Without a doubt the biggest surprise hit of this past summer was G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra racking in an astonishing $300 million worldwide. The brand, which has been around since the '60s began as doll for boys, to compete in the market with Barbie and was the first "Action Figure," a phrase that it's manufacturer Hasbro coined. Almost 45 years later it is the worlds second most popular action figure, right behind Hasbro's uber-successful "Star Wars" franchise. So with a history like that it only make sense that the film would be a huge hit around the world. Last month representatives of Hasbro gathered at an event in Santa Monica sponsored by Paramount to celebrate the release of G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra on DVD and Blu-ray, which hit stores earlier this week. We had an opportunity to attend and were joined by reps from EA Games, who let us try out the very cool video game based on the film that is now available on most platforms. The game allows you to unlock many JOE's and COBRA members who are not included in the movie as well as a character designed exclusively for the game. Finally, we were invited to take a tour of Legacy FX Studios, formally Stan Winston Studios, to check out the Accelerator Suits that they designed for the movie.
First up, we spoke to Jeff Leibowitz, Senior Brand Manager of GI JOE for the Hasbro Company. Leibowitz had the following to say about the legacy of the property and the thrill of seeing it come to life on the silver screen. "GI JOE is this fantastic equity that has really touched so many people's lives. Personally it's amazing as a fan to see the brand re-imagined on the big screen in the Paramount film the way it was last summer." He went on to talk about comic book legend Larry Hama. Hama is a former Marvel Editor and the man that basically created the GI JOE universe in the popular '80s comic, of which the cartoon was mostly based on. "Paramount brought him in to be a consultant. I honestly don't know what those discussions were. He had a cameo in the film. Larry helped start out a great foundation and we look forward to working with him whenever we can." Leibowitz discussed further Hama's involvement citing an important conversation the comic creator had with the movie studio. "When Larry and Paramount talked about Snake Eyes Larry was adamant about one thing, Snake Eyes can't speak because that was a very important part of his character from the '80s. So we're always happy to have him get our backs."
Fans were excited to see some of their favorite characters such as Snake Eyes, Zartan and the Baroness come to life in the film but there were many fan-favorites like Shipwreck, for instance that did not make the cut. Leibowitz talked about the heart-breaking decision to not include everyone's favorite parrot-loving sailor. "Shipwreck was right on that edge but he was a character that had a certain kind of voice in the cartoons and played a certain role. Does he make sense in the film? At a certain point it didn't seem like they were going to be on a boat of any kind so with his phraseology we just thought that if that couldn't come through then we didn't want to use him. We had to make some decisions like that. There were some random people (extras) that could be characters but since they don't speak we went out of our way not to draw attention to it because you don't know if in a sequel you may bring them back in a different way." So the question arises, are there any Easter eggs/Cameos in The Pit (The JOE's Headquarters) scenes that fans should look for on the DVD? "There are. Bazooka was a guy who wore a football uniform and it's hanging up on The Pit wall, saying maybe he's not with us anymore, a memoriam thing. There is a lot of little things like that that are out there," Leibowitz confirmed.
Finally, Leibowitz talked about some of the changes that had to be made to certain characters in order to adapt them to the screen. For example, Scarlett had a different love interest in the movie than she had in either the comics or on TV. "In relationship to Scarlett, in the comics she was aligned with Snake Eyes and in the cartoon she was more with Duke so it changed in different formats and we thought since this was a different format we should change it again," said Leibowitz. "But you do get a glimpse of Snake Eyes being the protective brother or the jealous ex-boyfriend, you don't know, but that is in the film to have pay tribute to the '80s version," he concluded. However, even bigger than that was the change in Cobra Commander's origin and the way he was introduced in the film. "For story telling purposes. The idea of the more generic 'I want to take over the world' villain for today's movie audience just doesn't ring true," Leibowitz said. "We've all seen that done, very badly. So the emotional component of that is what was this guy's journey to get to be the evil leader? It's not a secret origin in our minds its just a great story to tell for the movie. I think it's a movie universe story. I think if you still want to live in the '80s cartoon storyline, the JOE vs. COBRA storyline, we still keep that past a little more secret. It works better in comics than it would in the movie world," he finished.
Next, we were off to Legacy FX Studios, formerly Stan Winston studios deep in the heart of the San Fernando Valley to check out the awesome Accelerator suits that were used in one of the movie's big action sequences. Upon arrival you marvel at the body of work the company has done as posters from films like The Terminator and Iron Man line the halls as well as props, like the Mach III suit from Iron Man or some of the Terminator machines from Terminator Salvation, that are showcased in the massive workshop at the studio. As the huge staff of creature creators work on upcoming projects, special effect's guru Shane Mahan gave us a close-up look at the Accelerator Suits that were used by the JOE's in the film.
There were six suits made, two for the actors, two for the stunt doubles and two just to have on set in case. Mahan talked about the way the suits were used in the film. "These suits started out nice and perfect but by the end the helmets had been smashed, cracked and were falling down. You know, they had been pretty beaten up so they were only used for bookend moments, any time the actors are talking to themselves or suiting up. When they actually start to run a digital one would take over from there. Then a digital one might come in and take back over for a frame where they vault a wall or something like that. We actually use these as bookend suits because when you get in close to somebody and you start to see their faces you want a contact that feels very real. Digital is great for motion and all that stuff but when it's landing on a car or falling down, you know that's when you want something practical," he explained.
The suits are about 45lbs, which is distributed all over your body and that can make it difficult to run. "Here's the hard part, you have to make it feel heavy but it's got to be as light as possible. Still it's hard for the actors because they're running as fast as they can in these things," Mahan explained. "The material is really light but it has to be strong enough to really hold up. On film they look a lot heavier than they really are. This is like super thin plastic with a slight flexibility to it and what we learned from the previous shows is not to have the shells too hard because there is no flex to it. But if you put a little bit more flex then it's easier for everyone. It takes fifteen to twenty minutes to get these actors into these suits. There were some insert legs that were digitally augmented but these are the actual suits we used." Mahan went on to say that the suit Marlon Wayan's wore was made to fit him but since Tatum Channing was not cast until later it had to be retro-fitted for him, which is not necessarily the preferred way. "All the parts were replaceable with clips so if we lost something we could easily replace it. We had lots of spare parts on set," he added.
Mahan explained one difficulty he had with the design for the suits, his regret and his solution to the problem. "In retrospect I really wish I had designed, something similar to how a spacesuit has a tube that goes to an actual air blower on the back and it's not visible from the front, because their mouth is very close to the helmet surface and since they are running it would fog up. We had multiple vents with fans and we had blowers going at all times but what I didn't count for was that here in California it is nice and warm and if it is warm outside of the suit when they run it doesn't fog up but when we were in Prague, one day it was fifty-five degrees and they were running and the heat from their heads just made it worse. But an idea came that we would take the visor out entirely so they wouldn't catch reflections in the camera and we'd just put it in later digitally. So you have to think of these things ahead so you're not half way around the world and you don't have all your resources."
Mahan said that the small Gatling Gun-type artillery on the suits wrists were built with a tiny mechanism so the actors could make it rotate on their own but most of the other weapons on the suits were added later digitally. He also explained the time span of creating and delivering the suits. "From design to final delivery we had about four months, about four weeks of design and three months to build," he said. "Even though it is sculpted in a computer to make it precise, you have to order the parts, sand them, remold them, cast them up again, fabricate them on a suit that works, then you have to paint them, ship them and once you're done with that, you're almost up to your deadline," he explained. "When we were shooting in Downey, California we tried to get the guys in the suits as much as possible so they got used to them and we could make any adjustments we needed to before Prague. Them we shipped them and excuse the pun but we just hit the ground running," Mahan joked.
Finally, since this is the effects house that built the suits for Iron Man, you do have to wonder if the studio was concerned about these suits looking too similar to the ones in that film? "Production wanted then to be much different from Iron Man because Iron Man had not yet come out" Mahan said. "But as a point of reference we would say, we need a lot more flexible areas because of what we learned from Iron Man, that you can't have locked off joints because they would crack. Everything had to be semi-flexible because the knees are twisting and things are going up and down. So we did learn how to make them more active. Also we changed the design a lot so there was no comparison to Iron Man," Mahan concluded.