SDCC: Making Ender's Game Flight Suits - Badges Edition

When the first trailer released for Ender's Game, I was most excited to check out the costumes, of course. But in specific, I was really curious about how they were going to break down the Battle School armies and distinguish them from one another, how far they'd go to differentiate, etc.

I was really pleased to see that they went with a universal uniform and patches, something that on the surface seems pretty generic, but gave them a lot of options for subtlety and interesting details.

I like the flight suits (even though they're a pain to sew, for the record). I especially like that the patches looked removable, as though students could be transferred or traded from one army to another without changing uniforms, just badges.

It makes total sense. Why would there need to be an entirely different colour suit for each army? The launchies in yellow is a strong visual choice and I liked it, especially because all the remaining students were in that dusty blue grey. They could have gone down the blatant route and made each army an entirely different colour suit. And while I like that the launchies are in yellow, I especially liked that the rest of the kids were all the same colour with their army colours as accents.

What this meant in terms of the SDCC costumes was that the badges would be crucial and arguably the most important part. Otherwise, it would just look like a generic flight suit.

I spent a lot of time breaking down the badges. Like, a LOT.

(And somehow I still missed that there would be two per person, one on each shoulder, until Kelly pointed it out. Whaaaaat?)

So I got as many screencaps from the different armies as I could, mostly to look at what the silhouettes were doing, a size comparison to the kids' shoulders, and what it looked like they were made of.

Then, I made some decisions:

• The badges are flexible. They are stiffer than fabric so they don't move as well, but they bend, so the material I choose should as well. (aka not acrylic). The actual material was probably something synthetic, like a rubber, though of course I wouldn't be able to mimic that completely.
• The animal shape was etched into the material, so the badge itself wasn't flat. It had dimension, which I wanted to make sure mine did too.
• All the badges seemed to be the same size regardless of the kid's shoulder diameter.

With that list in mind, I brainstormed a lot of ideas. I could cut the shape out of stiff fabric and place a thinner one behind it. I could buy a plain patch and paint the animal silhouette on (and then lose the dimension).

I decided I wanted leather. It's sturdy but flexible. Can be dyed just about any colour, cut into a variety of shapes, but most importantly: it can be laser-cut.

Summit provided the Ender fanblogs great images of the four main armies; big and outlined, it suddenly simplified everything for me. I didn't have to speculate what the back of the Dragon Army logo looked like (though hey, I got kind of close) or get all technical OCD about dimensions.

I pulled the jpg into Illustrator and converted it into a vector image with Live Trace.

With an outlined image, Live Trace tends to get me about 90% close to what I actually want, which is pretty amazing for a computer program, really. I spent a lot of time cleaning up the border pattern, since the laser cutter would be pretty precise, but in the end I decided that the badges would be too small to really see the discrepancies like that, anyway:

Notice the squiggles that warp the border - it won't show up on the badge, though.

 I bought a bunch of leather (untreated, unfinished) and then headed down to this great place called Metrix Create:Space. It's a communal workspace in Seattle, WA where I live that allows just about anyone access to expensive machinery that they would otherwise be unable to, with technicians on hand to help out. For example, they have a couple laser cutters, a 3D MakerBot, industrial sewing machines, all kinds of things, and they are definitely not the only place that offers this kind of access, so definitely check out google to see if there's one in your area.

The smaller of the two laser cutters they have. And our super nice technician!

All the different settings the laser cutter is capable of. The object on the left measures the thickness of the material.
OK, first of all, laser-cutters are awesome. Here's a video of the cutter in action. It's actually cutting here, which is why it looks so burned and dark like that, but it looks much more cool than the etching does (no awesome laser sparks), and it also takes far less time.

Assigning properties to each line for the laser to follow.
It took a few tries to get all the settings and sizings right. The program seems pretty complicated in that there are dozens of settings. We used the smaller laser cutter because it actually had a setting for cutting into leather, which was really cool.

I think the girl that was helping us out was a relatively new technician, so there was a lot of fits and starts, but we managed to figure it out finally, and I was really pleased with the raw outcome.

The etching wasn't as deep as it appeared to be in the original badges, but it reads from a distance so I figured it would work out okay.

We made a lot of mistakes:

The laser moves too fast for my camera. Bottom right: the pattern was cut, top right, the edge was cut instead.

But figured it out finally:

final product.

It took awhile to make three sets:

They etched them too close to each other, but it worked out okay.
What was supposed to be the easiest part ended up being the worst. I bought orange and black leather dye, but the problem was that since I purchased scraps of leather (cheaper and I didn't need a whole skin anyway, it's a lot of leather), each piece took to the dye very differently. The orange turned incredibly dark and I spent many hours agonizing over how to make it less maroon and more consistent:

Ugh. WHAT is this. why.

Another interesting and frustrating reveal: sometimes the dragons darkened when dyed, sometimes they didn't.

In the end, I left them in the sun for a few days, soaking them in watered down rubbing alcohol. I can't tell you if that is an actual tactic you should try but it did even the colour out a bit for me.

Then, I spent a lot of time colouring with a very thin Sharpie:

I think they worked out really well.

I used the same process for making the name badges, except I didn't have such a perfect image to start out with, like I did with the Dragon Army badge.

It took awhile to hunt down a good font for our last names. I started with a site called What the Font? which has been around for AGES and is pretty hit or miss. They're either great or terrible. In this case, with a few modifications the results were more to my pleasing.

I made a vector image of our names, as well as the braille lettering (another font I just googled and downloaded). It took some tweaking, and a lot of printing for size adjusting, but the actual laser cut process went far quicker this time.

I used the same leather I had before, mostly because I still had scraps remaining. Originally, I wanted them to be acrylic so they'd be more solid, but in the end, the leather worked out just fine.

I painted them with acrylic paint, but there was a bit of a dilemma on what coloring the lettering was - white or black.

Simply put, it was hard to tell with the single image shot from the trailer and while it's really pretty dumb, I tend to get focused on little details really easily and it's hard to just turn a blind eye.

In the end, we went with lighter over darker, and aside from the hell that was colouring those little braille dots, I think they, too, came out pretty good.

The issue was that I didn't plan for white. I had planned for black - bought the microscopic sharpie and everything.

When we realised it was white, not black, I had to improvise with paint, which definitely defeated the point of using a laser cutter, at least when it came to the braille dots. They also scuffed up pretty quickly while wearing them at SDCC (as you can see), so I think if we were to wear these again, I'd remake the tags with acrylic. Then they won't be so susceptible to being bent and also, the edges will be more exact.

But despite that, they did the trick all right.

At SDCC they had the actual suits on display, as you've seen online all over I'm sure. I found it interesting because a lot of the little details I was struggling to align were problems that, of course, I had created for myself. For example, I wanted the badge installation to hide the edges of the badge because I thought that's what they did in the movie. Naaaaah. It just fit perfectly against the seam.

With the name plates, they were actually cut, not etched, and a piece of paper was glued behind it.

Oh well. Next time I know! ;)

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