"Brooklyn Optimus Prime" — so named because he was imagined and built in Brooklyn, NY — was a labor of love for me. I've always liked Optimus for what he stood for, even as an adult. I also protect people for a living.
This all started as a joke, a funny quip to a girlfriend about the Coney Island Mermaid Parade (held every June, it's our country's largest "art parade"). I started with a goofy sea creature in 2007, then an amalgam the next year that I called "Optimus Squid." In 2009, I added detail with a Bumblebee exoskeleton, and then I rolled-out The Big Bot this summer.
I've built a total of four versions now, with a cumulative construction time of about 400 hours (I know, I know). All along, I've been refining my production techniques, figuring out what works... and what doesn't. I've now got two versions for performances, a heavyweight 145 lb. one for photo shoots and "static" shows, and a lighter one (110 lbs.) for extreme action poses, parades, and such.
My art is to take ordinary household and hardware items — the same things we all have in our kitchens, bathrooms, junk drawers, under our sinks, etc. — to create my interpretation of a character. I'm not looking to make an exact copy, just my vision of it.
The actual exoskeleton is made from parts of plastic trash cans, buckets, and food and cleaning product containers. I look at the shape of objects and see their potential to portray something. If you look closely at B-Prime, you'll see sponge holders, toothbrush holders, coathooks, cabinet knobs, plumbing supplies, hair clips, dish drain basin parts, an egg slicer, and even a baby's pacifier (ahem). The helmet was a kid's toy, and I spent 15 hours making that look real.
Weight is a big issue. Like an aircraft, all the little things — nuts, bolts, and washers, etc. — add up. Balancing out his top has added a lot of weight, as I had to install an intricate set of counterweights under the chest to keep it from pulling up.
There's a lot of redundancy behind what you see — doubler and tripler panels, stringers, ties, metal plates, wires — to keep him together during my very physical performances. Just transporting it and putting it on damages it, let alone aggressive folks pulling at its parts or trying to hug me... I don't mind the kids hugging my legs and crying tears of joy, though. That's kinda heart-warming.
I say the costume is like the Space Shuttle, requiring heavy maintenance after every use. It's typically 8-12 hours of repairs after every performance now. The plastic just doesn't hold paint well, and I want him vibrant! It takes up to 2 hours to get the armor on, and it's a very tiring process. When inside, every part of my body is crushed, squeezed, poked, and rubbed, so I can't stay stationary for too long... I have to MOVE!
I'm building other robots now: a much-upgraded Brooklyn Bumblebee, a "disturbing" Brooklyn Terminator T-800 endoskeleton, and I also plan an insanely complex Brooklyn Ironhide (est. 165 lbs.). Each costume is more detailed and complex. Visual complexity is very important to me. I don't want a viewer to be able to take him all in because there's just too much stuff to look at... this ensures that if something breaks or goes wrong, it probably won't be noticed.
The Michael Bay Transformers — known as "Bayformers" — suit my physicality and have a level of visual complexity that the G1 robots don't have, so I've found my niche. Please enjoy the Optimus photo gallery, and check out the site BrooklynOptimusPrime for some more cool pics and music.
Sonja Thompson started at TechRepublic in October 1999. She is a former Senior Editor at TechRepublic.