Plus-Sized Personality

Published on 26 May 2017

Many Singaporeans see mascot suits as fun, oversized get-ups. Yet there is incredible craft involved when it comes to creating high-functioning character costumes for performances.

By JO TAN

SPORTY SUITS Frankie Malachi Yeo’s mascot-making credits include building highly mobile sports symbols such as Merly (left) for the 2010 Summer Youth Olympics, and various iterations of Southeast Asian Games mascot Nila (above). Credit: Mascots and Puppets Specialists (Singapore)

In this month of school holidays, expect to see many familiar two-dimensional (2D) characters leap into larger-than-life three-dimensional (3D) versions, often as cuddly figures performing at malls, theme parks and other public spaces. Many of us refer to them as mascots, but masters like Paul Pistore aren’t fond of that term.

“ ‘Mascot’ may be a functional term, but it does conjure up images of oversized animals giving out leaflets outside a restaurant. You wouldn’t be allowed to go to Disneyland and call a roaming Mickey Mouse a mascot. They call them walk-around characters, or costumed characters. Those are what we create.”

Indeed, Pistore’s résumé includes creating specialty costumes in Los Angeles that transform humans into incredible fictional characters like Diablo and various Star Trek aliens. Since moving to Singapore where he founded Core Crew FX (providing special effects, animatronics and high-tech costumes and puppets for TV, film and theatre), he’s continued to work on turning 2D characters and designs into walking reality, sometimes together with the company, Mascots and Puppets Specialists (or MAPS for short).

SPECIALTY SUITS

Says Frankie Malachi Yeo, founder of MAPS, “Some people think as long as you can stitch foam together into an oversized suit, you can make a mascot. But a lot of science and engineering goes into making a good one. For the standard mascots, which walk and move like people, you must consider the size, materials and weight of your creation to balance wearability, beauty and function.” Function is especially important. “For the 2015 Southeast Asian Games, I created many different versions of the lion mascot/sports icon Nila because he had to windsurf — some had to do indoor skydiving, even parachute into the National Stadium for the National Day Parade. The Nila mascots entering the water would require waterproof paints, the ones doing certain sports would have to be especially light or have built-in fans for ventilation, and so one.”

Pistore has also assisted Yeo with various challenging character costumes, such as children’s cable channel ZooMoo Asia’s Flash the Dog, complete with animatronic ears and eyebrow movement. Then there’s animated series Hogie, the Globehopper, whose lead character, as described by Pistore, has “teeny spaghetti legs and spaghetti arms and a really wide body”. As such, the mascot’s limbs could not be operated by simply stuffing a human operator’s limbs into them. Instead, it required special mechanisms.

“It took most of my life experience to prepare me for creating these things,” muses Yeo. “When I was in school, I was in the technical class, then I was an aircraft mechanic in the Air Force for seven years before working in a paint factory dealing with chemicals and colours; I also ran a costume shop.”

Pistore, meanwhile, pursued electronical engineering in school, got a degree in electronics, and chalked up experience as a magician and working in theatre before starting to work in movies. “You do need all sorts of weird knowledge to do what we do.”

The same goes for operating costumed characters. Says Yeo, “There are a lot of beautiful mascots out there with really bad humans inside. People don’t realise how demanding it is to bring one to life.”

MOTLEY CREW Character costumes range from the cuddly Thoughtful Bunch to monstrous video-game character Diablo (above), realised in terrifying 3D by Paul Pistore. Credit: Paul Pistore

IN CHARACTER

One great mascot operator is Trey Ho: dancer, parkour practitioner and more recently, the founder of PLAYInc, which mounts various educational arts programmes, including mascot shows. “I’ve operated mascots for characters from Ben 10, Ultraman, Felix the Cat, and others,” he recalls. “For all of them, wearing the suit is hot and often stifling, it’s heavy, and there’s limited vision… sometimes you look out of tiny holes, or out of the character’s mouth, but you can’t be too obvious about that because you have to make sure the character’s eyes — not yours — are looking at the audience. You have to be alert, daring, and because your actions look different inside the suit, even more precise than a dancer to bring out the character you are operating.”

Ho has struggled with his share of challenging characters. He has hyperventilated inside an especially suffocating suit after executing high-octane fight choreography (thankfully, nobody noticed as his character was supposed to be knocked out for three minutes), and had to crouch and pedal to operate an animal character that came up to an average person’s waist. All that experience proved useful when he was commissioned to put together mascot shows for various characters, including Nila as well as the Land Transport Authority’s Thoughtful Bunch, who promote graciousness on public transport.

“I’ve learnt that the central aspect of good mascot operation is accurate characterisation. We were given the brief for the characters’ hobbies, so we worked with our mascot operators to devise movements and poses for each of them, which they showed off in a mini fashion parade during our workshops, and which we then incorporated into choreography. We also cast voice actors to really turn an inanimate costume into someone with real personality. This is a real craft, and attention needs to be paid to each aspect of it.”

Credit: Mascots and Puppets Specialists (Singapore)

MAGICAL CREATIONS

With more and more talent to operate, choreograph, and make mascots available right here in Singapore, Pistore and Yeo are looking forward to more adventurous commissions. “I don’t mind making cutesy creatures to shake hands with the public, of course. But I’d like to create huge, mystical characters that breathe smoke and fire,” says Yeo.

Pistore adds, “Places like Universal Studios in Singapore have been ordering raptor costumes from Michael Curry Design in the States for US$10,000 and above because nobody thinks there are people in Singapore who can get these things made. But we can build things of this quality and level.”

In the meantime, Ho has some advice for families whose kids, or kids-at-heart are enthralled by mascots. “Mascots really help create this magic make-believe world where cartoons come to life. The whole mascot industry protects this suspension of disbelief, so operators aren’t allowed to reveal that they are operating certain characters. But sometimes, during meet-and-greet sessions, a parent would look inside the mascot’s mouth and say, ‘See, there’s an uncle inside.’ Don’t do that… don’t spoil that magic for your child.”

WILD THING Trey Ho shows off his agility playing the terrible tiger in acclaimed stage play Titoudao in 2015. Credit: Toy Factory
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