Ottawa ComicCon 2014 how-to guide

Ottawa ComicCon was where I originally discovered that cosplay was even a thing. I really love this convention and in the last few years it has gotten even more awesome. This year it was the first convention where I participated in the Masquerade, and also the first one where I actually cosplayed a comic book character. (Normally I just make costumes of my own characters.) I love that number of firsts. This is also the first time I figured I'd write about the whole experience for anyone considering it.

I've written this as a how-to guide - so you can skip to the bits you're most interested in. Check out my table of contents to the left, or just get started!


1. Your posse

Gather a posse. This kind of event is way more fun when shared with others. I really enjoyed having someone to get ready with. However, your posse should be small (I recommend a total group of 2-4 people). When wandering around the con, it is easy to lose people as they go looking at different things. As well, everyone will want to see different parts of the con, so a small group keeps you from being pulled in too many different directions. I went with two friends, one of whom did dress up and one of whom did not. It is super awesome to have a friend come who doesn't dress up, as it is way easier for them to be a bodyguard/carry a backpack/be a cameraman if they're not encumbered with a costume. 

As a girl, having a posse is very important to me - you're way less likely to be harassed if you are in a group because you are not presenting a lone target. As much as I like pushing for the equality of women, trying that in a bikini is a very vulnerable way to do so.

This is my posse.

This is my posse.


2. Your costume

Make a costume. Start early. I started in February and still had to rush to finish. Wearing a costume at a con is one of the most fun things to do - it makes doing so at Halloween seem boring. Choose a character that you identify with or who acts like you - it will be way easier to get into character for the masquerade. Do a makeup test and practice posing in advance. 

I'm not going to give too many costume-making tips as that really depends on which character you choose, but consider these things when choosing:

  1. How hot will this costume be to wear? Cons are always really warm because of the sheer number of people in a small space. The bikini that I wore this year was chosen on purpose so that for once I wouldn't overheat.
  2. Does this costume still look good in photos with flash? Most photos will be inside in poor lighting so many people will be taking pictures with flash on.
  3. Can you eat/drink? If you're in the masquerade, you'll be at the con all day and will need to eat something during the middle of the day. Make sure your mask comes off or that your makeup can handle it. It is very important to stay hydrated so this one is a must.
  4. Can you pee? Lots of people forget this part and lace or zip themselves into something without considering the fact that they may need to get out of it. 
  5. Can you build this costume to last? You'll have to wear it all day or a good chunk of the day, you don't want bits falling off or breaking. If it has too many complicated parts, start with a simpler costume and work your way up to that one.
  6. Does it have weapons? These weapons need to be made with wood or plastic. Cons often have specific rules for what these weapons can look like. Make sure your weapons meet these guidelines.
This is my costume. Photo by  Richard Dufault Photography.

This is my costume. Photo by Richard Dufault Photography.


3. Tickets

Buy tickets online well in advance. This will save you a lot of money. This year I got the three day pass, even though I only wanted to go for Saturday and Sunday. Doing this was cheaper than buying individual tickets for both days. As an added bonus, it meant I could pick up our tickets on Thursday, so we could skip all the lines on Saturday morning.

Cheaper + No lining up = Totally worth it.  


4. Getting ready

The masquerade sign-up is typically on Saturday morning (this year it was 9:30am - 12:00pm) and it is important to get there early, as they often cut off entries once they've reached their limit. So, we worked our 'getting ready' schedule backwards from there. Because this was the first day putting on the costume, I wanted extra time to get ready in case something went wrong. Also, we needed to assemble our day bag of backup supplies. This bag contains scissors, glue, a sewing kit, band-aids, water bottle, etc... all the supplies we might need to survive the day in the event of a costume failure. As well, we brought a lunch since Saturday is the busiest day and the line ups for food are often extreme. (We also needed food that wouldn't ruin our makeup.) Bring an empty water bottle - the EY Center has water bottle refill stations. 

Here was our schedule:

5:00am - Wake up like a giddy schoolgirl and wake up my friend who grumpily rolls over
5:15am - Get her makeup started (I did her eyes, she did foundation & got her costume on)
5:45am - My makeup
6:30am - My friend's hair 
7:00am - My hair & I put the GoPro on to charge
8:00am - My other friend arrives & starts getting lunch together - we now have coffee.
8:15am - I finish her lips & she is good to go, she finishes assembling the day bag
8:30am - I have to finish putting on my costume but my hair & makeup are done
9:30am - We're starting to wrap everything up. 
9:45am - We leave the house for the bus stop, jump on the 97
11:00am - We arrive a half-hour late because of the traffic getting to the con

Yes, this is on the bus. Of course Poison Ivy wears Aviators, what kind of question is that?

Yes, this is on the bus. Of course Poison Ivy wears Aviators, what kind of question is that?


Warning: If your costume has anything that looks like a weapon, the first thing you must do upon entry to the con is visit the weapons check. It is prominent and easily accessed. I had a wooden staff and my friend had two wooden knives. It is imperative that you do so because if not, you could get kicked out of the con. They take weapons check very seriously.

5. Sign up for the masquerade

The masquerade sign-up is always somewhere weird, this year it was in a back corner. We asked at the info booth so we could find it quickly. We didn't arrive til 11 (the sign up was only open for another hour at that point) so we didn't want to waste time looking. Going earlier is better because they often cut off the entries once they reach a certain number - and that could be well before the end of the sign-up period. So once we arrived, we rushed straight there.

What you need to have when you sign up:

  • A name for your submission (Mine was my character's name)
  • A brief description of your sumbisson (to be read when you walk on stage)
  • What level you want to compete at (I'll explain more about this later but for now, just sign up as 'novice' if you've never done this before). 
  • Music (on CD or USB). I brought mine on USB, they prefer mp3 at Ottawa Comic Con. Check the con for any technical requests on this front as some can be very archaic.
  • The form also requires your name, address, email, phone number etc..

Once you're done signing up, you're free for the rest of the day. They'll let you know when you need to come back for judging & the performance. For us this was 4pm.

We're patiently waiting our turn.

We're patiently waiting our turn.

6. Photo requests

Now that we were done with the important time-sensitive task, we were free to wander around and look at stuff. This also meant we were free to be accosted by other con-goers who wanted a picture of our costumes. If you've made a really cool costume, one that everyone knows, expect lots of requests. I have some rules of thumb that I use when responding to these requests:

  1. Feel free to say no. Especially if they are creepy or look like they're taking boob shots. Although they may think so, they don't deserve a photo of you - it is you being nice. I find that many of the less geeky con-goers don't quite understand this. They think that costume-wearers are part of the show and should entertain them. This is not the case. 
  2. You'll get two kinds of requests - with them, or just you. Some people just want to take a picture of your costume. Others want to be in it themselves or to have their significant other/child/family member pose with you. This can be awkward if you don't want to be that close to a stranger or don't want them touching you - again you can always say no. If you say yes, position the other poser so they'll look good next to you. They often don't know how to pose and will be awkward. Along with just being nice, this saves time on your part, so that the photo requests don't take so long and interrupt your enjoyment of the con.
  3. Make sure you're not blocking traffic. People ask for photos in the most inopportune locations. I will often say, "Yes, but can we move over there where we won't be in the way?" Everyone is always OK with this. 
  4. Do different poses. This will mean that you get more photos taken of you (which is fun) but this is actually a smart precaution on your part. It means that if one pose doesn't turn out very well, you'll get some other poses that do look good.  
  5. Some people won't ask for photos, they'll just take them. If you're uncomfortable with this, say so. They don't have the right to take a photo of you without your consent. In my experience, this is often because they're too shy to ask, and they're happy to delete it. I don't mind, so I just let them take the picture.
  6. Tell someone if your'e getting harassed. It is common for female cosplayers to get harassed by men at conventions, and it is often in conjunction with a photo/video request. Men use the camera as a tool to get these cosplayers to stop and then harass them. I've always had a fabulous experience at Ottawa Comic Con and have never been harassed. The closest that I came was this year when some teenager claimed he was 'cosplaying as an asshole' and demanded my phone number. He wasn't a very good cosplayer, because when I said no and brushed him off to respond to an actual photo request, he quietly acquiesced. He tried again, but when I told him off, and turned away, he left. This con has a great policy on harassment and any member of the staff will always help you.

We wandered around the con, just 'taking it all in' as they say. I needed a break mid-afternoon, so we sat and ate something. At about 3:30 we got coffee, fixed our makeup, and headed back to the masquerade sign-up booth for the judging.

I asked this dashing Batman if he'd take his picture with me. My friends said that I absolutely needed to take a photo with batman, and I concurred.

I asked this dashing Batman if he'd take his picture with me. My friends said that I absolutely needed to take a photo with batman, and I concurred.


7. Masquerade judging

A Masquerade has two parts - in the first part, they take a professional photo of you, and judge your costume. The second part is a performance where you have 30 seconds to a minute to present your costume on-stage before an audience. This is also judged.

At 4pm we were heading to the first part.  It was a lot of waiting. We were in the back room from 4pm until 8pm when the performance part actually started (it was supposed to start at 7:30pm).

They had a studio set up where a professional photographer took photos of our costume from the front, back & side. This took approximately 10 minutes. You also got 10 minutes with the judges (who are often international master cosplayers). On the advice of a friend, I brought printed-out in-progress photos to show some of the work that you couldn't see that went in behind-the-scenes on my costume. I left them with the judges. 

What surprised me was that the most fun part of all this was actually just sitting in the back waiting, and talking with the other cosplayers. It was like being in a tribe of my own people! We talked about costume construction, being a cosplayer, and laughed about all the crazy things we do. It was really nice to be around others who understood me.

This is what it looked like backstage. We had a large screen where we could watch what was going on. (Yes I watched the Leonard Nimoy Skype call.)

This is what it looked like backstage. We had a large screen where we could watch what was going on. (Yes I watched the Leonard Nimoy Skype call.)


8. Masquerade performance

This was the scariest thing I'd done in a long time. If you sign up as an individual, you have 30 seconds to show off your costume on-stage. You can do a skit or just pose, but you have to show off the front, back and sides of your costume. If you sign up as a group, you have a minute.

I figured that just the friends and family of the cosplayers would come and watch - I didn't realize that it was a major event at the con. So, I was totally cool, until I heard the MCs ask the audience to give the first cheer - and I realized how many more people were there than I expected. There were probably about 1,000 people (or more) watching. Then I got nervous.

My friends said I did fine - I did a cute little burlesque routine. My Poison Ivy costume had a removable skirt, so I danced on stage all plant-like, playing the Ivy seductress, then as a gag ripped off my skirt and kept dancing off the stage. My song was Little Drop of Poison by Tom Waits. It was perfect. 

The performance part ended at 10pm, I was exhausted but high on adrenaline. Once I sat down for a bit (and stopped shaking!) that exhaustion actually kicked in. As soon as I was horizontal I fell asleep. 

Photo by  Insta Reviews , see the rest of their album  here.

Photo by Insta Reviews, see the rest of their album here.


9. Awards and levels

So, remember how we just signed up as 'novice' and left it at that? Here's the bit where I actually explain how cosplay is judged and awarded. If you want to read more I recommend this article.

Basically there are four levels that depend upon your expertise and skill. They separate the judging into levels in order to make the judging (and the awards) more fair. 

The first level, Novice, is for anyone who has never won a costume award. This might be your first masquerade as well. 

You enter the second level, Journeyman, after winning one award at the novice level. 

You enter the third level, Craftsman or Artisan, after winning three awards at the journeyman level.

The fourth level (Master) is for crazy good cosplayers who compete at specific conventions. Often the judges of these contests are Masters or International Masters. There's more to this but this is the quick summary. Essentially the system is meant to keep long-time cosplayers and costumers from competing against more inexperienced or novice cosplayers.

I entered my costume in the Novice category, but I was actually bumped up to journeyman because my costume was too good for that category. I won an award at the journeyman level, which means I have two more to go before I can be an artisan.

Boo yeah. 

Boo yeah. 


10. Conclusion & Disclaimer

So that's it! I hope to see you at Ottawa Comic Con next year! If you have any questions or comments, feel free to leave them below, or send me an email. 

A reminder that this is just my experience at the Ottawa Comic Con 2014, others may have different experiences or different suggestions. Definitely check out the rules, regulations, and technical guidelines of whatever con you're going to - as they're definitely not all the same.

Happy costuming!