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The Wandering Earth: Specialty tech suits

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Hailed as “China’s first full-scale interstellar spectacular” (The Hollywood Reporter), The Wandering Earth has launched in cinemas worldwide. Directed by Frant Gwo, the film adapts Hugo Award-winning author Liu Cixin’s story about a desperate mission to save a doomed Earth. To prepare for lift-off, New Zealand’s Wētā Workshop manufactured a series of suits equipped with highly technical exoskeletons, domed helmets, and specialty backpacks.

In Liu Cixin’s story, Earth has become uninhabitable. Freezing temperatures have forced humankind underground. Only a select group of engineers, soldiers, and civilians roam the Earth’s surface. Wētā Workshop was tasked with developing nineteen tech suits to protect this group from the extreme conditions of arctic Earth.

Head of Costume Alistair McDougall and Pattern Cutter Flo Foxworthy led the Wētā Workshop Costume Department through soft costume development and assembly. With the benefit of beautiful, highly detailed concept design provided by the Wandering Earth team in China, the Workshop crew worked closely with the film’s costume designer, Wang Xiyu, to evolve the concepts through prototyping. The crew experimented with different materials, textures, and colour palettes before arriving at the stylised red, grey and black suits seen on screen.

Five suits were fitted with strength-enhancing exoskeletons comprised of more than 300 individual components. In the film, these exoskeletons are powered by hydraulics. In reality, their movements are the result of clever practical effects, driven by the actor’s body. With skeletons constructed from aluminium armatures, urethane cast components, and steel parts, even simple movements would be challenging. As Production Coordinator Rita Maxim explains, “It’s difficult to get a rigid structure to do what the human body does.” To achieve a practical range of motion, Project Supervisor Jack Taylor adjusted the 3D model by adding joints and pivots; elements that allowed the components to slide up and down to enable fluid movement.

With The Wandering Earth’s actors based in China, Wētā Workshop turned to its own crew to ensure the costumes fit across a range of bodies. Searching for willing participants among this group of self-proclaimed “space nuts” was not a difficult task.

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Our main focus is on wearability. It’s really important to us that the suit and the exoskeleton, when they are worn together, are functional; the actor can still do everything that they need to do without any discomfort; and that the whole effect is believable.

Flo Foxworthy Pattern Cutter, Wētā Workshop
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To complete the ensemble, Wētā Workshop equipped fifteen explorers with domed helmets. Manufactured from transparent acrylic, the visors were blow-moulded by acrylic specialists Cambrian Plastics, working from custom templates created by the Workshop crew. Back at the Workshop, the large, hollow domes were fitted with a urethane base and electronic components. Wētā Workshop animatronics technician Simon Jansen installed a cooling system and blue lights that illuminated the actors’ faces.

At the conclusion of the manufacture phase, Head of Costume Alistair McDougall flew to Qingdao to assist with the costumes on set.

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To me, I see this as the perfect collaboration. Extraordinary technicians from around the world, learning from one another and working together to contribute to an incredible piece of sci-fi cinema.

Richard Taylor Co-founder & Creative Director, Wētā Workshop

Released on February 5 and soaring past a record-breaking $600 million in China (Forbes), The Wandering Earth is screening in selected cinemas now.

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