5 Insane Realities Of A Professional Costumed Stormtrooper
One of the great tragedies of life is that by the time you're old enough to afford the toys you dreamed of having as a kid, it's no longer socially acceptable to play with them. For instance, every young Star Wars fan has dreamed of owning an actual, real suit of Stormtrooper armor (only hopefully a little more blaster-proof than what was portrayed in the films). But what would you think of an adult who paid thousands of dollars for such a thing? Or an entire subculture of said adults?
They exist, and we talked to one of them. Brian Robinson (aka TK-2918) has devoted his life (or, at least, his spare time) to building and wearing screen-accurate Stormtrooper gear. He told us ...
It's A Borderline Insane Investment Of Time And Money
When there's a big Star Wars movie premiere or event, they'll line the red carpet with a phalanx of people in authentic Stormtrooper gear, probably because it looks cool as shit.
Like a paparazzi lineup, except that a photographer can usually shoot their intended target.
If you've thought about them at all, you either assumed they were professional actors/extras hired by the studio, or that they popped out of a cloning vat in George Lucas' basement.
You're half right: They're not clones, but Lucas totally has one of those vats.
The reality is actually more interesting. Those Stormtroopers, like our source Brian, are part of the 501st Legion, a fan-run costuming conglomerate that Lucasfilm rings up whenever they need to produce an imperial butt-ton of walking, talking Star Wars villains. Mentions of the 501st Legion in Star Wars media such as the Clone Wars TV series are actually a "wink wink, nudge nudge" to the organization, which was created under that name in 1997 and today has over 8,000 active members in more than 100 "garrisons," from Alabama to Slovakia.
And, keep in mind, each of those people has likely poured thousands of dollars into their costumes. "At the high end," says Brian, "you have costumes such as Boba Fett and Darth Vader, which can run upwards of $5,000, are very complex, and which sometimes take years to locate the correct parts." What, you thought you could rent film-quality gear from a costume shop? Oh, no -- if you're joining the Legion, you're taking on a part-time job that will consume a significant part of your life.
Which is a hell of a lot more than the actual designer put into it.
Part of the hassle is that, since the organization isn't officially part of Lucasfilm or Disney, they operate under a sort of "don't ask, don't tell" policy by restricting all of the buying and selling of armor kits to members-only boards -- selling the stuff openly would be a trademark violation. Somewhere in your neighborhood there might be a guy with a full-blown old-school Hollywood prop-making studio in his garage, but he can't go around advertising the fact for fear of Lucasfilm dispatching an Order 66 via copyright lawyers. "While sculpting your own molds and building your own vacuum-forming apparatus is an option for those who have the time and talent to do so, the vast majority of people purchase kits from a handful of well-known vendors who have already made the large investment (typically tens of thousands of dollars and hundreds of labor hours) in setting up the infrastructure."
If thousands for a costume seems like a lot to explain to a skeptical spouse,
try justifying an injection molder.
So now that you've got your "Better than what some of the actual extras were wearing" Stormtrooper armor, what do you do? Well, that's the other part of the "job." Brian says, "I participate in about a dozen events a year, ranging from very large national/international-level events that draw hundreds of Legion costumers and tens of thousands of fans, to very small localized events, such as library reading promotions where there may be only two or three of us and less than a hundred fans. That doesn't include the time spent building and maintaining costumes and communicating. ... works out to about 20 hours a week."
And no, they don't get paid. So why do they do it? That's part of what we're here to find out. Because on top of the time and expense ...
The Costume Requirements Are Similarly Insane
Did you know there's a difference between an Empire Strikes Back Stormtrooper and a New Hope Stormtrooper (which is further broken down into "Stunt" and "Hero" categories), and that none of those are quite the same as a Return Of The Jedi Stormtrooper? The 501st Legion does, and they're damned serious about getting it precisely right. "The process for establishing the guidelines for a Legion costume -- what the Legion calls a 'Costume Reference Library' -- is outlined in Section 6 of the Legion's 'Operations Protocol.'"
Have you ever thought about the proper bulge curvature
of a Stormtrooper's codpiece? They have.
If that sounds both haughtier and more complex than Grand Moff Tarkin's jawline, that's because it is. "For a new-to-the-Legion costume, we require at least three separate and detailed references for it to be considered for inclusion. Those references can come from a number of sources, from actual screen-stills to photos and illustrations in various print media -- even from toys and other collectibles that are considered detailed enough to accurately portray the costume as it would look in 'real life.' So, yes, for some of the more well-documented costumes, we have enthusiasts that will freeze-frame every scene in which the character appears and document the tiniest of details."
Even characters so obscure you forgot they were even in the movies have strict requirements.
So what happens when someone says the top left button on Darth Vader's chest-box is azure, while someone else swears it's more of an admiral blue (and then that one bastard over in the corner wails, "Greeeen!")? "Bickering happens all the time. We have 'detachments' set up for each major type of costume, where the devoted fans of that costume gather and discuss, debate, and sometimes get into heated arguments over the smallest details. But in the end, we all want the same thing: a costume standard that is both readily achievable and faithfully represents the portrayed character." Also, the ability to do a bona fide Force choke. They probably want that, too.
Even The Best Stormtrooper Needs Help (With Butt-Plate Emergencies)
Let's do a quick visual demonstration. Ready? Here goes:
"Hey, my eyes are ... down ... here."
See where the eye holes are, compared to his actual eyes? Yeah. We can imagine that a "real" Stormtrooper helmet would pack the most badass heads-up display that '70s vector graphics technology had to offer, but in a real-world replica, you're trying to view the world by way of your bitchin' hair wings. So transforming into a convincing, movie-accurate Stormtrooper takes more than simply slapping on some armor -- you also must possess some rudimentary acting abilities. Acting like you can see, for example. Or hear. Or like you're not slowly roasting like a sweat-basted turkey to be served up at Vader's Christmas Jubilee.
"It gets really hot, especially when trooping events such as the annual Dragon Con Parade in Atlanta every Labor Day weekend. The costumes can chafe in some very unpleasant places. In fact, we have procedures in place whose goal is to prevent such things -- we call it our 'Trooper Survival Guide.'"
Which might give some idea why few people opt for the Snowtrooper uniform.
That's also why they rely on non-costumed "handlers" to act as their eyes and ears and, sometimes, bodyguards. "You'd be surprised how limited our visibility and range of motion is and how many assholes there are out there who would take advantage of it to steal costume parts (especially blasters) assault costumed members. ... Fortunately, these types are only a small percentage of the people we run across, and an experienced handler can spot a potential troublemaker a mile away and act accordingly."
"Act accordingly" in this case meaning "fire up the interrogation droid (again)."
There's also the fact that if, say, the crotch plate of your costume goes flying off in the middle of a televised promotional event, you're about to be the star of the most embarrassing YouTube clip since Star Wars Kid. And everyone is just seconds away from such a disaster:
"We have our share of costume mishaps, most of them pretty hilarious. Our costumes are quite intricate, with lots of hidden strapping systems to keep them on our bodies, and some of our members have actually become notorious for experiencing regular 'armor malfunctions' -- often at the worst possible time. For instance, right before a major photo shoot or a televised parade where we will be seen by an audience of millions. It's also why most experienced troopers and handlers carry a field repair kit consisting of items like duct tape, quick-setting glue, self-adhering Velcro, etc. You never know when you'll need to make a field repair -- as I had to do at Star Wars Celebration earlier this year when my Stormtrooper butt-plate literally fell off right before a major photo shoot. Thank goodness for a quick-reacting handler and a roll of white duct tape!"
"I find your lack of underpants disturbing."
If you feel like we not only have failed to answer the "Why do they do it?" question but that in fact you now find yourself asking it louder and angrier than before, well ...
It Becomes An Addiction
Let's face it: There's a certain stigma attached to those who spend their spare time dressing up as characters from their favorite fictional universe.
This, however? Completely normal.
But despite what you may have assumed up to this point in the article, Brian isn't some social inept living in his mom's basement. He's a literal rocket scientist who just so happens to like Star Wars a whole, whole lot. "Ever since the original movie came out in 1977 I've wanted an accurate-looking set of Stormtrooper armor. In January of 2007, the 501st Legion was featured in the Rose Parade (with George Lucas as the grand marshal). You can imagine the impact of seeing 200 Stormtroopers marching in formation on live television."
Said impact evidently ranked somewhere between that of cocaine and heroin. As Brian put it, "The addiction level is quite high. ... Personally, I have owned six different Legion-quality costumes since 2008. Others have owned far more than me -- at least a dozen or more. My current lineup is a classic Stormtrooper from The Empire Strikes Back, a Snowtrooper from the same movie, and my most recent build is the new Stormtrooper from The Force Awakens. The closest thing I can describe to stepping into a new character is that indescribable feeling you get when driving a brand-new car off the lot for the first time."
And very soon after that is when you find ...
Sick Kids Love The Hell Out Of Stormtroopers
This isn't just about nerding-out in expensive cosplay. You realize that the first time you help make some sick child's day.
"Make-A-Wish is one of the charitable organizations we are most affiliated with, because, well, what kid doesn't like Star Wars? My most memorable charity event just so happened to be a Make-A-Wish event where we helped present a custom-built, Star Wars-themed clubhouse to a very sick 11-year-old boy, back in 2011. CNN even covered it -- I'm the tall Stormtrooper with the modulated voice at the 0:50 mark in the video."
And speaking of children, Weird Al Yankovic is an official "Friend of the Legion."
"He's an incredibly down-to-earth guy and a true fan -- he even made an appearance at Star Wars Celebration in Anaheim this past April as just another fan. Wherever he goes on tour, he enlists the Legion, usually requesting Darth Vader and eight to 10 Stormtroopers as 'backup dancers' on stage for two of his Star Wars parody songs."
"I trooped two of Weird Al's four Virginia appearances this year, and I had a great time. At the one in Newport News, we brought in an 8-year-old girl who was bullied for being a girl who liked Star Wars. While she was too young to be on stage with the rest of us, she still got to meet Weird Al -- while wearing a custom-fitted set of Stormtrooper armor."
She was the most adorable Stormtrooper since Han donned the armor in '77.
So, yeah, there really are worse ways to spend your time.
For more insider perspectives, check out The 5 Most Impractical Aspects Of Superhero Costumes and 5 Dark Realities Of Animating Shows Like 'The Simpsons'.
Also, follow us on Facebook, where we're building our grand army of cyborgs from Space Odyssey.