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strange_doings ([personal profile] strange_doings) wrote2014-01-06 03:29 pm
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Tips for Potential Judges

Reposting an essay I wrote for a newsletter, on judging standards and qualifications for masquerade judges.

There comes a point in many costumers' lives when they're faced with the opportunity to judge a masquerade. Maybe a director asked for them by name, or maybe they answered an open call for volunteer judges. It's a wonderful chance to participate in the masquerade in a new way, as well as potentially evaluate and affect the direction of other costumers' efforts. But, unlike nearly every sewing and crafting technique, there are no youtube tutorials for How To Be A Judge. There are very few guidelines at all, it seems to be one of those things that veteran costumers take for granted, hoping that their younger proteges will pick up by osmosis or something. Perhaps it's time for a little guidance to help train up future masquerade judges!

There are three basic necessities for a good judge, but all of them have a certain level of subjectivity to them. First, a judge must be fair and free of bias. Second, a judge must be skilled enough to evaluate all costumes. Third, a judge needs good customer service skills. There may be a few subsets of these – a good poker face helps, a wider variety of masquerade experiences helps – but those are the three main facets of being a quality judge. I'll take each one separately.

It seems like a no-brainer to say that a judge should be fair and unbiased, but in practice, it's not so easy for some people to actually achieve. Some biases can be hard to shake, or hard for a person to even know they have. Even longtime judges can develop biases from seeing too many of a certain type of costume for too long, so even they have to stop and re-evaluate their thinking once in a while. It can be as obvious as not being interested in a certain type or genre of costume, or being too interested in one, or as subtle as forgetting that Novices are allowed to make mistakes and shouldn't be held to the same exacting standards as a Master. Biases aren't something to be constantly neurotic about, and most human beings with a shred of humility and decency can shield themselves from being crippled by bias. As long as a judge goes into the judging process with the mindset that they want to be as fair as possible to everyone they meet, and want to make the competitors feel appreciated and fairly-evaluated, they're already on their way to fairness.

A fair judge puts the competitor's comfort first. A fair judge is interested in the integrity of the masquerade itself, and rewarding merit. A fair judge can put aside their dislike of a genre, series, or character and evaluate the costume on its construction and appearance alone. A fair judge is not swayed by the “shiny factor,” and can look past a costume merely having something like wings, armor, props, electronics/lights, or gratuitous sparklies in order to evaluate the skill of creating and incorporating these flashy bits. A fair judge pays attention only to the costume in front of them, and doesn't compare it to the one before it, or the one seen earlier, or the one seen at another convention two months ago – fair evaluations depend on that particular costume's merits or lack thereof. A fair judge is not out to make people feel bad, is not out for their own ego, is not there for the publicity or the perceived prestige of being called a judge. A fair judge understands the balance between encouraging up-and-coming cosplayers to hone their craft and being genuinely critical of their faults and mistakes. Nobody likes to be told that they've failed, let alone how, and masquerade competition is not the place for open criticism. A judge's job is to silently critique, and score fairly, balancing a costume's good qualities against its failures and determine where, in the pack, they end up.

Much of this can be subjective, even esoteric. It's hard to give “do this/don't do that” pointers on fairness, because one has to know what their own biases are before consciously deciding not to be biased. Skill, on the other hand, is much more concrete. There isn't a particular point at which a costumer accumulates the right number of bonus points to be promoted to judge, you don't “level up” by achieving certain accolades. But a judge does need to be well-rounded and skilled, or else they risk making mistakes and looking foolish. A judge doesn't have to have actually handled every type of material and used every method or technique, but they absolutely should at least know of them – because some techniques require more skill than others to pull off. A skilled judge would know whether a costumer has made intelligent choices in their construction, done something that goes above and beyond their skill level, and whether or not the result is successful.

Contrary to some beliefs, “just anyone” isn't qualified to judge a costume's merits because “they know what a good costume looks like.” Such a massive fallacy! Unskilled people, particularly non-cosplayers, are impressed by different things. They may only care about their favorite characters or series or game. They may not be aware of every last little detail that belongs on a character's costume, so a vague gesture of the character is enough for them to recognize the costume and thereby approve of it. They may be only used to a Halloween-party standard of throwaway costumes, so hand-crafted ones from any and all skill levels are simply beyond their ken – or they may mistakenly believe any costume that looks so good simply has to be store-bought. To the unskilled, a costume that they like is good no matter what. But what if they only like that costume because they recognized the character from 20 feet away? And then when you get up closer, you see that the hems are unfinished, the wig looks like that Barbie whose hair your sister chopped off when she was ten, and the prop is visibly falling apart unless the cosplayer holds it a certain way? True, these are extreme examples, and even first-time cosplayers can probably tell you when they've seen something truly awful. But when competition enters the mix, the fine lines between quality and lack thereof become even finer, and it takes a truly skilled mindset to be able to discern between competitors vying for an award.

Masquerades, after all, are competitions in which skill is being evaluated. They aren't popularity contests where having the most friends guarantees a win, it comes down to actual construction. Visual impact certainly plays a large part in the judging, but equally important is the ability to construct the costume in such a way as to make it look its best. Whether reproducing a media image, making sure that the costume looks as close to the reference material as possible, or creating an original design that is truly eye-catching and interesting, base sewing and craft skill is how it all comes together. A judge has to be skilled enough to know when something has been sewn properly, most importantly because it helps them distinguish between skill levels. Novices are generally understood to be the kind who may make mistakes, subtle or obvious, but also may make inappropriate decisions for their techniques. For example, they may choose not to line something, or don't even know how to line it. A Journeyman has improved skills and better understanding of the big picture, but they may still occasionally make choices that a more skilled craftsperson would do differently. Following our lining example, perhaps they know to line a garment and choose to do so, but they choose a pillowcasing method that leaves them with more work and some complicated hurdles to jump to get it to look nice, because they don't yet know another method that might save them time and headache. Masters should be skilled in a number of areas and able to make proper decisions, both in technique and aesthetics, to bring about their desired goal. Because a judge has to have certain expectations for each skill level, a judge needs to be at least skilled enough to understand the differences and know which techniques would be expected – particularly in the separation of Journeyman and Master. Journeymen, by definition, are still learning and want to be protected. Master is an open class, which means anyone can enter it, but it is by nature populated with veterans and even professionals. Anyone can compete in Master, but in order to win awards and excel in Master class, one needs the skills and techniques to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with potential pros. For a judge to be able to fairly evaluate these Masters, they should be at least skilled in enough techniques to know when said technique really is stupidly complicated and achievable only by the highly-skilled – or whether said technique only looks complicated to the uninitiated, and in truth, is really simple and so easy it's a wonder everybody doesn't do it.

It's impossible for any one person to be completely skilled in every single technique out there, and in costuming, new techniques and unusual, unorthodox methods are being invented every day. Skilled judges aren't expected to know everything, but they should know enough, so that when a costume comes in featuring a technique that the costumer literally made up themselves to solve an unusual problem, the judge can understand it and be appropriately impressed by it. There is something particularly pathetic about a judge being openly awed by a rather low-level technique merely because they haven't tried it before – and worse, scoring a costume highly because they are under the mistaken impression that a lot of work and skill went into making it. This happens sometimes when a judge who only has experience in one facet, say sewing/tailoring, is suddenly confronted with several different types of armor, maybe some wings, maybe electronics. By being ignorant of the mere existence of things like foam, thermoplastic, EL lighting, and so on, a costume with tons of armor and lights might wow an inexperienced judge who is only focusing on the fact that the plastic and lights exist, not whether it was properly shaped, finished, painted, or wired. Conversely, a judge that only excels in armor and props can be wowed by someone who walks up with a dress covered in trim, and fooled into thinking that the size and sparkliness of the trim is some kind of indicator of the tailor's skill, when really, it was a pre-made trim that came looking like that and all the costumer did was top-stitch it down over finished hems.

The most important reason for a judge to be competently-skilled is an unpleasant one – it's their duty to weed out cheaters. It's never fun to have to be the one to catch somebody lying about whether or not they've made a costume, but it does happen. A judge has to know enough to know when someone is describing a technique incorrectly, and not because they're nervous, but because they genuinely don't know how their costume was made because they didn't make it. It can't always be as transparent as not knowing what a serger is while sporting a costume with serged seams. Judges generally don't go into the room hunting for evildoers lying about their costumes, but sometimes when you see a costume entered at a particular skill level that looks way too good for someone at that level, you get a little suspicious and can't help but ask. Wise judges ask leading questions, and hunt out the truth by listening carefully to the answers. It could very well turn out that you're facing a scary Novice, who legitimately belongs in the class but is really doing some amazing work, and it's up to you as a judge to make sure they get an award to propel them onward. They're not always cheaters, but sometimes, one slips in, and the judge is the last defense. The judge has to catch them before the awards are handed out, or there will be complaints and butthurt later.

Only you, the individual, can be honest about your skill level and whether or not you feel qualified to judge. Remember that judging is the serious part of the masquerade, and to some people, those awards mean a lot. At a good masquerade, the competitors go in expecting to be evaluated by their peers, and want to feel like they have been genuinely given a fair shake. Fairness does involve appropriate evaluation of skill, and sometimes, competitors decide on whether they want to keep competing, and at what level or with what costumes, based on those awards. A judge needs to be well-prepared so as to give the competitors that fair shake they deserve, to recognize when a costume has gone above and beyond the skill that should be displayed at that level. Skill is the heart of competition and reward, or else we would all be dressed in garbage bags and showing enough skin to get the audience's attention.

Before going ahead and accepting that judge's position, a potential judge has to ask themselves whether they're up for the customer service part of the job. Yes, there is customer service involved, but don't worry, it's not much. A judge has to be tactful and polite, and may be confronted by all kinds of people in the judging room – nervous ones, enthusiastic ones, snooty ones, stressed ones, shy ones, scary ones. They're all a bit on edge from the stress of competition, and some may be new to masquerades and are pretty scared of the judges. A good judge is able to put competitors at ease and make their judging experience a pleasant one, or at the very least not make it worse for them.

At least, this part of judging can be covered by a list of do's and don'ts!

- Smile, or if you can't smile, be at least calm and pleasant around the contestants.
- Show interest in each and every costume you see. Ask open questions that lead the competitor to open up and talk about their costume, such as “what would you like to tell us about your costume,” “what was your process for building this costume,” “what are you the most proud of,” “what did you learn while making this costume.”
- Keep a poker face. No, not the line-faced, stoic kind, but don't let what you're really thinking about the costume show on your face. Nod, show you're listening. Even if it's a really terrible costume, don't let them see what you're thinking.
- Do NOT make editorial comments. If you notice something amiss and want to know why it is that way, ask politely or in a leading way, but don't make suggestions on how they should have fixed it or done it better.
- Do NOT voice your criticisms in front of the contestant. If you must discuss with the other judges why you wouldn't score a costume very high, do it after all competitors have left the room. This does happen, sometimes judges have to confer amongst themselves to clarify a score. It happens privately.
- Likewise, do not tell contestants that they're in the running for an award! Because until after the stage portion of the masquerade, you don't know who's going to win either. All contestants should head to the green room and the stage feeling equally optimistic at their chances of winning an award.
- Be positive, and offer positive reinforcement. Ideally, competitors should know not to call attention to their flaws and mistakes, but sometimes they do. Take it in stride. Don't contradict them and tell them lies, but be kind and respectful. If you must say anything in front of the contestant, find one thing to praise about the costume.
- Do not compare the costume you're looking at to the ones before it, or to costumes you've seen at other cons. Focus on what's right in front of you. If there is more than one of the same character costume in the same masquerade, you might not be able to help yourself from comparing them, because let's face it, one entrant might have done a much better job interpreting the character or crafting the costume than others. But don't actually say anything about it to the competitors! Privately use your thoughts to determine fair scores for everyone.
- NEVER offer unsolicited advice, no matter how well-meaning. It isn't ethical to tell a competitor why they didn't win, but it's perfectly fine for them to ask for ways to improve their costumes for next time, and thus, for a judge to answer.

Being fair sometimes means being harsh, but your judgment and scoring should never be given directly to the contestants. After awards are given out, the judging sheets should be destroyed, preferably shredded and disposed of off-site so that no con-goer might chance to find them. Likewise, don't tell people where they scored, how close they were (or weren't) to winning something, or what they should have done in your opinion. If someone asks, afterward, how to improve and be eligible for awards, do your best to couch it in positive terms. Point out something they really excelled at, then offer what advice you might have for the rest. Keep in mind that sometimes the answer is, “you didn't really do anything wrong. Someone else was just a smidge better than you tonight.” There are tactful ways to say this. If a costume is really spectacular and just didn't get lucky that time, it is fair to encourage them to enter it again at another convention. As long as it hasn't won anything, re-competing it later is not sandbagging.

Generally speaking, a good judge is polite to competitors and encourages positivity, so that even if someone is touchy about not winning, they can at least feel like the judgment was fair and it wasn't the fault of anyone involved in running or judging the masquerade that they didn't win. That's not to say a judge won't have to deal with the occasional butthurt competitor, but such people are few and far between, and tend to have a lot of the wind taken out of their sails if the judges have been fair and above-board. A good judge comports themselves well so as to be Teflon to the flinging of sour grapes.

Judging masquerades isn't a cushy volunteer deal. Judges may be able to get small perks like getting into a smaller con for free (if they're only judging and not attending), maybe dinner from the con staff, but it's not an illustrious position. A judge isn't a celebrity. A judge isn't special for being a judge. They are there to help the director have a smooth masquerade, and to evaluate the costumes fairly. It might mean being stuck in a judging room for hours on end with no way to see the rest of the con or even get food or a bathroom break. It might mean being rushed to get through all the entrants in time, or having to learn better time management. It might mean hassles and arguments with the other judges, or long deliberation times if the system has no easy way to score the competitors. It can be thankless and frustrating. But it can also be rewarding, as your decisions have an impact on the competitors – how they feel about themselves and their costumes, and at what skill level they feel confident in entering. Handing out that Best in Show might be catapulting a talented Novice straight into Master class. And, you will get to see a lot of great costumes, and get a feel for where costuming in general is going. You might even pick up some new techniques or advice from the competitors! Stepping up to a judging position is, if nothing else, is a means of being part of a great tradition. Masquerades would not be a success without good judges. Competitors would not feel like their peers appreciate their costumes without fair and knowledgeable judges. It's a very important job, and one to be proud of. Just know what you're getting into before you say yes to judging.