How can I make space suits for a low-budget film?
May 7, 2013 10:05 PM   Subscribe

I have signed on to provide costumes for a microbudget film. I've done this before, but all I did was thrifting and light modification; this time, we need space suits.

It's far-future sci-fi, set on a gritty rebel ship. We need five suits -- three with a patchy, clunky, much-used look, two more with a sleeker futuristic one. There's no way to re-use the suits across characters, as both of these groups of characters appear onscreen together.

I am the only person they can find -- the local film community is not large -- but this is far beyond my powers. I can do a craft I'm taught, but I've never made anything on this scale before, and I am not a designer. I can sew, minimally, with help.

I'm looking for advice on materials and techniques I could use to make the suits. My feeling is that, between my technical skills and our budget (not finalized, but assumed to be as low as it can possibly be), what we'll want to do is modify existing items -- but I need to think much further outside the box than "motorcycle gear painted silver," since the things need to stand up to much more than a Halloween level of scrutiny.
posted by thesmallmachine to Media & Arts (10 answers total) 15 users marked this as a favorite
Have you ever seen "Dark Star"? It's legendary for being low budget. You can see how John Carpenter did it.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 10:22 PM on May 7, 2013 [2 favorites]

Best answer: I think this craft foam armour tutorial can get you pretty far.

In fact, I'd do most of my research based on cosplay of specific characters that have the vibe you're going for, as those folks are serious about quality repro.
posted by batmonkey at 10:30 PM on May 7, 2013 [1 favorite]

This might help: The Prop Builder's Molding & Casting Handbook

Along with casting resins in rubber molds, it includes quite a bit on Vacuum Forming of thin plastic sheet stock around 'stuff' to make props out of the plastic sheet, using your oven and vacuum cleaner to do shape the stuff. Said props can get pretty elaborate.

A cabinetmaker or hobbyist can help build up props from thicker cut parts of styrene.

Making a rubber mold and casting resin props in it is a bit fussy, and mistakes are expensive. Do it with some handholding - either an internet forum or a local guru.

You may want to rope in a few artist-types, which might include bringing pads of paper to the film folk and doing a design-night. Or 'Oh, I'm a wood-worker, I'll help do up the prop for the vacuformed backpack.'

I'd google "space suit cosplay build" by the way.
posted by sebastienbailard at 11:12 PM on May 7, 2013

I was also going to suggest looking into cosplay resources.

Here are some examples of people's space-suit-y costumes that I found with a quick Google search (they all have at least some information on construction).

You might also be able to use zentai suits as a base for the sleeker costumes.
posted by topoisomerase at 11:13 PM on May 7, 2013

Best answer: Looking at an old school astronaut suit recently, it occurred to me that you could actually make a pretty decent mockup with duct tape. Seriously, something like this isn't really so different from something like this. Somebody made an old school white astronaut suit with duct tape here. A nice-looking, kid-sized version is here.

Looking at this guy's suit, it seems like if you get something like a white painter's suit, you'll be halfway there. Here's another old school astronaut look. It looks like it wouldn't be too hard to throw together. A white painter's suit, some patches, a few extra pockets sewn on, etc.

Of course, it doesn't have to be white or silver. Duct tape comes in lots of cool colors!

This page might inspire you a little. A lot of these suits feature the kind of tubing you could pick up cheap at Home Depot.

You could maybe get by with some motorcycle helmets with little bits of junkyard scrap hot glued to them, but that might look too junky. Or maybe you could find some clear plastic bowls at the 99 cent store and mod them. 99 cent stores are a goldmine for cheap props. Everything looks clean and mass-produced, but it's cheap to buy and poorly-made so it's not so hard to pick apart for the parts you need.

Alternately, this guy got very impressive results making a Master Chief armor out of cardboard. Maybe you could adapt some of his techniques.

Maybe this stuff doesn't sound like it'd stand up to close-ups, but I'd suggest experimenting with it.

I am so, so envious. I must have been a costume and props person a past life, this stuff gets me way too excited and I have zero outlet for it these days. I'm struggling to resist the impulse to make this post 40 paragraphs long.
posted by Ursula Hitler at 11:18 PM on May 7, 2013

Here's another site where people post their costumes.

You might have luck looking into Iron Man, Samus, and Zero Suit Samus builds in particular. They all sort of do the "futuristic space suit" thing.
posted by topoisomerase at 11:23 PM on May 7, 2013

Best answer: If they have no budget why aren't they trying to figure out how to make this scene work with only one space suit?

OK, that said, all a space suit needs to do is hold about 5 psi and allow you to bend your limbs without having to go to the effort of compressing that 5 psi. (You're obviously don't have to be capable of this, but understand that you could make such a device out of zip lock bags and duct tape if you really really had to.)

For your sleek modern looking suit, I'd recommend looking at what Dava Newman has been doing. From the outside, it's a quilted jumpsuit with some funky laces.

For your gritty stuff, look at some of the older suits, particularly some of the Soviet stuff. Build a baggy suit out of something like trigger and attach things to it. Big bulky connector rings at the writsts and ankles bands of PVC pipe. Armor plates (bits of plastic). Big knee pads. Tons of little carry bags and holsters. Also, you can hide a lot of flaws and give you rebels a ton of character by painting their suits up in some sort of personal heraldry stroke dazzle camouflage.

And apparently acrylic domes are cheaper than I thought.
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 11:35 PM on May 7, 2013

Best answer: Can you get away with flight suits for the main body of the costume? Maybe with a more technical helmet and lots of buttons and lights and hoses and such for effect?

For the scruffy vs. futuristic looks, pick one traditional blue collar navy or gray coverall (along the lines of what the engineering types on BSG wore), and one in a brighter color or maybe white. Dirty up the "blue collar" flight suit. Keep the bright one crisp, and maybe add sleeker details while the scruffy suit gets kludgy ones.

Protip: for all the suggestions of duct tape above, use gaff or spike tape instead. It'll look less duct tapey, but accomplish the same task. Then again, maybe for the scruffy suit, go with duct tape but let it actually be duct tape. Get the dull grey kind.
posted by Sara C. at 11:53 PM on May 7, 2013 [1 favorite]

Just for visual reference, there were some great close-ups of some of the real NASA spacesuits in the recent post about the NASA training pool, and the article gives some description of things the astronauts must take into account when learning to move in zero-g, constraints that are built into the suits, etc. (So might also be useful for the film project/actors)
posted by LobsterMitten at 12:11 AM on May 8, 2013

Best answer: something like this isn't really so different from something like this.

You know, a friend of mine who was in an apparel design program made convincing replicas of the original(slightly sparkly) star trek uniforms, and loves to make super futurey stuff out of fabric that looked exactly like that suit.

She didn't have a whole lot of money, and always managed to track down that kind of fabric at those "DISCOUNT FABRIC WAREHOUSE!" places in the industrial district.

For all the hoses, valves, etc i'd hit goodwill, then one of those "we sell used tools and bizarre old industrial stuff" eclectic shops if your town has one. Those kinds of nozzles are on collapsible flasks/water bottles, vacuum sealable(and those closet "collapse with your vacuum cleaner!") bags, certain coconut milk packaging... pick one individual tiny component of a space suit you like in a picture and go "what looks similar to that one item that i could get for cheap, free, or from the garbage". You will be surprised at what in that picture you'd have laying around the house once you have the silver fabric. and a helmet.

I built a time machine for scifi class in highschool that looked really cool entirely from thrift store stuff, for about $20. Thrift store is definitely the place to go until you absolutely can't find things there that you need to flesh out details. I would get some silvered shiny fabric as per that picture, some cowboy boots, thin hardboard(stapled on backing of old tv stands!), belts, 3/4 or "hybrid" motorcycle helmets and go crazy.

For convincing badges, go to one of those "custom baseball cap while you wait!" places in the mall and just bring them a piece of black denim or something.

I would take a bet without the expectation of there being even a tiny chance i would lose that i could make a fairly decent replica of that suit for $50.

Google how to make paint look distressed, it's not hard to spray paint something and then get it to flake off to another color/finish you had underneath, nor to create rub marks/scuffs, get fabric decently convincingly dirty, etc.

The new "futuristic" suits could be much simpler too. Ditch the valves and hoses, and get some new-style motorcycle jackets from a thrift store(i've several just at the one near my work lately). You know, the ones with the random chunks of armor that are made out of mesh. A lot of these have external exoskeletons on the back which look awesome. just greek the logos, stripes, etc. Maybe cut away some of the mesh to show a thinner "inner suit" underneath? That plus something like a modified downhill cycling/motocross type helmet would look pretty halo-ish and futuristic. Modified thin ski/snowboard pants and something to look like the offset kneepads of a motorcycle track suit would look pretty damn futuristic. Add in some basic gloves, and add cheap chunky plastic zippers between the gloves and the suit and bam. Oh, painted snowboard boots would work great for that version too.

I'd up the budget i bet i could do a good, not department store halloween costume looking "futuristic" suit to go with the decent-quality beat up/old style suit a bit, but not that much. I would rely on almost everything being thrift store sourced and having to be painted/altered a lot though.

I'm clear you said you're trying to avoid motorcycle gear painted silver, but i'm someone of limited sewing knowledge but who's fairly crafty who has made/helped make this kind of stuff before for random projects/with friends. The main trick here is to not use any duct tape or metallic paints, not to avoid using that kind of stuff. And definitely, use a mix of things from different sources. The thrift store near me recently had a bunch of old beat up dive gear, and some of that stuff would be *great*. Especially the big gauges that strap on to your arm(which they wanted like, $3.99 for!)...

I almost wish i was near you, this sounds like a fun project.
posted by emptythought at 2:07 AM on May 8, 2013 [1 favorite]

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