Crafting a spacesuit from scratch is a unique art, especially if it's going to be used in a biopic or docudrama that demands that all props, locations, and events be as true to life as possible. This was the challenge prop maker and artist Ryan Nagata faced when he was approached to help design and build the spacesuits used in First Man, Damien Chazelle's biographic drama about American astronaut Neil Armstrong. Adam Savage got the chance to catch up with Nagata for a recent episode of Tested to ask the designer about his unique approach to replicating the complex, intricate, and expensive pieces of wearable equipment of NASA, as well as what he had to do in order to ensure that they were as true to life as possible. Check it out below:
Before he was approached to work on First Man, Nagata was already an experienced spacesuit designer and had been posting pictures of his designs on his Instagram account. In fact, his Instagram posts played a big role in costume designer Mary Zophres asking him to participate in the project.
There is a scene in First Man in which Ryan Gosling, who places Armstrong, suits up with all of his gear, and the filmmakers wanted to show as many different pieces of gear as possible. So, Nagata was asked to design and create many individual pieces, including the X-15 pressure suit, its undergarment, the boots, and even a big, yellow UCD (Urine Collection Device). He describes pouring over countless images of a wide array of space flights from the 1960s, the period in which First Man takes place, which helped him be better prepared to design a realistic and true-to-life replica of the X-15 suit.
Nagata also shares an anecdote about the highlight of flying out to the set in Atlanta—meeting astronaut Joe Engle, the second space shuttle commander and last living X-15 pilot. He explains Engle's reaction to seeing Nagata's X-15 replica:
I've met a lot of astronauts now and some of them have a real nostalgic attachment to the suits that they wore. So, [Engle] saw [the X-15 suit] and he was really—I think he was having a moment.
Nagata is surely an inspiration for fellow costume designers out there because he not only puts great care and attention into the tiny details of his designs but he also approaches them with an enormous amount of respect for the original designs themselves. This is an important skill set to have if you're going to be working on projects like First Man, films that require a certain level of authenticity to and representation of the past, because it's not just about making a costume or prop look like the original, it's about digging into the history of the pieces, learning all you can about their design, and bringing their spirits to life for the camera.