Even though a bunch of people saw him, and (alas) figured out his identity at Midwest Furfest, Dar'Rushk made his formal debut this weekend at Further Confusion, so I can finally say that yes, that is my new costume.
And quite an experience it was...
Buying the commission...
Well over a year ago, I came to a realization, and that was that I wasn't likely to complete a fursuit any time soon. It's not a matter of ability, desire, or anything along those lines. Instead, it was purely an issue of finding the time to work on anything new. I work long hours at a stressful job, and when I get home, collapsing is by far the best option. Add to that working staff on FurCon (taking up much of the day on Saturday) and being on the feeding crew at a tiger sanctuary on Sundays, and there just wasn't enough time to build any new critters.
So I finally made the decision to bite the bullet and commission a costume. I took a different approach than most people, though; I decided on who was going to build the commission before even considering what I was going to have built. I came up with a list of half a dozen or so builders, focusing on people who worked on either highly realistic or highly artistic creations. One name filtered to the top of that list and stayed there through my decision. I was going to approach furtech to construct... Well, to construct something for me.
I knew that frysco has a couple of creations from Lance, and he and I speak regularly, so I let him in on the plans even before I'd spoken to Lance. He knew Lance's styles better than I, so I bounced ideas off him as I went through ideas of critters to have built. Early in the process, I decided to go with something from mythology, rather than a "natural" animal or something from anime/fiction/etc... I spent weeks scouring bestiaries online, looking for the right beast. I don't remember exactly, but somewhere in that process, either myself or Frysco stumbled on a picture of a Manticore, not quite traditional, but with a lion instead of human head. So, a few weeks before Further Confusion 2006, I had my builder in mind, a creature to create, and a deadline for completion: first preliminary viewing at MFF 2006, with the official debut at FC 2007.
At some point during the con, I pulled stopped by Lance's table in the dealer's room, and told him I'd like to to "talk about some potential business" with him over dinner. We agreed to meet Sunday night at Spencer's, and he, Frysco, and myself sat down over a wonderful steak dinner. </em>(Hint #1: When approaching someone for a big project, professionalism is key. "Business over meals" is common in the professional world, and leaves a good first impact on the other party, especially as the quality of the meal goes up.)</em> We left the meal with a handshake agreement, to be finalized once I got concept art into his hands.
Next up, I had to find the right artist to do the concept art. There are certainly no shortage of artists in the furry community who would happily take on such a commission, and Lance referred me to a few. As I searched for images of Manticores to help me try and visualize what I wanted, one image struck me as wonderfully rendered, with some subtle details which really could translate well to a bipedal, lion-headed beast. Almost as soon as I found the image, I contacted Britt Martin, the artist and asked if he would be willing to take on a commission to do three or four full-color pieces as concepts for the project. He found the project interesting, and we quickly agreed on the terms of the work, but he couldn't start for around a month, as he had another large project he had to finish first. I'd promised Lance the concept art sometime in April, so that wasn't an issue, and I had my concept art commissioned.
For the next month, I continued to research design details, for everything from coloration to tail design to whether or not he got wings (Lance and I had left that detail unresolved in the first meeting). Final decisions: more red than a real lion, but not really a bright-red, scorpion-style tail rather than a mammal tail with stinger at the end, and large, leathern wings not designed to extend, so we could go more with an artistic than mechanical look. (Hint #2: Design your concept to the builder. Lance is a wonderful artist, and by going with non-opening wings, he was able to take artistic liberties he couldn't take with ones which opened. It was a very intentional decision to not allow the wings to open, and I think makes the costume look better in the long run.)
As soon as he was finished with his other project, Britt started to send me some rough sketches of the concept. We spent a while detailing out how the tail merged into the body, how the tail would appear (being not quite an exact version of a scorpion, but a somewhat stylized version), the size of the wings, etc... Color pieces followed, and we spent a while hashing out the exact colors of the body, and finally the suite of concept art was completed. Britt was wonderful to work with, and I can't speak highly enough of his willingness to dig into the details of coloration, bone structure, and all other aspects of the creature. I'd explained to him how the false-digitigrade legs work, and he kept that in mind drawing the art, making sure it would work with a human body inside. (Hint #3: Even though the concept art only costs a fraction of what the completed costume costs, it's an all-important step in the process. Don't skimp on the art, or it will show in the final product.)
Finally starting the project...
Sometime in April (possibly the last day of the month), I emailed the full suite of concept art to Lance, we discussed some final details, and a week or so later, I got an envelope in the mail with a signed contract. I co-signed the contract, mailed it back to him, and the project was officially underway. (Hint #4: Contracts are your friend. Lance insisted on it, and had he not, I would have. I trust him and he trusts me, but it's just like the old saying, "Good fences make good neighbors." If there's a contract, there's no question on what the expectations are, and if there is any disagreement, there's something to resolve that disagreement.)
Before Lance could start any work, he needed measurements and a duct-tape dummy to get my exact sizing, since I live far away and in-person fittings are difficult. rcking got brought in on the project, and helped out with the dummy and taking a standard set of measurements. Those, too, got shipped off to Lance, and my enthusiasm for the project grew a few steps.
It was frighteningly difficult not to email Lance every day (hell, every hour) with a message asking, "how are things going now?" In any project of this scale, there's a ton of "slow work." By this, I mean the brainstorm of techniques, the acquisition of materials, and in a case like this, the work with National Fiber Technology for the custom fur used in the suit. Without Lance even having to tell me, I knew it would seem as if the project wasn't making any project for at least a month as these details worked themselves out.
A bit later, a FedEx box arrived on my front porch. In it were a bunch of fur samples with different details in the coloration, fur length, and even material of fur. I laid these out on my floor, took pictures of them all, and spent about a week examining them. Once I had the decisions made, I dropped an E-mail to Lance, the order went out with NFT, and finally, beyond all question, the project was "on."
As a side note, there was nothing quite as amazing as getting those 2 or 3" square fur samples, holding them, and suddenly realizing... They're stretchy! I probably spent five minutes with one of the samples I knew I wasn't going to select, just stretching the fur, and watching how it reacted. I so want to use that fur on a project of my own now, but am not about to do so on whatever I work on next. I haven't actually completed a full costume in at least 3 years, and the last thing I would do is start on something with thousands of dollars worth of fur now.
I keep referring to mailing or talking to "Lance" in making this project, but that's not really far. I'm really working with LX, Ltd. Lance works with a few other people, including Lynette, in Indiana, who does a lot of the design and tailoring of the body suits. Rather than ship the body back and forth before MFF (trust me, shipping this beast isn't cheap), Lance flew out to Indiana the week before MFF to do the final assembly with her. He couldn't make MFF due to a conflict, but the Wednesday before the con, she drove to my house in the Chicago suburbs, and we spent the evening doing the final fitting. In what seemed amazing to me, based only on a few measurements and a duct-tape dummy, the body fit like a glove. Even more amazingly, with nothing more than a cap measure, the head not only fits perfectly, but the tiny openings for the eyes line up exactly with my own. I still don't know how he did that bit of magic.
As Lynette carried the parts in and we laid them out on the floor of the living room, I suspect I was just looking down at them in a mix of awe and shock. I'd printed out 8x10's of the concept art on photo paper, and had them sitting next to where we were laying out the body. When I held up the head and compared it to the concept art, I know I stood in awe. The likeness was bordering on uncanny. (Remember what I said above in Hint #3???)
I put the costume on that night, pulled out one of the werewolf's swords, and did some poses in my living room. Somehow, I don't know how, I wasn't bouncing off the walls as I looked at myself in the mirror and in the pictures Lynette took. She left the next morning, without having to make a single adjustment to the fit, and I had to figure out how to get the beast onto site at MFF without being noticed.
The pre-debut debut...
Getting him into MFF was actually quite easy. I hid him in plain site. I had a box almost large enough for the wings, so I wrapped them in an old bedsheet and just carried them wrapped up making no attempt to hide them. I typically carry enough AV gear or stuff for my other suits onto site, me carrying big boxes is nothing unusual, so I don't think anyone noticed anything. Robert and Frysco helped me get into suit late Thursday night, and I did a quick walk-around the con. I didn't bring the sword, since that's a guaranteed way to reveal who I was, but the lack of anything to do with my hands added to the problem I was having of moving too much like my other costumes. Virtually everyone who saw me and who knows me well immediately figured out who I was. Thankfully, while they knew, as far as I know, everyone respected my desire to remain hidden until FC and I don't think anyone publicly posted who I was. I made a total of three trips out that weekend, each time growing more comfortable in the costume, and gradually becoming less "Aeto-ish" in my movements.
The official debut of the costume was slated for FC2007. This was for a few of reasons; first, the delivery of the suit was always listed as "due by FC2007, or by MFF2006 if possible." Lance made the MFF delivery, for which I am thankful beyond measure, but he could have missed it had things gotten overly busy. Second, I wanted a chance to wear the suit during less "visible" times. I tried to keep my outings at MFF away from big events (he didn't make the parade for example) so I could try and get a handle on the character the costume demands, as well as to be prepared for emergency retreat to my sleeping room should something unexpectedly fail in a catastrophic way. Finally, FC has always been my "home con," even if I live closer to MFF (by a few orders of magnitude). I'm not one of those who's been on staff there all 9 years, but I do have 7 years of staff work under my belt there now, 4 of which were on the exec staff. For better or worse, there's a certain loyalty there.
Further Confusion 2007...
I shipped the costume to the con ahead of time, by FedExing it to badwox's place, where it would be stored with all of the A/V gear to be used during the con. It arrived on the main stage Thursday night (technically Friday morning, probably), and I got a couple of final bits from Lance on Friday as the dealer's room opened. Further Confusion could have been a disaster for me; I was one of the two people running programming this year, and had any emergencies come up where I couldn't make it out in costume, I think I would have popped. Luckily Fyx, my co-director of programming took over much of the time, and I was able to be derelict in my duties and turn into some horrible beast from your worst nightmares (or, perhaps best fantasies, depending on who you are). I figure I spent around 10 hours throughout the weekend wandering the halls as Dar'Rushk, and another few in costume in connection to the Masquerade, in which he competed.
Inherently, I don't like masquerades. Or, more correctly, I don't like competing in them. I love managing or (especially) MC'ing them, but not participating as a competitor. I never did a good job MC'ing at FC, though, as the con duties I had prevented me from really giving MC'ing the FVS the attention it deserved, and I was eventually not asked back to do so (a decision which was entirely correct on the part of the director), so this was my first time on stage at FC in a few years. Given how much I do on stage at MFF as well as one bit of MC'ing at Eurofurence (let me know if you folks want me back for that! I *LOVE* doing that kind of thing!), I was surprised when, the night before, I couldn't sleep a wink, because of nerves. I was very dry and uninspired on stage I am sure, but the costume took first place in the professional division. Frysco, who was as active and involved in the costume on stage as I was unconnected, took Best of Show.
I did finally find the character briefly during the weekend. I was back to traditional Aeto moves at the time, but modified enough (I hope) to give the character some uniqueness from my others. After the fursuit parade, we met up at the convention entrance. After the huge group photo (287 fursuits, as the final tally!), the critters started to scatter, but I wondered over to LindZ's robotic giraffe (if you didn't see it, you missed something quite impressive). Reaching up, I played "cat swatting a toy," and LindZ played along, lowering the head down. I spent a few minutes circling it, examining it, trying to move to the beat of the music playing. I knew as I moved there was a circle around me, tons of cameras going, and I didn't want to completely hog the spotlight, so moved off.
Alas, as I did, CatCoon was there, waiting for me. For some reason, whenever we meet, we get into a fight. I raised my staff, he raised his (fake) sword, and we circled for a few moments, with some bit of music playing in the background perfectly suited to that sort of combat. If anything, with the two of us fighting, we were more in the spotlight than before, and it felt like the "combat" went on for 5 or 10 minutes. As we circled, I fell more and more into the feel of the suit, and I could tell how the wings and tail moved as I did. As the truce fell (which always seemed to happen), I turned to the giraffe, trying to mount a group attack on it, but I think the CatCoon chickened out on attacking something so big and scary. (I assume everyone reading this realizes the "fight" is impromptu stage combat. It started with the werewolf character at the first Eurofurence I attended, I believe, but since then, we can't meet without dropping into that staged combat. It's about the same thing every time, but I feel like I am getting better and more convincing in my movements every time it happens.)
Presenting the costume at Further Confusion was every bit as emotionally rewarding as the very first time I walked out in costume. I certainly have the feel that this wasn't just a costume at the con, but was, at least to a fair selection of the attendees, the costume of the con. To this day, when I look at it, or at myself wearing it in a mirror, I can't believe my eyes. From the first gleam of a project in my mind to the final, public debut of the suit was something like 16 months, and I'll tell everyone reading this, keeping myself from giving hints that something was being built for me, even leaving out what it was or who was building took every bit of willpower I have. When people were talking about it after MFF, keeping myself from replying to those posts, even if they knew it was me was no less difficult. The day I walked onto site at FC, the secret was officially done. My staff badge had a picture of the character on it, and a couple people walked up to me, saw it, and asked, "so that means it's not secret any more, right?" To be able to answer that it wasn't secret, and actually talk about the costume to people felt wonderful.
Con duties kept me busy most of the day, but when I finally grabbed Frysco, dragged him up to the room, radioed con-ops the "Events 1 was off radio for a few hours," and got into costume, the rewards of seeing the reactions, hearing lots of "yeah, I heard about this from MFF, but didn't see it / wasn't there / etc..." and generally watching people's jaws drop was a bigger reward than I would have ever imagined 16 months ago.
I was unsure about how I'd feel about a commissioned costume when I started the process of getting the commission. I'm still not sure; when people give me compliments, I feel very self-conscious. I want to always say, "I didn't make this, compliment Lance." I do say that at times, when someone sees me in human form and comments on it, but you can't when you're out performing. More than any other costume, I almost feel guilty if I don't give the level of performance (be it on stage or in hallways) this moving work of art deserves. As I get used to the suit, I know I get better, though. I'll tell anyone now, there's nothing like wearing a costume like this, even if you didn't build it yourself. To Lance and Lynette, I can only say, I feel honored to be able to wear Dar'Rushk, and I mean that from the bottom of my heart. He's a masterpiece, and I think you've outdone yourselves.
If I had to do it all over again knowing what I know now, would I repeat a commission like this? Absolutely. It's more than just given me a costume which I can wear with a level of pride I can barely put words to, but it's brought back my enthusiasm for costuming in a way nothing else could. I'm actually thinking now, "I should make the time to go down into the shop and work on things." He's giving me the inspiration I've been looking for so long.
Pictures of the suit are online at http://aeto.chameleon.net/main.php/v/manticore. I'm setting up a place there to upload pictures you have, and I'd LOVE to see anything you have of him. Oh, and Jeryc, I MUST have a copy of the video you took of CatCoon and myself!!! Similarly, his accessories have a general scorpion theme. If anyone knows of anything scorpion-based which would look good on him, don't hesitate to make suggestions.