Sunday, October 27, 2013

How to get the most out of a Costume Contest

This article isn't "How to Win", it's "How to have fun". Yes, winning can be really fun, but it's also a very ephemerial, uncontrollable thing. It requires you to judge yourself, your costume, and your skit/presentation very objectively and figure out how to best present them in the contest you're working with. I'll teach you how to do that here. However, winning also requires a bit of the unknown. In order to craft your entry to WIN you'd have to critique not only your own entry, but everyone else's entry. This is risky, because you never know who will enter against you, and how well-framed their entries will be. So we're going to talk about you, and what you can do and control, to get the most out of your costume contest experience. And hey, if having a good time brings prizes along, who are we to complain?

In order to get the most out of a costume contest you need to do some research. How much you do depends on you, how well you want to do, and what kind of a reaction you want.

The first research should be into you and your costumes. What kind of costumes do you like to wear? What kind of contests do you like to enter? What is your reason for entering the contest in the first place? Think about these objectively. If you are a handsewing nut and want to show off your neat craftsmanship, you're creating a totally different contest approach than someone who mostly buys or thrift-stores costumes but loves to get the crowd roaring. Think deeply about what you do, why you do it, and why you want to enter the contest (remember, "I wanna win" isn't an option).

Then do some research into your contest venue. At the minimum ask someone on the forums, in email, or in person what the contest is like. There are tons of different contest formats, and none of them are welcoming to all kinds of costumes. You've got to figure out what kind of contest you are entering, and figure out if it works well with your contest approach. For example, Costume Con Masquerades concentrate a lot on costume craft and skill. There's even an additional workmanship component for those people who REALLY like to show off their costuming skills. However, because of their concentration on craft, people who thrift-store or commission costumes for really great skits aren't going to be as welcome. Conversely, DragonCon's main masquerade is all about the skits. If you aren't entertaining they don't care how well made your costume was. These two contests are really extreme cases, most contests will fall in the middle, but it will help you to figure out how close to your purpose the contest's purpose is. Other than talking to someone who saw the contest, another way to figure out clues as to the contest's bent is to look at pictures of last year's winners. Even better if you can find videos of the contest, either for sale or on You tube. This will show you how the contest winners looked, and whether their presentations were mostly skit or mostly show of a costume. Here are some common contest formats, and their strengths and weaknesses:

- Skits: concentrates on funny or entertaining preformances. Costumes are usually secondary, and audience reaction can play a large part.

- Workmanship: concentrates on costume craft. Having a costume made by yourself is important. Acting and preformance can play a part, but it is much smaller than Skits.

- Runway Walk: usually close to workmanship. Concentrates less on acting and preformance than workmanship, in general, although being in character can still play a part. Audience reaction can play a larger part than workmanship.

- Crowd Pleasers: usually characterized by having no judges, and relying on audience applause to decide the winners. These are really a chancy endeavor, because they rely on having loud friends in the audience, and usually in having the least amount of clothes on a pretty girl. Common in bars around Halloween time.

Right along with what kind of format the contest will have is finding out about the judges. There are a vast number of people who could be judging your contest, and as judges they have a major impact on the results of the contest. So try to find out who is judging the contest you're entering.

- Celebrities: are usually guests of the con. They'll usually concentrate on impressive. Most often celebrities are impressed by people that do what they do. If the guests are actors, they'll like neat skits. If the guests are authors, not so dazzled. However, most celebrities can be dazzled by having an impressive-sounding introduction ((this costume was made by hand over 50 hours of work)) because most of them don't really know what that MEANS, but it sounds good. Watch out, though, there are a few rare celebrities who have been trained as costumers, hairdressers, or are related/married to them, so they won't fall for that stuff.

- Costumers: usually judge costumes on costume merit. May have a tendency to put less stock in preformances if they themselves are not preformers. Some feel costumes are more of an even split, so they'll look at both. Some can tend to judge like fans/celebrities as well as look at costume merit, but there will be more of an emphasis on the clothes no matter what.

- Fans: judge a lot like celebrities. They'll score based on how impressed they are, if they laughed, or if the crowd gave a good time, but you have the advantage that they'll be more likely than celebrities to get inside jokes and be impressed with clever plots.

- Audience: usually judge by applause. That means the louder your friends, the better reaction you get. Also, when the audience is given the judging power they often feel they have the right to judge the contestants negatively, and will often be rowdy and boo people onstage. They also cheer for what they know and like, so if you have an obscure costume, or a common costume from an obscure show/genre, you may get a totally different reaction from what you expected.

As an aside to finding out about the judges, see if you can find out their names. Some contests don't like to give them out, but some don't care. I'm not suggesting you attempt to bribe the judges, because that will get you thrown out of most contests faster than you know, but knowing the judges means you can tailor your costume presentation to them and their skills/desires. For example, if you get the name of a specific guest actor, google them. Find out what they've acted in, what kind of costumes they've worn, and if they've ever worked as a costumer/lighting tech/designer. See if that anime artist is married to a professional wigmaker. If the person is a costumer or fan, try to find their website. Look at the stuff they've done. See if they do things in the same genre as you, or if they know a lot about a specific topic. For example, I have a lot of corsetry information on my website. If you know I'll be judging a contest and see that you might want to prepare a little extra information on how you made the corset of your costume, because I guarantee I'll be asking about it. Don't let it discourage you, though, if you don't think your corset is very good. Judges know that everyone had to start somewhere, and remember their first projects, so usually they won't discount you for not being as good as them.

Duplicating a judge's costume, however, is a tricky thing. If a judge has also made the costume you are entering it is slippery. On one hand they will be very enthusiastic, because they are obviously fans of the costume as well. On the other hand, though, they will have researched the costume themselves, and will know more if there are details that are 'off' than they would with a costume from a genre they don't know. But, they will also know what you did right, and showing off how you duplicated small details will get you kudos from someone who knows exactly how hard they are because they've done them. So, I'm not telling you not to enter a costume a judge has done, just think about it a little bit first. Also, be ready just in case you walk into judging and see the judge wearing the same outfit as you. Daunting, but don't worry, they are a judge so you're not competing against them.

Next, as you're doing your judge and contest research, be sure to read the contest rules. I've seen great costumes get pushed from award status because they didn't comply with a strange contest rule about "always enter from the left". It's important to read, and know, the rules of every contest you plan to enter. Some things to note:

- Costumes: What kinds of costumes are allowed? Also, what kind of costumes are prefered?
For example, it's understood that a Star Wars costume contest is Star Wars costumes only. Even if there's no rule against Star Trek costumes, fans and judges will probably be confused by your costume entry and score you lower, either because they're insulted by your entry or because they just don't know enough about it compared to the costumes that fit the genre. I see this very often at DragonCon, where there are about 20 different costume contests over the 4 days. Quite often you will see the same person, in the same costume, entering a lot of them. As a judge, I can tell you that entering your costume in lots of contests doesn't increase your chances of winning. Your comic book character doesn't belong in the Klingon contest, even if they don't specifically ban it in the rules.

- Effects: Will there be sound allowed? How about lights? Can you use a microphone?
This is important if you're planning a skit. For example, if no light effects are mentioned you should ask before planning on having a blackout. Light-up costumes won't be visible under full stage lights, but would be better if the lights can be dimmed for part of the skit, and will be barely noticeable on a stage with regular hotel lighting. If you plan on having speaking in your skit, either use a microphone or pre-record your speaking over your music. Speaking from stage NEVER works, and will leave the people at the back of the room bored with your skit because they can't hear it. Bored people can, at best, not clap at your skit, giving a good skit a ho-hum reaction, and at worst they can boo, make denegrating comments, and be a nuisance. So do yourself a favor, pre-record all your audio. While you're recording your audio, try to find out what the masque will be using to play it. It's a bad day for you if you show up with a casette tape and all they can play is CDs. Even if they are using CDs, find out if they should be MP3 format, or audio formatted. Some MP3 disks won't play on audio players. In general, if the cheapest $10 CD player will play your CD, anything will, so it might be worth it to invest in a cheapo.

- Stage: What size is the stage? Where are the entrances and exits? Will there be a runway? What is the stage made out of? Where will the judges sit?
All of these are important to plan out a skit. Your skit can't use a runway if there won't be one. You can try to cram 30 people into a 10x4' stage, but it won't be pretty. Having the only entry and exit through the audience makes it hard to plan for a suprise character entrance. Finding out what the stage is made of helps to plan what you can do on it. For example, a stage made of risers in a hotel isn't going to be very good for 20 people doing Stomp because you might fall through. A real stage, though, has its own problems. It can be very deep and large, and seem to swallow a single person entry. Find out where the judges will sit, if possible, so that you can make sure they see your costume. Also, pay attention to what level the judges will be on, and pay attention to the parts of your costume that are on that level. If the judges are in the balcony the top of your head should be styled and neat. If they're sitting on the same level as you pay attention to your makeup and upper torso. If they're sitting at knee level make sure your shoes match your costume. And if they're sitting below foot level (common for judges sitting in the audience of a stage) find out what your costume looks like from below and make sure you're not flashing your undergarments (or lack thereof).

Now that your research is done, go back to your original work. Why do you want to enter this contest? Is it because you want to make the audience laugh, show off your painstaking workmanship, or do a tribute to your favorite character? Now you have to tailor your presentation to your purpose. First, sit down with a piece of paper and write down your purpose in BIG LETTERS on the top. Then list off everything your presenation has to complete that purpose. Here are some general thoughts for each category:

Audience appreciation: Funny or clever punchlines, neat plots, coreography, and cultural references always get a good reaction.

Costume workmanship: Write this like you would write a making-of-the-costume website. Put down what patterns you used, what kinds of fabrics and supplies, and how you went about things. Note if you had any help from anyone, and what parts they helped with.

Character tribute: Put down why you like the character, what's so great about them, and how you plan to look, and act like them.

Now you can use your purpose sheet to tailor your presentation so that the judges see what you want them to see. Here are my general recommendations for how to do that with each category:

Audience appreciation: Practice. Practice a lot. Practice with an audience. If your purpose is to please the general audience and not just the Naruto fans present, try to practice with an audience that doesn't know what Naruto is. See if you can find someone who's not a close friend and practice in front of them. If possible, do it in a place with approximately the same lighting, and tape out the stage size on the floor to make sure you're positioned right, and sit them where the judges would sit. Then give them a big sign, foam hand, or bell, something noticeable. Practice your skit and tell them to ring the bell, wave the hand, or whatever, when they're bored. That's your signal, you should do something new 2 seconds before they put up the sign. You'll be suprised how little time you have before someone is bored or confused. Onstage, bored or confused judges will stop paying attention to you and start picking on your costume in their heads. Audience members will start talking to their neighbors, which distracts more people and makes the clapping polite, not happy. In general, something new should happen every 20 seconds, MINIMUM. More often is even better. Someone should enter, someone should turn around to show the back of their costume, there should be a punchline, an interaction, or an exciting new body movement going on almost constantly. You'll probably find out you really shouldn't lipsync that whole song, just the first verse, or even just the chorus. Leaving the audience wanting more is fifty times better than leaving them slightly bored. You can always do an encore in the halls for adoring fans :D

Costume workmanship: The key to this one is figuring out what is new and exciting about your costume. This doesn't have to be new and exciting to everyone, just you. For example, if you are most proud of your hoopskirt because it is the first time you've made one/best one you've ever done/used a new acid-based inflatible balloon polymer then be sure that's on your list. Pay special attention to the things that YOU are the most excited about, not what you think will impress the judges the most. Judges are much more impressed by your enthusiasm than they are about what you think they will like. While you're at it, list off all the flaws you know the costume has. Come on, you know we all catalog these while making costumes. Now, once they're listed, make yourself a pact to NOT mention these in front of the judges. If they ask about it, fine, but don't tell them about your flaws before they see them. I've had plenty of instances where I didn't know the character being presented to me, yet the costumer started off their presentation by listing everything that was wrong with their costume and why it was that way. IF THEY DON'T ASK don't tell them!!! The judges may not remember that sash was light yellow and not light green, and if they do they will probably ask about why you changed it, and you can tell them then. Also think about how you can prove your claims to the judges. Some things, like a good fit and new techniques, are self-evident, but proving that you look exactly like the character is hard if the judge doesn't know the series or source material. Think about what angles are the best and worst on your costume, and try to find pictures of the character with those angles. Reproduce these pictures in triplicate to bring to the judges.

Character tribute: Put down why you like the character, what's so great about them, and how you plan to look, and act like them. Include how the character walks, talks, stands, sits, express happiness, sadness, grief, boredom, and other emotions. You are, in effect, an actor researching your character. See about checking out books from the library on how actors prepare a role. Do some searches on the net for questions writers or roleplayers answer on their character. Then (the hard part ;) ) watch lots of the show/movie or read the books and fill them out. Practice in front of a mirror. Practice in front of friends. Practice is the key :D

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