Hell Builds

For those who read my 11-day Facebook story detailing my Saturday at Montreal ComicCon wearing Young Ursula and competing in the Masquerade - thank you, thank you so much! This blog post will clarify “Hell Builds” something I talked about briefly but didn’t elaborate on.  

What is a Hell Build?

It is a costume where some or all of the building process takes over 100 hours in less than a month. Seems like an overly simple measure, right? It is a guidepost that lets you know that what you’re doing is veering quickly into territory that is dangerous for your physical and mental well-being. For most of you, this may seem blindingly obvious. If you’re anything like me, you had to learn the hard way, multiple times.

I would compare this to the Bechdel test. For those who don’t know, the Bechdel test is a simple rule for feminists to ensure the most basic female representation. It requires the movie to have two named female characters who talk to each other about something other than a man. That’s it! Seems like an overly simple rule, right? Despite that, many, many movies don’t pass.

The same with Hell Builds. They can be especially awful beyond this measure, but already they’re veering dangerously close to hurting you (or others around you).

The one exception for Hell Builds is if your full-time job is doing cosplay - in which case in a month you would have (assuming a 40-hour work week) about 160 hours. That said, full-time cosplayers also have to factor their business time into that work week, including managing social media, running the business (such as booking conventions, writing panels, travel, convention time, selling merchandise, etc...) If they can fit all that into 60 hours, then they pass.

For most of us (me included) this is a hobby and not our full-time job. Therefore, making sure that we are keeping our cosplay-related hours reasonable is very important to our health and well being, and equally important - that of our families, roommates, or partners.

And now, my Hell Build stories.

Hell Build Stories


The Tineo Hell Build (Spring/summer 2016)

I built Tineo’s wings, staff, and antennae in almost 2 months. The thing that took the majority of the time was the wings. They were an engineering nightmare, and I kept having to downsize what I’d be able to do in them. Initially I wanted them to move, then I reduced that to a lock/unlock feature, and when they were too cumbersome to do even that, I settled for bolting them flat open. I spent days on the patio painting resin onto sheer polyester curtains to get the stiff lightness that I needed, and despaired of getting all the drips and wrinkles out. I spent days more sanding the four resultant panels trying and failing to get all the drips out. I spent more days creating a backpack frame that could hold the weight of how massive they were, and attaching them to it. (They weigh about 25 pounds and have a 10’ wingspan.) I then spent more days painting them - which took many coats to get the smoothness and colour I was looking for.

Please note that I said days and not hours because they’re too small of a measurement, and when I say “days” I don’t mean 8 hours. I mean 10-12 hours. I was working right up to the week of, and they barely fit into my car to take them down to Montreal ComicCon. I didn’t have time to stress test the lights in my staff, which ended up failing, and I didn’t have enough time to perfect my antennae, which I have since discarded.


The Leonidas Hell Build (Spring 2017)

You would’ve thought I’d learnt my lesson with polyester resin the year before. NOPE.

Peekaboo Cosplay and I wanted to submit these costumes to the Masquerade at Ottawa ComicCon in early May. We discussed whether or not we could even finish in time, since we both spend so much time on our costumes. We both agreed - we’d get it done or die. That should have been a warning sign.

Leonidas was a smooth Hell Build. By this I mean I didn’t have anything huge go amiss - no giant pieces broke while building, no moulds collapsed or failed to come apart - you know, the sort of thing that gives me nightmares. This made it feel like things were going better than they really were.

The weather also fought me every step of the way. It was so rainy that I couldn’t resin outside for much of April, and had to constantly re-jig my build schedule to do what I could in lieu of the weather. I even brought the pieces into my bathroom to dry periodically because I had enough time before rain to get the resin on but not enough time for it to cure afterwards. My partner was very upset with the bathroom smelling like horrible chemicals for weeks. I’m not allowed to do this anymore.

I then spent two weeks outside in zero degree weather sanding. In my world, Hell is a cold place. It is, in fact, a zero degree place, with a cold wind that you’re wearing multiple sweaters and sweatpants to cut, because you don’t want to get polyester resin or bondo dust all over your good outdoor gear. Hell is also mildly damp from rain. Not damp enough that you won’t work there, because you have to work there because you’re on a deadline, but damp enough that you dream of hot chocolate and a good book whose pages will be hard to turn because your fingers are numb and covered with dust.


The Ursula Hell Build (Summer 2017)

I was starting to clue in by Ursula. The first half of the build usually goes smoothly, and then the second half gets rougher and rougher - I had a panic attack about two weeks before the convention. I remember Peekaboo asking how I could get so much done so quickly, and I remember the stressed feeling of how much I still had left to do, hanging over my head.

Ursula was such a big costume, bigger than anything else I’d attempted in that amount of time. I didn’t stop - I just kept working and working, because if I didn’t, I wasn’t going to make it. I didn’t see friends, I didn’t see family, I didn’t go out and do things - I just did Ursula. When you have eight tentacles, everything takes eight times as long. I’d hit the fourth tentacle and realize I was only halfway.

The hardest part by far was the silicone coating. I spent almost a week applying the coating. The colorant made the silicone very stiff, so that when you applied it to the foam (for reference - it is a lot like icing a cake) it was hard on my fingers. I was down to the wire then too, so I had to keep going - and I gave myself a repetitive stress injury on the second finger of my right hand. I knew I had the injury just past halfway through, so I worked through the pain to finish. It still hurts to hold scissors.

No more Hell Builds

Going forward, I have promised my partner that there will be no more Hell Builds, and no more Con Crunch - it puts too much stress on him, and leaves me tired by the time the convention starts.

Although I am on a cosplay-building break right now, when I get back into it I’ll be setting some firm boundaries on how much time I can spend per week and per month on this hobby, to get into the practice of being healthy about it. As a workaholic, I need these rules. I get easily obsessed and intensely focused on specific tasks, and will do them regardless of whether I’ve eaten, slept well, or should see other people. If you’re not a workaholic, lucky you! You can be slightly more generous or flexible about your hours spent.

Does anyone else have self-imposed limits on cosplay time? What are they? Do you Hell Build? I’d love to know!