Thursday, August 7, 2014

Star Trekkin!

Every once in a while a gig comes along that makes me wish I could grab a time machine to go tell my 13-year-old self what was going to happen someday--because she would fah-reak. This past weekend was definitely one of those.

The Black n' Blue Jay, circa Spring 1991.
Rewind to my childhood . . . Every day after middle school, I would throw my backpack on my bed, flip on channel five, and decompress from school to a classic Star Trek episode. I saw each and every episode multiple times and came to really love the characters and the message of the show. When the movies came out, I was still a kid--and Ricardo Montalbon scared the hell out of me by sticking those ear worms in Checkov's helmet in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. Star Trek III enthralled me, and IV made me laugh my guts out. When the Next Generation premiered, I was all aquiver. While working as the cartoonist for my university's humor magazine, I drew up a MAD-style parody about campus life featuring the cast of the then-still-running Star Trek: The Next Generation. It was not great. But what I lacked in skill I made up for with fangirl love and knowledge of the canon.

Despite my piles of memorabilia, my phaser squirt guns, my Spock clock, my Star Trek coffee mug collection, and the several Trek shirts in my closet, I had never actually attended a Star Trek convention. I had, however, hovered on the periphery several years in a row. Enough to get familiarized with fan culture and realize they aren't quite like the rest of humanity--and I mean that in a good way! Trek fans are typically science-minded optimists who see the great potential of the human race. They are kind, they are smart, they are accepting, and they are awesome. I knew some folks who worked at the Star Trek Experience at the Hilton (open from 1998-2008), and they got my boss Doug and several Trek-loving coworkers to set up a temporary caricature booth near Quark's Bar during the week of the convention. Needless to say, the population of souvenir-hunting trekkies exploded during that week, and we did a brisk business. During the Experience's closing ceremonies, we were there too, shedding a few tears with the cast and crew and drowning our sorrows in Romulan ale.
Roger supervising the maiden voyage of his balloon
starship Enterprise.

So when I got a query a few months ago from a representative of the company that puts on the huge international Star Trek Convention (now at the Rio Hotel & Casino), I had to pinch myself. We chatted and I was booked, making me pinch myself several more times. The rep also mentioned he wanted a balloon twister and henna artist and asked if I knew anyone I could recommend. And while I work with some great agencies and I do have a little stack of cards from fellow party performers, two individuals jumped to mind immediately. The convention organizers wanted people who were fans, so that they could better interact with the fans there. And above anything else, my goal is to fit the performer to the client's needs. And boy did I choose correctly. My pal Danya Cornelius, who has been doing henna for years in the local fire performer and bellydance community, was actually watching Star Trek when she got my text asking her about her availability. And Roger "the Balloon Wizard" not only had a Trek uniform on hand, he had them for original series and Next Gen!
DUN DUN dun dun DUN DUN,
 dun-DUN dun-DUN dun-DUN . . .

During the con, Roger wowed the crowd with some giant balloon Enterprise sculptures, complete with whirring lights in the nacelles and hull (which became quite the popular photo op), as well as smaller renditions of vulcan ears, starship hats, and adorable little Orion slave girls. Meanwhile, Danya and her helper Heidi squirted out henna insignias for command, science, and and engineering officers, which she got down to mere seconds of application time. The Klingon symbol and Mirror-Mirror universe symbol were also popular, and she came up with dozens of customized fusion designs that patrons absolutely loved. The henna girls became a photo op all to themselves, as Danya used this opportunity to buy a (totally tax-write-offable) custom Uhura red uniform, and Heidi wore her blue uniform, and they both put in amazing tribal hair extensions that made them quite a stellar pair of babes to behold!

For the first few days I went with basic black and rotated my collection of Star Trek ties (yeah yeah, I collect Star Trek ties AND Star Trek coffee mugs, don't judge me, I can stop WHENEVER I WANT). Anyway, I got plenty of compliments on the ties,  and during our off-hours the henna ladies and I ran around the place and got a few photo ops here and there.
Move over, Mudd's women!

Meanwhile, a parade of costumes went by us all day, every day, culminating in Saturday's costume contest. Many were expertly sewn, custom copies of those seen on some episode or movie. Some were quirky takes on a theme or a character mash-up. A few were hilarious, a few were sexy. All of them showed dedication and love and creativity. Some group costumes wandered by, like the "Spanish Inquisition" trekkies, which except for their communicator badges could have walked off a Monty Python set; or the "red shirt casualty zombies," which is kind of self-explanatory; or the superbly costumed Next Gen band of merry men from the Robin Hood holodeck episode, each of whom had an uncanny resemblance to their counterpart in the show. There was a "dude" trekkie who was a carbon copy of Jeff Bridges' character except his slouchy robe was of a Star Trek design. There was a Ferengi couple who went in traditional Ferengi attire--meaning the female was "nude," as Ferengi believe it is vulgar to allow women to wear clothing. And I cannot even count the number of Star Trek kilts and corsets fans walked around in.

There was a tie for first place; winners (pictured lower right in the collage above) included an intricate Borg couple and a clever dual puppetry costume representing the two alien personas of "The Corbomite Maneuver"--the frightening blue-green false dummy Balok uses to frighten the Enterprise crew and then, underneath it, the childlike true appearance of Balok (played in the original series by a very young Clint Howard), complete with a little cup of "tranya," his favorite beverage. The contest was judged by a panel of actual Trek costume designers and makeup artists, and rather than splitting the $1,000 best-in-show prize, the panel decided to award both winners the full amount.

While I was off duty, I was also able to duck into some of the panels and celebrity talks. Kate Mulgrew waxed philosophically about life after Trek and received kudos for her emmy nomination on Orange Is the New Black, Simon Pegg delighted the crowd with his humble charm, and Harlon Ellison talked about not getting along with studio executives during his stint writing for the original series.
My favorite science officer.

And I caught sight of a familiar face--er, a familiar hairdo, anyway. A young engineer and flight team leader who became dubbed "The Mohawk Guy" after his appearances all over the internet in 2012 as NASA landed the Mars rover Curiosity was walking around the convention hall! Bobak Ferdowsi is a trekkie, it turns out, and he was participating in some of the science panels . . . yes, at this sci-fi convention, they have speakers that also talk about science fact! Bobak was delightful, and he even posed for a picture with me, but alas, I had to race out of his panel halfway through because it was time for me to set up. Right as they were getting to the asteroid-mining projects, dang it. But as a consolation, a couple of days later he showed up right by my drawing station and ended up getting filmed by a TV crew with me in the background! It took a lot of willpower for me to focus on my drawing during that time. I have yet to see the footage, but if anyone comes across it please send me a link! Aging celebrity extras from the original series are exciting--but NASA guys who land giant robots on Mars impress me more. Swoooon . . .
The orchestra got a well-deserved standing ovation, and Rachel and I got to
bask in all the trekkieness!

Saturday night I hung around extra late to catch the Las Vegas Pops 45-piece orchestra play a variety of songs from the TV shows and movies. Hearing the scores played live, in that setting, was really a unique experience. Talk about classing up the joint. The concert opened and closed with music from the new J. J. Abrams movies, and those pieces really are powerful. Not only were we treated to a fantastic concert of really moving orchestral music, along with the conductor's commentary about how intricate and innovative some of the original music was when it debuted in the 1960s, but I also got to hear the world premiere of an original piece composed and guest-conducted by Ron Jones (who composed the music for ST:TNG as well as about a zillion other TV shows). Then I got to hang out with my old high-school pal Rachel Julian, who was lead percussionist for that concert! Vegas is a small world--and arts in Vegas is an even smaller world. She was tickled to play this event because her specialty is the marimba, so she got to whack out those signature tones that start every episode of the original series. The whole orchestra only had 3 hours to rehearse all the material, and they knocked it out of the park--true professionals.
I pre-drew eight uniformed poses that trekkies could choose from: the
client specified that they wanted male and female bodies for each of the
major subsets: TOSNext Gen, and the newer reboots.

With all this going on, you'd think I didn't draw a darn thing while I was there. Not true. I set up my monitor and printers and offered fans free digital caricatures as part of the "gauntlet of cool free stuff" along the main hall. And people really dug 'em. Maybe a little too much. I was BUSY. And, just from the exhilaration of the environment, and cool people, I managed to haul butt and draw well over a hundred and twenty faces over my four-day mission. And I didn't take a single bathroom break!

I also jumped directly into the fray and wore MY Star Trek costume on the last day. A seamstress friend had sewn me a neat retro-looking Trek skirt that I later embellished with a felt Enterprise and string of sequins to make it into a trekked-out version of a poodle skirt. Paired with some saddle shoes and a matching shirt, it made for a neat little outfit that fetched many compliments.

Now, as I said, trekkies are not like the rest of humanity. As an example, let me just tell you that NOT ONCE did anyone come up to me and say "aw, can't you do just one more" after the line was cut off. Not a single person. Over four days, not one! Rather, they politely asked what time I would start the next day, or told me they loved the work and hoped I'd be there next year too. Nor did a single person complain about how long they had waited. Not one. And these folks were waiting sometimes two hours or longer! Sci-fi conventioneers respect the rules, they know how to create an orderly line, they wait patiently once they commit to waiting, they police themselves well, and they do it cheerfully.  They all get along. It's amazing to behold. Conversations and friendships were struck up between strangers as they waited behind me for their turn.
This was the line I saw, for caricatures, as I walked in about
forty-five minutes before my start time on Sunday. Holy cow,
I started worrying people mistakenly thought Nimoy would
be drawing them or something.

So, feeling all this trekkerly love, I bent some serious rules and extended way more trust than I normally would give to a crowd of people. And my trust did pay off. For instance, I would NEVER ever ever hand out numbers and then tell people to just wander off if they wanted too. But I ended up doing that the last day. Cranking eight- to nine-minute color digital drawings meant I could maybe do thirty or so during my four-hour shift. On Sunday, I arrived to set up and found a line of 28 people already awaiting me; some had gotten there an hour ahead of time determined to get drawn. So I wrote out numbers and explained to the crowd that they could wander IF they cleared it with line buddies so that I always had someone waiting to draw and some semblance of a line. Because, I warned them, if everyone left and then all showed back up during my last ten minutes, we would have chaos. So they'd need to cooperate.

This would not work with bankers, lawyers, wedding guests, high school kids, teachers, or most any other group. It totally worked with trekkies. No one wandered back late and played dumb. No one yanked on my shoulder to ask what number was next or what time they should return; they all self-managed and checked in with one another. There were ZERO line disputes, ZERO complaints about how long anyone had waited, and ZERO breakdowns in line progress. I had a steady stream of folks with numbers, and they happily--and sometimes smugly--told others that my line was closed. It was wonderful! I think they have spoiled me for all other crowds.

I rewarded their awesomeness by taking more time than I usually did with drawings. Which gave me mixed feelings. The eternal question for all live caricature artists--is it better to deliver a fast product or a fine-tuned product? They were very patient, and so I was leaning more toward detailed stuff in each drawing. But it's amazing how time adds up. If you take an extra minute on each drawing, and you've given out thirty numbers, BAM, you're working an extra half-hour for no pay. Which did happen to me, but for once I didn't sweat it at all. It was a very diverse crowd. I drew folks from several different countries, I drew kids, I drew seniors, and I drew quite a few disabled folks. If someone needed an extra couple of minutes, I did not mind at all. 
Ah, to be young and Klingon . . .

One guy did ask for a special favor, actually. And it threw me for a second. This gentleman walked over and said "Is there any way I could make an appointment? I have walked by several times and your work is amazing!" I explained that I had already closed the line, sorry, and he sighed and said he'd been too busy speaking on panels. Saywhatnow? He said, in the politest way possible "I'm the guy who wrote that tribble episode. And I hate to ask for a special favor because of that, but if there's any way you could work me in . .  ." Now actors have recognizeable faces, but I had no idea what writers looked like. And "The Trouble with Tribbles" is THE fan favorite episode from the original series, it's quite famous, and this fellow looked a little young to have written it nearly fifty years ago. Was he lying to me? Lying would be so out of character for trekkies. I looked up at some of the trekkies nearby, a flash of confusion on my face, needing an answer from them. They were silently nodding their heads vigorously, eyes wide and mouths slightly open, and one of them whispered "Oh my god DO IT."
Thanks to photoshop, it looks like I was printing
out 11 x 17 for writer David Gerrold . . . nope, just
 special effects folks!

Yep, this guy was genuine. His name was David Gerrold, I later found out, and he had indeed been running from panel to panel and busy with press interviews and such. I told him to come back at 5. He did stop back right on time, with plenty of kind words for me--he said he "never gets these done" but was so impressed with my likenesses. I told him he was already in the chair, no need to butter me up! For the next nine or ten minutes I got to have a fascinating conversation about what it was like for him, writing in Hollywood at the age of 19 during the dawn of the hour-long teledrama. I also got to hear about his involvement in "Trials and Tribble-ations," the clever tribble-themed retro episode of Deep Space Nine . . . and he even let me in on some private trek gossip that I shall take to my grave! I have said before that one of my favorite things about this job is it gives us face time with some of the most interesting people in the world. Boy howdy, this qualified.

So now I rest. Between the two enormous conventions I attended in the past two weeks, I am really bushwhackered. Oh yeah, last week I went to San Diego for that OTHER huge convention. I'll try to write about that next time.

Until next week, keep on trekkin' everybody!