Industrial Light & Magic visual effects supervisor Ben Snow helped develop new digital technologies to create Iron Man's armor. He calls it digital wardrobing. What the heck's digital wardrobing? We'll let him explain: "It's the process of adding computer-generated costuming or armor to one of the actors. They can be partially dressed in a costume or a suit of armor or not dressed in a costume at all and be wearing these Velcro pajama-type things with tracking marks on them and we add the costume on top of that. The suit of armor that Stan Winston Studio built was very beautiful and looks great but it was also very hard to wear. It was really constraining, so you ended up lumbering around. We needed to free the actors up and let them do the sort of dynamic performances we expect from an action hero. But also have it look good and look as believable as the original suit."
How is this different from what you were doing in 1991 with "Terminator 2" and the shot of the T-1000 walking toward the camera?
In that case, there's one blend point to the real Robert Patrick and that's at the very end, when the last stage of the silver guy becomes Robert Patrick. Because it's only over a few frames, you can use morphing and that sort of thing. The difference here is Robert Downey Jr. is performing whole scenes and he's moving around a lot in those scenes and he has to carry it all. So you're sustaining the illusion and you're doing more than just that final blend where you have your actors stand in front of a blue screen. In this case, it's on the set and not in a blue screen environment. A lot of the technology we've been developing is to allow these actors to be on the set with the director. We don't have to disrupt the filmmaking nearly as much as back in 1991.
How do you avoid the Barney effect, where actors in a suit have to wave exaggeratedly to get their point across?
It's a Marvel film, so you want those iconic moments -- those Marvel moments we call them -- where Iron Man leaps up and he pulls back his fists and you've got him beautifully lit and he's going to punch the bad guy. If you could freeze that frame, it could be the splash page of a comic book. For this film, we tried to stage some of it with stunt men. We'd talk with [director] Jon Favreau and Robert about different ideas for the actions and that sort of thing. But then it would be up to the animation team to come up with those brief moments where you'd say, "That looks like it's from a comic." That's where the exaggeration creeps in.
So there's discussion with the actors about their precise movements in the digital wardrobing?
Iron Man has a different walk because he's powered, as opposed to when Robert's just walking around normally. Jon and Robert were both very clear on that.
Is it easier to match CG to metallic armor than another material, like cloth?
One would think. Certainly going in, I thought, "Well, we did metal back on 'Terminator 2' and we've done metal on 'Transformers,' how hard can this be?" But the challenge here was it was a beautiful suit the Stan Winston Studio made, and they'd actually taken the red-and-gold helmet and chromed it and gilded it and then brushed the gold with sandpaper to give it a brushed metal look. It's easy to get something that looks close to that, but we were in a situation where it had to be dead-on.
In the end, the client forgot which bits were computer-generated and which bits were real. What really confirmed it was when I got a call from Jon Favreau. He said, "I've got this shot . . . where Iron Man's starting to take off and the studio's on my case. It's not looking realistic. It's the fakest looking CG shot in the movie. We've got to do something about it." I was scratching my head, trying to figure out which shot it was. We tracked it down and we realized it was the real suit. It had just started looking a bit plastic-y the way the light was falling on it. And it didn't look as good as it did on some of the other shots. I had to ring him back and say, "Jon, it's not our suit."