As with most anything in film and television production, the creation of superhero costumes is an extensive and intricate process. It's not at all like what the comic books or movies show on screen — there are no Bruce Waynes or Peter Parkers just slipping into costumes that they presumably made themselves (or that just magically appeared) that fits really well and lacks all evidence of a zipper or buttons or anything like that.
SYFY WIRE talked to some tailors and costume fabricators in the business about how the superhero costumes really get made. One of the main points they all stresses was that "it takes a village" to just make one single superhero suit. There is so much involved with the design and fabrication process and so many special skills required to execute the design that it takes the expertise of many.
Amy McClure, a New York City-based tailor, has worked on pretty much all of the Marvel Television series in some costume related capacity. She told us that one of the biggest challenges with bringing the Marvel Comics to life is "getting it right."
"Graphic novel fans are super fans," McClure says. "Some feel upset or betrayed if the look of the superhero isn't what they expected it to look like."
Many of the iconic superhero costumes, going all the way back to Batman, were, and are, made in Los Angeles by Ironhead Studio. There's a ton of security surrounding most of that these days, especially with the ones that were created using digital body scans and the like. During The Amazing Spider-Man 2's filming in New York, the Spider-Man suit was kept under lock and key and no one except its designated "keeper" could touch it.
Cherie Cunningham was the tailor on one of the recent Marvel productions (not yet aired!) where the costumes were made in Los Angeles then brought to New York City for filming. She said that they were far more technically advanced than any she'd previously seen. The owner and chief craftsman of the company taught her and another tailor how they worked and how to repair them.
These superhero costumes had been molded (with the help of a digital body scanner) to fit the actor perfectly. The superhero costume was decked out with a cooling ventilation system in the helmet along with a remote controlled antenna. The villain had even more remote controlled features in the face.
The costumes were made with a mix of custom-printed, textured jumbo spandex, soft foams, stiff foams, stretch mesh, and custom molded plastic armor-like pieces. Specialty gluing, air-brushing, and sewing were all needed to keep them looking good.
"Over time certain parts of the costumes would show wear, or stretch out, or become uncomfortable, and we would have to replace or re-invent those pieces," Cunningham says.
So how do you get a big, bulky, heavy superhero costume under a sewing machine?
Usually, two people would be needed, Cunningham explains. One for sewing and another person just to hold up and control the costume.
A lot can happen to a superhero costume during the filming of a TV series or a movie; they get shot, burned, cut, bloody, sometimes almost destroyed.
Federico Cervantes, a specialty costumer based in Los Angeles, began working in film in 1990 as a special FX makeup artist. He's worked on many projects, including Black Panther, Man of Steel, Tron: Legacy, and the Sam Raimi Spider-Man movies.
For the filming of Spider-Man 2, the specialty costume team had 20-plus Spidey suits to work with. Even with this high number, they still had to be conservative in how and when they were used. Cervantes recalls a time when, early in production, they were jumping ahead in the story to a much later scene in which Spider-Man's suit needed to be severely damaged from an intense battle with a villain.
None of the suits were anywhere near the rough shape required for the scene. Cervantes was one of the people who had to make the suit look as if it had been through a battle.
"I was well aware of the process to make the suits, the many people it took to construct them and the price tag for each in the tens of thousands of dollars," Cervantes says, "I had to fight the initial nerves of cutting, distressing, and painting a brand new suit to look like it had been through hell."
After he completed the first one, though, the rest were a bit easier. Figuring out early on in the shooting process just how damaged and beat up the suits would be toward the end gave the costume and production teams the opportunity to work backward and map out in earlier scenes how the damage to the suit happened in sequences that fit into the story.
Sound complicated? It is.
There are times, too, when additional superhero costumes are needed during a shoot, times when pieces were "used up" or damaged that weren't necessarily planned for in advance.
For instance, three identical Punisher vests were initially made for the second season of Daredevil. Two of these three vests ended up being destroyed during the filming of the season and the first episode of the Punisher series. The vest from Daredevil had squib holes (fake bullet holes) and permanent fake blood stains. In the beginning of Punisher, Frank Castle sets his vest on fire.
"During the filming of the vest burning someone from the crew thought it would be okay to burn the last remaining original vest," McClure says. "But the costume team wouldn't allow that to happen," just in case — which is the thing with film and television production: You just never know when something might be needed again.
By the end of the season, Frank Castle is indeed back as Punisher and murdering anyone who's in his way. And of course, he needed his vest intact. Three vests, in fact, were needed to accommodate all that would happen to him in the final epic scenes. McClure had to create exact replicas from the existing vest that they still (thankfully) had on hand.
Superhero costumes are not always very practical. They need a lot of repairs and they're difficult to get in and out of (no just walking into a phone booth and emerging completely suited up in a manner of minutes). They also require super strong hangers (they'll snap a regular old hanger in two).
Cunningham recalls a particularly amusing repair incident from one of the Marvel shows. They were shooting up in the Bronx and needed to do some work on the butt cheek muscles of a particular costume. She and another costumer, Lawrence Bell, had three suits lined up outside the wardrobe truck in the middle of the street because they needed good ventilation to work with the glue.
"The costumes kinda looked like real people lying face down because of all the muscles in them," Cunningham says. "We were standing there with our hands up the butts waiting for the glue to set. Only a couple bold pedestrians dared to ask us what we were doing."
Susan Bakula has worked in film, television, and theatre for more than twenty years in New York City. She's seen pretty much everything and worked on all kinds of productions. Currently, she works on Gotham. She also worked on the Spider-Man 2, the one with Tobey Maguire.
"So many people were involved in making those costumes," she says. "There was one New York shop for dying, one for patterning, one for fabrication, and so on."
It's an important point to make: The creation of almost all of these intricate, iconic costumes is team-propelled, utilizing techniques and processes that have their roots way back to Parsons -Meares, a New York-based shop that has been in business since 1980, and first created the costumes for the Broadway production of Cats.
Superhero costumes, especially the making of them, have evolved. More computer-aided technology is used these days to create them. They do though, still require the skills and expertise of a whole bunch of amazing craftspeople to bring them to life. And, they do all still present one very real problem for the superhero themselves: how to pee.
"I swear," Bakula says. "That's always one of the biggest issues: 'How in the heck do I get out of this thing so I can pee?'"
See, superheroes are just like everyone else.