suggestions, with several sequences in the film coming from the houses' test sequences and suggestions. "We like to contribute more ideas and be involved earlier, and we really got it in spades on this film," Hickel says.

Snow suggests that ILM originated a sequence in which machines assemble the armor around Stark, while Rothbart adds that the Gulmira battle sequence grew out of the test shot of Iron Man battling a tank that The Orphanage put together as its pitch shot.

The quality of the work and collaboration with Favreau began to change the director's mind about the quality and usefulness of CG effects, Snow admits. "He found he was very happy with the CG stuff and he stopped at certain points noticing what was CG and what was the real suit."

Snow estimates ILM did around 420 shots for the film, which overall has about 800 effects. The Orphanage did near 200 shots, with other contributors, including The Embassy and CafeFX.

Favreau constantly was asking his vfx crew how to make shots better and cooler, Snow says. CG techniques such as using high-resolution photos of a set to create a 3D digital version that could be opened up were used to punch up some of the film's sequences.

There was one shot, according to Hickel, in which Iron Man and Iron Monger fight on a rooftop, and the technique freed up the camera so the animator was able to back the character off and have him jump from a greater distance and arc through the air. "We had this real sort of Marvel moment, where he's at the apex of the jump with his fists back and he's coming down on Iron Monger to punch him," he says.

Thomas J. McLean is a freelance journalist whose articles have appeared in Variety, Below the Line, Animation Magazine and Publishers Weekly. He writes a comicbook blog for called Bags and Boards, and is the author of Mutant Cinema: The X-Men Trilogy from Comics to Screen, forthcoming from Books.

Thomas J. McLean's picture

Tom McLean has been writing for years about animation from a secret base in Los Angeles.