The leaves are changing colors, there’s a nip in the air, and my chai tea is brewing. Halloween is coming!
It’s time for a look back at one of my favorite costume designs and collaborations: The Lost Labs of Dr. Z!
Time for some backstory. While at Michigan Tech, we had the incredible opportunity to work with the Quincy Mine Hoist Association on amping up their annual haunted mine tour fundraiser. The event is their biggest fund raiser for the year for necessary repair work and maintenance of the Quincy Mine historical site. I’ve done the traditional tour a time or two and had volunteered with the rag tag, jump scare haunted mine tour previously. But nothing compared to the show that was brought down to the 7th level of the mine when the Visual & Performing Arts Department, the Tech Theatre Company, and Alpha Psi Omega Theatre Honor Society arrived.
The tour’s concept for 2019 was of a mad scientist who had set up his labs deep in the mine and that the experiments had gone horribly wrong. Dun, dun, DUN!
The show had 4 main types of costumes to consider:
- The evil doctor
- Lab assistants & run crew
- Tour Guides
Each had their individual needs for movement and style motivation. Overall though, a priority was that everyone have enough layers to be warm and dry. It stays about 50 degrees Fahrenheit in the mine and would be colder outside. Gotta love the Upper Peninsula in October. Also, the mine shaft we would be setting the show in is covered in mud, condensation, and an actual underground river next to the tour path. Mine mud sticks to cloth FOREVER. This proved a problem in choosing pieces from stock since we didn’t want to pull anything valuable or that couldn’t be run in an industrial washing machine.
The first step was to pull as many pieces from costume stock that fit the color story, were washable, and provided a variety of sizes. New actors were being brought in daily, so the design and pieces needed to be flexible for different body types. We also needed to have extras on hand for change outs, last minute additions, or simply giving someone a dry set.
We’ll talk here about the ensemble (tour guides, victims, lab assistants) then check out Part 2 for the design concept and development of the man himself, DOCTOR Z
Let’s start with the tour guides. The guides needed to be able to blend in with the aesthetic of the mine itself and look like actual employees. Like they had been around, giving tours for years. I also wanted to give them a bit of an explorer vibe to heighten the fantasy of the show. Overall, we went very simple, fitting the actors with black denim pants, black long sleeve shirts, and khaki button up shirts. If they got too cold, they could put on the coats that employees wear daily over their base costume. Top that off with employee hard hats and muck boots from costume stock, and we were ready to roll.
Our matching main tour guides after a first fitting
Next, we got to have a lot more fun with the various victims. Here, I pulled the most tattered pieces of clothing from costume stock and then focused in on what could be interpreted as prison uniform.
Here, a pair of tattered pajama’s became the prisoner garb of choice. The cloth was easy to wear and shred using sand paper, wire brushes, and a quick tea dye to look more worn and dirty. Also, with the darkness of the mine on our side, black insulating layers were added underneath for warmth.
Finally the minions. Dr. Z’s lab assistants were rather generic in their base costumes, but we were able to add details that were unfortunately lost in the darkness of the mine. Being a STEM based university, we were lucky to have more lab coats on hand then we knew what to do with. And what does that mean? Distress. All the distress we could possibly desire. We used old bottles of fake blood, brown dye, drove over them with vehicles, slashed cuts near key stress points, and shredded slashes. We actually got to a point where there was too much distress and they had started to look like victims.
To solve this problem, I coined the phrase, “Frankenstien stitching”. We used coarse button thread and embroidery thread to mend some of the rips as un-neatly as we could. This allowed us to repair the large holes that would become problems in the mine during the constant action, while adding texture and detail to the lab coats.
The lab assistants were crucial in operating some of the mechanical portions of the mine tour. Our actors were initially run crew members. Thus, their base costumes needed extra movement ability and be able to blend into the scenery when operating wires or switches. We opted to give them black turtle necks, black jeans, and the last of our black muck boots since they would need to get into messier areas of the mine shaft for operations.
Beyond those simple base costumes though, the makeup took off. By accentuating their eyes and cheekbones, we gave them sinister looks. Top that off by using a simple Halloween makeup pallet to outline where goggles would have sat on their faces to give the illusion of an experiment gone wrong.
Makeup was also key for the victims. By giving them black eyes, sunken cheekbones, and bloody noses, we could very quickly simulate the wear the experiments took on their bodies. Our makeup artist created specialty prosthetics for the severed head victim that was then bloodied up for the slashed effect.
Here, I even got to join in on the action by quickly distressing a flannel, jeans, and going wild with hair and bloody makeup.
We even had uncasted crew members joining in with these simple techniques. That gave us more actors and more abilities for jump scares.
Keep reading to The Lost Labs of Dr. Z! – Part 2 to see the process for creating the man, the myth, the legend….. DOCTOR Z.