Inside Syfy's Cosplay Melee Workshop

By Norman Chan

Showrunner Ian Mallahan guides us through the tools used by the cosplayers for this new competition show.

Heads up: SyFy's new Cosplay Melee premieres tonight. It's a competition show, bringing four new contestants into a workshop each week to build original props and costumes in three days--and perform in them--for a chance to win $10,000. And while weekly theme challenges and the requirement to create characters not based on exisiting intellectual properties put the cosplayers on even footing for the competition, it's the time constraint of building a prop in eight hours and a full costume from scratch in two days that may make the show interesting to watch. Another factor is that the cosplayers are working in a space that's not their own, using tools and materials the showrunners supplied, set up and organized by the show's production design team.

Photo by: Dale Berman/Syfy

I chatted with Ian Mallahan, Cosplay Melee's Executive Producer, about the build out for the show's workspace and how contestants made use of the supplied tools for their builds. For Ian, who previously worked on American Chopper and Ellen's Design Challenge, cosplay required a different kind of workshop to fit the needs of different types of build styles. I started off by asking him how the production team chose what types of tools and materials to provide.

Ian Mallahan: I thought the best way was to go straight to the source, ask them what they used, and what their dream tools would be. Iltimately, we surveyed the contestants. We we started building out the workshop, we had just finished finals casting, and we had a really good pool of who we thought was going to be in the show. And what i wanted to do was provide them with a workshop that would cater to their specific needs.

If there was a top material and top tool, the top material was EVA foam, and top tool was the Dremel. If this was the wild west, the Dremel would be the six shooter. It's in play nearly constnatly in the workshop. And with eva foam, they're able to transform that humble material into costumes and characters that look like metal. It's unbelievable what they're able to do with that pedestian material.

What were the tools that ended up getting used the most? Did what you supplied inform what types of props and costumes could be made?

They were on the bandsaw quite a bit. Scroll saw was used quite a bit, and belt sanders got a lot of work too--useful for shaping insulation foam and aging soft materials, like fabrics. That kind of worn aged look was the difference between something looking like a halloween costume and the real authentic thing. All during produciton, heat guns were blazing. It sounded like a hair salon in there sometimes.

One of the things I love about cosplayers and cosplay and their ability to imagine is that they make use of everyday materials and transform them. It's amazing how someone can take something as simple as craft foam and craft store googly eyes and thermoplastic and term it into a steel weapon. There were so many times at the end of a build, I had to go up and touch the props because they looked so much like metal. It would literally trick my brain. Some of the techniques are incredible. First it's about getting the right shape, then it's about textures and weathering and detail. This is definitely a show about detail.

Some tools were communal, but hand tools could be brought to their stations. The thing that surprised me the most is that even though we had these great work benches for each of them, half of the contestants would sprawl out on the floor because that's how they worked at home. That is where certain people felt like they were going to be most effective. It was interesting to see who worked cleanly and who was like a whilring dirvish with scraps and materials all over the place. You can get beautiful results both ways, but the processes are so different.

Did the production use any rapid prototyping tools like 3D printers or desktop CNCs?

[Digital fabrication] was a consideration we eventually shyed away from. 3d printing technology was brought into the workshop but not really used. Given the time constraints and given that you have to do quite a bit of prototyping, we decided against 3d modeling and CNC. Sculpting and molding took the place of that.

What do you want viewers who are cosplayers to get out of watching the show?

What we wanted to get across to the viewers is everything that goes into the craft. We're a show that features the process. You could watch this show and learn stuff. We're well aware of the timeframe for these cosplayers, so all of our efforts were to support these cosplayers and give them time to build. every single moment was critical for these builds. Having the workshop stocked and outfitted well was key. Part of it is strategy. When cosplayers are preparing for conventions, they have their day to day lives to contend with too. Here, they're focused on the task for two straight days.

Cosplay Melee premieres tonight on Syfy at 10/9c. Learn more about the show here.

Photos courtesy of Dale Berman/Syfy