Behind The Scenes

Iron Man - The Making of the Mark I "Cave Escape" Suit

Iron Man's "real" Mark I suit, created by Stan Winston Studio, set the bar for the Iron Man suits that would follow.

Oct 3, 2012


Although originally planned as a completely digital suit, the Stan Winston Studio IRON MAN team built a "real" Mark I suit that wound up performing over 80% of the Mark I shots in the final film. From first film test to flamethrowers blazing real fire, the Mark I suit was a pivotal creation that would set the tone for the IRON MAN franchise's fantastic blend of both digital and practical techniques to bring Tony Stark's armor to life.


Academy Award nominated, 25 year-SWS supervisor and co-founder of Legacy Effects, Shane Mahan recalls the first images for the Mark I sent over by Marvel during pre-production, "The Mark I, the cave escape suit, was originally designed by Ryan Meinerding at Marvel. The Mark I one was intended to be an homage to the first suit Tony Stark builds in the comic book, it's sort of like a big metal can. Ryan's overall Photoshop design was pretty clear. Then our modelers at Stan Winston Digital started working on how to make it work practically, creating 3D models on the computer. We spent long nights at the studio crunching it down, and the Marvel brass would get to the shop at 7am and we'd been there all night, making digital turntables, tweaking it."

Pictured above: The original Jack Kirby designed IRON MAN suit from the Marvel comic. The clunky forms and iconic "tin can" head played heavily in the Mark I design for the film.

Pictured above: The original Mark I design by Marvel concept artist, Ryan Meinerding.

Pictured above: The Stan Winston Studio Mark I model based on the Ryan Meinerding Photoshop design.


"Once the 3D model was approved we went through the standard process of breaking it apart so that we could grow a maquette. SWS & Legacy Effects model shop supervisor, Dave Merritt, led the model makers in sanding and doing the body shop work once the pieces were grown." continued Mahan.

According to Merritt, the Mark I was one of the most complicated maquettes he's ever worked on, "It was really like building three maquettes in one because you had a body substructure underneath and then you had all these armor shells that hang onto a frame. The digital team modeled the shells first and I said, 'Well you've gotta attach these shells to something if we're going to grow them.' And so they attached these frames, and then I said, 'Well you know you've really gotta have these things attached to a body so it won't fall apart.' So then they had to model a body inside as well."


Key artist at Stan Winston Studio & Legacy Effects, Trevor Hensley, said, "The Mark I was the first time we used that killer chrome paint, that metallic surface finish. You start with a shiny black surface and then you mist on the chrome paint. And it was kind of a test run, we weren't really sure how to use that stuff. Of course it's always a team effort, but it was cool that my Mark I maquette paint job set the standard for many of the metallic characters we've done here (SWS & Legacy Effects) for the last 5 years. Before that we'd been chrome plating and using other automotive finishes but they never had that incredible reflective quality. We used the same paint technique on the full-size suit because Jon Favreau loved it."

Pictured above: SWS & Legacy Effects key painter Trevor Hensley details the Mark I maquette.

Pictured above: Trevor Hensley uses a metallic painting technique on the Mark I maquette that will become a mainstay for SWS & Legacy Effects.

Pictured above: The final IRON MAN MARK I maquette -- 3 maquettes in one.


After Jon Favreau and the producers approved the maquette, Dave Merritt and the model making team at SWS moved onto the full-size Mark I armor. "We didn't grow any of those full-size shells. We just felt that the type of detail that was on them didn't warrant the expense of going through the growing process. So they were all milled out of foam," said Merritt. "Then we went in and hand-carved and sanded the foam, put resins on them and smoothed them out. Then we could go in and add bullet holes or damaged, dented marks into the surfaces. We just kinda fashioned it like it was hammered out in a cave."

The final steps are where everything started to come together, added Merritt. "The shells were then molded and cast in epoxy. We added some flexible urethane areas for comfort. And then all those parts were hung onto the frame. We had to go through several fittings to make sure that suit performer Mike Justice would be able to fit it in and move in it because it's a very clunky suit. But the clunkiness is sort of what made the Mark I what it was, you know? You kinda didn't want him to move well in it because then it wouldn't have made as much sense. It was supposed to be primitive."

Pictured above: SWS model maker Mike Manzel hangs the epoxy armor shells onto the aluminum framework of the full-size IRON MAN Mark I suit.


While Ryan Meinerding's designs were excellent reference for the shape of the Mark I, they were all in black and white. Broad color schemes and tones were then worked out in conversation with Jon Favreau. "The idea was that Tony's constructing the Mark I out of old shell casings and equipment, and everything had to look like found objects. Dirty, rough metal of different shades. Some of it had paint on it, some of it had decals to make it look like cut apart missiles. It had to have weld marks. It had to have a very handmade, hand-pounded kind of forged look to it," said Mahan.

Pictured above: Trevor Hensley paints the full-size Mark I using the maquette as reference.

Trevor Hensley and the other painters at SWS compiled copious reference to execute Favreau's vision. "We referenced mostly old pictures from World War II," said Hensley. "We looked at those polished aluminum planes that had been shot down, P-51s, P-38 Lightnings, so we had damage reference from that that we incorporated. The Mark I gets really shot up right when he leaves the cave, before he takes off and escapes. And for that they wanted us to do a whole bunch of fifty caliber hits and a bunch of medium size bullet hits, tiny small arms shrapnel, and all kinds of stuff, so we did a whole Photoshop series with different battle damage."

Pictured above: Trevor Hensley adds "wear and tear" to the epoxy Mark I armor - bullet hits, battle damage, etc.

But the coolest part of the paint job for Hensley is something you might not even see in the finished film. "You know when a chromed motorcycle exhaust goes through the whole spectrum of colors as it's being heated up? It goes purple, brown, blue, pink. We used a lot of that because we were thinking Tony would be torch cutting all this stuff in a cave and arc welding it so it would have that colored distortion along the edges where the parts were cut and heated. Unfortunately, a lot of that subtlety was covered by dirt with the Mark I being sandblasted in the desert for days on end."

Pictured above: Trevor Hensley used decals and stencils to help achieve the idea that the Mark I had been cobbled together from found objects in the cave.


Shane Mahan recalls the Mark I's digital beginnings: "The Mark I was going to be done entirely digitally, but we kept saying that this suit is perfect for having a performer inside and making it work. We were all a bit cocky about it. Our feeling was like, this is what we do. It's a guy in a suit, trying to escape. So let us make a guy in a suit, trying to escape. We would shoot our own internal tests with stuntman Mike Justice and he'd move around while we'd operate all the radio controlled engines and belt drives on the back of the suit."

Proving the producers wrong became a point of pride among the crew at Stan Winston Studio. "They were telling us it was never gonna work. That the suit wouldn't walk. And Shane took that as a challenge and we all busted our ass to get that thing working. There's not a person who worked on that suit who wasn't up all night, taking that challenge by the horns," Trevor Hensley remembers.

Pictured above: Dave Merritt and Shane Mahan examine the nearly finished Mark I suit, making sure it's ready for its fateful film test.


When the day of the film test came, the SWS crew was ready to make their case for shooting with a real Mark I. "So we showed up for the first Mark I film test at the cave interior set. They didn't know we were bringing a suit, they thought we were bringing a prop on a stand that they could roll in and roll out as a reference element," said Hensley. "So we uncover the Mark I and Mike Justice is inside it, but it was dark and they couldn't tell there was a guy in the suit. We lit him all up and there was a very brief moment where they were all looking at it, Favreau, the producers, and then suddenly Mike took a step forward and they were shocked. And then it was lots of hushed conversation and they started asking 'How much can he move?' Mike starts turning sideways, putting his arms out, moving all around, and they realized this was a suit that they could actually shoot with. We were so proud that we did it."

Pictured above: To support the nearly 90-pound Mark I suit, the Stan Winston Studio crew created a sturdy corset harness and aluminum support rig.

Pictured above: Suit performer Mike Justice begins to suit up in the Mark I. The 90-pound suit was primarily comprised of epoxy "armor" shells, flexible urethane, leather and aluminum.


For the exterior shots when Tony Stark bursts out of the cave in the Mark I suit, flamethrowers blazing, the production relocated to an actual cave location in Lone Pine, California. Dave Merritt remembers adding the element of fire to the Mark I's arsenal during the exterior scene, "Special Effects Coordinator Dan Sudick's team stepped in to oversee all the fire work. They had to rig all the hoses down Mike's arms, and then in a big loop around his body so when he'd do all those turns he would sort of unwind all the hoses as he was blowing everything up." "Safety is always our first priority," added Shane Mahan, "so the interior pieces of the Mark I suit were lined with aluminum and the gloves were heat resistant. The flamethrower itself was built by Dan's team to be pretty user friendly so Mike Justice would be in total control at all times. There was a hand trigger that activated it so he could be very precise about when to shoot or not shoot the flames."

Pictured above: Mike Manzel, Christopher Swift and Dave Merritt help Mike Justice suit up in the intentionally "clunky" Mark I suit.

Pictured above: Christopher Swift, Trevor Hensley and TaMara Carlson Woodard seat the Mark I upper torso onto the aluminum "lazy susan" support ring.

Pictured above: Trevor Hensley & Mike Manzel fasten the epoxy "armor" to the corset harness support structure during a Mark I fitting with suit performer, Mike Justice.


Although considered a total success at the time, Shane Mahan points out the huge improvements he and the IRON MAN practical suit team have made to the process, "Mike Justice had to get into great shape and he had to keep that up the whole time because there's a lot of parts on the Mark I suit. It's very heavy. We were limited to the materials we had, the epoxy armor, the aluminum frame, the backpack, lots of leather. I think it came in at around 90 pounds. Which doesn't sound like a lot until you're in it all day. If we were to do it today, with all that we've done for Iron Man 1-3, The Avengers and currently on Robocop, the Mark I would be about 40 pounds now. But whenever you do something for the first time it's kind of an experiment."

Pictured above: The nearly 90-pound suit required suit performer Mike Justice to stay in top shape during the making of IRON MAN.

Pictured above: Safety is always a number one priority and the SWS crew took great care to make sure everything was securely fitted to Mike Justice at all times, even lining the interior with aluminum during the flamethrower sequence.

Pictured above: Trevor Hensley, Chris Swift and Kevin McTurk help Mike Justice with the final piece of the Mark I suit -- the iconic "tin can" helmet designed as an homage to the original 60s Iron Man suit.


Perhaps the greatest thing about the Mark I, according to Shane Mahan, was that "it was the first suit up in the shooting schedule and it set the tone for what could be accomplished by blending physical & digital Iron Man suits. And for a lot of fans, that's still their favorite suit. It's a great throwback to the 60s comic with that iconic tin can design. I'm proud to have brought the Mark I to life along with the rest of the team."

The groundbreaking suit work in IRON MAN went on to blow audiences away and earn the FX team (led by Shane Mahan, John Nelson, Ben Snow & Dan Sudick) a well-deserved Oscar nomination. A franchise was born. And it all started with the Mark I.

-Matt Winston


More IRON MAN Stuff from SWSCA:


WHY I MADE AN IRON MAN SUIT: A 16-year old Tony Stark's Story