It's known as "cosplay", and a small studio in Spiddal, Co Galway, has become an international hub for it. Whether it's Wonder Woman, Batman or Darth Malgus, the attraction of taking on a second skin has kept Julian Checkley very much in business.
First coined by Japanese show producer Nobuyuki Takahashi in 1984, the term “cosplay” or “costume playing” might once have applied to a subculture with a penchant for stretching Halloween to a year-round activity, dressing up as favourite characters from comics, games, books, television and film.
However, social outcasts and geek fandom are now very much in, and there are plenty of Irish cosplay enthusiasts among the many thousands of participants who attend international conventions.
“I’ve been amazed by the different backgrounds of people who come here looking for outfits,” says Checkley. “Perhaps it’s a form of escapism from reality, but whatever it is, there are people who are willing to put their hard-earned savings into becoming their favourite superhero.”
He is talking in the Spiddal premises of his Order 66 Creatures and Effects studio, overlooking a tranquil Galway Bay in south Connemara. He and his colleague Kamil Krawczak are putting the finishing touches to a lifesize Predator, complete with dreadlocks, from the 1987 sci-fi film starring Arnold Schwarzenegger. The client – whose identity is confidential – will pay €10,000-€12,000 for the film-quality costume. As they work, the pair are watched over by an 8ft Star Wars Wookiee, an even taller Petunia the Tauntaun from The Empire Strikes Back, and an array of gruesome visages, ranging from the bald female dark jedi Asajj Ventress to Darth Vader and clones of French electronic duo Daft Punk.
Their materials for sculpting, painting and moulding range from dental alginate and foam latex to all sorts of recycled materials. They also import boxes of Afro-Caribbean hairpieces, which they lace into scuba-diving netting for monster fur. The advent of 3D printing has revolutionised the designs from which moulds can be made.
Masks and lightsabers
Some 75 per cent of their business is for masks, but they also do props such as the ever-popular lightsabers. Also employed at the studio is seamstress Mary Mundy from Moycullen, while Paul and Annas Black from Cantina Costumes assist with large contracts.
Checkley grew up "mad about Star Wars". He wanted to study special effects, and found himself on a beauty-therapy course at the London School of Fashion. He dropped out of that after two years, signed up with the Bristol Old Vic Theatre School and then "knocked on every studio door in and around London looking for work".
Creating Mesozoic monsters for the BBC television series Walking with Dinosaurs and its equally successful Walking with Beasts were among his early assignments. "We'd have palaeontologists coming in regularly to check that we were anatomically accurate, so it was terrific training," says Checkley.
He then moved into film, with Star Wars and Harry Potter on his CV, set up a model shop and art-directed several productions. At one point, he was recreating Dr Who costumes that had been destroyed in a fire; but he never made a Dalek.
The growth in cosplay was such that Checkley soon realised he could replace anti-social hours on film sets with hours “playing” in his own studio on individual commissions.
"Bet he hasn't told you that he actually turned down work on Star Wars and Prometheus," Krawczak says.
Checkley met his wife at the Roger Corman studios in Connemara more than a decade ago; within several years, they were both living in the west of Ireland.
Soon the work was coming in from the LucasFilm Star Wars museum, from international buyers, and from Irish members of the Emerald Garrison Star Wars costuming club. Women constitute about 40 per cent of his customers, Checkley says, adding that he believes that's why "it has become mainstream".
‘Celebrated art form’
Order 66 Creatures and Effects has just been profiled in a new book on the subject, Cosplay World, which describes the phenomenon as a "celebrated art form".
As Brian Ashcraft and Luke Plunkett note in their book's introduction, it was a newspaper that inspired the world's first science-fiction comic star. Cartoonist AD Condo created a "bumbling anthropologist", Mr Skygack from Mars, for a comic strip syndicated to newspapers throughout North America in 1907. Three years later, a man who had borrowed a Skygack costume to advertise his ice-skating rink in Tacoma, Washington, was arrested on charges of public masquerading and released with a $10 bail fee.
Checkley and Krawczak used Spiddal pier with a moody blue Atlantic backdrop for their photographs for the book.
The company is also about to engage in a reality television series for an international channel. And orders are flying out the door. One of Checkley’s greatest thrills is “getting to put one of these costumes on from time to time”. He has a particular affection for the Wookiee.