It was around this time last year I gave a detailed primer about the Ins & Outs of Cosplay Competitions based on my own experiences as a contestant, later as a judge, and from what I’ve learned from judging alongside some of the best in the business. It laid out how these competitions are structured, what to expect up on stage, and advice on what judges look for.
This time I want to focus and expand on that final element and delve deeper into what judges are specifically looking for in a competition entry. From the quality of craftsmanship, ingenuity, overall impact, and knowledge of the character, it’s my hope that this advice can increase your chances of standing out from the rest of the pack, little insights that may help cope with potential disappointment, as well as pointers that can assist in putting on a great show.
Most convention-based cosplay competitions operate in more or less the same manner with only a few minor differences: You apply/register to enter, you arrive for marshalling/pre-judging, you step up on stage when you’re introduced, you show off your costume, answer a few questions, and wait to have your hopes crushed but three or four people sitting behind a table.
Joking aside, these contests are all about enjoying yourself and having fun but if you are determined on a positive result then it all starts before your build.
Whether it be months of lead time or on-the-day registration, the first step in deciding to enter a cosplay competition is deciding what costume to enter with.
Cosplay is about fun and personal expression and that’s still the case with competitions but these contests are all about showcasing the best there is the offer so as well as something that’s fun to wear and a character that means something to you it needs to be able to stand out from the rest of the pack.
This can often be accomplished with how elaborate it is, how complex the build is, or how detailed it all looks. Armour is often a popular choice, which has led to the rather misleading belief that “armour always wins” when it reality it’s large or complex costumes in general that have the better odds at getting a result (the difference between a large and a small canvas).
But any judge worth their salt is not going to be easily swayed by the big and flashy just because it’s big and flashy. These days fantasy armour is slowly become passé the same way tech armour like Iron Man or Halo suits did because too many people were making and entering them. So a better option is to choose something that we don’t see enough of: creature suits, animatronics, prosthetics just as a few examples.
It’s all about setting yourself apart from the rest of the competition and wowing the judges and audience. Big and elaborate is all well and good but there are still other factors to take into account.
Methods, materials, and ingenuity
These days there are plenty of ways to go about making things, some fairly straightforward and some pretty complicated. How you go about creating your costume can usually contribute to how well you do in the competition.
Foam and Worbla are common materials these days but of course how you work with them, how you use them, and how you finish them can make all the difference. “Exotic” materials can impress too but that alone won’t matter if the final product is sub par. The same can be said of certain making methods.
I love the potential that 3D printing can provide but the technology is meant to make it easier to create professional looking components so if it doesn’t end up looking professional or perfect then that can affect your result.
Depending on the use, more laborious methods (like pepakura) might impress as it shows the effort you put in but again the final result has to blow the judges (and audience) away. In some cases it might be more a matter of “smarter” methods to create the same thing.
Ingenuity can be a big deal, whether it be finding that smarter method no one else had thought of yet or turning everyday innocuous items into accurate props, as well as finding affordable ways to recreate Hollywood-level costumes. That sort of clever thinking impresses much more than spewing a bunch of popular and trendy phrases.
Quality, craftsmanship, and accuracy
Now that there are more and more competitions that require pre-judging the quality and craftsmanship is more important than ever.
We all joke about hiding mistakes or the parts we’re not proud of in our builds but the better made or the cleaner something is the better your chances are. It’s why judges like Yaya Han are famous for “flipping the seams” to see how well and clean something is sewn together. The same thing is done for armour and prop builds when examining glue lines or paint work. Spending that extra time to get them right can make all the difference.
I’ve always said good paint and finishing is what ultimately sells your work. It’s what makes your pieces go from looking like foam or plastic to looking like metal or stone. The more convincing it looks the better. Even if it’s to emulate the cell-shaded source material it shows effort and accuracy on your part.
Small, intricate details often impress too, things that require closer examination. Patterns, textures, motifs, “greeblies”, anything that adds an extra layer of detail or tells a story about your costume and prop. How you go about creating those details can also score you points in the eyes of the judges.
We all aim for accuracy in our costumes but we don’t always quite get there for various reasons. When it comes to this element in a competition, it’s not really about looking exactly like the character (we all come in different shapes and sizes) but about recreating as much accurate detail as you can that your character is still recognisable (which is why established characters often do better than original designs, which in turn have to be really high in quality to impress).
It’s easy to wow everyone with a big and flashy costume. But overall impact is about stage presence. It’s about how you wear the costume, how it sits on you, and how it looks from head to toe whether it be the 3-metre rule or being seen from the back of the auditorium, it has to impress from any distance.
Even if you have that all fitting on you and in place a great way to up your game is to really own it and get into your character. Not everyone is a performer, we all understand this, but coming up onto stage in character adds to this overall impact. It also shows everyone how much you understand the character.
Some competitions have two separate categories that accommodate this: Best Costume and Best Cosplay for example at Supanova.
Best Costume of course is awarded to the most deserving costume. Best Cosplay is that as well as being in character and that can be as you walk on and off the stage, during the final pose for photos at the end, or even during the on-stage interview (where most people would usually drop character to explain their cosplays). This plays into having fun on stage and putting on a good show.
That overall impact also takes into account how well the audience reacts to you. Sometimes funny costumes get the laughs, sometimes costumes get oohs and aahs. We all notice these things and include them in our final judgements.
Pre-judging isn’t a new element as some competitions have had it for years but many are still not accustomed to it as it’s still being rolled out at some cons. It allows judges to take a closer look at your work but not only that it allows you to explain your work in a way that you may not be able to on stage.
Those that still don’t have pre-judging have judges take a closer look at entrants during marshalling. It’s not quite the same as “being interrogated” but it allows us a more casual examination of everyone’s work. Some judges will ask questions as they move through the line, some like to just wander past quietly. In any case you are already “on” before you step up on stage.
It’s in these situations you really do need to be knowledgeable about your work and your methods. It goes toward convincing the judges that you did in fact make what you claimed to have made. Some people have tried to tell fibs before, sadly some have gotten away with it, but for the most part with three experienced judges at least one will have a keen enough eye to detect any inconsistencies. Also, with the way small communities like this work, as well as social media, do you really want to take the risk of being caught out in a lie and then have a loud mouth like me find out? The truth always comes out in the end and people like me make sure of it.
We don’t always have to “flip your seams” and take a extremely close look at your work. Some costumes benefit from just being in the same room as the judges. It doesn’t mean were not giving you a fair go it just means we can see what we need to already.
Also talk up your positives, focus on the parts you are specifically proud of or wish to highlight. Do not point out errors unless you found an ingenious way to overcome an obstacle. If there are errors we can already see them or they may be unimportant enough for us to notice or care.
“Armour always wins” fallacy
I’ve addressed this before but it bears repeating. The idea that armour always wins isn’t accurate and going through many of my photos (which I tend to take every time I judge) statistically it’s untrue. But if there is ever a good reason that people perceive this to be true it’s because armoured costumes are more memorable to the regular audience.
Non-armoured, elaborate, and impressive costumes don’t always stay in people’s memories. Hell, even on the show floor people are always drawn to armour and robots (or cleavage but that’s beside the point of this write-up). Judges always have more boxes to tick than the regular punter and we see more than what they do too. It’s why in reality a much more varied cross-section are successful in competitions than we realise.
As I said before, armour is slowing becoming less of a stand out because everyone seems to be making armour to impress. It’s almost getting to the point where nearly anything could be a stand out from all the fantasy armour that we see over and over again.
Having said that, one aspect that doesn’t get discussed enough is that every costume is judged within the context of that particular contest. You may have made a fantastic costume and invested so much time and money into it and may have easily won in another group of contestants but you have to prepare that someone might have ticked one extra box more than you did. It sucks but it happens (which is also possibly where the “armour always wins” myth comes from if the armour just happens to the best costume there).
In some cases it may be a matter of a few points that wins the prize for someone and if there is no scoring system we sometimes have to debate to get a consensus (I’ve been fortunate to work with some excellent judges, only one has ever been so unprofessional as to pay their bills via phone during a comp).
All decisions are final but if you are ever curious you are free to ask the judges for some feedback and we’re happy to accommodate. We always want to help people improve their costume or offer advice for another project. But never, ever confront a judge if you have a problem. That has never worked out well for those that choose this option.
These aren’t exactly mind-blowing secrets, I know. Most of this is fairly common sense but some of it comes from seeing all the wonderful work that steps up on that stage for so many years.
If there’s one final bit of advice I can offer is that when we say we want to see you have fun up there it really has to be about you enjoying your costume and character. There is a temptation in people to choose a costume based on what they think will get them the big prize. But no matter how well made it might be, you may not be that into the character and that will show with how you present yourself on stage or even in pre-judging. Even more important if you’re not “feeling it” on a personal level you may not be doing your best work in the first place.
At the end of the day, competitions are about showcasing the best work we have to offer. That doesn’t mean you can’t get up there for a bit of fun or a laugh but the best work comes from a personal place within you.
Here endeth the sermon.
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