THE ASARI PROJECT
04/12/17- The Asari are one of the main alien species in the Mass Effect trilogy. The character Liara plays a big role of providing background info in each game, serving as a squad member in ME1 and ME3, and available as a potential romantic interest for Shepard. Yadda, yadda, yadda. You're supposed to like her, with her big ol' puppy dog eyes, soft-spoken demeanor, and bad-assed biotic powers. The Asari are the most human-like of the aliens, with five fingers per hand and boobs! Yeah, they've got blue skin and weird hair, but they don't look like birds, reptiles, frogs, bats, or insects. And they've all got boobies because there is no such thing as a male-looking Asari (before Mass Effect: Andromeda). In fact there are no overweight, short, or ugly Asari either-- they all look like blue-skinned (occasionally green or purple) fashion models with weird hair. They frequently sport substantial breasts, hubba, hubba! This fits the male hormone-friendly visual style of the Mass Effect trilogy, back before Bioware lost its way.
From that exposition, you might think that my Asari project would be an ersatz version of Liara. Actually, I think that would have been easier, costume-wise. Nope, not interested. I think Justicar Samara is much more interesting looking, not just because of her in-your-face cleavage, her hot bod and skin-tight outfit, but because of her facial features. What incredible cheekbones, lips and eyes! She perfectly fits her role as an enigmatic and stoic deliverer of Justice.
At least, that's the plan. As with all these Mass Effect projects, the most straight-forward part of this project is the headsculpt; that doesn't mean it's going to be easy or that I can pull it off, but sculpting media is readily available and cheap. All it takes is time, eye-hand coordination, and a good eye for spotting what's off (and being able to fix it).
The outfit is the far bigger hurdle: Without an outfit, you've got no doll project-- the headsculpt's just a 1/6th scale hunting trophy, minus the plaque. I'd prefer to do a reasonably game-faithful outfit because it looks so cool (despite being totally impractical as a fighting outfit) and plays such a big part in the identity of the character as Samara. With my other Mass Effect projects, I was okay doing generic characters so the outfits didn't need to be game-accurate. I was content with doing in-the-style-of, especially if it was more compatible with the figure's articulation. Articulation's not an issue with a skin-tight outfit with very little hard armor (didja know that her cleavage is actually an emitter for a super high-tech invisible shielding device?).
The biggest problem is the material itself: It's covered with elongated hexagonal patterns, each with a depression and stud in the center-- it looks almost sculpted. It's not something that you can find at a fabric store or online. In fact, Rana McAnear's (face model for Samara) cosplay costume doesn't have the sculpted look, so it may be something that's doable in the digital world, or on a statue/sculpted action figure, but not so much as a costume or doll wearing a costume. That lowers the bar a little. Of course, decorating a 1/6th scale outfit with painted hexagonal patterns doesn't sound very easy either. At this stage, these are only distant dreams and wishes. In the end, what's do-able always wins.
The Headsculpt: I didn't feel confident in being able to pull off a human-likeness headsculpt in the short working time of epoxy putty, so I sculpted the facial features in polymer clay. When I'm satisfied with it, the facial sculpture will be copied in a 1-piece mold, cast in resin, and attached to a doll head blank; the less critical details ("hair" & "ears") will then be sculpted in epoxy putty, with reptillian texture stamps copied from dinosaur models. That's the plan, at least.
I believe the sculpture is getting there: I've assessed it with a fresh eye over a couple days, and have seen a hint of the Samara likeness.
Enlarged photos can be helpful for pointing out things that your eyes don't notice. Here, I see various things that are asymmetrical, but they're barely noticeable to my naked eye (even now that I know where to look). Sculpting a likeness is about lights and shadows-- they're clues for interpreting 2D images as 3D shapes to guide moving the clay around while you manipulate the sculpture under your lighting source, which constantly changes the highlights and shadows. To avoid being misled, use info from several 2D images from different perspectives. The brain does an amazing job of juggling all these things and stitching them together to guide sculpting. In my case, the brain is also ignoring one of my eyes (which it's decided doesn't need to focus).
The sculpt started with a well-kneaded lump of Super Sculpey (the gray stuff; it's a little stiffer than regular Sculpey), about the same size as a bald 1/6 scale female headsculpt.
The size reference is very important and should be checked periodically early on in the sculpt to confirm the size: It's easy to get engrossed in sculpting details and discover (too late) that the sculpt is too big or too small: Not an easy thing to fix. It's natural to be reluctant to write off the time spent, thinking the too-big or too-small headsculpt can be salvaged. Often it can't, which you learn from investing even more time, before biting the bullet and starting over (See my Turian project).
The clay lump is mounted on a rod that can be easily manipulated for sculpting and viewing. I put a knob of tape on the end of the rod so the clay would stay put; this means that the baked sculpt probably isn't coming of the rod unscathed-- but it only needs to survive until it's molded and a good casting is made. The rod should be parked safely in a stable stand so that it doesn't fall over when you aren't sculpting. (Duh! And don't let your pets chew on it.)
The bead eyeballs are embedded once the basic facial geometry has been mapped out. This deforms the clay, so you don't want to get too far along with the details and cleanup. For me, the hardest part is embedding them to the same depth since they aren't both visible at the same time from a side view. The best view is from the chin side, looking up. The lateral and vertical positioning is easy to gauge from the frontal view.
For shaping, I prefer firm polyclay because it responds predictably to a hard sculpting tool without being overly sensitive. If the clay is too soft, surrounding areas move when you push clay around-- very aggravating. Aged Super Sculpey is usually firmer than fresh. On the other hand, blending and smoothing are easier with a softer clay; you can soften clay with solvents like Turpenoid.
Rough shaping starts with the fingers, but soon shifts to a sculpting tool for the majority of the feature shaping. On one end the sculpting tool has a smooth metal tip without sharp edges for shaping, smoothing and blending, and a metal spear tip on the other end for detailing and precise clay-moving (like eyelids). Once details have been sculpted, a brush is used to remove tool marks, and to smooth and round sharp edges. A dry brush works best for clay-moving (like a softer version of the sculpting tool). To smooth the surface, wet the brush with spit or Astro-glide (these reduce friction), or Turpenoid. Note: Turpenoid acts as a polyclay solvent and makes the surface soft and vulnerable to brush marks. It's absorbed into the clay so surface hardness returns, but I suspect that it softens the clay generally, so you don't want to overdo it.
Raw casting with blue tint added to resin (although you probably can't see it-- I had a hard time getting the photo to show details, so I mucked with the camera settings). For one of MY castings, it's not bad: There's the eye-bubble and a dimple in the cheek, which isn't visible in this pic. Those will have to be fixed.
The Body: I usually talk about this before the headsculpt, but since this was a human figure that didn't require any special surgery, I didn't. I thought I'd figured out the blue-paint-on-a-Kumiklone thing, so it would be a simple matter of sticking the head on the body, and moving on to the costuming challenge. It didn't work out that way...
You can read about it in this long sidebar rant: 1/6 Scale FemFigs 2017
I ended up using a Takara Cool Girl/Cy Girl v2.0. I needed to make one small modification: The boob plate's v-shaped cutout at the bottom center was filled with putty to accommodate the low-cut outfit (however, I couldn't putty far enough to accurately copy the outfit's low-cuttedness).
The Headsculpt from Hell: 04/20/17- Setbacks are depressing: I thought the headsculpt was almost done and expected to be way past this point by now. I added the tentacle hair and sprayed primer to see how well the putty blended with the casting. See that weird/cool glisteny effect on the casting above? What the pic doesn't show are the bazillions of pinholes in the casting. I couldn't see them with my naked eye either. Once I sprayed the primer, they jumped right out.
I first thought it might have been the blue tint added to the resin, or old resin, so I made another casting without the tint. Same thing. I was about to order some new resin, but examined the mold with Optivisors and a lot of light: Damn... no wonder! The mold had a bazillion tiny, tiny bumps, which is what made the pinholes. I examined the polyclay headsculpt: It appeared to have a weird oily/crystaline film in places, probably from the turpenoid which I'd last used to smooth it before "firing" it with a heatgun. Shortly thereafter, I made the mold. I'd rushed because I was eager to move on.
I had a few options: 1) Fix the casting or 2) Make a new mold and casting and transfer it onto the first head. I chose option 2 because I might make a better mold and it let me fix a slight problem with the jawline. Mold #1 had problems with the chin. I thought I could do better, so I made mold #2. Demolding from that mold destroyed the polyclay sculpture. With the sculpture destroyed, I was becoming anxious and running out of options. I went back to option #1: Fix the casting.
To fill the pinholes, I painted the casting with epoxy putty slip, thinned with alcohol. I was concerned that the thick slip might smother detail and distort features, but the slip gets thinner as the alcohol evaporates and it cures. Once cured, I sanded and re-engraved some of the details. By now, I was really sick of the stupid headsculpt.
The Outfit: It's always a good idea to think about or plan how you're going to make the outfit well before you actually start working on it. This helps identify parts that may not be do-able and how you might be able to deal with them. Many outfits break down into sections that sometimes need to be constructed in a particular order. For example, if you make a non-removeable outfit, figure mods and painting should be done before the outfit gets assembled on the figure. Duh.
I mentioned some of the expected challenges of detailing the outfit at the beginning of the article. I ran tests with metallic gold pens and paint on various materials to see whether I could do the gold hexagonal decorations. Verdict: Questionable/doubtful. Scaling back my ambitions, I wondered whether the pattern of bazillions of black studs might convey enough of the look of the outfit to get by, without the gold hexagons. Verdict: Maybe, and probably do-able (if I have the patience).
Looking at the outfit generally: It's skin-tight with some armored pieces topside. A spandex catsuit would be a good foundation, as it would move over the body with changes in the figure's pose. The torso and leg sections are covered with a red material that looks like plastic or vinyl, not spandex. Since the sections have vertical lines, gluing vinyl (or leather) strips to the spandex might work for creating the look, while not inhibiting the spandex too much: You don't want to sacrifice too much flexibility, but that's something you find out after you've done it, and a consideration in the selection of material. The upper armored parts don't look too problematic, and there are a lot of different ways to make them.
A major distinctive feature of Samara's outfit is the way the material follows the shape of her boobs, like sci-fi/fantasy female armor. A catsuit made of spandex or pleather would have a hard time doing that without darts and special tailoring. To capture that shape, vinyl strips could be glued to a fitted thermoform placed over the catsuit. It would anchor the catsuit, but hopefully that wouldn't cause problems. The trick would be making the strips blend/stay aligned with the vinyl strips of lower torso section. (If I were a better modeler, I would have reduced the figure's boob size to better match the hang of the game's more realistic representation.)
The Upper Torso Armor: This works out to be a single section that can be placed/removed as one piece over the catsuit. It includes the boob "armor" mentioned above, the neck guard, the 3 back armor pieces and the pauldrons (shoulder armor). Even though the majority of the suit wouldn't be removeable, having removeable sections like the upper torso armor makes it easier to work on other sections, and prevents possible damage while working on the other sections. This would let me hold off on painting the exposed part of the figure until after the suit was finished.
The main challenge of constructing this section comes from the difference in a design made for the virtual digital world and replicating it in the real world. As usual, Cosplay costume makers have to deal with this; you can get ideas and see how they handled the various problems.
The game outfit's neck guard ring is depicted as being tighter and more closed at the front than is practical if you've got a real head with a chin.
The back armor side pieces are depicted as tucked under the shoulder guards and mounted over the center piece. It's not impossible to do, but the pieces need to be more curved to do it, or flexible so that they don't interfere with the shoulder guards. There doesn't seem to be a natural, logical way to attach them, unlike the way that real armor is constructed. I glued them to the center piece because it seemed like the easiest and most obvious solution.
My suit's butt is considerably wider than the game's, and even then I had to add strips to the center to fill the gap.
The shoulder guards are big and long, and it's not clear how they're supposed to work. Strapped to the center gorget, they don't track with the arms as their length and enclosing "wings" (that I haven't made yet) would seem to suggest; especially difficult when the arms are stretched forward. In that case, the arms would more naturally slide under the guards. I discovered this after I'd made rigid shoulder guards; a digital representation of an arm-forward pose seemed to show that the guards were made of a flexible material; they also change shape slightly as Samara moves in the game. I experimented with some flexible shoulder guards (leather and flexible rubber), before deciding to live with the rigid guards. Costumes seem to solve this problem by making the shoulder guards shorter, not strapped to the upper arm. This lets them rest on the shoulder properly and lets the upper arms move more freely.
The Suit: The DIYer has to improvise with what's available, which can make it hard to create an accurate costume. I wish that I could buy 1/6 scale Samara-outfit material, but there's probably only 2 or 3 people in the entire universe who might want to make a 1/6 scale Samara doll. For that matter, I wish I had an industrial production facility with staff. Dream on...
I dug through my scrap materials boxes and pulled a number of possible candidates. (My advice: Stay away from pleather. That stuff turns nasty!) The most promising stuff was a black rubberish material that I've had since the '80s (!) and used to make wing membranes for my debbil wimmen dolls a number of years back. It's in amazingly good shape, with no stickiness or signs of degradation.
This was going to be a grueling glue job. The outfit is made of a lot of vertical strips that would have to be cut and glued to the spandex outfit. Ideally, by time the last piece had been glued in place, the pieces would all fit together perfectly and meet up with no gaps. (this being an eyeballed homemade thing,"ideally" rarely happens...) I ran some glue and paint tests on a sample; spray paints and clear coats leave it sticky, but acrylic is okay. It bonds extremely permanently with superglue; contact cement forms a strong bond with spandex, but can be slowly pried and separated. That's been a useful quality for making a trial-and-error glue-and-pray suit.
Making the vertical strips required patterns. I wrapped each section (legs, torso) in tin foil, then covered it with masking tape. The design of the vertical strips was drawn (from reference photos) onto the masking tape. The pattern was cut and removed from the figure, flattened and used as a template to cut all the strips drawn onto the masking tape. There's some distortion when turning the masking tape's 3D form into a flat 2D pattern and cutting it into pieces, so it's not an exact/precision process (especially when I do it). Another problem is that the spandex suit has a different shape when it's wrapped like a mummy in masking tape. That's something I discovered when gluing the pattern strips to the suit on the figure ("WTF? What's up with the huge gap???"). Fortunately, I'm very fault-tolerant (or I'd never finish anything).
Every project offers a learning experience, but I never seem to remember the lessons. My total lack of planning for how to handle the Cool Girl bootfeet caused me unnecessary grief. I was going to use stripped bootfeet but once I got to that point, decided to use boots with the pleather covering on (because they rigidized the ball-socket joint). I didn't even think about the ugly mid-calf bulge they'd cause when covered with vinyl. I undid it, cut the boot covering down to the ankle and tried again. This time, I saw that the overall shaping was ugly-- the feet and ankles were too big. Take 3: I removed the coverings and tried again. Much better, but I'd made the body suit leg pattern barely long enough to reach the ankle. Therefore, the boot covering pattern needed to go further up the calf.
I'd prefer the outfit to be reasonably accurate, but I'm not anal-retentive about it. For example, Samara's outfit has additional pads on the outside of her hips/thighs. I could have easily copied the design, but I thought that the additional layer's thickness might restrict articulation or have an unwelcome effect on the other parts of the costume when the legs changed pose. I felt that I had to put something there to preserve the general look (black with gold borders). Instead, I attached rigid black w/gold armor plates to her hips, to hang over the area-- similar to tassets on medieval armor. (I'd like to say that they're shaped specifically for this, but they were just scrap pieces I'd pulled off of the back armor to make them less rigid.)
The Studs: 04/26/17- Once the entire suit had been glue & vinyl wrapped, it was time to try the "bazillions of studs" idea that I mentioned above. The studs were small (2mm), but slightly oversized and thicker than those on the game's costume. I'd convinced myself that it was a great idea and added a row on the backside to see how it looked. The texture felt interesting and different. With something like this, you can't really evaluate the overall look until you've done a large section, and with a "great idea" like this, I tend to be persistent. I finished the front and back and wisely took a break to evaluate it. Hmmmmm... It looked kinda like an exotic dancer's rhinestone-covered outfit. Not really the look I was hoping for. To cut my losses, I decided not to do the legs.
If only life had a "Save As...", "Revert" or "Undo" button.... but supergluing the studs ruled that out unless I wanted to remake the suit. Nope. If I were to have another crack at it, I'd try doing it with a pen and sticking with the original suit's pattern.
The Headsculpt... Again: After salvaging the headsculpt's pinholes, I wasn't really satisfied with the rushed job I'd done on the placement of the ears and hair tentacles, but I was eager to paint it so I could assess whether it kinda-sorta looked like Samara. The project had dragged on for a long time and I was getting tired of it. At least the headsculpt is a removeable part and can be worked on endlessly. (The eyeballs need to be Dremelled out and totally redone.) The doll's not finished; I'm waiting for some gold studs to arrive, and have considered making a Disciple shotgun.