A reply to Painless technology

Question responses followed by project examples 

Al, a technology educator from Colorado thought the werewolf costume how-to series was pretty nifty and gave me an electronic question and answer session!  You can look at some my videos by clicking "search" below if you don't want to leave this page.


1. How did you learn to do this? Self taught or did someone show you the basics.

Rather than being taught the basics of monster fabrication, I was taught how to sew very well. Sewing is very useful as a background skill. Even if a person uses hot glue or staples to hold fabric in place sewing will have taught them how to transform a flat sheet into a shape. Some of the rules for sewing also apply to paper and other materials that come in sheets, like foam!

I learned to sew in Home Economics class in middle school, and when I went to college I took a college course in costume construction and made costume parts for plays and for fun. However, I paid attention and stayed after class to read through the books and magazines that were in the classroom. I also took up the teacher's offer when she suggested extra projects to do in our spare time. By becoming very knowledgeable in the single skill of sewing I found I could apply sewing techniques to many, many, other things. For example, to make a clothing item called a corset one has to cut and grind metal strips then use acrylic (a plastic) to cover up the sharp metal edges. Sewing introduced me to metal work and making objects using plastics. Sewing is also a great introduction to some of the fundamental concepts in higher math, such as topology, multivariable calculus, analytical geometry. It's very easy for a student to think of curves and folds in order to answer a test question when they've been curving and folding fabric.

Sewing is not the answer to everything, but is a good example of how I was able to find solutions for the projects I choose to take on. By making sure I developed depth instead of breadth in my learning I learned skills that can be applied to situations I've never encountered before. I didn't need an expert to show me creature design, I just used the same sorts of thinking and skill sets an expert from a different learning experience. For many skills “the basics” don't really exist, for each new situation you have to find new solutions or improve on old solutions. Learning something, anything, and becoming really good at it can teach you how to do many other things.

2. How did you come up with the stilt idea?

We wanted our werewolf costume to look like it had wolf legs, and we wanted to build those legs out of inexpensive materials without creating a lot of waste. Many movies and television shows use effects to achieve this look, sometimes they use padding and create the illusion of a very long foot walking on short toes, or they will create extensions of the leg (stilts.) We spent about forty minutes researching what had already been done. However, the stilts we found video and photographs of are not easy to remake, nor can you stand still while using them. They also required using materials, chemicals or molding techniques not available to most people.

We went to the hardware store with a rough sketch of what needed to be a part of the stilt, and chose our materials based on what was available. The staff at the store cut the wood for us, but we didn't buy everything we knew we needed. We went to a used hardware store afterward and bought old furniture foam, drawer slides, and door hinges. That way a portion of our stilts would be made of reused material. Learning to re-use material can help stretch a budget and prevent waste of materials.

3. How old are you? Are you a student somewhere?

I recently turned 24 years old. I am a graduate student at Western Washington University where I study Environmental Education.

4. Do you have career aspirations in costume/makeup/monster design?

I have found that costuming and monster making ends up coming in handy for many professional applications without working in an effects house or for a production company. I work in the zoological industries, so for a festival to raise money for wildlife conservation I was able to design native wildlife costumes and a mascot costume. No store sold a great gray owl costume, and to hire a costume company to construct that specific costume would have cost far too much money. By designing and constructing the costume myself I was able to provide a professional service to the group I worked for without too much money going away from the good causes to pay for costumes. Right now I'm working on a children's DVD about the wild animals that live at high altitudes and I was able to take the scraps from the werewolf costume and use them to create an accurate educational puppet who will be hosting the program. I don't want to do this full-time, because I think I might get tired of it or it might lose its fun, but I do want to get paid to make costumes, puppets, sculptures, and object replicas!

5. Did you do all the work yourself or was this a group project? If so, how many were involved?

For the werewolf costume that is on the YouTube website I worked with my partner in crime, Ben. Ben is a mathematician who's hobby is audio engineering. We worked together on the stilts and the body of the werewolf. However, other people helped out. At the hardware store the staff there cut the wood we used for us, folks who saw our videos sent us ideas or comments that used to improve the design as we finished them up. Any big project will involve more people than those who work on it directly.

6. What advice would you have for middle schoolers/high school students who want to do build these kinds of projects? Resources? Books? Etc...

Look to a variety of resources: Books, magazines, websites, TV specials, and anyone locally who already does what you want to do. But, look critically at your resources. A website may have a perfect how-to guide with excellent results but be selling the products they use in the demonstration videos. Will the authors of that website show you better alternatives to their products? Probably not, they want you to buy their products. A TV show won't be very technical, so you will have to fill in the blanks and try to figure out what steps are not being shown to make the process appear “pretty” on TV. Older books may focus on traditional materials without ever mentioning the new tools available. For example, there was a special wax used for mask making in the 1960's called Negacol, that no longer exists. Books from that time would make you think you needed to use wax when the product used today is actually made from seaweed and is very different! You may want to avoid the how-to videos produced for professionals since they will use special materials and complicated techniques that can overwhelm and empty the pockets of the beginner. Once you have a grasp on what you're doing, the professional videos can be pretty cool, though. Also, just because someone's expert at a skill doesn't mean they're not a little crazy. So if you meet someone at a comic book convention or on the internet who is willing to help you out with a project, keep your parents around when you talk to them face to face and don't hand out your address, mom's credit card number, wads of money, a copy of your birth certificate, cherished family heirlooms, etc.

7. Do you have any links to pictures of other projects you've completed or are working on?

Below there's compilation of four projects that relate to skills used in the werewolf costume & how-to videos. Acrylic, like the paint used on the costume and the material that makes the fake fur, is incredibly versatile. There's a sign using acrylic as a sealer, and a window decoration for a school using acrylic paint. Though the videos are low quality (high file compression and low quality so they are Internet friendly) recording media like video and photography are excellent skills to have for projects so I've got some example of macro photography I've used for academic work. Finally, there's another monster construction example, where costume scraps are re-used for the puppet I mentioned earlier.

1. Educational sign for the North Cascades Institute, part of the North Cascades National Park. Inkjet printer waterslip decals (found at some craft stores or office supply stores, call ahead to be sure they're in stock) applied to a piece of thin, white, coated particle board from a large hardware store. (The staff at the store cut the end off the board, and I glued it in place with wood glue to make a raised title.) Then the whole piece was sprayed with clear acrylic spray to seal. Waterslip decals give the illusion of large format professional printing for a much lower price, and large designs can be pieced together from several sheets. Some professional display makers swear by this process, and others will use vinyl cut outs instead or in addition to waterslip decals. A great way to make permanent/semi-permanent displays in-school with a low budget ($50 for this sign). The images on the sign are photos whose authors allow their use. Wikimedia and Creative Commons are excellent sites for finding images anyone can use for any purpose. But you must follow the author's license. On this sign the photos have credits in the corners when required by the author's licenses. Here's where I got the otter photo: Otters by Dmitry , check our his license agreement. (Be careful about adding photos of yourself and friends to these sites--you could end up on the cover of a dirty movie, as happened to a teenager recently! Publications you might find distasteful take images from these sources, too.)

2. Totally removable realistic fake stained glass. I painted this window was in an English classroom in New York State. Start by sketching on a window using a dry erase marker or oil pencil. Purchase or borrow large size tubes of acrylic paint, I used Basics brand for this picture, in the colors needed. (Just buying red blue and yellow with white and black will not in practice mix to make any color and color mixing is tricky business for novice painters.) Using a large brush thinly paint different areas of color. Do not add much water, if any. When the areas of color are painted on, fill a zip-lock sandwich bag halfway with black or gray acrylic paint. Cut a little bit of one bottom corner away to make a paint applicator similar to the frosting bags bakery chefs use. The squeeze the bag slowly to apply 3D raised paint that will look exactly like the solder used in real stained glass. The paint will last a long time, or can be completely removed by spraying glass cleaner, like Windex, on the window and scrubbing away the design with a rag or paper towels.

3. Close-up photography. Many schools have digital cameras for photography classes, and some students have access to their own cameras or parent's cameras. Seldom are young people aware of what the “flower” button does. The macro setting allows incredibly close up photos without the specialty lenses needed in traditional photography. It's a wonderful way to get someone digging through weeds in a brown lot for an hour discovering the biodiversity of the smaller creatures. Poetry about weird bugs is not (unfortunately) appreciated in our culture, but a detailed photo of a bright green beetle opening its jaws toward the lens will always get oohs and ahhhs helping to foster a belief that nature matters to adults and authority figures who do the oohing and ahhing. If the camera is 4 megapixels or more and its options are set to “fine detail” and “large file size” photos by novices are quality enough to be submitted to magazines and newspapers. These photos were all taken the same Polaroid i1032 digital camera, that costs $136 dollars to buy new and used for academic projects. Click to view a larger image.

4. Puppet making. I used the scrap from the werewolf costume to construct this marmot puppet.  Marmots are high altitude ground hogs. This particular puppet will be interviewing the people who breed endangered marmots for release for a children's program. There's lots of how-to information that's better than what I know out there, but the photo's pretty cool. Here he is blue screened into a mountain meadow I photographed in Washington State.

And, just  because, a photo of the werewolf mask: