On July 22, moviegoers across America will be transported back in time to World War II with “Captain America: The First Avenger,” the latest movie out from Marvel Studios. As with “Thor” and “Iron Man,” Marvel will be releasing “Captain America: The Art of Captain America – The First Avenger” two days before the film’s release, a hardcover book chock-full of original designs and concept art for the movie.
While fans of all ages have been gearing up to see Cap take on the Red Skull and Hydra since the first movie trailer released, CBR News did our own gearing up for “Captain America” by reaching out to the man behind both the movie and the “Art of Captain America” hardcover: Marvel Studios Visual Development Supervisor Ryan Meinerding.
You may remember Meinerding as the man who redesigned Tony Stark’s armor for “Invincible Iron Man.” Or you may remember his cinematic visual design work, from Tony Stark’s Mark 1 armor in “Iron Man” to Sideswipe and Arcee on “Transformers 2.” As one of Marvel Studio’s Visual Development Supervisors, Meinerding has had his hand in nearly every Marvel movie released in recent years, guiding the look and feel of the studio’s comic book adaptations from preliminary sketches to the big screen’s final product.
After Marvel Studios provided CBR with an exclusive look at pages from the “Art Of Captain America” hardcover, Meinerding spoke with us about visually designing “Captain America: The First Avenger,” touching on everything from the real world influences on Cap’s costume to visual continuity from the comics to the film.
CBR News: Ryan, you’ve done concept art for “Thor” and many other Marvel films, as well as the comic book redesign of Iron Man’s armor. Now, you’re a Co-Visual Development Supervisor for “Captain America.” For those readers who may only know you from your “Iron Man” redesign, what does your job on “Captain America” entail?
Ryan Meinerding: Charlie Wen, my Co-Visual Development Supervisor, and I manage a small team of great artists that work on character design and key frame art for the Marvel movies. Generally speaking, we are some of the first people brought on board to start creating visuals for the movie. In most cases that means meeting with the director and producers and listening to the direction they want the characters to take, then reading the script to understand the main story needs. From there, we usually delve into the comics to find specific reference. After digesting as much from the comics as possible, we try to figure out distinct variations that combine all of the initiatives and create multiple designs to submit for approval. It really is about finding the tone of the movie and then using a few key images and costumes to communicate that tone.
On “Captain America,” I was able to do a very early pass at Cap’s costumes and a few key frame moments that loosely helped communicate the look and feel for the movie. A lot of times these early passes are really there to start discussion and inspire people.
From the inspiration phase onward, however, our roles become about nailing down specifics and designing what the final characters are going to be. [Director] Joe [Johnston] had very specific ideas about all of the characters and moments, and I was truly honored to work for the guy that had such a profound effect on popular culture through the years. I ended up designing Cap’s three costumes and his round shield, contributing on the design of the Red Skull head, designing the Howling Commandos and Bucky, working with Charlie on the design of Hydra and designing the Hydra weapons.
After the process of getting a design image approved, the design starts to become real when the costume department gets their hands on it. I was very lucky to be in the costume department on Captain America, and got to make comments and work with Anna Sheppard and Paddy and Kier [Malem] to help the suit come to fruition. It was a very exciting and rewarding process, and everyone involved did an amazing job.
Now, we know a little bit about your love of comic books and film background from when we last spoke with you about “Iron Man,” but what is your art background? Did you set off to school vowing one day you’d be painting Thor and Iron Man and Captain America for Marvel?
I’ve always loved drawing and painting, and I’ve always loved comics. I have some old sketches of Cap from junior high and some old airbrushed paintings of the Thing, Mr. Fantastic and Cannonball. I definitely loved drawing those characters when I was young, but I don’t think I ever thought I’d be able to paint them for a living. I set off to school to be a commercial artist of some kind, although I didn’t know where I’d end up. I went to the University of Notre Dame for industrial design and graduated from there. Product design seemed like the most practical way of doing art for a living. Somehow, I was able to turn my senior thesis into a character design project, however. And come to think of it, that project was based on an original superhero design. So I’ve definitely had an interest in being involved in comics and superheroes since college and even back to junior high school, I just didn’t know how to get involved with that kind of work. I’m so happy that my career has led me that way.
Turning to the artwork in the “Art of Captain America” hardcover book, the concept art we’ve seen is really beautiful and incredibly detailed. When doing concept art, what medium do you prefer to work in (oils, acrylic, etc.), and does that choice of medium ultimately affect the look of the movie?
Well, I’m almost 100% Photoshop these days. I used to do a lot of pencil sketching for work, and some airbrushing, but I never really came to a process with oils or acrylic that was fast enough for production deadlines. I really lament that fact. It’d be so great to be able to have a huge number of original paintings once a movie is finished, but alas I don’t think I will ever be able to accomplish that. Those mediums have their own unique struggles that I never completely figured into any working process I have.
In the end, the ultimate look of the movie is the result of a collaboration of the production designer, the cinematographer, the costume designer and the visual effects supervisor, with specific direction from the director and producers. As a Visual Development Supervisor, I’m in a position to take initial stabs at what a character or a few moments from the movie will look like before any part of the movie is constructed. I’d like to think those first images inspire ideas in the director, the producers and the department heads and that some of that inspiration carries through to what finally appears on screen. The process is so collaborative, however, that it’s next to impossible to say that a painting style has 1X1 relationship to what appears in the film.
The more direct connections between the style of art and the final product usually come from designing a specific part of the movie, like a character or a sequence. The way that Adi Granov and Phil Saunders painted the Iron Man armor really defined a tone of high precision surfaces for that suit, and the way I try to paint Cap is definitely a bit rougher. I’d like to think it looks like acrylic or gouache paintings, and I hope that provides an aesthetic that’s appropriate for a WWII Captain America. A lot of the advertising and propaganda art from that period was done in those mediums, and I did purposely try to achieve that look. I tried to take advantage of being able to show a few brush strokes here and there, and to try and use as much dirt and grime on his costume and face as seemed reasonable. I hope some of those painterly effects lent to a feeling of roughness and ruggedness about his costume and character that translated to the screen.
When talking about comic book art, one thing often discussed is the various comic book companies’ house styles — the unified look and style for the art on all of that company’s comic books. As the Concept Artist and Visuals Supervisor for “Captain America” and other Marvel movies, is there a unified style you try to bring to the features — a sort of movie house style?
I think there is definitely a continuity in the concept art itself because there is a continuity of artists that are creating the art, and hopefully a continuity of the designs on screen that place all of the characters in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. We don’t really try to do a “style” because our art is really just a step in the process. Whatever we make has to become real at some stage, so mostly we are just trying to make the art as realistic as possible while still remaining an inspiring design and piece of art. As far as the continuity in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, we’ve been able to design the characters across multiple movies so we try to include as much continuity as possible. The direction we get from the directors is specific to their movie, but the direction we get from Marvel can be about unifying the characters across movies. I worked on the designs for both the First Avenger Cap suit and Avengers Cap suit, so I’m really excited for the sense of character change you can get from seeing him come into the modern world.
Jumping to the actual time period “Captain America” is set in, World War II seems like it would be a visual designer’s dream as it is chock-full of emotionally powerful and famous symbols and propaganda images. What design elements and imagery did you pull from this era for your work on the characters in “Captain America?”
I love the WWII era as inspiration for design. There are so many great visuals to draw from. I was always looking at the fantastic propaganda posters done by [J.C.] Leyendecker, [Norman] Rockwell, [Dean] Cornwell and [Jes] Schlaikjer. And beyond that we just pored over as much WWII reference as we could get our hands on. We definitely looked at a lot of Nazi uniforms for Hydra and pulled a lot of reference from American military for the Howling Commandos and Cap. Falsworth’s design is heavily based on a jerkin worn by the British Military (with a subtle Union Jack worked into the design on his chest). I really like looking through images of the tech of the period as well, and we had some fantastic books on radios and decryption machines that I tried to include in some the elements of Morita’s design. I also was able to design the SSR logo and I definitely was looking at period emblems and patches for a strong graphic direction.
Another great thing about WWII is how many photographs were taken. It’s very easy to flip though a book or two of WWII photos and get inspired by a touching moment or brilliant composition. It truly is an awe-inspiring period that has formed a great jumping-off point for most of the design in the movie.
From the trailer and concept art we’ve seen, it looks like your Captain America costume is a combination of a soldier’s uniform, a little bit of the “Ultimate Captain America” WWII costume and the “Ultimate Captain America” modern costume. Were the “Ultimate” comics a big inspiration for the movie costume, or were you influenced by different versions of the comic book character?
Bryan Hitch’s work was definitely a big influence for two of the Cap suits. The “Ultimates” is a really great source of inspiration. For the red, white and blue suit, we definitely were looking at how Bryan was able to make the suit feel a bit more real, and trying a few things ourselves. I always loved treating the cowl and mask as a helmet and chinstrap, and I used that in my most early drawings. The “Ultimates” Cap was also the inspiration for using military webbing, or straps, as part of the costume. Generally, those straps are meant to hold the up the soldier’s belt that has extra ammo and gear attached. I always saw it as accomplishing that, as well as being a type of body armor, but also as part of the system that held the shield when he wore it on his back. Even if that shield is relatively lightweight, it would still need something to securely fasten it to his back. The straps that come off his chest are very similar to the ALICE webbing that was used in Vietnam. Using the straps as the stripes across his torso then seemed like an elegant design solution. In the end, the main design aspects of this suit are meant to be about making it appear soldier-like, functional and tough. This is the suit where he fully embraces his role as Captain America, so we wanted the iconic silhouette that everyone loves, but we wanted to clothe it in function and the period.
For the Leather Jacket costume, I did like the “Ultimates” WWII suit, but I was directly inspired by Kevin Maguire’s work on the “Adventures of Captain America” miniseries. There is a section in that where Steve goes out on a mission before he gets his official costume, and he’s wearing a leather jacket, goggles and a wool hat. I thought making it a helmet made a bit more sense, and using American aviator goggles would add the requisite period feel. While I was working on that, I bought a few M1 helmets and the aviator goggles on eBay. It was great to have the real things to work from. Those goggles are a beautiful design, they are one of the coolest things I own. Joe was really interested in making that suit about the USO costume underneath — that he turns away from the USO costume by covering it in the leather jacket, but over the course of his first mission, that jacket is ripped to shreds and Cap’s true colors show through. I always loved that direction; it’s a brilliant way to use the costume to show the character’s journey.
The USO suit was meant to be directly inspired by the [Jack] Kirby design. We tried to keep it as close to the original as possible. It’s as straightforward a design as we could achieve. It’s a truly iconic design and I hope we did it justice.
Now, Joe Johnston, the director for “Captain America” is a guy famous for another World War II-era movie in “The Rocketeer.” Did you know Joe would be directing the movie when you started, and did that affect how you went about working on the visuals? Did you try to skew WWII-era Captain America to look a little like the WWII-era Rocketeer?
I’m a huge fan of Joe’s. It was an honor to work for him. I’ve loved his work from “Star Wars” through “Indiana Jones,” “The Rocketeer,” “October Sky” and many others. He brings a sense of authenticity and genuine-ness to his projects that make them so rewarding to watch and even more so to work on. I learned about Joe’s involvement very early on the process, but the first time I got to meet him was when I was doing Red Skull concept designs. I can’t say that I tailored my stuff specifically for him before I met him, but his vision is so clear and strong that it definitely happened after I met him!
As far as any similarities to “The Rocketeer,” there was never anything conscious that led it down that direction. We’re constantly trying to find ways to make the visuals we put into the Marvel movies feel as new and fresh as we can while still keeping them true to the character, and hopefully fans can see the designs that way. I must say that I do love the design of “The Rocketeer,” though; it’s a really great movie.
From “Iron Man” to “Thor” and now “Captain America,” your concept art and designs feel very grounded in reality. With this in mind, how did you go about designing and painting the fantastical Red Skull and Hydra?
With Red Skull, all you have to do is combine the iconic comic look with Hugo’s face. There is so much great stuff that comes from both of those places, it was honestly a very fast design process. It was a matter of seeing how far you wanted to extend his brow and cheekbones, and whether you wanted to cover his teeth with lips (it might seem silly, but the iconic red skull with just his teeth exposed could find it hard to deliver dialogue). In the end, the design I did is nothing compared to how much hard work went into creating and designing that character to become real on the big screen. Charlie did a fantastic job designing the costumes and the final look is really owed to the costume department, the prosthetics team, the visual effects team and Hugo. It’s really gratifying to see that character look so great.
As far as the Hydra designs, Charlie and I really worked together on those. He came up with the great headgear, and we collaborated on the costume and webbing. My design inspiration came mostly from the fact that Hydra’s weapons and tech are mostly derived from the Cosmic Cube. So I was trying to use square and cube forms in as much of the tech that related to the Cosmic Cube as possible. I liked the idea that whenever the cube energy is transferred or stored, it has to be done in a cube or rectilinear shape, instead of a cable. That was mostly the inspiration for the flame trooper — finding a way to store the Cube energy on his back and then transfer it around his body to his weapons.
Finally, I understand you’re a Cap fan — any chance you’ll get to do some comic book “Captain America” cover art or redesigns, like you did for “Iron Man?”
Oh, wow, I certainly hope so. I did a Cap image as part of an upcoming “Avengers” cover, but I don’t have anything lined up for a “Captain America” comic. He truly is a great character and I’m amazed I’ve been lucky enough to work on a few of his film designs. I fully respect the responsibility to try and do justice to such a beloved figure, and I hope the movie designs are a welcome addition to the 70 years of “Captain America imagery.” They were a joy to work on and I am exceedingly proud to have been a part of the movie.
“Captain America: The Art Of Captain America – The First Avenger” hits stores July 20. “Captain America: The First Avenger” releases in theaters nationwide July 22
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