Tuesday, 2 September 2014

Game over

And so the adventure ends.

CamCon 2014 came and went. I attended, fully enclosed in my suit of home-made power armour.

Unfortunately there's a staggering paucity of photo documentation of it. A lot of people asked me to stop and pose for photos, including a few people with very professional looking kit, but only a handful of photos have emerged (along with one YouTube video where I make a brief, 10-second appearance).

Here's a few photos that did surface.

On stage with my armour.
Credit: Dan Arthur Jackson on Facebook

I'm Commander Shepard. Organiser does not look remotely amused.
Credit: UK OTAKU

I didn't win any contest - didn't even place*. That went to an incredible (and very deserving) Klingon warrior; her costume was straight out of TNG, to the point that it was only through talking to her I realised it wasn't store-bought. It had layers! LAYERS! There was also someone who had made a papier mache Ironman which had taken eight months to make, which was a really amazing effort, and probably as hot and sweaty as my armour. 

And that's only the surface. Bioshock's heroine, steampunk Judge Dredd, a 40k Commissar, and a plethora of anime characters and creations populated the convention. The effort people put in - the hours of dedication - were really on display.

And that's because, for almost everyone there, the competition was never the point. It was to celebrate their love of something else, or to achieve something for themselves. Personally, the point was that I said I'd do something for a friend, and threw my spare time and effort into making something I hope she liked. I made a promise to her, or at least to myself, three months ago while staring at a fridge.

Where did I park my spaceship?

You may think that's a staggering amount of effort - weekends of work for months - to be spent up in five hours, or even five minutes with the friend in question. I don't see it that way. The investment of effort was the purpose of Operation Mass Effect. A purpose that saw me apply myself to something I never thought I could achieve, and excel in a way I could not imagine. A purpose that forced me to a way of living - healthier, leaner - that saw me drop two stone. A purpose that channelled my enjoyment of a computer game into a project that produced something meaningful and worthwhile.

And, at the end of the day, that's that. The costume has now been retired to my games room, where it's going to sit, taking pride of place. I've always wanted to own a suit of armour. I just never thought I'd make it myself.

Final resting place.

* I assume I didn't place. We were never told how well we did. We were taken out of the arena when the judges announced the winner, and only told later what happened when the Con organiser came in and told the Klingon she'd won; after that I got a distinct 'surplus to requirements' vibe and went home. It was all a bit of an anticlimax to be honest, but hey ho.

Thursday, 28 August 2014

Pre-Con summary

With my target only two days away, I've decided to take stock. What does the end result look like? And was it all that I hoped for?

When I started out on this quest, my aim had been simple: a decent enough costume that would represent the level of work I'd put into it. And something that vaguely looked Shepardy.

My goal

So how does the end result compare? Well... judge for yourself.

The front (obviously)

The back (even more obviously)

Overall I'm delighted with the appearance of the costume. It looks the business, and has enough scuffs, marks of wear and tear and natty features (including the see-through stabby omni-tool to really make it pop. I'm also delighted with my fudging around the collar, as putting on the costume makes it very clear that it would have caused all kinds of issues. There's a few areas that could be improved (note the yellow streaks on the leggings) and the pistol looks a little weedy, but that's largely because I'm 6'5". Guns look small when I hold them.

But Operation Mass Effect wasn't just the costume. It was a whole ethos and weight loss and fitness was central to that. How did I succeed? Well, I managed to hit 3 mile runs, three times a week, before an ankle injury knocked me off my schedule and sidelined me. I still haven't started running again due to the pain.

Diet didn't go perfectly, either. After two months of dieting I'd dropped 2 1/2 stone, but a combination of lack of exercise in the final weeks, plus a collapse into old habits (curse you Dr Pepper and pizza) put me back a couple of pounds. I'm now hovering at the 2 stone lost mark; still an achievement, but something I really need to fix.

After the Con, I'm going to restart the fitness and diet. How I'm going to motivate myself I'm not sure, but I'll find another project to fixate on.

Sunday, 10 August 2014


The final ingredient was the backpack. This was the hardest part of the build, mainly because of the sheer number of individual pieces. The size of the pieces only added to the complexity; Shepard's backpack has a small metal bone to represent his vertebrae. That's a lot of cutting.

The second problem was the neck guard. As mentioned previously, I was worried that this would rub against other components, ruining the finish and causing an irritating, chalky noise as they bounced together. At first I designed the backpack with the neck guards, and decided I'd figure out what to do once I had the costume ready.

The build was time-consuming and cost an entire pack of glue sticks. Simply put there were three distinct layers, which interlocked with other layers to create a supportive base. In reality, it meant I had to paint things separately as there was a black layer between two textured grey layers. It was a small puzzle that ended up with a very strange backpack that spooned out at the sides.

The neck guards were also a problem. It became immediately apparent on fitting that they were going to create a false effect, with space where there should be solid metal. For pro builds this kind of issue isn't too much of a problem, but as I'm an amateur working alone, it meant that I was looking at open-spaced arcs of up to an inch in size. It would have cheapened the entire effect of the costume.

Welcome to my shiny, jet pack future.
And it wasn't like Shep was worried about being shot in the neck; the dude I was replicating doesn't wear a helmet.

So, in a last-minute change, I hacked off the neck guards. This created an ugly build with a clearly serrated line of blue, unpainted foam. It looked terrible.

I did the only rational thing - covered it up with a little pipe insulation I had lying around (a tube is a whole $4). I also neglected to include a light system or shield generator, instead favouring insulating pipe and a little paint for the job.

The end result, however, looked suitably like space armour, or possibly even a jetpack, for it to work.

This was the final piece of the puzzle: completed a full three weeks ahead of Cam Con. Now all I needed to do was fix the Velcro to my undershirt, give a quick brush-down with tissue coated with metallic paint, and tidy up any scuffs.

The next post will show how I got on at the Con.

Saturday, 2 August 2014

Chest bump

It took a whole week to finish painting the chest as I wanted; the N7 logo was particularly difficult to spray on because of the curvature of the pieces. I also had to use almost an entire pack of glue sticks just to make sure all the foam would anchor; in particular the two under-arm pieces, which were essential if the structure was going to bend.

The chest piece.
A further morning was taken up sewing on the Velcro strips. One of the problems was that the seam of the undershirt ran exactly where I needed the strips to secure, meaning that I had to put one of the strips on at a jaunty angle. Another key issue was forcing the needle through the Velcro strips. The spandex didn't prove a challenge, but the pads were basically a layer of thick glue, and it required fingers in thimbles to get the power needed to drive the stitch.

An additional problem, that I hadn't really considered, was that the needle started to pick up the glue. This meant that after a few stitches the needle needed to be scraped to make sure it was clean and serviceable.

Once clean, it was time for a test fitting. Everything was a little awkward to put together (and tended to make an 'eeek-eeek' noise of foam rubbing together). However, it looked, frankly, awesome.

With only the back piece to do, I contemplated any last minute adjustments. I still had four weeks to go, so I had time if I needed to make a change. However, the only significant thing that came to mind was removing Shepard's neck armour. There was too much going on around the shoulder joints, both for the pauldrons and the chest piece, to risk damaging the integrity of the suit by building a neck brace. This would also give me greater movement at the Con, and lack of Mass Effect 3 authenticity was a price I was willing to pay for a little comfort.

Saturday, 26 July 2014

The awkward stage with no real progress

Two weeks went by with little progress. I bought some shin guards to augment the leg armour, but these were essentially modified football guards and didn't really add anything. I had considered using hockey guards, but given I wasn't actually mounting them on the shin (rather the lower knee), I figured it was better to go small.

 Then I started work on the torso. This proved to be the most complex piece to date, comprising numerous sheets of paper and tricky design made harder by my less-than-perfect frame.

Each costume takes around half a rainforest.
I had to scale to factor in not only my unusually tall height, but also my protruding gut. This worked out fine with the exception of the cup, which ended up looking as if my crotch is the size of a ping pong paddle. 
Before spray, cuts etc.

Still, I persevered. The cup could always be left off as required, so I instead started on cutting the pieces out of foam. This was more complex than I'd anticipated, because England decided to have a small heatwave; this meant creating the ab grooves and various sci-fi elements was close to torture with a soldering iron.

After two weeks, the costume was still in the spray and glue stages; everything was holding together in the shape I desired, but it was far from finished. The weather decided to complicate things again, and began to rain/thunder; I also fell ill. This meant the spray coats weren't close to finished, and the whole torso was taking its time.

Instead, I decided to focus on another area that was bothering me - the shoulder pads. I finished securing the pads with fabric to create a hinge, and started work on how to attach them to my shoulders. At first I tried to use fur hooks, as I had with the leggings. These worked, but created an uncomfortable lateral movement, and tended to get pulled off.

Note the hook just below the small shoulder pad.
The problem boiled down to physics. Effectively rather than working with their inherent strength (as in the case of the thighs), the hooks were working to pull each other and create tension: this invariably meant that either the fabric ruffled or the glue snapped.

So I decided to cheat. I thought the Velcro idea had been sound in principle, and with the new spandex undershirt I could be confident it would stay in place. So I simply sewed the Velcro on to the spandex and stuck the pads down.

And it worked.

Raarargh! Rarrrrrrgh! RARRARRGH! Bleh.

This left me with a month to finalise everything; maybe two weeks' work in addition to tidying everything up and making sure the fit is comfortable.

In short, it was two weeks were no giant strides were made. But two weeks that would hold me in good stead going forward.

Tuesday, 15 July 2014

Bottoms up

Despite my best efforts the pieces weren't attaching to my undergarments. Armour was sliding off my arms, and slipping down my legs. Clearly, a new plan was required.

I asked around on www.therpf.com and a helpful soul suggested...well, spandex.

I have run a marathon in the past, and happened to have some spandex bottoms to use. I quickly bought a spandex shirt (£14.99) and completed my strangely snug spandex look. This was a little strange, particularly as, being a fat guy, I tend to run a mile from figure-hugging elasticated clothing.

Still, the spandex was only the first step. The second was to create hooks on the undergarments, then literally hook the armour into place. This may sound odd, but it's a far more sensible approach to my previous efforts, which largely consisted of trying to create a webbing harness, or sticking endless reams of Velcro to body parts.

The end result worked perfectly. I bought some fur hooks (hooks lined with cloth, which gave the hot glue necessary purchase), and then proceeded to attach them to my spandex pants and my thigh armour. I then donned the wellies to appraise the overall look.

Not exactly a timeless appearance.

Overall I'm quite pleased with how it's going. The one issue, if I'm brutally honest, is that the thigh armour makes my legs look skinny. This is surreal (believe me, my legs are *not* skinny), but importantly it doesn't have that Shep look. 

I also have quite a lot more space on the shins than I first thought. Rather than make a shin guard though, I figure a little converting work to some football shin pads will bulk things up nicely, and make it look like I don't have knobbly knees.

Sunday, 13 July 2014

Give it some welly

Footwear is always a challenge. And I knew this costume's footwear would be no different.

Rob Liefeld drew my feet.
I have big feet (size 12s), which means its hard to find decent things in the right size. I was also conscious of the fact that I've got to put on the shoes (or boots) of the costume first, because the armour would restrict movement; that meant any footwear had to be flexible enough to take me getting the rest of the costume on.

Finally, I had to face facts: I wasn't going to spend much on Commander Shep's boots, and nor was I going to trash my own footwear in an effort to create a perfect replica. What does Shep wear, anyway? Shin guards and Nike Airs? I didn't know, and the pictures and camera angles aren't too clear.

This meant I had to think laterally, and I decided the most economical - and practical - way to achieve my aim was to fall back on the staple of English eccentrics everywhere.

The Wellington Boot.

I bought a pair of charcoal Wellies from Asda (Wall-Mart) and set about converting them. Initially I had planned to add pads and buttresses to make them more Shepardy, but I quickly saw this would be a problem when walking. Wellington boots deform when you walk, meaning that any additions to the rubber would come unstuck or look unsightly.

This meant that the entire effect had to be painted.

First, I took off the mold lines. The first coating was a simple spray with the grey of the rest of the costume. I then added my own flourishes to the Wellies' rather traditional pattern. The end result was an uneven grey/black combo, which worked fine but lacked any real interest.

Unpreturbed, I took the Wellies for a walk to the local corner shop, grabbed some brain food, and tackled the problem again. This walk was deliberately designed to expose the Wellies to the environment I'd be using them: navigating my way along paths, roads and rows of other people. Almost immediately my spray and paint developed clear scuff marks in the pressure points where my foot bends. This was exactly what I wanted: it exposed the areas that were likely to suffer through wear and tear.

Rather than be embarrassed by these, I decided to make them a feature. I quickly covered them up with a generous daub (and dab) of metallic paint. The end effect was to make it look like the boots have seen combat, and the initial finish has given way to a metal space suit underneath: just as Shep would have.

The end effect doesn't stand up to close scrutiny: note the overkill on the black areas, and the still-visible mold seam. However, at a distance, it works as a battle-worn pair of stompin' boots.

And I hope nobody's going to be looking at my feet anyway.