Sunday, July 21, 2013

Budget Robot Costume

"The survivors of the nuclear fire called the war Judgment Day..."
You may have heard that I (J) was out of town for a few weeks. One highlight from that adventure was my brother asking me if I was interested in serving as a robot back-up dancer for a show he was doing while I was in town. "Sure!" says I, because it sounds like fun. "Cool! You won't mind building the robot suits while I'm at work, will you?" "Sure..." says I, because a show with robots > show without robots. Who am I to deny him that happiness? With a budget of under $30, here's how you make two or three robots of your own.

You'll Need:
  • Cardboard boxes, two per robot. Our heads were about a foot square on the ends, and around 16" wide. Bodies were bigger, but make sure that it fits over your torso.
  • Roll of aluminum foil. We used the 12" kind, but if you want to drop hella coin on the 18" stuff, you could probably get away from seams.
  • Scotch tape
  • Duct tape (silver, natch)
  • Dryer vent hose
  • Zip ties, 6 per robot. We used white, they blend in pretty well.
  • Bike helmets, one per robot. You can substitute dollar store helmets here, but my hosts had bike helmets, and the chin strap is vital to having a working robot head.
  • Assorted tools: Cutting implements, measuring stuff, wire cutters. I did these without rulers or measurements of any kind, and my main cutting tool was a bread knife. Feel free to substitute better implements, but necessity is the mother of invention.

Regardless of your personal feelings regarding our eventual subjugation under the cruel metal heel of the robots that we equipped almost perfectly to destroy us, few things (currently) delight like robots. A robot costume, even one comically designed to feel low-budget, immediately grants you an R2D2-like status as ambassador from the mechanical doom of the human race. Everybody loves robots. Remember saying that when you end up in the mines of Chiron Beta Prime. (Heck, this outfit might even buy you a few seconds when they come for you!)

To make these outfits for yourself, start with drawing your robot face. Luckily, there are a lot of options here as robots have a variety of faces throughout fiction and reality. After a chat with my brother and he pulled up some videos of robot performers he liked, I drew the following face:

She may not look like much, but she's got it where it counts.
Throughout, you'll be putting the mask on and off. Cut out the bottom of the box, leaving a 2" or so rim all around the bottom hole. That will help the head not get hung up on the corners of your robot body and help strengthen the head. And these will probably take some abuse, so stronger is good.

Notice the smaller pen marks in the eye holes. That is the center-point of my human eyes. The process was built around my head, rather than the other way around. First, I checked and made sure that my head with the bike helmet would even fit in the box. Yay, my enormous noggin fit! From there, I stood in front of a mirror and measured down from the top of the helmet to right in front of my eyes. That's the height from the top of the box for where those eyeholes got marked. Then I measured from the center of one eye to the other, and that was the width between those dots.

I grabbed a roll of duct tape and traced it around the eye holes, pushing the robot's eyes up and out from the center. With such a large head, the robot eyes would have looked squished and beady if they centered on my eyes. To make sure it would work, I stabbed two holes through the box with a pen where my eyes would be. NOT WHILE IT WAS ON MY HEAD! (I learned that one while making a similarly low-budget Batman mask... I might talk about that one later.) Put the box back on, balanced on the bike helmet, and make sure you can see straight out the holes. If that positioning works (mine worked the first time!), then draw your eye holes and go from there.

The mouth was something I sketched while thinking about robots. My brother asked from something grill-like, and I was thinking about teeth, or the mouth stitched shut (an image I use a lot), but I wanted it to be very simple and geometric. All the dimensions here were eye-balled or based on the widths of DVD cases and the aluminum foil box. My brother's apartment was not ideally suited to robot manufacture... Which leads us to the serrated bread knife I used to cut it all out. Work slow, and only cut on the pull and you can get very smooth cuts. Work fast and it gets crooked, and crooked doesn't look good on a robot.

Robot MySpace angle.
Of course I have a computer version... Downloadable.
If you are doing multiple robots, feel free to experiment with multiple looks. My brother intends the robots to be a staple of his live shows moving forward, so I've been working on some more designs, including one I drew up for this show with more of a gas-mask/rebreather mouth that was a little more sinister. Ultimately, we decided to match the robots (which is easily done by placing the boxes face-to-face and tracing the one you've already cut out), but this is the proof I texted him before cutting out my sister-in-law's robot:
The table is backlit by the sun. I had a deadline, not a photo studio.
So, heads were done. I'll jump ahead and discuss building the body before we get to the skinning of the robot. For the body, you'll want to cut out the bottom where your legs will stick out, leaving the 2" rim like on the head to keep the body square. For the head hole, trace the bike helmet and cut out a too-large hole for your head. Comfort is pretty key, and the entire neck hole is covered by the robot head, so don't get stingy about it. Try it on, make sure you fit, and mark on the outsides where your shoulders are in the box. We can then move on to the arms.

The arms on our robot are the most expensive portion: Dryer vent hose. Few things scream cheap robot like dryer hose, but the package of dryer hose was around $21. More than enough for two robots, but still pricy. As it was the only expense for this, really, we went for it. Having marked where your arms are in the body, trace the dryer hose centered on the arm mark, leaving at least an inch of torso box above the arm hole. Once marked, cut out the holes. Try it on again. If you are satisfied with the fit, you can move on to covering the robot.

Some folks would spray paint their cheap-ass robots at this point, but I have two points against that: One is cost, the other is time. A robot costume has about 20 square feet of surface area. That's two to three cans of spray paint per robot. Meanwhile, a roll of aluminum foil (about $6) can cover half a dozen robots. Also, you have to factor in drying time and the fact that people are in there... Sam and I would have been high as kites in sticky, still-drying robots if we wore them as fast as we needed to for the gig that night. All things considered, it was foil or nothing.

And the final effect is downright luminous.
The method for covering robots is simple. Tear pieces of aluminum foil that reach from one edge to the other of your box and scotch tape them in place. If the pieces don't meet perfectly, that's fine. Stretch out wrinkles as best you can, and stick down the rest. Cover the face and body holes with a single sheet. We'll cut them out later. For the bottom of the head and torso, don't both with foil on the 2" little edges. Once you've got foil up to each edge on all five sides of the box, cut strips of silver duct tape and cover the seams on the edges. Half on one face, half on the other. It adds a decorative element, and also protects the insanely fragile foil from bumps and dings along the edges.

Once it's all duct taped in place, you can cut out the various holes. Rectangles need to be cut out to the corners, so you have foil to wrap the edges and conceal the cardboard. Circles need to be cut into lots of little wedges so you can turn the corners over each shorter curve. Cut, they'll look like this:

Take each petal of foil and fold it back and into the box. Once they're all folded back, grab your scotch tape and tape all the petals down on the interior of the box. Smooth the foil to the edge each time and give it a gentle tug before taping it down to keep everything taut around the edges.

*Examples may not contain actual robot.
The last thing you'll need is arms. Measure the length of dryer vent needed for each arm and slit the heavy-duty foil they make them out of. We measured ours to cover our hands, but if you are fine with hands or will be wearing gloves or something, then feel free to modify to suit. The wire that coils down the length is one long spiral, so bring the slit around to one point on the wire and snip with wire cutters. Failing wire cutters, bend it back and forth at that point until it snaps. On your torso, use a pen or screwdriver to punch three holes evenly spaced around your armhole, at least half an inch from the edge. Stab matching holes in the vent. For the zip tie closest to the cut end of the wire, stab your hole one loop of wire in from the end, so that you aren't putting stress on the loose end of the wire. Thread your zip ties through the arm and the box. Don't tighten them all down until you've got all three started. Once it's all snugged up, your torso is completed.

Note the vertical seams where we cheaped out on the wider foil.
Snip the tails on the zip ties, unless you like pokey shoulder whiskers.
If you want, you can cut pieces of black pantyhose to stretch along the inside of the face and tape them down. It will help obscure the head inside, but does reduce visibility a bit. You'll have to decide how much of a trade you're willing to make.

The final task is attaching your helmet inside the robot head. Center it and test fit to see the angle you want, and then start duct-taping that thing in place. This is one of those times where more is better. If you have extra-long zip ties, you can even try punching holes through the top of the head and loop them through the vents in your bike helmet. The first version of robot heads I helped someone with was a copy of the Daft Bodies robot last Halloween. For that one, my friend's head fit a children's dollar store fireman helmet, so we trimmed off the bill and punched holes in it to thread it directly to the box, with additional shoe laces punched into the plastic itself to create a chin strap.

Despite the low-budget attachment, it worked for the whole party...
And stayed on well through a variety of actions.
Make sure that you've wrapped duct tape over each edge that your robot operator's body will come in contact with, as cardboard paper cuts are some of the messiest injuries I've sustained as a crafter (parallel paper cuts with everything in the middle just shredded by the corrugation), keep a long straw on hand to help re-fuel your robots through the mouth-hole, and get out there! If there's any worry that the robots are limited in their mobility, allow me to assure you that they are not...

Have fun!

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