Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Fully Built: Kang and Kodos

To follow in the footsteps of tradition, the following is an account of how our Kang and Kodos costumes of 2013 came together. It only recently occured to me that I never fully recorded the chronology of the project in the aftermath of its deployment; with the cogs already turning towards Halloween 2014, I wanted to rectify that before this year's updates begin to materialise. 

For a less wordy version of the following, I direct the reader's attention to a post created last year: a quick reference pictorial guide which touches upon the main aspects of the build. For more context to go with those images, read on after the break.

For the description of how we built the LEGO zombies (Mr. & Mrs.), I was at a distinct advantage from a writing perspective: the iconic LEGO minifigure has a head, torso, arms, and legs, thus recounting their construction practically organises itself. The same cannot be said for their successors, who are giant blobs by design. Indeed, this describes the early, head-scratching phases of their development. The minifigure anatomy could be decomposed into quantifiable elements, the construction of which could be embarked upon autonomously. Pinpointing where to begin with everyone's favourite extraterrestrial siblings was somewhat more difficult. Ultimately, it all began with a circle:

The skeleton of the costume was constructed using insulation tubing (a nostalgic building tool: see the construction of Predator). Rough measurements were made to determine the size of the circle, which would be the base of the costume. Maths had no place in this process; characteristic of the early parts of the process, when we were not convinced that the project was going anywhere, it was done free-hand. A workable sized was arrived at by projecting how much room each of us would have to move around inside the costume based on the diameter of the circular base. Having checked that it could fit through the frame of a doorway (barely, but that was good enough for us) we were ready to start building upwards.

At this junture, reference images were our friend. A design difficulty we had is that the mouth is such a prominent part of the body shape; however, the mouth could not be built into the costume at this early stage (at least, we couldn't figure out a way). Therefore, we tried to build an accurate frame that ignored the mouth for now; or, if not wholly accurate, at least one that would be recognisable. A further difficulty we had was shaping the insulation foam to create the curves; it is a soft material, but not the most flexible. In order to do this, one person had to hold the foam in place while the other thread wire through it in concentric circles in order to keep the shape. Ultimately, this is what we arrived at following this step:

In recent years, the step of priming the costume with a layer of soft cardboard prior to papier mache has been added to the workflow, a move that has toughened them up immeasurably. This step is depicted in the following images. It is a tedious step, no doubt, but a crucial one; given the unwieldy sizes that these guys would ultimately grow to, they would not have survived the night without it. 

Following their cardboard priming, the costumes are ready for the first layer of papier mache:

Once the first layer was completed, we began the process of adding features to the costumes. This is my favourite part of the process; adding features is what begins to turn the costume from a non-descript shape into the recognisable pillar of popular culture you hope it will become. It was a particularly important landmark on this occasion, as right up to this point I had some lingering doubts about the project despite how far we had come. I was somewhat unconvinced that the shapes of the costumes (more specifically, the shape of my costume, Kang) were accurate enough. However, their features went a long way to firming up my conviction that we were on the right track. 

To create the features, we followed a similar workflow to that of Pixar's Mike Wazowski costructed in a previou year. We crumpled up newspapers into the rough shape the feature needed to be, then applied it to the costume with masking tape. After a little bit of moulding to our preferences, we made each feature more permanent with an added layer of papier mache. This has the effect of properly assimilating the feature into the fabric of the costume, making it more seamless. It began with their eyelids...

...and continued with their mouths, one of the most important aspects of the construction:

The next step was creating each of the duo's eye. Before we added the eyelid, shown above, we had to carefully determine where in the costume the eye would be placed. The eye was our window back into the real world, thus its accuracy was a determinant of how comfortable our night would be. Having carried out that step, we had to craft eyes which corresponded to the holes we had made in the costumes. In order to make each eye spherical, we applied papier mache to an inflated balloon. We covered roughly half of the balloon in order to arrive at the depth we wanted the eye piece to be (allowing for an extra couple of inches that could be cut away). The more of the balloon covered, the more protruding or three-dimensional the eye would be:

This is what the eye looked like from the inside when it was dry and removed from the balloon (notice that soft cardboard - a cereal box, for example - was also used to prime this papier mache endeavour):

Unfortunately, the above technique would not suffice for Kang, whose size meant that we needed a bigger base upon which to mould the papier mache cast. Unfortunately, we could not find a ready-made alternative; forcing us to create one from scratch using a cardboard base and a wire frame, as outlined previously in a progress report.

The next feature was the ears of the duo. They were constructed as follows: 1) determine the rough size by placing paper prototypes on the costume; 2) draw the shape of the ears on a piece of cardboard; 3) cut them out; 4) loosely place a bed of shredded cardboard on each; 5) cover each ear in masking tape; 6) apply papier mache finish:

With all the features constructed, we excitedly put together the first full prototype of the costume:

The next step was to begin painting. We both love painting for a number of reasons: firstly, we both find it to be quite a therapeutic activity. Secondly, painting the more intricate features can be quite gratifying and done correctly it can really bring the costume to life that bit more. Finally, painting signals that you're on the home stretch after months of a tough construction slog. For these guys, we tried to find the most accurate shade of green, eventually finding one we were happy with in acrylic:

Thus began the painting:


The reason the painting ceased roughly three quarters of the way down is that we elected to construct the base of the space helment that is such a core part of the duo's image. Unfortunately, crafting the helmets themselves was not in any way feasible (at least not without given us a limited oxygen supply for the night). In the cartoon they have occasionally removed their helmets, so given that it was canonical we were reasonably happy to proceed without them. However, we wanted to acknowledge the helmets by building the base from which they protrude. For this, we repeated the moulded newspaper/masking tape/papier mache step described earlier:

Following this step, the remainder of the body could be painted. As you can see in the final image, we painted the 'belt' blue with splashes of colour for decoration using source images for accuracy. 

Most Halloween projects contain an elephant in the room which is usually not resolved until late in the construction (later than what is sensible, we would have to concede). In this project, the large mammal made its presence known in the form of the duo's tentacles; for what felt like the longest time, we had no idea where or how to begin building them. Ultimately, I deferred to Ciara's superior seamstress skills as she crafted the duo's limbs out of fabric and stuffing. We first had to determine a rough size for the tentacles, then draw out a custom pattern from greaseproof paper (actually, not quite the first step; before that we had to find a fabric the right shade of green to match the paint. It was tricky, and perhaps not a perfect match, but we were happy with it in the end). Ciara proceeded to cut out the fabric to the pattern, and subsequently ran it thruogh the sewing machine. Turning each one inside-out to hide the seams, we filled them with cotton stuffing. 

One of the decisions we faced with regards to the tentacles was the quantity, finding it hard to determine from the source material. We decided to make two 'arm' tentacles each, but we were unconvinced that this was sufficient. In the cartoon, Kang and Kodos have a mass of smaller tentacles at the base of their body. We endeavoured to address this aspect of the characters, and came up with the following, which I guess could be dubbed 'leg' tentacles for want of a better term:


The task of attaching the tentacles to the body was a painstaking one which contained much trial and error. A dearth of photographic evidence of this step perhaps owes to the frustration involved, but the following image depicts our technique. We wanted the tentacles to hang loosely from the bodies, so we first secured them at the base using velcro (unfortunately, the velcro strips were quite weak, so we had to enforce them with epoxy, the source of much of our frustrations). With the base secured, we threaded fishing line through the tips all the way to the inside of the costume; forcing the needle through the papier mache and taping the line to the inside of the costume. The 'arm' tentacles did not stay as stationary as we first hoped using this method, rather, they flapped around a bit as we walked. However, they did remain reasonably stationary, particularly when we were still, giving the desired effect for photographs.

One of the final touches, the icing on the cake as we saw it, was the trademark drool of the aliens. This was a fun part of the build; using a hot glue gun, we drew lines of hot glue from the mouths of the aliens and let them drip naturally down the body. As the glue dried in a variety of shapes, we got what we felt was the desired effect. The glue was translucent and perhaps only a noticeable feature to one with a really keen eye (especially in a dark club) but it remains one of my favourite elements of the costume:

The very last touch was constructing the support system that would allow us to wear the costumes. This was another part of the costume that was left inappropriately close to the end of the project (about an hour before we left for the event, in fact) but we were confident it would come together based on a similar technique used a year previously for our LEGO Zombie Bride and Groom. Each costume had a set of pants braces, with the ends taped to the inside of the costume (using copious amounts of duct tape, having been tormented a year previously by peeling tape and the braces becoming undone). The braces thus became shoulder straps which kept the costume propped up. The technique thankfully translated from our heads in a straightforward manner; the only minor difficulty was determining where to tape the braces so that the costumes would be propped up at the appropriate eye level for each of us. 

Funnily enough, one design feature which was important to our comfort came about by accident. Not wanting to be completely enclosed within the costume, we attached the eyes using velcro so they could be removed easily when we needed air. However, with the braces for the support system, it turned out to be much easier to simply rotate the costume and peek out of the arm holes. Having anticipated the most cumbersome, unwieldy costumes yet, we were both in awe of how comfortable they were compared to the more reasonably sized but fragmented LEGO Zombies a year previously. Having just one, solid piece to bear made a world of difference to our comfort and the costumes' stability.

All in all, it might have been the most gratifying Halloween project yet owing to the uncertainty that clouded so much of its origin, and the sheer scale of the costumes. I'll finish with a picture of their inhabitants.

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