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The guy who makes armor and space suits for TV and movies (photos)

by Robert Garrova | Off-Ramp

Chris Gilman, founder of Global Effects. Grant Slater/KPCC

At his 20,000-square-foot shop and warehouse in North Hollywood, Chris Gilman and his team at Global Effects make just about any costume or prop for the movie that you could imagine: meticulous replicas of medieval armor,  sci-fi space suits.

Walking through Gilman's warehouse feels like a history book and a fantasy movie at the same time. Down one aisle, you'll find a replica of the inside of a lunar module; down another, one of the martians from "Mars Attacks." 

Gilman learned how to work with metal at his father's aerospace company and eventually ended up in Los Angeles, doing the rounds at effects shops. In 1986, he started Global Effects. Gilman and his team have done everything from the flight suit Jodie Foster wore in "Contact" to 14th century Italian armor. 

Gilman also collaborated on one of the space suit costumes used in "Firefly." It's an army green, rugged looking suit, with armadillo-like metal plating on the shoulders. It looks like a leaner version of Gilman's gladiator armor crossed with a flight suit. But look close enough and you can still see details from the real world in the movie costume — like metal plates that are held in place with a professional material instead of just glued or Velcro'd. According to Gilman, bits like that make a costume more believable. 

Adapting reality

"We took an existing style of suit. It's called the S 1030 suit, and it was used in the SR-71 and U2 spy planes. And we science-fictioned it using different materials. We added armor plates to it. But we added armor plates to it the same way you would add it to a real suit," says Gilman.

The "Firefly" suit hangs tidily next to all the other sci-fi suits in Gilman's space suit room. Jumpsuits and space headwear of all sizes line the walls: The shiny Apollo helmet Richard Branson wore in a photo shoot. The space suit Mike Myers donned in one of the "Austin Powers" movies. 

Depending on what room of Gilman's warehouse you're standing in, you could be looking at chainmail or a space suit so true to history that even NASA would have trouble telling it apart from the real thing. 

Gilman says many people just don't know enough about space history to know one suit from another. "Being able to have them in two different rooms helps out because you can say everything over here is science fiction, and everything over there is authentic," he says. 

But Gilman doesn't just make costumes that look real — sometimes they are. As Chief Designer for another company called Orbital Outfitters, Gilman's worked with both NASA and the commercial aerospace industry. On one Orbital Outfitters project, Gilman and his colleagues were tasked with designing a "fit check" suit for SpaceX. Gilman says fit check suits are used in "designing components that have to interface with human beings."

"Often, what I have found is that people don't understand how a spacesuit works and what it's like to wear one. There's a lot of things that I call invisible subtleties. They're things that are very, very important that only become obvious when you've actually worked in the suit," Gilman says.  

These days, Gilman spends more of his time designing real space suits. Sometimes, he says, he enjoys that more. But whether he's working on a project for the real world or fantasy — NASA or Hollywood — Gilman's a craftsman at heart. 

Gilman's shop at Global Effects seems like the playground of a kid who never grew up. With countless swords, space suits and movie monsters, there's something to spark anyone's imagination. It's a place where the real world bleeds into fantasy, and the fantastic can even inform function. If science fiction can ever become science fact, then Gilman's work may be the best example. 

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