The Vigil

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.

The Head

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

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.

The Pants

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.


The Boots

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.

The Hands

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.

The Reveal

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.

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