While watching an episode of the classic 1984 animated "Transformers" with my 4 year old son I had a moment of insanity. "Hey buddy," I said. "You want me to make you an Optimus Prime costume for Halloween?" It was like I was removed from my body, watching the words come out of my mouth without stoping to think about the complexities of the promise I was making. Naturally I couldn't take the offer back, and my son agreed on the spot; and just like that...
...I was committed.
Here is the evolution of the costume as it developed over the past few months.
Step 1: Proof of Concept
I started off just wrapping my head around how to build Optimus. It seemed to me the chest/body was the right place to start. So purely as a proof of concept I slapped together a few cereal boxes I cobbled together over the course of an hour or two just to see if it had a hope of working. If nothing else it gave me a starting point and a little direction. Right away you notice the chest/windshield is out of proportion. On version 2.0 it would have to be reworked.
Step 2: Shoulders/Pauldrons
When we passed the proof-of-concept the next logical extension was the shoulders. At first I thought they seemed out of proportion as well and would have to be downsized later. Turns out they were just right and carried through all the way to the end.
Step 3: The Important Part
When my son figured out I was serious about this Optimus Prime costume idea, his first question to me was "Can I have Optimus Prime's gun too?" (naturally) A quick trip to Home Depot for some PVC pipe (and a ton of hot glue sticks) was all it took to build this. The intention was to spraypaint it black. Turns out the gun was just a little too big and heavy for my son to manage, especially with the gloves that you'll see later in the project. He has since lost interest in the gun.
If the project warranted a trip to Home Depot, I supposed it was worth getting serious about. So here you also see the re-engineered, re-scaled chest/windshield and front grill. The dimensions here looked good enough to move on with the project. I made two more pieces to finish out the torso... an "abdomen" that fit inside the chest piece behind the grill, and the pelvis which slipped just over the "abdomen". All parts were independent of one another and stayed attached with heavy-duty velcro purchased at the arts and crafts store.
(note how clean the countertop is in this picture. That changes pretty dramatically)
Step 4: Das Boot
If my kid was going to be trick-or-treating in this getup, mobility was going to be key. Initially I planned on making the feet independent from the rest of the boots, to maximize mobility. As it turned out, with that arrangement there was nothing to keep the "boot" portion from spinning around his legs while he walked. It became very cumbersome. Eventually I wound up fixing the feet to the boots. Hot-gluing a pair of old crocs that my son didn't like/wear into the feet, and attaching those feet to the boots gave him infinitely more control while he walked. No more spinning boots.
For effect I extended the height of the boots above his kneecaps in front, but lowered it below the knee's natural bending point in back. Walks like a champ in 'em.
Step 5: Survey the Damage
It's generally not smart to charge ahead too quickly with these sorts of things. You need to stop periodically to look at the project as a whole, get your head around the challenges, and think strategically about what's next.
Note: "what's next" did not involve cleaning up the countertop.
Step 6: Arms Race
Next came the arms and hands, which again took a little trial and error engineering. I made the two pieces attach in the crook of the elbow with another piece of strong velcro to allow for proper bending. The upper arm portions were otherwise completely free. I tossed around a number of ideas for the hands, but ultimately settled on some cheap-o felt gloves we found at Toys-R-Us on clearance. It turns out that was the right way to go. A 4-year-old's dexterity isn't developed enough to adapt to anything more bulky than simple gloves. Hockey gloves may look more robot-y, but the kid has to be able to manage a trick-or-treet bag afterall.
Step 7: Beta Testing
With all the major pieces built it was time to try them on all together, to see where the kinks were. Notice the bend at the top of the shoulders that required reinforcing. It was also clear that the upper arm segments were restricting his arm motion. He was compensating well enough, but the arms were going to require some more thought, either to make them more articulate, or to re-engineer them completely.
We picked up an Optimus helmet at Toys-R-Us this day just so he could "complete" the costume. It was tempting to say "this is it" and skip making the helmet alltogether, but this costume was going to be strictly G1 Transformers (1984), and the helmet was obviously Michale Bay-Transformers, so it was just a stand-in. On the plus side, it did have a button you could press to hear Peter Cullen's voice say, "Autobots, roll out!" and "Decepticons are on the move! Transform!" and "I am Optimus Prime, leader of the Autobots!"
Totally worth it.
Step 8: Time for Paint
With all the major pieces fine-tuned, the next logical step was the paintjob. I don't mind saying that when I put the painted pieces together for the first time I totally got the chills. This was the point when I knew the project was going to be a success. I couldn't stop giggling to myself as I took pictures and texted them off to my interested friends. It would not be the last time.
Step 9: Detailing
Some paper towel and wrapping paper tubes worked perfectly for some of the detailing. I canibalized some tires off of an old tonka truck and hot glued them on to finish the boots. Gotta say, they worked out perfectly. I printed out the sky-ish reflections to use on the chest/windshield, put a layer of plastic over that to make it look glassy, and layed the red frames around the windows to give it a little depth. All this was done while the kids were at swimming lessons. When they came back my 6-year-old daughter said "Daddy, how do you make it look so real?"
Step 10: Performance Art
I wanted to see if the new details effected his mobility at all, as well as assess any potential weaknesses that would need to be addressed. It turns out 4-year-olds in cereal boxes aren't naturally aware of how much wider they are shoulder-to-shoulder. Not surprisingly he kept knocking off the shoulder mounted exhaust pipes. Lesson learned. More hot-glue is better on those things. Additionally you see here just how constricting the upper arm segments were. This was the point where I decided that we were going to do away with them entirely and replace them simply with a long sleeved red shirt.
We got a little silly on this photo shoot, complete with "Optimus Jazz-Hands" and big sister photo-bombs. The good news is the outfit passed muster with Big Cousin's visiting French Bulldog.
Ferdinand, transform and roll out!!
Step 11: Head Games
There was no way to avoid it. The next portion to attack had to be the helmet/facemask. The helmet portion was simple enough. A quick trip down to the used sporting-goods store for a batting helmet was the perfect choice for both comfort and stability. The earpieces though, those were the buggers. It turned out those were the most difficult part of the entire project. Initially I imagined they would be all one piece, and I went crazy designing a pattern that would fold up into just the right shape. As you can see they came out rediculously bulky and flared away from the face, which wasn't going to work when it came time to add the mask.
Despite the oragami heroics I went through (yes, those ear pieces are one solid piece of cardboard cut out and folded up just-so) I had to ditch the design and rethink it completely.
Step 12: Headgear
So I attacked the headgear from the perspective that the ear and face segments would be seperate. After working the ears and antenna it was pretty clear that this was the right way to go. They hugged the head much more like what I was going for. Naturally this necessitated an entirely new round of oragami heroics to make the faceplates, and making in such a way as to accomidate the mask that connected them both. Ultimately I think it worked out pretty well though.
Step 13: Face-Off
This was the second time I got a chill up my spine during the project. Paint applied, I stepped back and looked at the helmet and thought to myself "Sh*t just got real." As it happens, making the earpieces and the facepiece seperate has the advantage of being able to remove the facepiece for comfort and candy-eating, while keeping the helmet on and staying in character. Bonus! Originally I thought I might have to fabricate a cardboard "nose" going from the mask to the inside of the helmet just behind the bill to stabalize the facepiece. A couple of well-placed pieces of that extra strength velcro at the base of the ears to hold the facepiece in place and it stays surprisingly well.
Another bonus: Now that you have two Optimus Prime helmets in the house (remember the Toys-R-Us stand-in), you and your buddy can totally geek-out together.
Step 14: Fine-Tuning
Some thigh-pieces hot-glued to a tired pair of sweat pants perfectly filled in the last missing piece of the outfit. After that, a little paint added to the pelvis and toe caps, followed by the most important detail of all on the left shoulder, and suddenly we're in business.
Oh... and see those lights mounted on top of the windshield/chest? The really work. Keychain lights from Ace Hardware. $1 a piece.
Step 15: Teaser
This was the teaser I sent to some close friends and family who were following the costume's progression day-by-day:
Step 16: Transformed
And here it is, all done. I can't even tell you how stoked both me and my son were when he finally put on the finished costume. The neighbors laughed at me when I started this project back in June. But we'll have the last laugh when we ring their doorbell in a month and a half with the most kickass Optimus Prime costume the neighborhood's ever seen.
It's worth noting that the person in the house most excited about the costume wasn't me, or even my son wearing the costume. It was my baby son. When his big brother walked into the room in full Optimus Prime regalia, the baby jumped up and down in his exersaucer like a jackhammer and screamed with delight.
"My brother is a Transformer?! AWESOME!! I *knew* it!!"
And there you have it. That's how I built an Optimus Prime costume in my own garage over the course of 3.5 months.