So you’re thinking about entering into a convention’s costume/cosplay contest, huh? Good for you! That takes guts, and it can be very intimidating for those new to the competition arena. I’ve been involved with cosplay contests for over fifteen years – everything from being a contestant, a judge, the emcee, and the coordinator of the Phoenix Comicon Masquerade, so if there’s one thing I know, it’s costume contests. Please allow me to give you a few tips that will help make it a less stressful, more polished, and less hazardous experience that you will want to continue doing in the future.
Tip #1 – Have a Design Book to show the Judges
(NOTE: Tip #1 is merely suggestion. You are not required to have a design book to enter most competitions.)
If you want to really showcase all of the hard work you put into your costume, then a “Costume Design Book” is the best way to do it! What is a Costume Design book? A Costume Design Book is a binder filled with everything you did to make the costume those judges are looking at. Having a Design Book can set you apart from the crowd as well as display how serious you are about your craft.
Source materials such as screen captures and/or photos of the costume and/or character you’re replicating are a great place to start. If the judge wasn’t familiar with the character you’re portraying, they will be now, and they’ll be better equipped to look over your work. Is the costume a character of your own creation? Then this is even more important. They need to know what they are looking at.
Next, you’ll want to include all of your drawings, sketches, and designs. Let the judges see your thought process! Scan every napkin, post it note, and sketch you’ve done in the project. Judges love to see the planning stages as much as the finished product, so let them into that part of your cosplay and show them around.
Then, all of your “work in progress” (WIP) photos! You took/are taking lots of photos of your progress to show on Facebook and twitter, so why not use them to show the judges how you did the amazing work you’re showing them! If you’re wearing a full suit made of EVA foam, this allows you to show the judges the inside of the armor. How it is fabricated, how it hangs, and how you burned your hand
It would be a good idea to make three copies of the book that you can give to and leave with the judges so they can look it over more if they’d like. This keeps you on their mind during the competition, which you want. You don’t have to put it all together in a fancy binder – an inexpensive report folder works just as well. Try to keep the costs down since you’re literally giving these away to the judges.
Trust me, showing up with a Costume Design Book is something judges love to see and I’ve seen it elevate a novice entry to Best in Show! You’re showing off your costume, now show off all the hard work you put into it!
Tip #2 – Provide your own Music
Imagine standing off the edge of the stage, preparing to take the stage to show off your costume; not only to the panel of esteemed judges, but to a room filled with thousands of people. You’re going through your mental checklist – Hair looks good, skirt is smoothed, staff prop is sturdy – everything is good. It’s only a couple seconds now as you hear the MC read your introduction – Man has he got a voice, huh? As your first step hits the stage the massive room is filled with the unmistakable theme from the King of Knights.
Sadly, you are dressed as Sailor Venus.
This nightmarish scenario happens all the time in costume contests and it can really effect a contestant’s performance. Why does this happen? Two reasons, really. One, the sound ‘tech’ at any given convention may not be familiar with what your exact costume is, therefore guessing and playing you “something anime”. The second reason is the root of the problem. YOU didn’t provide your own music for your presentation. Yes, I’m blaming you. One cannot expect the sound tech to be 100% into everything in every genre, so you need to meet them halfway and provide your own music.
First step is to consult the contest rules and see what the policy is on providing your own music. Most contests allow it, some require it, and some don’t allow it at all. If your allowed to provide your own music then I highly recommend you doing so – if for no other reason than to avoid the scenario I just presented above. Some people are intimidated by the very prospect of providing their own music because there’s some misconception that if you turn in your own sound, you must record dialogue for an entire skit. Nope. Not always the case, in fact skits are rarely required to enter a cosplay contest at most conventions, but again, double check that with whatever event you’re considering entering. Most likely all you really need to do is provide background music for when you take the stage. How complex this file can be is entirely up to you, but since you’re new to this, just keep it simple. Pick a song that you feel best represents your entry. If you’re Sailor Moon, then pick something from that soundtrack. The Doctor? Same rule applies. Keep it simple. You can get fancy with sound effects and dialogue once you have a few of these contests under your belt.
But it’s not as easy as emailing your song to the contest coordinator. No, no, no. You really need to edit the song so that it fits into the allotted time limit you have on stage. The average time for a solo entry is one minute. This is important because only you will know which minute of song is right for you and chances are that the sound tech will put the disc in and press play. If the part you want is in the middle of the song, then you’re out of luck… Unless you edit the sound file yourself!
You can do this using sound editing software. A free program that’s out on the web is Audacity and it’s available here:
You can find tutorials for sound editing all over the place – Just Google it.
So.. to sum up:
- Choose the right music
- Edit it to 1 minute
- Email it to the show coordinator (This is required for some competitions).
Provide your theme music! Every good hero should have some!
Tip #3 – Take a look in the mirror
Take a good long look at yourself. Seriously. Get in character and look at yourself in the mirror. Practice your skit, your bit, your walk, your talk. All of it. In this day and age of cell phone videos, video yourself doing your presentation. You don’t even need to be in costume, really, because what you’re looking at is your performance. Beneath the layers and layers of fabric, foam, and plastic is a person. The soul of the costume – YOU.
How do you look when you have your character face on? Is it flattering? Is it silly? Does the face you’re making say “Take me seriously” or “Look at me, I’m a circus clown”? Ask a friend – an honest friend to tell you the truth, because your performance depends on it, and since performance can help push a competitor over the top to victory, it’s something you need to be aware of.
Once you have the soul of the character/costume down, next comes all the layers that transform you on the outside into that person. Put on your costume and do the presentation again in front of a mirror, on video, and again, with an honest friend watching. Make note of how your movement is effected by the costume and the costume moves on your body as you do your presentation. Get to know your gear – it will make a difference.
Get the walk down. Get the stance. Get the attitude. Lather, Rinse, Repeat. Get it all down until it becomes second nature to you.
NOW you are not only ready to compete, you’re ready to win.
Tip #4 – Own the Stage
So Magneto, you think you’re better than me? That you’re homosuperior? Prove it.
By that I mean take that stage like you mean it. Take and OWN it. For one minute that little piece of real estate in front of thousands of people is yours for the taking, so TAKE IT. Stride with conviction to the center and when you turn to face the audience, make them fear you. Make them respect you. You are Magneto – one of the most powerful mutants on the planet, and certainly one of the most deadly. I need to feel that when I look at you and the only way I’m going to believe it is if you do.
This goes for any costume you’re wearing on that stage. If the character is larger than life, then BE larger than life! If the character uses seduction to get their way, then seduce the audience. Make them love you. If the character is a goofy nutjob, then make us laugh.
The point is, keep their attention. The emcee got you their attention when they read your introduction – now it’s up to you to keep it. You want them to still be thinking of you long after you leave the stage. You want them talking about you to each other during the judges deliberation.
You own the stage, you own the audience – it’s as simple as that.
Tip #5 Someone give that kid a sammich.
I know this sounds like something I shouldn’t have to tell you, but trust me – it needs to be said.
I know that you’re excited about the contest and I know that you’re a little nervous too. You put a lot of work into this and the last thing you want to do is be late to the Masquerade, but you MUST put some time aside before the contest to sit down and take in a meal. A proper meal and not just a candy/nutrition bar and a soda. There are usually plenty of food vendors at conventions and you’ll do yourself a favor by getting yourself a burger, some fries, and a drink. Heck, get yourself a cookie too. You earned it.
When I coordinate a Cosplay Contest, I specifically design the schedule to have some time set aside between prejudging and the contest itself for everyone to get something to eat. There’s an hour and a half in there that I call “feeding time”, so go… Feed. You have the time. This is also a great reason to get your prejudging done early. Gives you more time to get something to eat.
I realize that the cost of food at a convention borders on the ridiculous, but you know this too and you need to put aside some money specifically for food on the day of your competition. Yes, it is expensive, but it’s not as expensive as the bill you might be hit with for the medical treatment you receive because you passed out from lack of blood sugars and fell down the stairs wearing a Voltron suit. Let’s also take into consideration that EMTs may not be too gentle getting you out of your costume in order to treat you. It’s not that they don’t appreciate your work – they just have other things on their mind – mainly giving you the help you need, costume be damned. So to add to the trouble of passing out, injuring yourself, and possibly missing the contest, now your costume is ruined.
There’s also the fact that if Voltron tumbles down some stairs at a convention, it’s likely to be captured on any myriad of mobile devices these days and spewed out onto the Internet for all the world to see and immediately ridicule. Given the hard work you put into your costume, that’s certainly not the legacy you want your cosplay to leave behind.
Eating something also gives your body the fuel it needs to keep your energy levels where they need to be for your performance.
So, seriously… eat a sammich.
Tip #6 – No man (or woman) is an island.
You need help. No really, you do. I’m not talking about the obvious psychological evaluation that explains exactly why you, at age 32, still insist on dressing up like Batman. No, all of us here get that, trust me. We’re all egoists to some extent – hence the costume and silent cry of “LOOK AT ME!!” I’m the same exact way, trust me, so no – I’m not talking about that.
I’m talking about the fact that you can’t do this alone. Chances are that you weren’t given a chance to practice negotiating the stairs to get on and off the stage. Most of the time contestants aren’t even allowed on the stage before the contest, so effectively, you’re going in blind. You need help. Help up the stairs, help down the stairs, and help seeing where exactly you are when you’re elevated four feet off the ground with stage lights pointed right at your face. If your costume is complicated or large, then try to recruit some friends to be your personal handlers. Can’t convince any of your friends to give up their Saturday at the con to be your roadie? Well, you’re in luck because every costume contest has the solution for your momentary vertigo and/or clumsiness.
The stage crew.
The stage crew are on hand to give you whatever assistance you need before, after (and in rare cases, during) your performance on the big stage. You need help getting onto the stage? They are there for you. Not sure exactly how to get off said stage? Look for the stage crew waiting in the wings flagging you in for a landing. They’ll also help you down the stairs too. They’re good like that.
If possible, talk to the stage crew before the contest and show them where it is safe to hold you while assisting you up and/or down stairs. a lot of the time, the stage crew are volunteer convention staff and are usually found at prejudging in most cases, so look for them there. They are fans too! They volunteered because they love costuming and cosplay as well, so not only are they happy to help you shine on the stage, but they’re usually very interested in how you made your costume. They’re friendly folks. The last thing they want to do is break your costume, so help them help you with some simple communication.
Heat or the excitement getting to you? Feeling faint? TELL the stage crew! They will help you! They aren’t trained EMTs, but they’ll be able to get you one should you need it. Seriously, don’t screw around with this. It’s important. Don’t let ‘pride’ lead you to injuries after face planting during a sudden attack of some kind. Screw pride and tell the stage crew you need help. There should always be water back stage at every costume contest and if need be, the stage crew have little problem getting you some if you’re stuck in line and cannot get it yourself. Of course, if you took tip #5 to heart, you’re already hydrated and well fed, but whatever the case, if you feel like you’re going down, tell the stage crew.
They are there for two purposes:
- To help you look confident like you know exactly what’s going on
- to help keep you safe from injury
You NEED help. Take it!
Tip #7 – Be the River, not the rock – Adaptability
There’s an old saying in the military – ‘No plan survives first contact’. This is also true of live performance art, which is really what cosplay is at its core… LIVE performance. With live performance you can bet that it will never, ever, ever go off exactly the way you planned. Seriously. Never.
Since you know this, you can prepare for it. In fact, plan on it; that way you’re not caught unawares when it hits. You’re ready and already moving into plan B. This bit is crucial because I’m going to let you in on a little secret about what happens when something goes wrong in a live performance. If you’re on your toes and have planned for just a thing…
…the audience never knows.
That’s the important bit. The audience and the judges don’t know your routine. Only you do. If you ‘screw up’ but act like you didn’t, they’ll never know. This is new to them. They haven’t seen it before. They. Don’t. Know….provided you keep your cool and act as if everything is going exactly how you planned it. If you throw a hissy fit on stage because the wrong song was played, or the intro wasn’t pronounced correctly, everyone will know something is wrong. You are the key because you are the architect of the performance you’re doing. If you just flow like the river and adapt to whatever is thrown at you, no one will ever know your presentation isn’t exactly how you planned. Not unless YOU tell them.
There’s another old saying – this one from theater; ‘If you’re going to fail, fail BIG’. Once that slender tendril of control on the perfected performance is lost, let yourself go with it. If this means Master Chief has to do a lovely pirouette and twinkle his toes, if it keeps the audience and judges in the dark, you do it. You may have lost control of the sound, lights, or even the stairs, but you still control YOU. Besides, people love to laugh, so when all else fails, make them laugh and you’ve endeared yourself into their hearts.
If something goes wrong, FAKE IT.
Fake it like a boss and trust me, no one will be the wiser.
Tip #8 – Stow your gear!
During a convention there are a ton of things we carry, even in costume, some we need, such as money, ID, etc, and some we are required to carry, such as the convention badge. When planning to enter you need to have a safe place on your costume where you can stow this stuff because seeing a convention badge can take one out of the illusion you’re trying to weave. Plus, having a safe pocket, pouch, or whatever is a good idea because if you win, you need a place to stash your prize so you don’t lose it making your way back to the hotel.
Tip #9 – Be cool to each other
Seriously. Be cool to your fellow contestants during the entire process. Be extra cool to the folks coordinating the event. Be cool to the stage crew. Be cool to EVERYONE. Just because your character is a villain doesn’t mean you have to be. It’s a stressful, anxious time for everyone involved so just be sure to keep your cool and if a fellow competitor needs help with something, help them. Cosplay community should always be about unity and inclusion, contests be damned. Besides, having a good reputation as a cool cat will only help you grow as a cosplayer, trust me.
Tip #10 – HAVE FUN
Yes, it’s fun to win, but just enjoy your time on stage and the adoration and applause you’re getting. HAVE FUN.
Also known as TD-0013, Kevin G. O'Connor has been costuming and attending conventions since 1985. His Parsec nominated podcast "A Different Point of View" has been enjoyed by around 10 people not related to him and is still available for free on iTunes. He has been the Emcee of Phoenix Comicon's Masquerade/Costume Contest since 2003 and has been the signature event's coordinator since 2012.