When I was first introduced to Christian and his family by the Magic Wheelchair Non-profit, I was told they wanted him to be a velociraptor. I immediately felt excited by the challenge and a bit scared of not being able to pull it off and disappoint them. By talking to Lior Molcho from the Magic Wheelchair, I was presented with a manual with instructions, tips and ideas on how to go about with building a wheelchair costume in general.
There were a few things I needed to do first to make sure the build would be successful:
1- Create a decent mockup out of PVC pipes of the wheelchair so I could have the correct measurements to build the frame attachments;
2- Have a strong concept and sketch on how the velociraptor would look and attach to the wheelchair;
3- Create a strong, lightweight, durable and well designed frame.
I bought my PVC pipes and went to meet the family for the first time, only to find out that it’s extremely hard to build a mock up when the only connectors you have are straight, 45° or 90° angles. I did the best I could while I was there and took some photos so I could better my design once I got back to my studio.
It was time to get some help. I contacted Obtanium Works, a place here in Vallejo known for making big costumes on wheels, floats for parades and more. their master creator, Shannon O’HareI and I sat together and came up with the idea of having Christian ride the velociraptor and to make things a little easier on me, instead of crafting the entire body, I would cover the sides of the wheelchair with jungle leaves. What kid wouldn’t dream of it? He donated some materials to get me started.
Once back in my studio, I traced the side picture I took of Christian on the wheelchair, found images of velociraptors online and using photoshop, I picked the best fitting one to scale over the sketch of Christian on the wheelchair. I now had a design!
I then invited my friend Byron Barnes to help me with fixing the wheelchair mockup and building the frame. He convinced me that aluminum was the best material to use and he went ahead and built the frame for the front attachment where the head, neck and hands of the velociraptor would go.
Magic Wheelchair also strongly recommends that we build a cardboard mockup of the costume before doing the actual build. I quickly understood why. It gave me a visual to see if things were going along with my intentions. In order to make everything up to scale, the velociraptor size would have to be multiplied by 8.3 from my sketch to get to the actual size that fits in the wheelchair. This meant the the head would be 25 inches long. This is where I had to use my math brain, in case you’re wondering!
I asked Christian’s parents to bring me the wheelchair for a few hrs to make sure we were on the right track. I actually found out my mockup wheelchair had some inaccurate sizes and fixed it back in the studio. To be more certain of the right sizes, we traced the wheelchair on a huge piece of cardboard sheet.
Byron also went ahead and built a square tube attachment for the back of the wheelchair and side attachments that would connect to the front and to the back aluminum pieces.
Next it was time to make a decision on whether I would use hard foam for the head or soft upholstery foam. I was given a huge block of foam from Shannon so I attempted the hard foam first. I soon got frustrated with carving it and asked my artist friend at the Coal Shed Art Studios, Jean Cherrie (who has sculpted with hard foam in the past) to give me some tips. She helped me do the base cut and gave me some tools. I created a crazy mess on my little corner for a few days.
The hard foam was not going in the direction I wanted, so I kept on researching. Meanwhile, I watched an online class with John Cherevka at Stan Wiston School on how to make creature’s eyes and painted the velociraptor’s eyes using a plastic Christmas ornament mould.
I looked on youtube for velociraptor’s constructions and found this awesome tutorial by Anyone Can Sculpt. I knew right away this was the direction I wanted to take. Starting with their patterns, I would then continue to build the whole rest of the body using upholstery foam, 74 Spray Fast Foam Glue and spandex fabric.
Once I had a good part of the head and neck built, I asked my friend Byron to come back to make aluminum rings to the neck and body to support the foam better before I glued the sides. I also cut a 1in foam board for each side of the wheelchair where the jungle would go. I later on realized the foam was too wide and it would be too hard to go through doors, so I trimmed it to measure about 12in wide on each side. I then cut another 2″ hard foam sheet and glued on top of the foam base to make it taller and then began to spray foam on top of that to make the dirt where the jungle would be attached.
I bought some exterior latex paint and painted the inside of the mouth before gluing the sides of the dinosaur. This way I wound’t have a hard time reaching inside when it was put together. And why not give it a base coat to the entire head?
I glued the sides of the body together already in place over the aluminum frame. I purchased a bunch of fake leaves to be glued over the sides.
It was time to figure out where and how the arms would be attached. I first painted them and tested placement before giving it a permanent bond. I ran some wires inside of each finger to attach it to the lower arm and another couple of wires on the upper arm to attach it to the circle inside of the body frame. The arms were not hollow, so they were a little bit too heavy and tended to go down with gravity. Using strong wires inside helps to keep it in place.
The idea was to create fake legs for Christian to make it look like he’s actually riding the dinosaur. His real legs would fit inside of the velociraptor’s body. I purchased children’s pants and boots from a Thrift store. Christian would be wearing the shirt and vest from the character Owen Grady, played by Chris Patt. I found an exact copy of the vest on Amazon, making it the perfect touch for his costume. I made a dummy of the upper body and head to visualize the whole concept and see if I was in the right direction.
Painting the base of the planter with a brush was a bit too challenging because the spray foam creates many little holes, so I bought an exterior spray paint and quickly filled those holes to darken the bases a bit more.After finishing the dirt, I glued all the plants in place so they wouldn’t fall off while they moved it around.
Well, it wouldn’t be me if I didn’t find a way of using my Cold Porcelain Clay somewhere in this costume. This is what I used to make the teeth, but any other epoxy clay or air drying clay would work. I poked thin wire and glued them to the mouth with super glue and a zip kicker.
I painted final details on the skin and because this is actually a character from the Jurassic World movie, this velociraptor named Blue got a touch of blue paint on its sides and I also corrected any parts where the gluing wasn’t quite glued all the way.
I questioned how I would build the tail from the beginning. This is not an electric wheelchair. It’s manual. This meant someone would have to be pushing it around and the tail was right in the way of that. I had to decide whether or not the adult would be the tail, wear the tail or if the tail would go around the person. I decided to go with the third choice. I bent two long aluminum pieces soldered to the back aluminum frame, wrapped it on a sheet to see if it looked good before I started to cut some foam. This part of the process was very instinctive and had a lot of figuring it out as it went. I did end up re-trimming the tip of the tail because it was too thick and it didn’t look natural.
I tried to make the claws out of clay at first but they were way too heavy for the arms. I instead cut them out of hard foam. My artist friend Jean Cherrie offered to help with this part. She sanded the claws to a smooth finish and covered them with spandex cloth, then painted and glued them on the fingers. It looked great and it was super lightweight.
While Jean Cherrie worked on the claws, I had a chance to fit the costume on the actual wheelchair one last time 2 days before the great reveal. I had to make sure nothing went wrong and make any last adjustments if needed. I was glad to find out everything seemed to fit perfectly!
Still taking advantage of the chair being there, I took measurements to make the saddle and the fabric that would cover the back of the wheelchair. I worked on finishing touches even while NBC News and the Times Herald came to cover the story.
It was time for the great reveal! I drove to Redwood City with my friend Jean Cherrie on a pouring rainy day to meet with Christian’s family and friends at their backyard party. It was a magic and emotional day with lots of laughter and joy.