… almost there!

As Alice once said, “… curiouser and curiouser.” It’s relevant in the hours leading up to a massive event like C5, even if you’re no stranger to all the pomp and circumstance.

Panels? Yes. Vendors? Yes. Celebs, autographs, lines and hoards of fellow geeks? Yes. But there’s always something that sets it apart.

In Colorado, for Star Wars Celebration I (back then it wasn’t Celebration I because who knew if – like the Skywalker family –  there’d be “another”) we had rain. And mud. And massive, massive scheduling issues. But we also had fun. Nothing brings people together, and sets their worries at ease, like abandoning all control of their schedules. We just had no choice at CI. But we gathered, and chatted, and played impromptu trivia, and just enjoyed the company.

In Indianapolis for C3 (I missed C2) we had lines. No rain, just lines. Granted I was part of the “working” media so we didn’t have to wait outside every day, but we ALL had to endure the C3 ship line. And the George Lucas Q&A line. And the lines to wait in lines… you get the picture.

… however. Having hotels, the mall and the convention center all in the same cluster – with walkways joining them together – made it quite convenient and very, very cool.

This time, the party is in my back yard. Orange County Convention Center is all of 10 minutes away from my house. So far, the thing that sets C5 apart from the others is the fact that I have saved THOUSANDS in travel and hotel expenses.

My friend John and I are in the last minutes of checking schedules, packing equipment, quoting films and just smiling so hard our faces hurt.

What will make this particular Celebration special? Really, it doesn’t matter. It’s already special.

… but just to be safe, bring an umbrella.

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Counting down again

In the remaining hours (there is now literally 1 day and about 9 hours) until the start of Star Wars Celebration V, I find myself as I did on so many Christmas Eves as a child – totally unable to sleep. This event is, for me, the culmination of many a month of preparation and anticipation as both a fan and a member of the “working” media.

— yes, note the quotation marks because my history as a fan makes my responsibilities as a photographer covering this event more a labor of love than any assignment I’ve had in recent memory.

It has been 5 years since my best-friend-and-co-conspirator in various Star Wars and media-related endeavors, John Booth, laid journalistic siege to Star Wars Celebration III in Indianapolis and came away with, not only 4 days of blogs, but a huge feature story that printed in the Orlando Sentinel only a week before the opening of Revenge Of The Sith. We now find ourselves as we were five years ago in the fleeting hours before our trek to Indianapolis – online, checking emails and the latest fan postings in the wee hours of the AM… and totally unable to sleep.

John and his daughter Kelsey – who will be joining us for day one of the 4 day extravaganza – arrived in Orlando yesterday and the ferver has been growing ever since. Playing host to my friends and the ensuing geek-fest that my house has become is reason one (of about a thousand) that this event has been the place to be and the thing to anticipate since the official convention announcements were made.

Panels, autographs and exclusive goodies are only part of the event, and not even the most gratifying part. The true attraction behind any event – be it Woodstock, a Star Wars Celebration or a week at summer camp – is the people you spend it with. The fellow fans we met in Indianapolis are still discussed over many a phone call, email, and face-to-face chat. John’s favorite line from the film Fanboys – which was on our movie watch list just this evening – sums it all up…

“It was never about the movie. It was about all of us.”

Thankfully not faced with the same deadlines and work-related obstacles we had in Indy, we are able to relax and enjoy this latest gathering of the Force Faithful – although you wouldn’t know it to look at us as we sit in my kitchen, hunched over our laptops searching the interwebs with that impatient, jittery ferver saved only for massive fan gatherings and visits from Santa Claus. The clock is ticking. It’s almost time.

… Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good night.

Yet Another LeBron Opinion – or – Should This Even Happen?

I probably have no business commenting on any form of sports news – on this site or anywhere else. But life (and the internet) is full of firsts; and of things that just shouldn’t happen. It’s not on par with Two Girls One Cup, but here’s another first, and maybe a “shouldn’t happen.”

What does it say when competition means joining your opponents rather than giving your best against them? Is it an “unselfish” act to give up adulation and money to work toward a goal that ultimately benefits you more than anyone else?

The all-too-hyped LeBron James decision was hailed by many NBA insiders as both difficult and unselfish. Leaving Cleveland and The Cavaliers – his home and his first team – and the fans that adored him and looked to him to end a championship drought spanning more than four decades was no doubt difficult. This is a city that has been demoralized in ways that no other sports town could imagine: from Art Modell’s cowardly exit with The Browns, to the ’97 World Series heart brake.

But they are fanatical about their teams.

The people of Cleveland, and the greater Ohio area, are some of the toughest and most dedicated fans in the history of any sport. And they loved LeBron. In spite of the months (really, years) of uncertainty surrounding his impending free agency. In spite of appearing at other sports events around town while wearing the opposing team’s jersey. In spite of a half-hearted performance during some of the most important games in his team’s history. They loved him because he was the one who was going to deliver a title. Maybe not this year, but as long as he was with them, it was going to happen.

Art Modell, eat your hear out… or eat something else.

Being the only superstar on a team that is in serious need of a leader and stepping up when generations-worth of expectation is weighing on your shoulders is an unselfish act.

Being the one to ignore the perceived “sure thing” of winning with an all-star lineup to finish a job you’ve already begun is an unselfish act.

Giving money from your own pocket to benefit a worthy cause, rather than using charity to legitimize the staging of a prime time spotlight on yourself, is an unselfish act.

Winning for the city you call home, not for the one that will get you the fastest victory, is an unselfish act.

Superstars, heroes and role models are the ones who do the right thing and give of themselves for the sake of the cause, not their ego. Say what you will about the difficulty of the decision, the alleged sleepless nights and the consultations with family and friends. He had the chance to make a difference in a place that genuinely needed it. And he left.

Is victory still as sweet when it happens for the wrong reasons? Does winning for strangers feel as good as winning for family? LeBron will find out. He needs to find out. Because – if after all this – he does not get his victory, there may actually be proof that justice exists. And that is something that should happen.

Wild About Harry

With Star Wars Celebration 5 just a few weeks away, Orlando has already been the focus of a butt-load of attention and general geek love. Within the last month our fair city has been a stop on the Star Wars In Concert tour, enjoyed record attendance at Disney’s annual Star Wars Weekends events and will play host to our first ever Bot Con – the annual Transformers convention. It’s no secret that the theme park capital of the known universe is a mecca for events and conventions, but no recent event (with the exception of the aforementioned C5) has earned Orlando a spot on the world stage more than the opening of The Wizarding World of Harry Potter.

Even those unfamiliar with the adventures of Harry and his pals have been the victim of the media and marketing onslaught that Wizarding World has generated. John Williams himself sat in with the Orlando Philharmonic during a red carpet reception celebrating the opening of the park — yeah, JOHN FREAKIN’ WILLIAMS! And let me tell ya, as only a marginal follower of the mega-franchise, I was still ecstatic at the opportunity to attend the opening day. And the many, many… many thousands of people with whom I shared the experience, made it all the more memorable.

Journalists, generally speaking, are notoriously grizzled and jaded. No so much from a need to be objective, but because we see and do so much in the course of our jobs that it just takes a lot to impress us. Speaking as an easily amused individual, I rarely have that problem.

My Potter-Pallooza came courtesy of my employer, who generously gave me 2 days to experience both a media preview and the grand opening. This was the first time since I left a daily news paper (hence the blog name ExPress) that I was privy to a large scale media event. Being of a small publication, however, I was still very much a face in a crowd. The Today Show and many international press reporters were given access beyond other media folks, but let’s not split hairs: Special treatment at a special event is a pleasure no matter the extent or the reason. And, having missed the John Freakin’ Williams performance, I was out to enjoy as much as I could.

The media preview included a press conference with some of the people who helped create the park, produce the movies and the stars of the Harry Potter films including Rupert Grint, Tom Felton and Michael Gambon and Harry himself, Daniel Radcliffe. Special? Yes! And so was finding Rupert Grint hanging out after the press conference, just chatting with the crowd, and very agreeable to the occasional photo request.

Another gift during the press conference was free Butterbeer. The drink, featured in the films, is re-invented for the park as a non alcoholic beverage. At first taste it’s like a combination of cream soda and root beer with a frothy head (added separately) that tastes mildly of pumpkin with nutmeg and other spices mixed in.

In short, it’s crack. Sweet, refreshing, mildly carbonated crack.

After 4 of them I still needed more – and I wasn’t the only one. Media, though jaded, are always up for a freebie… and this stuff was worth paying for. Empty Butterbeer cups could be found on every table and filled every trash can.

The Butterbeer buzz got us through the next part of the media day experience – a guided tour of the park. We were shown around the quaint town of Hogsmeade – painstakingly and wonderfully recreated for the park. Many of the shops are only storefronts featuring details from the films, but some were actual retail outlets such as Honeyduke’s candy shop and Zonko’s joke shop. Ollivander’s Wand Shop, however, is by far the most intriguing.

Inside, the wand maker Ollivander chooses someone from the crowd of shoppers and gives a one-on-one consultation in which he selects a want from the shop’s inventory. The recipient preforms an act of magic (with the help of some well placed animated devices such as moving books and a bell that rings). If the trick is successful, the wand has chosen it’s owner.

— Oh, you still have to pay for the wand, but you will know that your wand was meant for no one else but you.

The experience is more show than shop, with the actual store in a neighboring room. Visitors are guided into the real retail outlet after the show and, yes, only one person per group is chosen. Therefore, if you have a child who wants a wand, make sure he or she is aware that the Ollivander’s experience is a SHOW and that you will buy them a wand afterward. That way no promises – nor eardrums – risk being broken should your child not be chosen for the consultation.

Wizarding World is more than shops and shows. What theme park would be complete without rides? Dragon Challenge is actually the Dueling Dragons ride that opened in Universal’s Islands of Adventure years ago. It was a convenient addition to Wizarding World because it fit perfectly into the magical, mythical landscape. The former Flying Unicorn kiddie coaster is now Flight of the Hippogriff. The track is the same but the line cue is different with Hippogriff shaped cars added to the track.

The park’s marquee ride is Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey. This attraction is actually two unique and awesome experiences in one. Within the amazingly detailed recreation of Hogwart’s Castle is a line cue that rivals most theme park rides. Talking portraits, ornate statues, a visit with Dumbledor and and an appearance by Harry, Ron and Hermione make every Muggle wish come true – and that’s just the start. The ride itself is an immersive experience with state of the art motion simulation and some frighteningly realistic creature effects. Not for the faint of heart, or faint of stomach, but if there was ever a good reason to risk losing a little of your breakfast, Forbidden Journey is it.

It seemed strange to have only three rides in the park but there are some details to consider.

One: Wizarding World is part of Universal’s Islands of Adventure – a cluster of “lands” that are only afforded so much space. Wizarding World is not much larger than all of Disney’s Main Street USA in the Magic Kingdom, so there is only room for so much.

Two: It’s a new park. Who knows what they have planned if the park should be a hit once the opening weekend frenzy wears down.

Even with a surprise preview for the public (during what was supposed to be a media-only preview), the crowds were manageable and wait times minimal. But this was only a preview. The true test was to come the following day.

The Following Day: As the media and invited guests were gathering around the entrance to Wizarding World, an unimaginable throng of Potter fans were already gathered in the Universal Studios parking area. Thousands of fans packed the walkways that extended toward the grand opening area. The heat was unbearable, even for Florida. Having already experienced the park the previous day, we the media were feeling less-than-patient when the 9am start time was pushed back. All in all, the delays were tolerable, especially when word got around about just how many people were waiting in lines since the previous evening. Smart phones provided the information and the footage but no one could believe just how big it was until we ALL were allowed in.

A dedication ceremony (only about 30 minutes late) that included the stars from the previous day’s press conference was a quick and to-the-point production that included a meet and greet with some schoolchildren who had won a contest to be the first opening day visitors to Wizarding World. After that, the crowds were allowed to enter.

Within 15 minutes I watched as empty streets reached the attendance level we had experience the day before… and then surpass it. Within 30 minutes the crowds had made for a 2 hour wait to Forbidden Journey and not long after, the line at the Butterbeer vendor (located near the front of the park) reached Space-Mountain-like wait times. Before noon the line reached more than half way through the park – Just For Butterbeer!

At 11:30 I headed back to the media center for lunch. Not far away, a thunderstorm was beginning to build. It did not take long to make it’s way to the park. When I returned at about 12:30 both Dragon Challenge and Flight of the Hippogriff were closed due to lighting in the area. Rain had already moved through with more on the way and thunder could still be heard in the distance.

… but the Butterbeer line was as long as it was before the storm. Not only had people stayed in line during the bad weather, but the storm could not deter the masses as they continued to file in behind those who had been in line for hours.

Crack, I tell ya. Crack.

Second only to the Butterbeer line, was the wait for Three Broomsticks – the one and only eatery in the park which, not surprisingly, has no reservations. The Three Broomsticks line snaked in front of both Honeyduke’s and Zonko’s which made entry into some of the only real shops in Hogsmeade, a task unto themselves.

Forbidden Journey however, was operating smoothly, even when it wasn’t operating. The ride had some technical problems and shut down a few ties during the day. The line, however, kept moving. The parts of the cue where guests are treated to various Potter-esque eye candy actually act as buffers. As people take the time to watch the portraits interact and visit Dumbledor’s office and see Harry and his friends, there is space building in the line sequence. Even when the ride shuts down, there is still movement through the cue as visitors take up the space.

Having seen expressions of joy, frustration, exhaustion and more joy on the faces of the crowds, it seemed the general feeling in the crowd was the same as any other day in a theme park. The heat and lines were harrowing, but all is usually forgiven once you get on the ride, pay for your souvenirs and taste the Butterbeer (crack). There will always be nay-sayers, complainers and haters, but as long as there is a fan base (and there is most definitely a fan base), things will work out.

Hell, I’d go back – even if I wasn’t guaranteed a Butterbeer.


Birthday Messages

6.13.10 This weekend marks a birthday milestone for two men that have bridged generation gaps and given our imaginations fuel for endless flight. We owe them both our respect and thanks. But for now, let’s just wish them a Happy Birthday.

The Teacher

The mind-numbing bliss of 1970’s child-friendly television programming had the occasional enlightened corner. Sesame Street and The Electric Company made a valiant effort at educating my cartoon saturated brain. Once I learned how to count, and realize why one thing was not like the others, the appeal faded. A restless imagination and a need for visual stimulation makes for a tough audience. The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau was more than up for the challenge.

Here was a guy whose job it was to dive for sunken treasure, swim with whales and catch sharks. Cookie Monster couldn’t compete with a White Tip feeding frenzy. But it wasn’t all gratuitous action and eye candy, there was a message. The adventure was also informative. There were questions being answered, species being studied and a new world being discovered. The series ran for the first eight years of my life (1968 to 1976) and became a weekly routine that was anything but routine. Every week he traveled to a different place, studied new things. He was part hunter, part explorer, part archaeologist. He believed that educating people about their world was the key to saving it. That the next generation would not be so quick to pollute and ignore if they could get a glimpse of what was really out there. The world was his classroom and the television allowed us all to be in on the lecture.

Friday was Cousteau’s 100th birthday. If there was ever a time he was needed, it’s now. Unparalleled pollution and ignorance have devastated the earth. It is only through the curiosity, respect and appreciation of our natural world that we can make things better. A survival of the enlightened, brought to you by The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau.

The Artist

The debate over what defines art has raged in many circles for too long. What it boils down to is communication. An idea, an emotion, a story; all conveyed through the talented hand of the artist. Through his art, Ralph McQuarrie has done all this and more. An illustrator who helped animate the Apollo missions for TV news broadcasts, McQuarrie would make a name for himself with a different kind of space adventure.

McQuarrie created the first visual concepts of George Lucas’ Star Wars. This was storytelling like never before, and he was the man to help bring it to life. Alien worlds, fantastic spacecraft, visions of armored overlords and heroic warriors. The illustrations were meant to help sell the idea of the film to studios and financial investors. They went on to become icons. A vision of our childhood that became synonymous with adventure, fantasy and imagination. All flowing from one man’s paintbrush, into the collective imagination of a generation.

It is McQuarrie’s painting of the dog fight above the Death Star that is among my first, and favorite, visions of the Star Wars universe. Since seeing that masterpiece, I awaited the first look at every new piece of his art that preceded each new film. I spent hours on end sketching out the designs and recreating the paintings. I developed an appreciation for art, and the power it has to ignite imagination and evoke emotion.

Ralph McQuarrie turns 81 today. Thank you Ralph, The Force has always been with you.

For Lorne

When most people think of the Millennium Falcon they think of a smart-ass Corellian smuggler, a 200 year old Wookie or the odds of navigating an asteroid field.

Some may even wonder, “What the hell is an Aluminum Falcon?”

For me and my pal John, The Falcon is synonymous with Lorne Peterson. As chief model maker for Industrial Light and Magic, Peterson was responsible for, literally, sculpting our childhood. His career has spanned the history of the Star Wars saga; from the not-so-distant era when animation was a physical act of patience and will, to the modern era of digital renderings and computerized scenery. This weekend, Lorne Peterson enjoyed his first visit to Disney’s Star Wars Weekends. In an all-too-brief interview with event host Jeremy (Boba Fett) Bulloch, Peterson recounted details of his career, helping to build a galaxy far, far away.

“I was first hired to build the Death Star,” recounted Peterson. “It was a job no one else wanted because you had to spend so much time working on your knees.”

The immense surface structure, featured during the climactic battle scenes of Episode IV, concealed many details which were barely noticeable onscreen and was built in the studio parking lot. The surface of the Death Star would be dwarfed, some thirty years later, by the surface of Mustafar; the volcanic planet featured in the climactic battle at the end of Episode III.

“It all had to be carved from styrofoam, and we spent days cutting away at it.” To give perspective on the size, Peterson looked about the sound stage where the interview was being conducted. “You could maybe fit three or four Mustafars in here,” he estimated.

The shortest turnaround on a piece was the Imperial probot in Episode V. “They needed the model, it was about nine-feet high, for location shots in Norway,” he recalled. “We only had a few days to get it done because it had to be shipped out to the set.”

Peterson’s favorite projects were the Millennium Falcon and Boba Fett’s ship Slave I. “They were very distinctive… and some of the most interesting (space ship) designs in the films.” When his interview was finished, Peterson took a seat (Tonight Show style) on a second couch to make way for the next interview subject, Matt Wood. After he sat down, he could be seen looking toward a Millennium Falcon toy, placed on the set for decoration. As cool as it was to listen to him speak, I’d love to know what he was on his mind as he sat, pondering the design that sat in the table in front of him.

Though Peterson’s Star Wars Weekends interview was fun, it pales in comparison to the interview John did with him at Celebration III in Indianapolis. More than 5 years have passed since that day. I stood, off to one side, snapping photos of Peterson as he and John spoke. It remains one of my favorite Star Wars experiences.

John’s interview printed as part of a feature we produced for the Orlando Sentinel – check that out here.

A follow up printed in FilmFax magazine and our website project Fieldsedge.com – check both out here.

Mr. Daniels goes to Orlando

Flashback to the 1999 Star Wars Celebration in Colorado; Anthony Daniels hosted the opening ceremonies and some of the presentations. The man behind the golden visage of C3PO proved a charismatic presence – well worth the hours spent waiting in the rain.

Fast forward to 2010; Anthony Daniels hosts Star Wars In Concert. The two-hour celebration of the music behind the stories of a galaxy far far away is a fast for the senses and a highly recommended event for both the Geek Nation and music lovers alike. I had the honor of photographing the event, with a little help from my friends at the venue head office, and also got the chance to meet the host backstage before the afternoon performance.

… with a little help from Dustin at TheForce.net a review and photo gallery are now part of Star Wars history… at least on their site.