Monday, August 24, 2015

Dragon Con 2015: Phantom Troublemaker Makes A Costume

How would you guys like to read a post about how a guy that has no costume making skills built a Mandalorian costume six years ago?
Great! I knew you’d be into it.
First, some background: I’ve always been a huge fan of Boba Fett. Ever since I was a kid I’ve thought he was the coolest-looking character from Star Wars. He didn’t do much of anything in the movies, but his action figure and his Underoos were my favorites. Heck, and his ship, for that matter.
Over the years we got more background on Fett in the form of novels and comic books (and a Holiday special) and people that apparently loved Fett as much as I did had the opportunity to create a fully-formed character. Then we met Boba’s father, Jango, in the Prequels. He had a much bigger role than his son, but met an equally ignominious end.
Next up we got Karen Traviss’ novels that detailed Mandalorian culture to an extent that nobody ever expected. These works absolutely sucked me in and made me a bigger fan of Fett and his ilk than ever before. At that point my Phantom Troublemaker gimmick was just getting underway (in the form that it is now) and I felt absolutely compelled to make a purple and green Mando suit.
This is why I understand costumers and cosplayers and empathize so deeply with what they do. I totally get that unrelenting drive to create that thing. To have that vision in your head that is almost bursting out of your hands and forcing you to make make MAKE.
I’ve told the story of that fire being extinguished on the podcast and the website more than enough times, so today I want to share the story of the making.
Side Note: There are a total of five pictures of me in the costume. They are all from Dragon Con 2009. Four of them are here and were taken by my buddy, Darth Pete. The fifth is with some random family whose kids wanted to have their picture taken with me. That was nice. I wish I had taken more close-up pictures to show how the costume looked on.
All of the other pictures were taken the other day. I unpacked the costume just for this article. You’ll notice that the ammo pouches on the front aren’t here – that’s because they were all moldy and gross. I threw ‘em out.
From the start I knew that I had zero skills. There were things that I felt like I would be able to do and things that I knew I did not have the resources or time to construct on my own.
The first of those latter things was my mask:
I have a guy that makes all of my wrestling masks. His name is Mike Woody and he is an incredible artist. I do not have the sewing or fabric manipulation skills to do what he does, so I order my masks. I drew up a picture of what I wanted – a Mando bucket design (they call their helmets “buckets”) adapted onto a hood (wrestling mask). We had to figure out how the face would be cut out under the mesh and how big the patterns would be, as well as what sort of materials to use. There was no way around it being thick – there were a lot of layers and they couldn’t be fabric because it just wouldn’t look right.
Eventually we figured it out and Mike got to work. His turnaround time is anywhere from two to four months because he takes his time and does quality work. Once the mask order was in, I started looking for the next most critical part of the costume – the armor plates.
Every other aspect of the costume could be kitbashed – taking items and pieces of items and putting them together to create something new and different. This is how many of the original models for Star Wars vehicles were created. But the distinctive plating that Mandos wear on their chests and shoulders could not be faked. The designs were too specific and important to the overall look to be fabricated from something else (at this time I had zero knowledge of costume construction using foam or other materials and I had no connections to the costuming community).
I hunted around online for quite some time to figure out the best way to get these armor plates. Prices ranged from “more than I want to pay” to “WAY more than I want to pay” and the range of materials was baffling. I had no idea there would be so many options. A lot of the cheaper plating seemed far too thin to me, so I settled on a mid-range set. I cannot for the life of me remember what the material is, but it’s very much like PVC. It included the collar, shoulder plates, back plate, and abdominal plates.
Over the course of building this thing I learned a lot. Up until that point I had never really thought about all of the parts that made up Boba Fett’s costume. I had never realized that the armor was mounted on a vest and not his actual flight suit or coveralls or whatever. Not only would this make the plating much easier to deal with, it also just looked better and gave the armor a better profile.
Altering that vest was an absolute motherfucker. But I’ll get to that later.
I printed up a huge number of reference pictures for the various parts of Fett’s costume and pinned them up all over my workshop. I knew I didn’t want to recreate that exact armor, and by that time I had the benefit of knowing that aside from the plating Mando gear varied quite a bit from person to person. This is easily the biggest break I got because it allowed me the freedom to disregard some of the more specific and complicated details of the costume that your average Joe would never notice, anyway. And I could also change small things that I didn’t particularly care for like Fett’s knee armor and booties (those are totally booties).
Actually, I’ll go ahead and get the boots out of the way since I spent more on those than any single other component (except the armor).
I wanted big, clunky space boots. I wanted them to have big straps with cool, space-age-looking buckles or clasps. And I very specifically did not want them to look like Hot Topic boots.
Here is one of the guiding principles I had for this costume – nothing could look like it came from Earth. It drives me nuts when someone has a really together, cool-looking costume with Doc Martens on. It’s fine for something to be recognizable, but it all had to be generic enough to pass as originating in a galaxy far, far away.
What ended up looking best were some motocross boots I found on eBay for a price that was too high, but I just couldn’t pass them up. They looked exactly like what I had been picturing, with some minor alterations (that – like everything else in this project – ended up being not-so-minor).
I don’t have any “before” pictures for anything because it never occurred to me to take any. These were originally blue and light grey. I used painter’s tape to cover up the parts that I liked and spray painted everything else black. There are some English words on these, but they were the last thing I did and by this point I was out of time and patience. If I had any interest in fine-tuning or updating this costume I could pretty easily cover them up now.
I still love the look of the grey clasps against the black and those mesh fabric details at the top add a lot.
Speaking of adding, I attached sheathes for these crazy little knives I got from the Bud K catalog to the backs of the boots. In my mind, my Mando guy kept them back there out of sight rather than on the sides.
What I did not know when I ordered motocross boots is that they’re incredibly stiff and difficult to walk in. The ankles barely give at all, so I was sort of Frankensteining my way around Con. This was but one element of the ridiculous discomfort that came with wearing this costume.
Let’s look at the armor next.
All of it had rough, sharp edges when it arrived. I had not known that this would be the case. It took hours to sand the edges down to what I thought they should look like. Well, to what I thought was acceptable. I felt like they should be rounded down to the bottom edge, with no corners. But that just wasn’t happening.
Also I had to buy a Dremel tool. This was not a complete waste, as I used it on almost every non-cloth part of the costume and have used it at least twice on other things since then (feel the sarcasm). Anybody need a Dremel?
Once everything was smoothed out, paint was the next step. I’m sure there are better ways of doing this (and everything else I did), but I put two coats of this awesome-looking aluminum spray paint on all of the armor pieces. I didn’t use plain silver because I wanted it to have some texture and I think it looks great. I then tore up tons and tons and tons of strips of painter’s tape. I placed it on edges and in various spots so that when I put the purple coat on I could pull the tape off, leaving the base exposed to resemble wear and damage. I’m mostly happy with how it turned out except for that one spot on the right chest plate.
Mandos tend to cover their armor with meaningful insignias, so I wanted each marking on mine to be something specific. On the right chest piece is an eight pointed star that I used because my favorite band, Faith No More, used it. Inside that are the Mandalorian numerals for “19”, a nod to my favorite author, Stephen King. The octagram is silver Sharpie traced around a square and the numerals are acrylic paint brushed on through a stencil. I was intentionally a little sloppy because I didn’t want them to look perfect, but I did want the star to be precise. I have no idea why.
The left side is my son’s handprint. He chose the blue. We just dipped his hand in acrylic paint and stuck it on the plate.
The right shoulder plate features the Mythosaur skull, a commonly used symbol in Mando culture that I definitely wanted to incorporate because it looks so cool. It was spray painted on with a stencil I made.
The left shoulder plate is the outline of the mask of Blue Demon, my favorite luchador. This was also a stencil and spray paint.
After everything was painted and dried, I pulled off all of the painter’s tape and had my “damage and wear”.
I wanted a cape because capes are awesome. But I didn’t want a full cape over both shoulders and I also didn’t want a piece of fabric hanging off of one shoulder like Boba Fett’s. I settled on a sort of drape where one corner would be attached to the collar piece of the armor and the other would simply attach via Velcro to a spot on the side of my vest. As far as the colors, I wanted the exterior to be a dark, utilitarian color and the inside to be a little wild and purple – my signature color. My wife found some really dark green, coarse material at a fabric store and the lining is from the first bedspread I ever owned after moving out of my parent’s house. My wife sewed them together and that was the cape. I attached Velcro to one corner and used some spikes I had bought on eBay to attach the other. I wish I had some pictures of the costume from behind to show how the cape hung. I thought it looked really cool.
I didn’t want a full backpack because I knew that would be a good bit of extra weight. Instead, I attached this utilitarian-looking thermos I found as a container for my “knockout gas” and kitbashed that other thing to be the casing for my flamethrower fuel. The plate on top is just there to add some color (and another Mando “19”). Underneath that is a storage crate for the weapons from a GI Joe Sigma Six action figure. I always really dug the design of that crate and wanted to find a cool use for it. As I am typing this and looking at the pictures, I am remembering that there is actually a bottle in that housing connected to the hose running out of it. The idea was that the housing protected the actual container inside from being damaged.
All of that gear is just screwed onto the back plate. The hoses were tucked up underneath and secured with Velcro.
The flight suit was all my wife. I found short sleeve grey coveralls on clearance somewhere and bought two. Another element of Mando costumes that I had not previously noticed was the two sets of sleeves – short outer sleeves and long ones underneath. The tubes and hoses for the wrist gauntlets fed under those short sleeves.
She cut the collar off and used the legs of one set of coveralls to make the long sleeves for the other. She left spaces in the stitching to feed the gauntlet hoses into.
I sewed this loop of Velcro onto the fly as a point to attach the bottom of the codpiece. More on that later.
The gauntlets are made of a ton of random stuff. I had the most fun making these, but they were also the most frustrating. 
I used two toilet brush holders as the bases and used the Dremel to cut out the bottoms so I could put my arms through them. I’m not going to go into full detail on the construction, but amongst the parts here are:
*a mini Nerf gun
*a Target prescription pill bottle
*a pocket calculator
*four screw-on spikes
*a pneumatic hose attachment
*three push buttons
*a wiring housing
*the end of one of the toilet brushes
*a vacuum cleaner attachment
*the front of a small toy gun
I spent hours and hours measuring and cutting and sanding and drilling and attaching. I don’t recall the whole process, but I think that what I made is very cool. The only thing I’d really change is the nozzle for the flamethrower (it’s the handle of the toilet brush). It needs to be refined and could easily look a lot better. I just liked the shape of it so much.
The gloves were a stroke of pure luck. They just looked like awesome Mando/Star Wars-ish gloves. The colors and mixture of materials could not have been more perfect. The only problem was that they had name brand labels on the closures that looked absolutely terrible and were a BITCH to remove. And of course, it later turned out that I needed to put Velcro strips on those exact spots to keep the gauntlets in place (which worked beautifully, much to my surprise – they were fairly easy to wear and turned with my wrists).
The aforementioned codpiece was an issue. It was an essential part of the armor, but was not included with the plates I bought, presumably because it is a much more difficult part to mold. It’s not just a curved shape. Fortunately for me, it is shaped a good bit like a dustpan.
Yep. That’s a dustpan that I cut the handle off of (with my Dremel tool) and painted to match the rest of the armor. The pictured belt held it on, but there were two other belts that covered that and the flat portion at the top, so it looked okay. It had a tendency to flip up when I walked, so I attached that loop of Velcro to the coveralls to hold it in place via a strip I stuck in the bottom on the back.
I happened upon this Lip Service belt while looking online for unique styles of pouches. I loved the texture and look of it, plus it would actually be a practical way for me to carry stuff around. Naturally even their largest size was way too small for me, but that was no problem because I had already planned to add a belt buckle.
The metal is from the back of some kind of device I had. I drilled holes in the corners and cut strips of thick plastic to sandwich the ends of the belt that I had cut in half. I punched holes in the belt and used the screws from the spikes to hold everything together. Once I was sure of the fit, I Super Glued the screws into the spikes so that it wouldn’t come apart. The belt piece has snaps on either side, so I didn’t need the buckle to be functional or removable.
The Mando characters spell out “layari”, which means “overconfident, swaggering”. I thought that was funny, especially since it is meant as an insult. I applied these through a stencil with spray paint. The stencil lifted a bit, making the side of one of the characters a bit fuzzy. It still bothers me.
I got the gun belt and holsters either from the Bud K catalog or from Amazon. I can’t recall. I used them exactly as they came because I thought they looked fine. Leather probably would have been better, but I didn’t have the skills, time, or money to craft leather holsters. And I just now remembered that I tried.
I cut up an old leather jacket that I had and tried to make holsters, but they looked terrible.
I had originally wanted to have a larger rifle, but realized that I wouldn’t want to carry such a thing around. I wanted my arsenal to be easily stored on my person. These blasters actually came with a set of toy guns that I bought from Toys R Us for fifteen bucks. I thought they looked perfect. They were a bright green when I got them, but a base coat of that aluminum with a flat black and a couple of highlights made them look perfect. I still think these are great blasters. I used them for a super-simple COBRA costume a few years later. I was so hot and miserable the whole time I had the costume on that I didn’t draw these once.
The vest was a nightmare for my wife (as was this whole project). She had slightly more sewing skills than me and had actually used a sewing machine before. We thought that the vest would be easy, but there were two major problems – I had to be able to wear it backwards and the lining had to come out. This thing was going to be hot enough without my core being kept extra-warm. Also, about six inches had to be cut off of the bottom.
The lining was cut out easily enough, but the insulation would not come out. It’s some kind of fibrous stuff like cotton and it’s all glued into the outer material. There is now way we could have realistically separated it from the vest. So let me assure you – Puma makes toasty warm clothing.
Once the alterations to form were made, I attached Velcro in all of the appropriate spots. This was done by sticking both sides to the backs of the plates and pressing them onto the vest. Looking at it now, it seems like it would have been a pain in the ass to get everything into the right spots, but I don’t remember it being bad. I had planned to sew the Velcro on, but the stickiness was such that I didn’t need to. Even now those strips aren’t going anywhere.
I hauled everything down to Dragon Con. On Saturday morning, I suited up. It was a pain in the ass to do by myself and I sweated up a storm even though I had turned the air in the room down to 60°. Once I was geared up, I realized that all of the uncomfortable things about the costume were really, really bad when combined.
I couldn’t see out of the mask for shit. I’m used to not having peripheral vision in those things, but that mesh was not as easy to see through as I had thought. Plus it was thicker and hotter than any other mask I had worn.
The fit of the vest and armor was actually quite good. Nothing was choking me or pulling or pressing in an uncomfortable manner. Through pure dumb luck we had managed to balance everything well and provide enough support that the heavier parts didn’t sag or pull. But my core was sweltering. Wrapped in an undershirt, the coveralls, the insulated vest, and the armor; it was hideously uncomfortable. I don’t think I’ve ever felt so hot and smothered in my life.
As I mentioned, walking was difficult. The boots had no give and getting down stairs was tricky.
The gloves prevented me from doing pretty much anything. They were thick and kept me from taking pictures or using my phone. Plus, while attaching them to the gauntlets had worked out nicely, I was constantly conscious of where the gauntlets were sitting on my forearms and how they looked.
I don’t think that I was in that costume for more than half an hour before I decided I just couldn’t take it anymore. I honestly have no idea how people wear heavy costumes. I can’t even imagine walking in the parade. I might as well try to fly to the moon by flapping my arms.
When I got back to the room I wanted nothing more than to rip the whole thing off as quickly as possible, but even though I knew then that I was never going to wear it again I wanted to preserve it. The most maddening part was that I couldn’t take my mask off until I had the vest off. Which required unscrewing the spiked holding it in place, pulling the back plate off, and unzipping the vest. After that everything came off fairly easily. I had to pour the sweat out of my boots into the bathtub.
I sat in the room naked and drank water for at least an hour, with the misery of the culmination of everything just sinking into me.
Building this suit took almost a year and taught me that I never want to do anything like this again. I was obsessed. I neglected my family to a disgusting degree, I spent money I never should have, and I threw hundreds of hours of my life at something that brought me only the most fleeting satisfaction and that I couldn’t even stand to wear for more than an hour. The feelings of accomplishment I had from finishing the thing are long gone now, while I will never recover from the guilt of spending so many hours down in the workshop away from my wife and son. I will never get that year back.
Costuming isn’t for me. I hate that it took what it did for me to learn that, but I know it now. So if you see ol’ Phantom at Dragon Con – or anywhere else – it’s going to be in a mask and a suit. Or something that someone else made.
I hope that didn’t get too depressing at the end. That’s just my experience. Everything’s fine now, although if I so much as mention sewing a button on some pants, the missus kicks me. And rightfully so. I should buy her a yacht or something.
I strongly encourage you to visit DragonCon.org, download the app, and go listen to all of the Earth Station One Dragon Con Reports for the best information available.
Be sure to join the Needless Things Podcast Facebook Group to get in on the fun and to find out when the first-ever Needless Things Meet-Up will occur!



2 comments:

  1. Hats of to you sir at least you gave it a go, its something I have never been brave enough to do although I have thought about it. However after reading your post you have probably convinced me that cos playing isn't for me, I do however have massive respect for anyone who goes to a convention in costume. It doesn't matter to me if their costumes are not quite right or that they don't have the right body shape for the character they are dressed as. What matters is that they love a character so much that they want to show it to the world, and that should only be celebrated which is why you will always find me taking photos of cos players or having my photo taken with them.

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    1. One thing I sort of glossed over in the post - I did enjoy the challenge of figuring out the parts and how to make everything work. It was just the time involved in actually doing it - and the misery of wearing the damned thing - that made it an experience that I don't care to repeat.

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