Jessica Helfand | Essays

Iron Man: The Screen Behind the Screen

Robert Downey, Jr. in Iron Man. 2008, Paramount Pictures. Photographs courtesy of Hollywood Chicago.

In Barry Levinson’s 1994 thriller, Disclosure, Demi Moore plays a computer specialist who is sued for sexual harassment. (Michael Douglas plays her hapless victim.) Shot on location in beautiful Bainbridge Island, the film was one of the first to glamorize the computer industry and, in so doing, it rather effectively incorporated the personal computer as a sort of visual catalyst in the development of the story: while comparatively primitive by today’s standards, the sending and receiving of email was, in this case, rendered as a strategic dramatic ploy. At the time, I can recall being somewhat mesmerized by the on-screen interface which was, hard as it may be to imagine, a drawing of an envelope — with wings.

Fourteen years have passed since the days of that winged envelope — a period that has, where special effects and computer animation are concerned, witnessed a meteoric rise in speed, availability, complexity and audience expectation. And while we have come to expect brilliance where, say, vaulting superheros are concerned, the on-screen design qualities are only occasionally as good, (though the blue-black typographic majesty of Syndrome’s lair comes to mind). The degree to which this design conceit relates directly to the scene, the plot, or the character in question lends a fascinating new dramatic element to this element of production design, and has perhaps found its ultimate expression in Paramount’s latest release, Iron Man.

Robert Downey, Jr. in Iron Man. 2008, Paramount Pictures.

Iron Man is the fulfillment of all the computer-integrated movies were ever meant to be, and by computer-integrated, I mean just that: beyond the technical wizardry of special effects, this is a film in which the computer is incorporated, like a cast member, into the development of the plot itself. Going beyond the touch-screen fantasy of Minority Report that has so influenced the last five years of interface design, in Iron Man, vision becomes reality through the subtlest of physical gestures: interfaces swirl and lights flash, keyboards are projected into the air, and two-dimensional ideas are instantaneously rendered as three and even four-dimensional realities. Such brilliant optical trickery is made all the more fantastic because it all moves so quickly and effortlessly across the screen. As robotic renderings gravitate from points of light in space into a tangible, physical presence, the overall effect merges screen-based, visual language with a deftly woven kind of theatrical illusion. (Ghostcatching — the virtual dance installation performed by Bill T. Jones nearly a decade ago — comes to mind.)

But there is more going on, here: playing Tony Stark, the remarkably subtle Robert Downey, Jr. embodies the eccentricity and passion that befit a superhero, but we identify with him because he’s basically an iconoclast who thrives by being surrounded by all those gadgets. It bears saying that movies like this are about as far as you can get from Reality TV, because they’re so magical and over-the-top: from Superman to Spiderman, the superhero retains his mesmerizing pull over the imagination precisely because he is superhuman. In an age that will likely be remembered for its obsession with the average Joe (read Reality TV) such fantasy fare has retained a remarkable hold in contemporary culture: yet unlike Spidey’s Peter Parker or Superman’s Clark Kent, Stark has none of the shy character traits that make his subsequent transformation such a shocker. Like Kent, he putters around his workshop under the occasional watch of his amanuensis (British actor Paul Bettany voices the role of Jarvis, the modern-day embodiment of Alfred Pennyworth — who some of you may remember as Batman’s aging butler) but he’s really his own person. Plus, he’s rich. And he has a lot of computers. On some perverse level, most people I know would sooner see themselves in Tony Stark than in, say, the fat guy on The Biggest Loser, and trust me, it’s not because we’re all so buff: it’s because we spend more time than we’d care to admit in our studios, surrounded, at times helplessly so, by so many computers.

But even that’s just the tip of the iceberg, because there’s a morality play here, too. Stark undergoes an epiphany quite early in the film, leading him to mend his formerly questionable ways and embarking on a quest that might loosely be decribed as more, well, humane. Without giving the entire story away, let’s just say that his newly-minted conscience involves saving people instead of annihilating them, and that the locale for such efforts is somewhere in Afghanistan. And therein lies the essential irony: socially networked and globally interconnected, the illusion is that we’re within reach of anything and everything. But with the real world in political, economic and environmental turmoil, the more we sit behind the screen, the more helpless we actually feel. In this context, Stark’s odyssey is more than an action film: it’s a psychological thriller, and a sociological fantasy. Here, perhaps, the paradox of our inner-connectedness comes full circle: we’re all online constantly yet at the same time, we're powerless against our real enemies. What better fantasy than to imagine yourself capable of mouse-clicking your way to flights of supreme heroism like Tony Stark?

Gwyneth Paltrow and Robert Downey, Jr. in Iron Man. 2008, Paramount Pictures.

To be sure, there are all the usual Hollywood trappings here — Stark’s got a magnificent Malibu pied-à-terre, a stunning love interest, a rock-solid best friend and a maniacal business partner: in short, all the ingredients for a box-office slam-dunk. But it is the computer genius — rendered so captivatingly here through those magical, diaphanous interfaces that swirl around Stark as he plots his course — that are his character’s inevitable doppelgänger. It's a wonder of seamless integration, a choreographed dance between character and computer. And blessedly, not a winged envelope in sight.

Posted in: Arts + Culture, Media

Comments [25]

In the Iron Man comics, Jarvis is an actual butler. The fact that there has been little of the usual fan-backlash that happens when film adaptations make drastic changes to beloved characters goes to show how natural a fit the user interface-as-butler approach is.

Having said that, with his subservient manner often giving way to condescending helpful suggestions, Jarvis reminds me of a certain paperclip...

Jeff Bridges has found new life as villain. All the great technical wizardry was fun to watch in my favorite theater -- the wonderfully low tech, perfectly sized, The Moviehouse of Millerton, NY.
Dan Lewis

I have to disagree with this thesis: "...this is a film in which the computer is incorporated, like a cast member, into the development of the plot itself." This movie, more than Minority Report, should clarify the difference between hardware and software. Iron Man (from the name on down) is all about hardware -- the robots that more or less build the suit around Stark are characters; the various screens inside the helmets do nothing plotwise. You get some cool 3D rendering software split across multiple monitors, but compare that to the robot with the fire extinguisher, who is so anthropomorphized that it gets laughs. It's all about the robots.

But for all its excellent gadgetry, I left this movie really bothered by the power-chord-driven fetishized military bravado. Courage Under Fire depicted similarly heavy-metal-driven tank assaults, or maybe it was Three Kings, but you clearly got the message that there was something wrong and possibly insane in all of it. At a time when our super-hi-tek military seems pretty well emasculated, I bet they're loving this shit at the DoD.

The real illusion of this movie is that American technology is potent. The most blatant reading of this movie is that American technology is a total fantasy. More popcorn, please!
Sam Potts

I don't think that Minority Report or any other movie really influences technology. It's the other way around. The technology featured in those movies are based on the reality of where technology is headed. It's part of the director's job to research as much as he/she can and "get it right" in this respect and give us a glimpse of what's around the corner, even if it be decades away. But, it makes a better story to say "fantasy becomes reality!" than the truth which is that reality simply gets glamorized by the movies on it's way to store shelves. Movies are given way too much credit as inspiration when they are simply reflections.

"Movies are given way too much credit as inspiration when they are simply reflections."

...or the advance wave of marketing to soften up consumers hearts and minds and make us want what the high-tech industry is almost ready to sell us...

To the statement that art imitates life, such as Minority Report (film) impacting technological development (our own, in real life), there are as many cases where it's the other way around. When I saw Enemy of the State in 1998, and was amazed by the level of audio and video surveillance, a friend who served in the Army replied, 'The Army's been doing that kind of observation for almost a decade now.'

Loved the movie and the end titles. Wow!

(And the ultra-rare…) BONUS-BONUS-BONUS!

God Bless Stan!

Joe Moran

whether inspired or inspirational, the artists that work on post-graphics of these movies are amazing artists that more often than not go uncredited, or sub-credited [often in the end scroll after people like craft services and transport PAs]. These, and opening sequence designers put as much creativity into films as Set and Wardobe designers, often setting the tone for the entire film in the first 2 minutes.

Credit where credit is due: to people like Kyle Cooper and those at Prologue and Imaginary Forces, more indie designers like MK12, and interface designers such as Mark Coleran.

As someone who owns both computers and a real machine and fab shop, I think this is just another Hollywood fantasy.

To actually build what he built in the film, there would have to be a whole lot more perspiration, and a lot less fancy 3D graphics.

The Afghan Cave scenes were maybe 30% realistic- but the basement workshop? Nope, pretty much nothing shown is possible with today's, or the next 20 to 50 year's, technology. At least in the Afghan sequence, he used a hammer, an anvil, and a cutting torch.
No metalworking is possible without a thorough understanding of basic techniques- behind every CNC machine tool, there is a guy who fixes, tunes, loads, and advises on material and cutting tool choices, and he knows how to use a hacksaw and a file.

So if the computer was a character, which I suppose it was, it was a character more like the Sean Connery Talking Dragon in
Dragonheart, or Chairy from the old Pee Wee Herman Show. That is, a cartoon, bearing no resemblance to reality.

The metalworking community, which has been discussing this on their forums, was somewhat heartened that Tony Stark had an actual Lincoln Tig welder and a Bridgeport mill- but ultimately felt swindled that in the end, he told the computer to make the suit, and then it was delivered, like a Domino's Pizza, in 15 minutes or your money back.

The shop shown was basically a prop shop. At least they could have filmed it in Dean Kamen's home shop- he has a Haas VMC, and a few other actual computerised machine tools, and, by now, probably a 3D printer or two.

Ries Niemi

'...The Afghan Cave scenes were maybe 30% realistic- but the basement workshop? Nope, pretty much nothing shown is possible with today's, or the next 20 to 50 year's, technology...'

Ries, How on earth can you say right now, with any certainty, what will be possible in 10 years time, let alone 50?

This is getting quite off topic, but: any discussion of the feasibility of this film's technology should begin and end with the "miniaturized arc reactor." Stark built what could nearly be considered a perpetual motion machine. And he made the first model in a cave, with scrap parts.

The metalworking community felt swindled by Iron Man? Really?

I will be happy to be proven wrong, but I think its a pretty safe assumption that we will not have matter fabricators, seemingly invisible ones at that, that can create and assemble complex and never before built machines, from 100's of different materials, in a few hours, and then they work perfectly the first time in ten years, and I highly doubt in 50.
Out of Gold-Titanium alloys, no less.

Unless we meet some nice aliens who give them to us.

All of the suit's tech was actually old fashioned parts and pieces- and I think the real "matter fabricator" is more likely to use nano tech to build organic/mechanical hybrids that grow themselves...
But not in ten years.

Here is a link to a metalworking discussion of Tony Stark's shop- remember, machinists are literal minded, practical pessimists, as they spend their lives fixing things that break.
And every time we see a movie depicting the making of things from metal, we hope for the SLIGHTEST bit of realism, and every time, we are disappointed.
Ries Niemi

Why in the world is anyone searching for realism in a movie based on a comic book? Isn't one of the wonderful things about comic books (and the movies based on them) is that they are fanciful stories about things that are highly unlikely in real life?
Brian E. Smith

Ries, why do you think the matter fabricators were invisible? If I had automated CAD/CAM I wouldn't feel the need to have it on the shop floor, it would be tucked away out of sight, along with everything else.

That point is minor, since (as others have said) the whole fantasy of the movie is that impossible things become possible, and I think the machinist community's criticism is ill-directed.

As a designer, I look at, and criticize, design.
As a metalworker, I inevitably look at, and criticize, metalwork.

My 14 year old son constantly tells me, "its only a movie, dad", and I am sure you are right that I am being silly to expect realism.

However, I am sure that everybody who knows anything about their own field, be it journalism, dentistry, or cooking, feels the same way I do when a movie plays fast and loose with reality.

Sure, I should never expect any correlation between how things are actually done, and how they are depicted in the movies- or even internal consistency- but somehow, fool that I am, I do anyway.

As for automated CAD/CAM being tucked away- well, that IS a fantasy. Machines, All Machines, break, wear, need lubrication, and need to have raw material inserted and chips cleared out. They need coolant refilled, and jams cleared.
In production situations, far from hiding a CNC machine, they are instead in the middle of big, open rooms, with forklift access.
Certainly there are lathes with bar feeders, and giant CNC punches with sheet loaders- and those types of complicated machines need even more tending to.
Newer CNC machines can actually call you up when they break a tool or have a problem- most CNC shops have somebody who has to carry a beeper 24/7. This feature would not exist if it was not needed.

Even Santa Claus had an army of elves to keep things working right.
Ries Niemi

This brings up a related issue to me- the idea that many designers seem to have that the real world, messy and inconvenient as it is, is best just ignored.
I have worked in various capacities with graphic, industrial, landscape, and architectural designers for 30 years or so.
And while it is certainly not universal, the vast majority of them really do think the world works the way it does in this movie- the "designer", in this case, Tony Stark, tells somebody to make the idealised object, and, presto, there it is. Just like I pictured it.

Pretending not to notice, or just cursing, the poor schmucks who actually have to make everything.
Every industry is actually carried on the backs of craftsmen. Craftsmen run printing presses, keep computer servers running, fix copy machines, and, yes, build buildings and make things out of metal.

Architects and Designers (and I have acted in the role of both, many times, over the years) would love nothing better than to just have things magically appear, just like in this movie.

No muss, no fuss, no messy problems with materials, gravity, or somebody telling you its impossible to build what you have designed. Or that you are over budget.

As someone who has scooped a lot of other designers poop, I guess its that attitude that bothers me most about this movie.
This guy is supposed to be living now, with degrees from MIT and the ability to hand raise an armored helmet, and yet when the rubber meets the road, he just waves his arms and the coolest suit of armor is floating in his rec room.

It would not alter the story line one bit if he actually had a few machines even marginally capable of making these parts, or a couple of dirty handed assistants, or had to order a few things UPS.

It is my humble opinion that the best designers actually understand the materials and techniques they work with. And Ol' Tony Stark, if he existed, probably would too.

I guess I want a computerised milling machine to be a character in this movie, instead of an english actor's disembodied voice.

Ries Niemi

Next month: why the Increbile Hulk is the wrong PANTONE green, and an investigation into the preposterous fabrication techniques of batarangs.

"Increbile." Definition: one who scoops the poop of another designer.

"Next month: why the Increbile Hulk is the wrong PANTONE green, and an investigation into the preposterous fabrication techniques of batarangs."

Right on, Daniel.
Adam Duquette

Do you ever read a comic book?
Do you know anything about software industry?
Do you know anything about hardware industry?
rodrigo scama

I know that this movie may still be unrealistic, but there seems to be some people out there who think that it's not possible to compete with the high tech side of the industry when it comes to making things. How about John Britten? He pretty much made his own motorcycle from scratch by himself in his home garage, then it proceeded to win international races against big factory names and set many world records. So next time you hear an "expert" say it's not possible, you should probably do some research, because a lot of people probably didn't think what he did was possible, either, and this kind of thinking is pretty common, unfortunately. Or at least get them to elaborate if they mean impossible or highly unlikely.
Justin Bell

muss, no fuss, no messy problems with materials, gravity
Next thing you’ll tell me that Superman couldn’t really fly...

I have to agree with an earlier poster - particularly about Minority
Report which took it's interface design from existing technology. As
far back as 2001: A Space Odyssey, IBM consulted to create the
onscreen interfaces, the same is true today. I've known designers
who've worked in such a capacity. I enjoyed the film too, but let's
not get ahead of ourselves, films more often reflect culture back to
the audience, not create it, and the same is true of technology.

I would like to know if this would be a concept that could be used for Military advancement?

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