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Aside from the mile-long Sandworms, probably nothing of the story is as well known as the Stillsuits. A poor design would clash with the interlocking textures of the story and harm its credibility. Bob Ringwood, the film's costume designer, solved one problem by giving the Stillsuits a distinctively organic look. But it also created the problem of manufacturing the tightly quilted and intricately tubed suits. They thought they had the problem solved until Mark Siegel told them that they were wrong.
"Ringwood is a marvelous designer, but he wasn't familiar with rubber materials. He had based his design on a statue he'd seen and wanted the suit to be like a second skin. He thought that if you could cast it in one piece, it would stretch over the skin and move with it. But it doesn't work like that and I had a feeling from working with those materials that an approach like that would be disasterous."
"When I came on the project, they were going to try and mold them. I wanted to try constructing them out of pieces of foam, but Ringwood had seen foam constructed creatures in England and thought that they always had a look of being built from foam. He was afraid the suits would have that look. I knew, though, that casting them would be extremely difficult. We'd be dealing with full sized plaster molds and have to inject foam into them and make sure all of the little cavities filled. Even if it did work, they'd still be almost impossible to get on and off because they'd be very tight around the wrists and ankles. Plus you'd never be able to get your hands and legs in there unless you put in some kind of zipper or opening and he wanted to avoid that because Ringwood wanted them to have a solid look. Then even if that worked, it still wouldn't look right because cast foam suits are like wet suits. They wrinkle and crease if you bend and Ringwood didn't want that either.
Don Post lab tech, Barry Crane, the first person to try on the prototype stillsuit: it was built over his body cast.
"So with all these things taken in mind, I felt that the best way to do the suits would be to construct them over a leotard body suit. I knew that with careful work we could get it to look exactly the way he wanted. So we had about four or five meetings with Bob Ringwood, Raffaella and Don Post. I continued to push for it and told them that other professionals like Tom Burman agreed with me. After awhile, they agreed that we should build a partial prototype, just so we could demonstrate that it would work. I then got in touch with Bill Bryan, who I had worked with at Kroft Studios, and we built one and Raffaella and Bob were very impressed. They had no idea that foam construction could look that good, and we got the go ahead to build a full suit."
On Dune, almost everything Siegel and his crew did required careful experimentation and intricate physical work done by hand. The first step, for the best possible fit, was to take body casts of all the major actors except Francesca Annis and Jurgen Prochnow, who were done in England. Siegel even had a body cast done of himself because his height and build was closer to some of the Mexican actors that would need stillsuits.
"So we made the body casts and built the suits over a heavy leotard that we had custom made with loops for the hands and feet so the leotard wouldn't pull up on the arms and legs. We also had them made with a higher collar and a heavy duty zipper in the front, and they were made up to the measurements of the lead actors.
"There were a few details that hadn't been worked out, though, like the bottoms of the feet, and we ran into a problem there. Raffaella wanted to use a duck hunting boot that they had been able to get cheap. Ringwood liked them because they had that rubberized toe with grooves and he figured he could disguise the tops somehow. But David Lynch took one look at them and said 'Those are duck hunting boots and people are going to be able to tell what they are.' He didn't like them at all. So we tried to make them work by designing something that would fit over the top part of the boot. It became massively bulky so we finally wound up scrapping them and ordering a bunch of custom made wet suit boots that had the straps and buckles moved to match more closely with the costume. The very bottom of the suit, from the knee down, hadn't been worked out either. Ringwood was very busy so they flew me down to Mexico and I worked up something with Bob about the bottoms.
"Now another thing is that on the prototype suit, we got actual tubing to lay in all the tubing areas. I knew from the beginning that we wouldn't be able to do that on all the suits because laying in the tubing would take forever. We had to come up with a way of making a mold of it so we could make some fake rubber tubing panels, and this simple little thing turned out to be a major challenge. We tried laying out some tubes on a board and casting that, but the plaster got in on the underside of the tubes and the plaster would break off. We finally figured out that the best way to do it would be to go to a metal milling company and have them mill a bunch of grooves in a piece of aluminum. We did that, made a master cast of it, then made a bunch of production molds and made panels from that with hundreds of tubes on them that we just cut and trimmed to fit where we wanted them."
Finally, the main part of the first phase of the construction was done. One small detail, the outer coating of the suits, remained. Naturally, it turned out to be yet another headache.
Liet Kynes' Tear away stillsuit
Inner tubing on Liet Kynes' tear-away stillsuit for his death scene with Beast Rabban.
"The coatings of the stillsuits became a major problem for awhile because we couldn't find a material that would work. We were using a reticulated or porous foam. If we tried to use regular liquid latex to skin over it, the latex would dry on the surface but stay wet and mush inside, and there wasn't any way to dry it so that when you moved it, the suit would squish up and the foam would stick together. I talked with John Naulin, who was the head of materials and development on the project, and with Tom Burman, and we tried a lot of different materials, including different urethanes and even the glue we were using on the foam. The coatings looked good, but they were either too fragile, and the suits were going to have to take a lot of wear so they had to be very strong, or they wrinkled when you moved the suit. We had a small problem too in that we had wanted to leave part of the leotard uncoated so the suit could breath a little better. But that didn't look right either.
"So what we wound up doing was using a very thick latex rubber which had a high rubber and low water content. When you put it on the foam, it would bite into the foam but not soak very deep into it, and that worked excellently. We would brush a layer on the rubber and then when that dried, we would spray on a regular layer of latex to give it an extra slick look. We didn't even have to paint them very much because the rubber was pigmented to be very dark. Then we just put them into a walk-in oven we'd built and dried them at a low temperature and they were finished. David eventually had us add a thin layer of paint to the suits which gave them a very light coppery sheen, but you can't see it at all on film because the suits get so dusty very quickly."
Liet Kynes' Tear away stillsuit
Kynes' inner suit, stretch mesh laced with vinyl tubing. Black tubing connects from this inner suit into the inside of the tear-away stillsuit.
Another part of the assignment involved a reversal from everything they had done before with the suits. They had made a few suits whose pieces could be lifted and strapped on for scenes where the suits are first put on. Now they were going to have to make a suit that wouldn't hold together for a scene where Paul Smith damages Max Von Sydow's suit and casts him into the desert to die. The challenge was to figure out what the suits would look like underneath the pads, then figure out a way to convincingly destroy one.
"For that scene, we made a net leotard, and through that, based on the old NASA cooling suits, we threaded a pattern of tubing that could be hooked up to an off-camera water source. When the tubes were ripped out, water would squirt out of them. Then we had to make a weak stillsuit, and we couldn't make it the way we had all the others because we had built ours for strength. So we took some really thin foam and built a leotard of it, and then on top of that, we built a stillsuit with thin foam and tubing. The regular suits cost about three... four thousand dollars, but these cost about twice as much, which didn't make Raffaella happy. But they looked and worked wonderfully.
The finished item
Hara with her children.
The children's suits had thinner body dimensions and one of the chest panel removed.
"We also did about 90 background suits for the other actors who would be around the main actors, and that was a problem because we knew we couldn't take as much time making them as the main suits. I thought these should be molded, but Teresa Burkett thought we could do them with sewn panels, and she was right. She was extremely helpful in these, and made them by quilting the pattern onto the foam and building several panels together. They looked virtually indistinguishable from the foreground suits. We also made six children's suits and that was a lot of fun. We made the body dimensions just a little thinner and took out one chest panel and they looked just fine."
Stillsuit from Dune. Black bodysuit with exo-skeleton of dark brown foam "armor". Shoulders, knees and cuffs exhibit some wear and tear. Sold for $6,000, July 2003 by Profiles in History