HomeAll postsBradley Bristow-Stagg on building a Chewbacca costume

Bradley Bristow-Stagg on building a Chewbacca costume


 At the Good Friday Appeal I had a few people (all adults!) who said they wanted to see Chewie. Some almost seemed miffed that Chewie wasn’t there, so I explained that there is more to costuming than ordering online. Chewie is indeed coming. Bradley Bristow-Stagg, also known as BeeJay (not to be confused with BJ!), is currently building a Chewbacca costume. Beejay talks to Edward and I about building Chewie and other Star Wars costumes.

Beejay – Chewbacca belongs to the Rebel Legion as he’s a Rebel in Star Wars. There are a couple of guys in the Rebel Legion who have done Chewie so there are about 10 or 15 Chewies world wide now. I looked at a lot of them and was really put off by some of them because the most important thing with Chewie is getting the face right. If you don’t get that face then it doesn’t look like Chewie, it doesn’t matter how good the suit looks. So I looked and found this guy called Duck. I saw his photos and I went ‘Oh that’s awesome that’s fantastic!’ I read through and he’s exactly the same height and weight that I am, so I’m going to follow the way that he does things.

A lot of people will use drywall stilts because they’re not tall enough.. The problem is that if you’re using the stilts you have the curve of your foot as almost a second knee. When you’re looking at their legs they have one knobbly bit which is their knee and another knobbly bit which is their foot and then it goes down to the actual base of the leg. I’ve always been a bit iffy about that. Chewie is meant to be 7 foot 8. The guy that plays Chewie is 7 foot 4 but the mask puts an extra 4 inches on him. I’m 6 foot 3, plus 4 inches on the mask and then 8 inches in the lifts that I’ve made. Instead of actually using stilts I’ve got a massive boot for want of a better word where my foot is actually on an incline so I get a smoother line coming down the leg and it sort of flairs out like an over-extended arch over my foot.

Beejay's Chewie shoes
Beejay’s Chewie shoes

Nalini – I didn’t pick that up at the Star Wars dinner but it seemed like you had thick soles, it looked like you have heels as well.

That’s one of the things that I liked about Duck’s build method was the way he did that.

Nalini – How tall will you be in the costume?

I will be 7 foot 3 because the feet give me 8 inches of lift and with 4 inches on the mask that gives me an extra foot.

Beejay's Chewie feet
Beejay’s Chewie feet

Nalini – You can loom quite effectively without any additional lift.

The idea is that as long as you’re taller than your tallest Vader, you’re ok. You don’t have to be the full 7 foot 8. In 501st Legion we cannot discriminate in any way shape or form. We have members in the Japanese garrison who love Darth Vader and want to be Darth Vader, so as a consequence we have 5 foot 8 Darth Vaders. If that’s the character that you love and the character that you want to do, then do it. But it has to be movie quality. It’s all about perspective and putting on a show. So if you can do that and have that presence then that sells it a lot more. Here in Victoria we have 3 Vaders. There’s Stuart Hallam; Shiney is his board name. It comes from his black TK because it’s all shiny, his black storm trooper, Shane who was Vader on Good Friday and Amro Tawfik. The feet give me 8 inches of lift and the extra 4 inches on the mask give me a full foot on my current height, which makes me taller than all our Vaders. So that was the corporate Chewie without the plugs, without the fur on the feet.

The way this particular chap makes his suit is to make a fabric mesh shirt and pants and then latch hook the fur on which is fake human hair. The fur is quite frizzy so you have to straighten it first. Well, he didn’t know that, which is why he looks a bit like a poodle in the first shot and then in the second shot he looks more like the Chewie that we know and love.

Nalini – How does he un-frizz the hair?

With a hair straightener. The good thing is because it’s fake human hair, it’s plastic basically, you only have to do it once. It won’t re-frizz. So the lesson to learn here is to straighten the hair before you put it on the suit.

Nalini – So how far along are you with that?

Not as far as I’d like to be. I’ve been in the 501st for about 3 years now. The first year I went pretty full on. I was at every single troop. Of course the club was a lot smaller then. We’ve grown rapidly since the Science Works gig. That was massive, it was great exposure for us. But I basically trooped myself out in the first year. Last year I took it a little bit easier, I didn’t go to very many troops as the enthusiasm wasn’t that high. I decided at the end of the previous year I wanted to do Chewie. So I started to get the gear together but then I had the year off, I really didn’t have the enthusiasm. Then this year we went for a drive over to Armageddon Adelaide and we went with our friends Cen and Wendy. I got the bug again, so I thought I’ve got to get back into it. Ever since then I’ve been making strides towards doing more with Chewie. I’ve just found someone to sew the suit, so I’ll be going for a fitting in 2 weeks so I should have the actual mesh suit 2 weeks after that, so by the end of May I should have the suit. Then it’ll essentially be 2 to 3 months of latch hooking which is going to be fun, but no where near as much fun as actually doing the mask which is another thing again. For the mask you have to take a life cast of your head, which I’ve already done.

Nalini – When you say life cast, I have a family who is kind of into art, and what Mum’s done is put glad wrap over people’s faces and then taken a plaster mould which is all very complex.

Very similar, but instead of using plaster we used algenate

Nalini – Which is?

Algenate is a moulding material you use for soft impressions.

Nalini – That sounds like dentistry.

Yes. We used dentistry algenate because Amro is a dentist and he supplied the algenate

Nalini – And the instructions, very handy.

Well Dave Hankin gave us a hand because he’s done it before too.

Nalini – He made Yoda.

Yes, he did. So I sat in a chair while they poured goop over my head completely covered. The only thing that was bare was like 2 little holes for my nose.

Nalini – So they didn’t put straws up your nose or anything?

No. I did wonder how geez how am I going to go with this, but I found my zen, I just sat there and trusted the guys and it was really quite relaxing because you have this gentle pressure all over your face all over your face and it’s a cool pressure, you can’t see a thing because it’s all pitch black, you can hear the guys still talking and yabbering on so its really quite meditative. When they finally pulled the mould off my face it was quite blinding because I’d been in pitch black for an hour at least.

They pour the algenate all over your face and then they put plaster bandages over the algenate for what they call the mother mould. That’s to help keep the algenate in shape. You pull your head out once it’s all set then you put it all back together. You mix up something like plaster of paris, I can’t remember the name of it, but it’s a very fine stone thing much like concrete. You pour the mould full of that, wait for that to set then you rip the mould off and there you have a mould of your head, a life cast.

Beejay's head cast
Beejay’s head cast

Nalini – Which you only have to do once?

Yes. Hopefully. Then from that I have to build up Chewie’s face using clay so I can make an under-skull. I build up on top of my head in clay Chewie’s head just in the raw shape, no markings or anything. I’ll take a cast of that then make the fibreglass under-skull and that will provide the structure for the mask. I’ll do a silicon skin from the mould which goes over the top of the fibreglass and then individually punch the hairs into the silicon skin. That will take a while as well. Just thinking about making a human wig that doesn’t cover the face, that it’d be an epic project for someone who hasn’t done it before.

I like taking on these projects. Most people, when they come into the 501st, they take on a TK or storm trooper. I did a clone trooper. A TK you can slap together in a weekend a clone trooper is considerably different because all the armour has to be seamless. You can’t show any seams. With the TK you’ve got lips and grooves that you can use industrial Velcro in, you can glue it all together. But with a clone trooper you have to physically bond the 2 pieces together to fit your particular shape and then go over it with either car bond or marine grade bond and then sand that down so it’s smooth so you can’t see the join. Then your entire armour has to be painted. TK armour is raw ABS so it’s the raw plastic whereas the clone armour has to be painted so you can’t see the seams. I like taking on these big projects.

So that’s Chewie. I’ve got the feet done, I’ve got the head cast, I got the fabric for the mesh and I’ve got a large box full of hair.

Nalini – Have you straightened it yet?

I’ve straightened some of it. Someone else was telling me what might be a better way is to have a big pot of boiling water and dip it in and that will straighten it out. So I’m going to try that next. If I can do that it’s going to save me so much time because I can dip the whole braid (they call them braids of hair) instead of separating it out into 10 different pieces and straightening them individually and then putting it back together. The wookie workshop will be open every weekend until it’s done. I have no idea how long it’ll take. I’d love to have him for Armageddon, and I’d have him completely finished for the Myer Christmas Parade but we’ll see. I want to have him completely done before next year for some special events coming up, like the trip to Dreamworld.

It can be done under that with a lot of work. It’s all about finding the people to help you. I mentioned Amro before, he’s chomping at the bit to do Chewie’s teeth, pardon the pun, and I’ve just found Lowana who is going to sew the suit for me. Lowana was the imperial officer at the Good Friday Appeal. She made that all by herself, there are no patterns for the imperial officers.

Nalini – She gave me a business card, it looks like she’s into costuming.

Yes she does corsetry and… it’s actually really cool what it says on the back of her card, it says ‘exquisite clothes for the discerning lady or gent’ or something similar. We’ll see how it turns out. Duck made his under-skull out of foam and carved it out of foam. The one I’m doing is made out of fibreglass. It’ll probably be about the same weight because that foam is the same foam that I’ve used for the feet, it’s quite solid.

Beejay's corporate Chewie
Beejay’s corporate Chewie

Edward – It’s really compact foam then?

Very compact. You can sand it to shape, it’s not like your normal foam. It’s still lightweight but it’s very dense. You see the jaw is separate, you see these holes next to the nostrils there. That’s actually for the piano wire to go through to hold on to the top lip so when you open the jaw the top lip curls up so you get that snarl. It’s all about getting the pieces together now. I’m looking forward to it, it’s great, it’s a lot of fun. There are so many characters and so many costumes, but I’ve been told no more characters until Chewie’s finished. There’s a Weequay pirate captain called Hondo Ohnaka who is very flamboyant and roguish, he’s a lot of fun and I’d love to do that character. So he might be the one after Chewie. He has a little monkey lizard, like Salacious Crumb (Jabba’s pet). A lot of costumers in Victoria are dual members. The way a lot of them get in very cheaply is by doing an X Wing for around $300. Another thing they’ve started doing is the X Wing pilot shoot at Armageddon. Doesn’t that look awesome? I want to be a part of that!

Edward – I’m keen on doing a storm trooper.

Don’t buy anything from EBay, anything on EBay will be crap. This is a copyrighted licensed character. We have the use of these copyrighted characters as long as we abide by these precepts purely for the charitable work we do. We have a fantastic relationship with Lucas Film. I don’t know of any other club in the world that has as close ties to the organisation that it’s based around than the 501st and Rebel Legion. Whenever they want TKs or Vader or whatever they call on us. They say hey, we’re going to be promoting the new game that is coming out, and we say Sure!

There are two things I tell new recruits. Let the costume choose you with a caveat being that if you really love a costume then do it. Don’t let anyone tell you different. If that’s the character you want to be then be that character and be the best damn version of that character that you can be. But let the costume choose you otherwise because there are some body shapes that are more suited to different types. The second thing I say is research research research and then more research. I spent 6 months researching my clone before I bought a single thing because there are so many different ways of building your clone, of the armour, of the character. Each one is different. The episode 2 clone is pretty much standard but with your storm trooper there is a different one for movies 4, 5 and 6. This is the thing that distinguishes the 501st from other costuming clubs. We concentrate on movie accurate costumes. It’s not enough to put a TK together and I’m a storm trooper. If you don’t have enough stripes, if your ab section is upside down you’ll get knocked back. We have different detachments in the 501st that help with the costumes. We have bounty hunters, the clones, the first imperial storm trooper detachment, the Mos Eisley Police Department, that’s the sand troopers.

Nalini – The bounty hunters are becoming more common.

Yes they are becoming a little bit more common, but Bobba Fett and Darth Vader are the most difficult costumes to do and end up being the most expensive. You can go upwards of $5000, I’ve heard of at $10,000 Vader. Which is just ridiculous. You can do Vader for $2,000, to do a TK you’re looking at at least $1,000. Wranglers are always welcome.

Edward – I ended up spending a lot of time wrangling on Friday and it was fun.

That’s how I got involved, it’s a lot of fun. It’s really good to apprentice yourself first of all by being a wrangler so you understand what it’s all about so when you actually are in the costume you’ve got a greater appreciation for what’s happening.

Nalini – Thanks for speaking to Dark Matter, Beejay and Edward.


Laff it up, Fuzzball!

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Nalini is an award-winning writer and artist as well as managing editor of Dark Matter Zine.


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