Saturday, August 24, 2013

Budget Superhero Cowl

A few years ago, I was invited to a themed costume party, "Favorite Fictional Character." I was out of town, living out of a suitcase for three months, and the expectation was I would arrive to the party as Batman. This would have been impossible if I held to any reasonable standard of construction, so I built the entire outfit from a store-bought black t-shirt, a roll of black duct tape, electrical tape, and the cardboard from a Diet Coke box. The only tools used were a Sharpie and my Leatherman. The night before the party.

To make your own superhero/luchador cowl on the cheap, you'll need:
  • Trash bag
  • Duct tape: Cheapest silver you can find and the main color or colors of your character
  • Electrical tape for details (Optional)
  • Shoelaces, at least 45"
  • Pair of scissors
  • Permanent marker
  • A trustworthy assistant
Start by discussing the entire project with your trustworthy assistant. Once things get seriously underway, your ability to communicate will be compromised. In fact, have them read this. You're just along for the ride once this part gets started:

Find a comfy chair, play some music your model likes, and say good bye to your model's snappy hair do. Fit the trash bag over their head and down over their shoulders. Figure out where the nose goes and snip a hole for them to breath through. Don't. Snip. Your nose. Laya few pieces of duct tape to set the dimensions through the rest of this process. The first should go around their entire head like a headband. The next ought to go around their jaws vertically like Jacob Marley's bandanna thing. This establishes the general dimensions of your model's skull and keeps the bag from shifting. Once blocked out, lay short (6-8") strips overlapping all over their head. To fit the skull, pull them tight. To preserve details like your eye sockets and nose, don't stretch a footlong piece of tape across their snout. Rip small pieces and tuck them into those hollow parts and up over protrusions like the nose. Pull too tight and the mask won't fit to their eyesockets and stand proud of their nose.

A liiiitle too tight across the eyes.
Keep going and adding layers. You want at least two layers of silver before you switch to color. In my experience, duct tape sticks to other tapes just fine and the cheap stuff to build up base layers is plenty strong to save the more expensive colored stuff for the final pass. Over all, you want at least three layers everywhere to keep its shape. My assistant was ready to move on after two layers, so I did the color layer myself after we removed the mask, but it's much easier to do it all in one go on the model.

Bring the tape down around the throat and out onto the shoulders a few inches. For most heroes, you can easily get a T-shirt with their logo on it, or use a long-sleeved garment as the base if you want to get more involved with recreating the costume. You'll want your mask to extend at least a few inches under the garment so there's no "seam" at the neck exposing skin. I tend to go overboard on how far down the chest and out onto the shoulder I need, but you can trim some off later.

Hand the model the permanent marker and have them feel around on their face for their eyelids: It's surprisingly easy to mark your own eyeholes with a marker using both hands from inside the tape. Otherwise, the assistant can draw them on the model from the outside. To remove the mask, carefully snip up the back of the cowl from the bottom with your scissors. Round ended scissors make a lot of sense for this. WARNING: You will snip a little bit of hair, but the cut is vertical and is impossible to notice once you fluff your hair back into position. I've never had someone with long hair use this method, so I'm not sure what the effect is for them... but I'm sure you can't see it afterward.

It may not look like much, but its got it where it counts.
Once the mask is off, cut out the eyeholes where you drew them. If you cut too small, you can cut off more. If you cut off too much, slap some tape on both the inside and outside and cut again. The tape makes it easy to work both ways, so don't stress too much.

I usually do the mouth opening for the cowl myself, looking through the new eyeholes in front of a mirror. If your assistant has steadier hands and a good eye for symmetry, have them draw it. I'll periodically fold the mask in half and make sure the eye holes and mouth area are the same on both sides, left to right. On my example, the eyeholes were too small, but opening them up to the right size would cut into the original mouth area. Crap. So I put the mask on, slapped some fresh strips of silver tape across my cheekbones and drew a new mouth hole in. I got lucky and could just fold the silver on the drawn line and cover the sticky inner part that way. Otherwise, you'll need to add some tape inside and cover the stickum, unless you like it attaching to your skin and bunching weirdly when you move your head.

Practice your haunted expression for maximum effect.
From here, it will depend on the hero in question as to how to proceed. For Batman, I cut triangular ears and folded them down the center to stiffen them, covered them inside and out in tape, and attached them to the top of the cowl with more duct tape to blend them into the headpiece. The nose needed some shape, so I cut the mask up to the bridge of my nose and made a cardboard nose that got taped into place to give me the classic "pointed nose" cowl from the comics. I also made cardboard braces that fit around my wrists that got the scalloped spikes, all made from one master template. Once I had one that fit, I traced it onto the rest of the cardboard and made a mirror-image duplicate. (This was years ago on my first camera phone and I was working through the night to finish the outfit for the party. There may not have been process shots.) A hole punch along the inside of the wrist gave me places to thread the shoelaces and secure the bracers. SuperCowl v1.0 got taped shut with me inside for the party after I used a couple bucks of cheap eyeliner to black out my eyeholes.

The shirt is a spraypaint stencil; the utility belt is everyone's tools.

The original laces were black. Those ended up in Converse years ago.
For Captain America, more attention was paid to making the blue layer as smooth as possible. Shorter pieces rather than long pieces make this easier, because you have fewer complex curves that arise in a 2" x 2" square. To make the mask a little easier to take on and off, I reinforced the inside edge of the slit up the back with more thin cardboard and taped it both from the inside and wrapping blue tape from the outside to seal it in. Mark evenly spaced holes (I used a tailor's tape) and punch them with a hole punch to lace up the cowl luchador-style with matching shoelaces. For this one, a matching electrical tape couldn't be found, so all the edges were taped over with blue duct tape, then slit from the inside and folded into the mask. Eye and earholes as well as the mouth edge were done this way, with an extra layer of silver strips laid on the inside to hold all the little tabs down.

The wing-a-lings (is there an official term?) were made from cereal box cardboard, covered with electrical tape. Once again, a template was made, this time on graph paper, to keep the wing-a-lings even. I also used the graph paper to design a 3" square block letter A. A sheet of clear plastic (from the TARDIS template package) was taped over it and the letter formed out of electrical tape.

The A is for his middle name, Agnew.
From here, I borrowed a trick from vinyl graphics installers and covered the letter in a couple strips of painter's masking tape, sticking it firmly to the letter part. Using something thin like one of those fake credit cards that come in the mail (Save them! Free plastic! Also good for prop wallets) or a single-edge razor (Good for scraping glass palettes clean), carefully lift the two taped layers together. The paper tape keeps the pieces of the A together and keeps the vinyl tape from stretching and distorting the straight lines. Any logo made up of smaller pieces of tape for a project like this could be transferred with this technique.

While wearing the cowl, I carefully positioned the two-tape applique in the middle of my forehead as straight as I could. Smoothing out any wrinkles, I worked from the center and stuck down the e-tape insignia until it was all down. Peel off the paper tape and burnish down the white stripes until it is firmly in place.

Laying a few strips of electrical tape on the plastic over my gridded cutting mat meant I could use a compass to trace circles for the wing-a-ling bases. Once those were attached, Captain America was essentially done.

As I was covering and edging Cap, the shoulder parts of the cowl got a little bunchy and weird. Once I got laced into it for the photos here, we snipped along the top of the shoulder to the base of my neck and smoothed it into place, overlapping the excess. A few pieces of duct tape later and the final piece was custom fit to lie smoothly under my t-shirt.

Until you make one with earholes, you don't know what you're missing.

The dainty little bow really adds something.
 Various heroes and costumes benefit from this style of duct tape model. Red for the Flash, blue for Cap, black for Batman. Get the camouflage duct tape for a Duck Dynasty/Deadpool crossover. Go nuts and let us know in the comments which projects come to mind for this style! Have fun, and don't forget to snip the nose hole.

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