Sacha Judd was never into costume parties, but when Mythbusters‘ Adam Savage invited her to Comic-Con she gave it a shot. She writes about learning to build a costume from scratch.
In March this year, the students at North Bergen High School in New Jersey staged a two-night production of Alien: The Play. With a budget of about NZ$5,500 and using recycled and other materials, these high school students managed to recreate complicated space suits, spaceship interiors and fully functioning aliens to bring the 1979 sci-fi classic to life.
The play is an extraordinary thing, which you can now watch online. The performance went viral, and the student cast received praise from the movie’s director Ridley Scott and a visit from the star herself, Sigourney Weaver.
Last week, I was lucky enough to go to North Bergen High, meet some of the students who worked on the production, and see their incredible creations.
These are talented kids who repurpose what they have available to them. Everything is made out of cardboard, recycled junk, broken toys, and yes – props from other productions that have been sacrificed to the cause.
The top half of Groot, from their giant Avengers models, became part of the alien. Also pictured, a five-foot Millennium Falcon, and a full-size Iron Throne.
I was in North Bergen with Adam Savage. The Mythbusters host, who now presents Savage Builds and releases his own incredible work on Tested.com, is a lifelong maker and creator. Adam was in New York for Comic-Con and one of his great loves: cosplay.
At its most straightforward, cosplay is dressing up in costume as a character you love from a film, television show or comic book. Fan conventions like Comic-Con attract cosplayers in their thousands, wearing everything from an outfit they purchased on Amazon to ones they have laboured over for months.
Adam’s love for cosplay is so well-known he gave a TED talk on it. Every year, he attends the major fan conventions with a new “incognito” costume, letting fans try to discover him on the floor.
So when Adam messaged me a couple of months ago suggesting I cosplay with him at New York Comic-Con, the largest pop culture convention in the United States, I panicked. It might have been the most intimidating invitation I’ve received in my life. I love fandom in all its enormous creative weird variety, but costumes are never something I’ve gotten on board with. I was always the person who waited until the last minute before the office Christmas party and rented something I hated from a hire shop or didn’t dress up at all.
I polled all my friends and had a few good suggestions: Vice Admiral Holdo from The Last Jedi or Melisandre the Red Woman from Game of Thrones, both costumes I could probably pull off with the right wig and dress.
But something was missing. The whole point of cosplay is dressing as something you love, and I didn’t have any connection to these characters. I realised I was looking at ideas for something that would be easy. I was back at the office Christmas party.
So I started to think about what I’d really been into as a child, and instantly the answer was obvious. I’d been obsessed with Supermarionation, the shows of Gerry and Sylvia Anderson: Thunderbirds, Joe 90 and Captain Scarlet. And my favourite characters by far were the Angel Interceptor pilots – glamorous women who also flew fighter jets. They were my first feminist role models.
Dressing as a marionette seemed ideal. The costume was relatively simple with one key exception – the helmet. And the downside of picking a niche fandom from the 60s was there was no buying an Angel helmet on Amazon. If I was going to do this, I was going to have to make it myself.
I threw myself at the project in earnest. I watched endless YouTube tutorials. I bought a $2 motorcycle helmet on TradeMe and stared at it for inspiration. I learned how cosplayers make things with foam, with cardboard, with 3D printers, with melty plastic and heat guns. I marvelled at how talented they were.
My own attempts were less successful. My foam helmet involved a lot of me contact-cementing myself to the table. My efforts with a heat gun involved me burning a hole in the fibreglass of the motorcycle helmet I was using as a mould. And then sticking the plastic to itself. And then to the heat gun. My first papier-mâché attempt adhered so solidly to the mould (despite using vaseline as instructed) that I had to chisel it off in chunks.
Nevertheless, I persisted.
Eventually I had a papier-mâché base that looked promising, gumboots that I’d painted white, and a dream.
I relocated to my parents’ house, where my mum can sew brilliantly and my dad has loads of tools. “Surprise!” I said, “We’re making a helmet!”. Luckily they’re both retired, up for pretty much anything, and also extremely crafty.
Meanwhile, my brother started trolling me from London, arguing that if I was going to do this I needed to do it properly and make sure the Angel’s epaulettes lit up, the way they did on the show. He suggested using Christmas lights. I started Googling “LED cosplay”. Eventually a trip to a party store produced the perfect components. Sometimes you just need to think laterally.
Anyway. Over two days we sewed and glued and cut and stared at the pictures on the computer screen arguing about colour and distance and size. The helmet came out beautifully.
And so on Thursday afternoon in New York, I got dressed up as Rhapsody Angel: red wig, flashing epaulettes and all.
I felt so incredibly vulnerable and exposed walking through my hotel lobby with everyone staring at me, it was awful. But as I stepped out onto 42nd Street in midtown Manhattan, the first person who saw me yelled, “GERRY ANDERSON, MAN! NO ONE REMEMBERS HIM ANY MORE!”. I burst out laughing and said, “I didn’t think anyone would recognise me!” and he yelled over his shoulder as he crossed the road, “YOU LOOK AMAZING!” and suddenly I felt like maybe I did.
Adam and I walked the convention floor, stopping for photos, admiring other costumes, and it was incredible to be part of this sprawling, amazing celebration of the things people love.
Adam often says that cosplay isn’t about a performer-audience relationship, and I saw instantly what he meant. There’s something communal about the whole thing. The parents whose baby was wearing a fully knitted Flash outfit. The girl towing her friend in costume on rollerskates across 11th Avenue. The way everyone at the sinks in the bathroom said to one another, “I love your costume, you look amazing.” All of the many, many Harley Quinns:
This isn’t about one person performing for an audience. It’s about everyone celebrating what they love together.
I kept thinking about the North Bergen High School kids, who’d proudly showed us the costumes they were making for Comic Con: Halo armour, a Steven Universe shield, Robin’s mask. The sheer force of creativity on display and the staggering variety of things people cared about all around me was awesome.
I don’t know if I’ll cosplay again – costumes are still terrifying to me – but I’m so glad I did it once and I can’t recommend it strongly enough. There was so much joy in the whole experience. Get along to your local convention. Armageddon is on in Auckland at the end of the month. Think of something you loved a long time ago, or enjoy right now, and bring it to life in some small way. You’ll be surprised and delighted to find so many people all around you who feel the same.