The evolution of how Marvel animated Iron Man

  • If you look at Iron Man’s first suit, the Mark 1, and compare it to the hero’s nanotech suit from “Avengers: Infinity War” and “Avengers: Endgame,” a lot has changed.
  • It’s not just the technology in the world of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Animation tech has also evolved in the real world to make this suit possible on the big screen.
  • We spoke with some of the VFX artists who worked on Iron Man’s suit over the past 11 years including Industrial Light & Magic, Weta Digital, Cinesite/Trixter, The Embassy, and Framestore to find out what challenges they faced along the way and how they were able to make the suit look so real.
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Following is a transcript of the video.

Narrator: If you look at Iron Man’s first suit, the Mark 1, and compare it to the hero’s nanotech suit from “Avengers: Endgame,” a lot has changed.

But it’s not just the technology in the world of the MCU. Animation tech has evolved in our world, the real world, to make this suit possible on the big screen, something that Marvel couldn’t have dreamed of creating just 11 years earlier.

To get from here to here required a decade of innovation, 10 Marvel movies, and a lot of work on movies with no superhero in sight.

Let’s start where Tony Stark’s story began: in that cave in 2008’s “Iron Man.” In this scene, Tony Stark is a man in a giant metal suit trying to escape a cave. So what better way to make it seem real than by using a real man in a real metal suit?

“Iron Man” director Jon Favreau is known for pushing the envelope with his projects like “The Lion King” and “The Mandalorian.” But back then, he wasn’t confident that CGI could convincingly create a full Iron Man suit. So they went practical. For that first bulky cave suit, he enlisted the help of the legendary Stan Winston Studio, now called Legacy Effects, to make this 90-pound version of the Mark 1 with epoxy armour shells, flexible urethane, leather, and aluminium. And for the project, Winston’s team perfected a metallic chrome paint that would be used for other projects years down the road.

But the film had to rely on CGI for this section of the scene, because the practical suit was just too large for either Robert Downey Jr. or his stunt double to move around in. That left the challenge of creating the first digital Iron Man suit audiences would see up to The Embassy in Vancouver.

Their accomplishment wouldn’t have been possible without the practical work from Stan Winston’s studio. They modelled the digital suit closely after the real suit, even going so far as getting pieces of that real suit flown to Canada for reference. The digital version was so detailed that it even captures these text markings and textures.

And to create a realistic metallic reflection, The Embassy used the knowledge they learned from working on car commercials to influence how they shaded the digital version of the suit.

Winston Helgason: We learned a lot about car paint, about clear coat, how light plays on cars, how they react to their environment, which, they’re essentially mirrors of their environment.

Narrator: But that was just the Mark 1. The Mark 2 would have to be sleeker and more refined and have a polished coat that would accurately reflect light like the night sky in this scene.

Once again, Favreau had Stan Winston create a real version of this suit, but what you’re looking at here is completely computer generated. Just like with the Mark 1, FX studio Industrial Light & Magic, ILM for short, used that practical version of the suit as the basis for its digital version. ILM was so successful that when Favreau saw it, he couldn’t tell the difference between the real and the fake.

Ben Snow: And we showed it to Jon and the Marvel team, and they’re like, “OK, well, which bits did you replace?” And we’re like, “Actually, we replaced all of it.” [laughs]

Narrator: Without this early work in the first “Iron Man,” which convinced the filmmakers and the world of what VFX could do, the wild world of Marvel as we know it might not exist.

Thor: No! [exploding]

Narrator: But the true test of the CGI would come with the Mark 3, Iron Man’s most recognisable look. This had to be perfect for the film to work and resonate with fans. ILM wanted to prove both that they could make the CGI character move the right way and that his metal armour matched the personality of Tony Stark.

ILM had worked with shiny car surfaces in 2007’s “Transformers,” which ultimately helped them nail down the outer layer of the Mark 3. They made the suit look more like a glossy sports car than industrial metal, as Marvel initially planned.

Ben: We ended up saying, you know what? It’s Tony Stark. He’s a playboy. You know, he’s rich. He’s not gonna have an industrial-forklift-type suit. He’s gonna want a sports-car suit.

Narrator: The basic design was based on Marvel comic-book artist Adi Granov’s Iron Man illustrations. But one of the biggest challenges with replicating this 2D suit in real life was that the comic version was designed with heroic proportions that don’t match real human beings. So they tweaked the model to be shaped as if a real human being were inside, something they would later decide to change.

Ben: But when it came to Iron Man, we tried to be very, like, oh, no, a real guy could fit in this suit, and the real mechanism between the suit and the guy is there. Now, the guy would have to be extremely thin to really fit into it.

Narrator: At the onset of “Iron Man 2,” motion-capture technology had really advanced, which made it possible for them to use a combination of practical and CGI suits.

Various practical versions of the Mark 3 suit were built by Stan Winston’s team, which could be worn in pieces based on which parts of Robert Downey Jr. were seen on camera at the time. The rest of his body was often covered in a motion-capture suit, which would be filled in later with CG suit pieces. This would help his performance, since he didn’t have to struggle under the bulk and weight of the full suit.

ILM used its custom motion-capture technology, called IMoCap, which they had fine-tuned in 2003’s “Pirates of the Caribbean,” to animate the CG parts of the suit. Since Robert Downey Jr.’s head wasn’t animated, it had to match up perfectly, or else it would look wobbly and disjointed.

In several of the films, Robert Downey Jr. often just wore these shoulder pads, or what they called a football suit. These shots required a lot of CGI cleanup on the spaces in between, like his neck and joints.

VFX artists really advanced the motion tracking in “Iron Man 2,” and you can see a good example of that here in this Japanese garden scene. The actors only wore partial helmets and tracking suits. The rest of their suits are CGI. And in this particular scene, ILM didn’t even need to use a tracking suit at all. They built the CGI suit right around Robert Downey Jr., who was only wearing a tuxedo.

This took a lot of time and effort to get right, but it ultimately set the bar for future films in terms of what they could animate without mo-cap suits.

Another major improvement from the first film in “Iron Man 2” was the shading, or how the suit was lit. ILM started using image-based lighting tools they developed from their work on 2009’s “Terminator Salvation” to light the suit and make it look more realistic. This process involved taking high-res pictures of the environment and using those as a guide to more accurately and easily light the suit. This ultimately helped Iron Man look even better, allowing them more time to focus on the finer details.

Ben: It meant that we were able to speed up our process and spend a lot more time making things creatively look good instead of, you know, just like, oh, is it even looking real or not?

Narrator: Not only did the animation evolve as the VFX technology advanced, but each new film also posed new challenges for animators based on the story. For instance, when it came to 2012’s “The Avengers,” it was the script that pushed how the character would be designed and animated. Instead of hand thrusters, Iron Man would get a rocket pack attached to the back of his suit, which allowed the design team leeway to develop new poses for the character while freeing up the hero’s hands.

Or take a look at this sequence, known internally as the car-wash scene. Because of this brand new way Marvel writers envisioned how Tony’s suit would attach to him, animators for the first time had to figure out how the inside of Iron Man’s suit would function, which none of the VFX studios Marvel worked with had to think much about before.

Jeff White: We had to build a lot of new interior pieces, kind of figure out, like, what the interior tech of the suit would look like as it joined together.

Narrator: This was particularly challenging, since he’s walking the entire time while de-suiting, a first in the series. ILM had to create models for each piece of the suit and track them individually with his movement.

And take a look at this battle scene with Thor in the mountaintop. Notice all of the blue light? The minor detail caused a major headache with animators at Weta Digital when it came to colouring Iron Man’s suit.

Marvel maintains a strict colour bible, which keeps track of the exact hues that are supposed to be used across the various films. The brushed-gold surface here was based on Weta Digital’s work on the One Ring in “Lord of the Rings,” and they were able to recreate this colour fairly easily. But the red, on the other hand…

Guy Williams: It’s actually a red clear coat, which means that the red pigment itself actually has density. And on top of that, there’s actually little metal shavings suspended in that dense paint.

Narrator: Which can cause problems when you mix in light from the environment. In this case, the red and blue made purple.

Guy: You know, one of the first things we ran into back then was that you take a suit like that and put a blue light on it, and it starts to give you weird colours. It starts to wanna go really burgundy, you know, sort of a mulberry colour very fast.

Narrator: Balancing the colour would end up being much easier and faster in the later films, as Weta developed new advanced rendering technology that worked with various wavelengths of light. And this, as was the case with ILM and its shading technology, would make the suit look better overall.

Guy: We spent a lot of time trying to make that car paint look just that little bit cooler or trying to make the lighting work a little bit better, and not just trying to get rid of weird shadows or weird colours.

Narrator: While the earlier films mostly focused on the movements of one individual suit, “Iron Man 3” introduced a whole slew of new suits, about 20 in a single scene that each had to be animated in different ways.

Typically, to animate Iron Man, they would use what’s called a puppet. And there’s a limited number of ways this puppet can move. So Weta developed new tools for its animators to use to alter the rig of the puppet to increase the freedom of movement so each suit could have more character and style.

Guy: We rejigged the entire process to allow the animator to go in and take the high-resolution suit and just, you know, like with an X-Acto knife, he cut on different planes, and cut different parts of it out and put hinges on them on the fly, so that he could actually, you know, the animator could define how the suit grew.

Narrator: One of the challenges that comes with more freedom of movement, however, is making sure Iron Man’s metal plates don’t run into each other and figuring out where all the pieces go when he does a simple motion like raising his arm.

Alexis Wajsbrot: I think the main challenge we had on “Iron Man 3” was the shoulders. He had huge, huge shoulder pad.

Narrator: But it wasn’t just these major battle scenes that were difficult. They often had to also spend time figuring out how he moved in more mundane scenarios. We saw for the first time in “Iron Man 3” scenes where he is doing these very non-heroic actions, like giving a massage or simply sitting on a couch. It’s easier to hide any errors and subtleties in a cloud of dust or debris, according to ILM. When he isn’t fighting someone, every detail is right out there in the open.

“Iron Man 3” also had Tony Stark reacting and performing along with the suit assembly for the first time, a step up from the walking car-wash scene in “The Avengers,” as Marvel wanted an even more advanced look to the tech. This was especially difficult, according to VFX studio Trixter, since they had to combine rigid metal pieces and flexible human body parts while making it all look seamless. 24 separate parts were first disguised as what Trixter calls “amorphous, mystery slick pieces of technology, alien to any distinguishable suit parts.” Each would then transform into the familiar suit pieces as they flew towards him.

As the series evolved from using practical effects in “Iron Man” to a mix of practical and CGI to mostly CGI in later films, suddenly the suit, which was originally tweaked to be more human, would now be tweaked to be more heroic again. We first saw subtle changes in “The Avengers” with his legs.

Guy: Little, little fact that a lot of people probably don’t know: Iron Man’s legs are longer than a human’s legs.

Narrator: His ankle would also have to be a mere inch and a half across inside the suit. Iron Man was also slimmed down a bit in “Avengers: Age of Ultron” to give him more of a comic superhero silhouette.

Ben: A slightly tighter waist. That sort of thing. A little beefy around the shoulders.

Narrator: But the suit evolved yet again in the last two films, forcing the animators to evolve as well and take a whole different approach to how the suit would build and move. Tony Stark was now using nanotechnology, so instead of moving around and tracking solid pieces like they did with the car-wash scene and the scene in his workshop, they had to establish a whole new process for his suit assembly.

Nanotech involves multiple layers of simulations. A liquid-metal simulation would morph to the target shape, because they wanted the transformation to feel organic. But they had to make sure it still felt rigid and that it did not stretch like Spider-Man’s suit would. The animators relied on accurate shading, a technique used throughout the franchise, to accomplish this.

Sean Walker: The main visual trickery is that through the shading, we, it looked like metal every single time.

Narrator: Robert Downey Jr. reportedly came up with the idea of having Tony Stark’s sweat suit tighten before the armour shell appears, similar to Spider-Man’s suit, which you can see here. Because it would be difficult for the material to form a shell around loose clothing. If you look closely, octagonal shapes attach together to form the outer layer, while an inner layer of tech and circuitry builds beneath it.

Framestore actually created this multilayer effect using animation tools from its work on 2015’s “Poltergeist.”

For “Endgame,” this nanotech suit evolved slightly to be a bit more rigid, with pieces locking into place, more like the suit we saw in “Captain America: Civil War.”

Sean: We took the lessons that we learned from “Infinity War” and applied it to “Endgame.” So it was the same technology really, but we just had a better handle on it, really.

Narrator: While Iron Man’s death was the last time we would see the nanotech suit, this wouldn’t be the last time we saw Iron Man, as Marvel’s innovation continued for his one final cameo in “Spider-Man: Far From Home.”

This suit was also created by Framestore, and it was actually based on the suit in “Captain America: Civil War” because it was more solid looking than the nanotech suit in “Avengers: Endgame.”

To make this suit, they took the same “Civil War” model and literally broke it down, destroyed it, and created the insides, which consisted of various wires and circuit boards, using an early scene in “Age of Ultron” as inspiration.

There’s more detail in the top half of the suit because more of that is shown up-close on camera. And to achieve the undead look, first they added the signature metallic sheen of Iron Man, and then they added the layers of dirt and rust.

Alexis: To be fair, the suit is almost not recognisable by the end of the process.

Narrator: So after 11 years of development to perfect Iron Man’s CGI suit, it ultimately was destroyed.

By using advancements in 3D-modelling and motion tracking, experimenting with new lighting techniques, and using realistic-looking practical models as a base, they were able to create something that continually felt fresh, futuristic, and real as it evolved in the story.

Guy: It wasn’t like anybody had thought that a person could wear a suit of powered armour and it would look anything other than like a guy in old knight armour wobbling around on a set. He’s so crafted on so many levels. There’s so much thought that goes into every little panel that moves, that you’re intrigued, and you’re compelled to keep watching him and find out what’s gonna happen.

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