My Love Letter to Cosplay at 2016’s TED Conference

At 2016's TED conference, I talked about cosplay as storytelling, which is really personal to me. Even more than prop collecting, it's a weird thing to be driven to do. And yet it's important.

I was privileged to be a speaker at 2016’s TED conference, which was held in Vancouver. You can watch my talk, which was about cosplay, here or scroll below.

I had a totally different talk prepared for TED this year, and I threw it out completely two days before I left for Vancouver.

Adam Savage speaks at TED2016 - Dream, February 15-19, 2016, Vancouver Convention Center, Vancouver, Canada. Photo: Bret Hartman / TED Adam Savage speaks at TED2016 – Dream, February 15-19, 2016, Vancouver Convention Center, Vancouver, Canada. Photo: Bret Hartman / TED

Originally my talk was going to be about art and science, which is a talk I want to give someday, but it felt like a lecture. And I’m not a university lecturer. A week before TED I realized this talk didn’t have the resonance that I wanted it to.

Art and science — STEAM — is a topic near and dear to me, but I wanted something more personal. More genuine.

Then my wife suggested I talk about costuming. She furiously workshopped the talk with me even after I left for Vancouver, spending dozens of hours with me on the phone. In the end, I wrote most of this at the TED conference itself.

Cosplay as storytelling is really personal to me. It’s also probably the hobby I’m most embarrassed about. Even more than prop collecting, it’s a weird thing to be driven to do. And yet it’s important. I feel like in talking about it, I’m trying to be a permission machine.

Hence my TED talk and my upcoming panel at Comic-Con, where I will be joined by award winning costume designer Deborah Nadoolman Landis (Raiders of the Lost Ark, Coming To America) and cosplayer Jay Justice. (By the way, yes, that’s me as a kid. I made my own suit of armor. Didn’t you?)

I hope people watch this talk or my Comic-Con panel and feel it’s OK to cosplay. And if they do, I hope they Tweet me a picture.

See you at Comic-Con!

Comments (19)

19 thoughts on “My Love Letter to Cosplay at 2016’s TED Conference

  1. That talk was great. Inspirational, open, honest and showing a hint of vulnerability. This is a great template to follow if you want to instill any sort of feeling in your audience.

  2. I got honest goosebumps from that talk.

    I, too, went as the joker from The Dark Knight opening scene and actually did learn to walk as Heath did. You explained so well the world that is cosplay and I greatly appreciate the time and turmoil that you endured to make this talk happen.

    Is it possible to get more information on your Joker cosplay? I would love to see some build pictures or just have more info because I cant seem to find anything but and old picture that you showed in the presentation. Did you cast that mask yourself, or did you find it somewhere?

    Loved it Adam, thank you for sharing.

  3. In our most honest communications, there is a vulnerability that lets others know our inner truth. Thank you, Adam, for so often being willing to risk showing us this vulnerability and your own truth.

  4. Very well done, Adam. I’ve mentioned a couple of times here at tested that it was because of you I discovered the films of Hayao Miyazaki. Right now where I live is a Studio Ghibli film festival and I have the extraordinary opportunity to watch every single Studio Ghibli film on the big screen. Some are subtitled and a couple have been dubbed. Thank you so much for the tip and I have been blown away by how good these films are! Cheers…

  5. Adam

    That was a wonderful, wonderful talk. I wish I had just a fraction of your eloquence.

    I was at a tech meetup a while ago and everyone said to bring projects. Everyone brought all kinds of circuit boards. I brought costume pieces and animatronics. Some people said they just didn’t get costumers and cosplay.

    I said, “That’s OK- not everyone is into this. But think about this for a minute: A lot of you want to get kids into engineering. With costuming and prop building you have to learn fabrication, molding, casting, pattern making, electronics, mechanics, budgeting (both time and money), writing code, 3D modeling and printing, etc. It’s an awful lot of problem solving- and that’s what engineering is. Problem solving. Hands on crafting and learning. And with the costuming community you have an incredible feedback loop, from people of all ages. People that encourage and challenge you to do your best, not give up and provide a great support system to help you succeed. This is just one part of why costuming and prop making is important to me.”

    I got invited to give a talk to some engineering students after that. It was sooo cool!

  6. My son is 9 and his big thing right now is making armor and weapons. He uses anything he can get his hands on, including paper and sticks! He thoroughly enjoyed this video, and I admit, I got teary a couple times!

  7. Adam, thank you for this. I adore your childhood pics. You would have LOVED the spaceship control panel my dad made for my older brothers. It lit up and had switches and all kinds of things. It didn’t have a view of space like yours though, ha ha! We must be close in age b/c I was too young to see Jaws as well and remember being mad about it. In the summer and over Christmas break as kids, we made costumes and put on “shows” for our parents. One year I was the dog “Maxine” from How the Grinch Stole Christmas. Another year, we made a yarn braid for my sister for The Gift of the Magi. In our large family, my parents saved costumes so any time we needed to dress up, we dug out the costumes and picked one. I still remember wearing the old Batman costume in 5th grade so I could be Bat-girl. I am so pleased to see folks enjoying themselves through Cosplay. Salt Lake City’s Comic Con has been a HUGE hit. It’s like people have discovered that no matter our differences, we have this cultural language that everyone understands. I teach in a high school created for students on the Autism Spectrum and/or other issues. My teaching assistant is half my age and his life experiences have been much different from mine, but we have bonded over Star Trek and other interests. I’ll never forget the first day of school my first year teaching at this charter school. One of the students came to school dressed as Shrek. When I saw him, I absolutely knew I was in the right place.

  8. Excellent talk. As someone who has never done cosplay, I did not know the important role of the audience.

  9. Excellent, Adam.

    I think we wear what we wear to tell others “our tribe”.

    We say, “Here’s who I am. If this look puts you off, then you and I probably won’t be good friends — probably don’t have much in common,”

  10. I’ve been waiting months for this video to come out, and it totally delivers on expectations. I love that Adam not only showcases the qualities of cosplay culture, but retells his own history of costuming; I think it makes the concept of “playing dress up” (as some people still see it), much easier to understand.

  11. Great talk Adam, The speech brought back old memories, when I was creating my own things as a child….glad t here I wasn’t the only one…….

  12. Amazing talk and as someone who has never cosplayed out of fear of ridicule from others this is very inspiring. I had always assumed that the costume was the cosplay and the best costume was the one everyone talked about, never once had I considered the performance while inside the costume and the added depth that would bring to the cosplay.

    Thanks for the amazing talk and inspiring this guy to give cosplay a try.

  13. I lived in small country called Estonia whole my live. Was watching Adam and his passion and envying a little bit. There was no place/community in Estonia to practice cosplay. I’ve moved to Sydney 2 years ago, and my company rented big cinema on the morning of Star Wars premier! I’ve never been been like a very big-big fan of Star Wars (when this fever started, Estonia was part of USSR and it wasn’t as popular there).

    But never the less I decided, it’s going to be my best chance to try a CosPlay – So, I did. I’ve made myself a Jedi Costume from scratch. I never sew before, so on the night before that day I learned how to sew: https://www.instagram.com/p/_WdiOAhmd3

    And next day I had my costume: https://www.instagram.com/p/_YOxf9BmR9

    I even weared it in the middle of Sydney CBD (centre) on the way to the cinema and in the cinema, where I was posing for some strangers who wanted a pic =)

    https://www.instagram.com/p/_YYBljhmdP

    I’ve been happier then ever! Thank you, Adam!

  14. Costumes and Role-Play, what could be more fun?! I thoroughly enjoyed the role play and game figure design associated with D&D (2nd Ed.), as a high school kid back in the early eighties. It allowed me to find other creative-minded individuals at a time when I was not fitting into the usual, boring tropes associated with High School in a very small rural town in Texas. I don’t see this experience being much different from full-sized cosplay.

    As a newly minted 50 year old, I am having a hard time coming to grips with the expectations of a 50 year old in ‘typical society’, while also enjoying trips to the local comic book store, or spending hours enjoying sites like Tested, Nerdist, etc. As you are seeking validation for the love of (and participation in) Cosplay, I too am hoping to validate my interests in similar subjects, while being courted by AARP.

  15. So awesome! My son (9y/o) and I watched together. Embarrassingly, it made me cry. You have inspired him so much, (and of course my daughters and I as well) to just use your imagination and just make. I honestly hope he can shake your hand some day.

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