The Paparazzi Costume

On the way to dinner after Halloween 1999, I struck upon an idea for a costume so incredible, that I would surely be arrested for radical extremism. "But the world is not ready for Tianamensturation!"  I told myself, "think of something that people will enjoy, something they love!"

Fresh from an amazing Halloween party at a motion-picture special effects company,  I had experienced the excitement of having my picture taken over and over again.  It was cool, feeling famous for a few hours, posing for pictures. I wondered if I could turn that around...make a costume that did the flashing.  Flashing lights seemed to always be a big hit with crowds, and, done correctly, this could be the flashiest costume of all.

I had some insight as to how I might accomplish this effect because of my brother.  Mike worked for a few years at a one-hour photo shop in Davis, California, where he tore open disposable cameras and developed the film inside.  Back then, the used camera shells were simply discarded.  Mike had brought a few of the expensive ones (the ones with the flash) back to my parents' house.  He discovered how to activate the flash, and we took turns blinding each other in the garage. The mechanism was rigged and dangerous: The big capacitor dumps out through a transformer, creating a high-voltage surge to ignite the bulb.  That big surge is strong enough to shock the crap out of you.  Mike remembered having tiny white scars where he had been shocked. It could numb your whole arm.

"I'll be careful", I thought to myself...famous last words.

On September 11th, I composed a short note aimed at convincing photo-processing shops to give up their spent camera shells.  I printed out five, and bought some nice white paper pails the photolabs could use as "collection pails".

I don't have much experience asking people for handouts like this, but I was hoping people could get behind a fun project like this one. I was nervous.  I figured I would need about 25 cameras.


In order to create a flashing "Paparazzi" costume for Halloween, I am trying to collect 25 shells left over from disposable cameras with flashes. I need the flash, capacitor and battery. Don't worry about the battery being dead, just leave the shell intact or mangled, it doesn't matter.

I will check back on September 30th to see if you collected any, or you can call or email me for any reason. Besides re-using them, I will recycle the plastic used on the cameras when I am finished with this project.


Rob Cockerham

 Michelle at work saw my camera collection plan beginning to unfold and she gave me some valuable advice.  She told me that larger Target Stores have one-hour photo labs, and that I should try my luck with the big fish first, instead of collecting 5 or 6 cameras at 8 different places.

Target paid off big-time.  The first store, near Sunrise Mall, had an overflowing bin of camera shells!  Kodak had obviously stepped up their reclamation efforts.  The nice woman behind the counter wasn't ready to give me all of them, but she picked out 12 and handed them over.  I was ecstatic! Ten minutes and I had half of the supplies I needed!

At the next Target, I learned more about the economics of used camera shells.  Kodak pays Target US30˘ for each unmutilated shell. This meant that the folks behind the counter were reticent to give away the farm, but they were always willing to give a few away.

In total I got 35 cameras from 4 Target stores, and 17 from a Rite Aid Pharmacy.  I came up empty handed at a WalMart, a Walgreen's and Raleys. With 52 cameras I was ready to move to the next step...figuring out the electronics.

Inside each camera is a beautiful little circuit board, with battery, capacitor, transformer and flash. I needed to get these little babies to work together...without shocking myself too many times.


I tested a new AA battery in one of these shells, trying to get an idea of how many flashes I could get from one. I lost count at 650 flashes. They would last all night!
Ross is my friend who knows the most about electronics. He is the kind of guy who has a remote-control on his dimmer-switch. We carefully dissected a couple of cameras on his table.

I wanted to see if there was an easy way to wire all of the cameras together to achieve a progressive wave of flashes.  *pop*,*pop*, *popopopop*, like a real bank of photographers.  Ideally, I would only need one button to trigger the whole thing, leaving one hand free to hold a cup of punch or hand out my résumé. I was afraid that trying to activate 25 separate switches was going to be a nightmare. Ross tried to convince me to use disposable bulbs, but it was already too late, I had 53 cameras in my house.  He studied the circuits and drew up a few plans...the cascading flash effect was not going to be easy.  Some kind of button array looked like the easiest alternative.

With the electronic solution in limbo, I set about collecting materials for the rest of the costume.  I still had 5 weeks left, so I was finding cheap solutions.  I bought 8 2-liter bottles of soda so that I could use the domed-plastic top for an olde-tyme flash parabola. This picture shows them hanging up to dry after I painted them silver.
I was having trouble drinking/giving away the soda fast enough, so I ended up buying 10 bottles from a homeless guy.  Here in California, 2-liter plastic bottles have a US5˘ deposit, so they are actively mined from the downtown dumpsters.

I offered a pleasant looking hobo US50˘ each, and he handed me his massive bag.  I picked out 10 uncrushed bottles and loaded them into my trunk. I paid with a crisp, new 5 dollar bill. This is as close to charity work as I got all year.


For the photographer's faces, I brushed the inside of clear, plastic masks with opaque paint. They were starting to look pretty creepy...
Adding paper eyes increased the creepiness by a factor of four. I filled the masks with expanding foam. The drying foam reacted with the plastic masks and warped each one slightly.  I wasn't sure I wanted to sleep with these things in my room. 

I wasn't really sure how I was going to attach the faces to the back-panel.

I bought 100 feet of telephone cord and cut it into 7 foot lengths.  Each flash unit needed four wires connected, so the phone cord was a perfect fit (it has four strands). Phone cord is one of the cheapest wires available.   The wire simply extended the two switches that were already on the cameras:  I soldered one pair of wires to the flash charging switch, and the other pair to the flash activator.


I planned on having flashes across the top of the costume, with the wires leading to a master switchbox.

The cameras were constructed of black plastic pipe, corrugated plastic, and black gaffer's tape.  I glued compasses and pencil sharpeners on the outside so they would have some detail. I also glued on some plastic bits from the wasted camera shells.

They looked pretty good! 

I cut apart an old backpack and hot-glued the backing to it.  I used an old election sign made out of corrugated plastic. These sheets are lightweight and very strong. the back of this sign still says "Robbie Waters, Mayor, for all the people".

I knew I was going to a big, open warehouse, so I was free to make it as big as I wanted. The only restriction was that it had to fit in my car.

I plotted out where the 12 faces should go and cut a rough outline out.  The middle "O" is for my face.

It was October 17th when I did the main assembly. First I attached the flash structures to the cameras.  Second I glued the faces to the backing, then I poked wire hangers through the body of each camera, through the eye of a face.  I ran the wire down to a central location within my reach.  I built a final "camera" as the control box and mounted two rotary switches inside.  It was coming together, but I was running out of time.  I wanted it to be as finished as possible so that I could come back from Costa Rica and not have too much work to do on it.

The party was on Saturday night, Oct.28. When I arrived back in Sacramento Thursday night, I immediately began finishing up the costume.  I was beginning to realize what an awesome costume I was building.  On Saturday morning before the party, I bought some felt at a local fabric store. The cashier told me I should come to their costume party at 2 pm. "What's first prize?" I asked.  She didn't know.  I guess that sounded pretty cocky.

When I am working on a big project like this one, I work slowly.  I savor the progress of it coming together, and I am cautious about steps that I cannot "undo".   The final step was to solder the flash circuits to my rotary switches.  I was pretty nervous about this step, because I didn't know for sure that they were going to work using a common ground wire. I had been working on the flash units without batteries.  This was to avoid getting shocked, but it meant that I couldn't test as I went.  Luckily when I finally loaded the batteries in, they worked!

I was giddy. My brother loaned me the perfect black reporter's hat and I glued plastic hats onto the other 12 reporters.

I loaded the costume into my car with minimal damage and headed to Rob & Helen's apartment in Marin County. We arrived at the party early and I met Katy (I was her guest for the party).  Right away I crossed the stage and got a great crowd reaction.  Using the two knobs, I could unleash flashes from all 18 cameras in a couple of seconds.  I flashed like there was no tomorrow.

People approached me with tiny pupils, "Are you paparazzi?", they asked.

 I was starting to get the idea that I could be a winner in the costume contest.

Please Read Part Two

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