‘Iron Man’
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Scene Stealer: ‘Iron Man’

By Ron Magid, Special to the Times

He may appear to be made of metal, but there’s actually less substance to Iron Man than meets the eye. The iconic comic creation of the Vietnam era, as portrayed by actor Robert Downey Jr., technically follows in the petrified footsteps of the original “Jurassic Park,” which seamlessly blended live action and digital elements of the same characters to create a powerful celluloid reality that kept audiences guessing.

Stan Winston Studio built several Iron Man suits for Downey and his stunt doubles to wear: the clunky, brutal, scrapped-together Mark One that Tony Stark builds to escape his captors; the unpainted, burnished metal Mark Two; and the red and gold Mark Three loaded with weapons and gadgets. They were then integrated with ILM’s digital superhero. (Industrial Light & Magic)
“They got some really nice hero shots of the character standing there looking boss in the suits, but when the action started, Robert and the stuntmen’s movements were really restricted,” says Industrial Light & Magic’s animation supervisor Hal Hickel (the “Pirates of the Caribbean” trilogy). “We wanted Iron Man to move like a superhero, so we animated that action when necessary.”

Downey soon realized he didn’t have to wear the cumbersome Iron Man costume at all. “There were scenes where the action could’ve been done in the practical suit,” Hickel says, “but Robert preferred to wear the motion-capture suit,” using the iMocap system ILM devised to transform actor Bill Nighy into Davy Jones for “Pirates.”  (Zade Rosenthal / AP / Marvel Entertainment)
When the suits reveal their hidden hardware, as when Iron Man flies for the first time, the digital pain comes to seem entirely worthwhile. As the camera circles the superhero, the action cuts directly from the actual costume to the CG suit. “It looks like Winston’s practical suit, but then all the control surfaces start to move and you see these mechanisms underneath and this glow from inside and it really tells you this thing is packed with technology. It’s a great reveal, a nice moment to transition from one thing to another without suddenly being fake,” says Hickel.

Ultimately, ILM’s digital Iron Man armor may have been held to an even higher standard than Winston’s suit. “I think that’s really true,” Hickel says. “Some shots are 100% suit, some only a piece of the suit is real, and some are completely CG. We just wanted to make it so cool and unexpected that the audience’s reaction is, ‘Wow! That’s great!’ ” (The Orphanage / Marvel Studios)