In honor of the biggest dress-up excuse of the year, it’s about time for me to unveil the Avatar, the Last Airbender Fire Nation project that I’ve been teasing for the past two years–the armor of Lu Ten.
Do you remember the classic children’s book “If You Give a Mouse a Cookie?” In this book the seemingly harmless act of giving a cookie sets off a chain of events that quickly takes over a child’s whole day.
This cosplay is pretty much the same story.
Shortly after I discovered the Avatar series, a friend who shared my love of it gave me a pair of shuang dao–the twin broadswords that Zuko fights with.
If you give an Austin a pair of swords,
he’s going to want to learn to fight with them.
And once he learns to fight, he’s going to want an outfit to fight in.
So he’s going to have to teach himself leathercraft.
Once he has the skills and the outfit, he’s going to want somebody else to fight with, so he’ll call on friends to join in his costume party.
This of course means they’ll all need their own costumes.
With so many great costumes, he’ll decide he wants to choreograph and film a fight routine.
Any good routine tells a story though, so he’ll get to work on script writing.
The script he writes involves firebending, so of course he’ll need to learn the art of fire dancing and fire breathing.
…and stunts, and lighting, and film scoring, etc., and before you know it that simple gift of two swords has spiraled into a full fledged short film complete with VFX and plenty of martial arts action!
In a sense, this costume project has transcended typical cosplay–it’s hardly a costume; it’s real functional leather armor! And “play” is hardly the right word for the real sword and firebending skills that I’ve needed to develop.
It’s been quite the journey, and I think it will take a few posts to share it all, but let’s start with the character of Lu Ten and how he influences the armor’s final design.
Lu Ten, Son of Iroh
Lu Ten is a very important character in the backstory of the Avatar series, his life and death shaping the destiny of perhaps the show’s most beloved character, his father Iroh.
Despite this role, Lu Ten is someone we never meet, and we know very little about him.
What we do know is that Iroh was first in line to succeed to the throne of the Fire Nation, making his firstborn son Lu Ten the heir apparent to the entire kingdom.
We also know that Lu Ten was involved in his the military campaigns of the fire nation, but he was not always near his father, prompting him to send Iroh a letter with a portrait, which would later become the general’s cherished keepsake.
The brevity and formal tone of Lu Ten’s note–addressing his father simply as “General Iroh,” indicate that at the very least he was well-trained in courtly manners, and that he may have taken such things a little more seriously than his happy-go-lucky dad.
The story I have built around his character adds a little more color. It involves Lu Ten leading a unit of Fire Nation scouts to counter guerrilla forces sabotaging the military conquest of the Fire Nation. He has been given this assignment by his grandfather, the Fire Lord himself, and he feels the weight of his responsibility very keenly.
The Clothes Make the Man
From start to finish, it took over three years to complete Lu Ten’s armor, and the development of the costume and the character influenced each other along the way.
From observing the way Fire Nation armor moved and sounded in the Avatar series, I determined that it must be made from leather.
Leather armor is lighter and more flexible than metal plate, allowing greater mobility at the expense of some protection.
With this in mind, as well as Lu Ten’s mission as leader of a highly mobile unit of scouts, I drew up an armor design which allowed free arm movement and which involved overlapping leather elements to increase trunk mobility.
Full of strong angles, and emphasizing large shoulder pieces, this design felt heroic and flexible.
As I constructed it, however, I soon discovered that although in practice the heroism came through quite clearly, the armor did not actually allow as much flexibility as anticipated.
In the first place, the many overlapping layers of leather (in some places as many as 6 layers of thick cowhide and 4 layers of suede) added much more bulk to the costume than my wasp-waisted concept art had envisioned.
Furthermore, the epic peaked gorget (the piece around the neck) restricted overhead arm movements, so the sword on the back had to be dropped to the side.
On the whole, when the armor was donned in real life it made me into more of a tank than a scout.
Realizing the limitations of the costume, I went to the film script and started rewriting Lu Ten’s character to better match his outfit. His character became more formal, and his fighting style became rigid and disciplined, a fit foil for his slippery guerrilla antagonist.
This transformation from ninja to knight then further influenced the development of the costume. The new Lu Ten needed greater detail and formality in his armor. Simple fire logos were replaced with extensive leather tooling. Buckles were replaced with more militaristic rows of buttons, and bare arms were replaced with long gloves, bracers, and a long leather gambeson which flowed over the knees.
The armor didn’t turn out quite the way I imagined it at first.
…I actually think it turned out better.
By the time it was done, Lu Ten’s armor had reached a level of detail and realism not seen in most Avatar cosplay.
It isn’t just some intricate, fragile piece of worbla though, it is a fully functioning suit of leather armor.
You’ll remember that this whole project started when I was given a pair of swords and I decided to use them. If you watched the video at the start of this post you’ll know that the armor does more than just look good at Comic Con. It can stand up to the real martial arts action I developed to accompany it.
If I could build real-life, functional Fire Nation armor, and if I could learn actual swordplay technique to perform in it, then…why couldn’t I learn firebending too?
Oh wait…maybe I could.
With the help of a couple of fire swords, this costume takes me closer to the line between fantasy and reality than I’ve ever gone before.
And it’s not over yet. Soon we’ll be shooting a whole short film featuring my character alongside other Avatar favorites like Lu Ten’s father Iroh.
We may not have the special effects budget of a Netflix studio, but in its place I’m excited to share something Hollywood seems to have lost track of over the years–realism.
I’m looking forward to taking my place on screen really fighting with real swords, real skills, real armor, and even real flame.
And I really can’t wait to share the journey with all of you.