October 12, 2018
In Theaters

The Space Suit Costume Design in 'First Man': A Closer Look

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Are you checking out 'First Man' this weekend?

Damian Chazelle's First Man hitting theaters this weekend, and we had an opportunity to speak with space suit costume designer, prop maker and artist Ryan Nagata about how he designed and built some of the space suit replicas used in the film. 

Space suits costumes designed and fabricated for movies such as First Man are of course required to be historically accurate. What does it take to actually make these realistic astronaut costumes?

A lot of hard work...

But if you're interested in building an Apollo space suit, a space suit replica, or any other sorts of elaborate costume designs for your project, then this is the story for you.

Nagata's started making suits for himself from a place of passion and interest.  Once he started to post pictures of his work, he started to gain attention, which led to collaborations with and visits from Mythbuster Adam Savage. 

 

Crafting your own props and costumes isn't easy, but the insight into that process it can help any filmmaker harness the DIY spirit, and manifest their vision.

Let's learn what we can from his process.

Space Suit Costume Design

No Film School: How did you get involved with First Man?

Ryan Nagata: Ryan Gosling's costumer was looking for someone who made spacesuit replicas online and found my Instagram account. It was one of those cases of social media working well. He contacted me and I met with the costume supervisor and costume designer and they both loved my work.

NFS: Which space suit costumes did you design?

Nagata: I made the X-15 suit that Ryan wears at the beginning of the film as well as the snoopy caps the astronauts wear (comm caps worn on Apollo) and the EVA gloves worn on the moon. I also consulted and made a few other miscellaneous pieces for the movie.

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Designer Ryan Nagata pictured with Joe Engle (the last living X-15 pilot). Engle, a technical consultant on the film, said this was the “sexiest” pressure suit he ever wore in his long astronaut career."Credit: Ryan Nagata

NFS: What was it like working on the project with the First Man team?

Nagata: It was a very positive, but strenuous experience. The team was very dedicated to making the costumes as accurate as possible, so they appreciated my attention to detail. But there was a lot of work to be done in only a few short months. I flew back and forth to Atlanta, where the film was being shot, several times.

NFS: How long have you done costume design and production design?

Nagata: I have been making costumes for myself and for personal film projects since I was a kid. But this was my first experience working in the costume department of a major motion picture.

NFS: How long have you been designing space suit costumes?

I made my first spacesuit costume when I was 14 years old after seeing Apollo 13. But I didn't make another suit until about 4 years ago. It caught the attention of Adam Savage and he commissioned me to make an Apollo suit he wore on Mythbusters. Since then I have been making suits and suit pieces for exhibits and private collections.

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Adam Savage wearing one of Nagata's custom space suit replicasCredit: Ryan Nagata

NFS: Are Apollo space suits particularly popular?

Nagata: Yes. I think the upcoming 50th anniversary of Apollo 11 has got people very excited about space exploration again. That and all the recent news about commercial spaceflights like SpaceX and Blue Origin. There is a certain segment of the population who really like these vintage spacesuits. But I've been alive long enough to see interest in the space program rise and fall a couple of times.

NFS: What are space suits made of? Real ones but also space suit replicas?

Nagata: Real spacesuits have been made out of different materials. The technology has evolved over time and materials have improved. The first suits were rubber bladders with nylon cover layers. After the Apollo 1 fire, NASA looked into more fireproof materials for suits and they created "beta cloth," which is Teflon-coated fiberglass. That is what the outer layer of the Apollo suits were made of. But it is not a very strong material and tears easily. So modern spacesuits are made of proprietary blends of plastics, like ortho fabric.  My spacesuit replicas are usually made of various nylon materials that are cheaper than real spacesuit fabrics, but look very similar. They don't need to go into space.

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A replica space helmet built by NagataCredit: Ryan Nagata

NFS: How many different types of Nasa astronaut costumes do you design and build?

Nagata: I make replicas of the Mercury spacesuit, the X-15 suit, the Gemini suit, and the Apollo spacesuit. I've also made replicas of the in-flight coveralls worn by Apollo crews (my pattern for those was used by the First Man costume department, so I had a hand in those costumes as well).

NFS: Tell us more about space suit helmets and replica space helmets.

Nagata: Like the fabrics, spacesuit helmets have evolved greatly over time. The first space helmets, like the Mercury helmet, were appropriated from military high-altitude pilot's helmets. They were usually a fiberglass helmet shell with a plexiglass visor on the front that raised up. Visibility and mobility are limited in these types of helmets. For Apollo, they created polycarbonate bubble helmets with 360 degrees of visibility.

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One of Nagata's Apollo space suit replicas in a moonwalk custom imageCredit: Ryan Nagata

For the moonwalks, a separate visor assembly was secured over the bubble helmet, and it had that iconic gold-plated visor on the front for solar protection. My replica helmets are made in a similar way to the real ones, but sometimes I change the types of plastics for ease of construction. Again, they don't have to go into space.

NFS: How long does it take to finish one Apollo space suit, for example?

Nagata: It took me several years of work and research to develop all the molds and patterns for my current suits. However, if I started one today, it would probably take about a month and a half to finish one.

NFS: Do you work on them alone?

Nagata: Yes. I fabricate everything myself in my studio.

NFS: Have you shared any of your space suit costumes with the astronauts themselves and if so, what was that like?

Nagata: Yes, many astronauts have seen my work now and many of them have expressed admiration for it. Al Worden (Apollo 15) and Joe Engle (X-15 pilot and one of the first shuttle commanders) were both technical advisors on the film and thought my work was quite accurate. Al has actually asked me several times to help create some exhibits for museums, which I was very happy to do. Alan Bean (Apollo 12) also tried on one of my replicas once and said it was the most accurate Apollo suit he had seen.

Wrapping Up... and Taking Flight

Makers like Nagata are often self-taught. Through tons of research then some trial and error, he honed a process and eventually was doing costume design work for First Man. It adds new literal meaning to the quote "if you build it... they will come." 
 
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One of Nagata's suits one display in his shopCredit: Ryan Nagata

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