Ryan Meinerding, Marvel’s Head of Visual Development, Takes Us Behind-the-Scenes of Designing the MCU
When Marvel puts on a massive presentation like the one that went down recently at San Diego Comic-Con, Marvel Studios President Kevin Feige is front and center, along with the directors and actors who create the company’s wildly popular films. All of those people are crucial to the record-breaking success of Marvel’s cinematic universe — but there are many other people who are also hugely important to the MCU that rarely make it onto that stage or into the spotlight.
Case in point: Ryan Meinerding, the head of Visual Development for Marvel Studios. Meinerding’s design and concept art work for Marvel dates back to the very first Iron Man; after working with director Jon Favreau on a version of John Carter of Mars that never got off the ground, Favreau brought Meinerding with him to Marvel to help develop Iron Man. After a period away from the company, Meinerding returned, and has been a fixture in their visual development department ever since.
A lifelong superhero fan, Meinerding describes discovering Marvel’s heroes through “toys and beach towels and peripheral consumer products” as a kid before becoming a voracious reader of the comics as a teenager. During a recent phone conversation on the eve of Avengers: Endgame’s home video release, we talked about how he literally channeled his teenage love of Spider-Man into his work, discussed some of favorite designs (and some of the ones he might do differently now after a decade of work for Marvel), and examined some of the coolest pieces of design art that Meinerding has shared on his excellent Instagram account. (Seriously, if you’re a Marvel fan and you’re not following him on Instagram, you are missing out.)
ScreenCrush: One of my favorite things you’ve posted is your homemade Spider-Man mask from childhood, which you then used as inspiration in your work for Marvel. Can you tell me the backstory of those images?
Ryan Meinerding: Yeah, I probably made like five different Spider-Man masks in high school, trying to just make them better and better. I got to the point of actually having like sunglass lenses in there for the eyes and it actually looking pretty reasonable. I've lost that mask, so I think the one that I posted was one of the earlier attempts where I was sort of airbrushing the eyes and then cutting holes in it to actually be able to see it through. Oddly enough, when we were designing the homemade suit for Homecoming and Civil War, and it was supposed to be sort of a teenager making it a Spider-Man mask, I had a very specific notion of what a teenager could accomplish.
[laughs] And the design you posted with your homemade mask looks like the original Scarlet Spider costume from the comics’ Clone Saga. Was there a time when the homemade costume from Spider-Man: Homecoming was going to look more like the Scarlet Spider suit?
Yeah, a couple of the masks I pitched for the homemade suit are based on the designs that I’d come up with when I was in high school. I figured I might as well just try and paint them up and see if anybody thought they were interesting. We were trying to seed the idea of the moveable, expressive Spider-Man eyes, even in Peter’s homemade suit, and that didn't really work with my more rudimentary concepts from my actual history. But, yeah, it was still fun to paint them.
That was another design I wanted to ask you about. The Spider-Man costumes in the earlier movies were all good, but the big thing that the MCU Spidey has going for it are those moving eyes. How did those come about?
Kevin Feige came into my office on Civil War and said in sort of in hushed tones, “We’re gonna work on Spider-Man.” After having an audible gasp or some other type of squeak that emanated from my mouth [laughs] he asked me if there's anything that I would do, and the first thing I said was emotive eyes.
With these kinds of characters, we can do upwards of 100 or 200 versions of them when they’re as iconic as Spider-Man. Sometimes it takes that much to get costumes, or some element of a costume, approved. In this case I did about 115 different costumes for Spider-Man, but I only did one head. I did that head with the John Romita Sr. eyes that were emotive and I only pitched that head, and it's the head that got approved. I put a sequence of images together basically showing how the different plates could slide over each other like camera lenses and create expressions on Spidey’s face. And thankfully the [Civil War directors] Russo brothers, Kevin, and [Homecoming director] Jon Watts all dug it.
You mentioned that it sometimes takes upwards of 100 or 200 designs to really get it right. Is there a record for the most designs for a single MCU character?
Some of the records are from projects that I didn't work on. The dark elves [from Thor: The Dark World] took quite a lot. Ego [from Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, played by Kurt Russell] took quite a lot. Working on Mysterio [from Spider-Man: Far From Home, played by Jake Gyllenhaal], he took quite a bit too.
Typically the hardest designs are ones that are based on designs originally done a long time ago; a character that came from the ’60s or before. Translating that into a modern story world can take a lot of versions. A character like Ego is just challenging. He's a planet in the comics. How do you turn that into an actual costume on an actor? That's actually a film I didn't work on, but I know that that was one of the characters that took the largest amount of work to get approved.
A lot of the coolest things you share on Instagram are the designs that don’t get approved. Do you have a favorite of all those costumes that you’ve created that didn’t make it to the screen?
I'm very fortunate in that a lot of the things that I actually really like end up somehow getting into the movies. If I had to pick from the hundreds — if not thousands — of designs I've done that have not been chosen [pause] I had done an updated Captain America costume that he was going to wear in Winter Soldier that was basically going to be an update to his Avengers costume, and was going to sort of be a S.H.I.E.L.D.-appropriate, more tactical version of Cap’s costume from Avengers 1. They decided to cut that costume. I wish we had seen that one on film.
There’s a couple Spider-Man costumes that I really liked. The “Superior Spider-Man” one that I had done, it doesn't really work in the context of the films and the stories that we’re telling with Peter Parker. But that design from the comics and its roots with Alex Ross’ input, I think it’s a really cool costume.
On the flip side, now that you’ve been doing this for more than a decade, are there any designs or decisions from the first three phases of the MCU you would do differently now? I guess the nice part about Marvel is characters reappear over and over and so if there’s a costume you don’t love, you can tweak it in a sequel.
Yeah, that's one of the best parts of about Marvel Studios is the notion that whatever character design we’re putting onscreen hopefully is right for that movie, and then if it needs to be reinterpreted for the next story, it happens.
I think there's always going to be certain designs that I wish I had been able to resolve slightly better. You only have so much time, and you do your best with the time that you’re given. The Captain America Avengers costume is one of the ones where it’s not universally loved amongst the fans. There's some part of me that wishes we’d been able to make it more tactical and more serious. But the thing is, my opinion about that isn't really that important, because of what they were able to do in Endgame where the costume gets revisited and then people can sort of enjoy it again and have fun thoughts about it based on the jokes that they're able to tell in Endgame. It's amazing to see what they can do with the different stories and see how they can twist and turn them to make it so that the things that were less successful become more successful over time.
You mentioned earlier that you first discovered the Marvel characters from toys and beach towels and stuff. Do you ever take into consideration how your designs will look on those products — or in comics, since we’ve now seen some of Marvel Studios’ designs appear in the pages of Marvel Comics?
When we’re designing stuff for the films we’re trying to stay as close to the icons from the comics as possible and just make them work for the story world that the filmmakers are creating. Usually, part of that process is understanding if you were looking at [a design] from 30 feet away, would you recognize it as a very iconic character? Would the color breakups read from a distance? Then, when you get up really close looking into the details of a costume, do they really make it feel real? So we're kind of always looking at stuff from the point of view of does it read as an icon, and does it read as something that feels real.
I'd like to think that if we achieve both of those goals, then that design will translate to most mediums. And hopefully, if it's turned into a breakfast cereal, if it’s turned into licensing art, it's turned into any number of toys, or beach towels, hopefully the designs we’re doing will translate well.
How far in advance of a movie’s release do you begin design work? Are you designing before there’s even a director attached?
Every project is different. In the early days, we actually had a little bit more time; we weren’t trying to crank out three movies a year. So there were times when I would get to work on a project before almost anyone else. There might be an outline or some sort of documents outlining what the film is looking to be, and I would get to start drawing and have more of a blue sky approach to design.
Most times, there’s a general consensus about what the movie’s supposed to be, there's a filmmaker on board, and we get like a download from them about the movie that they want to make. Then we just start drawing. We’re usually working between two years and a year and a half before the film comes out. In some cases, like on Avengers 3 and 4 — if you count Endgame, we were working almost three and a half years before it came out. But we usually have about six to eight months worth of pre-production time to develop concepts and try and get them approved.
Some of the designs you’ve share on Instagram are only partly yours; there’s a beautiful piece of the original Wasp from Ant-Man that’s mostly by Andy Park but you specifically designed the helmet she’s wearing. I’m curious how collaborative the design process is at Marvel. Is that common for one artist to create something, and then another artist to finish it or tweak it?
Some of them can be a collaboration, but for the most part usually when an artist is successful designing a character that artist sticks with them. Specifically with that one, we were doing a bunch of different versions. What often happens before a design is actually approved is a number of artists will take a stab at the character. Essentially what ended up happening with Wasp is I had done a full costume design and they didn't like my costume, but they liked the helmet and they liked one of Andy's costumes. So they basically asked to take that helmet and put it on the other costume. That happens occasionally, because we are doing as many versions as possible to try and land on an approved design. More often than not it doesn't come together piecemeal like that, but occasionally it does.
So since we are talking as Avengers: Endgame is about to come out on home video, are there any little design details people should look for now that they’ve seen the movie once or twice?
One of the fun things about working on the time suits was the idea of all these disparate characters that never spent a lot of time together coming together to make those suits. So looking at the time suits, and understanding that the nanotech of it comes from Tony, and that the aesthetic of the suit and the helmet come from Pym tech, and then there’s some Rocket flourishes with the blue force field in the visor. We're always trying to layer in stuff like that to make it clear that this was a collaboration between the team to make those suits come together.
I try to do things that hopefully are iconic and interesting, but I’m never sure what people really register when they see costumes. For the Smart Hulk, his super-suit version that he has at the end of the film actually a big ‘H’ on his chest and it’s worked into the design lines of the suit. Looking for that kind of stuff is fun too. Once you see it you kind of can’t unsee it.
I guess I could also say these two things. I have been trying to get Captain America in the scale mail armor for quite a few movies, and the fact that it actually ended up being his last costume that that sort of caps his journey as a character, and it features that iconic element from his comic book look, I was pretty proud of that — plus the notion of the Iron Man suit, again being sort of his final suit, and trying to make it look like the classic armor from the comics, with the gold shoulders and gold knees.
One image — or really series of images — I want to ask about is the post you did sharing some of the haircut designs you pitched for the Hulk in Thor: Ragnarok. Was that an unusual assignment for you? How often do things get that granular?
There's kind of two parts of it. That story definitely had a component to it where Hulk was meant to be on Sakaar to a period of time and we were looking for ways to show that. Like, how long has he been there? And could we show that with the haircut? Essentially it was just to make the audience realize this is a different Hulk than we had seen in previous movies. He’s been the Hulk for quite a while, he’s been able to make stylistic choices with his hair for maybe the first time in his existence, because he’s been the Hulk long enough for those things to actually become issues.
The other part of it is whenever an actor shows up for their role, there are obvious questions that happen. “What's my hair gonna look like?” And the hair and makeup departments do a great job of figuring that out and weaving it into storytelling. When you do digital characters, it's not something that’s as obvious, because you actually have to have a very concerted effort to engineer and figure out how to create that hairstyle. It’s not quite as simple as having a discussion with the director and an actor, and through that kind of collaboration, the ideas for the hair and makeup come out of it.
The only way that we can do it is essentially to do different concept designs for what the hair could be and what could it mean for the story. Before we got to Smart Hulk, the Hulk’s face design hadn't really changed that much over the course of the movies that he's been in since Avengers. When you start looking at what you have as a palette of options to work with, if you're going to do different design changes or tweaks to him, hair is one of the biggest things. You can do quite a bit with it, making him feel like he's been on Sakaar for a while, making him feel like he's bought into the gladiator lifestyle a little bit.
The last piece I want to ask you about is this gorgeous Captain America image you made that’s Cap and Red Skull standing on these vintage planes as they’re flying through the sky. That scene doesn’t appear in the finished film; was it cut at some point?
That’s a case where I was working on the film before there was a script or director, or even a writer on board. After Iron Man, I was away from Marvel for a little while. They asked me back to start working on a long-lead takes on Captain America and Thor. The producers were all busy finishing Iron Man and Incredible Hulk, and I was left in a room for a couple months just drawing and painting what I wanted it to for Captain America, and that was one of the frames that came out of it.
I just love that image. It’s great.
There’s some wonderful shots from that final battle. Some components of that frame remained. Red Skull was on the big flying wing, and Cap was on some of the smaller fighters and had to hold on for dear life and then was able to get back to the bigger plane to defeat Red Skull.
Those kinds of really long lead, far out, blue sky stuff are a lot of fun, especially when you can really come up with something that that people gravitate towards. I have done those types of projects where you do some early stuff and you're really excited about it, and then it doesn't really go as well if you would've liked it too. But luckily with Captain America a lot of that early work actually led to suggesting a tone that people liked, and was the starting point for a lot of the touchstones for the character designs.
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