I recently mentioned how I won first-place at RenCon for my Ashitaka cosplay. Over the past year, I had published several work in progress articles over at GeekDad.com about my process for making it–everything, head to toe (yes, even my shoes) was scratch built by yours truly. Below is a slightly edited, combined version of all of those posts. If you like these write-ups, please consider joining my Patreon to get early access to tutorials, videos, work in progress pics, and more!
For anyone who doesn’t know, Princess Mononoke is one of my favorite films, so it was a no brainer for me when deciding on my next cosplay that I’d try Ashitaka.
I recently started foamsmithing after an interview with Bill Doran of Punished Props, so I really wanted to do a cosplay with a full set of armor to practice what I’ve been learning. However, after my trip to DragonCon and seeing all the amazing San cosplay, I knew I had to do Ashitaka next. Also, because my son and I always do father-son cosplay, I figured I could easily make him a kodama with relative ease and be set.
The issue with Ashitaka, though, is that he has no armor to speak of. With Yaya Han’s words of wisdom (from her panel at DragonCon) fresh in my mind, I decided that I’d take this opportunity to learn some new skills. I’ve never used a sewing machine in my life, and I’ve certainly never made my own patterns, but, for Ashitaka, I’m needed to do both! In looking for patterns to use as a base, I’ve even sourced a couple of patterns from the ’70s and ’80s from Etsy!
I also need to make several weapons–a sword, and a bow and arrows. Obviously the bow can’t be made out of foam, and, after a quick trial, I decided the sword wouldn’t work made out of foam either. I’d need to try my hand at some woodworking for the first time as well!
Following Doran’s lead, I took a visit to Lowe’s, picked up a piece of poplar, and drew out the basic outline of the sword, using my foam prototype as a template. I then broke out my new Dremel and tried to use the wood cutter and guide to cut it out. Unfortunately, my test cut just wasn’t as clean as I was hoping, so I put sword development on hold until I could get to a scroll saw.
I then moved on to working on the bow. Ashitaka’s bow is the same height he is, so I bought two dowels and stuck them together with a threaded bolt. I then cut them down to the appropriate length, and wrapped the center with some foam to simulate a leather wrapped handle. After I whittle down the wood so that the bow tapers, I was going to be coating the entire thing before painting it.
I decided to move on to tackling the biggest challenge for me–sewing. I went fabric shopping and spent a lot of time looking for fabric that I felt both matched the character design from the anime but also looked and felt authentic as if the character had existed in the real world. I wanted to make my Ashitaka look as realistic as possible, so fabric choice, even at a little added expense, was very important to me.
So far, I had managed to make the hood and face mask, though I was still trying to figure out the best way to attach the face mask to the hood (for this photo it was just safety pinned on). I made sure everything was lined and nicely hemmed and seamed as well. I wanted everything to look like something real and that would last more than one convention.
I also made a really quick pattern out of muslin for the shoes. After pinning the muslin to my feet, I made some changes to the pattern and awaited the arrival of my materials to attempt actually making them.
In the past, I’d always relied on my wife when it came to the sewing parts of my cosplay, but, since this one was almost entirely about sewing, I really wanted to tackle the challenge of doing it all myself.
As with any cosplay, lots and lots of fabric and supplies are needed. For my basic clothing fabric, I got some nice cotton/linen blends from Fabric.com. I really like this fabric because its pretty thick, yet breathable, and has a nice texture to it that makes it look more realistic to the cosplay. I also picked up some faux sherpa fur, and some faux suede from Jo-Ann Fabrics. I then turned to the harder parts–which furs to use for my riding pants and what to use for the “raincoat.” After getting a bunch of fur samples from several different places, I ended up picking my favorites from Fabric.com as well. For the coat, I ended up finding rolls of woven bamboo leaves! I wasn’t sure which would be harder–trying to make a cloak out of bamboo or working with faux fur for the first time.
I decided to tackle the pants as my first piece of actual clothing. I started with a pattern for some simple pajama pants. I made the pants out of some cheap muslin (I bought a big roll of this to use for pattern making) and although the end result was a pair of pants, they were totally wrong for the cosplay (as expected). With a little help from my wife, I pinned up the prototype pants, sewed new seams into them to get the desired fit and then cut them apart and in to my own custom patterns. Armed with my new cosplay specific pattern, I set to work making a pair of lined, drawstring Ashitaka pants. I was very happy with how they came out. Not only did they look right, but they were comfortable too!
I then did essentially the same trick for the kimono. Using a 1970’s pattern I found on Etsy, I made a kimono out of muslin. I then manipulated it until it looked and felt right and then made my own, new pattern. The finished product is a nice, lined kimono that looks just right and, again, is very comfortable to wear. Comfort is almost as, if not more, important than, look when it comes to something you’re going to be wearing for an entire con!
I then turned my attention back to Ashitaka’s shoes. Since these are meant to look like they were made from animal, I decided to line the inside with the faux sherpa fur to make it look more realistic. Making somewhat form-fitting shoes from scratch was extremely challenging, but I just used the same technique–prototype and pattern using muslin–before making the final thing. The shoes were now all done except for a little bit of detail work and the addition of soles. If I were only wearing these in the house, I’d skip adding soles, but since I was going to be wearing these not only around a con for days on end but all over Seattle, they needed to have soles and be a little weatherproof.
Then came the leggings. I once again did the same trick as before, but made a second prototype with some scrap fabric from the kimono as I wanted to get a better test of the fit with the same kind of fabric before I made the final pieces. I ended up making elastic bands for around the top of the calves instead of ties to hold them up because I decided it would look more appropriate to the cosplay, and I didn’t want to have to worry about them untying and falling off when I was walking around.
I then turned my attention back to the sword. After getting my hands on Dremel’s 3D Idea Builder, I decided to print the sword hilt instead of trying to cut it out of wood. While it would give my sword a potential weak point where I joined the hilt and blade, I felt like the better detail I could get on the hilt from printing would be worth it. It also saved me from agonizing over screwing up the hilt and ruining the entire sword. I designed the hilt so that the blade would actually slide inside the hilt and then get epoxied together, so I really wasn’t worried about it breaking.
The next item was another one of the accessories–Ashitaka’s crystal dagger. As with a lot of anime, finding reference photos of the dagger has been somewhat difficult, and from scene to scene, the size and shape varies quite a lot. I decided on doing my own sort of design by combining things from different photos and focusing on making it as realistic as possible. I purchased two blocks of FIMO Effect translucent clay. I swirled them together and then built the basic dagger shape. After I’d cooked the clay, I then took several sizes of X-Acto knives and carved it to make it look like it was actually chipped out of crystal. I then gave it a couple of coats of clear gloss to make it really shine. I was really happy with how it turned out.
I wanted to give a shout out to Wonder Clips. I’m pretty new to sewing, but I feel like these are an amazing power user tool. These little clips can hold all kinds of seams and are so much easier and more convenient to use than pins most of the time. They also have little marks on them for 1/4″ and 5/8″ seam allowances so you don’t have to guess or measure or anything. If you do any decent amount of sewing, these should be in your tool kit.
Wonder clips are the best sewing invention. Ever.
As with all of the other pieces of clothing for this costume, step one was to make a really rough prototype. I basically laid my arm on a piece of fabric and traced the basic shape. I cut it out and used my awesome wonder clips to clip it on to get the right fit. My wife assisted in trimming off excess fabric where needed.
Step two was then sewing the prototype sleeves and trying them on. Another round of nips and tucks were made to ensure a good fit.
Then, a real pattern was made. (Yes, this method uses a LOT of muslin.) Once I was happy with the pattern, I pinned it down and cut it from my fabric. This is always the scariest part for me because I attempt to order just enough fabric. If I make too many mistakes, I won’t have enough to finish!
With the fabric all cut out, I again used my wonder clips to dry fit it and make sure it still fit properly. Then I started on the hardest part of the sleeves–the finish work. I cut several long strips from my remaining fabric and, employing a Clover bias tape maker, I made enough bias tape to trim out the edges of the sleeves and to make ties for tying the sleeves together. Until I started on these, I thought mitering was only something I’d ever do when putting up trim in the house. I watched too many videos on mitering bias tape for quilting to get miters on all of my corners (both inside and outside ones) around the arm holes, wrist guards, and thumb holes. It was hard work, but it definitely paid off. I am happiest and podest with the sleeves of all the pieces of clothing I made.
The sleeves tie in the front and back. I discovered that if I tied the back together first, I could then pull the sleeves on and tie the front myself.
And the final touch on the sleeves was the finger loops. This piece is critical not only to the look, but to making sure the sleeves and hand pieces stay in place. I spent a lot of time and trial and error figuring out the best way to get a loop of elastic onto these, but they turned out really well. To make sure my trim didn’t tear, I made two button holes with an empty button holer on my sewing machine.
Not actually for stabbing someone in the chest.
Finishing the dagger involved some hemp rope, white glue, craft foam, a paint pen, and a whole lot of patience. I wrapped a length of rope around the hilt of the dagger and then glued down the backside. I needed it to look wrapped but without worry of it unraveling after wear. I then cut two strips of craft foam and hand painted the little arrows with a paint pen. I considered several ways I could stencil it but decided to go for a more organic look and just do it by hand. I’m genuinely happy with the way the dagger came out. I am considering making a mold of it (sans rope) and casting it with a more translucent resin, though. Any interest in a cast crystal dagger?
Pretty smooth for a handheld rotary tool.
I decided to go ahead and use my Dremel rotary tool with the cutting bit on it to rough cut the blade out of my board. Since I knew I’d be heavily sanding the edges to get the bevel anyway, it didn’t need to be perfect. I was actually pleasantly surprised by how nice an edge I was able to get with just my Dremel though.
I decided to pony up and purchase my first cosplay power tool–a belt sander! A belt sander is highly recommended even for foamsmithing, and I can say that for the sword alone, I probably saved myself hours of hand sanding (which was my original plan). In about five or ten minutes, I had sanded my blade edge to exactly where I needed it using the belt sander. Thank you, Harbor Freight, for having an amazing sale right when I needed it most! I then employed some hand-held files to finish off the bottom edge and the tongue.
Once the blade was cut and beveled, it was time to add the hilt before getting into painting. I used a standard five-minute epoxy to glue the hilt pieces to the tongue of my blade and to each other. I clamped it all together really well and let it sit overnight–you really can’t ever let anything dry too much.
With the sword all assembled, I began the very repetitive and painstaking process of sanding and painting and sanding. To get wood to look like metal, you must get rid of even the tiniest bit of wood grain. I used Rust-oleum Filler Primer for all of my base coats. This stuff is like magic–you spray it on, and not only does it prime your piece, but it actually fills in small gaps. Once the paint was dry, I wet sanded it with 220 grit sandpaper. Wet sanding is the way to go, by the way–less mess and a better finish. Once it was dry from my sanding, I sprayed another coat and repeated the process about seven or eight times. Not only did this get rid of my wood grain and give it a nice finish, but it performed the same way for my 3D-printed hilt, making it look and feel completely smooth.
I used two whole cans for the sword and hilt. Depending on your piece and desired finish you may not need to be as obsessive about it as I was, but I learned you can never sand too much from my buddy Eric Jones at CoreGeek Creations (seriously, he loves to sand). Once I was happy with my base finish, I sprayed a couple of coats of metallic paint–silver for the blade and gold for the ring on the hilt.
Although metallic spray paint provides an adequate metal look, the best way to achieve a realistic metallic finish is with metal! Both DecoArt and Rub’n Buff make metallic waxes. These wax pastes contain a little bit of metallic content and can be rubbed on to almost any surface and then buffed to a metallic sheen. I used the DecoArt Silver Spark Metallic Lustre Wax (recommended to me by Melodywise Cosplay) for the blade and the Gold Leaf from this nifty Rub ‘n Buff sampler pack for the hilt ring. I tried applying it several ways–with my finger with gloves on, with a rag, and with a bare finger. The bare finger method seemed to work best but on a piece as big as this, my hands were a mess by the end!
So with my sword looking all shiny and metallic, I needed to weather it to make it look more realistic. I utilized a combination of the ebony Rub’n Buff and the acrylic paint technique from Bill Doran’s newest book (Foamsmith 2: How to Forge Foam Weapons–yes, his techniques apply to materials other than just foam).
The last, and possibly most important, part of the sword (important only because it’s the most visible part when wearing the costume) was the hilt wrap. I originally planned to use craft foam like I did on the bow grip, but I didn’t like the way it looked on the sword. I then had the idea to use fabric instead. I did a quick test by wrapping a folded piece of fabric around the hilt and loved how it looked. I used one of our Clover bias tape makers to make a long strip and then sewed it down. Unfortunately, when I attempted to wrap it (the first photo above), it did a lot of weird bunching things because I was overlapping each turn. When I tried just making each turn butt up against the previous, it looked much better, but my strip was much too wide for that. I ended up ripping the seam out of the entire strip (it was about three feet long), cutting it down, and making a much thinner strip. I glued the strip down as I went so it would align as perfectly as possible and not move. Although Ashitaka’s hilt wrap doesn’t go around the ring, I liked the way it looked while providing a nice finish to the wrap.
And here is the finished sword. I consider this my first finished prop weapon, and I am extremely happy with how it came out. I’m thinking about the possibility of molding and casting this as well. Higher, further, faster, more.
No sword is complete without a sheath to carry it in. I racked my brain for a long time trying to think of what to make the sword sheath out of. Thankfully, when I attended Wizard World Portland, I attended a great panel about making armor utilizing PVC foam board. I headed to the local plastic shop and grabbed myself a couple of sheets of it. After some trial and error and watching a lot of online videos, I finally wrangled the board into my desired shape. For working with a big sheet like this, instead of trying to use the heat gun, I placed the whole thing into the oven–220° F for five minutes. It makes the board very pliable but very hot, so make sure you are wearing decently thick gloves. For every five minutes in the oven, you only get about 30 seconds of working time until the board cools enough to be stiff again. It took me many hours, but I was very happy with the end result.
I then wanted to give the sheath a real leather look instead of just painting directly onto the PVC. I took a sheet of my faux suede and made a big fold-over seam along one edge and a nice finished seam on the other edge. I also sewed a lip of faux sherpa fur to the top side to hold into the sheath to keep my sword from scuffing. I slid the big fold-over seam into the slit between the two edges of the PVC, which kept the fabric in place snugly. I then sprayed the PVC with spray adhesive and pulled the fabric taut around the entire PVC sheath. I cut a hunk of 6 mm foam to fit into the base of the sheath, which served two purposes–it held down the loose bottom edge of the fabric and provided a nice cushion for my sword tip inside the sheath. I then covered it and the bottom of the sheath with 2mm craft foam. I also coated the fabric in a layer of Elmer’s Paper Maché Art Paste. This gave the fabric a little extra stiffness and protection without modifying the look much.
To finish the craft foam cap, I filled in the gap on the backside with some Kwik Seal. This stuff is great for filling gaps and errors in foam. I then painted the cap with PlastiDip to seal the foam. Then I hit it with a few coats of the aforementioned Filler Primer to make it as smooth as possible.
To finish it off, I painted the cap with a nice orange/rust spray paint. Lastly, I sewed a couple of loops into a length of braided cotton rope and glued it down to the sheath. The sword fit perfectly and the sheath looked great while carrying my sword safely.
Apologies again for not having more in-progress photos, but sometimes when you’re on a roll, it’s easy to forget and stop for photo ops. And, yes, I am wearing my respirator. It’s probably the most important tool you should own if you’re doing painting, foamsmithing, and woodworking like this. I had it on because I was multitasking and sanding and painting something at the same time. Once again, I started with a muslin prototype to test out the overall fit and shape. I even did a test fit for the backing rod to get them just snug enough but not too snug, and then also did a test strap.
Once I was happy with that, I cut the pieces out of my final fabric. In addition to using a faux suede for the outside layer, I also used some leftover faux sherpa fur from my shoes to line the inside of the quiver. We never see the inside of the quiver in the movie, but I felt this added some realism to the quiver while also keeping my arrows from getting too banged around.
The trickiest thing about Ashitaka’s quiver is that it goes from hip quiver to back quiver throughout the movie, but how it’s rendered and held on in each of those positions is fairly inconsistent. It took a little bit of designing before I figured out how I could build the quiver and attach the strap to not only serve both purposes but to be relatively easy to do the conversion while walking around a convention. The strap is permanently attached at the top loop and by wrapping the strap around the bottom of the backing rod, it quickly converts to a back quiver. The bottom rod loop prevents the strap from slipping up.
I decided to hand-make the feathers for my arrows out of 2mm craft foam. My first attempt at cutting realistic feathers was okay, but I wasn’t happy with it so I started over and tried to make the cuts more organic looking. I alternated the scoring on each side of the feather, only cutting all the way through at the very tip of each score. I then hit the feathers with my heat gun. Using a heat gun on scored foam will cause the lines to pop, which, in this case, gave it that split feather look along the top.
At the same time, I cut the dowels for the arrows and stained them to make them look more natural. I then used my Barge cement to glue the feathers to the shafts. Once they were dry, I cut pieces of excess kite string and, using white glue, wrapped and glued them down to the shafts above and below the feathers. I then mixed up some purplish paint (I don’t know where purple feathers come from, but that’s what color they are in the movie) and painted the feathers. Once I had a good coat of purple on each one, I then added some white paint to lighten it a little and then brushed on some highlights to make them look more realistic.
If you want to know more about how I made the arrowheads, they were my first foray into mold making and casting so I wrote an entire article just on that. Thank you, Smooth-On!
So my first bow attempt, made of wooden dowels, was a failure. I tried to bend it, not even very much, and it broke in two. After doing some research online, I decided to instead try a length of bamboo. While it worked much better than the dowel, it still snapped before bending enough to get a string on it. After doing a lot of research into homemade bows, I opted to try out using a piece of PVC pipe.
The trickiest part of using a pipe was that I wanted the ends to taper like Ashitaka’s because it’s supposed to look like it’s made from a piece of wood. I cut a triangle-shaped piece from each end of the pipe. Then, using my heat gun, melted the plastic enough to be pliable and folded it over until it had a tapered, hewn look. Any time you are heating a plastic material, you should be wearing a respirator and have plenty of ventilation as it will off-gas. Though not pictured, once I had the ends as close to perfect as possible, I puttied and sanded it down to eliminate any gaps.
For con safety and because I didn’t need it to have any significant draw weight, I also heated and bent the entire length of the pipe so that there is just enough give in the bow that I can pull the string and have it look realistic, but not enough that it really has any throw strength.
Apologies again for not having more intermediate steps but after I had the PVC shaped, I gave the entire thing a light sanding for better paint adherence, primed it, and then coated it with a matte spray paint that was the color I wanted. I then cut a strip of 2mm craft foam and glued it to the bow with Barge to make the grip. Once it was glued down, I hit it with the heat gun to give it a more worn leather look. Again, using the techniques I learned from Bill Doran’s prop-making book, I weathered the bow and grip to make it look a bit more realistic (this photo is from before I did the weathering). I then coated the whole thing with a matte clear coat to help protect it from scuffs and dings.
And of course, despite the bow not being intended to shoot an arrow, I had to at least try it. My wimpy bow combined with really heavy arrows (I made the arrowheads very chunky and stylized) was still able to reach about 25 feet! And the arrow stuck the landing!
A nice little pouch to make all of my non-cosplay things invisible.
Ashitaka’s signature red pouch was one of the easiest parts of the costume. I apologize for not having any work-in-progress pictures but I essentially took a square of leftover fabric, hemmed all the edges into an octagon shape, made a couple of buttonholes to reinforce where the rope would feed through and hang, fed a length of red hemp rope through the holes, and then glued on a wooden bead. It was the perfect way to carry my driver’s license, a credit card, some cash, my cellphone, and my house keys while blending in perfectly with the cosplay.
I thought this was going to look great, but it just didn’t work out.
Ashitaka has a raincoat that is very reminiscent of some very old Japanese, bamboo-thatch raincoats I found while doing some online research. I did a little searching and found a roll of bamboo thatch used primarily for tiki-style decor. Cut in half and then reassembled, it was the perfect dimensions to make my own raincoat. Cutting the thatch and ensuring it didn’t fall apart was tricky, but not quite as difficult as I’d expected. I used some raffia ribbon to tie off all the cut ends and to tie the two halves of the roll into a single longer piece. I then shaped the edges to make it taper towards the top. While I was fairly happy with how it turned out, my biggest mistake was not trying it on with the rest of my cosplay as I was making it. Although it fit fine when I was all done, it just didn’t work at all over my cosplay with all of my accessories. I still plan to circle back around to finish this off–hopefully for ECCC 2017.
The best part of my cosplay wasn’t even my cosplay.
And of course the part most people cared about–my son and his kodama cosplay. Due to my own time constraints, my wife made my son’s costume. She used the same pattern she used for his Halloween dinosaur costume minus the tail and horns and put some felt eyes on the hood. Inside the big eyes, I put a handful of googly eyes to get the signature kodama clicking noise when he shook his head. I love the way it turned out and people love seeing a cute little kodama with Ashitaka when he comes out with me.
I debuted the finished cosplay at ECCC 2016. I wanted to try to commit to the character and his story arc, so I actually did a daily progression. I had grown my hair out for many, many months just for this cosplay, but I fell slightly short of being able to actually make myself a bun. With the help of a faux man bun and some gel, I was able to recreate the look from the beginning of the film. So for Thursday, I had my hair up and in a bun and had no curse on my arm, just like at the beginning of the film. Bright and early on Friday morning, I chopped my hair off with a little help from my wife. My hair is naturally pretty wavy as well so, for the first time in my life, we straightened my hair.
For the curse on my arm (and later chest, and neck), I used Mehron Paradise Face and Body Paint plus Mehron barrier spray to fix and seal it. I was pretty happy with the staying power of this stuff even being under my clothes and on my hand, which obviously gets a lot of use. It will wash right off with soap and water though, so there was a lot of doing things with only one hand!
My wife, my son, and I did a little photo shoot before our first day at the con.
One of the most important things about building a cosplay, is wearing it to a con and learning where and how you can make improvements. These are the lessons I learned from the first con wearing Ashitaka:
- Better belt! The belt I made was just fabric, which worked perfectly well for keeping my kimono closed but sucked at carrying the weight of my sword and pouch full of stuff.
- Hood opening. While the hood worked fine, it was the first piece I made and after spending a lot more time with reference photos, I realized the hood opening wasn’t the right shape. I’ll need to fix that.
- Secure the hood. I hadn’t thought of this beforehand as I’d only tried on my costume in the house, but when I stepped outside or tried to run or cross a street, basically anything that caused a slight air disturbance, my hood threatened to fly away.
- Bow breakdown. Since I’m planning to remake the bow smaller, I want to also make it break down into two pieces. Since my next con likely won’t be local, this is going to be critical for me to travel with the bow anyway.
- Tighter leggings. Although I made elastic straps for the top of my leggings, my initial attempt at making straps for my ankles failed. I couldn’t make them tight enough to hold down the leggings but also big enough to get over my foot. I was trying to avoid using snaps or velcro or anything that would not be realistic for the character but it meant that my leggings would creep up a little throughout the day and look bunchy. I’ll definitely need to solve this before next time.
I’ve managed to fix several of these things since that first wear, several of which I think really helped me with clinching the win at RenCon.
I cut the bow into three pieces so that I could break it down more easily for travel. Between the initial build and recently modifying the bow, I’ve been to several cons that I had to travel for and not having the bow really lessens the impact of the cosplay. While I was at it, I also made a couple of additions that I think amped up the realism. Firstly, I took a metal file and scratched the heck out of the bow. This not only tore up the PVC pipe but also randomly took off my original paint while leaving some behind. I then sanded it all smooth and repainted it. As you can see, the result is a much more realistic wood texture look compared to the solid, flat PVC pipe I initially had. I also redid the grip wrap. I left the original craft foam on but took a thin strip of some scrap fabric and glued it down right over top of it. The glued fabric, just like on my sword sheath, has a really nice leather look to it, especially once painted and weathered.
The other big upgrade I did was remaking the entire hood. The change is subtly, but I put some darts into the hood to square the opening off more and make it more accurate to the movie. I also changed the strap for the mask and permanently attached it to the hood. This keeps the hood securely on my head whether I have the mask up or down.
In addition to fixing the above mentioned things, here are a handful of things I didn’t do in version 1.0 that I want to do in the future.
- Fur pants. For a large part of the beginning of the movie, Ashitaka is wearing fur riding pants. I painstakingly agonized over and chose fur for making these but just ran out of time to make them before ECCC.
- Rain coat. Since my first attempt at the rain coat failed, I want to get it done for the next ECCC.
- Special Effects. This is the lowest on my list of priorities, but, assuming I can get everything else done, I do want to try my hand at some special effects. I have a couple of different ideas at how I can create a real life version of the glowing “worms” on Ashitaka’s arm, but I’ve never worked with electronics and LEDs so this will be quite the adventure when I get to it (and you’ll get to read all about it).