The Science of Iron Man at Caltech

On a mid-October Wednesday, a panel of experts in special effects and various sciences paid a visit to the California Institute of Technology to discuss some of the science behind the "Iron Man" movie franchise. The panelists included SVP of Production and Development Jeremy Latcham, Co-founder of Legacy Effects Shane Mahan, Assistant Professor Andreas Krause, Professor Mark Wise and Character and Concept Designer Ryan Meinerding. Geoff Boucher moderated the panel.

The evening opened with the National Academy of Sciences' Science and Entertainment Exchange's Deputy Executive Director Ann Merchant briefly explaining the way Marvel Studios contacted the Exchange in order to get the their input on "Iron Man 2." Boucher presented some of the designs for the armor from both of the "Iron Man" films, while Ryan Meinerding explained the genesis of the films' armor designs, noting the work of artists Adi Granov and Phil Saunders. Meinerding told the audience the overall process was first to create the mechanics that make the suit operable, then create the layer of armor on top, explaining director John Favreau wanted the armor to be "tactile enough to have real world applications."

The digital prototype of the suit for the first film was developed by the design team before being built by Physical Suit Effects Supervisor Shane Mahan and Legacy Effects using a process called Electroplating, which was actually developed by chemist Luigi Brugnatelli in 1805. Mahan explained, as he passed out the various Iron Man helmets to the panelists, that the suit is made of lightweight resin and carbon fiber composites. The outer layer of the suit is essentially a thin fiberglass shell, supported by a flexible rubber understructure.

Boucher noted, like the film and comic book hero "The Rocketeer," aviation magnate Howard Hughes lived on the West Coast. Jeremy Latcham, senior vice president of production and development at Marvel Studios, pointed out that scenes from the first "Iron Man" film were actually shot in the hangar where Hughes originally kept his plane, "The Spruce Goose."

After presenting a special feature on the armor from the "Iron Man 2" DVD, Boucher asked Assistant Professor of computer science Andreas Krause how close the "Iron Man" armor we see in the films is to becoming a reality. Krause noted that there were several exoskeleton suits in development, including the second generation exoskeleton (XOS 2) from Raytheon and the Hybrid Assitive Limb Suit (HAL) developed by Tsukuba University professor Yoshiyuki Sankai.

Boucher asked Meinerding how much robotics research factored into the design of the Iron Man suit, and Meinerding revealed that the team would first review the comics for aesthetics, then review articles in "Popular Mechanics" and other sources to work out the structure. When asked about the difference between cutting edge research and science fiction, Mahan said that when he developed the special effect that simulated the cloaking technology used in the film "Predator," the military actually contacted him to acquire what they thought was real technology. Mark Wise, the John A. McCone Professor of High Energy Physics at Caltech joked that if the "Iron Man" armor were a reality, "landings would really hurt."

The panel presented a deleted scene from the "Iron Man 2" Blu-ray depicting Robert Downey Jr. as Tony Stark interacting with a holographic Periodic Table of Elements in an attempt to create a replacement for Palladium, the essential element needed to power the armor. A second clip soon followed, depicting Stark building a particle accelerator. Wise advised the team on the particle accelerator ,and while he joked, "these films never explain what particles you're accelerating," he felt the accelerator was presented relatively accurately, though he noted that when scientist use particle accelerators to create heavy elements, they usually only create half a dozen atoms of the element, not enough to power a suit of robotic armor.

Asked if the upcoming "Thor" and "Captain America" would also involve science input from the real world, Latcham answered that his counterparts have reached out to The Exchange for input on "Thor" and that he has reached out for consultation on "The Avengers."

The panel presented another clip, this time showing Iron Man & War Machine defending civilians from dozens of robot drones. Boucher asked the panel if advanced robot drones were actually possible in the real word and Krause replied that there have been many advances in robotics, particularly in the areas of tracking, facial recognition and multi-robot coordination. Latcham noted that certain video game design strategies were also involved in the creation of the drone scene, such as grouping strategy.

When asked if there would be a new suit of armor for "The Avengers", Latcham replied that there would be, as people expect the suit to change as it did in the "Iron Man" films.

The panel opened for questions, and in reply to a question about the possibility of a real world compact power source, Wise said that we wouldn't see one in the near future.

When asked where War Machine kept his bullets, the panel revealed that the bullets were belt fed through the armor, a solution primarily devised by ILM.

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