Over the past 11 years, fans of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU)—the seemingly unstoppable series of 23 (and counting!) interconnected superhero films that began with 2008’s Iron Man—have learned not to leave the movie theater while the credits are still rolling. Doing so could mean missing a tantalizing post-credits sequence featuring Samuel Jackson’s Nick Fury, Robert Downey Jr.’s Iron Man or Brie Larson’s Captain Marvel.
But when the credits rolled after this year’s Avengers: Endgame—which brought the MCU’s three-phase Infinity Saga storyline to its emotional conclusion and grossed $2.79 billion at the box office, making it the highest-grossing film of all time—the ArtCenter community had special reason to celebrate: The first name to appear, even before Downey Jr.’s, was that of alumnus and Marvel Studios Vice President of Visual Development Ryan Meinerding.
“Anywhere else in Hollywood, people like us are down the food chain,” says Meinerding, sporting a hoodie on an overcast June day at Disney’s Burbank lot and speaking of Marvel’s small team of in-house artists. “We’re very fortunate to have someone at the highest levels of the company like [Marvel Studios President] Kevin Feige, who really respects and appreciates the artwork generated for a film.”
Meinerding, who studied in ArtCenter’s Illustration department in the early 2000s, heads Marvel Studios’ seven-person visual development team. This team includes four ArtCenter alumni—Meinerding, Director of Visual Development Andy Park, and Senior Visual Development Artists Rodney Fuentebella (BFA 06 Product) and Jackson Sze.
The team was originally assembled to work on The Avengers. Marvel believed that the 2012 film’s ambitious scale—it brought together heroes from the five previous MCU films to defeat trickster god Loki—called for the creation of an in-house group to steer the project.
Collectively, the group crafts the visual language for Marvel’s films, a task that entails updating the company’s long history of heroes, villains and fantastic worlds for modern audiences while retaining what made them beloved in the first place. Want a visual explanation of what the group does? Just watch the animated logo that begins each Marvel Studios film: Comic book panels turn into concept art, which then turn into exciting live-action sequences.
On a daily basis, the group designs characters, costumes, weapons and keyframe art—fully fleshed-out illustrations that depict key moments from a film and serve as inspiration to the film’s director and producers. Though the team brings in freelancers and has expanded to as many as 30 artists at one time, the scale of the work is still a massive undertaking.
And the pace has only increased over the years.
“When I was first hired in 2010, there was just one movie to work on, Avengers. Now it’s three movies a year,” says Illustration alum Andy Park, who has lead visual development on Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, Thor: Ragnarok, Ant-Man and the Wasp, Captain Marvel and next May’s Black Widow, the first cinematic outing of the MCU’s recently announced Phase 4. Prior to working at Marvel Studios, Park worked in comic books (Uncanny X-Men for Marvel) and video games (Sony’s God of War series). “There hasn’t been a break yet,” he adds.
And with Phase 4 branching out into both new narrative territory (Shang Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings features a leading Asian superhero, and Thor: Love and Thunder features Valkryie, an openly LGBTQ hero) and new delivery methods—the next phase includes TV shows for the upcoming Disney+ streaming service, starting with The Falcon and the Winter Soldier in fall 2020—it’s not likely Feige will be snapping his fingers to cut the projects in half anytime soon.
The four alumni have gathered this Friday afternoon not in the Marvel Studios offices—whose floor features dramatically lit Iron Man suits, the Infinity Gauntlet, and Captain America’s shield, among other props from the films—but in a nondescript conference room far removed from artwork that could give away any top-secret projects.
Though the four of them weren’t in the same class, they all share a work ethic and a respect for the foundations of illustration and painting—qualities instilled in them as students. They invoke many of the same instructors when discussing their ArtCenter influences: Kevin Chen (BFA 99 Illustration), Dallas Good (BS 97 Product), Richard Keyes (BFA 87 Graphic), Bob Kato (BFA 87 Illustration), Gary Meyer (BFA 59 Illustration) and Robh Ruppel.
And they all speak highly of Mike Hernandez’s (BFA 98 Illustration) Landscape Painting course. “Mike was instrumental in teaching me how to paint and in my learning about color,” says Illustration alumnus Sze who, prior to working at Marvel Studios, worked on Lucasfilm’s animated Star Wars: The Clone Wars, and whose detailed keyframes for Ant-Man and the Wasp’s Quantum Realm depict abstract landscapes on a microscopic level. “He taught me skills I use here every day.”
Product Design alumnus Fuentebella, who previously created concept art for Electronic Arts and Rhythm & Hues, sees a strong link between his work today and how he was taught to tackle projects at ArtCenter. “Teachers like Norm Schureman (BS 85 Product) challenged us to create something unique and innovative but that still stays true to the function of the product,” says Fuentebella, whose credits include designing characters like Yondu (Guardians of the Galaxy) and Killmonger (Black Panther). “Here at Marvel, instead of function, we’re asking, ‘Who is this character? What is his purpose in the movie?’”
In 2006, director Jon Favreau pulled out of helming Disney’s big-budget adaptation of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ John Carter of Mars novels and embarked on a risky project based on a character not well known to many outside comic book aficionados: Iron Man. When he did so, he asked Meinerding, whom he had been working with on John Carter, to follow him.
Meinerding agreed, and thus began a string of iconic cinematic designs stretching from Tony Stark’s first hand-forged Iron Man suit in the film that jumpstarted the MCU, to the reality-bending, fishbowl-wearing villain Mysterio from this past summer’s Spider-Man: Far From Home. In between, Meinerding can point to numerous accomplishments: He lead visual development on Black Panther, Spider-Man: Homecoming, Avengers: Infinity War, Avengers: Endgame, Spider-Man: Far From Home and he’s leading the upcoming Phase 4 Disney+ shows. Still, he cites his evolving designs for Steve Rogers, a.k.a. Captain America—from his World War II origins in Captain America: The First Avenger to his climactic battle against supervillain Thanos in this past summer’s Avengers: Endgame—as his greatest achievement.
Looking back, it’s hard to remember that bringing Captain America—an earnest superhero who essentially wears an American flag into battle—to the big screen was considered risky. The challenge was addressed head-on in The First Avenger in a scene in which Rogers, wearing his character’s traditional costume, is ridiculed by troops at a USO show. “To have participated in that journey, and to have designed all those costumes for Steve Rogers, especially when you see how his arc ends in Endgame? I’m proud to have been a part of that,” says Meinerding.
Park—who has designed many characters for the films, including Gamora, Hela, Captain Marvel, Ant-Man and Wasp—agrees that problem-solving in order to bring Marvel’s roster of classic characters to the big screen is the best part of the job. “Whenever I told people I was working on Ant-Man, the response was always laughter,” says Park, who earlier this year gave a presentation at ArtCenter. At that event, he shared with students how storytelling shapes his most successful designs and helped him turn a seemingly goofy and relatively obscure hero like Ant-Man into a household name. “Now I see kids dressing up as Ant-Man at Halloween, or fans cosplaying as him at Comic Con.”
And problem-solving extends beyond the design of characters.
Sze points to a scene in Doctor Strange in which he had to visually explain—through a keyframe—the functionality of the Time Stone when wielded by the film’s titular hero. His solution? Animate an apple through various stages of consumption—from missing a single bite to a rotting core—and then reverse the process. Says Sze, “We were happy that scene ended up in the movie.”
Fuentebella points to the now-iconic elevator fight from Captain America: Winter Soldier, in which the hero fights off ten Hydra goons in cramped quarters. Fuentebella, who created a keyframe for the scene, originally thought the action would take place in a freight elevator. “When we found out it was going to be a regular elevator, Ryan and I spent a lot of time in a rickety old elevator in Manhattan Beach, figuring out how to make that scene work,” he says.
Park recalls the group working on a keyframe for The Avengers in which Loki orders a New York crowd to kneel before him. “We sometimes pose for each other’s scenes,” says Park, who then describes the moment when several team members gathered outside and bowed to Meinerding, who was wielding a standing lamp in place of Loki’s staff. “Just then, Kevin Feige and [Marvel Studios co-President Louis D’Esposito] walk by, look at us, and they’re like, ‘What are you guys doing??’”
“Reinforcing corporate culture,” Meinerding jokes, which gets a big laugh from the group. “No, that wasn’t a good look.”
Speaking of which, what’s it like working at a studio whose films regularly earn billions at the box office? A studio that created four of the 10 highest-grossing films of all time? Is it an endless stream of high-fives? “I find that hard to wrap my head around,” says Sze. “At the same time, it’s not something I concentrate on at all.”
According to Park, the team barely has a moment to breathe, even after the success of Endgame. “We went to the premiere, and had our own little celebration downstairs, where [Chairman and CEO] Bob Iger, [Co-Chairman and Chief Creative Officer] Alan Horn and other Disney leadership gave us a toast and congratulated us,” says Park. “Then we went back upstairs and started working on the next five projects.”
Fuentebella adds, “We were like, ‘We gotta get going.’”
After they all share a laugh, Meinerding does get a bit sentimental. “This team was created to work on the first Avengers, which was bigger than anything we had ever attempted at the time,” he says. “So for me, the coolest thing we did to celebrate Endgame was we all went, as a team, to see the film with an audience on opening day.”
“We’re here working all the livelong day,” adds Fuentebella. “So to see people react to the movie in the theater was insane. It was like, ‘Wow! They really like the stuff our team has done.’”
“That would be the closest thing we’ve done to a group high-five,” says Meinerding, and then adds with a wry smile, “because we left during work hours.”
Avengers: Endgame is available now on Blu-ray and digital. Meinerding, Park, Fuentebella and Sze will all be at the inaugural Lightbox Expo at the Pasadena Convention Center from September 6–8, 2019.