Marvellous by Design: Ryan Meinerding interview

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.

RYAN: Totally.

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.

Hulkbuster Unveiling at Ion Orchard

On the evening of Saturday, 18 April, the life-sized Hulkbuster statue created by Hot Toys was unveiled in front of Ion Orchard shopping mall in Singapore. I was there with a bunch of friends, many of whom were cosplaying characters from the Avengers films. Photo mega-post begins…now!

It begins.

Smoke! Confetti!

A sight to behold.

All-American cheer!

Shaun made this IN A CAVE! WITH A BOX OF SCRAPS!

Thrice bitten four times shy.

The craftsmanship on that costume is in. Sane.

The famously muscley Drefan as Thor!

Put the hammer down now!

Clintasha!

Bewitched, bothered and bewildered

Agent Hill! 

Captain Photobomb

Never-miss on the left, Miss Marvel on the right.

Draw back your bow

Science bros come to blows

Shiny!

Like, ohmigawd, twinsies!

Nothing says “thug life” like a Black Widow action figure in your belt.

pre-requisite “ASSEMBLE!”

Fellow blogger and Singapore’s premiere geeky lady, Red Dot Diva!

CIVIL WAR

ION Man 
Confetti release in 3…

2…

Yay! 

That’s the face of geek joy right there.

Capital of Cosplay 2014 at Bugis+

I attended the Capital of Cosplay event at Bugis+ to support some of my cosplayer friends and was pleased to find out that this year’s event was movie-themed. Even though this was a relatively smaller event than most of the cosplay conventions in Singapore, the organisers were able to invite some prominent guests, including special guest Liui Aquino from the Philippines. Aquino is well-known for his portrayal of Hiccup from the How To Train Your Dragon films. The Village’s Hope collective from Thailand was also on hand to demonstrate special effects makeup techniques and there were singing performances and stage games. Also invited was Diana de Mol, a costumer hailing from the Netherlands and now based in Malaysia who has worked on the elaborate angel wings for the Victoria’s Secret fashion shows. She cosplayed as Wasp at this event but unfortunately couldn’t bring along the wings she made as they were too large. There was a mini Marvel team, comprising Captain America, Black Widow, Bucky, Iron Man and Pepper Potts.

This here is a mannequin.

“Chimichangas? Where?!” 

“Conceal, don’t feel”

Heroic pose!

Aunty Shirley, everyone’s favourite 67-year-old cosplayer!

Wotta Tweest!

Bad Toothless! Down, boy!

Natasha…give the shield back.

Stretch!

Pepper is not pleased that Natasha is stealing everyone’s stuff.

Ele-vader. You can blame my friend Gwen for coming up with the idea.

I was able to grab this photo of Cap and Widow “planning their honeymoon to New Jersey” before we were chased out of the EpiCentre Apple store because photography is not allowed.

STGCC 2014: Interview with David Mack

For The Shortbox

STGCC 2014: DAVID MACK INTERVIEW
By Jedd Jong 9/9/14

David Mack was in Singapore for the Singapore Toy Games and Comics Convention and The Shortbox was able to sit down and chat with the artist/writer. This year, he celebrates the 20th anniversary of his creation Kabuki and will be doing the covers for the Fight Club sequel comic book series, written by Chuck Palahniuk with interior art by Cameron Stewart. Mack also discusses the stylish end credits sequence of Captain America: The Winter Soldier, for which he did the art. 

What was your impression of Fight Club after first seeing the movie or reading the novel?

I saw it in 1999 on a Friday night, I went home and immediately did big drawings of it. I was so fascinated with that movie and there were actually a couple of lines in the film that were very similar to the lines I wrote in Kabuki. I remember turning to my girlfriend at the time going “I love how this guy writes, he writes like how I try to write.” I was so connected to the movie that the next day, Saturday, I went and saw it again, like two days in a row. Every time I saw it, I saw new things about it, I just really appreciated it, the metaphor of the movie. I saw it in the theatre twice and I’ve seen it a lot on DVD, I’ll just put it on while I’m working.

I was so connected to the movie, I was like “who is this guy?” I found out it was based on a book and I found all the other books that he’d done at that time, Invisible Monsters, and I was travelling through Europe, reading all his books on the train. I was really fascinated by the story so I wrote Chuck Palahniuk in the mail and told him I connected to his stuff and that I do some work too and he wrote back and told me to send him certain things that I did. At the time, 2006, there was a documentary film about my work called Alchemy of Artand I sent that to him also and he wrote back and he really liked it and he had this idea some day of getting together different creators from different mediums and doing some kind of, in his words, “tour bus” to sort of show people that they have their own responsibility to create their own culture.

I published that letter he wrote to me in the back of the Kabuki book. He sent his phone number in the letter and said “next time you’re in Portland, come meet up with me” and so every time I was in Portland, I would meet up with Chuck. I was usually staying at Brian Bendis’ house in Portland. Brian and I would stay up all night, go to sleep at like 7 in the morning, so Brian would wake up at noon and I would go “oh, I’m going to have lunch with Chuck Palahniuk, I’m coming back” and I would come back but he never would meet Chuck. He thought that maybe I was making it up, that Chuck was my Tyler Durden. But then I would have these lunches with Chuck that were so inspiring. He would come back and say “I’ve been writing all day long, in a trance, fugue state writing so much” and we’d talk about our ideas and the creative process.
Even early on, Chuck had a real curiousity about comic books and graphic novels and storytelling, he asked me lots of questions. Early on, the Daredevil: End of Days story had just come out in the last couple of years, 2006, 2007, Brian and I were writing it together. We had such great conversations and I invited him back to Brian’s house. He asked “what are you doing” and I said “I’m writing down our entire conversation”. I had this idea to do like an illustrated version of our conversation, it would be very fun to make it more abstract, move it around, the entire conversation was about ideas, how to make ideas real, he was asking questions about something I was working on and vice versa. And so, I just had this connection with him, every time we were in Portland we would meet up. Scott Allie, the editor-in-chief at Dark Horse, he told me that they were announcing a Fight Club sequel and he said “tell him to contact me, consider us as publisher.” I think Chuck probably chose to go with Dark Horse because they’re around Portland, where he is.

For the Winter Soldier end credits that you did, how much access did you have to information or material of the film and what was the process of coming up with that like?

It’s an interesting story, the origin of the Winter Soldier project because I did a design festival last year in Barcelona called OFFF Fest, mostly it’s digital designers and artists so I was really the only guy there that doesn’t use digital but I still gave a presentation and spoke there. I met a lot of other interesting photographers and designers there, we would see the sights and visit Barcelona together. One was this woman named Erin Sarofsky who has her own design studio and then last November, I think right around Thanksgiving, she sent me a text and said she had worked with the directors of Captain America[Joe and Anthony Russo] on something else before and now they were doing this film. They said that they already had a whole bunch of Marvel-approved design studios who were submitting pitches but she knew these directors so they were offering her a pitch too. She said “we’re going to send in five or six pitches, if you want to submit a pitch of your own, we’ll show it also and then we can collaborate on it.”

And so, that Thanksgiving I was leaving on a trip to Fiji and this would be like a 12 hour flight. She needed the pitch for it immediately, so on the 12 hour flight to Fiji I did all kinds of drawings of ideas for it. I talked to her on the phone and she had just seen the film with the directors so she gave me a sense of what kind of film it was. Based on that, we both mentioned Saul Bass, this iconic artist and designer who’s done stuff for Scorsese, Hitchcock, Kubrick; an incredible designer that we’re both inspired by and also I suggested to her that I was very inspired and influenced by Jim Steranko for the art of it and he had done Nick Fury: Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. and Captain Americaso it would be a great homage to his comic book work as well.

And so we discussed like the look, we were both thinking black and white, stark qualities to the artwork and then on that plane trip, I stayed up the whole time drawing, it was a very enjoyable plane trip and then on the beach, I was inking it all, I would take a photo of it and email her the photos. I had half a coconut shell with my ink in it and there were all these mongooses running around. I had a backpack with my food and the mongooses would come up to my backpack with my art supplies and I would feed them breadcrumbs on the beach, you know, drawing Captain America. I took the photo, emailed it to her and she pieced it together, the sequence, she did all the typography and how it would all fit together, finessed it. She called back in a couple of days and I was on this island without much connection to anybody but she updated me and said we got the job, of all the different pitches they had, they chose the one that I sent. So that was great. And then there are some of those drawings in the original pitch that made it through to the final images in the film.


She works at a design studio in Chicago so they flew me out to Chicago in December and I worked at their studios in Chicago. There was a lot of security, like the Marvel guys came to the studio and said “in order for us to give you this job, we have all kinds of different security measures”. All kinds of security on our hard drive, a secure room with locks…they spent a lot of expenses to make their facility approved under the standards of Marvel. And then Marvel would send me all of the details, like all of the behind-the-scenes footage of Captain America, photographs that they had taken of all the equipment and all the actors. But it was all like super double-encrypted emails, it was a big hassle but it was so secure the way they worked. I had done certain things without having that reference so I had to redraw a lot of it so it was the exact hardware and tech from the film. So I just did that in Chicago, I was doing all the drawing and she was pinning them up onto the wall and like putting it in different orders and doing all the type. She had a whole team of animators all in the same room on the computers so they scanned in my drawings as soon as I finished it, they vectorised it and made it all three-dimensional and were moving it around.

Did you get to meet any of the actors from the film?

I met Sebastian Stan and Anthony Mackie, yeah. I was in Chicago two weeks ago at the Wizard World show and they were there and I was talking about how I did the drawings for them. Also, the Falcon, Sam Wilson, in Daredevil: End of Days, he’s the president in the Marvel universe so I mentioned that to them.

Shocker Toys did an action figure of Kabuki and they are kind of controversial; several 
independent comics creators have spoken out about working with them. What was your experience with Geoff Beckett and Shocker toys like?

Um, I don’t know that much about any of that controversy stuff, I had done like a series of action figures with Moore Creations, Clayburn Moore sculpted some amazing action figures, some Kabuki masks, he’s offering brand new masks and yeah, the Shocker people did a Kabuki action figure, it had more joints and stuff, but I felt like I didn’t really feel like we were working that close together. When I worked with Clay Moore, he would send me like every stage of the process and we discussed it, I would send him drawings from it, I approved every stage of it with Clay and the other people. I’m still working with Clay on some new stuff too, he’s working on new Kabuki statues and masks now.

Did David Fincher have anything to say about the new Fight Club comic?

Not a word. I don’t think he said anything. Hopefully, it will be such a great, awesome book that he kind of can’t resist doing a sequel based on our sequel. It’s pretty exciting though, when I was reading the script, all the dialogue written in the script I felt was so accurate and so dead-on to the characters that we’re familiar with, that were in the original book and the film. After you hear them talking in the film, you can’t help but hear the film voices reading everything.

STGCC 2014 Day 1: Mega Picture Post

Hey everyone, here’s part 1 of my requisite mega picture post for Day 1 of the Singapore Toy Games and Comics Convention. If you put your ear to the screen, you can almost hear the shameless fanboy squeeing! The highlight of the day was definitely having my Batgirl custom action figure officially approved by writer/artist Cameron Stewart.

Batgirl writer/artist Cameron Stewart approves of my custom action figure!

David Mack and me! 

FABULOUS!

Artist Andy Price shows us the cutie marks he draws on the Pony version cameos of him, his wife and writer Katie Cook