Thursday, 17 July 2014

Pre-WCS : What it's like to be a rep?

Before I entered WCS prelims, there was a long list of things on my lips I wanted to know about. 
It's a fairly serious commitment, and there are a lot of things that you have to invest into it; time, money, energy, more money – so it's good to know if what you're signing up for is actually what you want to do.
Luckily for myself and Emi, our alumni were more than helpful to fill in what WCS would expect from us. What they like the look of on stage, how best to conduct ourselves in judging and so on. There were a few things, though, that even we ourselves didn't expect, and we would have never been able to prepare a question to get those answers.
As a sort of personal anecdote, I feel really lucky that Emi and I haven't come to blows over WCS this year. There's a lot of difficulties we've had like living nearly 200 miles apart, from working around jobs to not having a job at all, but somehow we've come to the end of the road with our friendship intact. Both of us have seen the strain of competitive cosplay almost (and in some cases, entirely) ruin friendships, lead to resentment, so this blog entry today is going to attempt to detail in an honest, warts-and-all way, some of the issues Emi and I have come across in the last 8 months in the hopes that future representatives can learn from our mistakes!

First of all; I hope you and your would-be partner have a pretty steadfast friendship. This might sound like an obvious one – what would you be doing entering with someone you weren't good friends with, right??  Whether you plan it to or not, a lot of things can get in the way of a harmonious partnership, it's difficult to speculate on where it all starts because between different people you get different ideas of what matters. It's hard to gauge, too, how invested another person is in what you're doing, so really knowing your partner and laying down some ground rules about what is and isn't okay at the times you're meant to be working on costumes is pretty important.
I'm pretty sure I brought Emi to almost breaking point a few times across the year when I put my work in eSports first. It's way too easy to get caught up in other commitments you have and forget to reassure your partner that you are invested in the work you're both doing and you haven't forgotten them. I think I worried Emi a lot this past year by not showing progress when it mattered, and especially May Expo, I devoted all of my time preparing for the show instead of working on the preliminary outfits we meant to trial run that weekend.... And when I did get it done I was so busy I couldn't even wear them. Oops.
So mistakes were made there, and that was one which was totally avoidable and completely my fault. I got overconfident in my ability to pull a costume out of nowhere and forgot to reassure Emi that I had things under control and got carried away.
I'm not saying that WCS is or should be the main commitment in your life at the time of doing it; but you do feel like there's a small amount of pressure on you. I have a responsibility not to let down my partner, the country I'm representing, or cosplay as a hobby when I'm out there; I frequently have to remind myself I'm not alone in this, and if I screw up, other people feel the consequences, too.
As I mentioned before, distance was an issue. I'm all the way up in Newcastle and Emi lives in Manchester. I'm sure you guys down South must be thinking, "what but the North is so small, those two places must be a small train ride from each other!"

Emi and I live near enough 200 miles apart, which when we got down to it, made coordinating matching costumes a slight problem. To keep the uniformity we decided to work on our championship costumes exclusively at Emi's place, it seemed like a smart decision at the time (and I guess I feel like it's still a good one now, they look identically made) but it really limited the time we had available to us to work on them. The contract for the job I was working finished in January, which left me unemployed, and as you can imagine, I needed to be careful with my money (I'll go into the financial issues we faced later). So what I should have been doing was travelling to Manchester whenever possible suddenly became an insurmountable obstacle; how do I even work on the costumes if I have no money?
We spent the first few months of this year sourcing all our fabric, planning the costumes, performance and set. Our preparation time was insane, really, and I honestly hope that at least, shows in what we do.
In the last few weeks I feel like neither of us have had a break; I finish work on Friday, travel straight to Manchester from work, sew for 4 days then get the train back to Newcastle to start work again on Wednesday.
All in all, looking at the results now – it was worth it. Our costumes have this uniformity that we would never have been able to achieve if we hadn't worked together on both of them. It helped us play to both of our strengths, too, and countered our respective weaknesses. Just the journey itself was a toughie; if I were to go into a competitive team with someone who lived across the country from me again, I think it'd definitely think more seriously about choosing two costumes that wouldn't need to match so much.

Money was a big issue for the pair of us, understandably. Because it's easy to think; we have a year, plenty of time to fund four costumes? If that was all we had to pay for then maybe it would have been fine. I think for a pair with steady, full time jobs and good money management everything else that comes into it wouldn't be a problem.
As it stands, the pair of us are part-timer graduates, not exactly made of money. On top of the costumes, the set, the persistent cross-country travel, excess baggage, new suitcases and everything we would need for our holiday FOLLOWING the competition (because don't kid yourselves, you are gonna wanna stay a little longer and enjoy the sights!)... We're a little strapped for cash to say the least, and it was a huge learning experience in itself to have to be so careful with what we invested in.
I think what we discovered the most is good research, spreading the cost across longer periods of time and knowing what you are going to need when you get there really helps. A lot of this we discovered learning from our WCS alumni mistakes; they make them so you don't have to!
The last thing I wanted to touch on is the big one; time. I've mentioned earlier that we already had problems getting together to work on things, but that's really only the tip of the iceberg. Surprisingly when Emi and I sat down together and thought about it, we didn't actually have that many pair costumes – weird for two people who have apparently been cosplaying together for 3 years now! (I feel like I should take the blame for this one, though, because as everyone knows I am oh so good at sticking to my deadlines...)

Finals costumes are bad enough to work on without making at least three other parade costumes, too. It didn't take us long to decide on a few things we wanted to do; and we started on them immediately to get them out of the way. Unfortunately it happens, as it so often does, that we both had some issues with some of the things we planned. My Satsuki costume had become a logistical nightmare, I remade the costume 3 times before having to be restrained from setting fire to what was left. Emi ended up buying 5 metres of the wrong type of fabric for Ryuko. We attempted to custom dye all the fabric for CardCaptor Sakura costumes, only to have the dye split and spot dark blue and yellow everywhere. Things were not going well.
Somehow we managed to pull two more costumes out of our butts; something that will make us more comfortable in the Japanese weather but, ironically, a little out of our comfort zones. I'm looking forward to announcing them next week once we get photos of everything!
Another thing that I suppose comes under the umbrella of "oh god there's not enough time THERE'S NOT ENOUGH TIME!!!!" is forms. So many forms. You will have to fill out forms and questionnaires until you are literally crying tears of answers and they are mopping them up with the sheets. Decide now what your favourite anime is, the reason you love cosplay, what you want to do in Nagoya, all of these things you will be asked on several different occasions!

Also, being prepared with an idea of how you want the lighting and actions to go during your performance will help a lot. There is a several page long sheet to fill out prior to the contest with very specific timings and cues required for the production staff to work around it. I think part of it has to do with basically, where the cameras should be at certain points, how best you want the lights to emphasise your skit and so the stage runners can set up and take down as quickly as possible. I'm told there's something insane like a 40 second window either side to get everything on and off the stage, so going in prepared and knowing exactly where you are going to be really helps the staff.

So this entry ended up being a little long winded. When I sat down to think about it, more and more thoughts just kept pouring out of my fingertips and onto the screen, so apologies if there's a lack of structure or clarity to this particular post.
Hopefully it's given some insights into the ~personal~ world of ours, and I guess the overall feeling is that bad stuff does happen! You just have to roll with it, and not get too hung up on the small things. The entire idea of the experience is to have fun an enjoy the culture and the community, and remember – all the bad stuff will probably disappear when you get there~

Tuesday, 1 July 2014

Championship Choices

As it's competition season, I thought it might be interesting to delve into the subject of competition costume choices. 

Before we go into it, I guess I should put out a disclaimer: neither myself nor Emi are claiming to be authorities on ~what to pick to win competitions~, the idea for this blog today is to just discuss our personal thought process behind what we have chosen for each leg of WCS and what we have learned from previous generations of WCS contestants, as well as our peers in the competition this year.

First of all I guess I should pose the question; what makes you decide to enter a competition in the first place? For Emi and I, I think it was a combination of a few things. We've both watched several of our close friends go through a few international competitions. Their feats were not only inspiring and encouraging, but they came with a warning: competitions are hard work, and they put even the closest friendships to the test. 

The potential of driving each other so mad I end up trying to throttle her with bias binding while she stabs me in the face with dressmaking pins... With neither of us being particularly competitive, this potentially deadly outcome wasn't really worth it. 

When we went to Japan Expo in 2012 and watched two of our friends compete in the European Cosplay Gathering, however, got us thinking; maybe we could, too? What comp would we enter? What would we wear? It slowly became a past-time of ours to just imagine scenarios, performances, costumes we could potentially enter any given competition with.

Fast forward a year; in the run up to Play Expo, Emi and I hit on some inspiration for some costumes we wanted to make. An ambitious task, but one we were both motivated and actually did a fair amount of work on before the horrible realisation hit us.... These costumes were not going to get done. We had bitten off more than we could chew.

You can probably see why. We started putting things together for these outfits in July, but by September we still weren't that far ahead and, in fact, really struggling to find important elements like the correct colour fabric and the right wig. 

In the end, around 3 weeks before Play Expo we did something totally unheard of and super unusual for UK cosplayers - [as if!] we changed our costume ideas. We changed to simpler costumes we knew we could execute well and concentrated on a strong performance to go with it.

At the end of the day, I'm happy we did. We were able to tap into a series we were both not only passionate about, but we could come up with an interesting and dynamic skit, too. Although they lacked the small detailing of the Eternal Sonata outfits, our Tsubasa ones were finished - and well. We even put pockets in my trousers - POCKETS!!

The moral of this story wasn't totally lost on us - whatever we would go into the championships with had to follow a core set of rules we would set down for ourselves, so we didn't get lost like we did going into the prelims. We were offered advice from the previous WCS Team UK reps and took it all on board. It took us a while to come to our decision, but when we set it in stone it was one we were both very happy with, and most importantly excited to get to work.

The first piece of advice we were offered by our predecessors was that in Japan they love a few things on the championship stage. They love things that are very ~Japanese~ and hand in hand with that they also love the feeling of nostalgia. So before I sharpied on my Kochikame eyebrow to invoke that feeling of audience nostalgia, Emi discussed that nostalgia wasn't really for us, but we would both love to do a costume that embraced a traditional Japanese feeling and matched the setting we were lucky enough to be placed in.

We made a dropbox and shared a whole lot of artbook and reference pictures of various series and characters we could potentially do. Lots of things were taken out because of the difficulty of wearing or moving in them. One thing we had to keep in mind was - regardless of whether we were being "competitive" or not (which we weren't) - we would be on stage in front of a live audience, as well as being filmed and streamed online. We needed costumes with a fluid and easy movement, and something that stood out. Unlike a lot of walk-on-walk-off cosplay comps, something like Trinity Blood wasn't going to be an option for us.

I'm not sure how we settled on Tsubasa again in the end. I know we both had wanted to do those particular outfits for a long time and we'd done it once before. It took us a while to decide to deviate from the matching outfit for Syaoran, however. We needed a certain dynamic in our performance that just wasn't filled with his white outfit, and the "Clone" fit the bill perfectly. Lots of billowing, lots of flowing. We had found our fit!

Last time, and in this case in particular, it was a case of Fine Detail vs Performance Value. We played to what we decided our strengths were, that we unfortunately didn't have the money, resources or skills available that would be required in a highly technical and complex costume build (see ECG Team/Solo 2014). We decided for WCS in particular, that since the performance aspect is heavily weighted, we would focus our efforts there.

Thinking back on all of this now makes me kind of nervous. If we'd started hand embroidering that Trinity Blood cape or resin casting that Hero Suit last year would we be looking any better now? I'm not really sure, I guess. 

Choosing something for the sake of it being big and impressive is fair enough when you can pull it off, but the best way Emi and myself felt we could do the UK proud in Japan was stick to our guns. Cosplay something we love. Show everyone what we can do with what we have. I think that's the best advice I could give anyone going in for a big competition like this; it's as easy as cosplaying something you love. It shows in the way you move and act on stage and it shows in the way you've made your costume. 

Plus, and maybe most importantly, when it comes to crunch time and you and your partner are knee deep in offcuts and pattern pieces and ready to wrestle each other out of a window, you can take a step back from it all and just remember what you're in it for. 

Unless you're in it for the cash dolla. Then always think about the cash dolla.