The inside story on 'Birdman's' instantly iconic superhero costume
Legendary costume designer Albert Wolsky was tasked with outfitting Alejandro González Iñárritu's latest film, "Birdman." But perhaps the film's most stand-out piece of wardrobe ended up landing in a different industry realm: special effects.
Mike Elizalde is the owner of Spectral Motion, a creature and prosthetic makeup design studio in Glendale, CA that has plenty of experience in the superhero realm. The company was behind distinct looks in films like "X-Men: The Last Stand" and "Fantastic Four," and Elizalde himself picked up a Best Makeup Oscar nomination for his work on Guillermo del Toro's "Hellboy II: The Golden Army" in 2008. It was that connection to del Toro, in fact, that got him the gig on "Birdman" as his team was tasked with creating the Birdman costume actor Benjamin Kanes wears as a young Riggan Thompson in the film.
If you're interested in hearing what a titan like Wolsky has to say about his process on the film, and plenty of great anecdotes besides (from "Grease" and "All That Jazz" to losing the Tony Award to former mentor and fellow legend Ann Roth), we've got you covered here. But read through our back and forth with Elizalde below to find out just what went into creating the instantly iconic outfit formerly donned by Michael Keaton's hero in the new film.
"Birdman" is now playing in limited release.
HitFix: So you're tasked with creating a superhero costume resembling a bird for a movie and a property that only exists within the universe of this crazy, auteur-driven film called "Birdman." Where do you start with something like that?
Mike Elizalde: Well, the whole thing started because Alejandro had really not worked with a lot of specialty costume or special effects studios like ours in the past. Guillermo del Toro had and they were friends, so he asked Guillermo for a referral and Guillermo told him to get in touch with us. So that's how it all sort of started. He said he wanted to really play off of a little bit of the inherent cheesiness of superhero costumes, but he didn't wanted to be ridiculously cheesy he just wanted a few elements that were a little blingy. He still wanted something heroic and cool-looking, but those were sort of the guidelines. So the elements that we focused on were the belt buckle and the wristband that he wears and he's got a little piece of gold bling on his beak.
What kind of experience in actual comic book/superhero movies were you bringing to the table?
We've done a lot of prosthetic work, facial prosthetic makeup effects. And we worked on a couple of the "X-Men" movies. We inherited the make up design for Mystique from Gordon Smith, who is the guy who originated it, and we carried that through for a couple of films. We created the Beast look for Kelsey Grammer. We did the "Fantastic Four" movies. But we hadn't really designed the costume part of the superhero up until this point in time. We had done quite a bit of specialty costume work, which is what Alejandro was impressed with when he saw our reel and our resume. So based on the strength of those efforts that's how we got the gig finally.
Was there anything unique about making this one compared to I guess what you might expect? Was there any ground broken in the superhero costume realm, I guess is what I'm asking?
I mean, it's a very unique costume for a superhero because I don't think anybody has made a real Birdman costume for a film. There are some superheroes that are kind of bird guys. In fact Hanna-Barbera had a character called [Harvey] Birdman, but this was a little different. The reason this was uniquely created is because of the fact that we didn't rely on traditional methods in the costumes itself, such as sculpting, molding, all of those things that you do prior to making the costume or any kind of 3D printing or anything like that. We hand-fabricated two suits from scratch. So all of the elements on the suit that you see, including the fabric elements that are visible, were custom designed by us.
For example, for the fabric we took spandex material and we coated it in a plastic coating to make it more durable, more flexible and so it wouldn't get as easily snagged and damaged. And then all of the sort of scaly-looking material on the chest and stomach and arms, that was all — every single one of those little scales — handmade and laid into position to give the actor a lot more flexibility. And in fact, that was one of the things that we really, really needed to hit, was ultimate mobility and flexibility in the costume.
One of the other requirements that Alejandro gave us initially was that if Michael Keaton were to wear this costume, he should be able to lay on his belly and then look straight ahead, you know, raise his head and look straight ahead as if he's flying with that function. So the cowl is actually sculpted and molded and cast out of a very flexible foam latex material, and the rest of the costume followed suit. The objective for us was to give the actors as much freedom to move around as possible. And we were very successful in that. And the wings were all hand-fabricated, as well. They're real feathers used at the very tops of the wings and then down, the feathers get longer and longer. There aren't any creatures out there in the world that have really long feathers like that so all of those had to be fabricated from scratch as well. They're all handmade out of silk and plastic and other materials.
Where are these costumes now?
One of them is in the possession of the publicity people. They were using it for a display piece for some of the openings. And I believe the other one is in storage in our facility. We typically store the things ourselves in case we ever need to use it again so they're not incorrectly stored or damaged by some third party. That way we're just able to provide it whenever it's required.
It would be a great Halloween costume. They should get into that market!
Yeah! We're very proud of it. We're really, really proud of the fact that it's in Alejandro's movie, which is just absolutely brilliant. I finally had a chance to see it two days ago and I was really blown away. I think it is literally the best movie we've ever worked on as far as just the movie that contains so much wonderful subtext, political metaphors, I mean it's beautiful. We are just so proud to be involved with this.
Having worked on your share of the comic book movies, what are your thoughts on where the movie goes with that idea in terms of the industry being saturated by this kind of product?
I think it's a very timely statement. Personally I've always felt that there's a lot more of it out there than we really need to see. And obviously it's making money so they're not going to stop until it stop, but for my taste, I'm happy to watch more movies like Birdman.