Man of Steel's Peter Rubin Talks World-Building, Sub-Mariner and Green Lantern's Costume


Yesterday, we briefly discussed Man of Steel concept artist Peter Rubin and his involvement with the aborted Sub-Mariner film at Universal. Rubin, who joined to speak about his career in film as part of the run-up to San Diego Comic Con International, where he'll present as part of the Art Director's Guild, has also worked on a number of other comics and genre projects, ranging from Green Lantern and Independence Day to Stargate and Surrogates. There's a hole in his schedule coming up, suggesting perhaps that he'll be part of a project yet-to-be-announced...but before that, he did some storyboard work on the forthcoming Marvel Studios sequel Captain America: The Winter Soldier. That's where we started. I see you're working on Captain America: The Winter Soldier. Is that done now or are you on that one through production?


Peter Rubin:Captain America: The Winter Soldier finished for me last summer. I did a brief stint, about two months doing the storyboards. I've been doing this kind f work as an illustrator since 1990. I started out doing storyboards and moved into other kinds of illustration very quickly—started with commercials, moved to movies. Then in late 1990 or early '91 I got very interested in computer graphics and I decided that I wanted to find a way to do my job on a film using digital art. I had done my first pieces of digital art just borrowing other people's computers and sitting in other people's offices and going to trade shows and trying stuff out with the mouse and then later with a tablet when those came out.. Then in '92 I was working on an independent feature and everybody in the office was using MacIntosh computers so I was inspired and I went out on my lunch break and I bought a computer and brought it back to the office and started using it. I was the first one to sort of throw away all of his pencils. That's standard in film now, but you're also seeing more and more of it in comics, too. Rubin: Right, exactly.

Man of Steel Krypton Is Man of Steel a film that was a little daunting? Not only are you playing with this decades-old mythology but more specifically you're having to reinvent the designs that have stood for thirty years since the Donner films. They even used that stuff in Smallville so it's basically been alive and well for a lot of that time! Rubin: Yeah, that's true. I'd say it was a daunting task—it was a challenge, it was something that I think everybody on it felt a great deal of responsibility toward and part of that responsibility was to do something entirely new and to do something that was grounded in an honest, interesting science fictional take on the story. I was really intrigued by the stuff that Alex [McDowell, the production designer] was pulling from. He was sourcing a lot of natural materials and also a lot of art nouveau artists and architecture and prints and paints and things of that nature from the 19th Century. Because those artists looked to nature as their ideal—as a source of ideal forms. So yeah, I think I felt although it certainly didn't rest entirely on my shoulders by any means I certainly felt my portion of responsibility toward the story and toward the genre in general—toward science fiction and toward Superman who's been my favorite hero since I was three years old.

movies-man-of-steel-trailer-02 I believe I also read that you designed the rocket, which is something that got used extensively in the promotions. Rubin: I was very gratified that they felt so strongly about it that they used it in that way. We worked very hard on the starcraft or the baby pod—the spaceship that Jor-El sends little Kal to Earth in. We had a sketch from one of our concept artists, a really wonderful painter named Jamie Jones who did a lto of the original spaceships. He had done a sketch and it was my task to develop that. It changed a lot over the course of the month or six weeks or whatever it was that we were working on it. We worked on it concurrently with a lot of stuff but it was one of my big assignments. I looked at my archives and I literally have forty-six versions of that spaceship. We worked on it very hard and I was very proud of it. I designed not only the look of the thing but also how it opens, parts of the interior and the way that the cradle lifts out of the sort of high chair thing that lifts on a tractor beam. That all came out of pre-viz that I was doing at my desk. With that film, too, I would say that there was a nice cross-section of influences. Did you look to the comics a lot or is that us projecting? Rubin: The answer is yes. We were all looking at comic book stuff. I was sort of a conduit for a lot of that for Alex because I was more familiar with it than he was initially. So I was able to help him pull a lot of stuff from the comics. It wasn't so much that I had a whole library in my head, it was more that I knew where to look to find the information that he wanted. We dug through some interesting stuff—the maps of Smallville that have been drawn over the years, the names of various stores in Smallville. The history of Krypton as it's been recorded in the comics and some of the locations of Metropolis in the United States and how that relates to Gotham City for instance. There's lots of stuff that we looked up that wasn't necessarily reflected explicitly in the film but gave us the grounding that was very useful. At the same time we were trying to invent something that was very very different from anything people had seen before whether in the comics or in the films.

LexCorp building Man Of Steel I know that Zack Snyder had said it was the art guys who had stuck in many of the Easter eggs and stuff. Was that on your end, then, or in post-production? Rubin: I would say that any of that that came out of artists came most likely from the visual effects team. They were the ones that would have had the opportunity to create textures and put things into the composites and the final shots. We were doing upfront designs. Alex I think is not a big fan of Easter eggs. He fears that they will take the viewer out of the immediate experience and I had suggested putting in—in places in Smallville for instance when there were some names that hadn't been pre-determined by the comic books that we had opportunities to create business names and signage and stuff like that, and I said, "Well, do you want to do the names of people who worked on the comics, do you want to do names of people who worked on the films, do you want to throw some of our names in there, do you want to play with this?" He said absolutely not. He wanted to allow the viewer to immerse himself in our world and not be taken out of it at all by throwing in recognizable names. Which is kind of funny when you consider the quantity of coverage that it's been getting—there was actually someone looking to avoid that is interesting. Rubin: There's a lot in there. There's a big sort of separation between pre-production and post-production. There's a lot of time that goes by between the time that we're doing our designs and our work which was from like 2010 through late 2011 to the time the digital effects would be finishing up and all of these little details were being thrown in there. It's two years go by. Marvel is notoriously secretive, so I won't ask you to tell me anything about the Winter Soldier. But is it a different working experience working on that versus working on something like Green Lantern, where the superhero kind of explosion hadn't really happened yet and Marvel is so famously tight-fisted with information?

Captain America The Winter Soldier Movie

Rubin: Well, I wouldn't call the experience I had on Captain America tight-fisted. It was certainly secretive. Gosh, you know, I really can't comment on it. I'll tell you I did storyboards for that film so my work for Captain America 2 as an experience was extremely different because I was doing loose guide concepts for Green Lantern, I was doing a cross between concepts and actual designs for Man of Steel and for Captain America I was doing shots—where's the camera going to be, what's Cap doing in this shot, that kind of stuff. I can't really say anything else about Captain America right now—talk to me next year! You seem to be more of an obvious fit for Comic-Con than many of the other panelists for the Art Director's Guild. Is this one of those things where every year you kind of dread it? Rubin: I'll tell you the truth: This will be my first visit. I've never been. I wish it was different but it has just never worked out that I could go for various reasons—either I was out of the country or I didn't get in in time to get my ticket. I certainly look forward every year to reading about it and looking at people's pictures but it will be my first time here. I want to say, too, that I think I gave an incomplete answer earlier about the film's influences. David S. Goyer is a monster in terms of the stuff he keeps in his head about Superman. I know the one thing that stumped me that I didn't have a handle on—maybe that's all about my level of interest in this sort of thing, being that I just never retained it—but he knew an awful lot about the religion and philosophies of Krypton and wrote quite a bit of stuff that went into the inscriptions on the walls both in Jor-El's laboratory and on the Council Chamber walls. That's actual stuff from the comic books about Rao and stuff. And that was you guys, not post?

Kryptonian writing

Rubin: Yes, that was us. That was on the set, it was actually inscribed on the walls of the set. So do you have a font key somewhere sitting around? Rubin: [Laughs] I don't, but I'll bet one exists by now because they've been using it on the website. You can go to the Man of Steel website and get your name printed out in Kryptonian script. The script was designed and they started with my House of El shield or the glyph and based on the design of that, they designed a visual representation of the language that was intended to look like an older version of the language than what I had used on the glyph. It bears some strong resemblances and it also has a few differences which I think is brilliant. The amount of thinking that went into this thing in every department is really something I'm proud of. I'm not responsible for it but I'm quite proud of it. Everybody worked so hard and cared so much to make it right. They took the designs and developed that into its own language with its own grammar, syntax and everything. Kirsten Franson, I want to mention her, she's the designer who came up with the Kryptonian alphabet. This is the most world-building you've had to do in your career, right? Rubin: Absolutely. That's true—I think the thing is on Independence Day and on something like Stargate which might be the only thing I've worked on where there was a similar amount of world-building going on at that point in my career I wasn't really part of that world-building. I was doing storyboards, I was doing pre-visualizations, I was doing computer screen designs and stuff like that. Definitely Man of Steel is definitely the biggest film I've worked on possibly next to Independence Day and also the deepest I've had to go into this much world-building, history building.

Prince Namor The Sub-Mariner You worked on Sub-Mariner years ago at Universal. If that were something that came around again now that the rights have apparently reverted to Marvel Studios, would that be something you'd be interested in or do you think you've been there and done that? Rubin: Oh, no, I'd love to be involved if that were to come back. From a design point of view I feel like Namor would be wonderful since undersea provides you with rich textures and unusual things that you don't get to do on land. Was that one of those films where you just go, "Man—there were a bunch of really cool ideas that I'm going to use somewhere, someday!"? Rubin: Exactly. Yeah, no question about that. I have stuff on my hard drive from that film that I would love to be able to show on my website, I would love to be able to use in a movie—really, really interesting possibilities with that. Really for me and I think for Jonathan Mostow who was scheduled to direct it if it had happened, the fun of it was taking the story of Namor which is—in the comics, it's a little bit medieval, it's a little bit of a fairy tale kind of a setting both in the social structure and also in the way everything is designed. To take that and to find a cool, science fictional grounding for it and our intention was to do something very similar for world-building as was done for Man of Steel, which was to just come up with a really great sci-fi story that would explain and put a foundation under the things that existed in the comic book that were invented in perhaps a more naïve time. Does that make sense? Yeah, there's an element of a lot of comics where they were working with an audience that was much more accepting I think of "Why's it like that? Well, because I just wrote it and there it is." Rubin: Yes, and they were also working off tropes and sort of cultural commonalities that have changed or don't exist anymore. The whole business of Superman wearing red trunks is an offshoot of circus acrobats and strongmen and athletes. You look at pictures of 19th Century boxers like Jim Sullivan wearing neck-to-toe longjohns and then boxers over those and you see where the origins of that sort of look comes from. And you imagine that in the circus where it gets the addition of bright colors and capes and then you look at pulp magazine or novel covers from that period—it all meshes, it all fits together, it all has a very interesting cultural component that I think in order to make it work in the modern era on its own terms, I think the goal is to as you know to ground it in a science fiction world that modern sensibilities would recognize.

superman-11-cover-jurgens Yeah, but you did keep the old, open acrobat collar rather than going the way that the New 52 did or something. Rubin: Yeah, no, the New 52 designs came out after we were done designing Superman. They were working concurrently I think to develop that stuff as we were designing the movie and there was really not cross-pollination that I'm aware of. They may have certainly gotten to look at our stuff. We didn't get to look at theirs. You're bringing stuff out of essentially nothing in a lot of these cases. Does it sting at all when people give grief about the Green Lantern costume and things like that? Your name isn't on the movie poster, but certainly these are very public conversations that happen around these films. Rubin: I thought that the Green Lantern costume was interesting. I didn't design it. I do think that there were aspects of it that came out of some artwork that I did. I could be wrong about this because I wasn't involved with the costume design sessions but I had done some images of Parallax—or Legion as we went back and forth between two villains during pre-production. I had done some images of him where he had sort of muscle striations all over his body through which glowing yellow light leaked through and then that showed up in the costume later on. I'd say sure—if something criticizes something that you did with lots of effort and love, it stings but you have to sort of understand where people are coming from and understand that the Internet is somewhere that people have a platform to be noticed. Being negative is a way to be noticed and to get attention and cause a ruckus. A lot of times that's truly the motivation—a lot of times people have their own tastes and their own understanding and their own beliefs about the subject and they care passionately about it and they certainly have a right to their opinion. I'm getting better at taking the hits!