Superman Returns Set Visit – Part 8

Being in charge of costumes on a superhero movie is a tricky task. If you nail it perfectly, you’ve made an iconic costume that will live on in movie history. If you don’t get it right, internet geeks will rip you to shreds (and sometimes they’ll do it anyway). However, costume supervisor Dan Bronson and costume designer Louise Mingenbach were more than willing to take on the job in Superman Returns. Bronson has worked on costumes for Batman & Robin, Catwoman, Men in Black, “The Matrix Reloaded,” “Apollo 13,” and more. Mingenbach is a long time collaborator with Bryan Singer and has designed costumes for “The Usual Suspects,” X-Men, X2: X-Men United, “K-Pax,” “Apt Pupil,” and “House.” The online press visiting the set of Superman Returns caught up with Mingenbach and Bronson in the costume department at Fox Studios Australia. As we entered the shop, we saw rows of costumes, production art of the costume, and a covered mannequin with some very recognizable boots sticking out underneath. As we gathered, the informal Q&A began:

Dan: When we came on the film, there’s been a few different versions of the startup of this film…with McG…and we actually got the archive. (It) was to our advantage, actually, seeing what the other versions of the trial and errors that went on. And we actually showed that to Bryan and Bryan immediately wanted to go with a retro, like the vintage, classic iconic look of Superman. These are the three renderings that Louise had done up which we showed to the studio and they immediately, basically, approved this look. Am I right Louise?

Louise: Yeah.

Dan: From here we had about two and a half months to deliver our first prototype of the costume which was about ten months less than the previous version of the costume and the designer and the director. So we had to move really quick. We had a great team back in Burbank of sculptors, molders, model people, specialty costumers that kind of helped us through the way. These illustrations were MJ Kaiser who is a fantastic illustrator that fuses computer graphics into hand illustrations.

Louise: And when we first did that illustration it didn’t have Brandon’s head in it. Obviously there was no Brandon and it was just kind of a generic Superman head. And then we replaced it once he was cast.

Dan: So it was quite a quick start up process for us and (we) had the pressure of a two month prototype that the studio said doesn’t have to be the final product but it just has to be 80% there which for us means suicide because if you don’t show them something that’s right and that you don’t believe in, then it is virtually costume suicide. (Laugh) Anyway, from that moment really, the prototyping process was very limited. We had to put our faith in what we believe was right and there was small modifications along the way because we had, we were using a fit model that was a completely different proportion than Brandon so we had got it dialed in and right for this person and then when Brandon was cast it was completely wrong because of body proportions and muscle tone and width of shoulders and that sort of thing, so we did make minor changes but we went with what the studio approved and we ran it. And here it is.

[Unveils costume on a mannequin]


Supermannequin! (Laughs)


Louise: So it does have a red interior to his cape but it umbras out. It’s been painted out to the darker tone. But behind him there’s a beautiful glow and halo when you see him lit and when he moves and you see this red flash behind his back. It’s quite pretty.

Q: I see there are stripes on his arms and legs. You don’t see those in the picture. It’s an interesting touch.

Louise: Yeah.

Q: I think I read somewhere that each…it’s little symbols?

Louise: S’s

Q: Each one is not a diamond though like…

Louise: No, that was a misprint. No, they’re little S’s.

Dan: Yeah, on the blue if you look at the square with a little sort of diamond shape. But yeah, in one of the articles earlier…

Q: I think it was Entertainment Weekly…

Dan: Yeah, that was a misprint by the story.

Q: Now you got rid of the yellow S on the back of the cape. Why did you drop that?

Louise: Yeah, that’s really a technical….a difficult with the cape with this volume have the S actually be able to read it, you know what I mean? Cause it gets caught in the folds. It ends up looking like a weird kind of ‘thing’ on the back. “What is that?” It just ended up never looking pristine and beautiful. It always looked like a kind of a mass on the back.

Q: And you put it on his belt now?

Louise: Yeah, that’s right. We flipped it around and put it on his belt. That’s it. (Laughs.)

Q: And what are the stripes just supposed to be? Definition?

Louise: Just kind of movement of the wind, something to look at. I mean the thing about this suit is that it’s so simple, it’s nice to have some things that kind of give a little something to look at which is why we printed this suit with a little bit of a texture, why we did this seam on the trunks, why we gave texture to the S, why we gave a texture to the cape. It’s all sort of things to kind of give it kind of dimension. And again the style lines which is something to kind of catch your eye. And also we used them as something to

Dan: …enhance the muscles

Louise: There’s a lot of painting on the suit and those style lines help to kind of delineate where we’re going to start and stop the painting.

Q: Any padding and so forth?

Louise: Yeah, this is muscle suit under here. You can feel where it’s hard and there’s no muscle suit like here. And then right here you can feel a little muscle suit. And under here this is kind of where we put the most.

Q: How are you dealing with The Super-Crotch?

Louise: Yeah, well it’s all about containment and control.

Q: Christopher Reeve had to wear a cup. That was pretty slammin’. (Laughs)

Louise: There were more questions about the crotch than probably anything else.

Q: Is this…is it all one piece?

Louise: This is one piece. This goes over. It all hooks in the back.

Q: The belt is another piece?

Louise: No, that’s the piece that’s removable.

Q: How long does it take for him to get into this sort of suit?

Dan: About 25 minutes.

Q: What if he lost weight during the shoot?

Dan: Once we had the sculpt approved by the studio, that was their iconic vision of this character, and he had to basically lock. He did do a lot of training here in Sydney and lost a little bit of core weight, but we would not allow any muscle enhancement to be had because it would undo all of the expense that we’ve got in the sculpt and the molding of the muscle suit which is basically like a ladies nylon that has got latex foam built up. The whole problem, just to give you a little more background on why we went with a muscle suit is that once you take the suit off the mannequin, it looks beautiful on the mannequin. If it’s on a hanger, it’s going to look like it’s made for a 9 year old boy. There’s a tremendous amount of compression that is on both the muscle suit. It’s a very stretchy power-net and the milli-skin that the suit is made [of] completely un-cuts the muscle definition, so what we had to put in is about 30% more muscle definition in the muscle suit just to give him what he had plus a skoche more to bring it up to what the studio approved as the iconic, musculature body that they wanted. They didn’t want an overdeveloped, muscle-bound Superman. They wanted a very cut, defined, sleek, sexiness.

Q: Is it also because the material smooshes?

Dan: That’s exactly what the compression of the…

Louise: It’s like a girdle.

Dan: Yes.

Q: What’s each specific part made out of?

Dan: The cape is made out of a …it’s interesting because the cape tables are 12 feet wide. We had to have the wool milled in France 102 inches wide. Most of the time when you buy wool that’s 44 to 60 inches wide. We couldn’t have a seam in the cape, so we had to have this specially milled. It’s a latex base that takes about 3 lay-ups of latex that we….and there’s a pattern. You can see there’s a little diamond pattern on the cape. We made these huge mold tables where we put the predetermined….we’ve got about 3 different widths of capes depending on if it’s a beauty cape, if it’s a hero cape, if it’s a flying cape or a high speed flutter cape. So they’re all different widths and different weights and we used different linings. But for the beauty cape, it’s this wool laid into this latex texture that you see on the outside. This is the beauty cape, yes.

Q: Did you use any new technologies or new materials? I heard that in previous incarnations there was a lot of research materials like and different fabrics and stuff like that. Was there anything in this suit like that?

Louise: Well, the most important thing about this suit is the fit. I mean, it’s reducing wrinkles, not eliminating them altogether. That was important. You know, going back to the story. It’s not an alien suit. Martha Kent made it. She’s a good sewer! (laughs)

Q: What’s the rest of it made out of?

Dan: OK, so the cape is latex and wool. The blue suit is made out of milliskin which is a very, very light fine four-way stretch. It’s not a spandex. It’s called a milliskin. It’s very sheer. The problem with it is that if there’s a mole on his (abdomen), you’ll see it. So it’s that thin. And that sort of care had to be put into the muscle suit as well in terms of blend lines where the muscles go into nothing. It just had to be sculpted and so perfectly pulled. We would pull probably 6 muscle suits before we had got a hero one. They’re very thin, they’re very fine. They look like a ladies nylon with muscle latex built on them.

Q: And the shield and the belt?

Dan: The shield. Going back to the origin of…. I’ll let Louise run with that…

Louise: What it’s made out of?

Dan: No, just in terms of why we went with the smaller shield.

Louise: Bryan from the Day One said to me, “Hi. I’m glad you have the job. I want a small S.” You know, that was it. So we knew he wanted to go back to the old 30’s original size, and you know by the time Christopher Reeve in the 70’s in those movies, if you look at them now they almost wrap around his underarms. It got about as big as it could get. So we brought it way down and that’s why we ended up with that. I guess it was proportional for a change when it was Brandon it would look proportionally correct on his chest.

Q: What’s it made of?

Dan: It’s urethane.

Q: The material has a bearing on the size with regards to movement?

Dan: It does yeah, and we have different urethanes. We have 60 shore and 100% shore. It depends on what he does. We have suits for arms up flying, suits for arms down. And when he’s in the arms up, he needs to put his arms up in a shore 60 value as it would crinkle and it would buckle.

Louise: We wouldn’t have been able to use the urethane if the S would have been any bigger.

Dan: What are the boots made out of?

Louise: Boot leather, leather, and more urethane.

Q: One of the most controversial things is the changing of the red to a dark tone. What was behind that? Was it armpit sweat?

Louise: We have lots of suits.

Dan: As you can see, it’s very thin and the stage temperature is the ambient temperature is what we’ve got to control to keep him right. Sometimes it gets too cold. If there’s a lot of fans we’ve got to warm up the stage because he’ll freeze. There’s absolutely no insulation in the suit whatsoever.

Q: What does he have to wear under?

Louise: Nothing.

Dan: We have a special foundation that we made.

Louise: A little something, but it’s bare minimal because you see all lines. Everything.

Dan: Everything has got to join at the waist in this costume. There’s only one seam in the entire costume. There’s actually two. There’s two arm sleeves and a seam at the waist and the engineering that went into how you make this suit, not buckled, not rolled, not have all this extra fabric on it, to have three seams is an engineering feat.

Q: How many suits did you end up making?

Dan: Linda, how many did we have?

Louise: About eighty.

Dan: Eighty. We’ve got a tremendous amount of underwater work that we’ve had to make special capes for. We’ve had to treat the fabric differently. Instead of leather boots we’ve made vinyl boots so there’s no change in color once he goes underwater.

Q: Are there any damaged versions of the suit?

Dan: Damaged? Uhhhh….no. We’ve kept the damage, because of the integrity of the fabric that the suit was made of in theory, there’s very little external damage. There’s actually, I don’t know what I’m allowed to say and not about the….any other questions? (laugh)

Q: In the comics the cape gets destroyed a lot, in the movie I’m guessing it’s….?

Dan: It’s impregnable.

Q: Why is there no yellow S on the cape like in the comic.

Louise: There’s no yellow S on the back because technically when you have a cape that’s this full, you end up losing the S in between the folds. It ends up looking like an indistinguishable, kind of “What is that back there?”. And it never worked out, never looked clean and lovely.

Q: About the red….the change in colors to the deeper tones?

Louise: Better choice, you know. Here’s the thing. Three primary colors together are hard on your eye. If you have one color be dominant, the other two kind of fall back and support that dominant color, it’s a little easier to look at and a little more sophisticated, you know.

Dan: Louise always fought for the more tasteful darker, deeper tones against….

Louise: Bryan liked it right away. I mean, he didn’t….

Dan: There were other departments, visual effects, that always wanted to go with a more primary red so you could separate him from sky a lot easier in certain sequences that were wide. They kind of opposed the decision of deeper reds. Guy Dyas supported it throughout the entire process and Bryan finally backed us up on it.

Q: Was there ever any issues with his boots? The design?

Louise: Yes. Many different boots. The thing that stopped us from going through with another one…I would have kept going. Sculpting takes so long. It takes almost 8 months to do….

Q: Can we see the sole?

[Shows boots with S logo on the soles.]

Q: (Laughter) Did Martha Kent make those too?

Louise: She’s very good. (laughs)

Q: Was there any issue with the height of the boots and how far they went up his legs?

Dan: Oh, absolutely.

Louise: It’s all proportional things. It’s what, again, looks best on his leg, the length of his leg, what he needed as an individual thing.

Dan: It was kind of our fit model that we based the first design of the costume on was very proportionately different than Brandon. Brandon’s got a very long torso, from the waist down he’s much shorter. So we had to redesign the trunks and the height of the boots to elongate his lower body.

Q: Did Bryan [Singer] ever try the suit on? (Laughs) He never did?

Louise: Everyone wants a muscle suit, though.

Dan: The neckline, well there’s not really much to be said. Nobody wanted it low cut. Nobody wanted the cape to anchor the way it did in the last Superman. It needed to be a nice tight fit. In our first version of this costume, you can all see the seam right here. Bryan and the studios complaint, but mostly Bryan’s complaint, was it looks like you could rip it off. And so we incorporated it into the neckline. We’ve got the best cape manufacturing person, Jill Thraves, back at the Bat Shop in Burbank, that made all the Bat capes and has done all these sort of specialty films, that was able to redesign it, taking basically 10 yards of fabric and anchoring into a 10 inch span. Amazing.

Q: How much does a suit like this cost?

Dan: Well, we don’t really have the exact figure, but every time the stunt department wants to cut into one, I say it’s like putting a Carrera right off of a cliff.

Q: The Spider-Man suits cost like $50,000 or $80,000 each.

Dan: Oh yeah, we’re there.

Louise: The Carrera off the cliff….

Q: The cape is actually sewn into the neckline or is it attached some other way?

Dan: Yeah. The first thing obviously to go is the muscle suit and then the blue suit goes on over that. It’s a very tedious process. On the inside of the skin, the part of the muscle suit that touches his skin right at the neckline, there’s two Velcro tabs that anchors this entire weight. It’s an amazing engineering feat the way that Jill’s been able to anchor this. Two pieces of Velcro about an inch and a half a piece. The cape weighs about 8 pounds. There’s no drag on them. It’s kind of passive.

Q: Do you see the costume evolving any way or do you have it stay the same?

Louise: I think it would be fun. Again, I would have kept going with the boots. It’s fun. I don’t think when you’re designing something it’s ever finished.

Q: Are you going to go like Batman and put nipples on it for the sequel? (Laughter)

Q: Tell us about the other clothing in the movie? We saw Lex in a hunter outfit?

Louise: It’s a safari. Hunting. He was hunting in that thing. So it was brown, chocolate brown suede.

Q: Do you use other materials in the underwater scenes?

Dan: Actually it doesn’t use the same blue suit and the same muscle suit. We just have to pre-soak the muscles because they’re very buoyant with the latex to make sure that they’re weighted and that there’s no extra buoyancy. We do use a ployshear lining instead of the wool on the cape because it doesn’t change color and it still reacts the same. There’s been a tremendous amount of opinion….(laughs)…on what one of these capes would look like at supersonic speeds which led us down the road of many, many, many different prototypes of weights, of lining fabrics instead of the wool. We narrowed it down to basically the beauty cape, the polyshear which is gonna work good underwater. We do use it in certain applications when we’re flying him. But most of the time we’re using a silk twill when we fly him which gives with a high speed wind, basically what we’ve got to contend with is we’ve got to get the cape to react as if it’s going hundreds of miles an hour without his facial cheeks blowing behind his ears. So it’s a matter of directional wind, weight of cape, and tethering. Basically we’ve got two guys dressed in these green suits in what sort of looks like Teletubbies puppeteering with traditional wires and puppeteers and spools or spokes or whatever you call them and we get the wind direction and get them working it just right and it becomes magic. Just the amount of frequency and flutter and tension. There’s been a huge amount of development in the flying of the cape.

Q: I’m no expert, but do these colors have specific names or numbers?

Dan: I’m sure there is a pantone, but it never really matched the sheen because the value of the shininess of the sheen into costumes always changed.

Louise: I finally found a candle that was the right yellow, remember? But that was it.

Q: Do you have to find the color?

Louise: I have to give somebody some kind of something to match, you know?

Q: But they’re not in the lab creating new colors?

Dan: No, no, no.

Louise: It’s what it always is. It’s this much yellow to this one dab of black, one dab of blue gets me closer. It was a lot of testing.

Dan: And what Louise I’m sure will say is that there’s a tremendous of testing that you get it right to your eye, and we’ve had to change it quite a few times because once you get into those lighting environments what we see as blue is now pale blue.

Q: And how did that work with the video?

Dan: Look, it was a huge process of trial and error because we’re not just dealing with film. We’re shooting the film digitally. So there’s a whole new set of rules that we would just look at it in dailies and Tom and Louise and Guy and I and Bryan and the committee would just look at it and go, “It’s wrong.”

Q: What kind of common maintenance do you do on the suit?

Dan: Common maintenance? Thanks to the people over at Film Illusions, they’re the people that manufactured the muscle suit, almost zero maintenance on the muscle suit which is probably the most prone to having problems. We’ve had no muscles lifting up. We have a little bit of latex repair that we do here. Just scuffs in the muscles. The blue suit is so thin that literally if you had a mole you would see how big it was on the external side.

Q: Does it damage easily as a consequence of that?

Dan: Yeah, it will damage easily. But, with the help of our friends in the art department and in the stunt department, we’ve manufactured all those surfaces to be friendly to it. Like there’s a big fight sequence where Superman has to crawl on this sort of textured surface and it’s actually made out of a latex foam so it looks very coarse. So we’ve had very few failures.

Q: Did you do a lot of research? Cause the closest I can think is the George Reeves costume in look. Did you research a lot of different costumes from the comics and films?

Louise: Yeah, we had boards. We had boards from the 30’s, 40’s, 50’s, 60’s, 70’s, 80’s, you know.

Q: Who made the decision to put the ‘S’ on the belt? Where did that come from?

Louise: Again, it was something that I came up with just because traditionally the suit has just an oval which, when it was manufactured and we looked at it, looked so plain. It needed something. The suit needed something. It wasn’t vibrating. It wasn’t alive, you know? So we did two or three versions of an ‘S’ or something.

Dan: More than that! (Laughs)

Louise: OK, OK. Dan doesn’t want to remind me how many times I made them resculpt it. (Laughs) A few times.

Q: What about the raised ‘S’ as opposed to a flat ‘S’ like on the other costumes? How did you arrive at that decision?

Dan: That’s a tough one.

Louise: Well, what we knew we didn’t want was a fabric ‘S’. That wasn’t working. When I saw the movie in the 70’s, I thought that costume looked amazing. I just thought it was perfect. When I looked back at it when we were getting ready to do this, the ‘S’ is zig-zag stitched on. It’s just so primitive compared to what our eye, what the audience wants now. It just wouldn’t be acceptable. So we had to come up with something that was either incredibly slick or some way of manipulating the fabric so that it was seamless and perfect….not happening.

Q: So much work went into this costume and people are already talking. Have you been reading what people have been saying?

Louise: I stopped reading. (Laughs) I read the first day. I almost cried. Yes, yes. I was very upset. You can only do your best and I know that there will be many people who are inevitably upset and will not think it’s right and will not like the color choices or the belt or the pants or the boot. And I have to stand by my decision. I think it looks lovely.

Q: They liked it at Comic Con.

Louise: Oh, good. Good.

Q: Can you talk about the costume of Lois Lane? What’s her look?

Louise: It’s really kind of….you don’t even say vintage or retro now because it all is, isn’t it? Fashion. Well, we tried to do in the movie with the other costumes and the other characters is give it a timeless feel so that you hopefully will look at this film and not look at the hair or the makeup or the clothes and say, “Wow, look at that. 1970.”

Q: She’s supposed to be kind of a modern woman?

Louise: That’s right. But what’s going on in fashion coincidentally at the same time now is that there is so much looking back and inspiration from vintage and past decades that you can do that and she can look modern at the same time.

Q: Which element of the costume underwent the most changes or variations?

Dan: The emblem.

Louise: The ‘S’. (Laughs)

Q: The shape of the ‘S’ or the fabric?

Louise: The shape of the ‘S’. The detailing on the ‘S’ which I was very specific and crazed about.

Dan: And also there were so many S’s, and what we believed that the decision were based on was that we had decided, we thought, that it was a completely different S than what you’re looking at right now. And when Louise was still back in the States, I got here in December and Bryan paid a visit on January 5th or 6th and he looked at the costume and said, “That’s not the ‘S’ I chose.” (Laughs) I said, “Right, well I wasn’t actually at the last test that you chose the S.” But he said, “That’s not the S that I chose.” So we had to completely resculpt the S. Prior to this decision we weren’t doing the S’s laser cut into the emblem, so we had to rush a process that you absolutely cannot rush to get this S in the costume for the studio to see for them to have the final approval. It was like triple overtime. So there’s been a lot of detail and a lot of decisions. The emblem is the most important feature of the costume.

Read Part 9 of our visit, an interview with writers Dan Harris and Mike Dougherty.

Superman Returns opens in conventional theaters, IMAX and IMAX 3D on June 30.

Source: Scott Chitwood