After three decades designing and building masks and costumes for superhero movies, Jose I. Fernandez was uncommonly prepared for the sartorial demands of the COVID-19 pandemic.
From the cyberspace helmets of 2010’s Tron: Legacy to the cat-eared mask of 2018’s Black Panther, Fernandez has specialized in creating the wearable elements that bring movie heroes to the big screen while letting the actors inside them stay comfortable.
Last year, musician Will.i.am of the Black Eyed Peas called on Fernandez, a frequent collaborator, to think about a more wearable, multifunctional mask for the COVID-19 era. The design brief was straightforward: It would need to have filters, it would need to play music, and it would need to look cool.
It’s not the first time Will.i.am has ventured into high-tech wearables. In a previous project, the rapper devised a product called PULS, a questionably useful donut-shaped smart phone meant to be worn around the wrist. The COVID-19 pandemic inspired a slightly more relevant concept. If wearing masks was a new public health imperative, the thinking went, those masks may as well combine with some of the other tech people commonly wear, like Bluetooth headphones for music and phone calls.
Fernandez got to work. Using what he has learned over the years designing masks and costumes for superhero films ranging from 1992’s Batman Returns and 2012’s The Avengers to forthcoming films like Black Panther: Wakanda Forever and Shazam! Fury of the Gods, Fernandez set out to make a mask as stylized as it was protective.
“The original one I did with Will, it was just a style thing, with some safety for sure. It had filters, but it was just a one-layer N95 filter. And then we thought, ‘well, it’s still kind of hot,’ so we added fans,” he says. The fans move hot air out of the mask after it’s been breathed through the filters, like a negative pressure room strapped to your face. “That was the aha moment that just changed everything.”
They realized that, with the right components and manufacturing processes, the prototype they had created could become a product people might want to buy. They teamed up with technology and manufacturing company Honeywell, and are now bringing to market the Xupermask, a dual high-efficiency particulate air filtered mask with three-speed fans for air flow, a silicone face seal, built-in Bluetooth-enabled ear buds, microphone capability, LED indicator and accent lights, and a rechargeable battery with seven hours of power, available now for $299. Designed to wear for hours at a time, and capable of filtering air even after the battery runs out, it’s part Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, part Marvel.
Jamming all these features into the mask was a challenge, but for Fernandez, the most important hurdle was making the mask something people would comfortably wear for long periods of time—exactly the design challenge he has faced again and again designing for the grueling 12-to-16-hour days some actors spend on set wearing his movie costumes.
“It’s art mashed together with problem solving,” says Fernandez, who opened his own costume design company, Ironhead Studios, in 2007. “Humans wear these things. They do have to breathe, they have to go to the bathroom. With superheroes, you don’t think about it, but they have to do all these things.”
Fernandez says technology has caught up to the point that these movie costumes are much less of a burden than they were in the past. Examples includes the compact air fans that he’s been integrating into movie masks and helmets to ventilate air and keep actors cool since working on Tron: Legacy. A current project is The Mandalorian, a series set in the Star Wars universe. The original Star Wars films were notorious for their stuffy helmets, Fernandez says. “All these guys are wearing Stormtrooper helmets and it’s like a rainforest inside,” he says. For The Mandalorian, he’s designed helmets with air fans, lights, and even communication technology to help the actors receive direction.
The advent of 3D modeling has helped make it possible to fit all these add-ons into the cramped quarters of a space helmet without weighing too much.
“Back when I started in the industry, all we did was the outside. It was a veneer,” he says. “But now I’m able to do the interiors, and that allows me to do air pathways, mounts for batteries and magnets, electronics. Everything fits together like a puzzle.”
In Xupermask, these film industry design tricks are spreading out into the consumer realm. It was designed in the context of COVID-19, but with the expectation that in a smoky, dirty, pandemic-aware world, filtered masks may be accessories that are a more regular part of the common wardrobe. The regular consumer may not be able to afford or even want a $299 high-tech mask, of course. During a public health event, being able to listen to music may on the lower end of the survival checklist. But Fernandez is confident that face masks are here to stay.
“When this does go away, which it will, there will be other things that we have to deal with,” he says. “It could be people with asthma who are worried about smog, or it could be somebody who has a cold and want to protect other people. Or it could just be people who want to be more protected on an airplane.”