Author Archives: mgilbert
Thijarian (Doctor Who)
When I saw the 2018 Doctor Who episode “Demons of the Punjab” I immediately wanted to make one or both of the aliens that were featured. Their design is incredibly striking and original, and the closer you look the more amazing details reveal themselves. Not to mention the episode itself was a standout of the season. I’d never made an organic alien mask before though, so I wasn’t sure what technique would be best to use. I dragged my heels for a while, but as it was looking more and more like an in-person Chicago TARDIS would happen in 2021, I decided I was finally going to build one of these things. I tried to get Lynette on board so we could represent the two Thijarians that are in the episode, but she wasn’t feeling it. That turned out to be fortunate, because it took me every spare moment I had just to crank out ONE of these.
Inspired mainly by the work of Kazul and of Steven K Smith, I decided it would be possible to build the head out of EVA foam, and sculpt the details with a combination of carving away the foam with a rotary tool, and building on top with foam clay. After doing some preliminary materials tests to make sure my ideas would work, I started by covering my plastic bust with foil and tape to bulk it out a bit, then covering it in Monster Clay and sculpting half of a Thijarian head. My plan was always to strip off the ears, eyes, and tusk details to then pull a pattern, but I had to sculpt them (at least roughly) in order to make sure I had the shapes and proportions right. I can now see where I didn’t quite nail it – specifically the lower front of the face – I think I needed to add some mass there – but I got it to a place where I was happy with it. First I pulled patterns for the ears, side-ridges, and tusk socket things. Then I ripped those away and got a pattern for the bare head.
I traced my patterns onto heavy brown paper, then cut them out of 8mm foam from Michael’s. I heat-formed each piece to give then some curves, and then glued everything together with Weldwood contact cement. I left the back 8 inches or so open, and installed a zipper, again with contact cement. The ears were a bit tricky. What I ended up doing was cutting them from the same thick foam as the rest of the head, but then thinning down the parts that would make up the tips. That was challenging with such soft foam, but I mounted my belt sander upside-down in my bench vice, and carefully took it down a little at a time until I was happy with it. I used 2mm foam for the interior of the ears, and embossed some parallel lines in them with a wooden sculpting tool. In order to figure out where the ears should be placed, I took some time to rough-in the eye positions, using the pattern lines to match up the left and right sides. After gluing the ears together, I attached them to the head and further shaped them with a rotary tool and sanding drum. In the end, the ears don’t quite wrap around the back of the head like they should have, probably due to small errors introduced between clay and tape, tape and paper, paper to foam, and foam ears to foam head, and then me not catching it until everything was glued and painted. Not a big deal, but something I notice.
In my experiments, I had been using glass cabochons to stand-in for eyeballs, but they are heavy and not transparent so I wouldn’t be able to use them in the final mask. I took a trip to the craft store and just wandered around for a while trying to find something appropriate. What I ended up getting was a string of led Christmas lights that have tinsel inside the colored plastic globes. My first plan was to cut each plastic globe in half, but that ended up protruding farther from the head than I wanted, AND left me with a supply problem. There were only 5 of each color bulb, and 14 eyes total. I couldn’t mix and match different colors, and the lights were too expensive to buy another strand just to harvest the plastic globes. I had already cut one globe in half, so I only had 4 globes left to work with and I needed 12 more eyeballs. Some quick math told me I could cut them into thirds and have enough, so that’s what I did. VERY CAREFULLY. Each globe had to then be sanded down so it would sit relatively flush against the foam. Luckily this created exactly the size and look I was after.
After a bit of fiddling around, I scrapped the flat patterns I’d made for the tusk sockets, and carved them from stacks of foam circles instead. I then glued these to the head. Using a rotary tool with a small sanding drum, I made holes for each eye and for the nose. Then I painted the area around each eye hole black, and used hot glue to attach the eyeballs. I painted them black because otherwise the white foam might be visible through the plastic eyeball, and the eyes in the show look dark or completely black. Once the eyeballs were all attached, I started sculpting the eyelids and other details with foam clay. This was my first time using it, but it’s pretty easy to work with. Following SKS’s youtube tutorials, I made sure to wet the foam in the area I’d be working, and used a wet finger to smooth and blend all the edges. One thing I noticed is that if you want to put details like wrinkles into the foam clay, you have to press them deeper than you think. As it dries, those lines will pop back out a bit.
I had done some tests with liquid latex as a sealer over the foam and foam clay, and it seemed to work really well. However, when I started brushing it onto the actual head, problems arose. Areas that I had previously covered a few seconds before would start to dry immediately, and as I was brushing the next section on it would start pulling that partially-dried section up into little latex boogers. I tried to power through and see if I could remedy that by going faster or something, but it was not working. I had to peel off everything I had applied. I think there’s still potential for this to work, but it would have to be applied differently – maybe through an airbrush. I ended up using Plastidip instead, which worked fine but has the drawbacks of being finicky about temps and giving off nasty fumes.
After that it was just a matter of airbrushing the mask to look somewhat organic. I’m not the most experienced with an airbrush, but I think I did a decent job. One thing I would do differently would be to use a matte clear coat. I think the gloss ended up too shiny.
Finally, I punched some doll hair into the chin.
For the rest of the costume, I used very basic patterns and improvised a lot. For the skirt, I designed the print based on the reference photos and had it printed at Spoonflower. For the jacket, I used a pattern for a sleeveless jerkin I had made for Robin Hood and made it from a black faux-leather. I then drafted one-piece sleeves, and used some black fabric from my stash onto which I satin-stitched a red embroidered grid pattern. I used the same fabric for the collar, which I drafted through trial and error.
The shoulder armor was made from 4 or 5mm craft foam and sprayed with plasti-dip. The rest of the pieces were also made from foam and painted. Brads are used both as attachments and decoration. I used snaps to attach everything to the base garment, so I could easily remove and re-attach everything as needed.
I made the belt from some leftover crocodile-scale pleather from my Vigil build, and designed and 3D-printed the buckle.
Finally, I used the arms and hands from a gray zentai suit that I airbrushed some organic patterns on, and glued foam fingernails to.
This costume ended up winning the Masters division at Chicago TARDIS 2021. I have very limited visibility – basically I need to maneuver my head around to see out of any individual eye at a time. I can kind of also see out of the “nose”, but that’s mostly for ventilation.
Padmé Amidala Episode II Traveling Costume Headpiece
Since I would be bringing R2D2 to Dragon Con 2019, Lynette wanted to make a costume that would naturally accompany him. She chose Padmé’s traveling/refugee costume from Episode II, and asked me to help figure out how to build the headpiece. I can’t pass up a challenge like that, so I agreed. The first thing I did was collect as much reference material as possible, which had already been done for me by Padawan’s Guide. Then I brought the front view into Illustrator, and traced the overall shape of the “fan” and a representative sample of the repeated pattern (hereafter referred to as ‘the flower’). I took some measurements of Lynette’s head and scaled the pattern to size. Then I exported the flower from Illustrator to a “.dxf” file, which I could then bring into Autodesk Fusion 360 to extrude as a 3D shape. In Fusion, I filled the some of the empty space inside and around the flower with my best interpretation of the “basket weave” texture from the original. I 3D-printed this, and will be using it to emboss some copper-colored foil in a later step.
For the main structure of the headpiece, I decided on 6mm craft foam. The reasons for this were mainly cost, time, and availability. Given more time, I might have sculpted and cast a resin base for the cap, and used something like styrene or foam for the fan/crest, but that would also have been quite a bit more expensive. I mainly used foam from my stash, with a couple of last-minute additions from Michael’s. For the copper, I ordered this 38 gauge copper-colored aluminum foil, and this copper tape. To create a pattern for the cap, I started with a generic plastic bust, and covered it in aluminum foil and masking tape. I sketched the shape I wanted onto the masking tape (just trying to copy the reference photos), then drew a line down the middle of the head (I would only need to produce half the pattern) and divided that half into three pieces that corresponded to the front, the middle, and the back. This is so I would be able to use the pattern for both the foam and the copper. I cut these apart, flattened them (cutting darts where necessary), and traced them onto paper. I then traced these onto 6mm foam (also flipped and traced again to get a mirror-image version of each pattern piece) and cut them out with a sharp x-acto. Each piece was hit with a heat gun and curved over my knee, then contact-cemented together.
I was originally thinking I would build the crest out of three layers – front, rear, and middle. This ended up being a bad idea, but I was able to recover easily thanks to using foam. After assembling the base cap, I cut out the first copy of the crest and cemented it to the headpiece along the middle line (ear to ear). When Lynette tried it on, she complained it was crushing her ears. I cut the crest off, and decided to ditch the center crest piece, since it wasn’t really serving a purpose, and actually causing problems. Instead, I cut two more crest pieces and cemented them on as the front and rear pieces. These pieces come together at the peak of the crest, and then get gradually further apart until they are about 3 inches apart at the ears. This leaves a hollow portion of the crest at the sides of the head, so I cut out ear holes to give Lynette some relief. When I examined the reference material more closely, I could see that this is exactly what they did on the film piece. The last thing I did with the foam was fill the openings at the sides with curved triangle pieces.
Next I cut two crest pieces from the copper foil. I first laid out my pattern by tracing my “flowers” lightly onto the back of the foil with pencil. Next, I put he foil face-down onto some foam, and gently pressed the 3D-printed pattern into the foil. This wasn’t to get the full-depth relief yet, just to give some registration indentations. Then I flipped the foil over, positioned it on top of the 3D printed flower by letting it align to the indentations, then embossed the whole pattern into the foil with a disposable chopstick. Step, repeat. I had also printed a triangle section of basket-weave pattern, which I then used to fill in the triangles between the flowers. Finally, I free-hand embossed the lines that radiate from the base of the crest.
For the cap portions, I used the same patterns I used to cut out the foam. I tried out a couple of different methods to make the compound curve, but what ended up working best was a rubber mallet and an MDF buck that I had built for forming Caspian’s leather pauldrons. Anything harder, like a steel hammer on an anvil would damage the foil. Once I got it fairly close to the right curve with that method, I embossed the lines into the cap pieces, and let that process naturally enhance the curve. After that it was a process of dry-fitting the foil to the foam repeatedly to dial-in the right shape to trim the cap shapes to, since forming and embossing changes the shape slightly. The sides were a similar process to the crest, using a new basket-weave piece printed in 3D for embossing.
I adhered the foil to the foam with contact cement, and covered the edges (and any gaps between foil pieces) with the copper tape. I also used a central ridged foil piece on both the front and back cap portions to hide the seam between the two sides.
The original headpiece is heavily oxidized/patinated, with both a black/dark bronzy color and bright aqua/green in the crevices. I first tried some cheap craft acrylic paints, but the black wasn’t covering well, and the green ended up looking white/chalky. I went back to the craft store and got some heavy-body acrylics in black and aqua/green. These made a world of difference. I did the black first. Working in sections, I would apply a heavy layer of acrylic, making sure to get it into all the low spots, then gently wipe away most of it with a damp shop towel. I often referred back to the original to make sure I was getting as close as possible. I probably could have gone even heavier with the black, even though it felt pretty aggressive at the time. Once the black dried, I came in with the green and applied it sparingly to deep crevices and corners, then dabbed it with the damp towel.
Clara Oswald: “Something’s coming. What’s coming?”
The Queen of Years: “The Vigil.”
I love Doctor Who, and I love making unique costumes that few if any cosplayers have done before. Part of the enjoyment in any costume build is problem-solving, and a tiny bit of that gets taken away when you’re making a well-trod costume like any of the Doctors or (at this point) Newt Scamander. All of that went into my decision to tackle The Vigil from the 11th Doctor story “The Rings of Akhaten”. I really like the creature design, and surprisingly I’ve never done an alien before. As I usually do, I started by gathering reference photos on a Pinterest board, and backing those up to Dropbox in case either service went down.
Due to a variety of circumstances, we had to skip DragonCon in 2018. Rather than waste those vacation days or god forbid come in to work, I used the time to kick off my sculpt of the Vigil mask. I have a heavy-duty plastic bust that is close enough to the shape of my head, so I mounted that to a lazy-susan and started building up a rough form with aluminum foil and masking tape. The closer I could get to the correct shape with these cheap materials, the less Monster Clay I’d need to use. I mainly built up the nose/mouth area to more of a muzzle, and filled-in the eye sockets.
As reference for sculpting, I scaled some reference photos by taking a photo of my head that I knew was scaled correctly, and dropping the reference photos on top in an image editor. I made sure the eyes of the mask would line up to my actual eyes, and that the overall size of the helmet would be right for my head. Looking at it now, I realize I didn’t leave any room for my ears. In the finished helmet, my ears end up being pinned back a bit, but not enough to cause discomfort. I also know that different camera lenses greatly affect the perceived width of the helmet in photos, so I wasn’t too concerned with anything beyond the eyes/mouth/chin placement. I scaled the 3/4 view to match the front view, based on the vertical measurement of the eyes and mouth. I printed these out and kept them taped up as I sculpted.
Based on measurements taken from the scaled reference pics, I estimated the eye cylinders to be 1.5″ OD. This is a common size of PVC pipe, so I cut a couple ~3/4″ pieces to stick into my sculpture. I later determined these were too large and the walls were too thin, so I 3D modeled a variety of new sizes and wall-thicknesses, printed them out on my 3D printer, and picked the ones that looked the best to my eye. In the progress photos, this is when the eyes turn from white to black.
I still have a lot to learn about sculpting, but I was eventually able to get it to a point where I could mold and cast it, and then smooth and refine the cast instead of the clay. I know that people who do this professionally will often use this as an intermediate step before molding and casting a second time, but I only planned to make one of these. Luckily we have a local source for all kinds of Smooth-On products, so I was able to pay them a visit, discuss my plans, and make sure I bought the correct products in the necessary quantities. I ended up going with Rebound 25 for a brush-on mold, thickened with THI-VEX for support layers. I went through 2 ‘trial-size’ packs of the silicone, and that seemed about perfect. This was a very similar process to what I did for my Éomer helmet, except with lots of undercuts making it more complicated. What ended up happening was that I didn’t use enough thickener, and some of my undercuts ended up very thin or even breaking through. The silicone mold was coated in Sonite wax and encased in a 2-part fiberglass shell. For rotocasting I used Smoothcast 65d (One full trial-size package in several layers). While the final cast was completely usable with cleanup, those weak spots and breakthroughs made the demolding of the cast much more difficult and scary.
For cleanup, I used a rotary tool with various cutting and sanding bits to trim the neck, cut out the eyes and side vents, and finally cut out a wedge in the back. I had reached-out to Millennium FX on Facebook and Instagram – the original creators of the mask and hands – and they told me the back was cut out to allow the performers to put on and take off the mask. I later learned first-hand from one of the performers that the entire mask was flexible, and the wedge in the back was a sheet of elastic or stretch material. But FOR NOW, I was assuming I’d be able to put on the mask through this opening combined with the neck hole in my rigid helmet. The first time I attempted this, I stressed the plastic too much and it cracked the top of the skull. Not a huge setback, since the texture of the head is almost like a rough, pitted and cracked granite and a crack could be easily incorporated even if I couldn’t hide it entirely. I used CA glue to close the crack, and then reinforced it with fiberglass on the inside.
But that experience showed me that there was absolutely no way I could squeeze in without a larger access hole. I had sort of always thought I might have to cut the thing apart for this reason, so I already had a plan. I would cut along the natural seam lines between “organic” and “mechanical” wherever possible, and use magnets to join the pieces back together. I didn’t want to use a cut-off disk to do this, though, because I felt like that would remove too much material. I’d then have to go back and build those surfaces back up so they would match again. Instead, I used an x-acto blade in a wood burning tool to slowly cut/melt my way around the entire seam line. It wasn’t perfect, and I had to use epoxy putty on a couple surfaces to get them to mate correctly again, but it worked pretty well.
Every surface of the mask got sanded, and I used Bondo to fill some imperfections from the molding/casting, or where I couldn’t get the clay sculpture smooth/sharp enough. Then it was primed, and I moved on to figuring out the magnets. Rare earth magnets are incredibly strong, so I would use those where I could. They work best when the load is perpendicular to the faces that are in contact. If there is weight on them in the other direction they can slide apart. For this reason, I chose to go with weaker ceramic magnets around the bridge of the nose and along the sides/cheeks. These come in a narrower profile so I could align them in their strongest orientation without adding too much width to the sides of the mask. I had to place them strategically, since at one point I had them right at my ears which was supremely uncomfortable. I supplemented those with rare earth (neodymium) magnets behind the ears, which I also used for the back wedge. The mounting points for the magnets were built up with epoxy putty where necessary to make flat mating surfaces, and they were adhered using CA glue and accelerator spray. For the neodymium magnets, one of each pair of magnets was attached with superglue directly to the helmet, and its mate was glued to a short leather tab. These have proved to be a tiny bit troublesome while putting the mask on, since the leather tabs can get folded under or pinched between pieces. But as long as I have a helper, it’s not a big deal.
For the paint job, I used an airbrush with a basic set of airbrush paints, building up several layers of color and finishing with a beige/taupe, trying to retain a somewhat mottled look. I wasn’t very successful in this, but I only had time for one go at it. This will definitely be revisited. I feel like it reads ok up close, but from even a few feet away it loses any texture and just looks like flat eggshell. I finished with a gloss clearcoat. The mechanical parts all got covered with “gold leaf” Rub-n-buff.
The coat is a vaguely historical military pattern, made of black, heavily textured material resembling crocodile leather. There are 22 half-dome silvery metal buttons (steel or aluminum?) with a fleur-de-lis on each one. I don’t know what timey-wimey sequence of events led to these aliens using a French symbol, or whether it evolved independently. The front closes with a long, clearly visible black zipper. I used a commercial pattern, McCalls M4745, for the main coat, modifying where needed. I had to re-draft the collar, modify the construction and shape of the front (lapel?) flaps, and make up the pockets and cuff decorations completely. I also removed the rear vent since my only reference (a photo of a figurine) showed this was not present. After looking at many many fabric swatches, from crinkled taffeta to jacquard, I finally landed on an upholstery vinyl with a crocodile skin pattern. It was lightweight as vinyl goes, but it would still be a challenge to work with. Once I chose this material, I pretty quickly decided I would not be lining this coat. First of all, it was a timing issue. I didn’t have a lot of it left. Second, vinyl does not sew as nicely as fabric meant for clothing. Once a hole is made in the material, it doesn’t close. If I was going to line this in my usual way, I’d have to be turning it inside-out a bunch. This could potentially over-stress the seams, which now resemble the perforated sides of old dot-matrix printer paper.
As I like to do, especially with a pattern I haven’t worked with before, I made a partial muslin/bedsheet mock-up to make sure the fit was right, my modification would work, and to see how much length I’d need to add to the sleeves. I also tried to mark how much I’d need to shorten the hem, and modify my pattern accordingly to save material. This was my only real misstep, since I somehow managed to shorten the ‘skirt’ too much, and only realized this after I cut most of the pieces out of the final material. I had enough left to re-cut all but the two very back panels, but it was too close to the convention to lose a day ordering new material. In the greatest stroke of luck, I remembered seeing a nearly identical bolt of vinyl at one of our local Joann Fabrics. I drove over there during my lunch break the next day, and it was gone! There was still a spot for it in the rack, so I asked the cutter if the store still had any. We ended up both searching through the clearance and remnants section for the 6 yards of vinyl the system told her were still in the store. Found it! Project saved. It was a tiny bit more expensive per yard than if I had ordered it, but the Joann coupons and not having to pay for shipping probably balanced it out.
Besides a few fights with a temperamental sewing machine, the construction of the coat went smoothly. I set the sleeves in by hand (using needle, thread, and a thimble), since sleeves are always a struggle no matter what, and the vinyl made the process doubly harrowing. In lieu of pins, I again used the clips I’ve used on several projects before. Pinning the vinyl would surely have added days of extra frustration and fingertip blisters to this project. The shoulders ended up looking very puckered, and they’re the one piece of the coat I’d like to rip and re-sew.
I also decided that wherever possible, I’d finish the seams by sewing them open, similar to how I’d normally press open a seam (can’t press vinyl). This makes the finished seams more flat and nice-looking than they’d otherwise be. I couldn’t treat every seam this way, most evidently on the sleeves (can’t access with the machine). On the waist, I sewed the seam allowances ‘up’ rather than pressing them apart. My reasoning was that this would help provide extra strength.
For the buttons, I took a small measuring spoon (1 or 1/2 teaspoon maybe?) and used it to make three perfect domes in a piece of monster clay. On each one I sculpted a fleur-de-lis, then molded and cold-cast around 24 buttons. On the back of each button I used E6000 to adhere a tie-tack blank that I’d ordered in bulk from Amazon. I didn’t want to deal with hand-sewing 20 buttons to vinyl, and none of them needed to be actually functional. This worked pretty well until Sunday when the collar button (the only ones under any real stress) started popping free of their pin-backs. I may try to glue those in place.
When Lynette made my pants for Robin Hood in 2015, she ripped apart (with my blessing) a pair of my old jeans to make a pattern. We’ve since used that pattern for every costume that followed, and this was no exception. Like Robin Hood, these would have eyelets running all the way up both legs and get laced up. For the fabric, I chose one of the Yaya Han stretch pleathers from Joann. This looked pretty close to what they actually used – probably leather? Since I already knew this pattern well, I was able to crank these out relatively quickly despite the fabric being difficult to work with. I could sew the “wrong” sides perfectly fine, but doing any top-stitching caused the material to stick to the presser foot and bunch up. On the advice of Lynette, I was able to remedy this by lining the material with tissue paper, which can be ripped off after the stitching is finished. This worked, but I still have tiny bits of white paper along my seams. I might try soaking them off. Once I constructed the basic pants, I marked and cut a line up the front of each leg, then folded back and sewed about 5/8″ on each side. Every 3 inches I added a 1/4″ eyelet, then laced them up. The removal of that inch or so from each leg made the pants exactly the right level of form-fitting. I had planned on adjusting the side seams to tighten them up if necessary, but it wasn’t. Under them I wear a pair of black running tights, since the laced-up closure is never fully closed. Finally, I added stirrups to the bottom of each leg. These pants were not finished until about 3am Friday night (the first day of the con), and the stirrups were added the next morning. Because of the rushed timetable, I only have one photo from the making of the pants.
I had basically no reference material for the footwear. On one figurine, you could see what looked to be black, shiny, featureless rubber boots. I ended up buying a pair of very cheap rain boots from Amazon, intending to possibly modify them if I could find better reference. For the masquerade, I used them unaltered. After meeting ans speaking to Jon Davey, one of the original costumed performers, I now have a photo of the real boots. They are nothing like what I used. They are black leather beatle boots/chelsea boots with studs all over them. I’m not sure how far I’ll go towards reproducing those, but the rain boots will have to go.
I knew I couldn’t use my bare hands, or even makeup for the final costume. I asked around on different Facebook groups that I belong to, but in the end I didn’t exactly follow anyone’s process since none of them precisely fit what I was trying. What I DID do was to buy a pair of cheap black nitrile-coated gloves from the hardware store to use as a base. On these, I used contact cement to adhere craft-foam details and claws. My first idea was to coat these with latex, so I painted a layer of latex onto the left one. I got impatient, though, and as I handled it the latex started sticking to itself and peeling off parts of the glove. I took this as a sign that I should try something else, and I instead coated them both in 3 or 4 layers of Plastidip spray, then airbrushed and rub-n-buffed them. After two outings in them, I’ll say this: Neither glove held up perfectly, but the one with a single, imperfect layer of latex held up MUCH better than the one with no latex. Since I now have perfect reference photos for the gloves, I’ll be redoing them and probably coating in several layers of latex before paint and rub-n-buff.
So I did the thing they advise you never to do, I put it all on together for the first time in the green room of the Saturday Night Masquerade at Chicago TARDIS 2018. I always love the energy of that room, and I’ve met some of my best con friends back there. I had plenty of folks willing to help me get in and out of it as needed, and the pre-judging went pretty well. I provided documentation of my reference photos and process, but of course I forgot to mention some of the things I had planned to talk about like drafting the collar, and my problem-solving with the helmet. For the show, I had ripped the audio from the episode when the Vigil first appear, and planned to emerge onto the stage just at the point when they materialize. Unfortunately, they started the sound very low, and probably because of wearing the helmet I had a hard time hearing it. I’m told I ended up coordinating my entrance pretty well anyway. I went to three different spots on the stage and did some poses, but my presentation is more or less just a walk-on, walk-off.
I knew of at least one other master level competitor who worried me. She made an incredible dress and had a choreographed presentation with dancing and a funny twist. While I was proud of what I’d done, I was not expecting to win anything. I sat in the crowd, watching them announce the winners for the different categories. Since it was a small field this year, they did not do separate awards for workmanship, an award I have won a few times before. When I heard them skip workmanship and go right to “Best in Show”, my heart was in my toes. I knew I had a weak presentation, so I did NOT expect to win… but I did. The called my name and I numbly returned to the stage – miraculously not tripping on anything – and accepted the award.
A small convention like Chicago TARDIS offers unique opportunities for fans to interact with actors and performers from the show on a personal level. Amazingly, while I was wearing the costume again on Sunday I was stopped by Jon Davey. He had performed the Vigil in The Rings of Akhaten, and wanted to geek out with me about my costume! He tried to teach me how to move like the character (I’m hopeless) and shared a bunch of behind-the-scenes photos with me. This is how I learned how bad my boots were. He even asked to try on my mask (it didn’t fit him very well) and we got a few great photos together.
Newt Scamander Coat V2
Soon after dying my first Newt coat and having it shrink (very slightly, but enough to cause puckering and drooping at wool/lining and wool/vinyl seams), I knew I would need to make a second version. Besides starting with the correct color wool, I also wanted to address various issues, some of which only became apparent after seeing the movie or photos from the traveling exhibits.
- The leather accent on the back of the collar needs to be added, while increasing the overall width/height of the collar so it’s nice and tall in the back and matches the lapels in front. This is the most exciting/stressful aspect of it for me, because it means drafting a new pattern for a somewhat complicated collar.
- The breast pocket, which I originally made as double-welt, is actually supposed to be single-welt.
- Inside pockets of various sizes need to be included.
- Lining color needs to be olive, rather than the chocolate I used in V1.
- Button in the front is not a standard button, but a button-toggle – with a buttonhole on each side of the coat.
- It’s clear to me now that there are no curved seams on the back, nor side panels in the original coat. – Edit – I have decided to live with this aspect being inaccurate.
After seeing close-up photos of the real coat and a swatch from the visual companion book, it became clear that the original was a diamond-weave, consisting of oatmeal and green colored threads. This was then over-dyed to get the dark peacock blue. I started by scouring online and brick&mortar fabric stores for a suitable match and ordered a bunch of swatches. Nothing impressed me, so I went back and ordered more of the same fabric I used for V1, and then dyed it. At the same time, a member of the RPF was trying to put a group together to commission a custom woven fabric. I got in on this, but I’m not sure yet if it will turn out. That will be V3 if it does.
I also wanted to do some upgrades on some other pieces of his costume.
- I found a closer match to his brown tweed jacket which, while not perfect, suits my needs. It should be quite a bit shorter, since Newt’s is ill-fitting, but the fact that this actually fits me means I can wear it outside of a cosplay context.
- Since the boots I bought were a much lighter brown than his, I stripped off the finish using mineral spirits and applied a chestnut leather dye.
- In the film, you can see that his wand is carried in a holster/straps at his left hip, possibly integrated into his trousers.
- I may attempt to sew a new pair of trousers from scratch, having found a decent match at Mood Fabrics.
I got a fantastic olive lining from Mood Fabrics, and some faux leather from Jo-ann. However, after a small slip of the iron ruined (melted) the finish on the faux leather, I drove an hour each way to go get some real leather scraps ($5 for two ~1’x1′ pieces) from Tandy. It meant ripping out the pocket, basting the cuts back together, and redoing it with leather, but the peace of mind alone is worth it. Bonus: I am no longer even slightly intimidated by welt pockets. I would love to make or acquire a bowtruckle to occupy this pocket.
Next I tackled the inside pockets. First I determined where the inside breast pockets should fall by trying on my V1 coat, reaching in and deciding where my hand would naturally expect to find a pocket, then measuring from the seams to mark it accurately on the pattern. Then I transferred these marks to both chest lining pieces and made welt pockets. Since Newt has a bunch more pockets, I also added a patch pocket and a bag with buttons onto one side. I’d had enough of pockets at this point, so even though I suspect the other side also has a crazy pocket or two, I’m sticking with what I’ve got. He also has a row of loops to hold vials under one of the breast pockets, so I added those as well, using a bit of guesswork and supposition to fill in the large gaps in reference material.
My biggest challenge for this version was redesigning the collar to incorporate the leather accent and increase overall height. After sewing a muslin and trying a couple different variations, I came up with what I believe is a close match for the real thing. It takes cues from existing patterns I was able to find online for pea coats, but its ultimate success or failure is 100% on me. Luckily, photos taken at New York City Comic Con show the collar in the “popped” configuration, allowing me to get a decent idea of the shapes and curves involved, and I think I came up with something that at least echoes the look of the real thing. Also, a new addition to my toolbox has made a huge difference when it comes to working with tough or bulky materials like wool and leather: these little clips take the place of pins and make tasks like setting sleeves much less pokey. I ordered one set on the recommendation of Adam Savage and have not needed more so far.
At this point I ended up breaking both of the sewing machines we have in the house (in different ways), probably by trying to sew through too many layers of wool too fast or with the wrong needle. Before that happened I was able to get the lining assembled and mated to the facings and collar, and add the back belt straps (which I increased in width by 1/2″ from last time). To add the straps, I measured where they should attach, then ripped open the existing seam. The straps were inserted, and the seams re-sewn by hand due to bulk. I also added functional buttonholes to them this time, instead of just sewing superficial buttons on top. Until the machines could be repaired/replaced, I did as much hand-sewing and marking as possible. This included making and attaching shoulder pads and sleeve heads, and planning and cutting the outside patch-pockets.
Once we got the sewing machines back from the repair shop, I sewed the lining/facings to the shell, clipped my corners, and did the turn-of-cloth. I could finally see how my modifications to the collar worked out, and I think I did pretty well. Once I was satisfied things were lining up properly, I top-stitched around the front edges, up the lapels, and around the collar, attached the cuffs, and hemmed the bottom. One thing I did differently is that I did not stitch the hem of the lining to the hem of the shell. This is a detail of the original that I only noticed while watching the blu-ray. I also added buttonholes to the front and made a button-toggle. There are a couple things I would change if I did it again, but I am 1000% happier with this version.
Time Lord General
For about a year – since Chicago TARDIS 2015, I was planning to build a 1960’s cyberman costume for the con in 2016. As I spent more and more time on Newt Scamander it became unlikely I could devote enough time to build one to my satisfaction. As I started looking at alternatives, I became attracted to the armor worn by the Time Lord military in the final episode of the last season of Doctor Who. Specifically the General’s. I had been wanting to do a big armor project with EVA foam for a while, and this seemed a perfect fit. I also like the idea of 3D printing some of the detail pieces, since my local library has several printers and my father-in-law just bought one of his own.
I like to say I put actual blood into this costume, because I paid for the foam mats using a $25 Amazon card I got for donating blood. After that, the first step was to figure out the patterns for cutting out the foam shapes. As a start for this, I covered my dressmaker’s dummy in plastic wrap and drew the shapes I wanted with sharpie. I could have used tape to transfer these exact drawings to pattern paper, but since I would be cleaning up and straightening the lines anyway, I just took measurements and drew the shapes fresh. It took 5 or 6 test pieces to get the size and shape of the shoulder bells just right, but I eventually found something that worked for me. I ended up using a strip of 6mm craft foam to make a recessed stripe in the middle of the main shoulder piece. For the rest of the shoulder layers I used only 6mm foam to cut down on bulk. (I bought all the 6mm foam my local Michael’s had on the shelf, which is why some of it is white in my photos.)
For the abdomen and leg armor, I had to make some sharp angles and curves. Instead of joining separate pieces, I cut grooves into the back of flat pieces and folded/glued them into shape, kind of like pepakura. Once a piece was shaped, it got a coating of wood glue to seal the surface for paint. I still haven’t quite found the exact technique I like for this. My first few pieces were undiluted glue, and they had great rigidity, but lots of irregularities from drips and runs that I had to sand out. For later pieces I watered-down the glue but I think I need more coats using that technique since I never got quite the level of finish I liked. After sealing, everything got a coat of a dark metallic spray paint to even out the white and black foam, then a coat or two of burgundy, and a coat of clear. I let it all dry overnight before masking and adding the metallic gold details. At some point I want to come back and add some shadows with an airbrush, then clear coat and polish it all to a high gloss.
After paint, the shoulder armor was linked together using brass brads. The rest of the armor was attached using black 3/4″ elastic, and for certain pieces, plastic buckles. I was actually able to track down the strapping/buckle system I believe was used for the originals, but it appears to require a bulk purchase of like a thousand, and I didn’t have time to have them shipped even if I could get them to send me a couple.
In the meantime, during the first week of work on this I spent a lunch hour modeling the shoulder and chest details, which are both variations on the Seal of Rassilon. I hadn’t finished the armor patterns yet, so I had to use my rough drawings as estimates for the diameters. I sent my models to the library on Friday, 11/11 which gave me enough time, I thought, to get test prints, make adjustments, and request the final prints at the correct dimensions. Due to complications with the flash drive and lack of communication (all my fault) I didn’t get the “test” prints back until more than a week later. Luckily they were the perfect sizes, but with the upcoming holiday, I didn’t have time to get three more shoulder medallions printed at the library. My father-in-law was eager to help, and his prints actually came out cleaner than the library’s. (He has the Monoprice Select Mini 3D printer.)
My fantastic, incredible, amazing wife saw how I was progressing on the armor, and volunteered to make the clothing pieces for me. She had already created basic tunic and trouser patterns for previous costumes, so she had somewhat of a head start, but it still took some hard work to figure out the military collar and all that trim. We collaborated a bit on the cape, though I’m sure I was more just getting in her way. I need to get a better shot of the back, where she has it pleated just like the original. The cape goes on over the abdomen armor, but under the gorget / shoulder assembly.
Like every costume before and (I’m sure) after, I didn’t put everything on all at once until the masquerade. I only had to duct-tape one element – the vambraces – due to the velcro popping off (I had run out of proper straps). This is the first time I had to enter the “master” category since Lynette and I had won the journeyman workmanship prize, so I was extra nervous. This year I took home Best Workmanship – Master, and Best in Show – Workmanship. As always, it was a great competition and I was thoroughly impressed and humbled by everyone’s work and creativity. I’ve made some of my best con friends in the green room of this costume contest, and that’s really what motivates me to keep coming back.
In November of 2015, while I was working on my Robin Hood costume, the first promo images for Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them came out. They feature Eddie Redmayne as Newt Scamander, a wizard specializing in magical creatures. I love the Harry Potter universe, but my only costume to date from that world is an old black graduation gown with a Gryffindor patch on it. On top of that, Mr. Redmayne bears somewhat of a resemblance to me, so I quickly decided I wanted to make this costume. Luckily, I was already familiar with the basic construction of his frock coat because of its similarity to the 11th Doctor’s Christmas coat I made a couple years ago. As with that coat, I started with Simplicity 2895. I knew there would be some alterations to both the waistcoat and frock coat, so I started by sewing a muslin mockup of the waistcoat to get a feel for how it fit, how the neckline/lapels would need to be altered, and to practice buttonholes.
The mockup for the waistcoat showed me that I had to adjust the neckline to plunge deeper, and re-work the lapel shape to taper more to a point where it “rolls” into the front. I know the construction of 2895 is different from the way Newt’s appears onscreen, where his seem to be a solid piece with a facing that continues from the body to the lapel like a suit coat. However, I was not confident enough to attempt to alter the pattern to that extent. It still took some mental gymnastics and math, and I was thrilled when it went together better than I could have hoped – it even gives the appearance of having a roll to it! The fabric I ended up using is a lightweight gold linen from Jo-ann with a synthetic gold lining. I actually got enough gold lining to also do the coat, but before I got to that point new images emerged clearly showing a chocolate brown lining.
While working on the waistcoat, I got some wool swatches from periodfabric.com. I was happy with the blue swatch labeled “WWH-229” so I ordered 3 yards – the minimum order, and also 1/4 yard more than the pattern recommends for the frock coat. I figured that would be enough for the patch-pockets and cuffs which are not in the pattern (it was enough). I told them I preferred not to send back the swatch so they could ensure I got the exact same fabric. I was anxious to get started, and didn’t want to wait the extra few days. I ended up getting a slightly lighter color than the swatch. I probably could have dyed it darker, but I’ve never dyed wool before and I was nervous about ruining the color or texture. Anyway, the actual coat looks different in every single promo image, so I decided to be happy with it and proceed.
Before I could do that, I had to alter the pattern to attempt to match what I see in the promo images and trailers. The distinctive details I noted as different from the pattern were:
- No seam at the waist in the front
- Different lapel shape – more like a pea coat
- Turned-up cuffs
- Patch pockets with (faux) flaps on the sides instead of seam pockets
- Contrasting brown leather accents in a few places:
- Above the patch pockets
- At the bottom of the turned-up cuffs
- Under the back collar
- On the front chest pocket (see #10)
- Belt in the back – two straps buttoned to each other.
- Different seams on the back – wider center section down to two wider “flaps”
- Larger, inverted (from the way the pattern has them) pleats
- Smaller overlap on the back vent
- A diagonal, what appeared to be double-welt pocket on the left chest behind the lapel. (Nope – after seeing photos of the original, it’s a single-welt.)
I tackled this in a couple of steps. First, I combined the pattern pieces for the upper and lower front pieces and front facing, taking into account the narrowing at the waist due to the dart in the pattern. I was having trouble visualizing the other changes just staring at flat pattern pieces, so I made a muslin mockup. I didn’t take it all the way to completion – just enough to check fit and lines. This helped tremendously, because I could put it on my dummy and draw/tape all over it to figure out what adjustments I still needed to make. I ended up altering just about every single pattern piece. I then sewed a second muslin mockup to make sure I got all the math and shapes right. I took this one a little further towards completion, even interfacing the collar and lapels. Newt often has his collar flipped up, and his lapels hold their shape very well. I didn’t trust two layers of wool and some lightweight fusible interfacing to do this without flopping, so I got some heavy fusible interfacing just for the collar and upper facing. I really wanted to try and get hair-canvas and experiment with it, but they don’t carry it at Jo-Ann. Maybe next time.
The one piece I couldn’t quite figure out was the accent piece on the under-collar. At first I had it as part of the back pieces below the collar, but looking at more photos of the original, you can’t see it at all when the collar is in its normal “down” position. What I suspect is happening is that it’s a narrow football-shaped insert between the upper-back and collar, in order to extend the collar higher. I ended up not including it at all. Only other Newt Scamander costumers will notice, probably, but I sacrificed it in the interest of actually getting it done.
In prepping for this build, I read and watched a lot of tailoring blogs/videos. One technique I picked up and used consistently was to mark any “dots” or reference lines with white thread instead of fabric marker or chalk. This ensures my marks line up perfectly on both pieces, and are more precise. This is especially important where the collar meets the lapels, and at the back vent. I also made my own shoulder pads using cotton/poly batting and muslin. For my 11th Doctor coat, I skipped them because Jo-Ann doesn’t carry men’s shoulder pads, and you can definitely tell the difference. They don’t bulk up my shoulders, just keep the lines smooth and clean. I can’t believe I didn’t take any photos of this process, and now they’re sealed up. They were beautiful. I’ll let my construction photos speak for themselves until I get to the cuffs:
I went back and forth on how to construct the cuffs until I found a new, clearer image of them. For this reason, before I even knew what I was going to do I extended the sleeves by several inches (6 or so) so that I had some material to work with. At the time of writing, the best reference photos look like the cuffs are split where the vent would normally be, but I can’t see any evidence of button(s) or buttonhole(s), so that’s how I proceeded (no overlap, no buttons). Once the lining was attached at the collar, facings, and hem, I set to work on the cuffs.
I tried on the coat and turned up the sleeves until they were the correct length, marking a line with white basting thread. I then ripped the back seam (vent) up to that line, stitched a bar-tack to reinforce it, and clipped the seam allowance at a 90° angle to that point. Once I decided how wide the cuffs should be (~3″) I added 1/2″ seam allowance and trimmed the excess. Then I measured the sleeve circumference and cut cuff “facings” to that length plus seam allowances, and 3 1/2″ wide. These facings got two of the corners rounded off. Then I pinned the facings to the outside of the sleeve, right-sides together, and stitched, leaving the “top” long side open. I clipped the curves, and turned the whole assembly inside-out, then top-stitched 1/2″ from the edges and turned the cuffs up the way Newt wears them. Finally, I stitched a rectangle of faux-leather into a loop, slid it (right-sides together) over the whole turned-up cuff assembly, and stitched through all layers about 1/4″ from the bottom edge. The leather gets turned-up inside and attached to the lining.
Other components of the costume include Steve Madden “Troopah” boots, a white dress shirt, vintage wool pants with cuff, a vintage tweed jacket, a brown ribbon bow tie, a vintage suitcase acquired from Etsy, a wool scarf knitted by Lynette, a leather pocket-watch strap, and a hand-made wand. I already owned the shirt, pants, and jacket. My jacket is inaccurate since it’s only a two-button, but since it barely peeks out from the coat I’m ok with it.
A few weeks before Dragon Con, images from San Diego Comic Con came out showing the replica wand. I had already gone to my local Asian market to buy some $2 cooking chopsticks that I planned to modify to make the wand. Now that I had good reference, I cut one of them down to size (a bit from both ends, since they taper to too sharp of a point) and sanded the tip round. I used some tools to gouge divots and scratches into the surface, then used Milliput to sculpt the handle. After curing overnight, I painted it with acrylics and sealed with a satin clear coat.
I debuted the costume at Dragon Con 2016, both on Saturday evening and again on Sunday evening for the Yule Ball. On Sunday I was joined by Lynette in her Porpentina costume. This was probably my favorite event of the con, and our costumes got a great reaction. We encountered several other couples doing Fantastic Beast costumes, and we were able to geek out together over the frustrating details of this outfit. Only one of the three other Newts actually included the under-collar detail, so I don’t feel bad about leaving it out. Overall I am VERY pleased with how this coat came out. It’s not perfect, but it’s damn close.
UPDATE November, 2016
I dyed the coat! The original fabric was bothering me, since it was clear now that it was too light and bright. After a few tests with lukewarm water (to avoid shrinkage as much as possible), I settled on Rit “denim” blue, and proceeded to dye the coat in a big plastic tub inside of my bathtub. I ended up with more shrinkage than I would have liked, but I’m happy enough with the color that it’s ok. I also upgraded the buttons to be more accurate after seeing photos from NYCC.
R2-D2 Part 1
In 2004 I was newly married and a homeowner, and I decided I wanted to build a full-size R2-D2. I had been reading the Yahoo! email group for a while, and had the opportunity to get in on one of the group runs for a blank dome. I believe I paid something around $100 for it. The first thing I did before cutting anything was to create a fiberglass inner dome to act as support for the panels. I prepped the inside of the aluminum dome with car wax, and laid-down some fiberglass cloth with resin from Home Depot. It was my first time working with fiberglass, and it shows, but most of the inner dome will be hidden. After these photos I added another layer or two of fiberglass for strength.
After sanding down the dome to remove spin lines from its manufacture, it was time to lay out the dome panels and cut them out. Since I did this so long ago, I don’t have a lot of insight to offer as to how I did it, so bear with me. I used some blueprints from the R2 Builders’ Club, along with constantly referencing photos of the original. To draw the lines, I first drilled a hole in the top-center of the dome and inserted a bolt. From this point, I bent an aluminum ruler down over the dome, drilled a hole wherever a “latitude” line needed to be drawn, and put a pencil through the hole to draw the line. I also used it as a straight-edge for the “longitude” lines, but this was a bit trickier. The gaps between the panels are not tapered towards the top, but rather a uniform thickness. After a lot of double and triple-checking, I got out my rotary tool and carefully cut out the panels. For the holo-projector holes, I used an adjustable hole cutter for a drill-press. This was terrifying, and I probably wouldn’t do it that way again.
For the radar eye, I downloaded a flat-pack file from the group and made a test-run in paper. Once I was sure it was sized correctly, I cut one out of thin aluminum sheet and glued it with JB-Weld. I built the side-boxes from some scrap plastic, then used body-filler over the whole thing to smooth it out. I cut the bottom slot using a routing attachment for my rotary tool. For the lens, I painted the inside of an clear plastic ornament from Hobby Lobby that opens up for you to put festive things inside. Finally, I JB-Welded four bolts for attaching it to the dome.
For the holo-projectors, I used the method pioneered by Craig from the R2 Builders. It’s a fence-post cap for the “surround”, with a doorknob (or other sphere of the correct size) as the inner ball, and a cap from a scope bottle on top. I’m not 100% happy with mine at this point, and might end up replacing these when I get started again.
The last thing I did before going on an extended hiatus was to paint all the panels. There are many ways to achieve versions of the R2 blue, but I went with one developed by Kelly Krider.
So far, that’s it. I have this guy sitting on a shelf in my garage, just waiting to be activated. The next step will be to start work on a frame for him, which I’m planning to build out of plywood. Hopefully that will happen in the Spring.
Robin Hood (Doctor Who)
As soon as my wife and I saw the Robin Hood episode of Doctor Who, we knew we had to do Clara and Robin Hood for Chicago TARDIS. I would be able to use my Éomer wig, and since we planned this before I made Prince Caspian, I was able to get all the vinyl for both costumes at the same time in one big roll.
Robin Hood’s Boots
I’m working on a Robin Hood costume from Doctor Who, and I’m starting with the boots. I made Caspian’s boots using a similar method (following this deviantart pattern), but I’m documenting these a bit better, and refining my technique. The first thing I needed to modify was to beef-up the structure and shape of the uppers, so I’m using thicker (5mm) craft foam. I’m cutting the foam shapes using the same exact pattern I will eventually use for the fabric cover, but without seam allowances. I am also not using foam for the part that will go up the legs – I’m using upholstery fabric, and it’s stiff enough to hold it’s shape, especially being snug against my legs.
Paw Patrol Chase and Marshall
My wife often makes Halloween costumes for the children of our friends and relatives, and I pitch-in when needed. This year we tackled the characters of Marshall and Super Spy Chase from the animated show Paw Patrol. I have been watching the videos of Bill Doran and Evil Ted Smith on YouTube, and was excited for a chance to do some extensive EVA foam work. I felt the most challenging piece would be Chase’s helmet, so I started on that first.
In 2010, my wife made a gorgeous Queen Susan costume from The Chronicles of Narnia. Since then, I’ve wanted to do a Prince Caspian to go with her, and this year I did it in time for DragonCon 2015. We also ended up replaced about 75% of the Queen Susan costume, but that’s another post. First of all, I am eternally grateful to http://costumes.narniaweb.com/ for their wonderful reference images.
Susan Pevensie’s Bow
This wasn’t a very complicated build, but very satisfying. I think it turned out better than I expected, and really completes the costume. It was simply sculpted from a couple sheets of MDF glued together, cut to shape with a jigsaw, and shaped using a belt sander, rasps, files, and a dremel. The biggest hurdle was sealing the carved MDF, since it’s basically a big sponge and impossible to paint until it’s sealed. I’ve tried wood glue in the past, and it seems to just exacerbate the fuzziness. What I ended up doing was using a brush-on polyurethane. That seemed to work better than anything else I’ve tried, but I don’t love it. I’ve since been alerted to the existence of something called Evercoat Featherfill, which I believe will work better. Once the shape was carved and sealed, I added details with Milliput epoxy putty.
When I originally decided to make Éomer’s armor in 2013, I planned to also have the helmet ready for Dragon Con. It soon became clear that I would have to postpone that dream, so it wasn’t until June of 2014 that I picked it up again. I decided to try and debut it at Wizard World Chicago / Chicago Comic Con (Aug 23rd), and get a photo taken with Karl Urban.
For DragonCon 2013 I decided to tackle Éomer’s armor, always my favorite since The Two Towers came out. I was inspired by JediElfQueen’s build log, and ended up using some of her patterns as the basis for my own. I hoped to be able to also complete the helmet, but that had to wait for next year.
11th Doctor’s Snowmen Costume
Lynette was making Clara’s barmaid dress from The Snowmen for Chicago TARDIS 2013, and I wanted to make The Doctor’s costume from that episode to go with her. This project was a bit unusual for me in that it was all sewing and no props to build. Lynette is usually kind enough to make any soft costume parts I need, so this was something of a new challenge. He wears a plum/maroon/wine/purple frock coat with persian lambswool lapels and collar, a somewhat darker velvet waistcoat with a watch fob, a striped shirt with cufflinks, a brown and blue striped tie, tan/brown checkered wool trousers, leather brogue ankle boots, and a top hat. I really enjoy the scavenger hunt aspect of a costume like this, so immediately following DragonCon 2013 I got to work sourcing all the fabric, trim, and any off-the-rack pieces I’d need to find.
Clockwork Droid Mask
This was my first sculpting+molding+casting adventure, starting in 2010. Lynette had done a great Clockwork Droid costume for Halloween, but wanted to upgrade to a more durable mask. We started by taking a mold of her face in plaster. We then made a positive cast in plaster so I would have something upon which to sculpt that was the right size and shape. My first version was done in super-sculpy. It was a good start, but I made a few mistakes with the overall shape. Notably, the chin and the brows were too small. That didn’t stop me from molding and casting it, though. While imperfect it was still a pretty good mask, and I learned a lot.