5 Sep 2006
Update: Now there are videos about us on YouTube! Take a look at us in the DragonCon Parade, here’s a closer angle and here’s the news report where Alfeo and I are interviewed. Track all the new photos of our costumes on Flickr! If you’ve missed earlier posts about my cardboard robots don’t miss reading about how it all started, our 2005 box costumes, the cardboard underwear I made for a friend, and the challenge that led to this year’s hijincks.
Alfeo, Elliott and I suited up in the parking garage of the downtown Atlanta Hilton on Saturday morning and headed upstairs to begin walking down to Woodruff Park. I was bitching everyone out, telling them to hurry up. That went over famously.
Exiting the elevator, I figured that the first 20 people we ran into would provide us with a good idea of how we’d be received elsewhere for the rest of the day. We were particularly worried that the “real” stormtroopers would take demonstrable umbrage at our cardboard costumes, which was never my intent.
At first people didn’t even notice us. There are lot of costumes at DragonCon and you can only see so many at once. In fact, they’re so common that you kind of stop seeing them at all after awhile, especially the stormtroopers since they all look so similar (unless you’re in the 501st and know your friends by the details and insignia of their suits). The only costumes that really grab my attention are the T&A costumes, and that’s just instinct at work.
When people DID notice us they’d be confused for a split second then they’d get a “Oh no you dih-en!” look on their face and bust out grinning. The girls especially loved us because we were “cute”… but you know that I get that a lot already.
We hit the street for a 4 or 5 block hike south to the mustering point of the parade. Consulting with Alfeo, I suggested that we take a street that runs parallel to Peachtree to avoid too many people seeing us. It was a good shake-down hike, to see what parts of our costumes wanted to fall off. As we passed two restaurant workers at a crosswalk, one of them yelled to the other “Hey James, ain’t them the boxes you threw in the dumpster?”
The next street down a guy whipped his car over to the curb on the opposite side of the street from us and jumped out to snap our photos. He didn’t get it right the first time so he turned and ran down his sidewalk away from us then turned to get another. Nope, not right yet. He turned, ran, then crossed the street to get over where he could get a clean shot of us as we clumped down the street toward him. At the next corner we turned and saw the crowd of parade participants and went up to join the Star Wars division.
There were a lot of smiles and helpful directions to where the real stormtroopers had gathered. Upon our arrival several people approached us for photos. Then more people. Then more.
Alfeo and Elliott had a view of the line of stormtroopers behind me and were getting antsy because the guys in the trooper uniforms looked like they were trying to decide what they thought about us. But then one of the folks (Ian) in Imperial officer’s garb walked over and put us in the proper place for people who don’t belong to any of the official fan organizations like the 501st. After that we were much more relaxed. Todd, who is ALWAYS on the lookout for the cheapest solution, had parked somewhere west of the hotel and made his way down to join us 20 minutes before the parade kicked off.
When it was finally our turn to march the route we fell into place, four abreast. As we drew near to the convention hotels the crowds grew larger, as did their response to us. I think I speak for everyone when I say that it felt like we were astronauts in a tickertape parade. Every so often we’d break into an action pose and the cameras would go crazy.
It seemed to take forever and by the time we were two thirds of the way to the end I was ready to take a break, driven on by pure adrenaline. I’m sure that’s the way it felt for EVERY person in the parade, which is what makes it so fun for everyone. The air-conditioned comfort of the hotel is a great reward to people who’ve just taken a fast half mile walk wearing heavy costumes so there were a lot of hot, happy people at the end.
Over the course of the day we were continuously met by enthusiastic reactions and by the afternoon had decided that we should sign up for the costume contest, well, at least the other guys had definitely decided. I was nervous about doing it, but led the guys down to the signup area and we were given our ribbons, a tech sheet and told when to report back on Sunday. Soon afterward we de-boxed and headed off to other appointed rounds.
We met in the parking garage in the early evening to get dressed for our final foray into DragonCon as cardboard stormtroopers and again I was bitching at everyone to hurry up. We were already running late as we piled out of the elevator into the lobby of the Hilton and were again slowed down as people shouted for our photographs. Once you’ve been photographed a couple hundred times you learn how to hit your marks quickly so it took less than fifteen minutes to get up to the Hyatt and into the prep area for the masquerade.
Once we’d been assigned a “den mother” we settled in to wait our turn onstage. We had talked about needing some sort of choreography but we hadn’t actually planned anything. Elliott suggested that we work something up and everyone set in to arguing about what we should do, which was really silly because the entire idea BEHIND the cardboard stormtroopers was low rent. At one point we had all agreed to end our act with each trooper doing a supermodel catwalk off the stage, which was discarded when Elliott questioned it closer to show time. Being backstage with the other costume contestants was fun and chummy; one of the ladies from Netherworld came over and painted glitter polish on the gold tooth in the smile of Alfeo’s cardboard helmet.
Back in 2003 when I was nearing the conclusion of my screenplay “Love & The Dragon” I distilled the spirit of every sci-fi costume contest I’d ever attended into the finale, but only from the point of view of an audience member, since I’d never actually been a contestant. To find myself standing in the footsteps of my fictional characters was an unexpected thrill that has already started shaping this fall’s planned rewrite.
I think the reason that I was a bit nervous about doing the contest was that I didn’t want to get out there and find the experience less than what it had been in my screenplay. I didn’t want to be disillusioned about the experience and thus about the work I needed to do to the screenplay.
I shouldn’t have been so worried.
As we stood queued on a ramp just offstage, separated from the audience by a sheer black curtain, I momentarily slipped out of myself and into the world of my screenplay. Even though we couldn’t see the audience from behind the black curtain, and even if we hadn’t heard them out there laughing and clapping for the dancing hippo onstage, we could feel them out there. At that moment I understood that the film must capture the presence of a Con audience because they’re as important to a costume contest as any contestant.
And then it was time.
We began marching in place before we’d even been announced, the ramp boomed to our rhythm like a drumhead and you could feel the audience swiveling its gaze in our direction. The judges, actor Peter David and comics artist George Perez, practically did a double-take when they turned to look at us and barely choked out our act’s name.
But when those words “Cardboard Stormtroopers” did come out, the place EXPLODED!! Our reputation may have preceded us… I think our “street cred” had been established from our march in the parade.
I was too busy concentrating on trying not to screw up my portion of our rudimentary choreography so I didn’t have an opportunity to study the faces of the audience. But the cheering was incredible. Not just because it was an ego boost for four idiots running around in cardboard boxes, but because it was exactly the reaction I’d imagined for my characters when I’d written my screenplay. How many writers get to live out their own stories after they’ve been written?
I won’t know how terrible our choreography was until I get a copy of the 2006 DVD but I suspect it was pretty miserable; it’s pretty darned difficult to see out of those boxes.
We didn’t win anything, which isn’t really surprising as there wasn’t a category for Best Cardboard Characters. Still, the guys were really bummed out until we went onstage for the post-contest photo opportunity and were surrounded by a hundred people with cameras snapping their photos. I’m particularly amused at how our “anti-costumes” had become an ego trip for us in two short days, circumventing any notion that these boxes could simply be an ironic statement about the people (my people mind you) who spend so much time making costumes.
We’d been seduced by celebrity, or the nearest thing to celebrity within three city blocks of DragonCon.
Everywhere we went that night there was clapping, cheering, shouts of “You were robbed!” and endless requests for photographs (even in the restroom).
At the entrance to the Marriott Marquis we were once again marching in quickstep, box heads rattling, cardboard tubes thumping. As we emerged into full view in the crowded atrium a roar went up, echoing throughout the belly of that beautiful beast and fueling our egos far more than they deserved, but once you start it’s hard to know when to quit. It didn’t help when a guy stopped by to tell us that we’d been on the 11 o’clock news a few minutes earlier.
Todd decided to go up to the Stargate party to check out the food while the rest of us went downstairs to run around and act crazy. We rounded the corner and pulled up short, trying to decide what to do. One of the photographers spotted us and pointed to our right saying “Oh man, you’ve got to do it!” which meant that he wanted us to go and pose for him with three Darth Vaders, a couple of 501st Stormtroopers and a Darth Maul. The 20 other photographers with him quickly agreed and the crowd between us and the legitimate Star Wars costumers parted like the Red Sea.
As we stood staring at them Elliott said:
“THIS is the uncomfortable moment we were talking about.”
I tried waving at them, friendly-like. Some of them waved back and the Darth Vader (one on the left) gave me a thumbs-up, a good sign. I pointed at them, then I pointed at myself, then I pointed at them; this being the intergalactic sign for “You and Me? Get together?” for which I was rewarded with a “come on over” gesture.
The photographers were grinning from ear to ear as they snapped away. I’m fairly sure that there weren’t many people there who weren’t grinning, it was far too funny.
Ten minutes and one offer to see a woman’s breasts later, we found ourselves back upstairs on the way to a sports bar called Champions there inside the Marriott. Before we could go in we ran into a guy who inquired after our missing trooper (Todd), whereupon he spotted Todd wandering around by himself two floors below. It turns out that while Todd found lots of food in the Star-Gate party room, he couldn’t eat any of it because his box head was taped to his box body. Thus defeated, he’d come back downstairs trying to find us.
The good Samaritan turned to us, said “Stay right there by the rail” and turned back to the crowded atrium and shouted “Find the lost cardboard trooper!!” and by “shouted” I mean his voice rang up and down through the towering atrium. This wasn’t just any good Samaritan, this was Crazy Shouting Guy! Throughout the hotel people turned to look at Crazy Shouting Guy. Then he yelled louder: “Find the missing cardboard trooper!!” and pointed to the three of us.
Beside me I heard Elliott or Alfeo say “Oh, we’re going to get in trouble with Security!”
But in that same instant the people got it.
Two floors below, somebody grabbed Todd and tilted him back so he could see up to where we were (his being the only costume with the head permanently attached), whereupon our missing cardboard trooper began making his way up the two escalators separating us. With hundreds of people watching, laughing and cheering, we found ourselves suddenly cast in a bit of improv street theater by Crazy Shouting Guy!
I jumped up and down in theatrical excitement as Todd climbed the first escalator, my box helmet bouncing up and down. Suddenly inspired, I turned and lumbered around the edge of the balcony toward the top of the second escalator, past a security guy who was very likely headed around toward Crazy Shouting Guy. Seconds later I ran into Todd just as he arrived at the top. Elliott and Alfeo were close behind, slamming into us with a great big cardboard group hug. You just can’t write this stuff.
We finished up the evening with a celebratory pitcher of water just a table down from some of the folks from the show Mythbusters, none of whom I knew since I don’t have cable. Old wounds were re-opened when one of the judges from the masquerade told some of our guys that we’d been given perfect scores by some of the judges. By that time though I think that their disappointment had been tempered by the continued strong reaction of the fans and by the dawning realization that they might have, as Alfeo said, “Become a part of the legend of DragonCon.”
Which was the entire idea.
As we de-boxed ourselves back at the cars I noticed that we were all very careful to hang onto the cardboard boxes we had cavalierly discussed throwing into the recycling bin after everything was over.
It’s hard to let go of fame.
Edit: I’ve added screenshots from the Channel 46 spot that featured Alfeo and me!
This is Alfeo discussing how shallow he is.
Here I am explaining how we can repair our suits with tape: