The Man Who Would Be Big Daddy

by ig.sarah on May 2 2011

62 comments

Harrison Krix is a craftsman. He brings artifacts from video game worlds into reality, and he does it well.

One of Harrison’s most ambitious projects to date is a full-scale “Bouncer”-model Big Daddy suit. Constructed over the course of nearly two months–alongside a full-time graphic design job–the suit made its public debut at Dragon*Con. Harrison, fiancee Emily Keith, and friend Mandie Reese took home the convention’s Best Journeyman and Best Professional Design awards. With the help of Dim Horizon Studio, they also produced some remarkable images during a photo shoot appropriately conducted inside an aquarium.

Propmaking has become a vocation for Harrison, even though it isn’t his career. The level of dedication and care he brings to his projects is astonishing, and he documents it all on his website. We’ve been impressed by his work for years, so we decided to try and figure out what drives him to take on this demanding hobby. He was kind enough to indulge us.

How do you choose your projects–especially something as ambitious as your Big Daddy suit?

Harrison Krix: Is “Lunacy” an acceptable answer? With Big Daddy I probably bit off a bit more than I was expecting, but that was actually a good thing. I tend to pick builds that can offer me a learning experience–that’s why I only build something once.

I chose the Bouncer for two reasons. First, I had never tried to make anything of that size before, but I thought I had a pretty decent idea how to do it. Second, it was a piece I had never seen anyone else bring out of the game at quite the right scale and presence. I figured with enough time I could figure out how to make it, and make it look good as well. Or at least I’d learn something trying!

You said this took you about seven solid weeks of work. What was it like?

HK: I would love to say I have a fancy studio where all of this takes place, but my shop is basically the half of the garage my car doesn’t occupy. I wore a respirator to stave off the fiberglass fumes in an un-air-conditioned sweatbox. Sitting next to the Big Daddy was my 1975 BMW I’m restoring, so it was a bit nerve-wracking to make sure I didn’t knock into the poor car.

My sculpting base for the body was a plastic bucket filled with bricks, a broomhandle taped into it to support the body shell. I think “rudimentary” and “uncomfortable” sum it up pretty well.
I didn’t sleep a whole lot in those two months. I was simultaneously building four smaller projects with the same deadline while also working my 9-to-5 as a graphic designer. While resin was drying I’d sand something else, and after painting that piece I’d move onto sculpting a third project. Its a good thing I enjoy being busy.

Air conditioning would have been nice, though.

What was the most difficult part of the Big Daddy costume?

HK: The drill arm threw me for a loop. It had to be light, but solid enough to be carried around a three-day convention. A prototype snapped in half because of the torque of the drill motor I used.

It ended up more robust than I expected–during an on-stage performance, I clocked my friend dressed as a Baby Jane splicer pretty hard, while spinning at full tilt. The drill came away with only a couple minor scuffs. My friend took a few cuts but didn’t hold it against me–it made the scene look much more real!

And what’s your favorite part of it?

HK: In order to walk around, I had to leave the lighting out of the dome. After the convention, when we touched up parts of the suit for the photoshoot, I added the color gels and LEDs to the portholes, and the glowing red lights made the whole costume so much more menacing. It was the final touch and really the best thing I could have done to improve it for the aquarium shoot.

Do you remember what it felt like the moment when it all came together?

HK: The day before the convention debut, we worked all night. My wife was stitching the interior pants together while I weathered the suit in the kitchen. We glued the pants into the suit while loading it in the Jeep to drive downtown.

After that it was a comedy of errors. The hotel sold our room out from under us, transferring us to another hotel and swapping out our two-queen room for a single twin at the new hotel–for five people. I forgot the screws that held the dome in place on the body. The batteries that powered the internal fans were dead. It was just one thing after another. Eventually, we got the suit on. It takes three people to suit up and another to guide around. The hotel elevators barely wide enough to allow the costume in.

What was it like moving the thing around?

HK: I had to borrow my sister’s Jeep; only a handful of the parts fit into my car. We had to transport him in two cars–it still took two trips. The main body is the size of a small motorcycle even without the dome. Then there’s the drill arm, which was actually very fragile, since it was built to be as light as possible.

Pulling up to the hotel for the convention was a real treat. When a bellhop pushes a trolley up to your car, only to find a four-foot-long drill covered in dried blood, you get a specific expression you don’t ever encounter on a normal person.

What about moving it when you’re in it?

HK: A solid nightmare. With the arm extension and drill you can’t actually use your hands for anything. There are seven-inch lifts and 55 pounds of suit hanging off your back. And the positioning of the leg holes meant I could only take short, shuffling strides.

It’s hot and heavy, you’re pretty much blind and deaf inside, my hair got caught in one of the fans a bunch of times, you can’t pee or scratch your nose when the whole thing is together–and it’s fantastic. I ended up having to walk three blocks in Atlanta heat with that 60-pound monster on my back, but hearing people cheering from the balconies above made it all worthwhile.

Do you have any training? Have you just learned as you went along?

HK: For some things, I’ve had formal training. I paid my way through college as a mechanic and stereo installer and I took a few furniture design courses. My dad taught me a lot growing up as well, like the basics of electronics and woodworking, and how to use certain shop tools. And I was one of those kids who got a screwdriver and took apart his parent’s toaster while they were out of the room.

When you get into stuff like moldmaking and microcontroller programming, I just have to be thankful I’m alive in the age of Google. A day or two of research online will provide me with enough information to at least jumpstart a new process.

I’ve gotten better at certain things, like sculpting, but for a while there I was trying out everything as a first attempt. If I can advise anyone else on the best way to do these things, it’s to research through as many methods as possible–Google, library books, forums. There are nearly unlimited resources these days.

How much time and money do you actually spend on this stuff?

HK: I don’t typically track my hours because this is, ultimately, just a hobby of mine for the time being. When I get home from work at 6 or 7, I usually park myself in my shop until midnight. On the weekends, it’s not uncommon for me to be working on a project from 10am until 10pm if I’m left uninterrupted. I’ve been trying to stem that somewhat so I actually have some semblance of a social life, but the hours are something I enjoy a great deal.

Money is another thing. I’m lucky in that some of my projects are commissions funded by clients, so other people are paying for my self-education. Some projects reach five-figure budgets if they’re complex enough.

Do you have a place to store all this stuff? Are you running out of room?

HK: In my game room at home, I have a growing wall of sci-fi and video game guns. Our living room wall is adorned with swords and shields. Its supremely nerdy, but I love it. The car living in my garage is running now, so I can get more working space when I need it. I’ve become very good at organizing all my materials and building tools as a result of this constantly-expanding hobby.

Big Daddy, unfortunately, did not have any space to live at my house. He lived in my garage for about two months before eventually being sold to a private collector in Taiwan.

What actually drives you to do this? Learning? Recognition? Internet cred?

HK: Learning, really. I like to think I’d still make cool stuff even if there was nobody around to see it, but I’m not about to say that the reaction from fans of the series wasn’t amazing. To date, the Big Daddy project generated the highest traffic spike my website has ever seen, and I don’t see anything else topping it for a while.

In the end, I just want to make cool things come to life. The gaming world is filled with beautiful and imaginative artifacts that exist only in the digital realm. I want to be able to hold some of these things. I love the fact that people follow my work and find it interesting, and that support has become a great motivator. I still build because I want to make these imaginary digital pieces a reality, but I’m constantly trying to better my process and my results.

Check out Harrison’s Volpin Props website for more, including a gallery from the aquarium photoshoot, and the details of his earlier BioShock ADAM syringe project.

Avatar Image Posted this May 2 2011 01:23 pm, under Insider
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