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The MDb Interviews Chelsea Mills

by Infinity's End

When Chelsea Mills unveiled photos of her amazing Samus cosplay via Reddit with an uploaded gallery on Imgur, it took the internet by storm! We got in touch with this extremely talented girl to find out what makes her Samus cosplay so beautifuly accurate. Through a combination of papercraft, traditional handcrafting, 3D modeling and printing, and maybe a little bit of Chozo magic, Chelsea gives us all the details behind the history and effort put forth into this wonderful costume, going far beyond what she informed us in her original WIP thread on rpf (a replica props/costume forum). Could this be the new champion of Samus cosplay?

- Cosplay Questions -

Please state your name and area of residence. Perhaps your hometown too if you'd like!

My name is Chelsea Mills and I live in Bellevue, Washington. My hometown is Portland, Oregon.

Your thread starts on 5/29/2013, but you mention you had been working on it several months before that point. Could you pinpoint exactly when you started production for this cosplay and what you could consider to be the main inspiration for creating such an intricate costume?

Back in 2010 I went to my first con, PAX Prime. Having never been to a convention before, cosplay wasn't something I was familiar with (I knew people dressed up in costume for some stuff, but not to this extent). After seeing all the amazing cosplay there I was immediately inspired.

I've been an artist my whole life, mostly drawing and sculpting but later got into 3D modeling for my career. Cosplay felt like the perfect outlet for my art, as drawing and sculpting could never fully hold my attention and dedication. This, however, was everything I could want out of a hobby: it's 3D (my strength), requires lots of problem solving and outside the box thinking (I love it!), and best of all it's functional when you're done! Not only that but it's the only crafted art where you get immediate and direct feedback from people since you are the art!

After that first PAX I soon settled on Samus' Varia Suit - it was sufficiently challenging (which is what I wanted out of it), highly recognizable, and involved no sewing (I didn't have an interest in learning how, at least for my first cosplay). Most importantly, Samus is my favorite game character of all time!

Sometime in 2011 or 2012 I started researching for the project in my spare time. I collected as much reference as I could find, during which I decided which version of the suit to do. Then I also started figuring out what materials I could maybe use, what techniques others had used for similar projects in the past, and learning how to do those techniques. At the time I didn't have the means to start production. In the spring of 2012 I started mocking up the costume with the 3D model and then made pepakura to try on my body.

In the thread, you stated you've put about 600 hours into it by end of August 2013 and had about 100 left to go, and you worked on it over the course of 2 years. How much of that time was dedicated to 3D modeling and how much was crafting?

I ended up spending much more than 100 hours after August 2013, since that estimation was based on the techniques I was previously using: shaping and painting craft foam. I was having issues with the paint cracking on the foam and now that I had way more time after failing to meet my deadline I could spend the time to do it right. I soon discovered Worbla and covered my existing foam shapes with it but that meant a whole new set of tasks to complete, mainly smoothing out the rough surface of the Worbla and making the now rigid armor wearable.

I started 3D modeling in January 2013 and finished that June. My friend Matthew Serle (who owns the 3D printer) ran the first print job that February, so from then until June I was doing both modeling and finishing the prints at the same time. I'd say I spent about 5 months modeling. The rest of the 2 years or so was spent crafting.

Did you look at the game's actual (ripped) 3D models for accuracy? Please give as many details as you can in regards to the 3D printing and modeling process.

Yes. I found a model someone had ripped from Metroid Prime 3 and used that to figure out how the suit would fit me. I started by cutting apart the model into the different armor pieces since it was originally one solid model, and cleaned those up. Then, using a human female model which I edited to fit my actual proportions (based off orthographic pictures I had someone take of me), I scaled and warped the armor pieces to my body. I couldn't just print those low poly models (they're faceted and not printer ready) and I also couldn't just increase the poly count and print right away - I had to be sure that the prints would actually fit me, or it would be a very costly mistake! I took my edited armor models and turned those into pepakura (papercraft) which I could try on in real life. I started with the helmet and it took 5 tries to get it just right! After I had the size of that down I had a point of reference for the rest of the armor, but I still had to make pepakura of them just to be sure. It still took a couple tries with a few of the other pieces before I finally had those right as well.

Once I knew exactly what size and shape the prints should be I began modeling my own versions from scratch. For those versed in modeling terms, I used a combination of lofting curves into polys and regular poly modeling in Maya. At this stage the models were only fairly high poly and still a bit faceted - this was an intentional part of the workflow. After figuring out how big the pieces could be in the printer bed (the bed is only 8"x10"x8") I divided them into smaller pieces and made sure they had a uniform thickness of 2mm. As an example, the helmet had to be divided into four pieces. I then brought the models into Zbrush to smooth them (increase the poly count and round them out) because I prefer Zbrush's smoothing to Maya's. With the models now complete I imported them into the 3D printer software to prepare them for Matt to run the print.

Were there any other people, studios, or other places of interest involved in helping you realize the costume? If so, who were they and what did they contribute?

My friend Matt ran all the crazy time consuming and tedious print jobs, which were challenging in their own right! The longest print was 9 hours and 11 minutes, which was only a quarter of one shoulder! After the printing process was complete he then had to painstakingly dig it out of the powder like an archaeologist, gently bring the very fragile print over to the other side of the printer to have the excess powder blown off with the compressor, and finally dip the entire thing in super glue to cure it, all without breaking it.

My friend Patrick Corwin graciously allowed me to use his garage and backyard as a work space, and helped me find materials.

I also had the support of my sister who helped me do detail paint and sanding when I was running out of time at the end of the second year.

All three of them were invaluable in helping me problem solve and were so supportive. I couldn't have done it without them!

Can you give an accurate approximation of how much money was put forth overall?

The 3D prints on their own cost $1143.65 - Matt only charged me cost of materials.

The rest of the suit is hard to nail down an exact price on, but my estimate is somewhere around $2000, bringing the total to somewhere over $3000. Most of the $2000 came from the silicone and resin casting supplies and the EL tape (the lime green areas of the suit are panels which light up, called EL tape, which is similar to EL wire).

Do you have any opinions on other Samus cosplays that have been done in the past, such as Thais "Yuki" Jussim or Jenni "Pixelninja" Kallberg? What do you think they have done well? What do you think they could have improved? What do you think your costume does better or worse when compared to them?

They are both so amazing! They were my main inspirations during the crafting process and really helped me figure out how I was going to make my own version. They were both very successful at emulating the shapes and proportions as well as details. To offer constructive criticism I would say Yuki's paint should be copper like Pixelninja's coloring, and Pixelninja's chest should stick out like Yuki's. For mine I wanted to combine the strengths of both of their costumes and create the best one I could, and I feel I was successful. With 3D printing I was able to get shapes and sharp details which would be almost impossible otherwise. I'm particularly proud of my non-3d printed leg armor which I managed to make follow the contours of my legs. It's easy to end up with tube legs.!

Which part of the suit took the longest or was most difficult to print or recreate?

The shins, by far. Those were a headache on top of a headache. Originally they were just craft foam so I had a single seam running down the back where they could flex apart and velcro together. Once I switched over to the Worbla method they were no longer flexible so I had to cut another seam, dividing them into two halves. I had to add a Worbla flange so they could be attached together which was annoying because in order to attach the flange and make the two pieces fit together I had to heat it and reheat it (try it on, fix the problem, try it on again, etc.), which meant heating the area around the flange. Each time I heated it up I had to fix the parts around the area because reheating the already nicely curved areas ruined them. Adding the Worbla and the flange, plus the fact that it was now rigid, caused the shin to no longer fit on my leg, so I had to try to remove material from the inside surface, leaving just a single layer of Worbla in some areas. A single layer is not strong at all and the paint would crack from the flexing if I left it as is, so I added back in a layer of Worbla to make it double thick...again with the issues of reheating already shaped Worbla. The list of problems goes on and on. In the end I think both shins took 2 or 3 months to make.

The kicker is, after all that, I have to redo them all over again now. Because of a few combining factors I can't bend my legs far enough to walk in the costume currently.

How heavy do you think the costume is? How many days was it worn and did it get damaged in any way? Was body temperature/comfort a concern?

The helmet is about 2 lbs, and the rest I don't have any measured weights for, but I'd say overall it probably weighs something like 20 or 30 lbs.

I actually haven't been able to wear it to a con yet. I did bring it to the hotel for PAX but the hip connector broke, and a few other things combined with that caused it to be unwearable. I didn't end up putting the entire thing on there. The first time I wore it all completely together was for the photoshoot. Once I had it all on, ignoring the issues I'm going to fix soon, it wasn't nearly as bad as I thought it'd be. It has a good range of motion, nothing is overly heavy (I thought the shoulders combined with the chest would make me sore but they didn't, at least for the hour I wore it), and I wasn't hot. It was cool out though and I could definitely see it getting very hot on a warm day. The arm cannon gets very heavy after having it lifted out horizontally for long periods though; my arm was shaking by the end of the photoshoot. I'll just have to be careful not to strike that particular pose too much in the future!

A few of the pieces rub on one another, such as the thighs and the shins, leaving little scuffs in the paint. I don't consider this to be problematic however, since those areas aren't visible to the viewer.

How durable are the different parts of the suit, especially the 3D printed sections? You mentioned some parts of the suit can be quite brittle. How do you balance weight and durability?

It's hard to say since I haven't brought anything to its breaking point, but the prints seem very sturdy. They probably have similar attributes to super glue since they're essentially a powder infused with super glue (plus the binder to hold the powder together), but a bit stronger due to the powder. I made the prints as thin as I could without doing what I thought would be risking their strength (2mm) but the shoulders were way too heavy and the chest somehow ended up thinner than I anticipated. To solve this I molded and cast the shoulders in resin instead, and I reinforced the inside of the chest with fiberglass (although I'm not really sure how much that helped).

The foam/worbla pieces are quite durable so long as I don't press hard on the larger, more flexible areas like the largest thigh surfaces. It would be possible to crack the paint if those areas were pressed on really hard.

What do you think was the most challenging aspect of creating this costume? What was the easiest?

The biggest challenge was not giving up. It ended up being so much work and took so long, there were points where I really just wanted to stop. As far as the costume itself, getting the proportions correct while making it wearable was very difficult.

If resources, time, and budget were of no concern, would you have had made any different changes or done things any differently? Was there anything about the costume you wish you could have added or changed in order to improve it?

I would 3D print the entire suit. This would not only be expensive but near impossible. The "near" part comes from the ridiculous amount of work it would take to create prints that fit as snugly as my foam/worbla shapes which were built on my actual body. Without my physical body to base the 3D models on I couldn't possibly have modeled something that would fit. 3D scanning would be the best solution for this but I have no way of 3D scanning my body.

There are several things which I will actually be improving in the future:

  • Remaking the shins to fit better
  • Covering the foam on the shoes with Worbla, which also requires cutting the heel of the shoe off and making it snap on so I can get my foot into the non-flexible shoe.
  • I didn't have time to solder the EL tape connections so taking the time to solder all those tons of connections to make it actually light up.
  • Improving the straps for the upper arms since they tend to slide down.
  • Improving the forearm so it stays together better.
  • I may cover the foam torso with Worbla panels so I can paint it with a shiny metallic yellow (although so far I have been unable to find one), and so it's no longer prone to cracking.
  • Install the fans I have for the helmet so the visor doesn't fog up.
  • Add velcro to the chest and torso so the chest doesn't slide backward like it did in the photoshoot.

Were there any revelations or tricks of the trade during production that were extremely useful or helpful that you may want to pass along to any future costume designers?

The most annoying problem I ran into was how to smooth out the surface of Worbla to make it glassy smooth. I tried many things and eventually settled on three options: 1) if it's a very small surface area (like my glove) applying wood glue and then sanding it (it needs to be small because wood glue is very hard to sand), 2) applying many layers of gesso and sanding that down, or 3) applying a layer of gesso and on top of that a layer of Bondo and sanding it, while being careful not to break through the Bondo layer or it might start to peel. It's possible that the gesso isn't necessary since Bondo may peel off that as well, but I know for a fact that Bondo likes to peel off Worbla. Regardless of technique I almost always use Bondo glazing and spot putty as a final layer in problem areas.

I noticed you mention using a special type of plastic molding material called worbla. Can you explain exactly how it works and why it's so beneficial and useful in creating a hard surface costume which demands organic shapes like Samus's suit?

Worbla is so magical. You can create a base shape of craft/EVA foam and create a shell of Worbla around it to make it rigid and strong, like I did for my leg and upper arm armor. You can use it on its own in single or multiple layers (larger objects are flexible if only a single layer, but smaller objects can be strong as a single layer) like I did for my glove. You can even use it like a clay (don't burn your fingers!) and create any shape you want! In a similar vein, you can heat the scaps up and moosh them back together, then roll it back out into a new sheet, creating effectively zero waste. It also sticks decently well to just about anything, and very well to a few things such as plastidipped objects. It also sticks to itself so well that you can create armor rigging attachments (like attaching a strap) just out of worbla! When used over foam you can get the foam to create shapes which would have otherwise been impossible. Heating the worbla while it's on the foam allows you to morph the foam into curvier or more spherical shapes, for example. Combining it with foam allows you to keep the Worbla neat and smooth. If you try to make big shapes just with Worbla it becomes very, very difficult. If you need to you can pull the Worbla off the foam once it's cooled off, as long as the Worbla is strong enough on its own, reducing bulk and weight.

Do you plan on wearing the costume at any future major geek/nerd gatherings/events?

I hope to wear it to PAX Prime 2015 (and actually make it out of the hotel this time!), and Rose City Comic Con after that. I'll probably also do Emerald City Comic Con 2016 (it won't be ready for spring 2015).

What about practical use of the suit? How easy is it to hold objects with those gloves or see out of the visor? Any other practical use things to mention?

You can hold some objects while wearing the glove as it has quite a good range of movement, but the hard, slippery surface makes it very difficult. I try to avoid it as to not ruin the paint. I wouldn't push a door open with it, for example, because it might scratch or crack the paint. Also it's a bit of a challenge only having one hand available since the other one is inside the arm cannon. I definitely have to have a handler to help me out. Until I get my helmet fans installed the visor gets very foggy.

I'll have to be very careful going through doorways because of the wide shoulders. I can't reach my head with my hands which means I can't take my own helmet off.

Aside from the benefits of magical Chozo technology, what's the best practical hair style for Samus to wear in that helmet?

Conveniently I can simply wear my hair in a ponytail like Samus. However I do wear a balaclava to help contain and hide my hair as well as my neck.

How has the overall reception of this cosplay been?

It was overwhelmingly positive and I really didn't expect to get the attention it did. I figured Reddit would like it and that'd be it, but instead the internet blew up with it and I kept being congratulated by friends who I hadn't even showed it to yet!

We know you're a professional artist at a game studio (ArenaNet). Can you tell us a little bit about your job, how long you've been in the industry and projects you've worked on?

I'm an environment artist so I mostly work on props and weapons, which means I 3D model, texture, animate, and more. I've been at ArenaNet for over 5 years which is also how long I've been working professionally in the industry. The only game I've worked on is Guild Wars 2.

It's really amazing to be able to take what I do every day at my job and apply it to something entirely different. Not only that, but being able to see my previously digital-only art as something real and tangible is so cool!

Do you have any other epic costumes in mind for future cosplay?

I sure do! I have a long list going of future cosplays I'd like to do, including M'aiq the Liar from Skyrim, Falco Lombardi from Starfox, and Grenth from the Guild Wars series.

- Metroid Questions -

How long have you been gaming?

Since before I could remember! My family had a PC and we got an NES when I was about 3. I've been gaming ever since.

What was your first Metroid game?

Metroid Prime. Unfortunately I missed out on the NES, SNES, and gameboy games (we didn't have many games for NES and I never had an SNES or an original gameboy), but I have since gone back and played them!

Which is your favorite game in the series and why?

Metroid Prime, since I have the most nostalgia for it. I love the first person aspect of it, the atmosphere is amazing, and the soundtrack is phenomenal. I also really love Super Metroid.

What do you find so interesting about the series? Any favorite moments?

I love that you're on your own with nothing to really guide you. It really makes you feel like you can do anything without the help of anyone else and it makes the atmosphere of the game really mysterious and awesome. I think my favorite part is just the overall feel of the games, not one particular moment.

What drew you to cosplay Samus in particular?

She's my favorite game character, but she's also a strong female character - the first strong female game character. I really like how the Varia Suit looks too.

Samus as a character has evolved quite a bit over the past 28 years. What do you think of the different ways her character has been developed?

It frustrates and saddens me that she's been turned into more of a sex object and a wimp. With the introduction of the zero suit it seemed like it was all downhill from there. I'm not fond of the Justin Bailey and the other skimpy outfit "rewards," but you'd think by this point in time we'd be past all that crap. It feels like a betrayal of her character; she's supposed to be a badass bounty hunter. The change is really evident in the alterations to her face. In Prime 1 she looks realistic and very believable, but in Prime 2 and later she has bright yellow hair and a cutesy face (which is also creepy, in my opinion). I also don't like that her story is being more and more developed. There's great value in having a mysterious character.

Is there a particular version of Samus you have in mind when you put on the suit?

I look a lot like the version of her in Prime 1 and that's my favorite game, so I suppose that one, even though the suit design is different.

Your cosplay is based off of her Prime iteration. Would you like to offer any comments or opinions on the Trilogy series itself?

I've actually kind of been afraid to play 2 and 3, even though I own 2. I don't have a Wii for 3. I don't want my idea of Samus to be tainted by the story elements they've added to those, but I'll probably just break down and play them eventually. I've played Prime 1 many times though and I love every bit of it.

What would you like to see in the future of the franchise?

I wouldn't. With the direction they've taken the series lately I fear that it would only lead to disaster. However, I would be absolutely thrilled if they did release a game that went back to the roots of the series.

Metroid Database: Thumbs up, or thumbs down?

On behalf of the staff of the Metroid Database I would like to thank Chelsea for her time to answer our questions and we wish her the best of luck with cosplaying, game development and beyond!

--Infinity's End