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...

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