Adam Savage knows how to make an entrance — even when you don’t know it’s him. The maker and former Mythbusters star has become a household name in the cosplay community for his “Incognito Cosplay,” where he secretly tours comic convention floors in elaborate costumes. He recently hit New York Comic Con to debut his latest build, and stopped by Gizmodo’s studio to tell us all about it.
We sat down with Savage at NYCC for an in-depth chat about his secretive Incognito Cosplay, like the updated Spirited Away No-Face he unveiled at this year’s show. He also broke down the work behind some of his trickier builds and told us what brings him joy about seeing his creations come to life. Is it the fan reaction, or the accomplishment itself? Hint: It’s both.
Below is an edited, condensed transcript of our interview:
Gizmodo: Hi everyone, this is Beth Elderkin with Gizmodo and I’m here with Adam Savage who just completed yet another incognito cosplay. How many is this now?
Adam Savage: Oh, god. It’s in the 20s.
Gizmodo: Twenties, oh my goodness. What’s kept you doing it all this time?
Savage: The same answer I read… a violinist who is 95 years old but still practiced every day was asked, “Why are you still practicing?” He said, “’Cause I think I’m making real progress.” And this is the thing, is it’s different for me every single time. Every cosplay has different challenges and different rewards and I love moving from things — like I just did Star-Lord at Silicon Valley Comic Con, and then I come here and I do No-Face and No-Face is so different, just this amorphous blob with the giant animatronic maw and the mechanism for No-Face kicked my arse.
I thought it was gonna take two days, it took seven or eight. I had to build it four or five times. And all of that is worth it when I walked out of my changing room and they see No-Face walk in and they go, “No-Face!” And I went, “Blah, blah, blah!” And I started talking and the whole hallway went [gasps].
Gizmodo: You know, it was a unique challenge but it was familiar, because it’s a cosplay that you’ve done before.
Gizmodo: So what made you decide to revisit it with this new challenge, was it because of the fan reaction or was it a personal drive to do this new thing?
Savage: I’m far from the first person to add the gaping maw to No-Face. Many No-Face cosplayers have done it before and the second I saw it, which is after I’d done my first No-Face, I was like, oh that’s great. Like, that’s really great. And then I just sort of let it sit there and percolate for honestly, six or seven years.
And then there was a certain point I was like, oh, this could be really neat. It could be a single actuator, it could be really, really straightforward mechanically but the result could be really arresting and you don’t often see full animatronics out on the costume floor.
Gizmodo: What brings you the most satisfaction when you’ve finished a cosplay build? Is it getting to that accomplishment, or is it seeing people react to it?
Savage: That’s such a good question! Because it’s both of those things. What I’m looking for when I make something, anything, is I’m looking for an experience. When I make a TV show I’m telling a story. I’m looking to give the viewer the experience I would want if I was them and watching this program for the first time. And when I make a costume, the making of that costume is only half of the equation.
The other half is sharing that costume and coming onto the floor and participating in this theatre that we enjoy here at these cons where the audience and the performers, the line between them is completely blurry and I love that. So to me, the costume isn’t a full costume until I’ve fulfilled its purpose by wearing it in public before.
io9: You’ve mentioned that you had to go through this a few times to get one that actually worked. What were the mechanical challenges and why did it take those few times?
Savage: Because it’s been a long time since I’ve done mechanical work for hire. It’s a mindset. First I started out by doing a bunch of drawings of what I wanted out of the mechanism. It’s a mouth about like this with teeth and a tongue and I wanted lips. So I knew specifically I wanted the mouth to not be visible when it was closed. Or less visible.
Because I wanted that surprise. So extrapolating from that, I knew I wanted the lips to move separately than the mouth. This is a classic linkage that Stuart Freeborn came up with for Chewbacca and for Moon-Watcher from 2001. And I wanted the same mechanism cables that let the lips open after the jaw opened.
And the problem I ran into was the first iteration was just too lightweight. This is a big, burly mechanism and it needs big springs and big pieces of mechanical stuff and the first time I tried it I bent it. I just tried operating it and it bent so I had to take that apart, use better materials.
Then the springs weren’t strong enough so I had to buy better springs. Then the cabling wasn’t strong enough. I had to make bigger cables. Then I had to scrap the whole thing because I was at that point modding and modding and modding so much. I had this thing with holes in it so I started from scratch again. And that happened twice.
Gizmodo: At one point when you’re building this thing and it’s getting heavier and heavier and you’re like, “I got to carry this around for an hour or two walking around,” at what point are you just, like, this might be a little bit too much?
Savage: No, I don’t think that. Because I’m super cognisant that I have this tremendous luxury of being able to come here and get support from the venue to go change in and out of my costume. The cosplayers that are here are getting changed in a hotel room across town, they’ve taken the subway or a cab in some kind of giant mermaid, sweatin’ balls in that thing all day long on the floor.
So whenever I get remotely like, “This might be uncomfortable,” I think about those guys. I have it way easier than them. All that being said, being able to see and breathe is really important so I make sure for anything that’s gonna be hot that I’ve got fans inside. It’s stuff to keep me comfortable.
Gizmodo: So you do this public “Incognito” where you go out and you make this very big, beautiful, elaborate costume. Do you still go out and do true incognito on your own?
Savage: I do. I did yesterday.
Gizmodo: Oh, you did?
Savage: I did! My friend Sasha wanted to try cosplay and I was like, well if you’re going to be in New York in the fall we should just walk together. So yesterday she dressed up as one of the early Gerry Anderson, not Thunderbirds but a different show, a character from that. And I put on my Moon-Watcher mask from 2001 and I put on Jack Aubrey’s uniform from Master and Commander simply because it’s one of my favourite costumes. And we walked the floor here for about an hour yesterday.
Gizmodo: That’s actually something that’s always been really fascinating to me, because a lot of times when we [do] full cosplay it’s to embody the character and to become somebody else, but when you’re a recognisable person it’s almost like you’re doing it to protect yourself and to be able to go out and just do whatever you want. So what is that experience like?
Savage: From the very first time I did it, which was my first comic con I went as Hellboy, I thought that making the full Hellboy costume would allow me to just blend in and enjoy the con. And the problem was, was the costume was so elaborate I was taking more pictures as Hellboy than if I had just gone as me.
And that’s when I realised there is this split that any costume you make that covers your whole body is almost guaranteed to be remarkable and noteworthy, because it’s just such a commitment to see someone, even just something that’s super common here like a Stormtrooper, you still know that you’re looking at the spearpoint of hundreds of hours of work and love and time and armour bites and things.
Gizmodo: Well, one cosplay that we’ve seen before is people actually cosplaying as you.
Savage: Yeah, that’s maybe the most surreal aspect of this whole thing.
Gizmodo: Because people do alt versions of different cosplays, is there an alt version of Adam Savage that you’ve wanted to see somebody do?
Savage: Oh yeah, Simon Pegg. Or Alton Brown. Simon and Alton and I, I know both of those fine gentlemen and all three of us have been mistaken for, Simon and I have been mistaken for each other and Alton and I have been mistaken for each other. And both Alton and I have both been in positions where the path of least resistance just for one fan was to go, “Yeah, it’s me.”
I think I was one the phone, I was talking to my mum, a family member had died, and somebody was like, “Alton Brown! Sign this thing!” And I was just like, “So anyway, Mum…” So somewhere out there there’s someone who’s got Alton Brown’s autograph and it’s mine.