Crypticon 2014: In the Shadow of a Panelist
written by Conrad Wrobel (@conradwrobel)
At first, I had no idea what to expect from the Pacific Northwest's largest horror convention. Now, I cannot think of a more enlightening experience; the illumination of which being the most amusing duality that horror enthusiasts are some of the nicest people around. Not to say that those who create horror are horrible in any way, but one might humor a sneaking suspicion that the subject matter could be derived from a deeper, more profound fantasy in the mind of the creator. #TheHumanCentipede...
Truly, Crypticon set aside any assumptions or misgivings, and replaced them with an entirely new, blazing passion for the genre and its culture. Going into the convention I was a boy. I came out... a fan! In reality, I came out sweaty, exhausted, and hungry-- but what good experience does not end in that holy trifecta?! Crypticon was everything I never knew I wanted, and more. The Hilton Seattle Airport & Conference Center was stocked full of sinister sculptures, cadaverous cosplay, venerable vendors, essential energy drinks, fandom unleashed... and that was just the lobby!
Seeing as it was my first year attending, I was lucky enough to be entourage for a panelist, author/filmmaker/model M. Nessk, who showed me the ropes of the convention while introducing me to the artists and celebrities that truly molded the torch we hold for the macabre. Follow me through my weekend adventure and witness Syfy's Monster Man Cleve Hall reveal Scare Productions' refurbished gargoyle, vicariously meet actor Doug Jones of Hellboy, and attend a crowdfunding panel with Don Thacker of Motivational Growth. In fact, there is so much to cover; the article might overflow into the comments section below! #TrickleDownJournalism?
If you used the Conference Hall's parking structure, then you had the pleasure of driving past the Anubis Hearse Society on display outside. The club started attending Crypticon in 2009 and has become a regular feature at the convention. Hearse owners Marcelo Lamony, Lisa Williams, and Ronda Walsh were excited to share their passion for the annual experience, "Crypticon is always awesome! The celebs are so polite, everyone is so helpful, and it gets better every year! ...It's a great opportunity to step outside our regular lives and do the freaky for the weekend." Look for Anubis Hearses at Pierce County Asylum's Halloween in July and the Historic Tacoma Zombie Walk in September.
Friday's festivities began with the Horror and Anime Panel with Kaley Azuri, Tony Kay, M. NessK, and Svetlana Phillips. With the topic being 'the influence of Western Horror Cinema on Japanese Anime' and vice versus, the 'versus' quickly became the heart of the discussion. The panelists dissected the works of impressionist American directors such as Quentin Tarantino and David Lynch, brainstormed Americanized eastern genres including Pacific Rim's take on Mecha and The Ring's portrayal of Yurei, and ultimately shared the opinion that American audiences cannot get enough Eastern Horror and are pulling a lot of weight in that direction.
However, American Cinema was not without some influence on Anime, with H.P. Lovecraft's works leading the counter-discussion, followed by examples found in Witchblade, Big O, and Full-Metal Alchemist: Brotherhood. At the end, the audience walked away with a laundry list of titles to add to their 'watch list', foremostly Demon City Senjuko, Vampire Hunter D, and Attack on Titan.
We made our way to the front stoop to witness Special Effects Artist Cleve Hall casually unveiling the newly-refurbished gargoyle, Goliath. This nine-foot-tall animatronic is the landmark creation-turned-icon of Scare Productions. Company President Curt Madden explained that after 14 years of service, Goliath had fallen into disrepair. Considering it was built to last only three years, it is a true milestone of the show. After receiving numerous verdicts that Goliath was irreparable, Aden approached his friend Hall. In turn, Hall explained that the gargoyle's latex had basically melted into rot following years of exposure to fog-machine chemicals. "It was horrifying, what was wrong with it," he reflected. "But I will never say that something cannot be done-- and we did it!" Thanks to a lot of dedication and hard work, they certainly did. With a moving head, extending wings, glowing red eyes, foggy gusts of breathe and reverberating growls-- the towering construct is more magnificent than ever!
Up next was an educational panel on The Grand Guignol Theatre with Tony Kay, M. NessK, William Bivens, and Brittany Carpenter. Le Theatre du Grand-Guignol (which translates literally as "The Theatre of the Big Puppet") was a Parisian theatrical event that operated from 1897-1962 and is considered a pioneer of the splatter film genre. The theater was known for combining horror and comedy in shocking and unexpected ways. Not to say the theatre's material is incomparable to the dark-comedy genre as we know it today, but to what Kay lovingly described as the theatrical version of a snuff film. Luckily the panel had excellent modern examples to explain the concept to the audience, including REPO! The Genetic Opera, Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, Interview with a Vampire, SAW, and certain works by the American director David Lynch.
Carpenter began the discussion by explaining the draw of the material, "In a time of art being highly censored, it was a novelty to attend this theater." "Every culture in every era needs a sort of safety valve of artistic freedom in terms of sexual and violent expression", Kay chipped in. "Today, this material is given to us like bags of Cheetos via reality TV-- to see one human being violently mutilate another before your eyes had that 'I want to look away, but yet cannot' quality." "It was an outlet for the performers themselves, but also a release for the audience. How many people haven't watched a horror movie and thought, 'if it wasn't for watching this, I might just be out doing it?'" Bivens joked in conclusion.
Immediately afterwards, NessK jumped rooms for the Q&A on her feature film, Horrors of the PNW: Episode One - Gloomy Sunday Productions goes to Crypticon, which premiered simultaneously. Her documentary is a collection of footage taken at previous Crypticons, interviews, short horror films, heavy metal and industrial music videos, plus a teaser for her current feature film project, Hell. After attending Crypticon 2012 as a panelist, NessK was approached to document the convention; something she had wanted to do for years. "I didn't want to simply attend the convention, but participate and help create" said NessK. "When I first heard of Crypticon, I wanted to go. There are no other horror con's around that could boast the same quality. The panelists are so awesome that it is humbling and amazing to be beside them. My dreams are humble and that is a dream come true."
NessK became enthralled with horror at a young age, playing horror hostess for family and guests. This passion has led her in a lifelong pursuit of the genre, through many careers and walks of life. Known under many pseudonyms and pen names (Zee Monsta, Exterminate, Ishtar, Legion, and/or under her company name, Gloomy Sunday Productions...), she also works as an actress, wardrobe designer, photographer, and practical effects makeup artist. As an MUA, Nessk recently teamed up with Kate Dixson, Special Effects MUA from Grimm, STILL, and Phoenix Run, on a Seattle-based horror/sci-fi short film The Collector by Josef Wilke.
Saturday launched with the annual Crypticon Seattle Makeup Contest. This year's theme-- Clowns... not a subject to joke around with. Much like Thunderdome (albeit completely different): five contestants enter, one leaves... Also typical of deathmatch results, everyone came out looking horrifying (albeit completely alive and intact). #SadMax
The contestants had quite the challenge on their hands: two hours to create a terrifying clown with only provided materials-- gelatin, latex, Ben Nye creams, cotton balls, sponges, ace bandages, two small brushes, and mixing trays. However, to keep things interesting, each contestant received one special prop, wig, and clown suit.
Two hours may seem like a long time, but it shot past in a blur of balloon-animals, bike-horns, and bloody confetti. Following a tour through the main hall in full garb, the clowns donned the stage for presentation and judgment. Someone in the audience rolled a drum and the winners were announced: Erik Albidress, Thomas Bailey, and Jennifer Luke! Although the three received gift packages from the Stan Winston School of Character Arts, many felt the real prize was to work in front of the special guest judges Roy Wooley, Lanny Brown, and Kenneth Calhoun.
Sunday began with the key event of the weekend: the special guest actor's panel with Carel Struycken, John Kassir, Camden Toy, and Doug Jones-- moderated by Tony Kay. I found this group to be exceptionally entertaining, cohesive, and overflowing with amusing anecdotes. ...Did I mention 'entertaining'? Considering the line-up of Lurch, The Cryptkeeper, The Ubervamp, and Abe Sapien-- the term is a hollow understatement.
First of all, I feel compelled to note that Toy has a wild and contagious laugh. The man is possessed by an enthusiastic energy that sneaks into his every movement. Although he is well known for his character work under heavy prosthetic makeup, it was a pleasure to see his true self come out in-person. He is wildly engaging, friendly, and constant.
Toy described in loving detail his parental guidance into the field of acting. "My introduction to character was getting into my father's makeup kit when I was in first or second grade, and instead of getting angry he said, 'Let me show you how to use that'... I think I was 10 when Dick Smith's Monster Makeup Handbook came out so I started playing with that.... so I literally grew up in the theater, and it just was what I did. I kinda fought it for a little while, my 'rebellion' was 'I was going to be a doctor!'"
However, we all know where Toy's heart led him. When asked about working as a character actor, the love of his craft constantly shines through, "I think that a lot of actors come in and they read, but they don't get that they have to match the energy. Not just the script, but this is a creature from another realm, a king of England, or another future-- the [actors] do it too 'real.' You can't just do it 'real' because [the character's] reality is different than our everyday reality! As actors, we're taught to go into your personal life and look at your emotions [and experience]; ...but your imagination is so much more powerful, and I have an active imagination..." which Toy embellished with a devilish grin.
"You really have to bring everything to it. Also, my background in playing with makeup gives me a huge love and respect for transformational makeup and prosthetics-- so I don't fear it. I think we have a lot of actors that fight it. I know Rob Hall over at Almost Human would say to me, 'So often the actors come in, we'd put the makeup on-- spend all this time, money, and energy to put it on and they don't do anything with it! It's just so frustrating'" Toy recalled. "So I love embodying all of that. You sort of create the role [ahead], but as the makeup is being revealed to you, it offers another layer and opens another door... It's multilayered, so you have to be open to finding new things. To me, it's about process, playing, and discovery."
Struycken was also a pleasure to interact with, he truly is a 'gentle giant' with a warm, rich voice-- the irony being that he spoke more during this panel than I have ever seen him speak on screen, and yet he still conversed the least of the group!
"Well, I don't get that many parts where I get many lines... On Star Trek, because I had a recurring role, that started to kinda bug me a little bit. I remember there was a scene where I had to be Majel Barrett's (Ambassador Lwaxana Troi) tailor, and I thought, 'Okay, finally I have an a reason I'm not talking.' I stuck all these pins in my mouth, and while she was talking I was kind of... [mimed responses through clenched lips]," he mused. "Otherwise, [having no lines] makes [acting] harder because you can't just stand there, you have to come through somehow-- you have to try to come up with something."
When asked to choose a favorite role out of everything he's done, he replied, "Probably Twin Peaks, just because I was a deep fan of the show myself. So it was just great to be a part of it. "[I had a lot of lines in it], considering my other roles, and very deep lines, too." In a follow-up interview, Struycken said that he's not acting in anything at the moment, but using the time to work on writing a few of his own projects.
Personally, my favorite Kassir character is his role in Reefer Madness: The Movie Musical, though he is more known as an incredible voice-actor. This is immediately obvious because he has a habit of slipping between characters, accents, and/or species at a moment's notice. His stories were all spontaneous, as much acted out as told, and of the utmost fun to witness.
"Auditioning for voice acting is very different, very difficult because you don't always know what they're envisioning. They don't always send you pictures of the characters, you don't even always have a full script, so you don't know exactly where your imagination needs to go to bring that to life-- and its all visualization, having an idea of what they're going to do. An example would be when I went in to audition for Miko the Raccoon in Pocahontas, which a lot of people don't know that I did," and suddenly Kassir 'chirped' at the audience, for lack of a better term, in a startlingly familiar tone from our Disney memories. "You know, you go into Disney and you assume the animals talk... I went in, I'm sitting in the lobby and they go, 'John, come on in.' And I say, 'But I haven't seen the script?' And they're all, 'No script. No dialog. We want real raccoon.' So I was like, '...Okay.'"
Kassir lived deep in the woods at the time and was overly familiar with the subject, a knowledge base he never expected to rely on. However, his detailed accounts of interactions with the local fauna ultimately influenced the character and actions in the movie.
"...And I got the part; and it's really weird because they're videotaping you when you're doing it-- seeing what your physicality is. And they, believe it or not, incorporate it into your character. It's a lot of taking that kind of imagination and bringing a lot [more] to it. ...And when it comes to prosthetics-- it has a lot to do with knowing what that work (the makeup) is already doing, so that you don't have to do that part... Some actors get hired because they have a sense of that; some actors will lose jobs because they don't have a sense of one particular genre over another." "It does take a village to make these characters come together," Jones added.
One could say that you do not listen to Jones speak, but watch. His years of nonverbal performance technique have fostered a vivid gestural performance accompanying his every word. His hands dance around him with a conscience of their own, embellishing his every action with MORE action! Doug's stage-presence is so natural and enveloping that meeting him in-person was like stepping through the silver-screen straight into a scene. With such genuine warmth and vitality, it would be a challenge to dislike the man.
"The inspiration of my childhood was the early goofy sidekicks; anything Jerry Lewis or Danny Kaye did on film made me go 'Ohh! I could do that!' They're tall, skinny, goofy, weird looking and hilarious... that's what I wanted to do. Now the horror thing, the creature thing-- my only brushes with that [genre] that really inspired me and stuck with me was the first time I saw The Mummy with Boris Karloff on our old black and white TV in the '60's. Just the still frames of him looking into the camera were enough to give me chills for the rest of my life to this day. Also, The Creature from the Black Lagoon, Phantom of the Opera with Lon Chaney-- those were the movies that I saw which were like 'Woah'; but I never locked that in as a career option. It never occurred to me, the goofy sidekicks did. I ended up booking my first job with Southwest Airlines as a dancing mummy on a 30-second commercial. Shortly after that I booked the Mac Tonight commercial campaign for McDonalds-- the crescent-moon-head that sang.
Kassir chimed in, "I heard you had to audition with a paper bag on your head?"
"Few people know that story" Doug retorted. "Yeah, with the eye-holes cut out like the unknown comic, because they wanted to see what your body moved like. Little did I know, that would become the rest of my career... What came of that was 'the tall skinny guy who moves well, wears a lot of crap on his head, and doesn't complain about it.' That's the reputation I built from that."
Suddenly, resident Cryptonian William Bivens surprised everyone by presenting the beautiful Crypt Icon Award to Jones in a hail of tears. There wasn't a dry eye or panty in the house. ...Okay, maybe not tears, but there was an epic #DougHug moment following a very touching acceptance.
Bivens has been the Offical Crypticon Sculptor since 2010, after attending the prior year as his first horror convention in 35 years. Do not let his somewhat gruff demeanor fool you, Bivens has a heart of gold; one which seemed slightly melted by Doug's reaction to the award. "Presenting the award to Doug made this year special. He's a phenomenal, genuine, appreciative guy," Bivens said.
Aside from sculpting for his company, My Dementia, Bivens works at a homeless shelter in Portland. He also designs the convention's annual Crypticon Writing Contest Award, with this year's going to Timothy Black. "I tend to be a bit of a fanboy," Bivens remarked. "My favorite memory is when Bill Moseley sang me one of his Repo tunes in the hallway in 2012. I'm a huge Devil's Rejects fan." Bivens hopes to see Eddie Deezen or Jeannie Jefferies at future Crypticons.
Last on the docket was the crowdfunding panel with Don Thacker, M. NessK, Gadget and moderator Tony Kay. Kay began by explaining the concept, "I'm coming at this from the consumer standpoint; I have supported and also enjoyed the benefits products backed by crowdfunding. In its principal concepts, it is a terrific idea-- it's a wonderful way to sidestep the tradition channels of income revenue to create a project. In theory it's a way, A: for artists and creatives to fund something that may not be attainable for them financially, and, B: it also gives them a chance-- and their fans and supporters-- to connect on a very fundamental level."
Thacker pitched in, having extensive experience with professionally funding projects, "For the videogame (Pixeljam's Dino Run 2), we did a bunch of metrics on what the most successful campaigns were. About 0.7% of projects in 2013 were successfully funded through kickstarter. That's not even one percent, but that's also because EVERYBODY is doing a kickstarter. The most successful ones are all material goods, things you can actually buy. Kickstarter says, 'We're not a prepurchase shopping network,' but it is and consumers use it inappropriately. It's super-future-shopping and it's results-oriented-- 'I want that thing!' So from the consumers' standpoint, it's the question of, 'What am I actually purchasing?'"
NessK brought a good example to the table, retailing the story of a successful crowdfunding campaign for a sex-toy that asked for $150K and received almost one million. As Thacker mentioned, the goal is 'results-oriented' after all...
At the end of the discussion, I walked away with a lot to muse over. Firstly, crowdfunding is a double-edged sword: it offers a marketing center, a funding platform, and a back-door-exit if the project does not get the funding it needs to proceed. Alternatively, it is also a quantitative poll of public-interest or an artist's investment potential. However, if the campaign does not succeed; it is a public acknowledgment of failure which could influences future business deals. Ultimately, crowdfunding is a convincing method of testing the public market on whether a product will sell.
At the end, the group discussed tips on how to run a campaign, "The [audience] wants to see what's going on-- pictures, videos, little updates on what's happening today, where we are on the project... They want to see results," Gadget added. "It's also a matter of how passionate you are. If you're willing and motivated to do it, just do it. I think [crowdfunding] will just explode as an avenue, and will go up from here."
THE CRYPTIC CONCLUSION
#CrypiconRocks / #DougJonesRocks / #RocksRock
I certainly learned a few things on the way; so, may future attendees learn from my experience. For your next convention, please consider:
1) Clip-on water bottles.
Hydration is key, and having my beverage immediately accessible and hands-free was lovely. Besides, my backpack was there for merchandise and camera gear, nothing else. #NuffSaid
More granola bars, less energy drinks. Sadly, the convention had no on-site food vendors, so I did not bring enough edible substances. Sunday, I stuck premade meals in my car for easy access, which made parking on-site absolutely worth the price. Steady nutrition is second best to a good nights' sleep, which I would also recommend albeit 'who has time for that at Crypticon?' #AmIRight?
Tripods are bulky and annoying to lug around, so I ditched mine this time. However, I missed it dearly. The solution would have been to bring a unipod-- they are handy because they take the weight off your shoulders, stabilize the camera on-the-go, and are minimalistic. You can stand, sit, or steadicam at a moment's notice.
The two words I would use to describe this convention are "Fandom Unleashed." Not the most original term (I could have chosen "Blood Party"...), but pertinent. The reasoning is the consistent "unleashed" air of the room. Fans dressed as they pleased, celebrities and panelists were friendly and approachable, the staff was helpful and professional, and there was no shaming to be seen around any corner. It was a positive atmosphere full of a shared love, respect, and admiration for the arts and artists of the horror genre. In fact, every single person I talked to mentioned how friendly and copacetic everyone at the convention was, and how the community was one of the strongest draws to attend again, year after year. One attendee I interviewed, Johnny Trujillo, even spent 22 hours on a train traveling from Oakland, California to be here!!! #FanOfTheYear!
So, due to an overwhelming appreciation of the entire event, Crypticon 2015 is marked down in my calendar, and I hope it is in yours as well.
(For an extended glimpse of the Crypticon experience, check out these exciting attendee, panelist, and vendor interviews taken at this year's convention: You never know who you will run into)
Photo Credits: Conrad Wrobel, Exterminate Photography