“Marvel’s The Avengers” hits theaters on May 4, and in anticipation of Earth’s Mightiest Heroes assembling on the big screen for the first time we’re bringing you the Essential Avengers. From accounts of the characters’ epic stories from the original comics to looks back at the character with some of their most prominent creators both past and present and interviews with the designers of the heroes cinematic costumes, the Essential Avengers give you everything you wanted to know about the team, its allies and its enemies.
By Christina Pham & Marc Strom

Contrary to popular belief, the man does not always make the suit. In some instances, the suit truly makes the man–and in the case of Iron Man, his Mark I through Mark VI armors have significantly helped Tony Stark to embrace his super heroic nature.

Now, with “Marvel’s The Avengers” approaching, comes the Mark VII.

We asked Phil Saunders, Concept Illustrator for the film and the designer of the Mark VII, to divulge the science behind making the suit come alive. Previously, Saunders worked on designs for the first “Iron Man” film, making him no stranger to Marvel nor to Shellhead himself. Now hear what he has to say about  Tony Stark’s upgrade, the Mark VII!

Marvel.com: In the beginning of the film, Iron Man is still in Mark VI from “Iron Man 2,” then he moves up to the Mark VII. What were some of the challenges in creating a new suit for Iron Man?

Iron Man concept art from “Marvel’s The Avengers” by Ryan Meinerding

Phil Saunders: Each suit has been really successful, which has raised the bar, from the Mark I to the suits from “Iron Man 2.” Particularly with the suitcase suit. That was really spectacular, so there’s sort of an expectation that we’re going to take the suit to another level. With the Mark VII, there were a couple of elements that were already written into the script. The design always starts from the script. [Director] Joss Whedon was looking for something that had the “cool” factor of the suitcase suit, while still being a fully-armored, heavy duty suit that could take on an army in the final battle.

The second element was borrowing some ideas that had been proposed in “Iron Man 2,” as well as some ideas that we had abandoned in “Iron Man,” in terms of having a modular suit, something that had two configurations to it. In “Iron Man,” the original script had called for something akin to the War Machine, but it was actually a series of additional bolt-on armor pieces that were going to go over the top of the Mark III suit for a big battle. Over the course of the battle, the idea was either his ammo packs would be depleted and he would eject those weapons, or armor pieces would get damaged. We took a bit of that idea and the modular armor that was proposed and merged all that together into a suit that has big ammo packets on the arms and a backpack, and that sort of dictated the design of the suit.

Marvel.com: One thing that fans have already picked up on was the triangular chest piece versus the circular one. From your perspective, does that aspect affect the design of the suit very much?

Phil Saunders: Stylistically, yeah. That icon is going to be the thing that the rest of the lines of the suit radiate out from–it’s the focal point of the design. The Mark IV and VI are essentially the same suit, but you have to have an entirely different chest piece and torso to follow the lines of the triangular RT. [Visual Development Supervisor] Ryan Meinerding spent a lot of time making something that was harmonious to those shapes. When Joss Whedon started directing the film, he gravitated towards the classic circle-in-the-chest image of Iron Man, and ultimately, whatever the actual RT element is inside, what you’re seeing on the surface is just the focusing lens of the thing.

Marvel.com: All the other costumes are built of actual fabrics and materials, something you can hold, but when you’re working on something as effects-heavy as this, how does that affect the design process?

Phil Saunders: The interesting thing is that when we started out in “Iron Man,” the intention had been to [make] it as practical as possible. The intent was to have 80-percent of the shots fully practical with the Iron Man suit. We built full practical suits with the Mark II and III, so there was a much longer problem-solving period with that costume than we have had subsequent to that. We were working out how he was going to lift his arms, how he would rotate his waist with all the overlapping plates to still make it look convincing, etc. You’re trying to design something that is built to aerospace tolerances, but still has to be a costume that an actor can wear. We had always intended, for distance or fast-action shots, that he’d be wearing as much of a practical suit as possible. For anything else, we’d do as much of the hard parts practically as possible and then the in between parts become digital replacements.

A lot of the main problem solving that had to be done for that had already been done in “Iron Man,” so by the time “Iron Man 2” came around the lessons had been learned of how much looked good practical and how much flexibility we had with the digital world. We had a much more open canvas on what could be done digitally. As we refined the suits, making them tighter and far more streamlined, they still retain the convincing qualities and believability that we had with the Mark III suit.

Marvel.com: When you work with Legacy Effects, what’s your role in the process, and what’s it like working with them to bring the suit to life?

Phil Saunders: They are really the experts at figuring out how to build the suit. That’s really their domain, figuring out if the material is going to be a flexible piece or fiber glass, etc. We determine what the surface and proportions are going to be–how do we make this thing look like something that doesn’t feel like a costume, but feels like a highly-precise piece of aerospace or automotive design. My own background is car design, so getting those very smooth-flowing surfaces, where lights, highlights and reflections flow [works] in the same sort of way.

What we do is sit down with their 3D modelers. The intent was to develop a digital model of it that would represent the final, refined surface–something they were going to use to grow a half-scale model that would be our proving ground for everything: surfaces, proportions, paint, etc. That digital model would then be passed onto various special or visual effects vendors that would then be doing the final shots so we could keep the consistency of what the Iron Man suit looks like. We sat down with their modelers and just went surface-by-surface to make sure everything worked.

Marvel.com: Is there anything else about Iron Man that you would like to add?

Phil Saunders: The trick to designing an Iron Man suit is that balance between creating something that is a believable piece of technology but doesn’t look like a robot. It still has to look like a character in-and-of itself, beside the fact that someone is wearing it. The suit itself is a super hero. You’ve got to work in all the classic musculature and disguise it all as purposeful aerodynamic components and machinery, or speed forms, and subliminally suggest the musculature of a hero while not making it obvious.

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