Cosplay Spotlight: SoloRoboto Industries

Cosplay Spotlight: SoloRoboto Industries

September 18, 2015 0 By Alanna Smith
winter soldier arm

Winter Soldier Arm by SoloRoboto Industries

Sometimes you just need that one epic piece to bring your whole cosplay together, and that’s where talented commissioners like SoloRoboto Industries come in. A champion in the realm of fabrication, SoloRoboto builds stunning replicas for every kind of cosplay, and shares their work for those wanting to learn. I recently had the chance to talk to the mastermind behind the curtain about his techniques and experience in the prop-making community.

Tell us a bit about yourself.

My name is Steven Meissner, and I am SoloRoboto Industries. I’m based in Los Angeles, CA, and I make props and replicas full-time for cosplayers and collectors.

How did you get into the cosplay business?

I got into cosplay in 2008, shortly after I moved to San Diego. I’d made myself a Spartan costume for Halloween (the one from the movie 300 – not the crazy Halo armor), and figured I could fix it up a bit more and finally check out San Diego Comic Con, since I’d wanted to go for years. I talked my roommate into making some armor too, so I wouldn’t be running around in my underwear on my own, and we had a blast.

Starlord Helmet

Star-Lord Helmet by SoloRoboto Industries

In 2009, I found out that some of my friends actually paid other people to make their costumes – I’d had no idea that was something that happened! Shortly after that, I made my first props for other people, and by 2011 I was basically working full time at it on top of my regular job. In October 2012 I moved to Los Angeles, and never got around to getting another job. I’ve been making props full time ever since!

What is one of your favourite commissions you’ve made and why?

Oh man, that’s a tough one. I’ve had the chance to make some really cool stuff. I’m not being hyperbolic when I say that most of the stuff I build I just want to keep for myself!

But if I had to pick a recent favorite… I’d have to go with my Star-Lord helmet. It was easily the longest, most painstaking project I’ve ever worked on. Aside from one small section of accent lines that were laser etched, it was sculpted, carved, and tooled entirely by hand. Every time I look at photos of it I’m still surprised I made it.

Can you briefly talk about your basic process?

Every project is different, so it’s tough to generalize, but I can try!

For things like helmets, the basic process is pretty simple. Sculpt a master, make a mold of it, cast plastic copies using the mold, then assemble and paint it. (I highly recommend that anyone interested in this stuff check out Smooth-On.com for instructional videos on literally every step of the process.)

The details get a little messier. Star-Lord, for example, was sculpted almost entirely from automotive body filler (or Bondo). It’s NOT a method I would recommend for a design that’s so machined and symmetrical! I made Ant-Man the same way, but the two molds for those helmets are very different. One is a matrix mold, and the other is a brush-up or brush-on mold (a quick google search will provide the basics if you’re curious).

When it comes to one-off commissions, then the processes can vary wildly. Head Metal was made of foam and balsa wood.

Final Fantasy 8 Gunblade by SoloRoboto Industries

Final Fantasy 8 Gunblade by SoloRoboto Industries

The FF8 Gunblade I made was layers of acrylic plastic sheet and foam insulation. The TF2 “Tomislav” Minigun was pieces of sintra plastic and a crazy hodge-podge of found objects and garden sprinkler attachments. I sculpted the master for The Hound’s helmet entirely from clay. There’s quite literally an infinite variety of ways to tackle any project, and any single one of them can work.

But by and large, I tend to build things these days using different kind of plastic sheeting, Bondo or Apoxie Sculpt (an amazing 2 part clay that hardens into plastic), mold that in silicone, and cast my final pieces in urethane resin.

Some of your commissions involve lighting with LEDs – an area a lot of cosplayers find intimidating and difficult. Was this a skill you knew beforehand or something you had to learn over the years?

I am NOT skilled when it comes to LEDs! I know just enough to make a basic circuit – battery, switch, light – the sort of thing you’d do for a grade school science project. I had to learn a bit more to light up some of the props I’ve made. But I’m still basically just making simple circuits. I use a lot of LED light strips, which get wired the same as a single light bulb, wired to 12v camera batteries so I don’t have to deal with resistors! Whenever a new project requires me to do something more complex, I learn a little more. Which is part of what I love about what I do!

psylocke sword

Psylocke Psionic Blade by SoloRoboto Industries

Some commissioners aren’t as keen on “sharing their secrets”, but you often post extensive progress albums so other cosplayers can see your process. Why do you prefer making your behind-the-scenes shots public?

The openness of the prop-making community is one of my favorite things about it. I don’t personally know anyone who guards their “secrets,” though I’m aware that it used to be the norm.

I have a number of friends who make props for film, and they say that the openness of the growing hobbyist community has actually bled into their industry. Where once it was standard to guard your secrets to protect your job, it’s no longer kosher to do so! You have to be willing to share and learn to be accepted, which has led to an explosion of knowledge. And that is an awesome thing.

But for me personally, it’s very simple. I learned the majority of what I know from other makers who posted tutorials, write-ups, and progress photos. And I want to keep that tradition going, keep passing things along to whoever wants to learn, and pay it forward, so to speak. There’s room for all of us in this community!

marvel cosplay cover ant-man

Astonishing Ant-Man #1 Cosplay Variant Cover
Photography by Judith Stephens Photography
Cosplay by SoloRoboto Industries

You also happen to be one of the cosplayers featured on Marvel’s Cosplay Variant covers – Astonishing Ant-Man #1. What has it been like having your work featured on an actual comic book?

Oh, that was amazing!

We actually shot all those photos back in May, and we didn’t know for sure when or if we’d get to be on a cover, but my girlfriend Kit Quinn and I definitely jumped at the chance (she’s on Uncanny Avengers #1). We didn’t see the covers or learn the release dates until they were publicly released, so we were just as excited as everybody else!

And I’ll admit it was pretty cool to get credit as SoloRoboto Industries. It made me feel so official!

Any advice you’d give to first-time fabricators?

Just build something! Seriously. The biggest hang up I’ve heard in the panels I’ve run and classes I’ve taught is, “How do I get started?” or “What do I need?” And the answer is simple: you don’t “need” anything – just do it! There are an infinite number of ways to tackle any project, and there’s really no right or wrong way. There are better or worse ways, sure, but you can make almost anything work, so just get started and see how it goes! You’ll learn as you go. That’s what we all did!

I got started with just a Dremel, an Xacto knife, and lots of sandpaper. I’ve got a lot more tools now, but I still do 90% of my work with those 3 things. Specialty tools aren’t necessary – they just make life easier!

Any projects you’re currently working on that you can tell us about?

I’m sculpting a classic Hawk Man helmet right now, and I’ll be doing the whole thing in clay. I don’t get to work with clay very often, but I really enjoy it. I love working with my hands, and not sanding things! I also love translating art to real life, especially animation and golden-age comics; the simplicity of things leaves a lot of room for creative interpretation, which is always liberating.

Plus I think Hawk Man looks like a total badass, so I get to make a big, angry, warrior helmet, which is just fun!

What is your favourite part about what you do? 

hound

Game of Thrones Hound Helm by SoloRoboto Industries

Oh god. There’s a lot about what I do that I love. If there wasn’t, I wouldn’t do it! It would be much easier (and more lucrative) to go work for somebody else doing nearly anything. Being self-employed and running your own business isn’t easy, so obviously the pros outweigh the cons.

I love working with my hands, I love creating, and I love learning. This job lets me do all three at once. I get to be artistic without having to constantly come up with original designs – that’s the beauty of replica work – but I get to do it with some
artistic freedom. I get to play with a ton of different materials and tools and techniques. And I constantly have to learn and adapt and find creative ways to tackle new problems. I realize that sounds awful to a lot of people, but I love it!

I was afraid when I started this crazy endeavor that I’d get jaded, and come to dread making things – that this would turn into “just a job.” But I still go down to my shop nearly every day loving what I do for a living. There are certainly days I don’t (like when I know I’ve got 18 hours of sanding ahead of me)! But by and large, I love what I do. I love making things.

You can check out Steven’s work on the SoloRoboto website, Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr or Instagram. You might also see him at a variety of conventions including Comikaze, Anime Los Angeles, Wonder Con, ECCC, SDCC, Atlantic City Boardwalk Con, Anime Expo and Dragon Con – so keep an eye out!

blue beetle wings

LED Illuminated Blue Beetle Wings by SoloRoboto Industries