I’ve been enjoying the other posts about the Superhero Design Challenge and decided to write a bit about my own experiences designing and building Captain Chronomek.
My wife and I have been designing costumes together for many years: we do this in our limited spare time, and it provides us with a chance to create interesting things without the need to justify them as “research” (we are both PhD students, at SFU’s School of Interactive Arts + Technology).
It seems cliched to say that we were into Steampunk before it was cool to be into Steampunk, and honestly we didn’t get serious about incorporating a historical aesthetic into our costumes until a few years ago. However, it has always been important to us to create costumes that look and feel like clothing that a character would wear.
For Captain Chronomek we tried to emphasize different textiles and materials: texture was a very important part of our concept for the character, as was a sense that the costume had been lived in. One regret I have is that we did not have as much time to distress and age the fabrics as much as I would have liked. As with any project done to a firm deadline, there are always details that one would change if given the opportunity.
The narrative for the character was that he was an Industrial Revolution era machinist who had been chosen by a benevolent group of time-traveling aliens to defend history against an evil group of time-traveling aliens (for full origin story and a montage of the design process, check out Captain Chronomek on YouTube, where you can read a very melodramatic description of his history). Captain Chronomek is part Doctor Who, part Macgyver, and part Sherlock Holmes: he travels through time solving mysteries, and repairing damage done to the timeline. Along the way, he is forced to improvise weapons, equipment, and clothing, using whatever technology is available to him at the time.
In this sense, we wanted him to really reflect our own maker aesthetics: much of the costume is re-appropriated materials, historical interfaces, and found objects. For example, the clock that serves as the interface for his time-traveling powers is constructed with Nixie Tubes: historical vacuum tubes that predate today’s seven-segment led numerical displays. The device that we built to act as his “temporal disturbance detector” uses an old ColecoVision controller as the platform, along with parts from an antique heat gun and soldering iron. It also has a functioning Arduino Lilypad, several functioning buttons, and a number of blinking lights. Is it messy? Yes. Is its messiness narratively appropriate? We think so. We used a mixture of old and new technologies to treat the textiles in the costume. The wings are hand dyed and distressed, and much of the leather work is done by hand. However, the logos are all laser cut out of leather, and the nixie clock uses a modern microcontroller and power supply. The wings were made using a peg and dowel construction method, and wrapped in black hockey tape for texture and stability. This did not prevent me from shearing off one of my wings during the runway show at TEI, when it got over-extended and caught on the theatre wall.
We wanted to create a time traveler that didn’t take himself too seriously. With Captain Chronomek, we set out to create a whimsical character with a historical riff off of the genre tropes of time travel and superheroes. His “time spanner” is a direct nod to Doctor Who’s sonic screwdriver, and his wings are meant to replace the traditional cape with a functional alternative that is reminiscent of Da Vinci’s flying machines. The TEI superhero design challenge was an amazing opportunity to put our work in front of some of the most innovative and forward thinking people designing wearable and tangible technology, and we had a blast doing it!