For The Troops: A Family Affair

Prelude

Conventions mean something different to everyone in attendance. Collectors, costumers, journalists, and geeks out for a good time: we all have our own agenda.  Star Wars Celebration V had its variety of personalities, and offerings to satisfy every one of them. But beneath all the eye candy, collectibles and panels, there are people. Masses brought together by the common denominator of the Star Wars Saga and the need to celebrate all that it is… with each other.

When it’s all said and done, we are one big family.

Prep Time

Star Wars wouldn’t be Star Wars without The Empire. And a Star Wars party wouldn’t be much more than a bunch of geeks in t-shirts without the 501st Legion.

The 501st wants YOU.

For more than a decade, the “bad guys who do good” have been at the forefront of Star Wars costuming while throwing their support to charities as goodwill ambassadors of the Star Wars Universe. With over five thousand members from all over the world, the 501st is a testament to the inspiration of the Star Wars saga and the lasting dedication of the fans.

I’ve had the pleasure of photographing the Florida Garrison at several events, including Disney’s Star Wars Weekends and Star Wars Celebration 3. I was lucky enough to be chosen as the official photographer for their legion photo at Star Wars Celebration 5. With garrisons across the globe, the 501st rarely gets the opportunity to show off it’s true numbers at one event. There were hopes of a record breaking attendance at C5, which lead to the obvious concerns of where the photo would be taken. In the weeks before C5, a suitable location was agreed upon by Scott Will and Matt Paisley (both of the Florida Garrison),Dean Plantamura and 501st founder Albin Johnson (both of the Carolina Garrison). The group would meet in the convention center entry, near the main C5 exhibit hall. The immense space could be photographed from the 2nd or 3rd levels with a perfect view of the entire floor. Every trooper would be in plain sight. The photo was then scheduled for the third day of the convention, Saturday, August 14th, at 4pm.

As with most plans, it did not go off without a hitch. But that’s part of the fun.

Hitch I: That’s no moon.

The giant inflatable Death Star that the convention staff decided to hang in the entrance. It made a great impression, no doubt. You walk into a building and see the Death Star hanging over your head, you know you’re in for a good time. It did, however, pose a problem for the photograph.

As it hung directly over the center of the floor, so did it partially block the proposed view of the floor from the upper levels. In order to get everyone in the photo, I’d have to be on the stairway, facing the entrance to the hall. This posed a different problem. From a higher level, I’d be looking straight down at the group. On the gradual incline of the stairs, I’d be looking toward the group. Even at the top of the stairs, whomever was at the back of the crowd would be pretty far away.

Now that's a centerpiece.

The problem was already noted by the time I met up with Dean on the first day of the convention. But with no alternative location spacious enough to hold the legion, a shot from the stairs was the only option.

This, however, was Thursday. The photo was scheduled for Saturday. There was nothing anyone could do right now. It was going to be a big deal, yes, but it would be fun. Also …there was a friggin STAR WARS convention going on! There were two days of partying to be done in the interim, and I had my long time friend and co-conspirator John Booth to hang out with during all the geekery!

Me and John and Wampa.

... and speaking of parties. The 501st threw a pretty good one on Friday night.

During walks to-and-from panels, and back-and-forth from the main exhibit hall, I’d sometimes stop at the stairs. I’d walk up and down, look out over the crowded floor. I’d step back in awe of the space and of the masses milling about, and I’d wonder, “how the hell is this gonna happen?”

Time passed, as it tends to do. Saturday came – and it was busy. The 501st shoot was not until 4pm, and a morning meet-up with my friend and former Orlando Sentinel college Tanya Hanson, was a great start to the day at the convention. This was also the day of the Main Event: The event of all scheduled C5 events, the John Stewart interview with George Lucas.

This was something John and I had elected to stay FAR away from for several reasons, the top reason being that it was ONE SHOW ONLY. The prospect of spending the night on the sidewalk, waiting in line for the wristband that either granted access to the 2,600 seat theater, or the more likely prospect of seeing the simulcast on one of 6 other rooms, was not how we wanted to spend our time.

Besides, the 501st threw a hell of a party the night the lines began (didja see the photo?!) and the exhibitor floor was comfortably navigable as the masses converged for the show itself. For us, it proved to be the right decision. To each, his own.

In addition to meeting up with Tanya, I had the Slave Leia shoot to tend to (check out that story here – yeah, like you’re not just going to look at the photos). In fact, the 501st shoot was only one of three photo shoots I had scheduled that day; The third being the First Imperial Storm Trooper Detachment (FISD). Some FISD members are also part of the 501st, but they wanted their own group shoot. FISD member Steve Carter got my information from the 501st, made the request, and I was happy to oblige.

The Leia shoot took quite a while thanks to understandably huge crowds. Seriously, you try getting over fifty hot women together in a small space without attracting some interested parties.

… now put them in metal bikinis and imagine the crowd. Fewer males between the ages of 18 and 25 voted in the last primary.

The best excuse for gridlock, EVER.

Not long after I got Leia’d (yeah, I’m ashamed of that one) I started feeling anxious about the 501st shoot. As I went off to find Dean and Scott and Albin, Tanya and John rushed off to get in line for that afternoon’s Robot Chicken panel. Luckily I’d made a point of going the previous day.

This was as close as I got... still a good time, though.

I arrived at the 501st exhibit room at about 3:10 and was luck enough to find 2 members of the Belgian Garrison (I told you they had members all over the globe) who were also looking for Albin, and knew where he was. We found him judging a costume contest on the 4th floor and, upon realizing I was the official photographer, he made a special request. I was now to be the photographer for the Galactic Academy: a younger version of the 501st.

The Academy shoot, scheduled for 3:30, was to be a much lighter version of the Legion shoot. Kids were gathered on the stairs with their official banner, parents gathered to take photo of their own, cuteness and Star Wars love all around. It was pretty cool, and some of the costumes were very well done.

Kid Power!

All in all, more proof that Star Wars fans kick ass at all age levels.

After the Academy left the floor, it was time for the non 501st people to clear the floor. This was no small task.

Hitch II: The Hazards of Space.

Massive floor space mans massive crowds moving freely about. Luckily the 501st is a well oiled machine and very used to handling large crowds. I met up with Dean, and also Kathy Johnson. Kathy, wife of Albin and a 501st member herself, was going to organize the legion in a format similar to the group photo they shot at C4, three years earlier.

Kathy rallies the troops.

As she went to organize the legion members who had already began grouping around the perimeter of the main floor, I got to witness some crowd control. Dean had enlisted some fellow troops to move the convention crowds off to the sides of the main floor to make room for the group shot.

Dean Plantamura: Crowd Control

I, myself, went around asking people to move to one side and sought help from 501st members in keeping people away from the floor and away from the spot I needed on the stairs. I was soon steered toward some members who were on hand for security. They actually bowed out of the main photo to lend a hand in keeping order in the crowd.

How. Cool. Is. That.

I don’t know how long it took – I honestly didn’t have time to glance at my watch – but amid military style organization and several voices of authority, the floor soon was cleared. Completely cleared.

As Kathy began lining up the troops, I took some photos of the set up; Groups of Storm Troopers, Biker Scouts and Darth Vaders moving into position.

One Sith, Two Sith, Black Sith... Black Sith.

Now, how often do you see more than one Vader at a time? There were, like, five or six just hanging out together in one corner. Like some kinda basketball team from hell. Awesome.

I eventually noticed that the stairs were beginning to fill up. There was only so much security and, with such a massive effort on the floor, spectators showed up in droves.

The crowd was kept back and I had to stake out my spot on the stairs for fear of losing it.

I watched the precision and speed at which the troops fell into line. What was a shapeless, moving mass of people had turned into an empty floor. Then turned into an organized pattern of uniforms and armor.

I was told there would be two photos needed, one with the helmets (known as buckets) on, and one with them off, so everyone’s face could be seen. There were also some honorary members who were supposed to be in that particular photo.

The troops settled down at Kathy’s command. Camera flashes had been going off, and would continue to fire, all about the crowds that lined every floor and every step, but everyone on the floor faced me. I took a second and thought back to the times I passed by and stood at this very spot and wondered how it would all come together. I looked out at the formation of the group… and just marveled.

Almost there...

I have never – in the twenty years I’ve been shooting for whatever purpose, or employer, or event – never been more humbled at the sheer size of what I was documenting.

Hitch III: Jammed communications.

The honorary members were actually supposed to be in attendance for the “buckets on” photo. Weather I was confused – which happens enough – or the original request was just wrong, the outcome was simple and predictable. I shot the “buckets on” photo and shouted, “OK, now buckets off!”

This was met with some delay and shouting and quizzical looks by many of us. Dean maneuvered his way up the crowded stairs to inform me that the honorary members were on their way and the first photo would need to be re-shot. No biggie. It’s not like anyone broke rank or left the floor.

Within a few seconds a flutter of maroon fabric glided over from the edge of the floor and settled, front and center of the group. Adrianne Curry, still in her Slave Leia outfit from the earlier shoot was to be part of the 501st group. This was as good a reason as any for a re-shoot. Right behind her was Steve Sansweet – an integral member of the legion – along with Star Wars artists Terri and Tom Hodges.

Then cheers rose up from the crowd. For a second I thought The Maker himself had decided to join the fun but, instead, an equally important figure approached the group. Albin Johnson.

For whatever reason, he hadn’t been there and I felt quite embarrassed for not noticing. Within seconds, the OK was given and “buckets on” was an official go.

I shot three separate photos, just to be safe. Each one, counting down from three. Kathy counted down out loud, with me, holding up fingers to show the countdown.

I later realized, it’s pretty hard to see through tinted lenses. And even harder to hear through helmets. These guys – and girls – are good.

Within a few seconds, “buckets on” was done.

Awesome.

Then Clone Wars director Dave Filoni ran up to the crowd. Dave – between his appearances and interviews – was as busy as anyone could be, but made time to be at the photo. I saw Steve Sansweet bending Dave’s ear a bit as the troops were removing their helmets. I used my lens to zoom in and get a better look, then I saw Dave remove his trademark hat.

Buckets were indeed off!

Hey Dave, buckets off.

Thanks, man.

“Ready, three shots again,” I hollered. And with each countdown, the group photo came closer to history.

Finally, it was done.

“That’s it! THANK YOU!” I shouted. A resounding cheer rose up, from the troops, the spectators, and the photographer.

I spent the next few  minutes on the main floor shooting photos of the troops as they gathered for photo ops with the fans, and each other. I heard Steve Sansweet tell Kathy Johnson, “I told Dave he should take off his hat. It’s buckets off!”

Steve’s the man.

I saw Dean and went over to say hi. No sooner did I reach him than he turned to me and said, “Do you have a few extra minutes?”

As it turned out, there was to be an engagement.

A fan had approached Steve with the news that he had intended to propose to his girlfriend after the 501st photo. The plan was to bring her over to meet Steve, then pop the question. Dean wanted to know if I had time for a few photos — like I’m gonna turn THAT down!

The groom-to-be made his way to Steve as Dean and I tried to remain inconspicuous. I shot casual.

The happy couple.

He introduced his fiance (or so he hoped she would be). The din of the crowd was way over any conversation that was happening in front of me so I could only watch for the right moment.

He reached into his pocket.

He took her hand.

He got down on one knee.

… ok, screw casual, she knows what’s going on now.

Awwwww.

I kept shooting but also tried to absorb the vibe. This was an unbelievably special moment in their lives. And it was happening at a STAR WARS CONVENTION!

Fuckin’ A!

... until Death Star do you part.

After the engagement I had a brief moment of panic. The FISD shoot was happening. Without me.

The plan was to have the shoot in the Star Wars Laser Tag room right after the 501st shoot. So off I went.

Did you ever start doing something only to realize you had forgotten something very important? Well, unfortunately, I realized I forgot where the laser tag area was, yet I was already running feverishly toward it. I found myself near a guest services desk and took the opportunity to right my wrong and ask directions. As it turned out, the laser tag area was around the corner from that very guest services desk.

I burst in the room just as the group was assembling. Fortunately, it was nowhere near the 501st group size – or even the Slave Leia group size. I even had a chair to stand on: this was just getting easier and easier.

Neat, organized and efficient. Another success… and in much better time.

Another happy family.

After the shoot I went to meet John and realized the Robot Chicken panel was not yet over. Had it only been an hour and a half since I stared off for the 501st shoot? Could all that have happened in such a short time? It was as if time stood still. For once.

I’d meet John in line for the Gary Kurtz panel – something which both of us really needed to see. I tried to explain everything that had happened at the shoot but was still dazed and unable to put it all into words. Not tired, not worn out. Actually, euphoric.

This is the first time I’ve really reflected on all of it since that day.

John and I have both agreed that C5 was probably one of the best convention experiences either of us has ever had. Everything from the panels we attended, to the crowd control, to the exhibits. Not to mention an impromptu meeting with ILM model maker Jon Berg in the Ralph McQuarrie gallery – a brief conversation that ended with us thanking him for helping create our childhood and him giving both of us a big bear hug. A true family moment.

John’s thoughts can be appreciated here.

Looking back, it was everything any of us could have hoped for, and then some. But the time that best encapsulated the spirit of the Celebration, was the afternoon I spent documenting the spectacle of fans united. Helping legions of devoted and giving people document their own events. Watching the crowds part as one family merged in gargantuan celebration, and as another family took it’s first step toward a future.

All, in the heart of the Empire.

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10 responses to “For The Troops: A Family Affair

  1. As a fellow photographer (though by no means in an official capacity) I enjoyed getting to read another person’s veiwpoint on CV (Which i mostly worked, lol)
    Great blog, and hope you’re having a good one now that CV is over.

  2. It is always interesting to see outsider perpectives on the 501st. As a member, I have one view of things, and I appreciate everything that you’ve said!

    I took part in the celebration 3 group photo, and wrangling a group that size was challenging then. Well done! Sadly, I’m not in your picture – I wasn’t able to make it. 😦

    • Hello Andrew, and thank you. It’s always a great time with the 501st! I’m very sorry you couldn’t make it to C5. Hopefully we can meet up at C6!

  3. Hey that’s me! Holding the 2 girls at the mixer, they were real light =) that was a great party glad you had fun with us!!

  4. Jim,
    I can’t say thank you enough for your kind words concerning the 501st Legion. You are greatly appreciated for being there at CV, and for witnessing the controlled chaos. This was my very first celebration, and official 501st photo, and you did a great job of capturing the true essence of the 501st. Luckily, I was able to make both the legion picture (last row of TKs) and the FISD picture. Thanks again!
    TK9612
    Arkansas Squad

    • It was my pleasure (and always is) to be anywhere with the 501st. Thank you for the kind comments, it means a great deal to know that I was able to help out and that the shoot was a success. Glad you were able to make the convention and the photo shoots – hope to meet up with you at the next one!

  5. Great photos (and engagement story)! But one thing I’ve been wondering, who is Adrienne Curry and why is she in practically every photo from CV? Was she in Star Wars?

    • Thanks Douglas! Adrianne Curry is a model and former reality TV star, who also happens to be a major Star Wars fan. She is also an honorary member of the 501st and has appeared at many of their functions.

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