Welcome to How’d They Do That? — a monthly column that unpacks moments of movie magic and celebrates the technical wizards who pulled them off. This entry explains how they built and filmed the exosuits for Edge of Tomorrow.
Given CGI’s prevalence these days, it’s usually a safe bet to assume a special effect is computer-generated. And it’s a hunch that tends to prove correct. But it also means that some amazing practical effects work gets handwaved or, at the very least, goes underappreciated.
In Doug Liman‘s sci-fi action flick Edge of Tomorrow (2014), a PR man with no military experience named William Cage (Tom Cruise) finds himself in the middle of a surprise attack against an alien invasion that threatens to destroy the planet. After the effort proves a colossal failure, he dies, drenched in the corrosive blood of an unusually massive alien creature. Then, he jolts awake. Now trapped in a mysterious time loop, Cage relives the invasion over and over in a seemingly endless cycle of life, death…and desperately trying to figure out how his mechanical armor works.
The exosuits in Edge of Tomorrow are cumbersome, unrefined, and hulking; a hastily-made product of a military force scrambling to match a superior enemy. The suits are a burdensome mess of pistons and gadgetry, an ambulating armory to a gifted soldier and a deathtrap to an untested one. Visually, it is impossible not to assume that the suits are a digital effect. Tom Cruise and Emily Blunt pinwheel through the air like skipping stones in these things. They must be CGI. It would be wild if they genuinely built these things. Right?
How’d they do that?
Long story short:
The exosuits in Edge of Tomorrow are, with some minor CGI exceptions, an entirely in-camera practical costume.
Long story long:
The key challenge of the exosuits was creating an armored suit that was both credible as a piece of military equipment and functional as a camera-ready, stunt-proof costume.
Per a profile in issue #139 of Cinefex magazine, the filmmakers did initially consider outfitting the performers in minimal armor and tracking the majority of the suit digitally. Ultimately, both Liman and Cruise lobbied to approach the suit as practically as possible.
Collaborating with a number of departments, prop master and suit modeler Pierre Bohanna oversaw the design of the suits. “They are not shiny, slick, beautiful designs,” specifies production designer Oliver Scholl in the home video release bonus featurette Edge of Tomorrow: Weapons of the Future. “[Our design] is more taking its keys from actual developments that the military is doing and going back into more traditional forms and shapes that just convey more mechanics and hydraulics rather than slick engineering.”
Cruise provided pre-shoot creative input to the team, reportedly proposing that the armor ought to register with the same emotional impact often captured in war photography: a bleak toughness that also speaks to the humanity of the individuals venturing out into the battlefield. Indeed, the actors’ visibility while wearing the exosuits was a critical requirement. If you have Tom Cruise in your movie, people are going to want to see Tom Cruise.
Two-dimensional concept art and three-dimensional foam mock-ups eventually led to the creation of an aluminum prototype that effectively set “the rules of the suit,” as Bohanna puts it. This included hinges that matched the organic joints of the human body. These articulated axes allowed the suits to bend naturally with the movements of their pilots.
It then fell to costume designer Kate Hawley to realize the more aesthetic touches of the design, from military-appropriate color palettes to surface treatments. The exosuit worn by Blunt’s character, Rita, features red slash marks across its chest. “As if to say she had been to Hell and back and lived to tell about it,” Liman explains in a profile for the Motion Picture Association.
Over the course of five months, Bohanna’s team handcrafted more than one hundred suits, each of which consisted of three-hundred-and-twenty custom-made components and one-hundred-and-fifty pieces of additional procured and manufactured parts — nuts, bolts, etc.
The production was, in Bohanna’s words, “a proper assembly line.” Components were molded and fused before finding their way to the fabrication shop where they would be sanded, painted, and cleaned up. “All the [computer-aid design] drawing, all the prototype work, all the modeling, all the casting, all the fabrication, artwork, and assembly were done in-house,” Bohanna explains in an article for Entertainment Weekly. In the end, the Edge of Tomorrow design team developed three versions of the exosuit: “dogs,” with rocket launchers; “tanks,” with super-sized machine guns; and “grunts,” with smaller firearms.
Each suit featured multiple built-in microphones which were seamlessly incorporated into the suit’s design in collaboration with the sound team. In addition to hidden mics in the helmets, another was concealed in a box on the front of the suit. This contained a lavalier with a furry widescreen concealed behind a painted mesh screen. According to production sound mixer Stuart Wilson in an article for 695 Quarterly (his local IATSE union’s official magazine), several mics were destroyed but “all in all, they survived pretty well.”
Outfitted with shock absorbers, the movement of the suits was realized by wirework, via stunt coordinator/second unit director Simon Crane, and the actors themselves. You can get a real sense of the scale of the wirework in the film’s official making of special. With a few exceptions, all the suits featured a one-size-fits-all design. This could accommodate actors anywhere from 5’4” to 6’5” in height. As Bohanna describes in a 2021 interview for the podcast Craft Services, actors would strap themselves into the frame and effectively puppeteer the suit manually as they moved around.
Speaking to The Irish Times, Bohanna says the build was “an enormous amount of work … we ended up with a crew of about one-hundred-and-seventy people making all these detailed suits in different sizes. We had to produce one-hundred-and-thirty of them. It was a colossal undertaking.” This isn’t to say that Bohanna wasn’t above a budget-friendly hack here and there. “I think we spent about £4,000 on cable ties,” he says in the Entertainment Weekly article. “If something popped off, we’d just snap them back together.”
The suits “are meant to look like military pieces of hardware, not a refined piece of engineering,” Bohanna explains to Entertainment Weekly. “They’re brash, quickly-made pieces of equipment. So you’ve got to see the guys struggling in them.” And struggle they did. The suits weighed eighty-five pounds (thirty-nine kilograms) on average. At their heaviest, depending on the armaments, the suits could weigh anywhere between one-hundred-and-twenty-five and one-hundred-and-thirty pounds (fifty-six to fifty-nine kilograms). Some of the suits, made primarily out of foam rubber, were presumably lighter. But one suit, outfitted with an over-the-shoulder weapon, clocked in at one-hundred-and-seventy-six pounds (eighty kilograms), per Bohanna’s estimation.
Actors would only feel the weight when they moved. And specially designed chain rigs allowed performers to take the weight off their shoulders between takes. “They’d basically bring in these A-frames … it looks like a kid’s swing set,” Blunt describes in the Entertainment Weekly article. “And they have hooks hanging from it. And you have five people hang you on these things to take the suit off you.”
As producer Jeffrey Silver neatly puts it in Edge of Tomorrow: Weapons of the Future, the main challenge for the performers was “to make the costume look like [it] was powering them whereas, in fact, they were powering the costume.”
Even Cruise, an infamously fearless performer when it comes to practical stuntwork, admits to never fully conquering the exosuit, describing the ordeal to USA Today as “physically grueling.” During an appearance on Ellen, Blunt confessed to crying when she first put on the suit. “I’m not really a crier,” she says in a clip from the talk show, “but I felt completely overwhelmed that I was going to have five months of this.”
The weight of the suits was an unavoidable result of the demands of the production schedule (the dropship sequence figured early in the shoot). As a result, there was no time to experiment with lighter materials like carbon fiber.
The weight also required some digital parts to be tracked to accommodate Blunt’s smaller size. One digital element featured on every model: the guns mounted on the back of each suit. Per Davis to Cinefex: “They built practical ones for us to scan and photograph, but they never got used in the movie. They were always digital.”
Outfitting the actors required a team of four handlers per actor. During the testing phase, it took Cruise around thirty minutes to get into the suit and an additional thirty minutes to take it off. Unsatisfied with the loss of time, Cruise informed the team that he wanted to get the turnaround time to under a minute. “In the end we timed it and to get me into the suit took thirty seconds,” Cruise explains to USA Today.
What’s the precedent?
Inspiration for the exosuits in Edge of Tomorrow came from a number of sources, including the descriptions in the film’s original source material, Hiroshi Sakurazaka’s novel All You Need Is Kill, as well as bionics developed to assist paraplegics and real-world military-grade suits like the Raytheon SARCOS and Lockheed Martin’s Human Universal Load Carrier. Per the Motion Picture Association profile, the team also looked at initiatives funded by The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, which is a research and development branch of the American military.
But as far as cinematic lineages are concerned, you can’t dabble in sci-fi exosuits without paying creative dues to James Cameron’s Aliens. Hell, Edge of Tomorrow even features the late, great Bill Paxton to tie the referential room together.
In Aliens‘ final act, the very big and very pissed-off Alien Queen ambushes the surviving human characters during their dropship getaway. Unfortunately for the Queen, the ship contains a Power Loader. The intrepid Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) wastes no time using it to even the odds. Outfitted with the mechanical suit, she is able to push the Queen out of the airlock and into the vacuum of space.
Aliens‘ Power Loader was created by special effects supervisor John Richardson, with input from conceptual artist and industrial designer Syd Mead. “They constructed the test model with two-by-twos and trash bags stuffed with newspapers to get the articulation down,” Mead explains in an interview with Vulture. “The finished prop was so cumbersome they had to have guys in black skin suits running it. It was not power-operated. It was operated by manipulators behind [and] out of shot.”
Parts of the scene include miniatures that feature the ILM-pioneered go motion technique. “I kept thinking, ‘There is no way this is going to work.’ But it did,” remembers producer Gale Anne Hurd in a retrospective piece for Entertainment Weekly. “That [fight] was basically a giant exercise in practical effects,” explains Cameron in the same article. “It was either practical full scale, or it was practical miniature.”
Narratively, in Aliens, the Power Loader signals the triumphant empowerment of its heroine. Tom Cruise — ever the enthusiastic film fan — has a tendency to spit earnest truisms about the magic of movie-making. In Edge of Tomorrow‘s making of special, the actor remarks that at its best, action isn’t just action. It’s character, and it’s story. In both Aliens and Edge of Tomorrow, practical exosuit effects are an opportunity to convey tremendous personal growth. The kind of personal growth only achieved by punching aliens in the face with metal suits of armor.