Whenever I receive an email saying I don’t have work experience, I’m too nice to tell them they’re wrong. They’re just not looking in the right place. In nearly every cover letter I write, I make a point to mention my volunteer work with The 501st Legion, for good reason: My handling and costume building with this incredible group of individuals has taught me more about the skills necessary to succeed in any workplace.
To be a good leader, you have to be a great follower. When my neighbors persuaded me to join, I was terrified from the get-go about meeting the Legion’s strict costuming standards. These costumes are officially representing Lucasfilm, which means professional-quality standards and replicated to the best of our abilities. So I started out as a handler, standing on the sidelines at events and learning how to be a marketing spokesperson for the people under the helmets. In addition, I had to help assemble Darth Vader, Bobba Fett, Stormtroopers, even Jawas – anyone who needed help getting into their suits, which added to understanding the inner workings of these incredible pieces.
Don’t be afraid to fail or set the bar too high. I committed to building a 501st approved costume for 2015 – but which one? With the upcoming Force Awakens movie set for the end of 2015, plans evolved from building not just one costume (villain Kylo Ren), but two (female protagonist Rey). Only problem? Neither of these costumes had guidelines, or as we call them CRLs, which meant the difficulty level was set on maximum. You never knew what would be decided upon once 501st officials had their CRLs set. So if we built them one way before the movie released and standards changed? It would mean even more time and money to alter or rebuild.
You can’t BS your way through without research, or the willingness to do the research. The research for these two costumes was over 7 months’ worth of scrutinizing promotional photos, waiting anxiously for new images or video, and downloading trailers and videos to save high-quality screenshots of the costumes from every angle. I checked on forums daily with fellow costumers who were also researching, taking photos at Star Wars Celebration events of the costumes at every angle and every detail. We debated for days (sometimes months) about whether there were buttons down the front of Rey’s tunic, or just how many layers Kylo Ren was wearing. But in the end, the research was a team effort and continued beyond the movie’s release so we could build, improve, and approve the best Kylo and Rey we could achieve.
Budget accordingly, and don’t settle for less. When we researched Kylo Ren’s costume, there was a photo of a plaque stating each layer and what that layer was made of. Some were very vague (like his denim pants), while others simply didn’t exist in stores (like the top coat’s black basket weave coated cotton). Knowing we didn’t have the skills to build his helmet, we budgeted for the helmet one month, and saved up for the fabric that was being reproduced by a 501st member with a UK mill later. For Rey, we used electrical and plumbing pieces to replicate it as best we could rather than go over budget for a 3D printed staff. However, we did go with accuracy regardless of price for her side bag, a shortened 1937 British Army signals satchel with an Alice clip added.
Time management is a must. With a December deadline looming, I had to spend weekends working on the costumes while spending my weekdays dedicated to graduate school, a master’s thesis, and my lab manager position. And by working, I mean spending hundreds of hours editing costume patterns, sewing fabric, leather dyeing Rey’s belt, and tea-staining fabrics to the right color. Luckily, I am smart enough to know my limits, so while I took on the majority of the sewing, we recruited another 501st recruit to help sew the pleats of Kylo’s under tunic.
Never. Give. Up. I’m speaking literally when I say I poured my blood, sweat and tears into Kylo Ren. I stressed over cutting into the basket weave fabric we could not afford to replace if I made a mistake. I cried when I worried about disappointing my Kylo because we weren’t ahead of schedule. And I even bled when late one evening with less than 72 hours to go, I ended up with a broken sewing needle in my finger. For me, that last bit was the least traumatizing of my trials and tribulations since I’ve been sewing since I was 7 and remember my mother needing stitches after one mishap with a rotary cutter. I just slapped a Band-Aid on my finger and went back to sewing – and was sewing right up till the morning of the movie’s premiere.
Changes are not the end of the world; embrace mistakes, learn from them, and adapt. Kylo Ren was approved in March 2016 without any modifications needed, a testament to the research, hours of labor, and meticulous work we put into the costume. My Rey is currently in the re-evaluation process after suggestions were made by the Rebel Legion judges. In many ways, I’m grateful that I made mistakes with Rey: It made me look even closer at the details in my reference photos, and I learned that I take constructive criticism surprisingly well. I agreed with their suggestions, I inquired about ones I wasn’t sure of, and went right back to work improving Rey until it was better than ever.
Professional work experience or getting a paycheck does not equal work ethic. I was not paid to build these costumes, but the lessons learned and joy we experience at appearances is more fulfilling than any paycheck, project, or campaign could ever give us. I’m too busy making children smile to worry about an HR employee’s assumptions of me based on a piece of paper. So stop telling me I don’t have the work experience, and tell me about how I can work for you.