Cosplay is the next level of fandom. Whether you’re at a convention with friends or at other fan events, dressing as a character brings your love of something off the screen and into real life. Someone who knows about this more than most is Joe Salcedo, CEO of Anovos, a company that makes officially licensed props and replica costumes for properties like Battlestar Galactica and Star Trek. Those are great sci-fi series and movies, but they’ve got nothing on the fandom for Star Wars. We chatted with Salcedo over the phone about Anovos, The Force Awakens, and the future of cosplay.
Sean Hutchinson: Can you tell me about Anovos and how it began?
Joe Salcedo: We make high-end replica costumes as well as high-end replica props. We actually have a dotted line into creating certain items, objects, and costumes for actual movies.
I guess we kind of fell into the business of cosplay before it was cosplay, simply because my partner Dana Gasser and I always had a passion for building. You know, building cool replicas: R2-D2s, proton packs, storm troopers, you name it. We were doing that about ten years ago and about five years ago kind of said, “You know what, let’s just see what happens if we take this to a licensing level, and do what we do and bring it to the public and see if the public actually has an interest.” Which, you know, manifested into consumer products.
Are you a cosplayer yourself?
We weren’t. We were initially a little more on the prop side of things. It was a hobby as in, we would build an R2-D2 and have it sit in our living room. Every now and then when we did storm troopers, we were asked to do events with the 501st [the worldwide organization of cosplaying Star Wars fans]. But back in the day, Dana and I were actually 501st members of the Midwest Garrison. We would do children’s events, we would do charity events, which is a really rewarding way to take your hobby and give back to the community.
So were we cosplayers? Absolutely. But we also had various interests outside of costuming that also spawned out to a lot of the products that we currently make.
Why do you think people love the performative aspects of cosplay?
The answer really is in something that we’ve always done as kids. Cosplay is nothing more than the extension of that. It’s a solution, if you will, to what happens when you go from cowboys and indians to becoming an adult. You get the opportunity to be a character you absolutely love, or if it has taken some symbolic purpose in your life, from the more casual to the more serious. A good deal of people I work with see cosplay as a real art form. It’s the ability to take what you see on screen and replicate it to a degree of accuracy so that the lines of reality between what you saw on screen and what is actually on your shoulders is so identical that it almost looks like you walked right off the set.
There are people who focus just on the art of replication and see the virtue in that. They’ve built a community that has valued how accurate, how precise something can be to the actual original piece. That not only like the people who purchase from Anovos but also the community of cosplayers who, when they see something more accurate than another, will give mad props to that person who built it.
It really comes down to our basic instinct of when we were children, to try to be something larger than we were. And it’s the same feeling that brings people to various sports. Even though you’re not on the field in Green Bay, you certainly want to be a part of it by wearing the uniform. For some people a hat is fine, but other people want to wear the uniform. That is their way of expressing that they want to be a part of something bigger. Star Wars cosplay — it’s no different.
And it opens you up to a bigger community.
Yeah, so once you express that feeling of wanting to be a part of something bigger than you, it’s that secondary belonging, because you’ve found other people who wanted the same thing as you.
Again it’s like sports fans. It’s that same feeling in the 501st for someone who wanted to be a part of Star Wars in some way. There are a lot of parallels and, you know, depending on sort of the social outlook of that particular genre for that particular time point, it can either be really cool, or considered really geeky. I can guarantee you, 15 years ago, parading around in a stormtrooper uniform wasn’t like it is today.
Cosplaying allows people to come together as a community, but you also said people see it as an art form. Would you personally call it an art form?
Oh, absolutely. It is a dedication that requires many, many hours and it requires a significant amount of effort and study. It’s really outside the realm of something that you can simply buy at a store or read through quickly in a magazine.
It is in and of itself a beautiful art form and really — depending on if you value where you put your time — you could spend hours on it, you can spend days. But the point is you spend an exorbitant amount of hours to get finite detail because if that’s where you value your time, you definitely see that it’s worth it.
So Anovos has an official license from Lucasfilm to do props and costumes?
Is this exclusive to Anovos?
As far as our category, which is costumes and props, we are the only licensee currently that has that designation.
How do you go about designing replicas? Do you get schematic from Lucasfilm or do you pore over the movies themselves?
There’s a number of ways that we can attain that information. The first way is through reference. The other way is going through the Lucas archives. Another way is going through even their own movie references over at Lucasfilm itself. One begets the other.
The first thing we’ll do is turn to the Lucas archives for something from, say, The Empire Strikes Back. We’ll ask if they still have it. If they say, “Yeah, we do,” we’ll simply go to the Lucas archives, take a lot of pictures, and scan the thing via 3D. Then also pattern out directly from that piece, take notes on the actual fabric, and then just recreate the piece. That’s almost the easy way out.
But sometimes the original costume doesn’t exist. So in that particular case we just have to research it ourselves, and that’s no different really than what people have done in the past as far as replicating a costume. It’s just a high degree of study, taking notes, a lot of screen-caps, seeing what’s out there, what collectors potentially have in their repertoire, and just reference that. So those are really the only two roads we take to start the creation of a replica.
Then the pieces are handmade from there?
Right. We either have them make it here in the States, or we have them made in China or Taiwan, depending on what the piece is.
Can you elaborate a bit about how you sometimes 3D scan the original pieces?
When it comes to armor, we always try to 3D scan it and then 3D print it. So something like Darth Vader’s mantle from The Empire Strikes Back, we would 3D scan it from the original archives using our high-resolution scanner, and then we would bring it into the 3D realm and have a few of our artists go in and really bring this to a point that’s ready to be printed to reconstruct the scan. We take another look at the engineering to see if we actually need to alter it in some way to either customize it for basic wearable use in terms of wearability for a consumer base, or if we need to engineer something in the system that makes it a little bit easier for our manufacturing team to put the piece together.
But once that’s all done, we hand it off to printers and then they come up with the final prints. Then our master prototypers go back and finish the piece off and make a few copies. That becomes our master for whomever we get to replicate it.
So going back to cosplaying 15 years ago versus now, have you seen an uptick in interest in cosplay because of The Force Awakens?
Yeah, The Force Awakens has definitely lent its power to helping market those pieces out there. And thanks to the Disney engine for helping raise awareness to Star Wars. Ten years ago it was all about the prequels and the classics were seen as the most forward-looking pieces, if you will.
Another thing to note that is in our world there’s never really been a company that does what we do. So sometimes it’s difficult to differentiate between simply meeting the consistent demand of people who want to wear armor, or it’s simply the people who have been brought into the Star Wars world thanks to the massive marketing efforts of Disney. So I think it’s obviously a combination. But I can’t tell you if it was one way or another. How much of it was a demand versus how much of it was by the marketing engine of Disney?
Who are the people typically buying from Anovos?
Believe it or not, a very small amount of them are cosplayers. The majority of the people who purchase are just getting into collecting and people who are going to try the cosplay thing out. That really is the majority, which we have found to be really great because there are people who have been on the fence for a while and who are hopefully satiating that need for exploration. But we kind of found that most of the people who do purchase from Anovos are kind of fencers if you will. It’s exciting to see that.
What’s the most difficult costume or prop to create?
The most difficult to make is something that’s mixed media, like a Darth Vader replica. It has armor parts, has leather parts, then has more armor parts. It’s a coordination of all the different facilities that we have working for Anovos. There’s fiberglassing, and as you can imagine, soft parts versus hard parts carry different activity sets. Doing both at the same time and choreographing the delivery times becomes a real monster.
Is the Vader costume your most popular item?
The most popular are still stormtroopers. Right now it’s classic stormtroopers, although we are anticipating with the release of The Force Awakens that stormtrooper will sell more than the classic. At least that’s what we’re hoping!
Will that be the entire new Force Awakens trooper or just the helmet?
We have the full thing, but the full thing is not for sale at this point — just the helmet. We’ll probably do a full release early next year.
Are you working on any other costumes from The Force Awakens?
Oh, yeah. We’re pretty much doing all of it. We don’t have dates quite yet just looking into next year. Potentially we might come out with a few pre-orders this year.
The Force Awakens did an amazing job with the armor program in the vault from everything from stormtrooper to TIE fighter pilots to the creation of Captain Phasma. So we’ve been very excited to bring this out. We’ve been sitting on our hands before any of the trailers were released, knowing just how great of a job [costume designer] Michael Kaplan and his team did in designing these things.
Where do you see the future of cosplay going, and how will Anovos change?
The thing about cosplay is that in and of itself it’s evolved. It really has taken a very sharp maturation rate, just in the past few years versus the decades it’s even been around. We have the benefit of seeing cosplay exist in the worlds of Star Trek, Battlestar Galactica, and now it’s Star Wars.
And where’s it going? One thing we’ve noticed is that what’s considered high-end cosplay is something that becomes more detailed, something that becomes a more highly derived thing. And there are many iterations it can be. It can be something that looks like it’s straight out of the movie versus something that’s sort of a mashup. The point of what I’m trying to say is that cosplay has become its own entity and it will continue to mature in many different avenues.
The goal of Anovos is actually not to help it along — it’s simply to expose people into this world. We want to bring people to this world and say, “Why should all the sports people have all the fun? Right?” If you have different passions, if you have different loves, we have a solution for you. We have something that can be as minor as having a helmet on your desk or having a collectable that fits on your bookshelf. Or if you want to go fully into it and you want to have a set of stormtroopers sitting in your room on a mannequin, or if you want to wear this thing to a convention — the idea is to invite more people into our world. We want to show them that there’s more than just your typical tchotchke that you can buy at Target. It’s something that you can buy into that brings you closer to that imagination you had as a kid.
Most of our purchases have been with people who have been on the fence. That makes me happy because we’re simply taking this thing that we’ve loved for many, many years, took a chance on it, made it a risk, and are answering that question ourselves: do other people like the world that we love so much? And this gateway that we’ve created will hopefully usher more people into this world.