I have been a fan of all things Jim Henson since early childhood. I watched Sesame Street until I was far too old to be watching Sesame Street. I was obsessed with The Muppet Show, Fraggle Rock, all of the Muppet films and Muppet Babies cartoons, etc. Rainbow Connection will be played at my funeral. I loved Labyrinth–which was, believe it or not, a commercial failure at the box office that nearly broke Jim Henson’s spirit. And I absolutely loved The Dark Crystal–which was a huge success. Over the decades, the Jim Henson Company (before and after Disney) has been a part of some of the greatest moments in pop culture. I am coming up on 45 years of age and still watch Emmett Otter’s Jug-Band Christmas and Christmas Eve on Sesame Street every year on Christmas Eve before going to bed.
The Dark Crystal really stuck with me, though. There was nothing happy-go-lucky about it. True to its name, it was dark. There was death. Like, watching a Muppet be stabbed at close range death. Like, Muppet genocide death. For its time, it was a visual masterpiece that both frightened and fascinated me. And, it was a constant favorite for my brother and I to watch. At one point, he even had a cat named Kira. Missing my brother the way that I do, it should come as no surprise to anyone that making a costume from The Dark Crystal is something that I have always wanted to do.
Most of you know that I have been into costuming and cosplay for a long time, but have only been a cosplayer who sews since the start of 2016. I still make a lot of mistakes (patterns are more like guidelines, am I right?) but I keep trying to take risks and experiment with designing costumes. My typical process is to use the power of Google-Fu to search for reference photos–promotional photos, screen grabs from movies, images of costumes others have made of the same character, and when I’m lucky, images of the actual original costumes on display. From there I go through my box of patterns and start Frankensteining things–a sleeve from this, a skirt from that, a collar from this, etc. I will check Goodwill to see if I can find clothing to be re-purposed. Then I will hit the fabric store. I make what I can with the patterns and then completely wing the rest. Some times things turn out really well (Mary Poppins) and other times not-so-much (the TARDIS gown or Cersei Lannister). Each attempt brings a new lesson and new skills learned.
Since learning to sew, my cos-sisters and I have won Best Group Masters Division at Heroes Con in Charlotte, NC for 2016 (Power Puff Girls Kawaii style) and 2017 (Sailor Scouts based on the artwork of NoFlutter). After that second win, one of the judges mentioned that we came close to not winning, however the abundance of little details like the LED lights in our bustles and trains, pushed us over the edge into a win. That being said, we understood that there would be no 3rd year “hat-trick” based solely on sewing skills. It was time for us to push out of our comfort zones and learn some new tricks.
Well, 2018 came and saw each of us much busier than we had been in previous years (work, school, babies, homes, and all that fun stuff) which left little time to commit to a group. We each toyed around with ideas, but not knowing if we could all attend the show, we decided to do a major group project for 2019. This left us open to pursue our own individual costumes, should we choose to. In the end, Matilda Cayne and I both competed. Though, her work was for her children to compete (and they were AMAZING). Where I was over here experimenting new techniques for the Skeksi, she was over there learning how to make foam armor! I am so proud of what she accomplished in such a short span of time, and frankly, jealous of her endless talents. I’m even more excited for us all to work together again next year! Okay, sorry. Train of thought nearly jumped track. Back to the Skeksi!
I began collecting reference images for the Skeksi many years ago. In February of this year, I decided to bite the bullet and just try to make the damn thing. One reference source that I was particularly fond of, I found on the RPF site. It was made by a woman in Australia back in 2014. She did a great job of posting progress photos throughout the build and naming what items she used. However, the instructions didn’t always say, specifically, what she did with said items or how to use them. I love a mystery! [To see the incredible work she created Click Here]
The first attempt at building the Skeksi–let’s call it, Mach I--was using techniques similar to those used for giant fur characters (“furries” or “mascots”, either or). I had spent most of February sketching out designs and purchasing supplies. I had even begun to work out how I would articulate the hands and face, using the head as a proper puppet. My vision was that of Big Bird–the head and neck should come out and above my own, and the character would have one ‘limp’ stationary arm, allowing me to control the head and other arm with my own. It all seemed so simple.
I bought a giant roll of Poly-Foam and began carving, alternating between an Exacto blade and a pair of scissors. I cut out a skeletal frame work from some plastic canvas we already had laying around, tying off sections with yarn. I used hot glue on the joints and seams. I really thought I had this thing in the bag. But, after a few days of endless carving and gluing (and numerous personal injuries) I began to realize that I did not like the shape it was taking. It looked nothing like the vision in my head and my anxiety nearly made me scrap the whole plan. I decided not to give up on the Skeksi, but definitely to abandon the furry/puppet version.
It was time to move on to Mach II.
I developed a plan of action. The document was literally titled HEROES CON PROJECT POA. I broke it down into sections listing which body part needed to be created and a sub-list of how I imagined it would happen. I then broke it into three phases: the head, the body, the fabrics. Most of this POA was based off of what that woman had described doing on her RPF post. As I went along, I used colored pens to make notations: dark blue for how it actually was done, purple for any new or different supplies used as compared to the original plan, light blue for when a part was completed, and red for anything labeled “EPIC FAIL”. The POA was three pages long.
After a painstaking number of hours and days, I had created a head and hands that made me giddy thinking “This could actually work!” The problem was, the vision I had and the sketches I drew, were all above my pay-grade. After a particularly frustrating argument with my husband, I became super-motivated by I’ll-show-him energy and I attempted to build the entire body structure on my own. It wasn’t half bad. The problem was, there was no way in Hades that it would ever hold the weight of the neck/head/tail or fabrics that I needed it to. Cue my next breakdown. Hahaha. I worked off of that half-assed structure for weeks. I had nearly everything complete, but no clue how to put it all together. Components of the Skeksi were scattered everywhere. Exactly one week–ONE WEEK–before the convention, I broke down, again, and threw myself at my husband’s mercy. He and I had constantly debated and bickered early on about my ‘schematics’, but now he was able to better see what my original vision was. My anxiety was through the roof, watching him dismantle nearly all that I had done. All I could think is, what if his plan doesn’t work? I don’t have enough time to start over. But, thankfully, his plan did work. And, in one weekend of sweltering heat, we worked on the skeksi in our carport and rebuilt the entire thing. We each did a test run wearing the skeletal frame and then transported it into the house. All I had left to do was the fabric work and then by mid-week was able to do a test run wearing the full costume. It clocked in between 60-65 pounds in total weight. And, I survived nearly 5 hours of walking around with it on–limited visibility, no way to sit, no fans, no real use of my hands…it was a test of my will for sure. A number of cosplayers approached me during the 90-minute wait standing in one spot waiting for the costume contest to check to see if I was holding up okay and to say they “appreciated the commitment” to the character. Understatement of the year? Maybe, haha. They had no idea what I had put into it or the toll it was taking on my body to be there that day (Cystic Fibrosis sucks big time). By the time the contest ended, I was already flagging my handlers that I needed to leave. I needed to get that weight off of me. I needed water. I needed off my feet (I had bruised my heel at some point that weekend). In fact, I was barely through crossing the stage when Matilda Cayne rushed over “Are we breathing?!” and helped my handler get me my Albuterol inhaler.
And so….here is how my Skeksil, the Skeksis Chamberlain from The Dark Crystal was made:
I took a piece of wood and attacked two metal brackets for supporting the weight. I began with a cheap Styrofoam head as a base, placed onto one of the brackets. The other bracket would eventually support the weight of the beak. I used Marblex clay (similar to WED clay) to sculpt the head. This took about two days.
Next, using paintbrushes (I think I went through 4 of them) I applied 12 coats of Monster Makers RD 407 Mask Latex. Now, I’m an inexperienced newb who didn’t think to make a seam-line for the latex. So, after a few days when all coats were applied and dried, I realized I had no way to remove it from the clay sculpture. Ha! I ended up cutting it underneath and peeling it off (I had also not considered the area where the bracket was holding the beak up and the latex hardened around it leaving a hole).
I took the newly created latex mask and pinched it closed. Then I stuffed it full of scraps from the failed poly-foam experiment. This helped hold the shape of the head the way I wanted it to be, allowing me to crazy glue the seam shut along the bottom of the beak and neck. [The original plan was to emulate the RPF post, taking the latex mask and filling it with Sculptamold. It looks like she did this and managed to hollow it out, creating a light-weight cast sculpture. However, when I did it–or did what I thought she had done–the Sculptamold burst out of the seam and poured all over our driveway, my shoes and pants, my husband’s shoes…there are still chunks of it out there. This was the first major fight over the Skeksi project and for good reason. $30 worth of Sculptamold wasted. I hosed out the latex mask and let it dry in the sun and then did the foam and crazy glue bit previously stated].
I used a Dremel to sand a few sections and redefine some of the lines lost during the latex process. During the latex application, I wasn’t waiting long enough between coats (I waited about 40 minutes between each) and the brush would lift clay and latex, causing the whole surface to become bumpy and it would clot up on the bristles. What would have been a major mistake for some latex projects actually turned into a “Happy Little Accident” for me. All of the mess inadvertently gave the head the texture it needed without my having to use more latex or Plasti-Dip and paper towels for surface texture!
I mounted the head onto a broom handle and stood it in the yard so that I could apply alternating coats of black spray paint primer and black Plasti-Dip spray to seal the mask and create a base for painting. Next came coats of spray paint in various shades of browns.
The eye balls were made by slicing a Ping-Pong ball in half and using crazy glue to hold it in place. I painted each eye using a reference photo, with acrylic craft paints. Then I applied 3 coats of clear nail polish to each eye to seal the paint and also give them each a wet appearance.
The head was then painted using acrylic craft paints.
I cut out the shape of the long Skeksi fingers onto a foam kick-board (a swimming pool toy bought at the dollar store) and then sealed them with Plasti-Dip. This type of foam is super porous. Then I used these foam hands the same way I used the Styrofoam head, sculpting each hand from the same clay. But, I only applied 6 coats of the liquid latex to each hand. Once the latex was dry, each hand received the same spray paint job that the head did. When they were completely dry, I was able to peel them off of the clay hands like a pair of medical gloves. I stuffed them with smaller pieces of the kick-board foam and then crazy glued them to the ends of pool noodles.
The Arms and Legs:
Each arm was one pool noodle. I used a heat gun–carefully–to help create the elbow bend in each arm. Once the hands were glued on at the wrists, I coated each arm with the colored Plasti-Dip and then spray painted to match the shades of brown of the hands and head. Each leg consisted of two pool noodles, carefully melted together using the heat gun to form one wide noodle, and then the heat gun was used to create the curve of each thigh, the bend of each knee and the curve of each calve. The feet were carved from kick-boards and attached at the ankles using the heat gun method followed by crazy glue for good measure. Legs and feet were coated in Plasti-Dip and painted to match the arms, hands and head.
I took an old sheet, cut it in half, and made a seam to create each sleeve. It left enough fabric hanging loose to be able to rouche the sleeves.
[These pics are below in the Mach II description]
The Chest and Torso:
I took an old Full-size bed sheet and folded it in half. I then drew onto it, what the rib cage, breast area, and stomach area should look like. I trimmed away most of the sheet beyond the outer-most outline. I used the sewing machine to close the seam all the way around, save for a 4-inch gap at the very top. I bought a 5lb box of stuffed animal stuffing and used some of that as filler. I would stuff a section and then use the sewing machine to stitch that section closed, giving a 3-D effect for each individual rib or fatty section. After about the 3rd of 4th section, however, I could no longer fit it into my sewing machine. The rest had to be entirely hand-stitched and stuffed, section by section over two days. Once that was finished, I cut the bottom section off of an old apron and used A LOT of safety pins to attach the torso to the apron. This allowed me to put the whole thing on and tie it around my back, sort of like a catcher’s gear in baseball. I spray painted a base coat on the torso to try and match up with the rest, but it took a few tries (the sheet and stuffing absorbed so much). The rest was hand-painted, including high and low lights for texture.
The tail was the fitted sheet that matched the one used for the torso. I drew a generalized shape onto it and used the sewing machine to make a quick seam. Then I used the rest of the stuffing to pack the tail full. Next, you guessed it, spray painted to match the rest of the fleshy areas, though not as much detail since it would be mostly covered.
The Mach II body:
I attached a hula-hoop to my backpack and created as series of supports by daisy-chaining zip-ties together. This included attaching the arms and legs to the hula hoop. You can see where this was going to fail, right? My ideas of keeping it lightweight and easy to take off and on would never hold that tail!
I used a found piece of pvc pipe and the heat gun to create a spinal network in sort of an S shape. The top of the S would hold the head mount, curve around behind my neck, become the spine and eventually flare out with the tail mounted on it. What could possibly go wrong?
I used sheets of heavy craft foam, glued, duct-taped, and stapled together, to cover the spine like a turtle shell. This was the point I knew everything was going to fall apart.
The Spine/Wing Spikes:
These were hand carved out of the remaining poly-foam, one coat of Plasti-Dip on each, and then spray painted light to dark.
The Mach III Final Body:
My loving husband took an old drum found at his dad’s old workshop (maybe it was an oil or water drum? maybe for trash? who knows) and hosed it out. Then, he used his magic power tools to cut it in half. Then, on what would have been the bottom of the drum, he carved out a curved section that would fit around my neck, leaving the sides to mount on my shoulders. He used Oatey PVC primer and clear cement as he used additional pvc piping to create a new Skeksi neck with a three-point system for weight support. This came down and went through a preexisting hole in the drum and flared out the back in the area where the tail would naturally start to form.
I covered the section of pipe that the head would fit on with crazy glue and then rammed the head into place, holding it secure until it dried and then adding additional glue just in cases. The bottom of the pvc pipe slid all the way down into the length of the tail and then we used these metal circular clamps (no clue what they’re called) to secure the tail in place.
The pool noodle arms were attached at the top of the drum and the legs were attached just inside the bottom curve of the drum. The drum itself became the Skeksi’s back.
I used a drill to make holes down the sides of the drum so that I would have points of attachment for fabrics. And my husband drilled screws into the back in the spots where I wanted the spikes to be. Then we cut plastic water bottles about 3″ from the top. Hubby bolted the water bottle caps to the back shell. I glued the water bottle tops to the bottoms of each spike. This allowed for easy removal and transport; all we had to do to install the spikes was screw each bottle onto a cap! Ta-Da! He’s a clever one!
I found a King-size set of black bed sheets on a clearance rack at Walmart. The flat sheet was attached to the holes in the back shell using zip-ties and also secured on the sides so that when I was wearing the costume, it would cover any possible side-view openings and obscure my actual body. The flat sheet draped down about 3/4 of the length of the tail. The fitted sheet was attached at the top of the shoulders and draped down the back (with holes cut out to allow access to the bottle caps). The natural curve caused by the elastic in the fitted sheet gave it a rouched look without my having to sew anything. So I added a few safety pins in certain spots to help achieve the look.
I cut open each pillow case so that it fit on like a tube or infinity scarf. One went around the Skeksi’s head to cover the pvc piping of the neck, and was attached to the fitted sheet. The other went over my own head to obscure my neck and as much of my face as possible while in the costume.
I bought a package of cheesecloth and dyed it black with Rit Dye in a pot and used the resulting fabric for tattered draping around the Skeksi’s neck and over the ‘robes’. I also bought 2 yards of stretchy lace fabric and cut it into shreds which were then draped around the costume, sewn to the sleeves at each wrist to create elaborate shirt-cuffs, and sewn into and under the black flat sheet to drag the ground. I had also bought 1 yard of blue-striped fabric to wrap around the upper arms so that it would show as an under layer through the tatters and tears in the white sleeves.
I boiled a pot full of water and tea bags. When the water cooled, I poured it into a spray bottle and went town on all of the fabrics, particularly anything white. Tea is a natural dye and is wonderful for making things look antiqued or aged, or even dirty depending on your mixture. Then I used scissors to distress the entire thing top to bottom.
How It Was Worn:
My husband attached web-gear into the shell so that when I put it on, it would be secured around each arm/shoulder and fastened at my waist. That way, should I experience fatigue, I wouldn’t be able to drop it or fall out of it. I also glued in blocks of the poly-foam to the section that went around my neck and sat squarely on my shoulders.
We had to borrow his parents SUV to transport the Skeksi to Charlotte, along with the two of us and my friend, Spin, who volunteered to help be a handler.
The three of us carried all of it in sections, plus the ’emergency bag’ through the parking garage and towards the hall that connected the garage to the Convention Center. The bag had things like my inhaler, safety pins, single-use packs of crazy glue, and those first-aid packs that you crack and they turn ice cold (before the contest was over, I had one at the back of my neck and another shoved down into my bra). When we reached the stairwell just beyond the connector, they dressed me.
I wore a long-sleeved black shirt, black leggings, and black ankle boots. First, I put on the apron with the torso and secured it. Second, they lifted the back shell and held it up while I worked my arms through the web gear. Once it was in place on my shoulders, I reached behind the apron and fastened the gear buckle. Third, the black pillow case went over my head, the black cheesecloth was draped to obscure any open areas, my arms were slipped into the sleeves of the Skeksi, and the spikes were screwed into place. Fourth, each leg was velcro-fastened around my thighs and calves and the feet were fastened to the laces of my boots so that the Skeksi’s legs walked as I did.
Speaking of walking… The weight of this thing was absurd. The top of my head was even with the tops of the Skeksi’s shoulders. I had to sort of squat as I walked and lean forward at all times to make sure that his head was aimed forward as he walked. My arms were bent at all times within the puffy sleeves to where my hands were holding each of the Skeksi’s arms just below the elbows. This enabled me to raise, lower, and extend each arm as needed. The weight of the hands at the end of each pool noodle pulled down enough so that they had a natural sway to them. The weight of the head gave the same effect, as though it was sort of bobbing and slightly turning each way as he walked.
I am so pleased with how this turned out. It was a true labor of love. In the end, I wound up winning an Honorable Mention prize, Heroes Choice, in the Masters Division for the 2018 Heroes Con. I was using the Cosplanner app to keep track of purchases and money spent (it’s a super handy tool if you are a cosplayer). I didn’t think to actually use it to keep track of time spent on the project until after we had already started Mach II. So, based on that start time until completion, the app clocked me in at 3 months and days, 106 hours and 25 minutes, with a total budge of $293.17 for the whole thing. I know I spent more time than that (more like 4 months and however many more hours). But the budget is factual. The most expensive things I purchased were the clay, the liquid latex and the Sculptamold. Most everything else I was able to repurpose (like the pvc piping, the old bed sheets). And a number of the items I bought ended up being scrapped for different designs, so I’m saving them for future uses.
This was the breakdown of time:
- Arms/Frame–6hrs 45min
- Fingers/hands–9hrs 10min
- Spine Spikes–4hrs 10min
- Feet/Legs–3hrs 30min
- Robes–2hrs 30min
- Torso/Ribs–16hrs 30min
- Tail–3hrs 20min
- Back Shell/Spine–11hrs
- Distressing all Fabrics–2hrs 30min
This was the breakdown of elements purchased:
- Plastic Canvas–$5
- Fabric (including sheets)–$21.65
- Liquid Latex–$61.94
- Stuffing Material (bag, used for torso)–$10
- Craft Foam Sheets–$13.35
- Pool Noodles and kick boards–$12
- Velcro straps, fasteners, zip ties and pins–$0 because we always have them
- Flat enamel spray paints–$17
- PVC joints in 3 varieties of .5″–$25.80 (of which we used like 3, so the rest will be saved)
- Tail Stuffing (5lb box)–$13
I know this was a crazy long post, but thanks for taking the time to read it. I put a lot of literal blood, sweat, and tears into this one. It was a childhood dream, a labor of love. And I learned a LOT in the process. I’m hoping for the opportunity to improve on it and perhaps wear it again to another show some day. Or at least have a proper photo shoot done while wearing it.