Wayne Stater articles

WSC graduate scores big with inflatable graphics

Right: Mike Kolker stands next to some fully-inflated characters and explains how they were put together.

A year ago, Mike Kolker was a senior at Wayne State College, ready to graduate and enter the design world. Today, he works at Signs and Shapes International Inc. and creates air-inflated costumes called WalkArounds¨ that weigh thirty pounds and stand over ten feet tall.

Mike plans to return to Wayne State College in mid March to give a demonstration of the work he does, and students can expect to see a fully inflated costume and pictures of his work.

Signs and Shapes, an Omaha-based business, has created costumes for many recognizable figures, including hundreds of big name sports mascots such as the Huskers' "Lil' Red." Right now the senior designer for Signs and Shapes is away on maternity leave, which means the responsibility for designing all the new costumes falls on Mike's shoulders.

"I'm flying solo," he said. "I like it because things are organized my way--I need to do that so everything makes sense in my head."

Turning a customer's idea for a costume into reality, however, is a team effort. Around 25-30 employees work together as the project moves through each division.

Mike is in the art department, the first step in creating the costume. Mike uses Corel Draw and PhotoPaint to create a preliminary sketch of a costume for the client to approve. These sketches made up of two-dimensional shapes molded on the screen and assembled like paper dolls to represent a three-dimensional costume. Sometimes Mike has to start from scratch, but often he can use parts and pieces from previous costumes. After the client approves Mike's sketch, he creates a three-dimensional rendering to scale out of clay making look as close as possible to the original two-dimensional sketch.

Once the clay model is finished, the "pattern girls" divide the clay model into sections like puzzle pieces that will make up the final shapes. Fabric for the costume is then cut electronically on a large plotter using data from the clay model. Sewers then assembled assemble the pieces of the costume, and occasional problems turn up at this step when the costume is first inflated. Some shapes can change and can cause deformities, in which case the sewers may have to rip apart seams and redo portions of the costume. After this, the costume enters the final stage where it is airbrushed with logos, fur, hair, stripes, spots, and other final touches.

The costumes usually cost between $3,000 and $10,000 depending on how elaborate they are, and they can often perform a wide variety of amusing and unusual tricks. Just about any appendage, such as a gorilla's backside or an alien's ears, can move or wiggle. Other accessories that have been installed in costumes include spinning bow ties, CO2 charged confetti shooters, and silly string holes.

The possibilities aren't exactly limitless, but Mike can come up with just about everything the clients want. One of his most memorable customers is Raymond Entertainment, who seems to play "stump the designers" with their elaborate requests. One of their recent orders is a series of different Blobsters that can shoot silly string from little holes in their bodies or spew confetti from their mouths.

"One of the neatest tricks though is eating people," Mike said. "There is a trap door and the wearer can open it up and literally swallow children and even spit hats or shoes back out!"

So far, Mike is having a great time at his new job, and he is eager to share his work with students when he returns to Wayne State College next month. It's a full-time job, but it seems more like fun than work. "I love getting up to go to work every day," he said. "There's always something different on my plate."