Ever since the 1990s, the community of cosplayers grows each year all over the world. What does it take to become a cosplayer? By definition, cosplay is a combination of two words Ė costume and play, and revolves around people who make and wear costumes and hand-crafted accessories to recreate the appearance of a selected character. Or a robot. Or a location. Oh, and even a meme.
Often times, fans of the same games and genres engage in Role-Playing and Live Action Role-Playing games, but the outsiders know them mostly from numerous Fantasy, Science Fiction, Manga, Anime events and conventions. Whatever genre or medium you can imagine, there someone is probably cosplaying it.
Some of you might have shared the experience of going to a convention and diving into hundreds, if not thousands of people dressed up as their favorite characters. Some of the costumes are minimalistic, others extremely detailed. And then there are the costumes that tower over the crowds, near-intimidating with the amount of effort you see had to be put in them. I had the pleasure of chatting with the pioneer of cosplay, the brain of Extreme Costumes, and ask him about his hobby that eventually turned into a profession.
Thomas DePetrillo, the founder, lead designer, lead handler, and lead performer at Extreme Costumes, agreed to put aside his tools and discuss the wild endeavor that the Extreme Costumes is. Here is what came out of this conversation.
H: Hello Thomas. How are you doing?
T: Well, I had a busy time of late but Iím recovering well so I guess thatís good.
H: And by busy time do you mean more conventions?
T: Well, I had just gone to London prior to going to Poland, and then just after Poland, I went to Canada. And prior to going to London I worked very hard for several weeks in a row without any days off trying to complete a project on time. That was successful, but it also created a lot of stress.
H: Were you working on the Bumblebee suit, or on something new?
T: The project I was finishing was something called Mangle. Mangle is a robot from the TV series called Robozuna. I was commissioned to make a Mangle costume. People who ordered it are very happy with him, so Iím happy as well. Nonetheless, during the process, there were some difficulties Ė I was under a very tight deadline at the end and I wanted to finish it to my satisfaction.
H: Tom, I would like to go through your history with Extreme Costumes Ė a hobby that eventually transformed into your profession. Could you share what was the first costume you ever made in your life?
T: Iíve been making costumes since I was 5-years old, so Iím not really sure you want to hear a recounting of when I made a ghost costume with a sheet and a couple of holes in it [laughter]. My first Extreme Costume, and just for clarification Ė I call things Extreme when they start to wow thousands of people Ė was a character, or a battle suit, known as Clan Elemental from the BattleTech universe. I built an entire human skeleton out of PVC that reproduced every joint of the human body. The skeleton had holes in it to fit my body inside. Then I went into a metal shop and learned how to process metal so that I could then wrap the entire thing head to toe in roughly five thousand sheet metal screws.
H: Impressive. So was this costume made nearly entirely out of metal?
T: No, it WAS entirely made out of metal. It was a giant nightmare. Every time I got into it or out of it I looked like I lost a fight with 20 cats.
H: How much did the costume weight?
T: Probably about a hundred pounds (app. 45kg Ė ed. note) but it was very small by my todayís standards Ė around seven feet tall. But it was incredibly awkward to walk in and maneuver. I have since learned about 22, 23 yearsí worth of improvements.
Let that sink in. Over 20 years of experience in creating Extreme Costumes. Tomís current success had humble beginnings, though. Before he was a cosplayer, around the age of 25, Tom owned a pizza joint. The business was successful and grew to 15 employees; Tom worked from 70 to 80 hours a week, but enjoyed every minute of it. What changed? After learning that he was going to be a father, he decided to sell the joint to get rid of his debts, and bought a liquor store that he ran for about a decade. It was a successful and profitable endeavor, but it required loads of time. That wasnít a real problem until Tom and his wife learned theyíll become parents Ė at that point, DePetrillo decided he wants to be a father more than anything else. Now that he looks back to that period of time, he remembers he never made anyone really happy by selling a pack of cigarettes, a bottle of wine, or even a six pack of beer. And Tom loves making others happy.
And so, Tom went into sales for about a year in order to hone his natural social skills. As an autistic person, he wanted to improve his human interaction skills in order to bring his social relations up to snuff. And he did exactly that. After the brief romance with sales, Tom moved on and purchased a carwash. The idea was to own it and sort of let it handle itself, however, due to economic collapse of 2008 that turned out impossible. Owning a business that offered services not required for survival was very difficult during that challenging period of recent history. ďThe luxury things tended to evaporate,Ē Tom recalls. Yet, even though his business did not develop the way he wanted, and Tom had to spend a lot of time working at the carwash, he didnít give up his hobby, and was constantly working on costumes.
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T: My first costume got me around a thousand dollars. And I was very excited because I won a thousand dollars in a contest, and what enticed me most was the big crowd cheering. By the time I had gotten into the carwash business, Iíd already gotten my first commercial engagements. It was moving from being a just a hobby that might provide ten to fifteen thousand dollars a year from prize winnings, up to getting contracts for doing jobs like appearing at events for companies such as Chevy. And when I continued to do that while running the carwash, I eventually got that volume up to about forty thousand dollars a year.
How to become a pro
And at this stage, Thomas decided to cross the Rubicon. He talked to his wife about selling the carwash Ė they agreed that he should devote all of his time to costume making. And boy, am I glad they took that leap. Initially, Tom was working on his own. Then, he invited another likeminded person to work with him. Ever since, his Extreme Costumes business continues to grow. Currently, Tom employs three full-time, and twelve part-time costume enthusiasts. Those working part-time are mostly professionals in specific fields. For example, all Extreme Costumes have an aluminum skeleton, thus an aluminum welder is needed every once in a while to create the skeleton for a new project. Given how much work has to be put into a particular suit after the skeleton is completed, the welder will have a couple days of work once every several weeks. However, and interestingly enough, the real job for most people starts when the costume is ready, as there are lots of things to take care of:
T: Well, there are the performers Ė guys in suit praised by everyone who see them inside that particular suit. However, without a handler that person is useless Ė these people are essential for the success of an Extreme Costume. Handlers will help performers get into the suit, get out of the suit, help steer them around dangerous obstacles, they might prevent someone who is touching a performer from inappropriately touching him, but they also could peel of a small child whoís grasping and pulling at stuff. Moreover, they could deflect unwanted attention from someone who a performer does not wish to have contact with. A good handler can notice the threat before it happens and eliminate it before there is any danger. All of my Extreme Costumes run on stilts. All of them have some measure of blocking your vision or hearing. Even though my performers are highly-trained that doesnít mean that they donít need a good handler.
Itís quite interesting to learn how important the handlers are for a cosplayer. Tom recalls one visit to a Vegas night club with a handler heíd thought was sufficiently trained. At one point, though, the handler watched a person come up from behind Tom, reach out, grab his codpiece, and start yanking at it. To make things even more awkward, the handler, instead of helping Tom, laughed at the situation and reached for his phone to take some pictures. ďI could fall on someone else and potentially injure them. Although itís not likely, whatís the point of bringing a handler if they donít look for the safety of the performer first? Thus, all my new people have more stringent standards.
Preparing a costume is a huge endeavor that poses unexpected challenges. Whatís particularly interesting is that Tom doesnít usually scrap his old suits, even those heís not very fond of after the years. Itís quite to the contrary, actually Ė he often overhauls his older projects, constantly looking for ways to improve them, often utilizing the experience he gathers during subsequent projects.
H: What do you do with an Extreme Costume after youíve completed your work?
T: Not all suits are the same. And no suit is ever done. I am perpetually working on any suit I have, and am always looking for ways to improve it. The Hulk Buster has been revised four times. Last year I felt he needed a complete overhaul and I invested about eight thousand dollars into upgrading him. The Bumblebee I brought with me to Pyrkon for example, could have been said to be finished last year in October, but since that point Iíve invested at least another four hundred hours into him. During Pyrkon, I was testing out the upgrades I added and I was very happy with that progress. It made the whole suit more visually appealing, allowed for a greater range of emotion, and it was more durable.
It was also interesting to hear about the matter of ownership, since not all suits he makes actually belong to him:
T: If I make a costume thatís in-house, like the aforementioned Bumblebee VI, then I own it. And so Iíll continuously bring him out to different events. While costumes like Bumblebee IV, which is the one that belongs to Hasbro, that one is around my shop awaiting for Hasbro to call me and ask to bring to a given event. They might not want it for a year at a time or they might want it every weekend. And so that would sit around doing nothing until whoever owned it asked to use it.
So, in general I prefer things that I own completely, but on the other hand, I have to remember that this is still my work and a way to provide. Making big projects for outside clients is one of the primary ways I make money besides getting paid to go to conventions. Also, we make videos and the videos then generate income, and the videos generate news and attention, and then the news and attention generate more work, so itís a cycle I have to maintain. Sometimes I go to events that Iím not paid to go to just purely for the point of generating some additional news media.
H: Letís say that you complete a costume and then you embark upon a new project. Do you use the previous one for spare parts or do you leave it as it is?
T: I have several rules for my shop. One of them is ďnothing is sacred.Ē And that means that I have not created Holy Bible or a holy structure. Itís a piece of foam, aluminum, plastic, fiber glass, and other materials that I cut up and made to be that shape. And if I need a piece of it, I would take it. I try to always keep the old costumes intact. But if two days prior to a convention I discover my PA system is blown out I will totally rip out one from another suit just to make sure I have one to bring with me.
H: If you are forced to rip a previous costume apart, do you still plan to go back to it and repair it?
T: Sure, theyíre all ongoing pieces of work. And after a long time Iíll retire a particular costume because my work evolves rapidly. Each suit offers many new inventions and upgrades, so the work I look at from five years ago I consider to be very subpar. We might be ten evolutions beyond that. And so something from that long ago Iíd now not view as being all that valuable because it looks like old crappy work to me. Other people might think itís very nice, it might be nicer than most of the other suits thatíre out there, but compared to what my current work is, itís not up to snuff. We are perpetually trying to be more accurate with better paint jobs, better gimmicks, and costumes being lighter and more agile. We have improved in any way we could. I do have suits that are old that I still keep around. The Hulk Buster is still often used and he was made in 2015.
The Hulk Buster costume was actually the biggest challenge Thomas has ever faced when creating and designing a suit. He had known for a very long time he wanted to make it, especially since he had always been a fan of Tony Stark and his suits from the comic books. The thing was, Iron Manís suits come in lots and lots of varieties. Thereís an arctic suit, a space suit, an underwater suit, and many others. Tom, however, wanted to create the Hulk Buster. The biggest catch there was the fact that artworks of the suit from the upcoming Avengers movie had not been released yet, so if Tom would recreate the comic book version of it, many people would simply not be able to recognize it Ė ďWhat is this giant thing?Ē is not a question you want to hear inside a suit youíve packed hundreds of hours into assembling. So, Tom simply decided to solve some technical problems in the meantime, which he knew he would face when building such an enormous suit:
T: How to have a set of shoulders that was six feet wide still be able control the arms and use them in a lifelike fashion? So I created an original robot called Odin. And Odin was predominantly a test-bed for how to make the Hulk Buster. When I completed it, I recorded its movement and watched the videos. I realized that he was very lacking. He could walk fine but the arms were very restrictive in their movement in my opinion and he couldnít emote at all. So I went back to the drawing board, and then when they finally came back out with the images of the new Hulk Buster to appear in the Avengers movie, I could move forward with that design.
I upgraded him and I added in shoulders. And these shoulders moved in a lifelike fashion. So if you looked at your own shoulder and reached to the ground, your entire arm will shift downwards several inches. If you reached up above you, the arm will move in the opposite direction several inches. That entire socket will move and thatís what I wanted to recreate. And I also had to create a system that would defer the weight from the arms of the costume as much as six feet away from my shoulders back to my back. And that made this much more manageable and thatís how I was able to achieve truly giant size while maintaining mobility. That was probably the biggest challenge I ever have overcome.
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H: Is there a project that you abandoned that involved an Extreme Costume?
T: No, but there are projects Iíve done terribly that I wish I had abandoned. I had made a Hulk costume in 2008. Many people told me they liked it. I look back at that now and I cringe. I just canít stop cringing every time I see an image of it. It was a masterful design in terms of movement and in terms of durability, however in terms of appearance it is so ugly that I almost never show images of it. Because itís embarrassing.
H: Could you say something more about your plans for the next Extreme Costume?
T: I want to make a Spider Tank. A spider tank is an original unlike a typical cosplay. A cosplay is traditionally a recreation of someone elseís work. The Hulk Buster is a recreation of a particular Iron Man armor, whereas this is going to be something inspired by many different things Iíve seen in pop culture. Yet it will be a unique creation. And it will be my first vehicle. Four-wheel drive, four-wheel steering, four independent electrical motors one mounted inside each one of the four wheels. Tank that floats in the air on four extended legs with its own turret that will have a big cannon. The cannon will be powered by a compressor with a big air tank so I will be able to fire things like Ping-Pong balls and t-shirts. There will be a number of cameras and also five additional monitors to view the surroundings.
For this project, we are using a special type of steel tubing to make the skeleton, exactly the same way that one makes a race car. And after I make the entire roll cage then Iím going to start wrapping it in aluminum layer with intermittent places for heavy-duty Plexiglas. The Plexiglas will be frosted and will illuminate the entire tank similarly to vehicle you might have seen in the movie Tron. The Spider tank should be about 3 meters long by 2,2 meters wide and then maybe 1,8 meters tall. I will be able to climb into it and drive it around. Iím very excited about it, because nobody has ever done anything like this that I know of.
Everyone whoíll see it is going to think of Tachikoma featured in Ghost in the Shell. I cannot make an exact copy of it since there might be some copyright infringement, nonetheless spider tanks have been in Battle Angel Alita, Destiny, and make countless different appearances across pop culture. Thus I am not recreating a particular one, it's something more like developing a certain concept. And I would like to capitalize on the resurgence of Cyberpunk, not only with the new video game being produced out of Poland, Cyberpunk 2077, but also with the movies, books, and TV shows that bring the Cyberpunk phenomenon back. With this tank, I am going to have a ton of different handlers who are all going to be dressed up as cyberpunk characters accompanying me around.
We would also like to use that combined with some talented cinematographers to make top-end videos that will hopefully go viral allowing people to see it and opening up different venues of work for me. For example, instead of just regular conventions, I might go to automobile shows. I might go to sport events. I could do parades much more readily Ė because if you can get into a tank and drive it at 25 mph, itís entirely different than when youíre inside suit and thinking ďOh my God, I have to walk a mile! Thatís so far!Ē So itís hopefully going to be a game changer.
H: So do you think that the next time we have an interview like this will you say that was your biggest challenge?
T: Well, when Iím done with it, I have an even bigger set of challenges lined up. Iím always looking forward to the future. So many people waist their lives looking back. And certainly I can go back and go ďI wish I had the waistline like when I was 23.Ē But instead of perpetually looking back, Iím moving forward and facing new challenges. With each challenge, Iím striving to open up new ground thatís never been done before. And thatís going to be beneficial for me, my friends, and my employees. It should also open up new experiences for me.
Iím hoping that when Iím done with the Spider Tank I willíve helped to inspire others to tackle some of their projects. I already know Iíve done that in the world Iím in today. When I first started doing this in 2009 for the Anime cosplay community no one had a giant robot like I had. I mean literarily, no one. And now I could name about fifteen different really talented organizations or individuals who are making amazing projects. And many of them told me that I helped to inspire them. And that makes me proud.
H: And this perfectly brings us to the last question. Any piece of advice to those who consider creating an extreme costume?
T: Donít be afraid to fail. You will fail, and then you have to try again, and again, and again until you succeed. Just donít be despaired by that failure, because no one cares about all the failures you had, they only care about the successes.
H: Perfect. Tom, thank you very much for your time. I hope we will meet again after you complete your current Spider Tank project and you will tell us even more about it.
T: Thank you. Until the next time!
After we finish talking, Tom returns to his work. Looking at his enthusiasm and the amount of effort he always puts into his projects, I am more that certain his upcoming projects will awe tens of thousands of both cosplay enthusiast and those newly introduced to this phenomenon. I can only wish Tom and his crew the best of luck, and hope to meet them again on another convention.