Exclusive: Interview With Peter Rubin "Man of Steel" Shield Designer

Conceptual Illustration of Superman Logo for "Man of Steel"
Superman Insignia for "Man of Steel" by Peter Rubin. Warner Bros Pictures

Have you ever wanted to draw the Superman S shield? Would you want to have to redesign one of the most recognized symbols in the world? There have been six theatrical Superman movies and this one set out to be different.

When the team was working to create a new version of the Superman symbol or "S" shield, for Zack Snyder's Man of Steel they turned to concept artist Peter Rubin. Rubin is a wonderful Conceptual Illustrator, Storyboard Artist and VFX Art Director with decades of experience in the motion picture industry. He's worked on films like Stargate (1994), Battlestar Galactica: Blood and Chrome and Green Lantern (2011).

Batman v Superman is coming out and features a new version of the Superman suit. I reached out to Peter and he kindly agreed to do an exclusive interview for about.com.

Maurice Mitchell: There were many designers on Man of Steel. How did you become the main designer for the shield?

Peter Rubin: There came a point during pre-production when I realized that my techniques weren’t cutting the mustard. Our production designer, Alex McDowell, was depending on me to infuse the work with a strong Art Nouveau style, and I just didn’t know it well enough.

My instincts were good, but I was trying too hard to copy some of the (quite brilliant) concept art created for the movie prior to my having been hired as a digital sculptor, and I didn’t fully understand how much I was expected to influence the results. He wanted to cement a form language.

I turned to our art department researcher, Chris Strother, whose insight was invaluable. I studied the huge collections she had assembled of Art Nouveau examples and the early 20th century photographs of flora by Karl Blossfeldt, and I did a little of my own research - mostly redundant, because she had covered it so well - and started practicing. I had to make extensive use of the Lazy Mouse feature in ZBrush, which just about saved my life.

I kind of went overboard with it. One of my spaceship designs wound up looking like an antique hairbrush, it was so floral. But I got it, and got it good. We did the “Baby Pod” design after that, and that was the ticket to the form language he wanted. By the time Alex decided to push for a new glyph design that would fit better into his vision for Krypton, he felt that I was the right person to tackle it. I was very happy to take it on.

MM: In your opinion how has the glyph changed over the years from the 1930s version to today?

PR: When Superman first appeared in 1938, there was no explanation for the suit - it was just what he wore. He looked like a circus strongman. The emblem on his chest was shaped like a policeman’s badge, and the “S,” I suppose, seemed like an obvious symbol in the minds of the creators. Simpler times. Later, they came up with the whole “his mom made it for him” story, from the blankets he was swaddled in when his birth parents put him aboard that spaceship.

You can see the influences of each era in the design, and each artist who took it on. When the most common version we know now first appeared, in the early 1950’s, it was still very much the letter “S,” with its serifs and blunt tail.

It wasn’t until the 1978 Richard Donner movie that the glyph was thought of as anything but an “S.” I remember seeing that movie for the first time, and when Brando wore it in the Krypton scenes, it made instant sense to me. It’s a Kryptonian figure, a family crest, though it still had the iconic look of the shield from the comics and the TV show. Our work on the glyph was an elaborate extension of that idea.

But I felt strongly that it needed to carry the tradition of Superman forward, as well as distilling this new approach. I was asked to do dozens of variations, and I did. I was very pleased that the one that I did purely to satisfy the Superman fan, the kid inside me, was the one that Zack chose.

MM: You mentioned that it all has rounded edges, even the outside. How did you manage to lose a lot of the straight edges and keep the design?

PR: It was a dictate from Alex that pushed me that way - he wanted us to try to design without straight lines and right angles. It was his way of enforcing a purely organic look to the sets and the tech. I didn’t want to kill the cut-diamond silhouette of the shield, so I bowed the sides and top out - like it's pressurized from within - and kept the sharp corners. I also made the frame thicker at the bottom than the top, to give it a little more strength and a subtle forced-perspective feel. Not sure how much that came across, but I liked it.

MM:. What's the most recognizable part of the glyph and what was the hardest part about incorporating it into your design?
PR: I think it’s the overall shape of the shield that I mentioned. We see that shape, and we instantly know what it means, no matter what’s within it or who’s wearing it.

MM: The glyph is supposed to represent the House of El and over the years many interpretations have tried to provide a backstory. Was there a back story of the glyph in your head and how did you use it?

PR: In our movie the glyph was supposed to be tens of thousands of Kryptonian years old - a remnant of a truly ancient and stagnant civilization. But it also had to represent the ideals of the El family, and the hope for something better for the next generation. The world is falling apart, and Zod and Jor-El each have very different ideas about what course to take - one wants to keep things exactly the way they are, believes he can keep the planet together by the sheer force of his will, and the other knows that new thinking is required. They both fail, but Jor-El at least gets to keep his son alive.

MM: How did the Art Nouveau movement influence the many layers and lines in the glyph?

PR: It influenced the whole of Krypton. We looked at Mucha, Louis Sullivan, Aubrey Beardsley, Gaudi, and dozens of others. We looked at that movement’s furniture, architecture, graphic art, and typesetting. We also looked at the things that influenced Art Nouveau - natural objects, particularly as recorded by Blossfeldt. I’ve seen comments on the internet that we must have been copying H. R. Giger, but on my life we weren’t allowed to even bring him up. We had a huge bookcase in the art department filled with fungi, seed pods, grasses and animal skulls. I think all of this attention and effort is reflected in a final product that is both graceful and powerful.

MM: How did your design change at all after it was blown up and put on Henry Cavill's chest?

PR: Not at all, at least in silhouette - they eliminated the internal scoring and elevation changes as you know - but it was quite a fight to get it over. When something that big comes up, there can be serious territorial feelings provoked. Fortunately, Zack was determined that he had the right one, and he was persuasive.

MM: What's the biggest mistake designers can make when trying to redesign an iconic symbol like Superman’s?

PR: I’m the last person who should be telling other designers how to tackle such a project - but for me, at that time, it was about satisfying the requirements of the story, the design parameters set out for me, and keeping the feel of Superman’s world, as I understood and loved it, alive.

I think that redesigning something iconic is tricky. You can wind up doing something new just to be different, or to follow a trend or fad, and fall on your face. I don’t think I did that, but I guess time will tell. When I rendered the first metal version of the shield, there was quite a buzz about it, a sense that we’d lit on something good. They started talking about the poster for the movie. This was two years before the film came out. I was told that it’s one of only five of the Superman symbols that have been trademarked over the years, so that may be a good sign. So to speak.

MM: The Superman chest symbol design for Batman v Superman more closely matches your intricate designs. Where you involved in that design and (if so) how did that come about?

PR: They took most of the internal elements of my Kryptonian glyph, and incorporated them into the suit’s shield. From what I’ve been able to see, it’s the same. I’m glad they did that. I prefer it.

Check out more of Peter Rubin's work at his website http://www.ironroosterstudios.com