Dave Smith as “The Battle of Endor” (click for larger image)
I have known Dave Smith ever since we met at school in the third grade. He was one of my best friends through all the years of high school, and we remained friends while attending separate universities in Texas - even backpacking through Europe together one summer. But, we eventually fell out of touch after I moved away to New York City. Then, almost a decade after that, we got in touch with one another again. After discussing where we both lived and worked and what we had been up to all those years, the highlight of our reunion was when Dave told me he spent a lot of time constructing gigantic, elaborate costumes that represented scenes in science fiction films, and that he traveled all over the country wearing them, competing in front of large crowds at conventions where he won awards. He told me he had one where his whole head was the Death Star 2, with space ships all over his shirt coming at it, called “The Battle of Endor.” I told him to please go on. He then told me about plans to eventually retire the Battle of Endor costume at a show where he could wear it riding a bike down a long ramp into a lake, and have the Death Star head burst into flames while in mid-air, as he detached and escaped into the water. He was sure it would be a crowd-pleaser. You know, it turns out you really can’t imagine what your old childhood friends may be up to after all those years have passed by.
Ever since the beginnings of the celebrated masquerades and costume competitions that naturally spawned out of sci-fi conventions, the unwritten rule has always been that participants would dress as specific characters from films, books, comics, games and television shows. Dave chose instead to stand out by dressing not as the characters, but as the actual films themselves - in bizarre, complex contraptions that blurred the line separating the sci-fi fan from what they might actually be a fan of. Isn’t it the secret dream of every Star Wars fanatic to actually exist INSIDE the movie? I remember that even in grade school, Dave was an enthusiastic and often very vocal Star Wars buff. Personally, I preferred the less popular Logan’s Run. Dave and I would often spend Texas summers, at the age of eight, riding our bikes to 7-11 while engaging in heated arguments about which was a more relevant cinematic work (isn’t that what all kids do?) Well Dave, now that we’re in our thirties… okay, you’ve won. He has told me that these inventions take on chameleon-like attributes at sci-fi convention settings; he’s had to stay on the move amongst crowded exhibition floors, lest someone lean against him thinking he’s part of a display booth. After several years in costume competitions, these creations soon carved Dave an unusual and notable niche in the national sci-fi con circuit (see video link). This isn’t green face paint and glued-on Vulcan ears, or meticulous-to-the-thread recreations of Rutger Hauer’s outfit in Blade Runner. These obsessively detailed, home-spun creations have the markings of a mutational spawn. While still rooted in the world of sci-fi fandom culture, Dave’s costumes seem to lean more towards the surreal aesthetic of Leigh Bowery, or the Dada and Futurist theater costumes of 1920’s Zurich. After all, why be a fan of the movie, when you can actually be the movie? Dave recenly answered some questions for me…
Me: When most people put on a costume, they feel empowered by the concealment, and fall into becoming (or commenting on) whatever the costumes represents. What do you become in these costumes?
Dave T. Smith: Over-heated. Actually, there’s always a sense of freedom that comes from anonymity. Being masked allows for more risks and risque’ conversation with complete strangers. Usually, there’s a lot of ice for me to overcome, but these costumes overtly display my humor and creativity and provides the “street culture” (I define ’street culture’ as pop-culture-lite, knowing the big sci-fi movies that aren’t too obscure - Star Wars works where Brazil would not) a method of almost instant identification. It’s fun to watch people squint at me trying to figure it out, followed shortly by an expression of pleasant surprise.
How did all this get started?
Actually, it began with drafting class in high school, which was in preparation for architecture school. I grew to enjoy working with my hands, plotting perspectives and building actual models, etc. Of course, the business world had moved on to the computer by the time I graduated, mostly with Computer Aided Drafting & Design. Like anything on the computer, CADD is a virtual world - not quite real nor tactile, but very malleable. Real world distances (full scale) are employed but one’s work is locked within the monitor. Then, the hardware is not very portable, and it’s hard for people to relate to CADD work. While this pays the bills, it’s not always satisfying. So it hit me one year, to dust off my architectural modeling skills for Halloween and go as the one Batman character no one else would think to dress as… Gotham City. I spent an entire weekend hitting all the toy aisles and comic book shops collecting miniature figures and vehicles for the project then the next two weeks actually building it. When I left home Halloween night (1994, I think) the street lights painted on the black poncho were still wet.
And you just kept making them?
There were four built in this order: Gotham City, Battle of Endor (Death Star 2), NYC Under Attack and The Land of Oz. I’m inspired by high design and high concept in popular cinema… again, mostly to appeal to the street culture.
Besides conventions and competitions, where else do you use these?
Should Halloween fall on a weekday, I’ve been known to arrive at the office in costume. Also, bigger cities usually have a Halloween street parade. I try to do something every year for Halloween. But, lately I’ve been doing more standard character costumes; Doctor Octopus, Men in Black, a kilted Jedi. I wore Doctor Octopus in San Francisco a few years back, and it was quite popular. An exception to the newer character costumes is the Solar System, which is made from a child’s mobile kit and other materials. As pictured, the Earth is actually a Christmas gift I made for Mom one year; a standard off-the-shelf globe, which I then painted for accurate geography with clouds from satellite photos on the day Hong Kong was transferred back to China - so literally, the costume is the sun is setting on the British Empire.
Any funny stories?
While wearing Gotham, I remember one guy commenting that he “really liked my retaining walls,” of all things to notice. Another looked at me quite defiantly saying, “You can’t do this!” “Too late,” I replied, “I already did.” Also, one Halloween, as the Death Star, a friend of mine was playing drums in a Celtic folk-rock band at Irish pub and I arrived between songs. So he directed everyone’s attention toward me. I noticed the vocalist at the mic was dressed as Princess Leia so I pointed back and told her that I had a prison cell with her name on it, recalling the very first Star Wars movie. As Doctor Octopus, I like to wag a mechanical tentacle at guys saying “I’m a doctor. Turn your head and cough.”
When did you decide to exhibit them at sci-fi conventions?
I used to attend a writer’s crit group with published authors Teresa Patterson, P. N. Elrod and Roxanne Longstreet Conrad, but missed a session while constructing Gotham. A few days after it’s debut, I apologized to Teresa and, after telling her why, she encouraged me to bring it to SoonerCon in Oklahoma City that very weekend. However, I hadn’t put much effort into repairing the costume. That Friday night, I woked late, began early the next morning, then still had to drive the 3.5 hours to the con. So by the time I arrived, registered for a room, the convention and the masquerade, there was barely enough time to eat, unpack and get dressed. Fortunately, as a late addition, they put me in back. That’s when I saw all the production value contestants were putting into their skits. I had nothing but the costume and thought I had already lost. But the MC really played my entry up, “And lastly, we have Dave Smith… aaaaaAAAAHHHHHZZZZZZ… GOTHAAAAMMM CITY!” All four hundred people in the room just gasped at once. Then the laughter and applause just swept across the room as I took the stage. Once up there, I saw Teresa, Pat and Roxanne all sitting at the judge’s table. I was awarded Best In Show. Favoratism aside, I don’t believe the audience would have allowed for anything less given their reaction. A few years later, I learned that the WorldCon was coming to San Antonio (August 1997) and I knew it would be a chance to get a similar reaction from an audience of thousands.
What conventions have you attended and exhibited at?
SoonerCon in Oklahoma City, AggieCon at Texas A&M University (where I met your friend, Starlog founder Kerry O’Quinn), numerous Austin, Houston and Dallas Comic Cons, WorldCon 55, and the following Costume Con 16 in St. Louis, at the behest of my Worldcon performers from Chicago. Once, in Dallas, I was in Death Star 2, and David Prowse (who played Vader in the original Star Wars trilogy) was a guest, there to sell autographs and photos. I was honored when he wanted his photo taken with me instead.
What are some of the awards you’ve won?
Perhaps half a dozen Best-in-Shows at various sci-fi conventions and bar Halloween contests. Gotham City debuted to a prize pack including $50, a watch and a keg party at the awarding club. A year or so later, it won me season tickets to a repertory theater. One time, British Airways was awarding round-trip plane tickets to top five “Space Travelers” while promoting the 20th anniversary of the Concord Fleet. So, I grabbed the Death Star and headed down for the contest. There was a mic which people (mostly wearing last-minute tin foil) could make their case before the judges. So I had to improvise some excuse, “As you can see I’m stuck in geosynchronous orbit five feet above the earth’s surface, and need the plane ride to boost me off of the ground and back toward a galaxy far, far away.” I think I came in third behind some green fuzzy thing on four-foot stilts. Still, I got a trip to Scotland for my efforts that day. The WorldCon masquerade judges awarded me “Most Humorous Presentation” and “Special Recognition for Modeling and Computer Work.” Oh, and recently, Dr. Octopus won a Leia action figure signed by Carrie Fisher.
What can you tell us about the show in the video (link below)?
Well, all my volunteers from home had failed to contact me in San Antonio. During the last minute marathon to finish the NYC and Oz costumes in my hotel room, I had to take time out to patrol the dealer/exhibitor floor, approaching people at random and asking for their help. Eventually, I saw a girl in belly-dancing garb and knew she’d have a sympathetic ear. She gladly volunteered and introduced me to three of her friends who were all ready to participate as well, especially after I offered to buy them all dinner prior to the show. Thanks to the backlog, we made it to my tech rehearsal that afternoon, then met for dinner as promised the next day. Then we gathered all the costumes and formed the most unlikely of parades through the hotel and across a brutally hot street (110 degrees) to the convention center. Hours later, the show finally began and I was thrilled and nervous when my music selection finally started. The monitors weren’t set up properly so two of my crew missed their cues. If I hadn’t needed to enter from the opposite side of the stage, I would’ve been able to push them out from behind the curtains. Still, I wasn’t sure I was connecting with the audience until Godzilla made her appearance and started knocking down all my cities. The audience started screaming with laughter and I remember saying aloud, “It’s worrr-kiiiiing.” But that wasn’t anything compared to the howls that hit when I took the stage as the Death Star and shot Godzilla with my super-laser. I still get a little light-headed when playing the video; thousands of people laughing at me… and in a good way.
Dave Smith at WorldCon 55 in San Antonio, TX (click below for video link)
What do you think of the stereotype of attendees at science fiction/comic book conventions being social misfits with high I.Q.s who spend all their time obsessed with sci-fi/fantasy pop culture creations?
Well by definition, that’s virtually everyone who attends these conventions, at least while they’re attending. But realistically only a small fraction are like that continuously… at least that’s what I tell myself while standing in line to pay for admission.
On the other hand, from films and news coverage that I’ve seen, sci-fi/fantasy conventions seem to be really massive community experiences, there seems to be a lot of bonding, and people seem very friendly and happy. Is this true?
Yes. Even still, I’m on the lunatic fringe of one such fandom community, House Pegasus. They’re a loose association of authors and artists, both pro and amateur. I believe they still gather most every Saturday night but I’m lucky if I make the annual Twelfth Night (after) Christmas Party. So the local conventions allow us all to reconnect beyond the occasional phone call. I also recognize the same thing happening with other groups at the conventions.
The costume competitions at conventions sound like they could be pretty intense. Can competition ever become too competitive, or cut-throat?
Not at all. Everyone is very respectful of each other and interested in each other’s work.
Have there been any disasters while wearing them?
A few close calls, scraped door jambs and bumped signage, but nothing of consequence. Oh, once a dog became very threatening toward Gotham but seemed delighted when I removed the mask to show that I was indeed human.
Do any of the costumes have moving or mechanical parts?
Just simple pivots. Gotham has a cat head that spins atop Shreck’s Department Store (ref. Batman Returns); the Death Star has a door knob mounted to the top of the interior bike helmet allowing me to turn my head while the construction remains stationary on my shoulders. And NYC has spinning airplanes around the Empire State Building mask… attacking King Kong, of course.
Do they take a long time to make? Is it expensive?
It varies. Gotham only took two weeks to assemble, only because I started two weeks before Halloween. I’ve been adding to it as the subsequent movies were released. I know I spent more on the toy figures and vehicles that inhabit the city than on the buildings themselves. Death Star 2 took two weeks to draw in CADD then two months to cut out and assemble. I spent probably $300 on the toy fleets attached to the sleeves… making me a “fully armed and operational battle station.” Turns out, it’s twice as heavy as I had calculated, 35lbs, most of which is on my chest; the backpack frame in back really only provides balance. I’d like to take it to one of the annual Redbull contests and retire it in a blaze of glory, light it on fire then detach myself and abandon it underwater. I would then rebuild it out of a light-weight Hoberman Sphere, keeping the fleet-shirt in tact, of course.
Do you ever get stopped in your tracks by things at a hardware store or toy store and think… “Oh that would make the perfect so-and-so for my so-and-so costume?”
All the time. Much of my best work comes from found items, funnels, tennis balls, circuit boards, measuring spoons, clock parts, etc. The Riddler’s island is probably the best example of this.
Is it still a hobby?
It once was… before the colossal time waster that is a home internet connection (witness, your readers reading all this.) Also, if I’m not at home by 8pm, I’ll go into college-party mode and stay up until 2 or 3am, easy (as sung by The The; ‘I’ve got too much energy, to switch off my mind, But not enough, to get organized…’) Then, work will be zombie-hell for the remainder of the week. So home by 8 but I’m not ready to sleep, then on with the television but I just can’t sit there only watching, so I find creative things to do with my hands during the evening. Last December, I completed a tribute to 2010; a LEGO model of both the Discovery and Leonov.
Not quite. In college, there was talk of architecture students attending the annual Beuz Arts Ball dressed in Greek column costumes or as a single building. Then, there’s a famous cabaret in San Francisco with elaborate architectural headpieces. One year at SoonerCon, I remember a young father wearing an Empire State Building comprised of a pointed hat, large slabs of foam with painted vertical stripes and holding his infant son in a gorilla costume.
What do you look like under all that stuff?
I look like this.
Okay, for argument’s sake, let’s fantasize a bit: let’s say you’re offered the chance at eternal life. However, the catch is that you must live forever in the reality of a science fiction film or story, say Star Wars or whatever. Would you say yes, and if so, what film or story?
Unless it were some truly utopian scenario, like Oz without the witches or a future where fusion worked, desaliniation was cheap and every possible medical problem could be easily recognized and cured, probably not. Realistically, I’d just be trading one set of problems for another. I mean, given the choice of living in relative freedom or under the brutal tyranny of a galactic empire, I’ll choose the here and now. Besides, eternal life would be hell without eternal youth. Would Baum allow vampires in Oz? I think by extension of witches that he would, but then I’d be destroying the very utopia I sought to achieve. What kind of Mobius-loop question is that anyway?
Again, for argument’s sake: if you were going to rob a bank with one of these costumes, which would it be?
Yow, I don’t know. Those that are light enough to allow for a quick get-away are facially too revealing. With 85 layers (radius) of alternating chip and cardboard, Death Star 2 might be bullet proof from certain angles though.
If you were the leader of a street gang in The Warriors, and these costumes were your gang’s costumes… what would the name of your gang be, and which costume would you wear as their leader?
The Flammables. I’d probably dress as Gotham so as to have some measure of urban camouflage. I worked the movie opening of Batman Forever in Dallas, and some patrons didn’t even recognize me as a living object at first.
If you could have any one superpower, what would it be?
Nudist flight… like in Thanks and So Long For All The Fish by Doug Adams.
If you made a costume from a scene in your own real life… what would that costume look like?
First off, I’d have to leave my face exposed, or make a Dave mask, but I’d have various components representing an artist’s studio worn about my body, drafting board, easel, supply cart, pencil/brush holder, one helluva messy desk. Then I’d have multiple arms growing from around my chest, each one doing something different; typing on a laptop, drawing with CADD on a desktop, sculpting a miniature Michelangelo’s David from LEGO, painting, sketching, holding a portable phone, holding a beer (probably my dad’s homebrew), etc.
If you could do a costume of any kind from a film that WASN’T sci-fi, fantasy, super-action or horror - you know just a film about regular people or whatever, what would it be and why?
Hmmm. I don’t know if I’ve actually seen any movies about regular people, except for maybe The Queen and one can hardly consider royalty “normal.” Perhaps I’d choose Waiting For Guffman. The right hand/arm could hold the town square while the mask would be the stage… probably with the little fake alien singing and the torso would be all the rows of theatre seats filled with diminishing scales of action figures to create false perspective. Then just to make a point, the left hand would hold a recreation of the pathetic empty shop at the end where the protagonist (Christopher Guest) was trying to sell a Remains of the Day lunch box “to make the kids happy.”
Let’s say you were funded $1 million to develop a costume like this with no limits. What would you do? (you have to spend the money on a costume).
First, I’d hire myself as a design/construction consultant ($5K an hour should do it) then start the planning stages in CADD. I’d construct a detailed costume based on Aliens; you know, Syd Mead versus H. R. Gieger. Heck, I might even hire the both of them as consultants too, just for the privilege of working with them. While I’m at it, let’s bring Stan Winston on board to build it for me. The costume would represent the whole movie with Gateway Station in one hand, the Sulaco model (available via Hobby-Link Japan) traveling through space along the same arm, the drop ship hanging from a black string. Then a cut-away of the terra-form base would comprise the sandwich board with the power plant for a mask. It could even be made to “explode” with hinged sides. Then, in the other hand, the Sulaco landing bay for the showdown between Ripley and the Alien Queen, maybe with a spring loaded airlock for the Queen to drop through. Of course, there would be plenty of alien figures, lights and perhaps an iPod continuously playing the soundtrack. Then, whatever money is left would go to 20th Century Fox for the rights to play the soundtrack in public. By the time the lawyers are done with it, I’m sure that alone could soak up a cool mil.
Any movie scene/set costume ideas you had that never came into being?
- Blade Runner, with the big floating blimp as a mask. I bought a foot-long Spinner model with Ford and Olmos figures sculpted into the seats for this purpose.
- Times Square (basically a different mask for NYC, with a little ball that drops to wear for New Years Eve). Also, I wanted to adapt a large golf umbrella into one of the saucers from ID4.
- Dealy Plaza during the Kennedy Assassination. After visiting the Sixth Floor Museum, I saw where the School Book Depository would make the perfect mask, Love Field would be in one hand and the Texas Movie Theater would be in the other.
- Also, I’ve just remembered that I need to add sky above the Emerald City mask, with “Surrender Dorothy” written in black airbrush.
What are some of the other things you do?
Write, watercolors, LEGO (also here), HTML code, 3D CADD modeling, Photoshop, handcrafting film action figures, my ongoing Caption This! site - whatever keeps my fingers busy and allows for the expression of ideas. Currently, I’m focused on adapting my 90’s attempt at a sci-fi saga into a graphic novel with an illustrator friend of mine. We also collaborated on a parody comic book pitting Batman (Batguy actually, to avoid legal issues) versus Joel Schumacher as a Bat-villain named The Franchise Killer (a fandom term for his killing Warner Brother’s franchise). Thus, Batman was not the real target but it became a vehicle for social commentary. In one scene, after Joel has burned nipples into the Batguy’s breastplate, Batguy is scolding him, “You’ve forgotten that we’re trying to market to kids here.” At the same time, Batguy is shaking a can of beer (branded Brew Swain) to spray as a distraction, but on the side of the can, there’s Joe Camel with a frosty mug in his hand. For the 2008 election, I’d like to publish, if only on the web, Batguy verses Washington. Basically, the White House is floating up the Eastern seaboard, literally up for grabs and four titans emerge to chase it down: Elephemme, Donkey-OT, Ramzees (Lib) and the Cagey-Bee (representing the communist party in America.) Lately, I’ve often thought about making a deconstructivist film whereby I’d splice together old movies and/or their remakes with footage and music from other sources as appropriate from the dialogue… perhaps in an attempt to recreate (or sometimes twist) the writer’s original vision. I think Lord of the Flies would make a good project, given the references in U2’s early albums. Of course this would blatantly violate many copyrights, but I believe deconstruction is all about being blatant (by the way, anyone care to donate a working video toaster?)
Take a peek at some of Dave’s drawings for the costumes: The Batcave (1, 2), Death Star 2 (1), Gotham City (1, 2), JFK Assassination (1).
As well as some CADD designs: Death Star 2 (1, 2) NYC (1), Oz (1).