The sun had long since set when I pulled into a sleepy town at the edge of Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom. I had driven an hour through dense forests. Trees drooped from the first snow of the season over small homes and trailers that sparkled with bright Christmas lights. It was an unlikely place to pick up a replica helmet from a Star Wars movie I hadn’t even seen.
In the parking lot of the local supermarket, I met Jason. Tall, wearing a thick, hooded sweatshirt, and blond beard, he could have easily passed for a member of a local bike gang. But online, he’s gained a reputation among hardcore Star Wars fans and cosplay enthusiasts for his high-quality replica costumes. (Multiple people we talked to, including Jason, asked that we not print their last name due to a fear that Disney will put a stop to their activities.) We small-talked for a couple of minutes, and he handed me a plastic bag with the helmet. I’d been studying pictures of it online for months, but in the glow of the parking lot, finally holding it in my two hands left a grin plastered across my face.
When painted, the prop will look almost identical to the new shoretrooper helmet from the latest entry in the Star Wars universe, Rogue One. Even though the film is just hitting theaters, the new stormtrooper costume has been inspiring fans and artists for months, as they scoured trailers and reference photos to design and create the most accurate replicas possible. Using old-school sculpting techniques alongside the latest digital modeling and printing technologies, the goal is simple: create a complete set of the latest Star Wars armor before the movie even premieres.
Star Wars fans have always liked to dress up as their favorite characters, but high-quality costuming and cosplay have taken off in the last decade, aided by a variety of costuming websites, conventions, and Facebook groups. While most major film franchises have their own dedicated costumers, the Star Wars community is especially robust, with groups such as The 501st Legion, The Rebel Legion, and others, collectively guiding newcomers and veterans alike to replicate even the tiniest details for a “screen-accurate” costume. The classics — stormtroopers or Darth Vader — are well represented, but new movies an enticing new challenge for fandom. Without the full film, new costumes demand collaboration, leaks, and an obsessive eye for parsing promotional materials, which means it takes fans months to plot out their next projects.
As interest in Rogue One began to build, Jason, my helmet dealer, created a private Facebook group — R1 Trooper Armory — as a forum for like-minded fans to discuss the various types of new costumes they were interested in building. Jason was well known in the prop-building community: his helmets were known for their accuracy and detail. His fame and talent quickly attracted casual and amateur builders to the group. This, and similar private groups would become the heart of a vibrant movement to build not just any Star Wars costume, but specifically, the costumes that the Rogue One as shown, at this point, exclusively in marketing materials.
When the first teaser for Rogue One arrived in early April, most fans saw their first look at the story of Jyn Erso, but for the costuming community, it presented a challenge: two totally new sets of armor. While the classic Imperial stormtrooper was present (with some minor differences), there was also the shoretrooper, described as “specialist stormtroopers stationed at the top secret Imperial military headquarters on Scarif,” as well as the Imperial Death Troopers, a menacing bunch who follow around Ben Mendelsohn’s fashionably cloaked Director Krennic. (A third trooper variant was seen operating a tank, sporting similar armor to the shoretrooper, but painted in different colors and sporting a different helmet.)
But while trailers can give a general sense of a costume, fleeting shots and brief glimpses are no substitute for actual hands-on time with the real, official costumes. The break for those looking to create their own shoretrooper ensemble came in July during the official Star Wars Celebration convention in London. Lucasfilm brought along a group of screen-used costumes for display. Costumers turned out in droves to take photographs of the costumes from every angle, collecting close-ups of every piece of armor and detail, down to the weave of fabrics and the scuffs in the paint.
Fans identified the exact boots that were used in the costume because of the company logo on the heel: off-the-shelf Orca Bay Brecon Chelseas. The company ran out of stock after costumers rushed to pick up their own pairs to use. The costume used other other real-world items, ranging from parts of the ejection seat harness in a British warplane to a specific computer heat sink. Former trash became Star Wars treasure.
“Reference is key,” Jason explained in a message to The Verge, noting that he worked extensively off images from the trailers and the photos of displays, but also had some friends with inside access provide him with some additional images and measurements. The recon helped Jason get started on his version of the shoretrooper helmet. At first, he put his 3D printer to work, turning out a rough version of the design. For finer detail, he added a layer of Bondo putty into which he carved his final sculpt.
On the other side of the world, another builder was tackling an even more ambitious project: a full suit of armor. Hailing from the Philippines, Jim (he also asked that we not use his last name for fear of being shuttered by Disney) had found it difficult in the past to get costumes and parts. So in 2014, he decided to make them himself. “No one was making a [helmet] from my favorite series of all time, so I had to have one,” he says of his first costume, a clone trooper inspired by the 2003 animated TV series The Clone Wars. That costume was approved for use in the 501st Legion, a global, fan-run costuming group (of which I’m a member) known for establishing such high standards that Disney and Lucasfilm used members as stormtroopers at the world premiere of The Force Awakens. Jim has made props and sets of armor ever since.
With the shoretrooper, his focus was on having the most accurate costume possible as fast as possible, using all available reference materials as he sculpted each part — first in foam, and then in clay — with the end product cast in flexible fiberglass. Jim began shipping out sets of his armor to members of the community on September 13th — more than three months before Rogue One would open in theaters.
On December 1st, the 501st Legion announced its standards for the shoretrooper costume, providing a final checklist for costumers trying to get as close to the film as humanly possible. Like so many other Star Wars fans around the world, I had most of the different elements in place. Ever since I got my own fan-sculpted kit in October, I’d spent months trimming, gluing, painting, and checking my own work against that of a massive folder of images that I’d collected along the way. When I picked up that shoretrooper helmet on that snowy day in Vermont, the final puzzle piece was finally in my hands.
As I drove back home with my helmet sat buckled into the passenger seat of my car, I reflected on the what it took for this outfit to exist. An entire community had formed, one of the like-minded and collaborative fans, a group that was singularly focused on bringing a costume to life from what had just been a gallery of images online.
Going through the effort to build a from-scratch costume for a film that hasn’t reached theaters yet, particularly when licensed companies like ANOVOS will be releasing their own version in just a few months, may seem like an act of extreme fandom. But that incredible challenge is part of the pleasure. It’s one that requires exhaustive research and experimentation, with people collaborating across the globe, resulting in a costume that while representative of the film prop that inspired it, is also uniquely one’s own — because it’s been built with your own ingenuity and sense of DIY spirit. Seeing one’s completed costume in a case, ready to be deployed for a movie’s opening screening, is a magical moment, and something a store-bought costume can never provide.
And while these are difficult costumes to assemble, this process has nevertheless made costuming accessible: you don’t need to be rich or have access to a Hollywood prop shop to put together your own stormtrooper armor. You need time, dedication, and in my case, willingness to hop in the car and meet a fellow fan in a parking lot in a snowy Northeast town, bonding over a helmet in a surprisingly powerful way.
When I go see Rogue One tonight, I’ll be armored up with my friends from the 501st Legion. The thrill isn’t just that I will have reached the end of eight months of dedication and hard work. It’s that I’ll have contributed to the Star Wars universe in my own small, special way, and I’ll be bringing the friends I’ve made along the way with me.