I love a small, intimate convention…especially one with guest celebrities. While the huge Creation Cons and Dragon*Cons and San Diego ComiCons can be mind-blowing, the quiet, intimate setting of a small convention is a unique and treasured experience for me. In my youth, it was at small cons where I once had breakfast with James Doohan, went jogging with George Takei (okay, I rode my bike alongside him…and could still barely keep up!), and helped a falling-down drunk Colm Meaney find his hotel room in the Marriott Hunt’s Valley Inn (“This place is a fookin’ maze…!”). Good times.
I hadn’t been to a small con in many, many years. And I didn’t realize how much I miss them…until this past weekend when I went to Axacon in Atlanta, GA. Axacon was never meant to have tons of attendees. The 30-40 people who showed up over the three days was about what ALEC PETERS had expected. In fact, there were only about three dozen chairs in the Axacon panel room…a larger turnout wouldn’t have had a place to sit down!
This time, though, I wasn’t just an attendee; I was a guest. And Alec made sure to put me to work earning my free room and board. I stayed over at his home and even had my own bedroom, as did fellow house guests STEVEN JEPSON (Admiral Slater) and LEE QUESSENBERRY (Axanar art director and webmaster). Both of these men are now two of my favorite people.
In fact, the whole convention was filled with folks who are now my favorite people! That’s just the kind of weekend it was. There was love here, friendship, camaraderie, and a feeling of shared teamwork and dedication to bringing a dream to life.
It was a really FANtastic con. Let me tell you all about it…
I’ve already covered some of Day 1 in a previous blog, but there were a lot of details I left out..starting with Alec’s home. It’s lovely. A newly-built two-story house in a small suburban (almost rural) community, its balcony looks out on a lovely pond in the back. I took a photo of Steven in his brand new Admiral Slater tunic (skillfully crafted by Italy-based Claude Francis Dozière and Angela Avino) in front of this magnificent view…
Alec and his girlfriend CRYSSTAL HUBBARD live with three adorable rescue dogs: Mamma, Zoe, and Peewee. When is comes to getting petted and scratched on their bellies, they won’t take “no” for an answer. But they repay you with frequent kisses…
Alec lives only a short distance from OWC Studios, and so after taking a 3-hour nap following my mostly sleepless red-eye flight from L.A., we headed over to see the sets. You can see lots of photos on my previous Axacon blog.
We arrived more than an hour before the guests, and I quickly found out why as I watched a dozen folks all getting things ready. Panel graphics that had been printed only a day before were hastily taped onto the back of consoles that weren’t quite finished yet (these consoles will eventually have hard, translucent panels like the other stations)…
And yeah, Alec was in the thick of it all (not just standing back and barking orders). But speaking of orders, I was given some almost immediately. “Jon, you need to handle all the interviews,” Alec told me.
“Yeah,” I said, “I’ve got questions written up for all the panels I’m running tomorrow and Sunday.”
“No, not those. I’ve got a film crew coming. You’re gonna do interviews here, too.”
Well, they say necessity is a mother, and so I quickly began pre-interviewing people on the list Alec gave me, taking notes on a small pad, and trying to figure out what to ask them once the camera started rolling.
Alec’s plan was to film everything he could at Axacon—panel discussions, bridge tour, interviews—to eventually offer on a Blu-ray or DVD as a perk (no, not through Kickstarter or Indiegogo; the settlement doesn’t allow that). Also, segments of these features would be posted to YouTube to generate excitement and enthusiasm.
Axanar is so much more than just Alec or the actors or the director. There’s a dedicated team of dozens of passionate people doing everything from creating graphics to handling the website to setting up the electrical power supply for the bridge set. (As an aside, all of those monitors and computers suck up so much juice that they blew the circuit breakers for the studio multiple times! Alec actually had to get a huge generator and set it up behind the studio in the back just to provide power to everything on the bridge set.)
Alec hired a full film crew for the entire weekend (’cause it’s Georgia, and there’s lots of them around). So on Friday, we had two camera guys, one sound gal, and one assistant filming whatever they were asked to. This began with setting up a little alcove to film in, with two director’s chairs (one for the interviewer and one for the interviewee). Amusingly, the foot rest on mine broke, and the only other director’s chair they had was one that had been used on the set of the original Stargate. So that was a pretty cool place to rest my butt!
I now have a whole newfound respect for Chris Hardwick, who hosts Talking Dead on AMC. Doing interviews in front of a camera involves a lot of moving parts at the same time. First, there’s the set-up (positioning in front of the camera, clip-mic for both people, and where to hold your pad of notes so you can glance at it but still keep it out of frame so it doesn’t look like you’re looking at it!).
Then there’s the interview itself. I learned a lot in those first three that I did there—with three very different interviewees. My first was a very easy warm-up, with a humble fan filmmaker, ALBERTY MARTINEZ, who had created one of Alec’s favorite Trek fan films, CHASING THE INFINITE SKY. I had been wanting to interview him for Fan Film Factor for a while anyway, so the questions were easy to think up. The only real trick with Albert was making sure I could see my pad under my knees and learning to glance down without it being too obvious. And I also discovered the “feel” of how to keep things feeling comfortable and fun for the interviewee but still interesting. You also pretty much have to get everything in one take!
My second interview was with the fun and fascinating DON GAFFNEY, who is Axanar‘s Klingon expert and main prop guy. He actually used to work on a couple of the Star Trek TV series, so that was cool, too. The only problem was that Don had a LOT to say, and all of it was amazingly interesting. So we wound up with a half-hour long interview! Because time was limited, the sound person took me aside afterward and said that if every interview ran that long, we wouldn’t finish before the crew had to leave. So I now knew that I needed to move things along much more quickly.
I found Alec to ask whom I was interviewing next. “Gary and J.G. just got here,” he said, “I want them interviewed next.” GARY GRAHAM and J.G. HERTZLER??? The stars??? I hadn’t prepared any questions for them! I mean, I had, but those questions were for the Sunday panel on their experiences with Axanar. It would be redundant if I asked them the same questions twice. “So ask them about their time on Star Trek,” said Alec, and he walked off to grab them.
Frak! I had no idea what to ask. Zero prep, and we didn’t have time for pre-interviews. Superman, help! Actually, I did have a Superman to help: my fellow panelist KEITH M. SEDOR, the deep, sultry voice behind the Axanar podcasts. Keith does great interviews, and I knew he’d also been prepping for a panel with Gary and J.G. on Saturday…specifically about their Trek experiences. I wandered over to Keith and asked if he’d like to interview Gary and J.G. right now, and he said, “Sure.” Then my heart started beating again.
Keith interviewed each actor separately, and he told me later that both interviews went really well. Whew!
Freed up for at least 20-30 minutes, I decided to finally walk around and see the completed bridge set. It looked AMAZING! I mean, this was truly the culmination of a dream. And while most of the 30-or-so folks walking around were seeing it for the first time, a few of us (REX WITZEL and myself among them) had been there at the very beginning when the set was still just a pile of wood on the floor of Ares Studios in Valencia, CA….
It’s been a long road, getting from there to here…
I took a slew of photos, many of the best ones can be found on my previous Axacon blog. It was also at this point that I took a much-needed trip to answer nature’s call, and that’s when I noticed the Axanar financials laid out on a long table in the hallway just outside the bathroom. I had wanted to snap a photo just to prove that, yes, Alec did lay them all out. But as soon as I emerged, someone said, “Oh, there you are. Alec needs you to interview Dana.” And off I went, forgetting to snap a photo. But trust me, they were there. And apparently, no one cared. Unlike the detractors, us supporters don’t really give a toot where the money went. There’s an amazing bridge set over there! Gary Effing Graham is here! J.G. Effing Hertzler is here! There’s even free donuts! Who wants to waste time looking through binders full of receipts???
My next interview was with DANA WAGNER, the person who has been supervising the completion of the bridge set. The set was constructed under the direction of DEAN NEWBURY. But now the task switches from construction (working with the wood and screws and nails and castors) to production design (adding in the final graphic elements). As I interviewed Dana, I realized that I needed to now wear yet another hat—in addition to the Fan Film Factor baseball cap I was wearing and the role of interviewer. Dana was discussing so many things about the bridge itself that it made sense that we take our interview from the little “alcove” where we were sitting in our director’s chairs to the bridge set itself…both exterior and interior because both were so fascinating.
So I decided to start playing director, too. I told the camera crew that we’d be cutting from the sit-down to a walk-around of the set. The camera crew was fine with that. They weren’t hired to direct, only to film, so being told what shots we wanted was fine with them. Dana and I were still mic’d (had tiny microphones attached to our collars), so we could stand anywhere and still be clearly heard. I set up the shots, placing Dana, the camera, and myself in positions where the shot looked good and no one was blocking anything interesting.
We filmed on the exterior first, discussing the large 40″ TVs and the smaller monitors, the wiring, and the electrical and power challenges. Then it was time to go inside. As I was setting up the shot of one of the consoles, in walked Gary and J.G. At first, they were watching me set up the shot, but them they got in on the discussion. The problem, I realized, is that Gary and J.G. weren’t mic’d, so I tried to stand as close to them both as possible to pick up their voices.
Realizing that this was rapidly turning into a “moment” with Gary and J.G. on the bridge, I spoke quietly into my mic to tell the sound person: “We’ll finish Dana’s interview later. Let’s just film this until it plays out.”
I’m glad I made that call. What happened next was spontaneous and magical. Gary and J.G. together are like a well-oiled comedy duo. Eventually, they made their way into the captain’s chair and helm seat, continuing to clown around in front of the growing audience of fans. In the meantime, I asked the sound person (who was outside of the bridge set) through my clip mic if we had a boom mic available. We did, and she sent in one of the camera guys with it.
Now able to hear all three of us, I decided to ask Gary and J.G. some questions about the bridge set, about the Axanar project, and why they’ve stuck with it for so long. Their answers will be posted to YouTube eventually, so I won’t give them away. But suffice it to say, their comments were pure gold. J.G. even spoke about the detractors in a way that, if it doesn’t put a final nail in their coffin, I don’t know what will!
Then Alec came in to say some words (quite a few, in fact!). Still filming everything with two cameras, clip mics, and a boom mic, Alec brought out the full 90-minute Axanar script and asked Gary and J.G. if they would do a live reading of two scenes that will never be filmed but will be recorded for an audio drama of the full script and included in the novelization of Axanar. There was a scene between Garth and Robert April (with J.G. playing April), and another scene with Garth and Kharn (with Gary voicing Kharn). It was amazing to hear these two men playing different characters and taking to their new roles so quickly upon a first reading. Folks, I’d listen to J.G. Hertzler read the friggin’ phone book, he’s that good!
When the “moment” (which probably lasted for 40 minutes!) finally ended, we went back to finally finish Dana’s interview, as we were now absolutely running out of time. Dana and I clip mic’d back up, did a walk around, and then finished in front of the captain’s chair to discuss how these sets (now nearly complete) could be used for other fan films, for independent films, for commercials, and even for student films. It was then that we invited Dana’s wife Allison to join us. Allison works for the Gwinnett County School District, which has already been using the bridge set for high school students taking video production classes. Two female students had accompanied Allison, and they joined the interview, as well. We wrapped up the interview with these two high schoolers talking about filming on this amazing sets and their dreams to grow up to be a director and an editor.
It was getting dark outside, and I was starving! I’d skipped both breakfast and lunch, with only a single donut and one Axanar cookie over the last 15 hours. (Probably not the worst thing that I skipped a meal or two.) This set tour that had originally been scheduled for only 2-3 hours had gone well beyond 5 hours, with everyone marveling at the bridge, meeting new friends (or shaking hands with Facebook friends for the first time ever), chatting with Gary and J.G. and Alec in a fun and casual setting, and just having a FANtastic time.
Fortunately, the next stop was dinner—Cosmo’s Little Italy—which Alec said had authentic New York pizza. Understand that Alec and I are both from New York, him from Long Island and me from Manhattan. We KNOW good New York pizza. It’s not just a sign you put in your window, folks. And guess what? It WAS really good New York pizza! That’s a rarity anywhere outside of New York City (only two places in Los Angeles even come close), and totally unexpected in Lawrenceville, GA! Nine of us enjoyed a great meal.
Then five of us headed back to Casa de Peters and watched Star Trek fan films for two hours. Seriously! We’d previously discussed which ones would go on our Top 10 list for the first Saturday panel—“World Enough and Time,” “Mind-Sifter,” “Fairest of Them All,” “Horizon,” “The Tressaurian Intersection,” “Of Gods and Men”—but we hadn’t finalized the last few slots. So…time for research! Alec ended up seeing “Chance Encounter” and two of the Aaron Vanderkley NX-era films for the first time (“The Derelict” made the list, as did “Chance Encounter”). To discover what the last two were, come back for Part 2 of this blog.
And speaking of blogs, while everyone else headed to bed, I stayed downstairs to get my first Axacon blog report written and posted. I’d already edited my photos during the fan film fest, so now all I needed was to write a blog about them. I headed upstairs around 1:00am. I got about five hours of sleep before heading into one of the busiest days I’ve ever had at any convention…and also one of the best!
Come back for Part 2…