I went to the Armageddon Pulp Culture Expo held in Wellington New Zealand on 29th/30th April 2006. Never having been to any kind of fan convention I was keen to see how it all worked. My main interest was in seeing the guests of honour. In particular I wanted to see (in order of interest) Claudia Christian (Ivanova from Babylon 5), Jewel Staite (Kaylee from Firefly/Serenity), Summer Glau (River from Firefly/Serenity), and Clare Kramer (Glory from Buffy).
(For those not in the know, Firefly was a superb but short-lived SF TV series, Babylon 5 was a superb but long-lived SF TV series, and Serenity was a movie involving the same characters as Firefly. It was also, as it happens, superb.)
In the event, both Summer Glau and Clare Kramer pulled out at the last minute. It was a little annoying, though I guess I can't complain as my #1 and #2 showed up. I gather this is a perennial problem with conventions - even once guests are "confirmed" they will pull out if work turns up in the meantime. I guess this is just how the US film/movie world works.
I turned up at opening time on day one, and spent an hour or so wandering around the vendors' area. There were twenty or thirty stalls, selling comics, posters, tee-shirts, DVDs, movie merchandise and the like. There were also large spaces devoted to PlayStations and XBoxes. I was astounded to find no hint of roleplaying books. I had hoped to pick up some cheap roleplaying material, but there was nothing at all on offer.
At 10am I lined up with a couple of dozen other excited fans to have my picture taken with Claudia and Jewel. Standing just in front of me in the queue was every fanboy's fantasy: two beautiful young women (I do believe they were twins) who were also fans themselves, excitedly chatting away about Serenity. The guy behind me in the queue proudly showed off his "Save Serenity" lapel pin - apparently he had been active in the USA trying to get the show reinstated.
When my turn came I shook hands with Claudia and Jewel, welcomed them to New Zealand, and then I graciously agreed to pose for photos with them.
|Claudia Christian||Jewel Staite|
After the photo session I lined up in a very slow-moving queue to buy stock photographs and have them signed by the stars. It cost NZ$30 per photo/autograph combo. This seems quite steep, but I guess the stars make much of their money for their appearance from fees like this, so I was happy to pay.
|Lt. Cmdr. Susan Ivanova||Kaylee Frye|
Claudia had also bought along some copies of Playboy October 1999, as she was featured in it. I bought a copy, and Claudia opened it to the appropriate page and signed it. It was kinda strange watching her write "To Joff, Love from Claudia" all over her nakedness, but there you go. Sorry, no scan provided.
After the autograph session it was time for the first of what where officially called "Panels" but which mostly consisted of a single person answering questions from the audience. I spent the next few hours in the auditorium, attending most of these sessions, and they were all fascinating.
I enjoyed Claudia's panel the most. She was very interesting and candid. She has lots of strings to her bow: in addition to her acting roles she has released several CDs, speaks several languages, and has just written her first novel. This book is set in the Babylon 5 universe, and covers what Ivanova was up to while absent from the series in the fifth season. While telling us about this novel she made the funniest comments of the session. As part of her research, she watched all the Babylon 5 movies and TV episodes. This, she insists, was the FIRST TIME that she had actually watched the show she spent four years acting on! And she had this to say: "So I watched all of Babylon 5 and - you know what I found out? - it's actually a really good show! I finally get what you guys have been on about all this time!"
She said that writing the book had been like "pulling teeth," although things got easier when she teamed up with a fanboy to supply all the technical details and explain to her how the guns and spaceships and things worked. Despite this, she implied that she hoped to write several more B5 books.
Just to round off her character, she also owned up to owning large collections of edged weapons and military uniforms.
Someone asked her why one of the lead characters (Commander Sinclair) had left the show at the end of the first season - was the actor pushed or did he jump? Claudia paced the stage a bit, looking at her feet. "How can I put this delicately?" she pondered. "He was an arsehole." After the laughter died down she added, "If a cast gets on really well except for one person, you get rid of that one person."
Jewel's panel was terrific too. Several times she expressed her surprise at how many people (around 400 by my estimation) had turned out to see her. She said that she had never been invited to a convention in her own country (Canada) and thus was astonished by how popular Firefly and Serenity were here.
She was asked the obvious question - why was Firefly cancelled? She gave the standard answers (it was shown in a dead timeslot with episodes screened out-of-order), but added a new wrinkle: even though the network execs (curse their black souls) tried their best to sink the show, IT STILL MADE MONEY!!! So she was at a loss to understand why it had been axed.
She was asked to comment on the personalities of the other actors in the ensemble. Her most interesting answer concerned Morena Baccarin (who plays Inara), whom she identified as a tomboy who cared nothing for clothes and pretty things, and who swore like a truck driver!
When asked what Joss Whedon was like, she assured us that he was as nice as is generally believed. When asked what he was like as a director, she replied, "Joss likes surprising people in his stories - especially the actors."
When asked if she was as technologically gifted as her character Kaylee she burst out laughing and told us about the time that her digital camera had broken while she was travelling. When she got back from the trip she complained to her husband about the stupid thing. Hubby popped new batteries into the camera and away it went.
One brave soul asked Jewel, "What do you think about fandom? Do you find us creepy?" Jewel assured us that she didn't find us creepy, but spoke about two very strange incidents that had happened at convention signings. One guy brought along a scythe ("like the Grim Reaper has") and asked her to sign it. Then he addressed her in what she assumed was an alien language. She had had to struggle to avoid bursting out laughing. The second incident involved a fanboy who was so nervous at meeting Jewel that he had inadequate control of his bowels, and farted noisily while talking to her. But Jewel didn't take offence, as it was at least a "sincere fart."
Having never got into Star Trek: Enterprise I was not particularly interested in attending John Billingsley's Q&A session (he played Dr. Phlox). However I thought I might as well go along, and I was very pleased that I did, as it was a real hoot. He had come over with his wife (Bonnie), and insisted that she get up on stage with him and be given a microphone. Then the two of them did a funny tag-team routine, where John would tell a story from his Enterprise days, with his wife cutting in frequently to offer factual corrections or mild chastisements or alternative interpretations, or just to remind him of names or anecdotes. It worked really well, as they were clearly deeply fond of each other. Because they had both the auditorium's microphones, whenever a question was asked from the floor the two of them would bound down into the audience, and race each other to be the first to get a microphone to the questioner. It was funny and rather sweet. They were like two frisky teenagers in middle-aged bodies.
My favourite story John told involved the facial prosthetics he had to wear in the role of Dr. Phlox. They had a tendency to stick to things, so that, for example, if he talked on the phone while wearing one, big chunks of the side of his face would come away when he went to replace the receiver. In one episode his character got knocked out, and so he had to spend hours just lying still on the floor. When he was finally allowed to get up, his face was welded to the floor of the studio.
John was asked about how he had arrived at the accent he used when playing Dr. Phlox. He said that he had used the same accent right from the very first audition. The audition notes had said to go to a certain place at a certain time and to say certain lines using "a slight alien accent." That was the entire extent of direction in this regard!
John also sang a little ditty he made up with which to torment the members of the ST:Enterprise cast who got more screen time than him. It went like this:
Day off! Day-ay-ay off!
Six days off and the cheques still come.
Star Trek actor sitting in the sun!
Six days off and the cheques still come.
After the talks were over for the day I wandered out into the vendors' area again, only to find that the crowd had swelled to bursting. Thousands of people milled about aimlessly. It was horrid and so I fled, very slowly.
On the second day I arrived early once again and once again failed to find anything interesting in the vendors' area.
The first presentation of the day was the screening of a fan-created Star Wars film called Reign of the Fallen. I was astounded by the production quality. The acting, the costumes, the score were all on a par with the official movies. The story fit in well with established canon. It featured only humans, and as you might imagine it was a little light on the gee-wiz effects, but even then the lightsabre battles were utterly convincing - both in terms of the choreography and of the popping sizzling lightsabre effects. Full marks to the production team.
During the screening an Imperial Guard and a Stormtrooper entered the auditorium. The Imperial Guard went up and stood silently beside the screen, while the Stormtrooper worked his way around the edge of the audience. It was quite intimidating, as the costumes were spot-on. Intimidating that is until the Imperial Guard gave a cheery wave and sauntered off.
The rest of the presentations were largely repeats of those from the first day, with generally much smaller audiences. A few extra interesting tidbits came out, and I have folded these into the above accounts for convenience.
The last session of the day was completely new however. It featured three guys from Weta Digital/Workshop. The man himself, Richard Taylor, was there, as was Gino Acevedo (makeup/prosthetics guy) and Shane Rangi (actor/stuntman/receptionist(!)). The best story to come out of this session came when someone asked Richard how he got into movies. He said that he had grown up in a town with only 14 families in it, and had only seen five movies by the time he was in his teens. He didn't see his first video (Bladerunner) until he was 21. He taught himself to sculpt using mud from the river at the bottom of the family farm!
One cheeky lad in the audience used his question to angle for a job at Weta. Good luck to him I say. Richard said that they look for the following qualities in new staff, in this order: 1) passion, 2) commitment, 3) tenacity, 4) talent.
Once again I went out into the vendors' area once the talks were over, and once again the crush of people was just too awful to bear, and once again I skedaddled.
There were a large number of events I didn't attend (pizza-eating contest, costume competition, wrestling(!), laser tag, pillow fight(!!)), so I can't comment on how well they went.
All in all I had a blast, and I give the organisers an appreciative A-.