Friday, October 1, 2010

Past Projects: 300 Spartan Costume

This year for Halloween I'm planning on dressing as a Spartan from the HALO video games. Since I'm dusting off old projects and writing about them again, it's worth writing about my last Spartan project from 2007.

I've written up the entire process, so if you've got the time to sit and look through the thorough description of self-abuse and chemical processes that went into making this happen, read on...

That year the movie 300 was a big hit at the box office and a geek friend of mine named Dave suggested that the two of us should get into shape, make the costumes, and raise hell for Halloween (which was on a Wednesday that year).

That year I had the good fortune of working on a ship that broke down and spent a lot of time in the shipyards while the engineers were trying to put everything back together.
Being the navigator on a ship that never moved left me with a tremendous amount of free time. Usually I do a good job of getting in shape while I'm out at sea (not much else to do) but that year I had a goal and I set about my fitness plan with a vengeance.

Once I'd signed off of the ship (165 days into a 120 day contract) I got back to the workshop and started scrambling to find references and resources to match the look and materials of the screen-used costumes from the film.

Most folks who knew what I was doing suggested that it should be a pretty easy costume to throw together. After all, there wasn't all that much in the way of costume to make, right?


The armor parts were simple enough. I needed greaves, gauntlets, a helmet, and a little brooch thing where the straps attached to the cape. I did have to sculpt them though, and to guarantee the fit started by making lifecasts of my arms and legs.

A few years back I managed to make a full-body lifecast for the sculpting of my stormtrooper armor. The old lifecast had a few problems that made it unacceptable as a sculpting base for this year's project. First of all, it was over five years old and I was now in much better shape. Second, in my rush to make the full-body casting, I did a poor job of putting the seams together and ended up with some significant distortion in the limbs. This will not do.

Here's the details of my leg lifecasts:

DISCLAIMER: Do not try this at home. Everything about this idea is bad. If you try to do what I've been doing and lose hair, skin, limbs, or your life, don't blame me. I will gladly admit that the way I went about this project is wrong and potentially dangerous. That said, witness the foolishness...

When lifecasting, you want to start by layering over the skin with a flexible, skin-safe compound such as dental alginate or certain types of silicone rubber that will cure in very short time. Over this you build a rigid mother mold to maintain the overall shape of the piece as you make the final casting.

Sadly, I was all out of dental alginate and unwilling to wait for shipping or spend the money. Instead, I elected to build the rigid mother mold directly against my skin using plaster of paris. In case you didn't know, when plaster of paris cures it undergoes an exothermic reaction that generates enough heat to potentially cause second degree burns.
The way to survive this is to build your mold in several layers. As the first layer starts to cook off, the second layer is applied and absorbs much of the heat from the first layer. By the time the second layer starts to cook off, the first layer provides just enough insulation to be uncomfortable but not unbearable. Timing becomes somewhat critical in this evolution.

This would be really easy if I were doing a lifecast of someone else. The problem is, I need a copy of my own legs. While there are no portions of my legs that I can't reach with my own hands, there are portions that I can't see with my own eyes. This is why I decided to enlist the help of my friend Julie.

Here is the process…

Step one: put on some clothing that you won't mind completely destroying.

Step two: roll up or cut off the pant legs and slather your legs in petroleum jelly. Ideally, this will prevent the plaster from sticking to your hair. A superior solution would be to shave your legs before beginning, but for some reason this did not appeal to me.

Step three: begin building the first layer on one side of each leg. In this case we began with the outside half of the leg. As you build the layers, you want to make sure to build a thick, smooth edge that will become a separation point for the mold later. If your edge has any places where the second half of the mold is likely to stick, you will have to break the mold to get out of it.

Step four: as the first layer of plaster begins to harden it will heat up. This is when you will want to start adding the second layer. Plaster tends to be terribly brittle, so the second layer should also be reinforced by adding strips of burlap or plaster bandage strips. Remember to build a smooth edge where the other half of the mold will be built.
Step five: take a break. By now I'd been standing barefoot in the same position for just over an hour. This is when I realized that I should've chosen a position that would allow me to sit. I'm in pretty decent physical condition, but this was still a bit uncomfortable. If your molds are properly built, you should be able to peel your way out of them and then fit yourself back into them later.

Since I failed to get pictures of the process up until this point, here's a shot of me next to my vacant leg molds mixing another batch of plaster:

Step six: Repeat steps three and four for the inside halves of the legs. It may be worth re-coating your legs with petroleum jelly to be sure that you can get out of the molds. Here's a couple of shots of me glued to the floor:

Step seven: remove your legs from the molds. This time around I managed to lose the hair off of my left big toe, most of the fuzz on top of my feet, and random patches of hair all over my calves. I should've been wearing more grease.

In this shot you can see some of the leg hair that the mold decided I didn't need:

Step eight: walk away. The plaster molds need to dry out at least overnight. Go have a drink, bandage your mold-peeling wounds, and get some sleep. At this point, the molds look like so (the mold separation lines are outlined in red):

Step nine: wake up refreshed and ready for more silliness.

Step ten: coat the inside of the molds and the edges with a suitable mold release. In this case, I used a paste floor wax which will not stick to the resin I'll use to cast the final product. Then you need to strap the two halves together and close off the bottom to keep your resin from pouring out.

Step eleven: Mix the resin and pour:

In this case I'm using a two-part urethane casting resin with a de-mold time of about 40 minutes at room temperature. Since it was a blistering hot summer day, I didn't have to wait nearly as long this time. Here you can see the molds waiting to cure:

While mixing and pouring the resin, you need to be careful not to allow bubbles to form in the resin. This will weaken your final casting. When the resin has cured, it's time for…

Step twelve: break the mold. It would be better if the mold could be re-used, but this is a rigid mold over a rigid casting material. Since it is a complex shape with lots of locking points and undercuts there is no real way to save the mold and the casting when it comes time to separate them.

Step thirteen: Admire my new, skinny little legs:

Once I had the legs in hand, the next step was to pile on some clay and get to sculpting the greaves. Here's a shot of the sculpt in progress:

At this point I still had to work out some symmetry issues and flesh out the fine details and texturing.

Since I didn't want to repeat the somewhat painful process of plaster-to-skin lifecasting on my arms (a good example of a mildly dangerous version of how to make a lifecast of portions of your body) I went ahead and ordered some dental alginate.

This is closer to the correct way to make a lifecast. In this case, I made a copy of my arms from mid-bicep all the way to my fingertips.

Step one: get yourself eight pounds of dental impression alginate. This is a flexible, disposable, moldmaking compound that mixes with water and is skin safe. It is so benign in fact that you could eat it and suffer nothing worse than some funny looks. I don't recommend eating it. The package mine came in recommended using it to fertilize your garden when you're done with it. That may be the way to go.

Step two: build a mold box. There are other ways of going about this, that will use less material, but I decided that the easiest and fastest way to build my new arms was to just dip them into a box full of alginate and let it set. So I built a box that I could fit my arm into with a minimum of void space around it. This is that box:

Step three: Mix the alginate and pour. This alginate sets in about five minutes if you mix it with water at 80 degrees Fahrenheit. If you mix it with colder water, you get more time to work with it. I was using a less-than-ideal mixer to blend the powdered alginate into the water, but it worked out okay. Despite the fact that there was no alcohol involved yet, I looked pretty lit by the time I was pouring the goo into the mold box:

Step four: Stick your arm in the goop. When you do this, you want to make sure that you're in a position that you can hold comfortably for some time while the alginate sets up. In this case, I was hunched over in a position that caused my spine all sorts of discomfort after the first five minutes and had me giggling with spasms of pain after the first fifteen. It is also a good idea to place anything you may need within easy arm's reach unless you are particularly strong with the force:

Step Five: Once the alginate is firm, wiggle and jiggle and pull your arm out. I got a video clip of this so you can see me doing this whole Excalibur routine complete with a thoroughly entertaining fart sound as my arm is released from the now Jello-like mass. If you'd really like to see it, I can send it to you, but the camera was turned sideways and I'm not terribly proud of the cinematography.

Step Six: Fill the mold with casting medium. In this case I'm using a 2-part urethane casting resin that is not ideally suited to an alginate mold. The water on the surface of the mold causes me to lose some of the surface details. Still, since I'm only looking to make a sculpting base and not a faithful copy of my fingerprints, this is good enough and easy to use. As the resin was setting up, I also inserted a length of dowel to allow me to mount the final casting on a base and make it free-standing.

Step Seven: Once the resin has cured, break down the mold box and peel off the alginate:

Step Eight: Take some idiotic pictures of your new arm:

The water in the mold and the bubbles in the alginate did cause some loss of detail and added some warts. I still managed to get tremendous amounts of detail including perfect impressions of nine of my fingerprints and copies of much of the hair on my arms:

Step Nine: Repeat steps One through Eight for the other arm and be sure to include several foolish photos along the way:

Congratulations! You now have more arms than most people need:

Using this method you can faithfully reproduce any portion of your body. Please don't ask me any specific questions about which ones I've done...

With the greaves started, the second part that I sculpted was the shield. The first step was to make a sculpting base:

In case it's not completely clear, this is just a big circle (31.75 inches in diameter, in accordance with the specs for the film) cut from a piece of 3/4-inch medium density fiberboard. Once it was cut I took a grinder to it with a flapwheel sander to round off the outside edge. Because this is supposed to look like Bronze Age craftsmanship, I couldn't just use a router and make a perfect edge. Instead, I needed to make it look like I eyeballed it.

There is also a significant amount of depth to the final shield. To sculpt this would take way too much clay, so I started by fleshing it out with some two-part expanding urethane foam. This started like so:

Then it ended like so:

The cup in the middle of all of this mass was cut down a 5-inch height.  That way I could tell when to stop shaving this pile of foam down to the final shape and have it match the specs from the film. For the actual shaping, I used a simple combination saw:

Since the shields in the movie don't have a surface that looks like it was made of foam, I had to build a clay skin over the top of it to sculpt the details into:

The detailing process essentially involved smoothing the clay using various tools and a heat gun, then pushing dimples and dents into the surface using every sort of blunt instrument I could find in the shop as well as my fingertips.

The project took most of the day, but the end result was satisfactory:

Of course, the more I look at my reference pictures, the more problems I tend to notice. At this point, the only thing I had yet to fix is the missing ridge at the top of the chevron in the middle of the shield.

The sculpts of the gauntlets were pretty straightforward. Here's a shot of the finished gauntlet sculpts as well as the brooch:
Bracers Progress 001

Here's a detail shot of the knee on one of the greaves:
GreavesSculpt 017

With the sculpting complete, the next step was to make the molds and crank out copies in fiberglass.   The molds themselves were urethane rubber with fiberglass mothermolds.  Here's the greaves going under the rubber:
Greaves Jacket molds1

Here's the full thickness of rubber built up:
Greaves Jacket molds

Here they are with their fiberglass mothermolds:
Greaves Mothermold

In that pic you can also see the mold for the brooch sitting on the left toe.  Once all of the molds had cured, the next step was to cast up copies of the armor parts and shield.  They all ended up with bits of mold flashing or thick spots that had to be ground down with a flapwheel sander. 

It made a lot of dust, but despite my appearance, I was actually quite happy with how it was coming together:

Here I am test-fitting some of the cast armor parts:

Since I was short on time, I picked up a sword off of eBay that turned out to be way too big. Here I am cutting it down to size so it's more proportional to me:

So far I've made four castings of the shield and painted one of them.  This was the first one I ever made and I made it way too thick.  It's bulletproof, but it also weighs in at about twelve and a half pounds!  Even with my Spartan physique, it would get tedious after a few hours of being out and about. Here it is without a flash before I've added the black wash to pick out the details:

This shot shows all of the hard parts without so much light (I picked up the helmet in a trade with another maker):

The final steps involved a black wash to bring out the details in the bronze parts and make them more believably metallic. The black wash was as simple as painting all of the parts black and then wiping off as much as I could before it dried. Here's the helmet during the process:

And here's a shot of the gauntlets (or bracers if you prefer). The one on the left has been blackwashed, and the other one has not. You can see what a huge difference this process makes in the finished product:

After the painting was done, I cornered my aunt Betty for a few minutes worth of seamstress work to put together my cape. The cape is made from three yards of Indian tussah weave silk (the exact same fabric used for the film of course) and came out perfect. Although it looks extremely simple, the top two feet worth of it are actually padded out with some quilt batting and most of it is actually doubled over to make it drape properly and give it a heavier look. I ended up making it about six inches shorter than the film-used capes so I wouldn't have to worry about people stepping on it and choking me while I was walking around.  Here I am test-fitting it:

Once the cape was sewn up, I misted it the lower edge with some black and rust-colored primer to add a touch more weathering.  I also meant to hit the bottom edge with a blowtorch in a few spots, but I never got around to it.

Finally, I stitched together a pair of Spardos (Spartan Speedos) in buckskin leather I picked up from my local leather supplier, Barta Hides.  Believe it or not, the Spardos were actually the difficult part of this costume.  While they look like a simple pair of briefs, the actual assembly and donning of this garment was rather complicated.  If you're really interested in the mechanics of the Bronze-Age Banana Hammock, I can point you to a couple of good online tutorials.

What I'm glossing over in this whole writeup is the continuing rigorous physical fitness regime I was maintaining all along.  When I left the ship I was averaging four and a half hours in the gym every day.  I'd lost about four inches off of my waist and dropped from my usual 170lbs to a borderline unhealthy 145lbs!  To maintain this, I'd joined a local gym for regular circuit training and I was eating a very carefully managed diet consisting mostly of caffeine, protein, and a selection of dietary supplements.  I don't recommend this if you're someone who prefers to enjoy their life.

Determined to match the look of the film completely, I hit up my aesthetician friend Nicole in the last few days leading up to Halloween and had her wax me hairless from the neck down.  It wasn't as painful as I'd expected, due mostly to Nicole's skills, but I have no plans to repeat this adventure.  Then I headed over to Mockingbird Heights Salon to have them airbrush some tan on my lilly-white everything.

Hairless and tanned, it was time to get my kit on.  Once I was finally dressed in all of the pieces and parts, the final step was to add a bit of shine to the many square inches of exposed Spartan skin. Based on the advice of a couple of bodybuilder friends, I went with Pam cooking spray. The can we had handy was missing it's spray tip, so when my friend Sam coated me, he managed to spray me in the face more than a few times:

I also decided I needed some subtle blood splatter effect:

I ended up hitting up all sorts of parties and clubs for Halloween that year.  During the first outing, I was surprised by girls occasionally coming up and stuffing dollar bills into parts of my costume:

The designated photographer for that particular evening managed to miss every single good photo of me posing for pictures with any of the guests. What he did manage to get was every single shot that showed even the smallest bit of junk hanging out of my Spardos. Out of consideration for the viewers, I have declined to post any of those pictures.

I also managed to avoid much of the sexual harassment I was expecting until Sam found this body fat gauge in the house and ambushed me with it:

In all seriousness though, I'm very proud of the way the costume came together:

I've still got the whole thing sitting on the shelf If I ever decide I need to shed an unhealthy amount of weight again.

I've got at least one or two more old costume projects to write up.  Stay tuned...


  1. what you use for the foam please email me @

  2. As I stated in the write-up, it's "two-part expanding urethane foam" that I got from my local TAP plastics store. You can also find urethane foam at

  3. Amazing work. 300 is a tough one to pull off just for the fitness level needed. Now I know how difficult the props are to make too.

  4. I am doing the same thing and the briefs really are hard.... well, other than getting into and staying in shape.... Damn good job on the briefs, wish mine looked that good!