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.

Sunday, 6 July 2014

Left arm test

I decided the best thing to do would be to test if all the pieces work together. I was never going to have full arm movement wearing armour, but I needed to at least be able to function for the duration of the con.

I found it virtually impossible to anchor the armour in place with a glue gun and strap. Instead, I decided to drive a pin through my undershirt, and see if I could hold it in place that way. It turned out to be a highly effective strategy, which kept the shoulder in the exact position I wanted. This will need refinement before the con, as you can't have spikes sticking out of your shoulder (not Shep's style). I think it might boil down to glue-gunning the shoulder pads to the under-shirt.

The work in progress, though, looked good. A little tight around the elbow, but that can be fixed with a few small tweaks. And remember, because the photo is being taken in a mirror, this is actually my *left* arm, so is missing the signature Shep N7 stripe.

Fit test

Saturday, 5 July 2014

More shoulder pads than Dynasty

The next phase of Operation Mass Effect was the shoulder armour - or pauldrons if you want to use the correct term. These proved quite a challenge.

Not underpants
The first difficulty was measuring the correct size. The templates weren't very clear, and it was hard to accurately gauge the size of my shoulders in relation to the water wings bicep pads. The resulting template just looked too big, and, more to the point, not very Commander Shepard. Ultimately I was looking at a Shepard from Mass Effect 3, and needed pads that had some weight, but weren't the size of an Ultramarine.

In the end, I merged the templates. This gave the correct curvature, and also adopted a significantly smaller pauldron size than the creator envisaged. However, it felt right.

The two pieces hinged together with duct tape

From here it was a simple matter of cutting out, heat-gunning to get the right shape, and adding a smaller piece underneath to anchor it to my shoulder. I ended up joining the two together with duct tape, which seems to create an effective joint, although it might require strengthening with glue-gunned elastic in the future.

On a trial fit, I noticed one problem; the joint didn't flex with my arm, but rather drooped into position. This was actually all right, as the position mimicked my reference photos near-perfectly. However, I thought it would be cool for the joint to shift with my arm, so I joined the pads to the water wings bicep pads with a ladder buckle. 

I was pretty pleased with how these turned out, and ready to move on to my next major section: the boots and shins.

In need of a little paint touch up, but good to go

Wednesday, 2 July 2014

We got nukes, knives, sharp sticks...

The failure of the thigh pads led to a week of sulky petulance on my part, where I didn't really try and build much of the costume at all. Instead, I decided to focus on the ancillary pieces: the Shep-Pistol and the Omni-tool.

Pew! Pew!
The pistol was easy. My brother had 'gifted' me two remote guns for his long-defunct GameCube. One fitted a rough shape of the many pistols that appear in the Mass Effect universe, so I severed its cord with scissors and spraypainted it white. 

The gun took another coat to obtain an even coverage and prevent the natural colour of the plastic (black and green) coming through. I then sat around with little pots of Citadel Miniatures paint, delicately tracing out the components of the gun in black and red. I didn't get this right first time, and had to patch up overspill several times with white paint. However, the end result created a gun that, while not the 'M7' standard armour of Commander Shepard, certainly looks like something Shep could have bought from the Citadel.

That left the Omni-Tool, and a serious problem. Working with foam was new to me, but working with transparent materials was something else. In particular, they were incredibly hard to source; Amazon didn't have a clear line on cheap transparent plastic, and while there were many companies offering custom shapes, it just seemed to expensive.

In addition, I didn't possess any power tools that could really tear through plastic and get the job done.

This is what a ring binder looks like,
for those who don't know
In the end, the solution came to me through blind luck. I was in town after a jog, and suddenly remembered that my local stationary shop (WH Smith) occasionally sold strips of transparent plastic - the kind you use in school plays. I popped in, and failed to see anything useful. I was about to leave dejected when I stumbled on the perfect solution.

Ring binders.

Orange transparent ring binders. I knew (from youthful misadventures) that they were thin enough to cut, and were just about perfect for Shepard's omni-tool. I snapped up three of the binders, and set about hacking them apart. 

Now more Omni-tooly
This was easy - a pair of scissors did the trick. From this, I traced out templates with my scalpel and followed the lines, creating three separate elements: a gauntlet (held in shape by a Velcro strap at the bottom, with two quarter-circle arcs cut out at the glove end), a perfect circle (I used a Mass Effect CD to do this - largely for my own amusement), and a sort of stabby-knife-thing.

After that, it was simply a matter of glue-gunning the elements together. The glue could be seen through the transparent material, so I was careful to trace out shapes that could be considered part of the costume. The final tool had a few rough edges and needed sanding, but it looked pretty good.

One issue I had was the stabby-thing was a bit floppy. However, with a little help from my finger it would stay upright.

Securing the Omni-tool was relatively easy. Rather than faff about with the Velcro strap that gave it its unique shape, I decided to stick it in place. I added some Velcro to the bottom of the circle, and a similar piece to the top of my glove.

The end result was a rather nasty, if short, Omni-tool perfect for my Shepard.

Omni-tooled up

Monday, 23 June 2014

Thigh master

The next step was to build my thigh pieces. This turned out to be more difficult than, initially, it appeared. I'm a bit of a thunder-thighs, despite the most intensive exercise regimen I've ever had. This meant each thigh plate was about the size of a shield.

I'm not kidding: the template took up virtually an entire tumbler mat for each thigh.

Fortunately, a hearty application with the heat gun soon warmed them, allowing me to bend them in to shape and spray them grey. 

Behold the mehness.
This was quickly followed by attaching some thinner black foam (bought online from Amazon for £9.99 or $17) to make pads for my arse, and adding some black 'straps' - with painted buckles - so the pads didn't just look like an endless mass of grey nothingness. Although the design for Shep shows the pads have grooves on them, I decided against this; it would require some delicate layering, and I could easily get the size wrong due to the curvature of the pads.

The end result looked a little..meh.

I'll confess: I'm not that happy with them. They look nothing like Shep's pads, and lack any really interesting features. I'm still debating whether to add some augumentations, particularly around the top of the hip, to make it more Shepardy.

And on the inside...
After painting, I added some elastic cord to the pads, glue-gunning it in place to make the foam bend in to shape. This created a natural space for my leg to slip through, and made the pads relatively comfortable to wear.

The only problem was that they wouldn't stay on.

Tragically, I have a slack bottom. Without something to bind the pads tight against my thighs the pads would drift, and, worse, slip down from my waist. It seemed impractical to strap them tightly, so instead I decided to find some way to physically hook the pads to my belt, thus preventing them from drifting about.

I'm still working on that hook plan - if you have any ideas I'd love to hear them.

Ultimately, despite being the largest pieces I've created, the thigh pads are also probably the biggest disappointment. But I'm determined to have a second attempt at them once the rest of the costume is under weigh.

Sunday, 15 June 2014

The gauntlets are thrown down

The first template I chose to turn into reality was (deliberately) the easiest: the gauntlets. I soon resized the paper templates*, using the measuring guide supplied by the wonderful online source that no longer exists. Then it was simply a matter of printing out the paper template, cutting it out and taping it together with masking tape, and placing it on the awaiting tumbler mat.

I quickly discovered two things when cutting foam:

1) Paper isn't a very good template; it's easier to either mount it on card, or to use it to trace a pen outline
2) EVA foam destroys scalpel blades in record time.

It took two blades to get the gauntlets cut out with a decent edge; my blades quickly became dull, which led to tearing and uneven cuts. One advantage of the tumbler mats, though, was that one side was ridged and bumpy. This meant that I could have textured armour, rather than baby-smooth; a look that was closer to my Shepardic dream.

I quickly finished up the cuts, and was left with a flat piece of foam. Flipping the template over, I quickly created two mirror-image foam pieces: a left and a right arm. This is really important; for some reason I missed doing this for the arm pads, leaving me with two 'right' arms; this wasn't a disaster as the pieces are more or less identical, but proved to be an important lesson going forward.

Now, here's the clever part: I had to make it bend around the meathooks I call my arms. 

The first stage was to make some cuts, so the piece would fold, and to replicate the grooves in Shepard's armour. I decided to use a soldering iron for this. Although the foam melted easily (and stank), the iron created a textured trough of burned rubber, rather than a smooth groove. However, it did at a pinch, and I figured I could always sort out the roughness later.

A slightly bigger problem was the cuts to make the three-piece shape (the flat of my arm, and the two sides). These came perilously close to going straight through the foam and cutting it into three pieces. Gaffer tape proved to be the perfect solution to sure up the edges and make sure the costume didn't break apart.

The gauntlets and arm pads, following spraying; note the gaffer tape showing on the far right

Then it was time to spray. This was really easy: point and click. That said, it took a few spray-dry-spray cycles to get all the little bits, as the foam was uneven (particularly in the soldered grooves). I used masking tape to get the signature white-red-white stripes. I then messed it up a little with a few streaks of metallic paint, particularly around the edges, to make it look battle-worn.This technique proved particularly useful for covering up bumps and scrapes that revealed the brightly coloured tumbler mat foam underneath.

Finally, it was time to attach it to the arm. My initial plan was to use Velcro straps, although on experimentation these proved to be annoyingly loose. Rather than let the armour fall off, I decided to reserve the Velcro for other parts of the project, and order some straps from Amazon, which I could then glue-gun to the armour at the final stage of the build.

* This is a lie. It took me a lot of faffing to work out exactly how to use GIMP to resize, and then even more faffing to work out that I needed to crop the image, save it as a new file, then export it as a PDF that I could then print. But let's assume my techno-whiz skills are proficient enough to have done the templates more or less instantly.

Sunday, 8 June 2014

The boring research bit

I have a Geek Lair. It's a spare bedroom decorated in full geek colours. One wall has a 14 foot graffiti mural of Godzilla fighting an anime robot. Another has stuffed latex heads of the Alien and Predator mounted as if I'd shot them and collected a trophy. A third wall proudly flies the flag of Dr Doom's kingdom of Latveria. 
The Geek Lair.

The final wall has a five foot transfer of Commander Shepard in full Mass Effect 3 pose. She - Commander Shepard to me is female - looks utterly badass. It would provide me with a perfect image to work from.

Of course, Shepard is available to play as both male and female. I am, for those who wonder, unquestionably male: a 6'5" monster of a bloke who looks predestined to play rugby all his life.

As tempting as a wig and svelte look was, I decided I was going to be a male Shepard.

A quick web search led me to various Cosplay message boards, all with different suggestions on how to achieve the right look. It soon appeared that there's no 'right' or 'wrong' way to do Shepard; it's a character whose looks you can customise, whose armour you can tweak, and who appears in three games with slightly different armour.

Commander Shepards. Both equally valid.
This was a relief, as it meant any mistakes were forgiveable.

Better still, though, was the availability of templates. Within an hour I'd found a complete template for creating Shepard's signature N7 armour, all laid out with easily modifiable tools from a guy called Julian Beek. I downloaded it in full almost immediately. I'd add a link, but his blog seems to have vanished.

Of course, it wasn't going to be that easy. The templates were the most complicated kit instructions I'd ever seen; the equivalent of creating a whole room of IKEA furniture with only the blueprints, in Swedish.

Still... that's what I had to work with.

And I was going to need tools.

Curses, tools!

I live about a mile and a half from town. Rather than catch the train, I figured I'd walk in and begin the long, arduous slog to personal fitness that would accompany my transformation to Commander Shepard. This proved to be a mistake. It was a blisteringly hot day for England - by which I mean it was a pretty average temperature day for the Southern US, or surprisingly chilly for the Middle East. Either way, I ended up like a panting sweaty fat man as I loaded up on craft-related junk.

At the risk of stating the obvious, I was going to need foam (specifically EVA foam) if I was going to make foam armour. This turned out to be very difficult to obtain in the UK: hardware shops and superstores just don't stock this kind of stuff. I also didn't want to buy something off Amazon, in case it wasn't the size or type I required.

I applied a little lateral thinking. In the UK, there's a store called Argos. It sells all kinds of household nonsense, with customers forced to leaf through a catalogue and order their objects in a depot, with objects arriving creepily on a conveyor belt - a bit like a sushi restaurant crossed with a gameshow.

Mutlicoloured saviours of foam!
Here, I found the perfect product: Chad Valley Tumbler Mats. They are great for kids, but even better for crafty sods who wanted to cut up foam to make power suits. Soon four multicoloured slabs of 6mm thick EVA foam arrived for me to collect. A quick spray of paint would disguise the garish colours, and I was confident I could hack them in to any shape required.

Cost: £9.99 ($15) for a pack of four 60cmx60cm squares

Following tips online, I also picked up a few tool essentials: a glue gun (£17 or $30), a heat gun - effectively a high-powered blow dryer (£18 or $30) and a soldering iron to burn out grooves (£10 or $17). I already owned a really good craft scalpel, with a crazy amount of spare blades, a pair of scissors and pens and pencils

Finally, I picked up the paints I needed at Wilco. These were a few cans of Plasti-kote matt grey spray paint for the armour (£6.99 or $12 per can), and two smaller cans of matt white and insignia red (£3.45 or $6 per can). 

I also bought a roll of masking tape for the spraying, and a roll of gaffer tape (duct tape) in case anything broke. 

Now I was ready to get to work. All I had to do was mess around with the templates in GIMP, print them off, and start making stuff.

Monday, 19 May 2014

Operation Mass Effect begins

It started with a girl and a desperate need for lemonade.

I'd been dorking out with my friend Allison, and was in her kitchen grabbing a drink. I'd recently stopped LARPing (live action role playing) and was looking for something else to waste my spare time. Then, stuck on the fridge, I noticed a tattered flyer. It was hot pink, with a cartoon nerd next to words emblazoned in a typical sci-fi font: CAMCON.

The flyer that started it all.
"What's that?" I asked, pointing so there was no possibility of misinterpretation.

"A fridge," Allison trolled. Or maybe she said refrigerator, or ice box, or cheese box, or some American equivalent; she and her husband are California exiles.

"I mean the flyer."

A mischievous grin. "I know. It's a convention that a friend's helping to organise at the end of August."

It was only mid-May. I was changing a lot of things in my life; a new job, a new diet to cut out the flab, a new approach to life in general. I was going to need a new hobby, too.

"What's this about Cosplay?"

"What it says, a Cosplay contest."

I thought about it for a whole five seconds. The part of LARP I loved was making my own (terrible) costumes. I'd created proton packs out of diet coke bottles and alarm clocks, built tridents out of Halloween toys, and once turned up dressed identically as another character for a giggle. Maybe this was the challenge I craved.

"How about I come?"

"If you want."  This seemed to be an implicit, if mildly disinterested, endorsement of my as-yet unannounced scheme.

"In Cosplay. For the contest."

"As what?"

I paused. I wanted to do something epic. Something memorable. Something that would eat away hours of my life and fill the gnawing boredom of being single.

"Commander Shepard. From Mass Effect."

Allison nodded approval, although she has (strangely proudly) never played a computer game other than Baldur's Gate. "A popular choice."

On the way home I refreshed my memory of the signature Shepard look. It was only then I realised what I'd committed to making. A full suit of foam armour, guns, straps and some kind of see-through orange arm knife. 

I had never worked with foam before. I didn't even know where to get it.

I was also never going to fit in a costume like that. I'd need to lose 50 pounds at least.

Operation Mass Effect had started.