A DIY Paper Mache Jack O'Lantern Costume Build Review

“Jack Pumpkinhead” Halloween Costume Build

Jack Pumpkinhead debuted in L. Frank Baum’s second Oz book, “The Marvelous Land of Oz” (1904), wherein he plays side-kick to Tip, the story’s plucky young protagonist, who assembled Jack from a few sticks, a pumpkin, rummaged clothes, and a pinch of magic powder. While Jack didn’t make MGM’s casting cut, he did garner a costarring roll in Walter Murch’s 1985 Disney mishmash, “Return to Oz”.

None of that has a bearing on my costume, however, but I figured we needed to air Jack’s backstory before mostly ignoring it since, let’s face it, everyone seeing Jack Pumpkinhead rightfully assumes him to be a scarecrow. He isn’t, but let’s not get too indignant if folks assume him to be.

The true impetus for building my Jack Pumpkinhead costume was rooted in my problems on another project — a seriously stalled project: my still-as-yet unfinished Krampus “giant head” costume. “Problems” doesn’t capture my despair, my stuckness. I’ve been floundering on Krampus for two-plus years. My “problem” is that Krampus has taken considerably more effort than anticipated, so he’s become a bit too precious, too much to lose, and I’ve become paralyzed with excess caution, a debilitating fear of ruining a gazillion hours’ work. Enter Jack. Jack was to be my confidence building “easy win”; a quick weekend project that would salve my damaged crafter’s ego, boost my can-do-edness, propelling me determinedly toward resuming and finishing Krampus!

My original idea wasn’t “Jack”, but merely a pumpkin-headed scarecrow (below).

It wasn’t until after completing a couple sketches that I remembered William Wallace Denslow’s clever Oz illustrations:

Full-sized sketches were drawn and, with a design more-or-less in hand, was off to the races (note: a none too subtle, but crucial design change was Jack’s mouth — from toothy-laugh to lightning bolt grin. That laugh’s size was intentional; it’d been designed to allow me the biggest possible view-port out his mouth, a fact I sadly forgot when changing to his final, narrow z-line mouth. That change and making the entire face — eyes and mouth — about 20% smaller, was an unfortunate whoopsiedoodle, all because… I forgot)

Oh, I’d be remiss if I did not thank Ben Tripp and Ludlow for keeping me focused on the calendar and endless assists — especially Ben, who’s artistic skills and knowledge were indispensable. Also a hat-tip to thank Kevin Kidney for his post on the Disney “Return to Oz” Jack Pumpkinhead costume. If I needed a little push that this was doable, his detailed photos provided just the right umph-itude.

Overall philosophy for Jack:

  1. Include as much “sympathetic motion” as possible; don’t let him look like a head glued to the wearer’s shoulders.
  2. Paint & finish him to a) look good in low light, b) photograph well with the average built-in phone camera, with and without harsh flash!
  3. Hide the wearer’s face!
  4. Make his face burn brightly.
  5. Don’t complicate putting on/off — one person should be able to manage the task.
  6. Sell Jack by showing his backstory and literal journey
  7. Must work from a child’s POV, i.e. looking directly up from 2′ shouldn’t reveal an old dude wearing a paper globe.

What’s meant by “sympathetic motion“? Sympathetic motion refers to movements not requiring direct intervention to be sustained; it’s “free” motion derived from a costume’s materials or mechanical design that add move and add subtle “life” without additional effort or oversight by an operator. Perhaps no single shop makes better use of principle than Jim Henson Studios (i.e. The Muppets, Sesame Street). Their puppets incorporate ostrich feathers where one might expect fur because a great deal of effort is required to make faux fur or hair bounce, but spindly feathers flounce and bobble wonderfully, adding life even when a character merely blinks.

The three most-asked questions:

  1. How long did this take? Best guess: 60 – 70 hours.
  2. How much does that head weigh? Dunno, I’d guess — with full complement of light and fan batteries — about 2-4 ponds. The shell is under a pound, but the stem, bike helmet and those danged batteries — they add up.
  3. How do you see? Ahhhhh, yeah, excellent question. In good light: out Jack’s mouth. Walking the streetlampless byways of South Pasadena with those two dozen face lights directly in my eyes? Not at all. I wear a walkie-talkie earpiece, Ludlow, my handler/seeing-eye “doge” wears a discrete security/FBI-style earpiece and mic, he shouts “curb”, “low branch!”, or “a dozen kids incoming — squat for photos”.

 

Jack waiting at the train station to head down to Little Tokyo’s haunted street festival!

Here were my project milestones:

  1. Construct a half-pumpkin form.
  2. Fabricate two paper mache shells
  3. Add face & dimensionalize the shell
  4. Assemble complete shell
  5. Build a handsome stem & cap.
  6. Paint!
  7. Mechanics!
  8. Costume up!

 

1. Construct a half-pumpkin form…

…over this form I’d paper mache two identical halves, two “shells”. Using light-weight shells “cast” from an accurate form allowed me to disregard weight considerations while constructing a pumpkin shaped form and focus exclusively on its outer surface, using whatever supports or reinforcements required. The final shells would be sturdy enough, not just due to the mache layers, but also by dint of their spherical shape, like those beloved, sturdy bubbled fenders of 1940’s cars (spheres… gotta love that force redistribution).

2. Fabricate two paper mache shells…

…from 6-10 layers of paper mache (of course!) alternating brown craft paper and recycled newspaper over the form which had been wrapped tightly in kitchen cling wrap. The plastic wrap made releasing each shell from the form — which had minimal smooth undercuts — painless. My plan was always for Jack’s head to remain in two halves because inserting and maintaining his interior mechanics would be an all-but-impossible task with my big, clumsy hands. Thus, he was designed to open up for the occasional brain surgery.

4. Assemble complete shell.

Having the two pleasingly rigid shells I next attached identical cardboard disks, cross sections of Jack’s skull, and made sure they mated seamlessly. They didn’t. (I didn’t expect them to as paper shrinks, and my method of wrapping the form varied — so they were off a fuzz. Correcting and finishing the edge was quick work)

5. Add face & dimensionalize the shell.

It wouldn’t be enough to cut the face openings, obviously, as this would lay bare the shell’s scanty 1mm thickness — very un-pumpkiny. So it was necessary to build out the illusion of an appropriately scaled-up pumpkin shell rind of 2 – 3 inches behind each face opening.

6. Build a handsome stem & cap.

This was accomplished using homemade “paper mache clay” — basically the same flour-n-water pea soup I used on Jack’s head, mixed with pulped newsprint & toilet paper.

6. Paint

Knowing (hoping) Jack would be photographed often — in poor to low light, and sometimes using a flash (ugh! nooooo!) — he’d need to employ “stage paint”. This meant a paint finish that’d emphasize shadows and highlights that’d read “from the cheap seats”. Thus Jack’s base orange color was tinted with raw sienna and even a smidge of van dyke brown for shading around his head’s top & bottom, as well as within the pumpkin segment’s “valleys”. The fleshy interior was a smooth, softer color, with a 1mm darker edging to sell a scaled-up pumpkin skin.

7. Mechanics

Most folks endeavoring to build over-sized head costumes mount their character’s heads either rigidly onto their own heads, wearing them like awkward hats and imparting a one-to-one between the wearer’s head motion and their character’s. Or costumers opt to mount the head onto their shoulders via thick, hollow necks. This latter technique is a fine compromise for comfort and sturdiness — it gets all that weight off your neck! Unfortunately, both of these mounts — and especially the shoulder solution — make for “dead” characters with unnatural movement (shoulder mounted giant heads can only turn their heads by the wearer turning their whole upper body, so a naturalistic head-turn right or left is impossible).

No, from day-one Jack’s head was going to move “naturally”, and, failing “naturally”, he’d at least move lots!

Thus Jack’s head mount would be bobble-head based: a gimbal would be the only contact point between the pumpkin shell and its support (the exact support would be either on top wearer’s head or some back harness, ala tri-tom drums shoulder mount).

This is where over-designing really went off the rails: initially, I’d planned on 3D printing a gimbal for Jack’s head mount, a two-piece affair that would atop an old bicycle helmet and a load-bearing shelf I’d paper mached into the top of the head shells. It didn’t take too many tests, however, before realizing a couple inches cut from a plastic funnel and, for the top cup receptacle, the top 1 1/2″ of a water bottle epoxyed into a cup would work just as well.

Short elastic bands mounted at the rear of Jack’s head and attached to the helmet dampened his head rotations and prevented him from doing a three-sixty “Exorcist” head spin.

After a few tests, all was working fine. A minor turn of my head or just the natural, unintentional jarring from walking translated nicely into gentle wobbles and turns of Jack’s head — the sympathetic motion I’d been so keen on including.

A set of small battery operated LEDs was installed behind the eyes and mouth. A smaller set was attached to the hole in Jack’s head where his cap/stem sat at a jaunty angle. Beneath this cap — which is hollow — is where a 3″ battery operated fan was also installed, complete with a mini-cardboard duct to direct air onto wearer’s face. Several air circulation vents were cut into the top support platform.

8. Costume (i.e. Jack’s outfit)

This turned out to be one of my favorite parts of this project. I began with Baum’s very precise description of Jack’s clothing in “Marvelous Land of Oz” and Denslow’s iconic illustrations:

But Tip boldly ransacked the great chest in which Mombi kept all her keepsakes and treasures, and at the very bottom he discovered some purple trousers, a red shirt and a pink vest which was dotted with white spots.

OK, I didn’t follow that exactly — my Jack has green bell-bottoms (the wide bottoms exaggerate the taper toward Jack’s waist), a purple waistcoat, and a pink and white polka-dotted shirt — but why quibble?

I added a WWII gas mask “possibilities bag”, slung over the shoulder, to carry spare batteries, zip-ties, pipe cleaners, gaffer’s tape, mini-flashlight, and other sundry fix-it supplies.

All his brand new clothing underwent “garment breakdown & distressing”: meaning it was given several washes of browns, yellows, and various tints of acrylic paints to make them appear the single daily-worn garment 0f a far-roaming foot traveler. His shoulder bag was a particularly fun task (the new canvas bag was soaked in water, hung to dry after being filled with several Mason jars of nails — this to break its new, sharp shape — and finally highlights and shadows painted on, plus some enthusiastic greasy spills around the seams and bottom).

The waistcoat received equal attention, painting the edges to make them seem frayed, the pockets received soil marks, under the arms were “smoothed” as by friction from many miles of walking, and lastly, highlights emanating out from around the buttons to make the garment appears to have been stretched from being slept in.

Pro tip: for easy, one person donning and doffing, the waistcoat was affixed to the shirt with safetypins.

A trip to Moskatel’s (a local crafts store in downtown Los Angele’s flower market district) netted some raffia, fabric flowers & grasses (OK, the “straw” again confuses the question: “what the heck is Jack?” Scarecrow? Jack o’Lantern?). Again, these would sell the idea that under that shirt Jack was a bundle of fresh twigs bound together, these would also break-up the human outline, but, most importantly, the raffia clumps would add sympathetic motion to his walk.

Finally, a fall orange boutonniere and orange pants patches pulled some of the same orange head color as his head down into the costume proper, making it all appear “apiece”.

Truly pleased with how the artificial grasses and raffia break the human lines here:

Hiding The Wearer’s Face

Ben and I spent a couple humbling, humiliating hours in fabric stores holding fabric to our faces, asking “can you see my eyes” and “how about now”? Can report after much research: sequinned flapper fabric is your friend. Not only does it hide your eyes and add some razzle-dazzle, but, from its back, you can actually see out fairly well. A curtain of this was hung just a few inches in back of the dimensional eye and moth cups. In addition, I wore a black balaclava to hide my neck and chin from below (little children have a great view straight up Jack’s neck opening, did not want to ruin the illusion for them. For the same reason the interior top of Jack’s shell is covered in gold sparkle paper — if you’re only two or three feet tall you’d be able to see this through the eye holes)

If I was ever in doubt as to whether all this effort was worth it — that boy to my left’s expression is a resounding YES! This is my favorite pic of the year.

Some Details & Action Photos

Below is the support for my original half-pumpkin form.

Here’s the form, with a single layer of paper mache spanning its ribs, having those distinct smooth pumpkin ridges added to each segment.

A shell on the form drying.

Both shell halves, their middle connector, and his dimensionalized-face done.

Aboard the Metro Gold Line headed toward Haunted Little Tokyo DTLA…

Jack’s exaggerated paint job still works even in truly terrible sodium vapor lamp light

Jack grabbing some street tacos…

Our neighbor and his entire family score huge points every year by completely tricking out their front yard! This year it was a walk-thru Frankenstein’s castle, all DIY and a must-see.

Heading home…

Back home, a stiff Jack stretches…

…before kicking his feet up for a well-earned rest. (yeah, that’s the same paper mache fireplace I made for Christmas last year, given a Halloween makeover)

Love this shot by GoLittleTokyo (Instagram) at the Haunted Little Tokyo street festival

At the office Halloween party