MARVELLOUS BY DESIGN
Marvel Studios Visual Development head Ryan Meinerding talks crafting the look of a cinematic universe
By Jedd Jong
A decade and 20 movies in, the Marvel Cinematic Universe is going stronger than ever, with hardcore fans and casual viewers alike watching with rapt attention with every film that’s released. In the beginning, before the MCU became the juggernaut it is today, the success of this franchise wasn’t such a sure thing, and studio head Kevin Feige was not sure if audiences would respond well enough to warrant the studio moving forward with the interconnected series of films.
Audiences have more than responded well, and a big part of the appeal of these movies is how they look, and how the design that goes into each MCU movie crystallises decades of material from the comics drawn by hundreds of artists and brings it to life onscreen.
As the head of the Marvel Studios visual development team, Ryan Meinerding has had a hand in crafting the look of the costumes, character designs and locations for practically every Marvel Studios film. Meinerding had worked with Iron Man director Jon Favreau on a version of John Carter that did not come to fruition. Favreau brought Meinerding on board, and alongside comic book artist Adi Granov and other artists, Meinerding devised the look for the first film in the MCU.
It’s staggering to think that most every image on screen in an MCU film began as a piece of concept art that Ryan and the visual development team working under his direction created. As a guest of the 11th Singapore Toy, Games and Comics Convention (STGCC), Ryan is in Singapore to meet fans and speak about his experience working on the MCU movies.
Ryan spoke to my good friend Tina Gan (a.k.a Red Dot Diva) and I at the preview of STGCC. He covered his journey with Marvel Studios so far, the character he is fondest of designing costumes for, the strength of the visual storytelling in MCU films, what it’s like working with different directors brought onto the movies, and how the visual development team works to ground the designs in reality.
JEDD: This is the tenth anniversary of Marvel Studios. Looking back through the ten years, can you take us through your history with the studio?
RYAN MEINERDING: Wow, that’s a large question. I was brought on board by Jon Favreau, I worked with Jon Favreau previously. I got to work on Iron Man 1 to design the Mark 1 and did keyframe with Adi Granov on Iron Monger, and we were trying to figure out the boot test sequence when he’s building the suit in his garage, and a couple of other things. After that project, Marvel asked me to come back to stay on board and help them figure out some of their next films, so I worked on early passes on Captain America, on Thor, and after that period of time, we went straight into Iron Man 2 and Thor.
I had recommended Charlie Wen to help come on board and help figure out Thor, so we worked together on Thor and Captain America: The First Avenger. After that, when we were going to work on The Avengers, Marvel Studios asked if I would hire more artists and form a time. We hired Andy Park, Rodney Fuentebella, Jackson Sze and eventually Anthony Francisco, and that team has stayed the same throughout the rest of the movies. We hire freelance artists as well, but it’s a real joy having been there from the beginning, creating a team and having the team deliver on all of the films since The Avengers. It’s a real treat, all the artists I get to work with on a daily basis are amazing. The fact that the cinematic universe has grown from the singular movie to something that’s 20 movies large and still going strong is really incredible.
TINA: How would you describe the essential MCU look and feel?
RYAN: Since Iron Man was the first movie and he’s one of the few superheroes whose superpowers are based in technology that could actually be created, I’d say there’s a grounded quality to everything we’re trying to do. We’re usually trying to make things feel as real as possible, whether it’s about making a suit that can make you fly and having super strength, or whether it’s designing a suit for Captain America where it feels like a real tactical thing, while still retaining the iconic look from the comics. Usually we’re trying to take something iconic from the comics and turn it into something that feels as real for the story world that the directors and producers are looking to create.
JEDD: In any adaptation, especially with comic book movies, there’s always a ‘war’ between iconic imagery and original thought. How would you describe fighting that war?
RYAN: I don’t know if we ever look at it as ‘original thought’. We’re usually trying to take what’s iconic and try to make something that feels real, and honestly add enough detail to it that with HD cinema and HD TV screens, the characters don’t feel too simple. The characters in the comics were always designed to be simple and iconic so they could be drawn over and over again, and we’re trying to take those icons and really flesh them out in enough reality in concept and aesthetics to make them belong in the real world, so they feel almost more real than real.
TINA: There are many moving parts in a film production, so when you have a design for a costume, where does the costume designer come in? Do they have a say after your designs have been approved to make alterations?
RYAN: Film in general is a huge collaborative experience. We are fortunate enough to get the designs approved by going to meetings with the producers and directors, and the costume designers are in those meetings as well. If they have concerns or they want to have input and say “we don’t think this will work”, we work around that. Once we finish and have the designs approved, they take the designs and see what will really work on the actors, and the actors have input on what will be comfortable and what they’re looking for in the costumes as well. There’s always a give and take, we’re giving and taking when we’re trying to get the designs approved, and they’re giving and taking with what they can accomplish.
Alexandra Byrne, who’s an Academy Award-winning costume designer whom I’ve gotten to work with on a few movies like Thor, Avengers and Avengers 2, described the collaboration with us the best I’ve ever heard it. She said, “we can achieve something together that we can never achieve on our own.” We come at it from a concept artists’ point of view of loving the characters and wanting to do justice to the comics, and they come at way from what’s the way this costume can be built that can look the best on the actor, and those two things together end in a result that hopefully elevates the character to a place that they couldn’t have gotten to without us working together.
JEDD: Different directors have different styles of working with people. What was it like working with Jon Favreau vs Joss Whedon vs the Russo Brothers?
RYAN: Jon is great to work with. He loves working with artists, he’s an artist himself. On the first Iron Man, my desk was 20 feet from his office. He was very involved with things. He was very collaborative, he’d say “come up with some ideas about how Tony can build the suit in his garage”, and I would come up with ideas and pitch him and he’d say “I like this, I don’t like this”, that was always really exciting.
Working with Joss is incredible too, he’s a lot of fun. In presentations he’s the guy who’s making everybody laugh, he’s just fun to be around. He was incredibly collaborative too, he has very distinct ideas about what he wants to get out of a costume, what we would bring to it, and he would react to it.
The Russo Brothers are also really cool because they have a lot of notions about grounding the costumes. They want them to feel real, to feel really practical. In most cases that ends up like the Captain America movies, pushing Cap towards a very tactical feel. Each director I’ve worked for has been amazing in their own way. It’s been a real joy to work with such talented filmmakers and try to deliver what they’re looking for.
JEDD: The MCU is unique in that it’s the first successful cinematic universe in this era of movies, and many studios have tried to emulate, but never to the same degree of success. From your point of view, what is the balance between keeping a cohesive overview of the universe while ensuring each movie and each character has their own personality? What is that like visually?
RYAN: I’d like to say that I was responsible for the whole universe, but Kevin Feige is really the guy that has all that working in his head. We as the visual development team are fortunate enough to just try to make every movie work, and Kevin will give notes on what he thinks is going to work in the long run. I think the real useful part of the visual development team and the work that we’ve done on the characters and how it fits in with the movies is the visuals are so tied to the story.
If you look at Captain America in the first movie and the first time he put on the costume, the costume was essentially the look from the comics, but it was him in the USO show and it was something he thought was silly and wanted to walk away from, even though he was a symbol of something greater than himself. When he got a chance to put on his own costume, he chose things that were a little cooler, he had the helmet, he had the leather jacket and the pants. When he came back from that mission, he could see the value in not only being a soldier but a symbol, and that translated into his look for the movie.
That sort of desire to tie the visuals and the character to something very concrete in the story is something that I feel is unique to the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Because it becomes so tied to that story, it allows you to move on from that in the next movie. It’s not like you’re constantly searching for the single Captain America costume that’s going to work, it’s what is going to work for this movie and this story point and allow that visual to represent that one moment. So in the next movie, the icon can be broad enough, and the next movie can have another grounded point.
In The Avengers, Coulson makes him his costume and he’s a symbol again, but he feels uncomfortable as a man out of time. In Winter Soldier, when he’s actually meant to be in contemporary time periods, he’s more of a stealth figure. All of that stuff allows for a very grounded notion of “this is the character’s journey, this is where he’s been, this is where he’s going in this movie.” That kind of stuff speaks to Kevin’s overarching view and understanding that the journey is larger that just one single thing.
Honestly, if we’d landed on a singular really, really strong version of Captain America and it wouldn’t change, all of a sudden it would take away the storytelling possibilities. The fact that we’ve been able to change, the icon is flexible enough to be reinvented several times in the films, that’s actually one of the strengths of it. It’s not necessarily that we need to have that one definitive version.
JEDD: And even now as Nomad when he rips the star off, that’s storytelling too, visually.
TINA: Which was the most challenging movie to work on, and which was your favourite?
RYAN: The most challenging movies are always the Avengers movies, because there are so many characters. With every Avengers movie, there are more and more characters, so it just winds up being harder and harder to do. You’re trying to give each character as much love as you would if they were in their own movie on their own, but there are upwards of 30, 40, 50, 60 characters in some of these Avengers movies. My favourite character, I love designing Cap costumes because that storyline, that journey that he’s on, is one that I’ve been able to work on from the beginning, and I’m very fortunate and happy to have been working on from the beginning. Spider-Man is also very fun to work on.
JEDD: In the MCU, I think Kevin Feige did something smart in starting off with Iron Man, which is based in technology, before branching off into the fantasy and cosmic realms. Which of the realms do you most enjoy working in?
RYAN: I definitely have worked more in the grounded reality of Iron Man and Captain America. Cap is slightly different, Winter Soldier wound up being more like a political thriller, but I enjoy all of them. I think the strength of the universe now is that it has so many different aspects to it. Bringing them all together into the Avengers movie is also a terrific, fun thing to have characters bouncing off each other that you never thought you’d see. Iron Man bouncing off of Doctor Strange bouncing off of Guardians, it’s a lot of fun.
TINA: Is there something particularly cool that was designed and thought of that did not make it into the movie?
RYAN: On Iron Man 1, we designed looks for JARVIS, him as a computer system, as a wall installation. There were going to be some things when Obadiah breaks into the house, JARVIS was going to be disabled and you were going to see what he looked like.
We also had some fun ideas for Hulkbuster. When Hulkbuster was going to land in South Africa to fight Hulk, we were pitching ideas that he could take over office buildings, he would have enough reach in the technology that he could light up different office windows to point arrows, to say to pedestrians “leave the area”. We had fun ideas like that, Tony is really looking to protect all the people around him.
I don’t know if there’s anything specific besides small things like that. I’m very fortunate in that a lot of things I’ve worked on have been able to become the look that’s on screen, so I’m generally excited about the way the characters turn out in the films. In the explorations that we do, we always try to explore enough things for each character that the directors and producers feel they have enough choices to work with.
JEDD: I love to take ownership of the work I’ve done, sometimes it’s me being a little selfish, but I like to take credit for what I do. What happens when you watch the movie and go, “oh, that’s a head Andy Park did, but that’s a body I did and Charlie did the wings”. Do you look at yourselves as a team, or do you go “oh, that’s mine!”
RYAN: We always try to be very respectful of if somebody’s doing a design that’s being responded to, we try to let that artist run with it. There are times when what you’re describing happens, but hopefully we’re all a team enough that we can be excited that what’s on screen looks good and be excited that we got to work together and collaborate on it.