Iron Man costume made on the shoulders of giants

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Jeremy Hansen Iron Man costume

Jeremy Hansen

When Iron Man set foot on stage at the Red Hat Halloween party last year, my jaw dropped. A huge applause erupted. It was like the real Iron Man stepped out of the Hollywood big screen and was right in front of us. I was waiting for it to start flying.

The man behind the Iron Man costume was Jeremy Hansen, a software engineer and web developer at Red Hat. Costume making, or cosplay (short for costume play), is his hobby. And the world of cosplay has many parallels to the open source way. Sharing, participation, rapid prototyping, and a strong community are what make cosplay attractive to so many people.

As a Halloween treat this year, I wanted to learn more about the cosplay world and get some tips and tricks from Jeremy on costume design and construction. Let's find out how 3D modeling and imagination collide to make awesome costumes.

What are some of the similarities between the open source community and the costume/cosplay community?

I think the biggest similarity is just the concept of sharing. I rarely see a post in a cosplay forum showing somebody's latest work that doesn't also include a detailed walk-through of how they made it. Even those that don't take a tutorial approach to their sharing are always enthusiastically answering questions and providing tips and hints to the other members of the community who post comments and questions.

That sharing gives rise to a process of iterative improvement that builds on itself to everyone's benefit. Someone might take an idea for something they see in the forums and try out new techniques or new applications to improve on it. Then they share what they've learned back to the community again and the cycle continues. I have no doubt that the most successful open source projects in the world today were built using exactly these principles.

Of course, sharing also serves to lower the barrier of entry for those who are just starting out and trying to learn which is certainly one of the values of the open source model.

What software are you using for 3D modeling when preparing your Halloween costumes and why did you choose it?

The software I've used for my recent projects is called Pepakura Designer. Unfortunately, it isn't open source. It's a shareware program for converting 3D models into printable templates. I have searched for an open source alternative but haven't been able to find one. The good news is that the actual Pepakura files are shared openly in the community and many of those are created from 3D models with Blender.

I haven't done any of the 3D modeling for the costumes I've created. I think that's part of the beauty of the community approach. No matter what project you take on, you're going to be building on the work of others. In the case of a Pepakura project, you might have a 3D model produced by one person, which was unfolded for Pepakura by another person which might be be adapted for foam templating by a third person. Then you may watch a video tutorial demonstrating the construction method you want to use, followed by reading a step-by-step forum post on painting and finishing techniques.

In my case, like many others, I simply find a model that I like by browsing through the hundreds that are freely posted online by other members of the community. I don't know all of the software applications that are used to produce these models but I do know that Blender is a popular one. (I have used Blender for video editing before but I haven't yet dabbled in 3D modeling).

Jeremy Hansen Iron Man costume on stageAny tips for beginners using Pepakura Designer?

Pepakura is like origami mixed with 3D puzzles on steroids. Try something simple at first and do several practice runs in cheap paper before committing to a more permanent medium. This will help to get the sizing right and to get a feel for how all the pieces fit together. Fortunately, Pepakura Designer is very good at helping with this. It's also a good idea to choose a project that's popular to give more depth to the pool of helpful resources. Remember, YouTube is your friend. Watch lots of tutorials.

Of course, not every cosplay project takes the Pepakura approach. Some like to use good old fashioned clay sculpting and molding, rotocasting, or even 3D printing. My advice is to start with a baseline of something you're comfortable with, then add an element that stretches you to try something new.

Last year you created an Iron Man costume that had everyone raving. Can you tell us about other costumes you've designed and maybe a hint at anything in the works?

Iron Man was a lot of fun and a lot of work. It was by far the most intricate costume I've ever built. I loved the opportunity it gave me to learn some entirely new methods. That's one of the things I look for the most when coming up with ideas for a costume. In the last few years, I've made an Ent, a mech bot, a T-Rex, and of course Iron Man. Each time there's been some new idea for an effect or technique that I really wanted to see if I could pull off. When it works (and often enough, it doesn't) I'll file it away to be used as part of future projects.

This year's project, I'll go so far as to say, is another armor suit, but very different from Iron Man. It's a simpler design which was important because I had less time this year due to other projects at work and home. On the bright side, it's much more free form than Iron Man was too, which allows me to just be creative with it. That's the most fun part of the whole process for me.

Are you as Iron Man available for birthday parties?

I've done some birthday parties, a store opening, and a couple of Boy Scout fundraisers. That's not really the reason I create the costumes but it goes a long way to justifying the time and expense. Plus, it's hard not to enjoy it when people get so excited to see me, well, see Iron Man. He's pretty popular right now. That's another reason I decided to go simpler this year. I knew there was no way to eclipse or even match the success of the Iron Man suit. He just has too much wow factor. I need to reset expectations. So I'm calling this a rebuilding year. I think it will still be good though.

In the video below, you mention the culture at Red Hat, particularly around Halloween. What are some of the things you like about Red Hat culture?

More than anything it's that everybody is excited about what they're doing. One of the things that drew me toward a career in software development is the creative aspect of it. Just like with my costumes, it's important to me to be invested in what I do. If my job doesn't satisfy my creative side, whether through the design process or just creative problem solving, my commitment wanes. I get bored and unproductive. I also want to feel like I have a voice and that the things I do are fundamentally meaningful. The culture at Red Hat is a sort of incubator for those parts of me. Plus, what company other than Red Hat is going to be more encouraging of trying out new things? That's the heart of open source and community-driven innovation. I sound like I work with marketing, don't I?

What's one piece of open source technology you could not live without?

Wow. Is it fair to say all of it? The problem with that question is that I know how many open source projects there are that I rely on everyday that never really see the sunshine. I'm thinking of all of the libraries and drivers, kernel modules, utilities and applications that make up the layers of processing that allow me to connect not only to my job but to literally almost everything I do. They do all the grunt work and never get the credit. And that's just what's on my laptop. If I really had to pick one thing in that landscape, I suppose it would have to be the browser. I'm a web developer by trade and it's hard to live without food on the table. Not to mention how would I ever find a source for fabrication supplies? Of course, a browser is no good without something to connect to. Honestly, I'm old enough to remember life before the Internet and I'm still not sure how we got anything done.

Where can someone go to get started with the community around costume design?

The Replica Prop Forum. There are loads of other communities out there but that's the first one I discovered, so it's the first I recommend. I do more lurking than anything else there. I love to browse and look at the projects that other people are working on. It inspires me. There's some really impressive stuff out there. I'm honestly just a n00b by comparison.

Editor's note: Iron Man is a registered trademark owned by Marvel Comics.

Jason Hibbets is a Community Director at Red Hat with the Digital Communities team. He works with the Enable Architect, Enable Sysadmin, Enterprisers Project, and community publications.

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