An Old-Fashioned Ghost

Posted by jdg | Monday, October 31, 2011 | ,

This year my six-year-old daughter wanted to be a ghost for Halloween---"but definitely not just a sheet ghost." We've been reading a lot of Victorian ghost stories and I think this led to her vision of "an old-fashioned ghost." Unlike past years' efforts, this turned out to be an incredibly simple costume and she was able to do a lot of the decision making herself. We started browsing the pre-1930 (Victorian 20s) category on eBay together for dresses that looked spooky (and would fit her), settling on a large Christening gown with an elaborate lace collar. We bought it now for $19.99:


We picked up some elbow-length white gloves, a few pieces of tulle, and some white face paint. After putting on the gown, we draped the tulle over her head and we were pretty much done. We did sew some of the tulle to her gloves so she would appear more ghostly when lifting her arms, but that's really all the work that we needed to do. She was skeptical that she still looked too much like a "sheet ghost," so we did a test run the other day and I took some pictures to prove to her how spooky she looks in this costume (in the image at the top, I may have even done a bit of clone-stamping to make her look see-through). 

I also found her a  spooky Victorian candle lantern that I rigged up with an LED-flame, but we forgot it for this test run at Elmwood Cemetery and Belle Isle. The lantern will be great for trick-or-treating tonight.

Nothing all that complicated, just a spooky old-fashioned ghost. But we sure had a lot of fun making these photos!

Kid Rocketeer

Posted by jdg | Thursday, October 27, 2011 | ,

One of my son's favorite movies is The Rocketeer. Celebrating its 20th anniversary this year, the film is based on Dave Stevens' brilliant 1980s comic books series that tells the story of young depression-era racing pilot Cliff Secord and his accidental discovery of a jet-pack prototype that leads to a bumbling and short-lived career as an unlikely superhero. Made a decade before Hollywood started mining the back catalogs of every comic book publisher for potential superhero summer blockbusters, The Rocketeer was both ahead-of-its-time and timeless. Unlike the current crop of CGI-laden, spastic-action superhero movies, The Rocketeer feels both innocent and magical, and despite special effects that were cutting edge for its time (done by Industrial Light and Magic) today the film seems as simple and direct as the Saturday-matinee cliffhanger film serials that deeply influenced the look of the film and the original Rocketeer comics (serials like "King of the Rocket Men"). The 1930s look and setting of The Rocketeer are part of its cult appeal, particularly its Hollywood Golden Age backdrop. The cast includes Timothy Dalton as a Nazi secret agent and dashing Errol-Flynn-like Hollywood star (who lives in a striking home reminiscent of Frank Lloyd Wright's Ennis House), as well as appearances by actors playing Howard Hughes, Clark Gable, and W.C. Fields. Jennifer Connolly stars as the Rocketeer's actress-wannabe girlfriend (tamed down from the comic book's Bettie Page-inspired nude model). But the most enduring element of the film is the exceptional art deco-inspired costume worn by its star Billy Campbell, especially that iconic helmet and jet pack.

From the look on my son's face when he saw the first action sequence of The Rocketeer, I pretty much knew that I was going to be making him a Rocketeer costume.

Cool helmet? Check. Leather jacket? Check. Awesome boots? Check? Jet pack? Is there a kid in the world who doesn't believe it a considerable injustice he was born without the ability to fly?

Because the movie is twenty years old (and was considered a major flop upon its release), there really wasn't anything I could buy ready-made for this costume and I had to do it all myself. There are some companies that make adult-sized reproduction Rocketeer helmets for $300 and up, but there was no way I was going to go that route. As with last year's Robocop costume, I decided to go with the "make it out of crap I found in the basement" approach. The helmet is made from a BMX-style helmet combined with a $5 Iron Man mask my mother-in-law bought him a year ago. I added lenses from some old sunglasses and reshaped it using some PC-7 epoxy.

The arcs on the side are made from old ethernet cable, and the vents on the top are just plastic tubing. The fin is remnant acrylic the guys at the hardware store just handed me. I gave the helmet about ten coats of paint in various shades of gold and bronze before I was happy with the results (I ended up painting the whole thing gold and smudged watered-down bronze in certain places to give it a more-weathered look).

The jacket turned out to be the hardest part of the project. I bought a Size 14 women's leather jacket that was the perfect color at the thrift store ($4.30) and figured I could just cut chunks out of it and hand sew it back together to fit him. That's actually much tougher than I thought. The Rocketeer's jacket is very distinctive; it reminds me a bit of that incredibly cool leather jacket Ben Foster wore in 3:10 to Yuma, which was based on the dress uniform of confederate generals. First I cut a large solid piece of leather from the jacket to make that frontpiece, then used trial and error to get the rest of it to fit him. After all my sloppy hand-sewing, my wife was able to clean it up a bit with her machine. Now it fits him fine.

Those brass buttons would have cost a fortune if I'd bought them all new, but luckily I found another woman's jacket at the thrift store with sixteen perfect buttons on it that I just cut off and reused. For the pants I took a pair of khakis and sewed the bottoms to look like jodhpurs. The boots we had. I bought him the toy Mauser because it was awesome.

The most fun part for me to make was the backpack. My friend who went to film school told me something about how the Rocketeer's jetpack was all about boobs, and that the tanks were supposed to act as a symbolic counterpoint to Jennifer Connolly's bosom. Except he didn't use the word bosom. I wish he hadn't told me any of that (it was very distracting). Here is what the original movie jetpack looked like:

And here is a picture of Cliff's friend Pevee, adjusting his. . .um. . .

I used two 2-Liter Pepsi bottles for the tanks, some useless 1394 cable I had in the basement for those wires sticking out of the bottom and attached them to a big hose connector thing I found at the hardware store for $3 that I cut in half to make the black jet exhaust things. I used an empty silly putty egg for that little oval shape and added some PC-7 to the tops of the Pepsi bottles to make the boobs.

I stuck about two hundred push pins into the pack to look like rivets. The best part of the backpack is that part connecting the tanks in the middle (with the fan-like circle). It's meant to hold a urinal puck (you will be relieved to know I bought this new---even I have limits of what I will upcycle). I riveted the whole thing to a few pieces of leather and some old belts to make it wearable.

I bought a couple of cheap battery-powered camping fans that I've installed inside the vents. By Halloween I hope to rig up a little container in there to hold hot water for dry ice, so the fans will blow smoke out of the vents when the fans run (like a fog machine). We experimented a bit with dry ice for these photos, but I think I really need to contain it in the jet pack. Those fans are really loud now and when I hit the switch he thinks his "engines" are on and he's ready to fly. Poor guy thinks he's really going to be able to take off as soon as his dad "figures out what's wrong with the fuel-injection system."

So he loves this costume. I've still got a little work to do on it, though it's pretty much ready for Halloween. He wears it so much though that for the next few days I'll have a pack of Beeman's chewing gum handy just in case we need to make any last-minute repairs.

[We took most of these shots at the decaying Remick Band Shell on Belle Isle in Detroit; according to the fantastic IDW Edition of The Rocketeer: The Complete Adventures, our hero was "raised near Detroit. . .an unruly runaway [who] spent most of his teens working as a stage assistant in a traveling carny. He learned most of the tricks, grifts and shills of the midway---but always turned up dead broke back in Detroit." So I guess here we have The Rocketeer: The Early Years]

Colorado: Seen

Posted by jdg | Tuesday, October 25, 2011 |

When I was three-years old we took a family vacation to Colorado Springs. After a big pancake breakfast one day we drove to the top of Pikes Peak. My memories of that trip do not include any remarkable vistas: I only remember my father with a hose somewhere on the side of the Pikes Peak Highway, washing pancake vomit out of the rental car.

I was just out there for a few days last week. I didn't spend much time in the mountains (I wanted to see some of the flat part of the state where my great-grandmother homesteaded in the early 1900s). I did drive up Pikes Peak. I didn't puke this time. It made me miss my kids.

I took a lot of pictures, and here are just a few:


I'm pretty excited to share this year's Halloween costumes. First post: Thursday.

Kid-Sized Armor Tutorial

Posted by jdg | Thursday, October 13, 2011

With Halloween only a couple weeks away, if anyone is interested in learning how to make armor for little knights, I put up a tutorial over here.

Li'l Knights in Shining Armor

Posted by jdg | Thursday, October 06, 2011 |

The people who sold my parents their house left behind a stack of gold cardboard in the attic. There were hundreds of massive sheets, and with a good pair of scissors and a few hundred brass fasteners, I spent years turning them into elaborate suits of armor that protected me on many adventures slaying the dragons in our backyard. I brought my kids back to that house a few weeks ago to see their grandparents, and while my mom kept them occupied I went down to my dad's auto body shop to convince him to let me make his grandson a suit of armor out of real steel. With my dad's incredible equipment and enough time, we probably could have made a jointed cuirass and ornately-scrolled spangenhelm out of heavy gauge steel. But I only had a few hours and my dad had to go somewhere, so I just bought a $5 sheet of thin-gauge steel and used tinner's snips to cut it and a mallet to shape it into armor. We had been planning to go to the Michigan Renaissance Festival ever since my wife finally started reading A Song of Ice and Fire and wanted to get her giant roasted turkey leg on (when she was halfway through A Game of Thrones she started talking like an overexcited high school Britlit teacher on a class trip to Stratford-upon-Avon, and I was all, Right on, wench! Get me to the smithy so I can hammer up some breastplates and halfhelms!!!) The results:

When my daughter saw her brother's armor in progress, she wanted a set for herself, so I bought another sheet of steel and made her breastplate and helmet without any of my dad's equipment: just the snips and a hammer. A few days later, I got a call from my next-door neighbor who works the third shift and he had some legitimate concerns about the amount of rivet-pounding going on in our living room.

I showed my daughter the youtube video of that blonde woman from the Lord of the Rings movies, [the one where the demon guy says "No man can kill me. . ." and she shakes off her helmet and says, "I am no man. . ."] and my daughter was all, Nice. So we incorporated some of the pieces from the Ancient Greek Hoplite costume and turned her into a fierce barbarian girl of the North (with Pegasus on her shield).

Both helmets are just $3 IKEA bowls that I bent and riveted some strips of leather along the edge. I cut a piece of steel out in a cool shape to make each one a Norman-style nasal helm, and also riveted on pieces of stiff leather to protect the cheeks. All the sharp edges are safely covered by a glued-on rubber trim molding.

I loved doing all the extras that make the costumes special. We found some rough fabric to make him a long cloak, and bought a rabbit skin (shhh, he thinks it's a wolf) to go around his shoulders. From the extra piece of steel leftover from his breastplate, I made a shield on which I painted our family crest (The Griffin).

My wife and daughter picked out a lush loden fabric for her cloak, and I found a white goatskin for her "wolf" fur. I tried to include some cool details, like the horse symbols on the shoulders, and I used lots of leather to pad each piece of armor and to connect everything together (a lot of it was just old belts I found at the thrift store or scraps of leather from furniture factory outlets). I really liked working with leather, even if most of it isn't visible on the surface. We found my son's bow at a garage sale and Ritchie from Busy Bee gave him the old quiver. I made the arrows out of bamboo stakes and feathers we picked up on Belle Isle. I bought the wooden swords on etsy. He named his sword "Dragon's Tooth" and she named hers "Trollsbane." My kids hate trolls.

The costumes were a big hit at the Renaissance Faire, where my son was very excited to meet a "real" knight.


He also has a lot more to say about boobs now (thanks, chain-mail bikini wenches). 

These aren't their Halloween costumes, just something I cooked up for imaginative play. I believe very strongly that children should be able to whack each other with wooden swords as safely as possible. The other day we went to an old church and pretended it was a real castle that Sir Gram needed to defend from stealthy Viking invaders (wearing polka-dot boots).

These were pretty easy costumes to create and much sturdier than the cardboard armor I made when I was a kid, so I hope they'll stand up to a lot more play. Other than the cutting and riveting, I tried to involve the kids in as much of the planning and actual making as possible. I may do a more elaborate how-to for anyone who wants to make their kids a real-steel knight costume for Halloween (let me know on the facebook page). In the meantime, I need to stop messing around and get to work on their actual Halloween costumes.