It’s the final push of the con season (so far as there is a “con” season—MAGfest and KatsuCon in January and February have spread it out to the full year for me), and cosplay contests are everywhere.
If you’re new to this blog, or have only seen the writing stuff so far, 1. Thanks for hanging out! Don’t worry, I keep my tags/categories organized. And 2. I’ve been part of the cosplay community for a decade now, won several awards, and have been judging the Saturday Cosplay Contest at DragonCon for the last four, and today I’d like to peel a couple of layers of mysticism and anxiety off of the judging process.
I’ll break this down into a few parts: What the judges are looking for, steps you can take to prepare, and a grab bag of thoughts on the competitive scene as a whole. They’ll be linked here once they’re up.
Rule Zero: Do Your Homework.
Stealth-section! A lot of what I’m saying here can be applied to a lot of different types of cosplay craftsmanship contests, but notice how many qualifiers I had to put there. Different contests—and different judges!—will be looking for different things. Know what contest you’re entering. If you spent three hundred hours crafting a screen-accurate suit of armor, make sure you’re in a contest that will judge your craftsmanship; if you’ve found the perfect pieces out thrifting and have the stage presence to back them up, you’ll get the best reception in a lookalike or performance-based contest. Check the contest you’ve got your eye on out ahead of time, either by asking around or reading the con’s official pages or Googling it. If your expectations and the contest match up, you’ll have a much better time, and get the kind of credit you want for the kind of work that you did.
That out of the way, this post will focus on cosplay craftsmanship contests, which I’ll define here as contests where points are awarded based on 1. Costume construction skill, techniques, cleanliness, and overall quality, and 2. Accuracy to a reference.
What We’re Looking For: A Judge’s Take
I say “a judge”, but I am blessed to be part of a fantastic community of competitors and judges, and I asked around with them and synthesized the answers (mostly to make sure it wasn’t just my experience, but we had a lot of overlap). There’s a nifty “Contributors” section at the bottom of this post to direct you to some fantastic and talented ladies (and to give credit where due!), and here’s what the lot of us came up with:
We want to hear about your costume, not your character.
While it’s pretty likely that one of your judges has come across the character you’re portraying at some point and may even be a fan, our familiarity (or lack thereof) doesn’t influence our ability to judge your craftsmanship (with one very important caveat: see point 2). Enthusiasm is awesome, but you’re going to have a very limited amount of time (I have to set my contestants on a two-and-a-half-minute timer, to give thirty seconds for entry/exit, and it’s just as painful for me as it is for you), and you want to spend all of that telling me as many construction details as you possibly can, because that’s what’s going to get you the elusive and mysterious Points.
We want to see reference photos.
“But Miri, you just said—” I said craftsmanship, not accuracy. If you want accuracy points, you need a reference photo, and it needs to be printed out, on something you can leave with your judges and be okay with never seeing again.
“But no one uses paper—” Well, you don’t want to leave me your phone, do you?*
Part of what sets a “cosplay” competition from other types is that one of the key criteria is seeing how successfully you can bring a reference to life. There are a lot of ways to do this, all of them interesting and valid, but the adherence to the original reference is key, and if you want to get those points, we have to be able to see it in front of us.
To put some perspective on what you may imagine (or have experienced!) as brusque or dismissive behavior from judges, 1. I’m really sorry, I know from personal experience that it sucks to feel that way (the worst one of these I ever had was in a contest I won, and which I have not entered since), and I try every year not to do that to my contestants, but 2. here’s roughly what my judging schedule looks like:
10:30 AM – Show up at judging area, make sure that the table staff have forms and that we know where the contest will be held, all the administrivia is in order
11:00 AM – Start seeing contestants at a rate of one per 3 minutes
( this continues, and sometimes speeds up )
3:00 PM – Send out last contestant, begin frantically reviewing notes and pictures to distill dozens of amazing humans into a painfully limited slate of awards
3:45 PM – Show up at contest area with full list of winners and something strongly caffeinated
4:00 PM – Smile and put on a show for not just exhausted, anxious competitors, but the 400+ people who waited in line to see what everyone has to offer.
Conventions vary (quite wildly) by how they source their judges and what kinds of perks or payment they get, but frequently, they’re not paid or privileged beyond any other attendee, maybe, depending on the show, at the level of “guest” (and that’s only if they were already a guest). Speaking for me: I judge my contest because I love it, and I pay for my badge like everyone else and simply donate most of my Saturday to the con. Your judges are craftspeople and fans and attendees just like you, and they want to like you and love your work, but they’re rushed and trying to give as many people a chance as they possibly can. And that’s why you don’t want to hand them your phone.
We want you to tell us what techniques you used.
A lot of cosplay judging is apples to oranges to Volkswagen buses, but underneath the surface differences, there are a lot of things that are common. Working with certain materials. Patternmaking and drafting. Alterations. Papercraft. Foamcore. Wig styling. We want to know everything that you did, even if it seems obvious to you. This is another place that the elusive Points come from. You get more of them for drafting your own perfect pants than you do for following a commercial pattern. You get more for flawlessly executing in three different crazy materials than you would for just one.
Note that the quality of workmanship still very much matters: doing a few things really well will serve you better than doing a bunch of things just okay, but the more techniques are happening, the higher the ceiling. That’s something you’ll have to balance for yourself when you’re choosing and making your outfits, but once you’re in my judging room, show off! We may not know unless you tell us, and the small details that really make something shine are the easiest to miss.
We want you to tell us what decisions you made.
This one’s a little more philosophical, but it’s one of the things I love most about cosplay. I mentioned above that there are a lot of different ways to bring these unreal designs into the real world, and choosing between them—and being able to articulate and defend that choice—will go a long way toward getting your judges to love your work as much as you do.
The most frequent place for this to come up is in fabric choice, but it can apply to just about any aspect of creating your piece. You’ve probably heard statements like “avoid costume satin and broadcloth” or “line everything,” which are usually good advice in a fair number of circumstances, but being able to look at not just a reference, but the context that it’s part of, and decide which materials make sense—which would the character chose for themselves, or how would this jacket meant for battle and survival really be constructed, or what would this overall color palette look like toned into the real world, or what material gives the exact same kinds of crazy reflections as the most over-the-top frame of the anime—will bring your costuming work to the next level. Once you’re being judged, you can show off not just your work, but your thought process, too.
HOWEVER (I can hear you crying out about mixed messages from the back row, I know, I know it sucks), don’t go too in-depth. “I chose this linen because of the era the show is set in” is plenty. Remember, you’re only going to have a couple of minutes. We can use single reasons, not a history lesson.
Bonus round: We’re NOT looking for your mistakes.
Don’t get me wrong, we’ll usually see them. It’s what we’re there for. But don’t feel obligated to point them out. Couple of reasons:
- It takes time away from telling us all the cool stuff you did, and
- They’re probably not as major as you think they are.
If we don’t see it, you got away with it, and that’s okay. We want to hear about the cool stuff you did and tried and learned, not the parts that you hate. You’re not on trial, you’re here to show off something you love.
You do love it, right? I hope so. I know I do.
Well, that got long.
Stay tuned in the next few days for Part 2, or “Cosplay Judging 102: Some Practical Steps For Giving Yourself Your Best Shot.” I hope you’ve found this useful, and as always, please feel free to ask me any questions you may have, here or at my cosplay page.
Last but certainly not least, contributions to the content of the post were brought to you by:
‘Til next time!