Mass Effect 1/6 scale Female Shepard

01/23/17- I recently replayed the Mass Effect trilogy and this time I actually finished it! I don't think the plot's the most original, but I don't have a problem with that. What kept me playing was the weave of characters, stories, interactivity, and shoot 'em up gameplay. It's like a video where you bond deeply with the characters and story because you feel like you know them and can exercise some degree of control over their fates. Beyond nitpicking, they're just fun games to play. The hero team characters are top-notch.

For what it's worth, I'm ambivalent about many of the Reaper minion creature designs-- some seem too detail-busy in the popular "gory mutant abomination" style that I'm not fond of (I do understand that Reapers do what Reapers gotta do...). The Collectors and Cerebus had a few interesting designs. On the other hand, I don't have any problem with the prevalent visual pandering to male hormones (shocker, huh?)-- I believe it's in our DNA, and probably a good thing for the perpetuation of our species. The virtual "romancing" schtick... well, not so much.

It was natural for me to seek out the related toy lines that it had spawned and that I'd missed. I was surprised to see that so little was out there given what appears to be a sizeable and enthusiastic fan base... but I guess that's what happens when there are a zillion media properties for manufacturers to farm and a limited number of bucks for them to harvest from collectors' pockets.

The most complete lineup of the hero characters is/was some 7" PVC action figures that are currently scalped on eBay; a few companies did spotty releases of some popular characters, and it appears that preorders are being taken for some 1/4 scale statues, probably to capitalize on the revival of interest generated by the imminent release of the Mass Effect: Andromeda game.

Most of the design mojo went into the hero characters. I doubt that any of the ME trilogy baddies and minions will ever be produced because their designs just aren't as cool. I see it as a missed opportunity for spin-off merchandise-- baddies are often the more interesting character designs (i.e., Star Wars), and their memorable designs sell well. I realize that it's easy to say that-- coming up with interesting original designs isn't as easy as it used to be.

My Insightful Review of ThreeZero's 1/6th Scale Mass Effect Figures: In 1/6 scale, there's ThreeZero's John Shepard and Legion. That's it, even though there are other popular and interesting hero characters from the Mass Effect trilogy. Of course, they had to do Shepard, the main hero of the trilogy; I think Legion was a good second choice-- the Geth designs are unique and interesting, and they do play a major role in "message" of the trilogy.

These were released around 2014, so it looks like ThreeZero's done with 1/6th Mass Effect. They're expensive (but almost everything 1/6th seems overpriced these days) and received few glowing reviews. I got my John Shepard recently on clearance at retail, so it must not have been a hot seller. Legion was harder to find at retail but wasn't marked up to eBay's scalper prices. For what you get, these seemed like a better deal than the 7" action figures, most of which were obscenely marked up on eBay.

Mass Effect 1/6 scale ThreeZero Commander Shepard

I think the figures are well done; Shepard is as articulated as you'd expect and holds poses well. The design of the Mass Effect 3 N7 armor doesn't limit articulation much, although there's practically zero abdominal articulation. The unhelmeted headsculpt would have been a welcome inclusion in the standard edition since it's probably a more iconic look given the game's customizing options and how many/most people play it. I don't miss it since my John Shepard doll is intended to be a generic, faceless grunt. Dolls like this aren't manufactured to have removeable outfits these days, so including a helmetless head so the oddball customer could bash the casual look probably wasn't on ThreeZero's radar.

Mass Effect 1/6 scale FemShep with ThreeZero Legion

Legion has a "rubber" skin to hide limb joints. As many collectors have learned, flexible materials aren't as durable and long-lived as rigid materials, and paint doesn't stick to them as well. It's a sacrifice for the sake of looks: They're made for display, not play.

Unfortunately, the rubber suit is fairly thick around the hips and the legs don't have rachet-lock pivots-- you know what that means, right? You can't really adjust the pose of the legs. Well, you can, but they snap right back to where the rubber suit wants them to be. Bummer.

So that's it: Just two figures. I guess I should be grateful for that, since it was just like the good old days when I made things because I couldn't buy them. I'd replayed the ME series as FemShep who seemed to be fairly "do-able" as a 1/6 doll, mainly an armor project.


(Female Commander Shepard, a.k.a. "Jane Shepard")

Mass Effect 1/6 scale FemShep fullview Project Overview: I collected a bunch of reference pics to guide with the costume design and realized that there's almost too much freedom: The games have so many options for armor and customization! The same goes for the face/headsculpt. Therefore, you could probably do any weapon-heavy space armor with any headsculpt and claim that it was Commander Shepard... but what would be the point in that? It's nice to have some boundaries to scribble within.

I decided to aim for a quasi-game default Mass Effect 3 FemShep so that it was recognizable as being from "Mass Effect" as I and many others played it. Because of the "customizable" escape clause, it didn't need to be exact, which works with the limitations of "home-made". It's hard to get the detail and precision of computer-controlled fabrication tools when you rely on bad eyesight and shaky hands. Definitely old-school: "Made by a human... How quaint!"

That's oddly appropriate for a game that's themed on the repercussions of the machines that we build. That theme infiltrates more and more of our lives as self-driving cars promise to displace human drivers in the near future. Even burger-flippers aren't safe. John Henry looks down and winks.

Why bother doing old-school when you know that technology and $$$ can kick your ass? Because I'm doing this for fun, not to make money. Honestly though, if an established manufacturer made a 1/6 FemShep, I'd probably buy it... and miss out on all the fun of making it. We can't help ourselves. We're doomed.

The Sacrificial Figure: The base figure is a more-or-less stock Cy Girls figure from yesteryear, dressed with Palisades Final Fantasy feetless boots and an old Hall of Fame GI Joe jumpsuit-- exactly as it was when I boxed it up years ago. (I later replaced the jumpsuit for a generic black one because it fit better.) The figure had good articulation for an armored doll project, and all of its joints were tight and smooth. I may eventually do something to give it ankle articulation, but for now that's not a priority: She stands.

I wasn't up for sculpting and was content to re-hair and repaint a Cy Girls headsculpt: Not quite the game's default FemShep but close 'nuff and a lot easier. The look of default FemShep's face changed through the trilogy, so there's room for artistic interpretation. Besides, she's not even a real person.

Armor Analysis: Studying the basic ME3 N7 armor, I noted that it was a mix of detail pieces and shaped armor pieces that could be approximated with a few different techniques and materials. Detail pieces like the backpack and pauldrons (shoulder pad armor) could be copied in resin from ThreeZero's John Shepard.

There were several candidate materials/techniques for the shaped armor pieces; I considered vacuformed styrene, resin casting, hammered copper sheet (like medieval armor), and foam sheets. Other possibilities were leather or sculpting in epoxy putty directly on the figure. A consideration was the texture detail on some pieces. The N7 armor design changed slightly between ME2 and ME3, but since the ME3 texturing seems to be present on so many N7 cosplay costumes (and the ThreeZero figure) I guess it can be considered to be a near-essential feature of the N7 armor and worth attempting.

My Internet research provided reference pictures, but also turned up a detailed cosplay Mass Effect FemShep costume-making project. In that project, armor panels were constructed with textured foam floor mats. Clearly, that material was too thick for 1/6 scale costuming, but it showed me how someone had gone about creating patterns for their version of FemShep armor. It showed how a close, but not exact copy of the armor looked pretty good. Best of all, it served as a stepping stone to other cosplay costuming articles about relevant techniques. How do you finish the stuff? How do you paint it?

There are many geekish similarities between sci-fi doll-making and cosplay costume making. The scale difference and usage makes for important differences in materials and techniques used: You can't stick a real human on a vacuforming platform and lay a 400-degree Fahrenheit sheet of styrene over them, for instance. However, a dollmaker can learn plenty of useful techniques from cosplay projects. I'd never heard of "Worbla" until I kept running across references to it on several costume-making pages pages (it's a relatively new product on the market). It piqued my curiosity and I ordered a couple small sheets of it. That's a clear benefit of 1/6th scale-- Worbla's expensive!.


Worbla: It turned out to be very different from what I'd expected. I'd assumed that it was a foam-like material, but it's a thermoplastic and actually closer to sheet styrene but with some very different and useful properties for the doll and costume maker. The black stuff feels sort of like a sheet of nylon, rough-textured on one side and smooth on the other; thicker than the .030" styrene that I use for vacuforming. It's an interesting material to explore. When heated with a heat gun, it goes limp quickly at a fairly low temperature and can be stretched/formed over an object or shaped by hand for maybe 10 seconds or longer: Much longer than styrene. While hot, it sticks to itself and other things (like fabric or metal), but not too aggressively, so it can be peeled off fabric when it cools. Once it cools, it's very tough-- it doesn't tear easily, is flexible, and has excellent "shape memory". It can be used to make fitted wrap-around parts that stay in place, yet can be pulled off. If you get the part wrong, it can be reheated for a second try without any noticeable change in its properties. I've seen Worbla scraps being heated up and mushed together and used like a sculpting medium. I didn't experiment with that property.

Worbla's heated-to-cooled transition envelope is relatively long compared to styrene, but it passes through some property phases fairly quickly. For example, you can leave fingerprints in the material (or emboss it) when it's hottest, but its a fairly short window of time. It self-glues strongest when it's hottest.

It's low melting point and stickiness can be both a good and bad thing. For quick assembly, the stickiness can reduce or eliminate the need to glue. But in situations where more time and careful placement is necessary, gluing is usually a better option. Superglue works and creates a strong bond. The stickiness can be a liability for heated texture stamping because the material tends to stick to the heated stamp and lifts up when the stamp is removed.

My feeling was that the temperature had to be just right to do surface/texture modifications like stamping and embossing after the material had been shaped and cooled. It would be difficult to maintain the material at that perfect temperature to do a large section of texturing. I tried with the focused heat of an adjustable temperature soldering pencil. Too hot and the material sticks to the stamp. Too cold and you're just pressing the stamp onto a hard, unyielding surface. The material doesn't have the same "give" and flexibility that craft foam and leather have.

The v-shaped plate above the boob armor was done with Worbla and shows my attempt to emboss an aluminum screen pattern onto it. I tested on several scraps, and the final piece is okay-- it has a slightly ragged and uneven surface though. I used Worbla to make the untextured arm armor pieces and the base for the leg armor because it was thin and easy to form and attach add-on pieces to.

While the low melting point makes the material easy to work with, I wonder how Worbla parts fare when stored in a hot summer environment?

Craft Foam: Other materials are easier to texture than Worbla. The "Silly Winks" craft foam was a breeze to heat texture and create designs on. I believe that's because the foam compresses under the heated stamp and the pattern is fused/melted where it's most compressed. A heated blade edge and side creates a dimensional look, especially for lines and panels.

I used craft foam for the lower front and back pieces, because craft foam is quite flexible and therefore more articulation-friendly than any of the other materials mentioned. It has a broader and more uniform range of heat sensitivity, so its surface can be slightly smoothed with a low temperature soldering pencil. It was easy to emboss the texture pattern and carve dimensional lines into the pieces with a heated blade.

Craft foam can be loosely shaped with heat but it doesn't hold drastic shapes very well. That's why I glued the outer craft foam panels to the Worbla leg armor. I did the same thing for the hood/neck armor, along with a sandwiched strip of brass: The brass was glued in before I had the Worbla to shape the craft foam, but was actually unnecessary after I added the Worbla. The Worbla does a much better job of retaining the shape because of its great shape memory.

For flexible, intricately sculpted detail, flexible castings are probably a better choice. That's another level of effort, expertise, and expense though. Craft foam is dirt cheap and easy to work with.

Vacuformed Styrene: The first parts I made were the vacuformed upper torso boob plate and back. These were cut from full-figure vacuforms; Before I knew about Worbla, I envisioned cutting other pieces of rigid styrene armor for the legs, arms and in areas where its relative rigidity wouldn't interfere with articulation. I ended up using Worbla for these.

Styrene has it's own strengths and weaknesses. Of all materials mentioned, it's probably the easiest to finish and paint for a glossy, shiny look. It can be sanded to a smooth surface and scribed with lines. Because it's relatively rigid, epoxy details can be sculpted or added on its surface. It's easy to glue, patch, and paint. However, it can be torn and gouged more easily than Worbla, and the heat (speed) of engraving bits can melt it. It can be heat-embossed, but like Worbla, finding that right temperature is essential. In that application, the fact that it doesn't turn sticky with heat is an advantage: the embossing form doesn't stick as readily. Its higher melting point and quick cool-down make it ideal for vacuforming, and it tends to fare well when stored in hot places.

Resin Castings: One of the reasons I bought ThreeZero's John Shepard figure was for the weapons and so I could make castings of some armor parts for this project.

Sci-fi armor has been done so many times that the Mass Effect designs don't seem that special to me. Even though my first playthrough was as MaleShep, the doll just looks like generic armored spacedude to me. (I'd be more inclined to buy ThreeZero's iconic Halo Master Chief if it hadn't received such abysmal reviews.) To me, FemShep is more iconic, even wearing basically the same N7 armor.

Castings can reinforce a uniform look across figures and help make them look like they came from the same place and belong together, even if there are other major differences. A home-made version of a detailed part tends to stick out like a sore thumb next to the precision of a machine-manufactured part. The pauldrons are a good example of this: I could never hope to match the texture pattern either by manually sculpting it (yeah, sure...) or by trying to find exactly the same texture stamp (unlikely). I ended up casting copies of the pauldons, the front part of the belt, the backpack pieces, the "N7" lettering, and a few other detail pieces. So by displaying the helmeted John Shepard with the home-made FemShep, the common parts help make them look like they belong together.

A useful quality of resin castings is that they're plastic and can be reshaped, i.e., bent and stretched. When pulled from the mold before they're completely cured, the castings are quite pliable. How pliable and how long it remains pliable depends on the resin itself, manufacturer, how old it is, and the mix ratio. Some mixes seem to take forever to cure, and if you badly screw up the ratio or it's really old resin, it never seems to cure. (I had an exceptionally difficult time with this batch of resin!) Even fully cured resin can be slightly reshaped with heating. This comes in handy when fitting castings like pauldrons to figures that are not the same size, or making a casting conform to a curvature. Of course, resin can be reshaped by cutting and sanding, glueing, and with epoxy putty additions.

Painting: Miraculously, all of these materials are spray-paintable, even ones that I had doubts about, like craft foam. I tested auto lacquers and Tamiya lacquers, without any of the melting that happens when you spray paint styrofoam. I didn't surface seal the foam and Worbla: I sprayed everything with black auto lacquer and dry-brushed craft acrylic on top. It made the armor appear more "used" than ThreeZero's Shepard armor, but I think it looks okay considering how little time that I spent on it. As you can see, the vacuformed boob plate is the most shiny, replicating the "eye-magnet" effect that's everywhere in the games.

Mass Effect 1/6 scale FemShep armor parts
Sorry, I left out the resin-worbla-foam belt. The "N7" logo was too big to fit where it was supposed to go... one of many liberties taken.

Fasteners: As you may have noticed, the front and rear torso armor pieces are joined with elastic at the bottom and secured with adjustable miniature quick-release clips at the top. These things are great, and I'm glad I bought some from Good Stuff To Go before they went out of business years ago. I haven't seen them for sale to hobbyists anywhere else since. I also used them to secure the thigh armor which are joined to the front torso armor with elastic.


ThreeZero's John Shepard includes two weapons: The ubiquitous and iconic M-8 Avenger assault rifle, and the huge M-5 Phalanx heavy pistol (as well as an Omnitool). The trilogy has lots of different weapons with many variations (VI, VII, VIII, etc.-- way too many in Mass Effect 1, IMO) and they're so easy to acquire in the game, so unless you're an expert ME geek or gun fetishist, they tend to become an indistinguishable blur of sameness when you're focused on playing the game.

It would be cool to have 1/6th replicas of some key pieces of the trilogy's arsenal. On the other hand, the overwhelming variety clears the way for almost any sci-fi raygun to fit in as a ME-style weapon, including the huge-assed Final Fantasy railgun-ish thingamajig that I gave my John Shepard doll. I stuck an N7 logo casting on it, and I think it fits in. I consider it pretty obscure, even though the Final Fantasy video wasn't awful.

Nerdish Rantish... If one were to point out nitpicky things like plot holes, bad writing, and improbabilities, I would throw in the sheer number of weapons that soldier Shepard carries and can equip-- an assault rifle, shotgun, sniper rifle, heavy pistol, submachinegun, grenades, and an occasional heavy weapon. That's a shitload of firepower! But it's a game, and it makes the game fun, adds a strategic element, and is doable through the magic of animation and programming. For real-world doll and model-making, that's problematic.

In the virtual world of games, the weapons could just magically appear when selected or be pulled out of her ass. To make it appear plausible, the weapons are "Transformerized" into compact boxish shapes so that they fit on the surface of the backpack and extend to operational size when drawn. It would be wonderful if one could replicate the mechanics to do that at 1/6th scale. However, I don't think it's possible, and I don't believe that it would be possible at 1/1 scale either.

It's probably something that only a 1/6th scale dollmaker or modelmaker would notice or care about. Given 1/6th scale's GI Joe real-world military roots, there's an appreciation for "working detail", like removeable outfits, weapons with retractable stocks, removeable magazines and pouches that can be opened and filled with ammo clips and rounds. 1/6th scale tries to model real-world functionality as best as it can, which is one of the things that sets it apart from smaller scale action figures.

Digital sci-fi creations often monkeywrench this. Movies and games can show mechanical devices that appear to work according to real-world physics, but actually don't. You can't model working mechanisms in plastic that don't work in the real world.

This is very different from sci-fi's magical suspension-of-disbelief staples like biotics, levitation, teleportation, beam weapons, etc.-- We don't expect to be able to replicate their operation; we simulate that with conventions of representation, like supports to simulate levitation or the clear plastic used in the Omnitool. Someone who's not familiar with that convention might wonder, "Why is that big orange thing stuck on her arm and where does she store it when she's not using it?"

"Working detail" seems to be something that few care about: Nowadays, most high-end 1/6th scale dolls are designed for display, not play. Manufacturers don't bother with things like wearable helmets-- they often provide two versions of the headsculpt (unless you're ThreeZero and make them available only as limited exclusives). It's an easy solution and you never have to confront the issue of whether the helmet was designed to actually fit a bare head.

The display solution for Mass Effect weapons stowage in 1/6th scale is equally simple: Sculpt the stowed states of weapons individually or as a block with a magnetic attachment. Create deployed versions of those weapons for the doll to wield. Build a stand with sufficient hidden storage underneath so you can store unused parts like spare headsculpts, extra hands, weapons, etc.

Personally, I prefer a simple figure/stand (preferably without stand if possible) setup with as few unused extra parts hanging out as possible, so I chose to stow the fully extended M-8 Avenger magnetically on Shepard's backpack. The M-5 Phalanx pistol isn't supposed to be a Transformerable weapon, so it can be magnetically attached to her thigh armor and be in compliance with the facts of the fictional world.

Nevertheless, I hastily sculpted a one-sided approximation of a stowed Mantis sniper rifle to magnetically attach to the backpack. I discovered that to match the scale of the assault rifle (based on the pistol grip and trigger guard size), it had to be scaled to a size that didn't fit neatly and compactly on the backpack. It's hard to imagine squeezing a shotgun and submachinegun in there. I concluded that the mechanisms that deploy the weapons must not only extend the stock and barrel, but also enlarge the parts as well. That's some mighty fancy technology!


PART 2   PART 3   PART 4