3D Printing and Improvisation for Cosplay

By Victoria Lubas | May 28, 2019

Cover Image

TheLaserGirls: Sarah Awad and Dhemerae Ford. Photo by Ramon Garcia.

TheLaserGirls Sarah Awad and Dhemerae Ford at New York Comic Con

Every year, “TheLaserGirls” — Dhemerae Ford and Sarah C. Awad — spend months preparing elaborate costumes for New York Comic Con (NYCC). They use the annual gathering to test their creative and technical skills. Awad and Ford, both NYU alumnae, work at the LaGuardia Co-op and the LaGuardia Studio respectively, and jointly teach an NYU School of Professional Studies online course, “ZBrush for 3D Artists and Designers.” During the October 2018 convention, after months of creating and adjusting, Ford debuted her award-winning costume, Marvel’s Thor, the Goddess of Thunder, and Awad debuted her Homura, from the anime Madoka Magica. But no sooner had they completed these involved projects than they began to brainstorm for next year’s convention.

Thor Receives Thunderous Applause

Months of measuring, designing, printing, and spray painting paid off for Ford, whose Jane Foster as Thor, Goddess of Thunder, costume received widespread acclaim. The elaborate helmet received second place at the Additive Manufacturing Users Group (AMUG) conference and grand prize in the NY Maker Faire Prop Contest. The completed ensemble won first place in the Becoming Marvel Costume Contest at the 2018 NYCC. Ford explained during the contest that the costume was “3D modeled and printed off a scan of [her] body so it fits perfectly.” The judges praised Ford’s attention to detail, dedicated effort, expert use of advanced 3D printing technology, and needle-and-thread savvy.

In an interview with Albino Dragon, Ford recalled that the six-month-long project was inspired by a Sideshow Collectible figure of Jane Foster as Thor. She began by designing and printing the helmet, then making the appropriate adjustments to reduce the weight Using ZBrush, she designed the intricate details, then printed it and spray painted it silver. The hammer was printed using SLS by Shapeways, so it is much lighter than it looks. Ford even sewed the leather components of the outfit herself, explaining “I already had a pretty good handle on the leather elements because I had done it for [a previous project,] Cloud Strife.”

Ford’s favorite part of her costume was the shoes, which gave her an opportunity to combine 3D-printed objects with pre-existing materials. After purchasing boots online, she designed the 3D-printed elements based on a scan of the boots. Though the three-inch heel ultimately proved uncomfortable, when combined with the wings on the helmet Ford gained the extra height she needed to be taller than six feet, which she felt solidified the look and feel of Thor. She described the costume as her “most ambitious” and was happy that it “turned out exactly how I wanted it to, which never happens.”

Persistence Helps Homura Prevail

Sarah Awad’s Homura costume did not turn out as she had initially planned, but the issues she encountered along the way inspired her to think differently about her approach and adapt. Her ambitious idea of creating robotic 3D-printed wings hit a few bumps in the road shortly before NYCC that threatened to derail the project. After spending three months planning, designing, and gathering materials, Awad realized her costume was not progressing quickly or accurately enough to be ready for the convention.

She worked on the base pieces of the costume first, thinking they would be the most difficult due to her limited sewing experience. Unfortunately, this meant progress was made on the wings, which required 3D printing individual feathers as part of a mechanical apparatus to create moveable wings. Awad realized that if she did not change her plan she would not have a costume in time for the convention. The wings would either take too long to print properly or look rushed if printed too quickly. She decided she had to rethink the costume. “I [had] all the elements but it didn’t translate,” she said. “When I started, I thought I had considered everything, and then as I was doing it I realized…I was way off target.”

Sarah channeled Project Runway and decided to rework everything in what she described as a “true Tim Gunn ‘make it work’ experience.” Awad concluded that it featured the aspects most common in general anime, meaning that even though her costume resembled the source material, it looked too generic for her taste. She knew that without creating unique wings she would not achieve the distinctive goal she’d set for the project. After an internet search for different representations of Homura, Awad redesigned her costume and created celestial, feather-free wings out of PET-G plastic. Using Adobe Illustrator, tin snips, a chiffon fabric with a galaxy print, and a sponge-painting technique, Awad created a set of wings that resembled Homura’s but in a more interpretive style. Although it required rethinking her original plan, Awad enjoyed returning to her artistic roots, which played to her strengths and resulted in a new, eye-catching design.

Sarah Awad

Sarah Awad as Homura with 3D-printed “celestial” wings. Photo courtesy of Lazzaro Photography.

Lessons Learned and New Skills Acquired

Dhemerae’s expanded experience with her costume materials’ weight, fragility, and paint-specificity will help her with future costumes. She learned ways she could adjust future designs to make them more comfortable for extended wear. On the day of Comic Con, the costume is worn for hours on end, which is something that can’t be accurately replicated in a trial run. For example, Ford discovered her gauntlets trapped heat against her skin, which built up throughout the day. The resulting perspiration got between the magnets that held the front and back pieces of the gauntlet together and weakened the bond.

For a solution, Ford turned to her design partner, Sarah, who recommended applying a makeup primer and moisturizer to any skin that will be in direct contact with a 3D-printed element. Ford also learned the importance of basing a costume around comfortable footwear, because while she loved her boots, standing in them for hours while wearing heavy, plastic armor was uncomfortable and even resulted in some nerve damage. Thor both showcased Ford’s abilities and served as a learning experience. Awad thinks that “Dhemerae…learned how skilled [she] actually [is].”

Considering what she should have done differently, Awad said she chose this project as a way to challenge herself and work on her weaknesses, but she feels she went about this incorrectly. She focused on this costume as an opportunity for growth so much that it precluded her from showing her strengths, making the whole project originate from “a negative frame of mind.” Ford described Awad’s experience as a reminder that designs “need elements of what you know, and [to] push those elements into new territory.” Awad’s most successful 3D printing ventures have been accessories, from large-scale weapons to intricate jewelry. Awad also learned to repurpose elements she had already completed, adding her already printed feathers to her skirt as an homage to her project’s progress. Looking back, her favorite aspect of the Homura project was the necklace, because it came together painlessly and required significantly less tweaking than other aspects of her costume.

Looking Toward NYCC 2019

Awad and Ford are now brainstorming ideas for the next New York Comic Con. Drawing on what they’ve learned, they want to choose source material that will challenge them and allow them to advance their abilities while also relying on techniques in which they have experience. Ford is considering She-Ra, a female rebel leader and princess from the Masters of the Universe franchise whose recent redesign features a more empowering style. Ford sees replicating the minimal headpiece as a chance to try her hand at metal printing.

Awad has narrowed her next costume down to a few different ideas. She is drawn to the chance to design and print Yuna’s Black Mage Staff from Final Fantasy X-2. She is also considering Final Fantasy’s Serah Farron, a character who’s bow unfolds into a sword, providing an ambitious and advanced 3D printing opportunity.

Sarah said the most valuable lesson she learned from her 2018 NYCC experience was, “I need to play to my strengths more than narrow in on my weaknesses.” The projects they are considering for NYCC 2019 will give both LaserGirls a chance to do just that.