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]