I recently got a chance to watch the newest fandom film, Cosplay Universe (look for my review soon). A documentary about the history, some of the imaginative cosplayers making a name for themselves, and the importance of cosplay. The co-directors, Jordan Rennert and Jonathan McHugh, were kind enough to let me pick their brains on their film and how they hope it’s received by the cosplay and the mainstream community.
Ali: What made you want to make this documentary, especially about cosplay?
Jordan: My filmmaking partner Patrick Meaney and I have made six or seven documentaries about the world of fandom culture and comic book writing. We made a film about Neil Gaiman, called “Neil Gaiman: Dream Dangerously,” and we produced a film about the untold women in the comic book industry in partnership with director Marisa Stotter called “She Makes Comics.” We actually met Jonathan Rennert, who would co-direct “Cosplay Universe” with me when we made a movie about Image Comics, called “The Image Revolution.” But really, the inspiration for the film came out of two things. First, when Patrick and I were making the documentary called “Chris Claremont’s X-Men,”we had researched cosplayers online to help us illustrate some of the visuals for the story. In our research we met Lauren St. Laurent and her friend, who had some incredible X-Men cosplay. In talking with Lauren, she told us that when “Heroes of Cosplay” came out, there was a general level of frustration within the cosplay community because they thought the show focused too much on the competition aspect. From talking with Lauren, we got the idea to tell the story of cosplay from the cosplay perspective. Really I just related to Lauren and her friends, these incredibly talented artists, and I just saw her cosplay as an amazing artform. I’m also a cinematographer and really enjoyed filming with cosplayers, which is a fun experience.
The second inspiration for making “Cosplay Universe” came from our time making “She Makes Comics, ”an untold story of women in the comic book industry. One of the people we chronicled in that film was Wendy Pini, who was an amazing comic book writer who loved the series “Elfquest.” When we were interviewing her, she shared the story of what it was like to be a cosplayer in the 1970’s era and we were like “whoa, it would be really cool to show-go more into detail about the history of the 70’s era of comics.”
So really, it was those two moments–speaking with Pini and Laurent about their experiences in the world of comics–that challenged me to ask myself the question “What is cosplay really about?” That question was the beginning of my journey making “Cosplay Universe” with Jordan.
Jonathan: I helped Jordan and Patrick produce a number of films, but we met through a guy who used to live across the street from me. Originally I was like,“You know, people introduce people but sometimes nothing comes from it.” Since then, Jordan and I have been working together for about seven years.
Jordan and Patrick were set to direct a film about the history of cosplay that I was producing. Then, Patrick got funding for his feature, and he went off to do that, so I jumped in to direct with Jordan.
The first time I went to Comic-Con, I wrote and produced a movie for Snoop Dogg, a kind of a campy horror film called “Snoop Dogg’s Hood of Horror.” We went to Comic-Con together in the middle of the summer. At first I wondered why everyone was dressed up. I’ve been to Mardi Gras in New Orleans, where I went to college, and grew up with Halloween where people dress up once a year–but here was this culture where everyone is dressed up and trying on different characters. I was just fascinated by it. When I had a chance to jump in and direct with Jordan, I was in.
My strength is producing segments and putting things together and finding interesting characters. Jordan’s strength is going out there, shooting, and creating really beautiful visual landscapes. He’s an amazing cinematographer and so we came together and for the last six years we have just been putting this film together.
It’s an amazing thing to see it received well by both cosplayers and non-cosplayers. I had a bunch of friends of mine who knew nothing about the genre and just loved it. That’s a truly amazing feeling when a film can play to the core, just like these cosplayers. This film is a real elaboration on what cosplayers do and how they do it. Normal people who have no idea about what cosplay is get to see this film and find out more to understand.
Ali: That’s amazing, all of that definitely came through in the film.
Ali: How did you choose what cons and cosplayers to cover throughout the film?
Jonathan: Jordan had been shooting at Comic Cons for years and on his end, he was meeting some interesting people. I was working on a documentary called “We Are X” about a guy named Yoshiki, one of the biggest Japanese rock stars of all time. Yoshiki basically suggested we go to Japan to shoot at the World Cosplay Summit, and that’s where that whole story line came from. Yoshiki introduced us to Stan Lee, and then Stan Lee’s assistant connected us with Yaya Han. Jordan had already communicated with Lauren (who we talked about) and Svetlana Quindt, who is one of the best armor makers and community performersI’ve ever seen. There was also a guy named Tom (Thomas DePetrillo) who builds ten foot robot costumes. We found him in a video when we were searching to license some footage and I was like “Who is that guy? This guy is amazing, can we get that guy in our film?” So, it was really just hunting and pecking, finding the best people through word of mouth.
Jordan: It was definitely just scavenger hunting from friends. We just got some people and we gravitated toward some people. For example, the footage of the Hulkbuster at Comic-Con just blew us away, and it just felt like we must include that. One thing that’s interesting is we sought out Yaya Han because she’s such a component in the story of cosplay. She runs a lot of panels where she teaches people about how cosplay evolved. So, we reached out to her under the idea that she could help provide some of that historical background by just interviewing her, getting to know her. That was really the main reason we ever shot her. But we came to realize that her story is so emblematic of cosplay in general, with her background of being raised in China, moving to Germany, and coming to America. It really parallels the larger story of cosplay, which is Japanese anime landing in America and the two costume cultures colliding. It was just so embodied in Yaya Han’s story that we kept filming with her. That’s something that I find fascinating, her story is the story of cosplay, in a unique way.
Ali: As I was watching it I thought I knew a lot about her, but hearing her story and how much more depth it was, it made her feel more real. That it’s more attainable that way, cause when cosplayers see her, that’s the dream, the golden standard right there. So, it was really interesting to see how you guys really dive deep into her history and her relationship with cosplay, it was really amazing.
Ali: What are some things that you both are hoping to accomplish with this insight into cosplay?
Jonathan: For me as an outsider, it’s about showing friends that cosplay is transformational. That for me was the real wake up call. As I said, when I went to Comic-Con before, for Snoop Dogg’s film, I didn’t really understand it. But, once we got into the film and watched some of Jordan’s footage and he talked about the cosplayers and how transformational it all is. Also, in Japan at the World Cosplay Summit, I realized what a global phenomenon it is. How anime overseas is like superhero culture here, and people use these characters as a way to transform themselves.
A viewer who saw the film at SDCC had a reaction to it that we hope others have. About the film, she said “How it helps people, and how not to be embarrassed by it but embracing it. About anxiety, and how cosplay helps put up a shield around yourself and be more comfortable with people.”
For me this is what I wanted to accomplish, for people to finally feel seen.
Jordan: For me, it’s similar. But what excites me the most about this film is all the people viewers get to meet and identify with. You can find yourself like Yaya Han’s mom, who couldn’t figure what all these crazy people were doing, but when you go past the surface there’s a really profound thing happening at all these conventions that people have discovered. Cosplay conventions let people try on different parts of what they could be, and what they could aspire to be, and it’s just a really cool human experience to be somebody else for a bit. Cosplay gives people confidence in how they perceive themselves. Also I just think it would be really cool to let friends and family of cosplayers understand what they’re loved ones are up to, so that they can be a little less judgmental and potentially be down to cosplay themselves.
Ali: That’s really amazing, and I remember when it got to that part, when someone was talking about how they don’t really do well around crowds because of their anxiety, but when they’re in cosplay it’s completely different because it’s not really themselves. It’s this character and this character wouldn’t be afraid of this. This was my favorite part because I have friends and myself, who all have anxiety and we’re not really super social. But going to cons dressed up is really empowering because your train of thought is, I’m this character I’m invincible, I can do this.
Ali: Are there any aspects of cosplay that you guys wanted to cover, or something you wanted to spend a little more time on in the film? That you didn’t get a chance too?
Jonathan: Well for me, it would have to be the armor building. I’ve always been fascinated by prop making and some of these people, Svetlana comes to mind, can rival anything that’s being done in the prop making game.
Jordan I didn’t tell you this, but you remember Jack Kendell, who’s in the film? Basically quit school because he got a job at Jim Henson doing exactly what he wanted to do in life. He literally got a Henson job making stuff and quit school, because he was like “Why am I going to school when I get to work for Jim Henson and that’s what I want to do.”
The point is people can turn their fandom into making a living, like Svetlana talked about, like Yaya talked about, and like Tom talked about. I mean that’s amazing, and of course Lauren with the corsets, it’s amazing to me. The ability to do that, I think, is an amazing thing.
Ali: It’s always great when you can turn a passion into your actual job because then you can love it even more.
Ali: I know, instead of just showing the overview of cosplay and its origins, you went deeper into the people themselves. I know we talked a little about Yaya earlier and about her personal family connections, and another thing you guys kind of did and I don’t know if it was planned or not but how people realized their identities. Because, there were some who felt more comfortable cross-playing as a male character and more comparable in that setting, and some did come out as gender fluid and some in transitions. This was really interesting, and I don’t know if this was planned or not? Or if it was just that showed up and you were like this is amazing.
Jordan: Honestly, it really was just meeting people, filming, and then in the edit finding the events that really resonated with us. The things that we found to be authentic made it into the movie instead of on the cutting room floor. We sought out Tom because his Hulkbuster was just this engineering feat that encompassed so many years of research and work..We wanted to know how it moved so fluidly, and it turned out that it was Qi, his teammate, who was really one of the main craftsmen on the project. Then Qi started sharing their own journey and we just really vibed with Qi. We started asking them questions about the queer community in general, which happened very naturally… Another moment we loved was with Cynthia, who I met through “She Makes Comics.” Cynthia was a good Captain Marvel cosplayer, and she had told me about how she had just lost her husband and cosplaying meant so much to her. We ended up going to her area in New York and I went to a Con over there. These storylines just came naturally as we realized how transformational cosplay can be, especially to people trying to rediscover themselves.
Ali: I think that made it even better. I think it was really nice to see that represented.
Ali: Do you think the cosplay world so far has been enjoying having good representation? Like being able to see themselves in the film so far?
Jordan: So far, the reaction has been mind blowingly positive. I think what’s cool about the story is there are so many different perspectives and vantage points that just naturally bubbles to the top of the surface that you kind of find yourself in someone. I keep asking people what cosplayer do they identify with, but a lot of responses are “a little bit of everybody,” which resonates with me too, because I feel the same way. I can see myself in a lot of them. And I guess that’s the joy, instead of just identifying with one, they identify with the group.
A lot of people have been reacting to the moment of the World Cosplay Summit performances we showed, and how the cosplayers were all very excited getting ready and wanting everything to go perfect for the final performance. Everyone so far can relate and see themselves in the same situation and rooting for the multiple competitors that were struggling with their perfectionism.
Ali: You guys really hit on some topics that aren’t talked much about, but should be. Such as, the struggle for women in cosplay. They are the ones I guess who brought it more mainstream because of Sailor Moon for example. Bringing in the younger generation who feel or want to feel more confident in their bodies and wore more revealing cosplays. That’s been a struggle, Yaya Han talked about that. Because she does, well I’ve been cosplaying for a little bit, I do like her but do know that a lot of people don’t like her because they think she over-sexualizs, when it’s naturally not her intent. I know a lot of female cosplayers get that kind of shit from it when they go cosplaying, because that’s not what they’re trying to do. They’re trying to look like the character or just trying to represent the best way they feel confident in. I thought that was a really interesting take that you guys really dove into, and showing the new stuff at cons and like the signs about cosplay is not consent.
Jordan: Having Yaya as a producer was really helpful because she made sure we reflected the female perspective. The people we spoke to are a testament to the notion that you don’t cosplay for other people, you cosplay for yourself. There’s power in discovering your confidence, whatever confidence means for you.
Ali: Do you guys think this film will inspire the future cosplay? Where could it possibly go? Further or even inspiring more people to get into cosplay after watching this film?
Jonathan: Just based on some of the testimonials we’ve gotten, I think our film gives those in the mainstream a chance to understand cosplay a little bit better. I gleaned the same from the reactions to the screenings. ”Cosplay Universe” is inspiring people to go try something different (and doing cosplay, for people who haven’t done it before, is different). The fact is that in a couple of cases in the film, cosplayers tried it with their kids and their parents. Cosplay is a way for people to bond, to connect with their families, friends, and communities. Taking cosplay to the mainstream will only strengthen the cosplay community.
Thank you again to Jordan Rennert and Jonathan McHugh, co-directors, for allowing me this chance to check out the film and for this very in-depth interview! I cannot recommend this film enough, and I think any cosplayer, no matter where they are in their cosplay journey, will discover new aspects to the cosplay community that they have not seen before.
The film is now streaming on TVOD platforms such as Amazon, Apple TV, Microsoft/Xbox, Google Play, VUDU and more!
For more information you can go here to the official Cosplay Universe for more information!
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