Highland artist sets sights on Comic-Con, beyond with ‘Mass Effect’ project

Holly Conrad’s garage in Highland has a pervasive smell of fiberglass, but she says she doesn’t even notice it anymore.

The 24-year-old artist has set up a studio there from which she hopes to launch her dream of designing costumes for movies. But in an industry in which traditional costuming has lost ground to computer-generated imagery, she needs her work to set her apart. That’s where Grunt, Tali’Zorah and Commander Shepard come in.

Conrad and her friends are creating costumes for themselves based on the epic science-fiction video game “Mass Effect 2″ for the Masquerade competition at Comic-Con in San Diego next week. She’s hoping to parlay the attention her elaborate costumes will draw at the convention — as well as some unexpected recent Internet notoriety — into a job doing what she loves.

It will be the fourth year in a row she will create a costume for Comic-Con, where many aspiring artists seek portfolio reviews from professionals. “Most people do it traditionally, and don’t just keep making giant costumes,” she said. “And I just decided to go some other crazy way because that’s more fun. … I don’t want to be like just everyone else’s portfolio, especially since there’s not that much work in the industry. You’ve really got to blow them out of the water to even get their attention.”

She’s been working since January to do just that. Taking on the role of Shepard, the main character of “Mass Effect,” Conrad has turned fiberglass into a set of futuristic armor that is startlingly faithful to that in the game.

And like Shepard, who must assemble a team to fight an enemy that threatens the galaxy, Conrad has formed a group of loyal friends to add to the scale of her project. And as the soundtrack from “Mass Effect” played in the background on a recent Thursday night, they gathered in her garage to talk, laugh and work.

At the forefront is Jessica “X.O.” Merizan, who has known Conrad since middle school and whose nickname stemmed from her insistence that she’s the project’s “executive officer.”

Tayler Hudson, a student in video game art and design at the Art Institute of California — Inland Empire, has spent about $500 to bring Tali’Zorah, her favorite “Mass Effect” character, to life. Although she’s used to working in 3-D on her computer, she has picked up costuming techniques from Conrad.

Still, there’s a learning curve. “3-D doesn’t burn or take my skin off,” Hudson joked as she painted a scuba-diving boot that will become part of Tali’s head-to-toe environmental suit.

For the role of the huge reptilian warrior Grunt, Conrad needed someone willing to walk around Comic-Con on wooden blocks in bulky armor with an animatronic head. Through a mutual friend, she found her man: a part-time haunted house employee who goes by the name Tank.

“It’s going to be horrible,” Conrad said of wearing the Grunt suit, which will be sweltering in the summer heat. But Tank, a self-described “electronics geek” who designed the LEDs in the suit, doesn’t seem to mind the prospect of being encased in Bondo, fiberglass and clay. He even plans to incorporate most of the fearsome-looking Grunt into his costume at the haunted house.

One of Conrad’s most important assets has been her employer, the San Bernardino-based animatronics company Garner Holt Productions, which has a client list that includes museums and theme parks. She has used the company’s machinery to make Tali’s helmet and Grunt’s head, which required a delicate injection of foam latex into a carved mold.

“They’re really supportive of everyone doing their own projects there, which is really cool,” Conrad said. “They want you to do your own projects because it adds to the company.”

She has also tapped the expertise of co-workers, including Ben Schwenk, who designed the processor that will make Grunt’s face move on its own. To finish her Comic-Con project, she has taken a month off from Garner Holt. Conrad has worked for almost a year alongside Schwenk in the company’s figure-finishing department.

She likes her work making the company’s animatronics look authentic and realistic — skills that have come in handy for making space armor look like it’s seen some action — but she said working on other people’s visions can feel constricting.

“It’s still mostly just fabrication — there’s not really too much creative license in what you do,” she said. “I like my job. I like all the people I work with. I just want to do something creative.”

Art has been Conrad’s passion for almost her whole life — even if she didn’t always realize it. She made a pterodactyl costume with felt wings when she was 4 and “was always drawing fantasy things” at Redlands East Valley High School. She won some awards for her artwork in high school but believed that she couldn’t make it as a professional artist.

Instead, she went to UC Santa Barbara to study medieval history. But a year studying in Edinburgh, Scotland, changed her mind on her career path. “If you want to make creepy, bizarre art, that’s the place to do it,” Conrad said.

She was piecing together a dragon skull out of papier mache, she said, when she had her realization. She started making more and more elaborate costumes and came home determined to make a living with her creativity. “Really, I had always been doing art, but I didn’t realize it until I was in Scotland for that year.”

After graduating, she got a six-month unpaid internship working on the stop-motion Adult Swim show “Titan Maximum.” When that didn’t turn into a full-time job, she moved home to Highland and started work at Garner Holt.

Her long-term goals are set on artistic independence and work in the movie industry — maybe even on the “Mass Effect” film that is rumored to be in the works.

She’d like to catch on at a major workshop like Weta, famed for its work on the “Lord of the Rings” movie franchise, and someday open her own studio. “Even if they’re not hiring at Weta or any of the other places, I know eventually if I keep bothering them they’ll give me a job,” she said. “They’ll get a movie, they’ll need help, and I’ll get in. It’s just a matter of persistence. It always is.”

She hopes that persistence can help cause an industrywide shift away from an over-reliance on CG and toward physical costumes. Even “Avatar,” she points out, needed costumers and modelers. Conrad wants to run the studio that movie producers think of when they put video games on the big screen.

“If you’ve got people that have played the games, that love the games, that have a passion for games, too, and for CG, that’s going to give you so much of a cooler product,” she said. “But right now, no one’s doing that, and I don’t know how to start a studio.” She paused to laugh. “I just have a garage.”

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To see more of Holly Conrad’s art, visit her website at www.fyriel.com. You can also read her blog, Sorcery and Glue, which has videos and photos of her “Mass Effect” costumes.

Kotaku blog post makes Conrad ‘e-famous’


Holly Conrad is prepared for a big reaction to her costumes at
Comic-Con. She wasn’t ready for a deluge of e-mails raving about her
project before she was even done with it.

She thought her e-mail account had been hacked June 10 after a friend
sent an audition video she made for a Comic-Con documentary to the
gaming-culture website Kotaku, which posted it. The video
has been viewed more than 75,000 times.

“The YouTube video got so popular,” she said, still sounding amazed. “I
didn’t know that was going to happen. I had no clue.”

She loved the support from online fans, but she especially appreciated
getting compliments from game studios. Bioware, the developer of “Mass
Effect,” posted a link to the video on its Facebook page.

“I actually had Matt Rhodes, the concept artist for ‘Mass Effect’ who
designed the armor, ask me how it was to wear it,” she said.

Although she concedes that she’s now “e-famous,” Conrad hasn’t let it go
to her head.

“You’d think there would be a horde of people here making magic happen
and throwing confetti everywhere, but it’s not. It’s just what I’ve
always been doing. I’ve worked every single day since January on this
stuff,” she said.

— Todd Kistler
Photo by Khai Le / Correspondent