(One of Ironhead Studios many creations. The amazing costume and sculpture work created for Loki in the film “Thor”)
Ironhead Studio’s Iconic Specialty Costume’s and Sculptures for Film
[Ironhead Studio] is well known in the entertainment industry for their high-end specialty costume work on mega-blockbuster films. Their unique approach, style, and attention to detail have become the trademarks that keep Studios coming back. They are the very definition of the apogee of style and technology available in the Specialty Costume industry and their recommendations by Directors and Producers abound.
Specialty costuming these days require a variety of disciplines. It draws from traditional costume design and creation techniques, but has taken a giant leap forward with the advance of modern creative techniques. The design and creation process in this highly-specialized field now incorporates, a variety of 2D and traditional sculpture techniques. It has no reservations about utilizing both traditional clay sculpting and digital sculpting into the work-flow. You could say it’s the best of both creative worlds.
IRONHEAD STUDIO TOUR
Ironhead Studio itself, much like many specialized film industry work studios, is a nice industrial-style building that has been custom fitted and sectioned off into various departments to facilitate the proprietary needs of the company’s various departmental demands. It is well-kept, yet unassuming, from the outside. Perhaps even a reflection of the character of it’s CEO. Once you enter, that’s where Ironhead Studio’s world of wonder opens up before your eyes. It has a Display area, a well-planned and outfitted Sculpture Department, Photography area, Mold shop, Paint and Finish Department,, Lounge, Office area, Lunchroom, Computer room, various private offices, and of course manufacturing and fitting areas. It is tastefully appointed, with every attention to detail carefully thought out, which combined with the art direction used to appoint it, manages to imbue it with a comfortable and work-friendly atmosphere.
But beyond the physical layout of the Studio itself, lie the truly beautiful appointments of the studio, Ironhead Studio’s beautiful creative works.
The journey to “Oblivion” and Beyond.
SculptClub talks with Ironhead Studio founder, Jose Fernandez, about some of his current and past works, creating iconic specialty costumes for film.
How did you get your start doing Specialty Costume work for Film?
My first break was the second Batman film, “Batman Returns” (1982). I was working in the Makeup Effects industry doing creatures, monsters, that kind of thing, what have you. Then eventually the Batman franchise came around again. I saw the first one, and like everybody, loved it. And I definitely wanted to be a part of it. So when the second film came around, everybody wanted to work on it obviously. A lot of really good people were being interviewed, and not hired, so I was a little concerned. I finally got myself an interview and was hired that day.
What do you feel that it was that set you apart so they hired you?
Later on they told me the reason they hired me was because I didn’t have a severed head in my portfolio. (Everybody chuckling.) Everyone else came in with blood and guts. It was a woman running the shop, and she was probably relieved she didn’t have to look at more gore. I had some dinosaurs and figurative work in my portfolio. I think they were just relieved it wasn’t gore. It was a little bit luck of the draw.
What did they have you do there?
All they originally hired me to do was texture on Danny DeVito’s fat suit. That’s what they hired me for. I figured it was good to just get in the door. Then when I was in, the opportunity to sculpt Catwoman Michelle Pfeiffer’s mask for the Catwoman suit came up, and I kind of rose my hand for that and got the job. Then the Batman cowl came around eventually because the first one didn’t fit him. So they had to re-do it. I just happened to be the last man standing, so I got a shot at that. So that kind of opened the door for me.
Was it a slow process getting into that field or did you meet with a more rapid success after that job?
No. It was slow and steady. After that job finished, some time passed, and when the next Batman came around, “Batman Forever” (1995), I was hired to do the whole suit, not just cowls. Then I did the whole suit for Val Kilmer.
Then after that, things started coming in more and more. I got hired on Daredevil (2002), and then X-Men 2 (2003)
What is it that made you stand out from other designers/artists when you started out?
The main thing for me it seemed, was I didn’t feed from the same trough. Most Effects people, and not meaning to say anything negative against them, but they all have the same kind of desires, or interests. I kind of could care less about most of that stuff. I am more into like, classic art. I hope it doesn’t sound cheesy, but more the European type of art. The Masters. Which is more about timeless line. I’m not really into horns, blood, and gore.
So where a lot of people might be drawing upon their interests in old horror films for inspiration, you might be drawing upon animals or the Masters?
When I am designing creatures, I don’t look at others creatures (for inspiration). I look at the Masters, I look at animals, I look at line. I don’t look at Monsters. It’s just a different thing that I pull from.
You’ve met with a measurable degree of success so far. Is it a tough business to be in?
To excel in anything you have to make sacrifices. You have to find out what’s important to you. Your free time, or your work. A lot of people decide their free time is more important and I don’t think they do excel. I think that’s true in anything, anything you do. If you love it and are passionate for it, you put the time in. The cream rises to the top. So, if you just want to do the bare minimum, then that’s what you’ll get. If you put the time in, you’ll get a return that way as well.
So we’ve shed some light on your career leading up to, and becoming Ironhead Studios, and your personal aesthetic perspective. Let’s talk about some of Ironhead’s recent film work.
Can you share something about your experience on Oblivion, and how it came to pass?
I had worked with the Director of Oblivion, Joseph Kosinsky, on “Tron: Legacy” (2010). I just did the helmets. That was kind of “my part” on that entire film. The designer was another artist. At first it was Michael Wilkensen who was the initial designer. He later had to step out to do “Sucker Punch”. Then Christine Beasley took over, and their “in house” guy was Neville Paige, who I was friends with, who was the “hands on” guy, doing stuff. So when the film Tron came around, I started the process and I landed the helmets. Which was awesome. That got me in the door with the director . He was pleased with the helmets and after some time passed, Oblivion came up and he remembered me and gave me a call early on in Oblivion’s production to possibly be involved with the costumes with the Scavengers or “Scavs”.
I was brought on early on, and of course I wanted to work with Joseph again, and I asked him about the designer, and they hadn’t hired one yet. So they more or less reached out to me first, which is kind of cool. They wanted to make sure I did the Specialty Costumes and the designer would take over the rest of the film, which was Tom Cruise and everyone else. So he wanted to separate it, which was fine with me. So I got hired. Not with but adjunct to the designer. They felt there was enough work. Two different worlds. You take this one and you take this one
Tell us about the process for the costumes for Oblivion. Did you generate artwork?
A little bit. The director had an image he loved. And there was one particular image he liked that he kept coming back to. I think they tried to make the film a few times earlier, and a lot of artists had weighed in and put their spin on that image. He wanted what that image was. He didn’t want a reinvention of that image. I met with him and got the breakdown. It was a moody image and I said, you more or less want to turn the lights on. When you turn the lights on, this is what I see, and he said, “Yes”. So I just took that image and that’s Morgan Freeman. That’s the character I built for him. It’s pretty much that image. The rest of the characters kind of filled in along that theme line.
There were only two, from scratch, head-to-toe custom built characters. The “Beach” character played by Morgan Freeman and the “Sykes” character played by Nikolaj Coster-Waldau (Game of Thrones). Everyone else was kit-bashed, if you will, more or less. We took parts, army equipment, motorcycle equipment. Cut and paste. A little more clever way hopefully, but it was still found objects. It was still a lot of work. We then assembled them so they looked cobbled together. They wanted to feel like they were scavenged parts. The visual required that they look like they were scavenged parts. So two of the characters were custom built, and the rest were constructed.
How did you go about developing the custom work for Oblivion.
We did some small maquettes. (Small scale sculptures.) They were half-scale maquettes. And the helmets were digital at the end of the day. We did the maquettes, scanned them, and then resurfaced them in the computer, and then output them. That was what they wore for their helmets.
While were on the subject. Do you try in some way to push the envelope in your field either technically or creatively? What are some of the new technologies you have used and incorporated into the process?
Well of recent, and it’s not new, it’s been here for a while. The digital. Which is definitely used as a tool. Some people are scared of it, some people are worried about it. It’s a tool like anything else. I don’t solely rely on it as a crutch. It’s a tool. Sometimes we will completely, from scratch, do it all digital. Sometimes we will do maquettes, then scan them and resurface them, and sometimes we will just sculpt. Depending on the project. What makes the most sense for the project.
In case our readers are interested, how was Morgan Freeman to work with?
He was pretty awesome. A very, very, warm, personable, human being. He was just great. There are only a handful of guys you meet like that. He’s definitely one of them. A great guy.
Did he have any special request of you during the film? During the fittings? During the shooting?
No. But one thing that was interesting about Morgan was, a lot of times productions get really weird about talent. So for Morgan they kept saying, “He’s never going to wear the helmet. He’s 75 years old,” or however old he is and they kept saying he doesn’t have to wear the helmet. He’s not going to wear the helmet. It’s going to be a stunt guy. We’ll just build it, make a great costume, and I said, “OK, OK, I got it”. So we had the fitting in New Orleans, and the helmets sitting there on the table, as a prop, and he looks over and sees it and says, “What’s that?, and I say, “That’s your helmet, but you don’t necessarily….you don’t have to wear it.” And he makes this funny face like, What do you mean? I say, ”You don’t have to wear it. Unless you want to?” And he get’s this big smile and says.”Yea!” He was all into it! (Laughing).
He didn’t want to miss out playing with his cool toy?
He most definitely put it on and he loved to get all in it. So it was kinda cool. What’s funny is the exact opposite happened with this younger guy, who was all muscle. We made a helmet for him to wear, and he did not want to wear it. He didn’t want to be in it. He hated anything on his head. I thought it was hilarious.
So while everybody was tip-toeing around Morgan Freeman and his helmet, it ends up being the younger guy that didn’t want to be bothered?
Yea. The young, tough guy, the villain muscle guy. He just didn’t like it.
As you’ve found your stride in this realm, what are some of the challenges. Are the challenges on the creative end, the managerial end, or the production end?
Creatively it’s always challenging. That’s what keeps you awake. It’s keeps you showing up for work. That’s awesome. That’s great. I love that part of the challenge. The challenge that was unexpected starting the business is definitely the people. How to manage personalities and people. Navigating production politics is something I have done for years so that’s a little more easy. I think it’s personalities in the studio. It’s like having a large family. Anyone who has a family, there is always a cousin, or brother, or sister who’s a pain. So you hire a crew, and sometimes you have upward of 40 people and there’s going to be a couple, odd ones so it can be very difficult sometimes to motivate, or get them to all work together, and sometimes it’s difficult. It can be one of the toughest things.
You developed the look for a lot of iconic characters, either as Ironnhead Studio or as an in studio artist. Captain America, Silver Surfer, Wolverine, Magneto, Batman Returns, Batman and Robin, Thor, Fantastic 4, Daredevel, and Godzilla, just to name a few. Let’s delve a little bit into your design process and shed some light on how you like to work.
If you wanted to describe your working process, just you, as an artist, where are you most comfortable?
Is it sketching ideas out on a piece of paper or are you more comfortable going right into a clay maquette? Do you go back and forth?
It’s more project to project. There’s no one set way. The more you do it, the more you find there isn’t necessarily one method. Sometimes they bring artwork that is fully rendered and realized, and you build it. Which is great. Sometimes they only have words and ideas. They don’t have an image.
Do you have a preference?
No, that’s what makes it interesting. It’s not the same every time. I do like that.
What are some things that you personally like to keep in mind when developing a character or their costumes, when they don’t have artwork and just have an idea? Do you find yourself trying to filter their way of conveying their idea and then try to visualize what they truly want?
One of the main, constant threads, is when I have a client, I always try to give them, even if they don’t know what it is at the time, the best version of what they want. Instead, I find a lot of times in this field, people try to do what they want, and beat it into a hole. Like a square peg in a round hole. What I like to do is try to figure out what the client wants. Because there are so many different ways you can do anything. So I just try to figure out what is the “best version” of what they want. And if they don’t know what they want, then I definitely try to help them try to realize that image. That’s another thing I like to do. The other thing, as far as design, is to make it timeless. One thing I don’t like to do is to make it trendy, things that are cool for the moment. If you look at my work, for the most part, you can go back as far as you want and I think all the stuff still stands. There’s nothing that kind of looks cool for the moment and then years later it’s kind of cheesy and dated. Everything I do, I try to make it timeless. So it solid. You look at it now, it’s great; you look at it in 10 years, it’s still pretty damn cool, you look at it in twenty years, it’s still pretty cool.
That’s a good thing to keep in mind. I like that perspective.
Do you have any projects that haven’t come out yet you can talk about?
Well, we just did The Amazing Spiderman 2. They’re currently still filming in New York.
We also finished the new X-Men: First Class 2. Which they are still filming.
Those are two huge films. How did you get involved in the new Spiderman film?
I worked a little bit on the re-boot with the director Andrew Garfield. Very little. We did the head shape for the Spiderman suit. The skull-cap if you will, and the eyes. A little something. That designer went on and they hired a new designer on the sequel to the re-boot. Deborah Scott. She’s big. She’s cool. She’s the designer, and I had a little relationship with her and had done a little work with her before on Transformers. She remembered me. And the producer was the same for A.E. So he remembered me. And it just fit. So this time they asked me to do the entire suit, head to toe. I said absolutely. So that’s how it came about.
It must have been nice being contacted for that?
It was nice. Especially having done very little for the first one. The next designer wanted to lean on me a bit harder and have me just do it for her. I said absolutely, and it was a little bit of a challenge. So we ended up doing the entire Spiderman Costume, with her, for her. And then we also did work on the Electro character’s costume. He’s played by Jaime Fox. He’s the villain. We worked in conjunction with her. They built some bits, and we built some bits. We got to do quite a bit of that character.
What did the Electro characters costume entail?
Electro was an under-suit built by them. Which is kind of, very little muscle suit involved. He’s got most of his own. We just augmented him a little bit. Most of it is made from multiple different materials. Neoprene is the base material, and then we did some sculptural elements, that were then applied on top of it.
Did you get a bit of creative freedom on the Spiderman costume?
Well mainly, they wanted to go back to the original source material. Which is exciting for me. The Tobey Maguire suits were that way. I thought they were great. I was actually jealous I didn’t get to work on that one. Then the re-boot came out, and I liked the suit. But, as interesting as it was, however, it just didn’t look like the original concept. So when they wanted to go back to the original source material, to me that is what I was more into, so I was happy to do it.
I’m sure everyone is looking forward to seeing your work on The Amazing Spiderman 2 when it comes out.
What is it that makes Ironhead Studios work stand out so much? What is your goal and what would you say the company’s mantra or mission statement is when creating for a film?
“Well, everyone says the same thing, but I guess if you really mean it, it’s quality.” We try to keep the level high and consistent. With big companies, I think it’s volume. Obviously they want good quality but with bigger companies, it’s volume. There are much bigger companies than me. Here we’re more boutique, intimate, more hands-on. One thing for sure is my hand and my eye is on everything that comes out of here. I think you can’t say the same for a lot of bigger companies, because their so big, and there’s so many things going on, and it’s just to hard to keep in touch with it. I definitely still try to keep in touch with what’s going on weather it is hands-on, or art-direction, I’m going through it all.
I’m sure that accounts for a lot of your success.
This has been very informative, and entertaining. Thank you Jose. We look forward to talking to you about your future projects.
Iron Head Studio Gallery
By Brian Wade
Brian Wade is a designer and sculptor for the film, television, and video game entertainment industries.