Friday, 24 February 2012

The Contest!

This was it, the moment of truth!  The grand unveiling of all that we had been working on so hard these past three weeks!  I'd been practicing my Vorlon walk, too (one foot in front of the other, that's how it was done on the show, to prevent the tell-tale left-right swaying that would give away an actual person being inside).  This was going to be perfect.

Naturally I tripped over on the way to the pub.

Not disastrously though, a minor stumble and I recovered, and we made it in.  Whereupon I discovered the fantastic advantage of my two-layer costume.  Presenting ourselves in front of the judges, I think they were impressed (it was hard to tell - I couldn't hear much in that thing), and as Mr. Tony Lee realised that it was the Empress stood next to me, and asked the question "Llama, is that you?" I burst out of the back in all my angelic glory!  Much to the delight of Mr. Dan Boultwood (who later explained because it was actually something he recognised).  I'd created a costume with which I could make two entrances!  Egotistical much?  Me?

"We are all in need of a drink..."

We made it to the final ten, thankfully, without even having to bribe the judges.  Thus it was that after the official SFX awards ceremony the three of us found ourselves being called on stage, that the audience might judge us and decided upon the winner.

The monorail safety inspectors appear

Once again I managed the same trick.  Get up on stage, look mysterious and Kosh-y, and then go for a subtle second appearance...

Oi!  Turn that light off in there!

Oddly enough no-one mentioned that evening the symbolism of being a Vorlon.  Given that what everyone sees inside the encounter suit is their own idea of godly perfection, I think this speaks volumes about my ego.  Except to SFX editor Dave Bradley, who apparently saw nothing.

Naturally, given the amount of effort, we were going to win the audience vote, weren't we?


These guys did.

Right - next year it's puppies all round...

The family dressed as the Omnicronians from Futurama won.  And - being perfectly honest here - I'm more than happy to have lost out to them.  Although I don't have better pictures, those costumes were great, and they'd put a lot of work in.  Their in-costume baby was just the irresistible icing on the cake.  See more of their creations here.

I'm going to milk this for all it's worth anyway

We ended up coming second, with She-Ra coming a close third.  Which was a good result, I thought.  But y'know, it wasn't about the winning, it was-  It was so about the winning.  And my time on stage.  Anything else is just a blatant lie.

But hey, we got an awesome bag of swag for our troubles - many DVDs (including three classic Doctor Who stories and Fringe Season 2), a signed Anthony Head collector's plate (the only way we got head that weekend) and a zombie shooting game (an actual physical, electronic thing).  Gods only know what the winners got (I guess I should check my mail and find out), but that was plenty for us.  Overall, it was a good night.

Celebrating with dignity

And that was it, bar the drinking!  Actually it wasn't, but before I go on I should point out that the whole costume awards, for those that are interested, can be seen here.  Watch from about 07:30 to see my glorious entrance (ahem).  Or do the decent thing and watch it all.

Once the ceremony was out of the way I spent most of the evening out of the encounter suit and in my angel costume - it was much easier to be sociable that way.  (Good thinking there, Llama.)  I did of course go for the occasional wander.  And when Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit" came on...  I went and did the Kosh Mosh.  Which, disappointingly, I have yet to find pictures of.  All the more so since it spelled the beginning of the end - over the course of the evening the rear vertical supports finally started collapsing - the moshing was not good for them.  But no matter!  The night was done, and it was good entertainment.

The only drawback was that I managed to put my shoulder out doing all this.  I think it was the moshing that did it - basically jumping up and down whilst also supporting the encounter suit.  It took two weeks to be able to move it again.  But, once again, lesson learned, and it was worth it.

I also managed to cut my forehead at one point putting the helmet on and off - I think I'd somehow managed to catch myself on the foil surrounding the eye lights.  But as all Babylon 5 fans know, no-one comes away from an encounter with a Vorlon unscathed.

And so...  That was it.  All that was left was to return home with the glow of success and the satisfaction of a job well done.

All that remains then, dear reader, is to thank you for sitting through this entire rambling account of my adventures as a Vorlon.  I hope, for those of you that are planning on building a similar costume (or free-standing 1:1 sculpture) that this has been suitably illuminating - even if only to point out what you shouldn't do.  Any and all comments and criticisms are welcome.

The final question that remains, is:  What then for next year?

Oh, and also:  Where the bloody hell am I going to store a Vorlon encounter suit..?

The Final Assembly!

Do do doo-doo!  Etc...

Of course, claiming that there was any such thing as a "final" assembly would be a lie.  Due to the fact that I could only part-assemble the costume at home there was also going to have to be some assembly when we got to the Weekender venue.  And then of course various touch ups during the night.  And so on.  But we did what we could at home.

Vorlon Vorlon, burning bright...

The first thing to do was to re-attach the eye-piece LEDs (which had been removed for painting).  And then the simple task of temporarily re-assembling the legs, hanging the fabric again, attaching the fabric "permanently" (or so we thought) with heavy duty staples, adding the detail, and then taking the legs off again.  Low maintenance costumes?  I have them not.

What a world, what a world...

And that there is the fruits of my labour.  The only other thing I forgot to picture was the attachment of the... scallops either side of the speech-board.  You can see one in the bottom left of the picture.  Basically these were just shoulder pads of the right size covered in the same fabric as the speech-lights were.  They were, of course, attached with staples...

With that done, the one thing left was to get it in the car and take it to Prestatyn, home of Pontins, home of the SFX Weekender.  Luckily, that contraption, pictured above, does indeed fit into the boot of a Puma.  Just.  I was so lucky with that.

Of course, the drama doesn't end there.  But it's drama that I was busy being a part of, so didn't get to document, so you'll have to bear with me as I related it textually.  Or just skip ahead.  I won't blame you.  I've already skipped ahead in my mind.  (To the bottle of wine I have waiting for me in the fridge as a reward for doing that, that is.)

Naturally I had to keep the costume secret all weekend.  As luck would have it the sun was setting as we arrived at Pontins, and by the time we got to our chalets it was dark, so we were able to move the costume from the car to our chalet under cover of darkness (and a blanket - to protect it from the British weather).  Which was when we hit our first problem.

As already stated previously, I'd very carefully ensured that the encounter suit would fit through a single door, and adjusted the costume to ensure that it did.  Well, you see, the thing about Pontins chalets, is... that they don't adhere to the norms.  Of the late 20th century, at any rate.  The chalet door was too narrow.  Disaster!

Thankfully, however, our friends the lovely JJ and the almost-as-lovely Dave had stumped up the money for a VIP chalet.  A VIP chalet with a patio door - a patio door wide enough to accommodate a Vorlon encounter suit.  JJ was joining us in costume, too - she'd decided to go as Ambassador Delenn (and made herself an awesome bone ridge), and so the three of us (myself as Kosh, the Empress as Lyta Alexander/random Psi-Corp hotty, and JJ as Delenn) were going to be one mobile diorama.  So after much furtive and secretive measuring (mostly based on the length of my arm) we decided that the final final assembly would take place in their VIP chalet.  Despite it being on the 1st floor.  Yes, even with stairs and a balcony, it was still more convenient than our own ground-floor chalet.  Go figure.

On the night of the costume contest then, having spent the previous two days attempting to memorise all the main and wide routes in preparation for my mostly blind in-costume walk, we moved the encounter suit and all the bits to JJ and Dave's chalet, and assembled.

The main addition we made at this stage was twine.  Yes, twine.  We'd also hit on the idea of using twine to basically prevent the legs from splaying out too much.  This kinda worked, but the costume was a lot less stable on the night itself.  But ce la vie, lessons learned for next time (ha!).

So we assembled the encounter suit (with much patient help from Dave), got into costumes (including my angel costume), and carried the encounter suit as far as we could without being spotted.  Once we were in danger of being seen, I climbed inside, and slowly we made our way to the pub, where the initial costume judging was taking place...

Sunday, 19 February 2012

The Painting!

Ah, the painting!  If I was Michaelangelo than this would be my Sistine Chapel.  Sadly I don't eat enough pizza, so I'm definitely not that guy.  But it must be said that I was more than a little nervous about the painting side of thing.  I'm not massively good with my hands (except like that, laydeez - oh yes), and I don't have a lot of co-ordination, so I was pretty sure I'd muck this part up.  Luckily I had my lovely girlfriend on hand to assist with this slightly more artistic side of things, so I knew I had a slightly better-than-normal chance of not cocking it up.

Kosh's encounter suit has a very intricate patterning behind it, and I frankly have no idea how they did it on the show.  Witchcraft, I think.  That or many, many intricate layers of airbrushed paint.  One of the two.  Whatever the case though, I once again had neither the skill nor the money to replicate that effect perfectly.  And since we were painting onto papier mache we weren't going to be getting a fibreglass-smooth finish anyway.

We ultimately decided that acrylic paints were the way forwards and set off to the local Hobbycraft to see what they had in stock.  And, it would turn out, to browse all of their creative wares.  After about an hour or so I was able to prise the Empress away from the aisles of shiny stuff, and took a look at the paint aisles.  After some time looking at the colours and prices we ultimately settled on:

  • 500ml Yellow Ochre from System 3
  • 250ml Hooker's Green from System 3
  • 200ml Raw Umber from Reeves
  • 75ml Mars Black from Hobbycraft's own brand
  • 75ml Titanium White from Hobbycraft's own brand
From these colours we were able to create most of the colours needed to create a passing resemblance to Kosh's encounter suit.  However, if you're going to attempt to replicate what we did, please, whatever you do, read to the end first.  Because naturally it didn't go smoothly.

He's got a hooker on each shoulder.  That's how the Vorlon
rolls.  Oh yeah.

Kosh's colour is fairly complex.  For our purposes we mixed a small amount of the green into a much larger amount of the ochre, just to give it a slightly off-yellow quality.  This was applied to the majority of the surface area of the collar.  The tube things on the shoulder were simply the green, un-mixed.

Newborn diarrhoea's the "in" colour for this season

The off-yellow was applied to nearly everything, to give us a good, base colour.

Like a big, mustardy pretzel

For the detailing on the front we simply used the umber - it came out a nice shade.  Again, not in keeping with the actual colours used in the show, but it got the idea across.  Which was the point.  Then came the difficult part - getting that weird shell-like effect.

Like a pretzel with some sort of pox

I wasn't entirely convinced by this effect at first, but it seemed to do the job in the end.  Using a sponge we lightly dabbed on patches of green and umber, making splotches all over the encounter suit.  We did the same thing for the helmet, although naturally those splotches (I'm technical, me, amn't I?) were smaller than those on the collar.

That's, like, toadally ossum, dood

Finally, I needed to add the "crackles" into the shell pattern.  I did this by mixing a little of the umber with some of the ochre and, again, using the edge of a sponge drew some patterns over all the existing paintwork.  I'll admit that when doing this I did actually use the photo of Kosh for reference - I roughly tried to get the sections in the same places - although this was a very loose interpretation.

I'll admit to not being as happy with the crackles on the collar as I was with what I managed on the helmet.  When doing the helmet I took a lot more care, since I was working with a much smaller surface area.  I should really have done the helmet first, but such is life.

An abstract masterpiece

I did much the same on the helmet as I had on the collar, but with a much lighter touch.  For the helmet I really did attempt to replicate the patterns on the real Kosh's helmet, and I'm quite pleased with what I managed.  Yes, it was all me, the helmet, not the Empress!  I was rather happy.

So that was all painted, and we took the encounter suit upstairs and left it to dry.  Now, we did of course expect the colour to change slightly as it dried, we'd planned for that.  What we didn't plan was for this to happen:

Full horror not actually pictured

I'm not sure if you can make out from this picture, but basically the damn thing turned pea green.  Pea.  Sodding.  Green.  We were expecting a slight colour change, and we only used the tiniest amount of green when we mixed the off-yellow.  But we didn't expect the green to win through so strongly and make it look like the ambassador had lost an argument with a bowl of pea soup.  I was unhappy.

After a bit of fretting on my part and thinking on hers, the Empress came up with a plan.  Basically, using the sponges again, we padded on a very small amount of un-mixed ochre onto the pea-green areas, attempting to paint over the worst of it.  By using such a small amount though, and doing it lightly, we still allowed a little of the green to show through.  And that's what we did.

Less of the soup on the collar

I think my Nan had a sofa with this exact
same pattern on it...

This seemed to solve the pea green problem.  And, in fact, I think it ended up looking even better than it had before the disaster struck.  After fixing the colours like this I was very happy - we'd taken disaster and turned it into something that was better than the original.  I like that kind of result.

The moral of this story, then, is that if you want to reproduce our efforts you should either not mix the ochre with the green in the first place, or you should be prepared to fix the disaster later.  Knowing what I now know...  I'd still do it the same.  I really do like the final effect.

All we needed to do now was wait for the paint to dry, and prepare for the final assembly...

The Pasties!

The what now?  I mean, I like a good pie or other meat-and-pastry product as much as the next man or odd, egg-shaped thing, but what, as Tina Turner never sang, do pasties have to do with it?

Well, those of you that are familiar with the design of the encounter suit will surely know that, behind each shoulder and over the curtain are... things... that I guess look a bit like shells.  But I tend to refer to them as pasties, because that's what I see.  (Freud would have a field day.  Actually, on second thoughts he'd have a brief and ultimately un-interesting day.)  I wanted to include this detail in the costume as well, since it gives Kosh a nice, almost insect-like appearance from the back (as of a beetle's shell open and the wings extended).

However, despite making the pasties I actually didn't end up using them.  I wasn't entirely sure how to attach them securely and had concerns about narrow doors and other issues like that, so I just left them out.  But I'm including details in this blog just for completeness.

Of course, we had to eat all the chocolates first.  Shame.

I didn't really put as much effort into those as I did other parts of the costume.  Partly because I knew that they'd only be glimpsed from the back and all the cool stuff was going on at the front, and partly because I was sick to death of papier mache at this point.

Basically I just cut two cardboard shapes out, and then, to create the knobbly-surface effect, attached the trays from a box of chocolates.

I really can't tell what this is yet

I then splurged a whole load of papier mache over the top and... that was that, really.  The desired effect was lumpy, and lumpy it was.  Although I chose not to use them in the end, crude as they were I do think they would have worked.  Maybe next time.  (Next time..?)

With the pasties completed and put to one side, I was able to move onto the final, and as it would transpire much more stressful stage of decoration...

The Chest Lights!

El-iot.  El-iot?  Ouch.  Ouuuccchh.

No, not those chest lights.

As any fan of Babylon 5 and Vorlons in general will know, every encounter suit comes with a massive medallion that hangs in front of their chest and sparkles when they utter their fortune cookie dialogue.  Depsite already having a "working" eye in the helmet, I wanted to replicate this effect, too.

Thankfully this one was fairly easy to do.  All I needed was a bit of cardboard, some fabric, and some fairy lights.  Simples.

Kosh - he's a silver-tongued devil.  Well.

I started by cutting a piece stiff cardboard into the right shape (which of course I did purely by eye).  I then covered it in foil - the idea being that this would reflect the lights that I was going to attach, and hopefully make it brighter and a little more generally sparkly.

Sparkly tongue!

I then simply attached the fairy lights to the board, in a pattern that wasn't too symmetrical or ordered.  This seemed to be important to me.  The lights themselves, like the eye lights, were only a few quid - although this time from John Lewis.  These ones also had the bonus of having different "twinkle" settings - which was what I wanted in order to be able to replicate Kosh's visual speech patterns.

Somewhere out there is a mute hippy

The final stage was to cover the whole thing in fabric.  This is obviously not quite how the Vorlon looks on the show, but it was the simplest.  I had considered other options for this, including using some sort of plastic - I'd thought that I could save the wrappers from Quality Street sweets to create the multi-coloured effect.  Failing that I was going to get some white fabric and draw on the patterns - but I was aware that this might be too time consuming.

As it happened I stumbled upon this material whilst I was shopping for the curtains in Fabricland, and decided that it had pretty much the right effect.  It was nothing near an exact replica of the actual encounter suit, but I was convinced that, from a distance, it would do the job.  And, more to the point, it was going to be quick.

"Phone home?"  "Yes."

With the lights turned on and sparkling (which you can't quite tell above because, well, it's a static image and this isn't Hogwarts) the effect was one that definitely looked good enough that it'd suffice.  I'm not sure to be honest what different coating the card in foil actually made in the long run, but I'm glad I did it anyway.
That same material that was used to cover the lights was also used to make the other "dangly" fabric bits on the front of the costume, as you'll see later.

I did also consider putting some speakers inside the costume to play that weird warbling music stuff that plays every time Kosh speaks.  However I also knew that the venue that I was going to be wearing the costume in was going to be loud, and so I'd need some pretty hefty speakers.  Not wanting to add really bulky batteries to the costume I eventually abandoned that particular idea.  If I was to do it again though, with an aluminium frame, I think that that would've been a much more feasible option.  If one that would only serve to put my back out even more than I managed to anyway.

With the chest lights complete, I turned my attention to some more obscure detailing...

The Construction!

"The Construction!"?  I think the "The" is superfluous.  Like in "The Pink Floyd".  Ah well, too late to change it now.  What with t'Interwebs being as permanent as stone, and all.


The collar was complete and the helmet was complete.  This was goodness.  But one very important question still remained:  How the bloody hell was I going to wear the thing?

I ultimately decided that wearing the encounter suit as an extreme shoulder pad would be impractical.  For starters I wanted to be able to leave the costume to show off my interior, "angel" costume.  I also wanted to be able to leave the encounter suit so I could drink, dance, pee, talk to people - crazy stuff like that.  So I needed some way to be able to take the encounter suit off easily and quickly, in such a way that I wouldn't have to find somewhere to rest it where it wouldn't get sat on or trod on or whatever.

The solution I came to was to make the encounter suit a free-standing structure all of its own.  When I wanted to "wear" it I would duck inside, slip my head up into the helmet (which would - if you recall, and you should - be attached to the collar by fabric) and then just lift the suit up enough to be able to wander around.  Admittedly this turned the whole project into less of a fancy dress costume and more of an interactive sculpture, but it seemed to be the easiest way to get the job done.

The other requirement I had was that I'd be able to remove the legs without too much hassle, so that I'd be able to fit the thing in my car.  (I only have a Puma - it can carry a surprising amount inside, but there's no way it'd take a fully-constructed Vorlon encounter suit.)  This was clearly not the lowest-maintenance costume I'd ever had.

With all these things in mind, I decided that I'd build the structure in two parts.  The first part would support the collar and assorted paraphernalia, and keep it at a suitable, appropriate angle.  (In the end I opted for something close to 45 degrees.  Examination of the footage from Babylon 5 showed that Kosh seemed to wear his collar differently depending on the situation.  So again I just went with what looked good.)

Continuing my one-man domination of the hula market

This was fairly simple.  Too simple, it would later transpire.  But it basically worked - the cardboard tubes were gaffer-taped into place like nothing's ever been gaffer-taped into place before, and the hula hoop served to both support it, and be something to which I could attach the legs.  If there's one thing I learned on this project, it's that hula hoops can be very versatile construction materials.

The other thing that I learned was that if I did this all over again I'd use something sturdier.  Like aluminium tubing.  And use nails or screws to hold it all together, and not just tape.  But as I've used as an excuse many times before, time was not on my side.

For the legs, then, I simply picked up some clothes line stands from Tesco, which just so happened to clip onto the support hoop nicely.

John Christopher would be proud

Although the photo there shows a tripod configuration (because, as we all know, a tripod arrangement provides the most stable base) I eventually went four a four-legged arrangement, mainly for reasons of practicality.

When I put it all together, it ended up looking something like this:

Yes, we were up before 0930.  Shocking.

I'll admit that it doesn't look massively stable and sturdy, but... er... it wasn't.  But it sufficed, and it was lightweight enough - which was really the best I could hope for.

You'll also notice that I had to add additional supports to the legs.  These were required to stop the legs from swinging around wildly.  Again, if I were building this properly that wouldn't have been an issue.  But I wasn't, so it was.  And that was my cheap-arse solution.

Somehow slightly less impressinve once
you know what's actually inside

With me standing inside and wearing the helmet you can probably get a better idea of how the whole thing's going to work.  Confident that we were definitely on the right track now, we proceeded to the next stage - attaching the "curtains".

For the curtains we'd managed to find some pretty awesome fabric from Fabricland in Southampton (great shop for materials, not exactly the most inspired website - I apologies for your eyes if you followed that link).  It was lightweight, brown, and had a hint of gold speckling.  I thought I was going to have to settle for something that'd be close enough, but this stuff really was perfect.

Given the positioning of the legs and the fact that I was going to have Kosh's "voice lights" hanging down the front, I'd decided that I would exit the encounter suit through the rear.  Therefore when hanging the fabric from the collar we put the join at the back, but with enough overlap that it wouldn't show, even when I was walking.

"We are all hobos"

With the curtains in place, I knew that it was all going to work - from an aesthetic point of view, if not a structural one.  Whilst this looked good, when we actually attached the curtains for real we hung the fabric out a little wider, just to give a little more width and not hug the legs too much.

And yes, once we'd attached the fabric we did indeed almost immediately take it all off again.  Not because I'm a sadist (well...), but because the costume needed painting and I didn't want to get paint on the lovely fabric.  The point of hanging the fabric before painting was to ensure that it would all work, and that we wouldn't need to make any structural changes.  I wanted to get all of that done and out of the way before adding the fine detail.

Taking a different tack with the collar

Finally we attached the cloth collar to the inside of the encounter suit collar.  This was fairly easy, if a little fiddly - it was quite easy to make a collar with a hole in the middle that I could just poke my head through.  We didn't bother attaching the helmet at this stage - we were pretty confident that would just work (and, thankfully, it did).

Happy with our progress...  We took it all apart again, ready for painting.  Which meant all the fabric and the legs came off.  A pain, but necessary - and it was better to do it this way.

One big change that we had to make before the final assembly was the supporting hula hoop.  I'd purposefully arranged the encounter suit collar at such an angle that it would just about go through a single-width door.  I knew that I'd never make it through forwards, and was confident that most major doors at the venue for the SFX Weekender would be double doors.  But it needed to be able to pass through single doors when it needed to - when, for example, leaving our chalet on the site.

However, as you might be able to tell from the top photo on this entry, the rear of the hula hoop stuck out too much.  This was, of course, a major problem.  Ultimately I ended up sawing off the protruding section, and then re-attaching it the other way around with heavy-duty staples and gaffer tape.  This resulted in the ring not being as stable as it had been (unsurprisingly), and subsequently the legs not being as reliable.  Again there was probably a better way of doing this, but I was out of time and money.

Speaking of heavy-duty staples, they saw a lot of use in the final construction.  Whilst hanging the fabric here we'd just used drawing pins, since we knew this wasn't going to be permament.  When hanging the fabric for real, we once again used drawing pins to position it correctly, before stapling the material all in place with heavy duty staples and removing the fabric.  This worked fine for the curtains, but with all the taking-on and taking-off of the helmet the collar fabric ended up working itself loose over the course of the evening.  When I repair the costume I think I'll also use some glue to keep the material in place.  That or use longer-legged staples.  (Due to a restriction in the staple gun that I borrowed to do this I was restricted to staples that were at most 6mm in height - 12mm or more would have it all a lot more secure, I think.)

But I was now happy with the structure of the encounter suit, so it was time to start on the details!

Saturday, 18 February 2012

The Helmet!

Now there's something I don't generally tend to shout out.

With the collar complete (structurally, if not decoratively) my next task was to create a helmet.  This was going to be potentially more difficult than the collar, because not only did it have to look good, but it also had to be functional.

The main problem with the encounter suit helmet is that it has no eye-holes.  Well, okay, that's a lie - there's one, single eye-hole in the front.  But that, iconically, glows green - and that was an effect I wanted to reproduce.  In fact, I'd gone to the trouble of finding some green LED fairy lights (only four quid from - which wasn't bad) for that very purpose.  Fans of Babylon 5 will also recall that the eye-hole is irised, which Kosh tends to open and close to express his emotions (such as they are).  Lacking any decent amount of engineering skill, I soon realised that the iris effect was something I was going to have to forego.  But I still wanted that eye-piece to glow green, so I wasn't going to be able to use it to see through.

I considered a number of solutions, including mounting a digital camera/camcorder somewhere in the costume and hiding the screen in the helmet.  Ultimately I didn't go for that for reasons of cost, but I still think it would've been interesting to try.  What I settled on in terms of being able to see out of the helmet was simply cutting two small holes in the "face", which would hopefully go unnoticed.

The big problem, though, was that I had no idea how all of this was going to fit together.  I had some LEDs that needed to go into the helmet (and which would have to sit right in front of my own face) and a couple of eye-holes to see out of.  In order to see if this would all work before I actually put any serious effort into it, I spent a couple of hours making up a very rough prototype helmet.

Vorlons - they're boxy but they're good

Not how I was actually planning on spending the
Saturday evening...

Yeah, I know it's not much to look at, but it gave me a good idea about proportions, and how well it was going to work.  I knew that I had to move the eye higher, and I discovered how much clearance I could allow between my own face and the LEDs mounted inside the helmet (i.e. pretty much nothing).  And most usefully I knew how big or small I could make the helmet whilst still being able to accommodate my own head.  So this prototype helmet may have been damned ugly, but it also was damned useful.

With the girlfriend out performing at her panto, I had most of a Saturday to create the actual helmet.  It wasn't much time, but I knew I could do that.  Well I was pretty sure I could do it.  Well...

In actuality I spent an absolute age angsting over the size of the helmet.  I took measurement after measurement and kept comparing it to the prototype helmet, and slowly, very slowly, began to cut some shapes out.

Yes, but will it fly?

I started with the very top of the helmet, basing it on a more streamlined shape than the prototype.  Then I cut out the shape for the face, again using the prototype as a reference.  And the side bits, to start creating the angled sides of the helmet - well by this point I was halfway between measuring bits of card to see if they'd fit over my head, and just hoping.

It's a doorstop

What you can't see in the above photo is that I've created a panel of card at the back of the helmet, and that's what's holding the sides in place.  That one was just a simple matter of working out the angle I wanted the sides to protrude at and tracing the shape.

Gottla gebbles, gottla gebbles

Creating the lower pieces, on the other hand, took Maths.  After figuring out how big it needed to be I used my rusty trigonometry skills to figure out how big I'd have to cut the pieces of cardboard.  I started with creating a rear panel of the appropriate size, and then cutting the side panels to fit that.  It was slowly coming together.

This is my good side

The final flap at the rear of the helmet I added simply based on how much of my neck I needed to cover.  At this point I should probably add that my whole plan was to place a cloth covering around the inside of the collar, and then have a hole in the middle to which I would attach the helmet.  This would act to completely conceal me whilst I was inside the costume.  Subsequently this also meant that the cardboard helmet didn't have to completely cover my head - the cloth collar would hide anything that wasn't covered.

I'd also added odd little shapes to the front of the helmet that I was going to use to define the face.  Again I'd figured out how large they needed to be simply by angling the face-piece into the right position and then tracing.  But I had a problem now, in that the actual Vorlon helmet continued to taper back at this point.  Mine, on the other hand, could not, since the helmet needed to accommodate my head.  I was therefore forced to take some liberties.

It'll come together, trust me...

I added additional card pieces that would taper out and allow my head to fit, and which would be connected to the cloth collar.  You'll also notice that there was a hole where the bottom side panels didn't quite meet the upper side panels.  This was intentional - I wanted to create a smooth look, and figured that rather than spend hours cutting cardboard pieces out to just the right the size that the easiest thing to do would be to cover the gaps with gaffer tape, which would create a naturally smooth curve.

By this point I should also point out that a few hours of indicision had passed.  I allowed myself to stop for dinner, and in doing so also re-discovered a couple of half-finished bottle of wines in the fridge.  I decided that it couldn't hurt to finish them off.  Oddly enough, powered by a little wine, the rest of the helmet construction proceeded at a much quicker pace...

"Can you tell what it is yet?"

I created a small chin piece for the face, put everything in place, and at that point I knew I was on track with the basic shape of the helmet.  You can see here quite clearly the eye-holes that I was allowing in the side of the face so that I could see out, and at this point they look pretty large.  However, I also cut some additional pieces of card to provide a "lip" around the face, which both gave the face definition and reduced the size of the eye-hols considerable.  After that there was the inevitable step of securing all the panels properly with a whole load of gaffer tape.

We were warned about the giant space duck - but not
about its tape

With the tape in place I was feeling a lot happier about the shape of the thing, and I think that using the gaffer tape to provide some of the structure of the helmet worked well.  But there was still something missing - Kosh has a weird tube-ridge thing running around the bottom of the helmet, and which I needed to recreate.  I'd kind of left this to chance, and improvised something on the night of construction.  Fortunately I had the ideal materials to hand.

A bumper chin - unlike its occupant

Bubble wrap!  I simply took a load of bubble wrap, rolled it into a tube of the correct thickness, and then bent it into shape around the helmet.

Using the Sonic again.  Oh yeah...

Once the bubble wrap tubing was in place, I covered it in a load of - yep, you guessed it - gaffer tape.  This not only added structure, but also pulled the bubble wrap into the right shape.

Evil bondage Ambassador Kosh - so sexy

That was it!  I was quite pleased with myself at this point, and allowed myself another glass of wine.  That was exactly the shape helmet I was after.  Of course, that wasn't it at all.  First of all I needed a way to keep the damned thing on my head...

Not to be used as a safety device

I just so happened to have an old helmet lying around.  I removed the harness/strap/thing from inside the helmet (i.e. the adjustable thing that keeps it on your head) and attached it to the inside of the helmet, ensuring that it was going to hold the helmet on my head at the correct angle.  As you can probably just about make out from the confusing photograph above.

The final thing to make the helmet complete was the "eye" lights.  My plan was to bunch as many of the LEDs in the fairy chain together as possible, whilst still leaving enough cord to dangle down to somewhere below my shoulder (my overall plan being to somehow attach the battery pack to the inside of the collar).  There was only about an inch of clearance between my face and the front of the helmet though, and so after a little trial and error with different configurations I came up with this torturously-bent arrangement of LEDs:

Yeah, I ruined my nails making this thing, too

That was basically as tight as I could get it without damaging the LEDs, and gave me just enough clearance - although putting the helmet on was tight (insert your own innuendo here).  I cut a small plastic of transparent plastic from the lid of a takeaway tub, and used that to cover the inside of the hole cut in the helmet.  I then wrapped the LEDs in foil, in a tight funnel, and attached that to the plastic lid.  This use of foil created a rather satisfying refraction effect, which whilst not being strictly accurate to the show made it look like there was something going on inside the helmet, which was good.  I mounted the LED assembly into the helmet, and... that was it!

That beard is not canon

As you can see in the picture I'd also covered the LEDs that weren't part of the eye in gaffer tape, so that they wouldn't shine too much from within the encounter suit.  But that was indeed it!  I was at this point very happy with the shape (and a little happy from the wine), and really pleased with the effect that the LED eye produced.  It was at this point that I became more confident that I was going to be able to pull this costume off.

Of course, I in order to get the finish right I also needed to papier mache the entire helmet.  Which I did over the course of the next few nights (and which, mercifully, I don't have photos of).  Again, it took me about an hour to completely cover the helmet in papier mache.  The difficulty this time was in keeping a smooth, rounded shape around the face and chin.

All told then, it took me an hour or so to make the prototype helmet, most of a Saturday to make the helmet, and then a few more hours to add a few layers of papier mache.

I still had a week and a half to go, and things were looking good...

The Collar!

I really need to be less shouty about it.  It's not like this is the 80's or anything, and big collars and shoulder-pads are the rage any more.  Still, Vorlons have impressive collars (which may or may not match the cuffs - you'll have to e-mail me if you want to know more about that), collars that'd make Ming the Merciless green(er) with envy, so maybe it was worth shouting about.  But I'm getting off-track and I've only just started.

So where to start when building a Vorlon encounter suit?  I'd had a number of conflicting thoughts as to how I was going to build the thing, and was unsure as to how I was going to build the actual frame.  Was I going to wear the collar as an actual collar, balanced on some sort of shoulder harness?  Was I going to make it a free-standing structure that I'd carry around instead?  Or would I do something else.  I didn't know.  So I decided to just get on with building it and let necessity guide my hand.  In retrospect I would've come up with something different, but hindsight's a wonderful thing, and I'm famed for dallying for ages.  I needed to get on with something, so I did, and started on the collar.

Now I know that there are at least a thousand better ways of doing this, and given more time and more money I would've done things differently.  A properly-welded, lightweight aluminium frame would've made a great skeleton for an encounter suit.  But I had neither the skills nor the materials nor the tools to create such a thing.  So I started with... a hula hoop.

One hula hoop, slightly bent

I had no idea how difficult it would be to buy a hula hoop in January.  But apparently they're "seasonal" toys.  Who knew?

Anyway, once I'd found a relatively-sturdy hoop, I bent it into roughly the right shape, and then reinforced the shape (for the short term) with gaffer tape.  Gaffer tape's going to play a massive role in this project, by the way.  So if you're somehow allergic... stop reading now.

Stopping things from moving since ... actually, who knows?

That was the very basic skeleton, but I now needed something to pad it out.  Something lightweight and flexible but sturdy.  Luckily I had an old foam mattress lying around, which after destroying my spine and then spending several years under the stairs was no longer good for its original purpose.  So I started chopping it into pieces that I'd be able to use to wrap around the skeleton and give the collar some bulk.

Chopping a foam mattress with a kitchen knife - not
the best of ideas...

Of course those pieces were too long, so I chopped them again to be the right length.  Once the pieces were the right size, I wrapped them around the hoop and secured them in place with a little gaffer tape, as so:

Encounter suits - well insulated

With the foam in place I was happy with the rough shape of the collar that I had.  So I then went and secured it all in place with a LOT of gaffer tape.

Ambassador Kojak - if the collar fits...

All told, I think I used nearly 200 metres' worth of gaffer tape making this costume.  I try not to think about that.  Luckily I'd also managed to estimate the size of the hoop that I'd need quite nicely, and with all the foam on this collar was the perfect size.  (I won't provide actual measurements here - if you're building your own encounter suit you'll probably want to tailor it for your own height and needs, anyway.)

Happy with the size of the collar, I then decided just to build up the inside of the collar a little more, in order to actually match the real thing.

Yet more foam and tape

When I was satisfied that this had added the correct amount of bulk I then - yes, you've guessed it - covered the all of the new bulk with even more gaffer tape.  Where would we be without gaffer tape?

Kinky bondage Kosh

At this stage it was looking a bit crude, but I knew that once it was done and the details added it would look okay.  And all this hadn't actually taken that long - just a couple of hours in a single evening.  Fantastic.

What did take a lot of time was this:

My own, personal hell

In order to provide a smooth and paintable surface, and also something I could use to build up some detail, I covered the entire thing in papier mache.  Conventional wisdom was that I should have built it up to be a few millimetres thick, so that it would be quite sturdy.  In the end though, I didn't manage quite that much.

No wonder I suffered - I managed to infuse the encounter
suit with pure, sparkly evil...

Covering one side of the collar took me the better part of an hour.  This meant that covering the entire thing took two hours.  But of course I had to wait at least an hour for one side to dry before I could turn it over, so the whole task easily took three hours.  Given that amount of time, I only managed four layers of papier mache before I basically ran out of time.  If I'd not had a day job or other commitments I could've done more, especially since I had a whole three weeks at the start of the papier mache ordeal.  But still, it served.

Once I'd decided that I'd done enough papier mache, it was time to add the details.  First of all I started with the little sensor/breathing tubule things on the front of the collar.  If you actually examine Ambassador Kosh's costume you'll see that he actually has five of the things (two on each side, one in the centre).  I'd always been under the impression that there were only three, though, and it seems that this was the common conception.  Given I only needed the costume to be accurate from a distance, and it didn't have to withstand closer scrutiny, I figured that three would do.

Yep, I bottled it

The centre nozzle I made from the bottom of a shampoo bottle, and the two side nozzles were the necks of two-litre bottles of coke or lemonade or whatever fizzy drink it was I had lying around the kitchen and rapidly expiring.  With the bottle parts held in place with gaffer tape (of course) I added more detail using papier mache, building up the fleshy parts that surround each nozzle (as will be seen in later pictures).

The observant or those particularly well-versed in Vorlon culture will know that those nozzles are actually recessed into the encounter suit collar.  Well... er... I didn't have the time to do anything like that.  Given more time I would have built up lips around them, but again, time was not on my side so I just went for capturing the essence of the costume.

With the nozzles in place I moved on to the "exchaust tubes" that poke out the back sides (fnarr) of the collar.  Although the actual exhausts are fairly intricate, I once again went for evoking the basic imagery.  I'd save up some cardboard tubes from the insides of rolls of wrapping paper, and these were just the right width.  So I cut them to shape...

Yes, I was able to use a sonic screwdrive in the making of
this Vorlon encounter suit.  Geek heaven.

...and then simply gaffer taped them in the right position to the collar:

An obsessive-compulsive's nightmare

This was fairly tricky, in as much as I had to make sure that the tubes were in the same place on each side.  With the collar not being exactly symmetrical this wasn't that easy to do.

Once the tubes were in place they, too, were covered in papier mache to allow them to blend into the rest of the collar.  (In the above picture you can also see the start of the work on adding detail to the nozzles.)

The final piece of structural detailing that I was going to add to the collar were the green tube things that appear on the side of each shoulder.  I initially tried to find some vacuum cleaner tubes that were the right side, but a trip to the tip didn't yield anything suitable (apart from a few funny looks) - most vacuum cleaner tubes are too finely detailed, and have too much ribbing.

Once again I therefore decided that I'd just try to recreate the general sense of that particular piece of detail.  And as I was idly peeling off the labels off the remains of the drink bottles I'd mutilated to obtain the nozzles, I hit on just the thing:

Transparent in its simplicity

The bottles had little ridges molded into them which, whilst not being quite the same as the actual Vorlon encounter suit (yes, by this point I believe that they're real - you would too) did the job nicely.  So I cut a bottle in half, and used one half for each side of the collar.  To round of the ends I took the rounded neck off the bottle and cut that in half to make a small dome, which I kind of squised in place to make the right shape.  Once I was happy with the position of both bottles (again a lack of accurate symmetry proved to be an issue), I gaffer taped it all into place:

Of course, photographing transparent
objects against a detailed background
always works well...

All that remained was to once again add some papier mache around the join, so that the bottle parts would merge smoothly into the rest of the collar, and I was done!

All done!  Well, apart from everything else...

By this point I was quite impressed with my efforts.  All told, this had taken the best part of two of the three-and-a-bit weeks that I'd had available.  Of course, not all of that elapsed time had been spent on the collar - I'd been off sourcing materials for other parts of the project, so I'd not been completely focussed on the collar.  But the collar was definitely the most time-consuming part of the whole endeavour.

So now I had a collar!  All I needed to do next was make a helmet, paint it, figure out how I was going to wear and carry the suit, and apply the fabrics and other special effects.  Simple.


I had a week and a half left.  But, as it turns out, you'll be amazed at what you can achieve in a week and a half...