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There's this fact that I love that I read somewhere once, that one of the things that's contributed to homo sapiens' success as a species is our lack of body hair -- that our hairlessness, our nakedness combined with our invention of clothing, gives us the ability to modulate our body temperature and thus be able to survive in any climate we choose. And now we've evolved to the point where we can't survive without clothing. And it's more than just utility, now it's a communication. Everything that we choose to put on is a narrative, a story about where we've been, what we're doing, who we want to be.
I was a lonely kid. I didn't have an easy time finding friends to play with, and I ended up making a lot of my own play. I made a lot of my own toys. It began with ice cream. There was a Baskin-Robbins in my hometown, and they served ice cream from behind the counter in these giant, five-gallon, cardboard tubs. And someone told me -- I was eight years old -- someone told me that when they were done with those tubs, they washed them out and kept them in the back, and if you asked they would give you one. It took me a couple of weeks to work up the courage, but I did, and they did. They gave me one -- I went home with this beautiful cardboard tub. I was trying to figure out what I could do with this exotic material -- metal ring, top and bottom. I started turning it over in my head, and I realized, "Wait a minute -- my head actually fits inside this thing."
Yeah, I cut a hole out, I put some acetate in there and I made myself a space helmet.
I needed a place to wear the space helmet, so I found a refrigerator box a couple blocks from home. I pushed it home, and in my parents' guest room closet, I turned it into a spaceship. I started with a control panel out of cardboard. I cut a hole for a radar screen and put a flashlight underneath it to light it. I put a view screen up, which I offset off the back wall -- and this is where I thought I was being really clever -- without permission, I painted the back wall of the closet black and put a star field, which I lit up with some Christmas lights I found in the attic, and I went on some space missions.
A couple years later, the movie "Jaws" came out. I was way too young to see it, but I was caught up in "Jaws" fever, like everyone else in America at the time. There was a store in my town that had a "Jaws" costume in their window, and my mom must have overheard me talking to someone about how awesome I thought this costume was, because a couple days before Halloween, she blew my freaking mind by giving me this "Jaws" costume.
Now, I recognize it's a bit of a trope for people of a certain age to complain that kids these days have no idea how good they have it, but let me just show you a random sampling of entry-level kids' costumes you can buy online right now ... ... and this is the "Jaws" costume my mom bought for me.
This is a paper-thin shark face and a vinyl bib with the poster of "Jaws" on it.
And I loved it.
A couple years later, my dad took me to a film called "Excalibur." I actually got him to take me to it twice, which is no small thing, because it is a hard, R-rated film. But it wasn't the blood and guts or the boobs that made me want to go see it again. They helped --
It was the armor. The armor in "Excalibur" was intoxicatingly beautiful to me. These were literally knights in shining, mirror-polished armor. And moreover, the knights in "Excalibur" wear their armor everywhere. All the time -- they wear it at dinner, they wear it to bed.
I was like, "Are they reading my mind? I want to wear armor all the time!"
So I went back to my favorite material, the gateway drug for making, corrugated cardboard, and I made myself a suit of armor, replete with the neck shields and a white horse. Now that I've oversold it, here's a picture of the armor that I made.
Now, this is only the first suit of armor I made inspired by "Excalibur." A couple of years later, I convinced my dad to embark on making me a proper suit of armor. Over about a month, he graduated me from cardboard to roofing aluminum called flashing and still, one of my all-time favorite attachment materials, POP rivets. We carefully, over that month, constructed an articulated suit of aluminum armor with compound curves. We drilled holes in the helmet so that I could breathe, and I finished just in time for Halloween and wore it to school. Now, this is the one thing in this talk that I don't have a slide to show you, because no photo exists of this armor. I did wear it to school, there was a yearbook photographer patrolling the halls, but he never found me, for reasons that are about to become clear.
There were things I didn't anticipate about wearing a complete suit of aluminum armor to school. In third period math, I was standing in the back of class, and I'm standing in the back of class because the armor did not allow me to sit down.
This is the first thing I didn't anticipate. And then my teacher looks at me sort of concerned about halfway through the class and says, "Are you feeling OK?" I'm thinking, "Are you kidding? Am I feeling OK? I'm wearing a suit of armor! I am having the time of my --" And I'm just about to tell her how great I feel, when the classroom starts to list to the left and disappear down this long tunnel, and then I woke up in the nurse's office. I had passed out from heat exhaustion, wearing the armor. And when I woke up, I wasn't embarrassed about having passed out in front of my class, I was wondering, "Who took my armor? Where's my armor?"
OK, fast-forward a whole bunch of years, some colleagues and I get hired to make a show for Discovery Channel, called "MythBusters." And over 14 years, I learn on the job how to build experimental methodologies and how to tell stories about them for television. I also learn early on that costuming can play a key role in this storytelling.
I use costumes to add humor, comedy, color and narrative clarity to the stories we're telling. And then we do an episode called "Dumpster Diving," and I learn a little bit more about the deeper implications of what costuming means to me. In the episode "Dumpster Diving," the question we were trying to answer is: Is jumping into a dumpster as safe as the movies would lead you to believe?
The episode was going to have two distinct parts to it. One was where we get trained to jump off buildings by a stuntman into an air bag. And the second was the graduation to the experiment: we'd fill a dumpster full of material and we'd jump into it. I wanted to visually separate these two elements, and I thought, "Well, for the first part we're training, so we should wear sweatsuits -- Oh! Let's put 'Stunt Trainee' on the back of the sweatsuits. That's for the training." But for the second part, I wanted something really visually striking -- "I know! I'll dress as Neo from 'The Matrix.'"
So I went to Haight Street. I bought some beautiful knee-high, buckle boots. I found a long, flowing coat on eBay. I got sunglasses, which I had to wear contact lenses in order to wear. The day of the experiment shoot comes up, and I step out of my car in this costume, and my crew takes a look at me ... and start suppressing their church giggles. They're like, "(Laugh sound)." And I feel two distinct things at this moment. I feel total embarrassment over the fact that it's so nakedly clear to my crew that I'm completely into wearing this costume.
But the producer in my mind reminds myself that in the high-speed shot in slow-mo, that flowing coat is going to look beautiful behind me.
Five years into the "MythBusters" run, we got invited to appear at San Diego Comic-Con. I'd known about Comic-Con for years and never had time to go. This was the big leagues -- this was costuming mecca. People fly in from all over the world to show their amazing creations on the floor in San Diego. And I wanted to participate. I decided that I would put together an elaborate costume that covered me completely, and I would walk the floor of San Diego Comic-Con anonymously. The costume I chose? Hellboy. That's not my costume, that's actually Hellboy.
But I spent months assembling the most screen-accurate Hellboy costume I could, from the boots to the belt to the pants to the right hand of doom. I found a guy who made a prosthetic Hellboy head and chest and I put them on. I even had contact lenses made in my prescription. I wore it onto the floor at Comic-Con and I can't even tell you how balls hot it was in that costume.
Sweating! I should've remembered this. I'm sweating buckets and the contact lenses hurt my eyes, and none of it matters because I'm totally in love.
Not just with the process of putting on this costume and walking the floor, but also with the community of other costumers. It's not called costuming at Cons, it's called "cosplay." Now ostensibly, cosplay means people who dress up as their favorite characters from film and television and especially anime, but it is so much more than that. These aren't just people who find a costume and put it on -- they mash them up. They bend them to their will. They change them to be the characters they want to be in those productions. They're super clever and genius. They let their freak flag fly and it's beautiful.
But more than that, they rehearse their costumes. At Comic-Con or any other Con, you don't just take pictures of people walking around. You go up and say, "Hey, I like your costume, can I take your picture?" And then you give them time to get into their pose. They've worked hard on their pose to make their costume look great for your camera. And it's so beautiful to watch. And I take this to heart.
At subsequent Cons, I learn Heath Ledger's shambling walk as the Joker from "The Dark Knight." I learn how to be a scary Ringwraith from "Lord of the Rings," and I actually frighten some children. I learned that "hrr hrr hrr" -- that head laugh that Chewbacca does.
And then I dressed up as No-Face from "Spirited Away." If you don't know about "Spirited Away" and its director, Hayao Miyazaki, first of all, you're welcome.
This is a masterpiece, and one of my all-time favorite films. It's about a young girl named Chihiro who gets lost in the spirit world in an abandoned Japanese theme park. And she finds her way back out again with the help of a couple of friends she makes -- a captured dragon named Haku and a lonely demon named No-Face. No-Face is lonely and he wants to make friends, and he thinks the way to do it is by luring them to him and producing gold in his hand. But this doesn't go very well, and so he ends up going on kind of a rampage until Chihiro saves him, rescues him.
So I put together a No-Face costume, and I wore it on the floor at Comic-Con. And I very carefully practiced No-Face's gestures. I resolved I would not speak in this costume at all. When people asked to take my picture, I would nod and I would shyly stand next to them. They would take the picture and then I would secret out from behind my robe a chocolate gold coin. And at the end of the photo process, I'd make it appear for them. Ah, ah ah! -- like that.
And people were freaking out. "Holy crap! Gold from No-Face! Oh my god, this is so cool!" And I'm feeling and I'm walking the floor and it's fantastic. And about 15 minutes in something happens. Somebody grabs my hand, and they put a coin back into it. And I think maybe they're giving me a coin as a return gift, but no, this is one of the coins that I'd given away. I don't know why. And I keep on going, I take some more pictures. And then it happens again. Understand, I can't see anything inside this costume. I can see through the mouth -- I can see people's shoes. I can hear what they're saying and I can see their feet. But the third time someone gives me back a coin, I want to know what's going on. So I sort of tilt my head back to get a better view, and what I see is someone walking away from me going like this. And then it hits me: it's bad luck to take gold from No-Face. In the film "Spirited Away," bad luck befalls those who take gold from No-Face.
This isn't a performer-audience relationship; this is cosplay. We are, all of us on that floor, injecting ourselves into a narrative that meant something to us. And we're making it our own. We're connecting with something important inside of us. And the costumes are how we reveal ourselves to each other.