Transformers Related Events: Botcon 2009
It's been quite some time since I've written a "Botcon report". For the last few years I'd start one but it wouldn't go anywhere, mostly because I tried to create this editorial type thing complete with my regurgitating information from panels and so on. Finally this year I decided in one moment what this "report" needed to be and I'll tell you about that moment first.
Yesterday (Sunday) was the last day of Botcon. Outside the Pasadena convention center is a nice dual tiered shopping area with restaurants and stores. In the center is a circle with chairs, tables and food vendors. In this circle were a group of four kids who each had a Transformer in hand. One had Animated Optimus Prime, another had Cybertron Mode Optimus Prime, axe in hand and they were giggling and laughing, chasing each other in circles with the requisite "Pew! Pew!" type noises being made, and it stopped me and made me smile wide along with my two friends (so did the nearby bacon wrapped hot dog, but that's another type of story). I turned to my friends and said simply "This is what it's all about." and I looked over to the parents, who were all standing by laughing and smiling at their kids playing.
I realized that what the past few "reports" I tried to write lacked was anything I cared about. By now you've probably read about a dozen accounts of the toys revealed at the convention and the various exclusives we put out etc. BORING! What I'm going to write about today is how Botcon 2009 made me feel as I went through it. There will be tid bits from the panels here and there, but I want you alongside me as I wander through my Botcon 2009 memories. Let's start.
The Pasadena Convention Center was an excellent venue for this convention. The dealer's room was huge and accomodated Hasbro's largest display yet. With "Revenge of the Fallen" coming out this year, they clearly wanted to represent! An entire half of the Hasbro area was set up just for kids to play in. One had a target practice range with cut outs of The Fallen, Ravage and Megatron to fire Nerf guns at. There were two amazing play tables, one set up to look like an industrial area and the other the desert in Egypt complete with a pyramid. Dozens of action figures were put onto this table and from the carnage of parts and accessories, you can tell the kids had a blast. There was also a wheel you could spin for prizes and a four sided table complete with video screens overhead for people to ask questions and receive freebies such as RMP figures. The central area had a gigantic screen playing a promotional video on loop complete with the scary visage of a cardboard Devastator on top. In front of the screen were tables where kids could trace images of "Revenge of the Fallen" characters including Devastator and Bumblebee. The other half of the Hasbro area was set up as the toy display area with beautiful new cases that lit up top and bottom. The sheer number of cases amazed me and it really struck home just how big this line has become.
Activision, the company that produces the "Revenge of the Fallen" game was on hand with several consoles where you could play the game as they explained what to do. I only passed by it a few times (it was mobbed each time) but I could tell kids were enthralled and the developers were really into it. Kudos to Activision and Hasbro for such an amazingly striking set up.
This year's Botcon was more of a reunion than many others in the past. I got to see friends whom I had not seen in person in over five years (almost double that in one case). Between the last time they saw me and now I've been married, divorced, lost parts of my life and gained all new ones and when I finally looked around the convention halls I realized that I was truly of an older generation. I won't go so far as to say my time has passed, but with the 2007 live action movie and this year's "Revenge of the Fallen", Transformers as a brand has undergone a whole new age of expansion. It is important in this new time for older fans such as myself and many of you reading this to help support something that has truly grown beyond just a bunch of toys and a cancelled television show. Transformers have helped form friendships, happy memories and even successful careers for artists who only once dreamed of drawing robots in disguise.
I'm in a rather unique position among fandom. There are only really about five other fans like myself who help advise the Transformers Collector's Club and Fun Publications in their efforts to bring you a kick butt Botcon every year. As such, I often get approached with questions throughout the convention about my thinking when we create the Botcon figures and write the stories that we hope you all enjoy. I found myself repeating the same things over and over during the weekend, and believe me it was never any bother. I find in my corner of Transformers fandom I have a responsibility to help others understand what they don't know, whether that means helping a fan understand why we decided on a particular character or helping a befuddled parent find an appropriate toy for their child at Target.
So what was I saying over and over? When the gents and I get together to discuss a new boxed set, one of the first things we do is look over the accumulated data from each year's surveys. This gives us a springboard to jump into working on a set. At times we find that some fans' thoughts mirror ideas we've had. Other times we find surprisingly inspired ideas. Other times we find things that would make you scratch your head. Either way, we begin selecting toys by a simple process: what's available and a quality toy? I can tell you the odds of us doing a redeco of Backstop from Cybertron is highly unlikely, but would we redeco Universe 2.0 Sunstreaker for something? Highly likely. After that we move forward and get into the nitty gritty of colors, characters etc. The main thing is that throughout we are working on themes and cohesive story ideas that entertain hardcore fans while still being accessible to new fans. I sometimes get the impression that fans believe what we work on is some haphazard assemly of toys and colors, and believe me when I say nothing could be further from the truth.
Another responsibility I feel is towards the Botcon guests. I think too often it is easy for us to forget that while these guests are stars to us and that we treasure their characters dearly, ultimately they did a job. This is especially true for those who have not worked on the franchise in over a decade (or more). We can't expect them to know the brand as intimately as we do, and we have to consider that there is more to their existance than Transformers. I had a particularly fascinating conversation with Greg Berger over drinks where I made it a point not to bring up Tranfsormers once. Instead, we discussed subjects such as the economy, politics, personal responsibility and the dynamics of setting a career path. He thanked me for the conversation later and I was happy to oblige. It helps to simply ask a guest how they are doing and offer them an encouraging smile. We want the guests to feel comfortable, welcome and not overwhelmed which you can imagine is easy to do when facing a line of 200+ fans. I have to say kudos to each guest who were all in demand and faced a line of autographs that frankly, would make my hand just give up and fall off. These guys are amazing professionals and I really admire them.
I don't want to dig into them too much but I'd feel remiss if I didn' at least mention the various panels. The voice actor panel with Weird Al Yankovic and David Kaye was really cool. Just to have two "celebs" up there of such different kinds was an interesting dynamic. Weird Al truly showed his trademark sense of humor in being able to put up with all manner of voice requests (no matter how odd) and he often used his Wreck-Gar voice when he would claim to be able to do any role such as Optimus Prime.
The Hasbro panel was very cool and they did their best to address the demise of "Animated" as best they could by telling us that they intended to realse all the remaining figures within the year if possible. It is likely figures like Rodimus and Arcee will be made into store exclusives. While annoying, this is better than not getting them at all. I found this fascinating since this is the first time fans have had to contend with a beloved series ending in years. With the likes of "Armada" we knew the show had a finite end and that sequel series would follow. With "Animated" there is no "cushion" to speak of since we don't know what's coming next. I think it encouraged Hasbro to see something they genuinely loved working on being so highly regarded by the fan base, especially considering the initial negative reactions over a year ago.
The reveal of new products showed that sculpting and action features have reached new levels with the Transformers. I was amazed how intricate figures even at the Scout level have become. I think the star of the show (or one of them at least) was the reveal of "Revenge of the Fallen" Bludgeon, who for all intents and purposes is the G1 Metallikato master done in the style of Universe 2.0. I have yet to meet one fan who doesn't want that toy nownownow!
I'm a huge movie fan. I don't just love watching movies, I love learning about "behind the scenes" stuff including how sound effects are created, the thinking actors go through in order to get into their roles and of course special effects. The Paramount Party involved everyone who registered for it being bused to Paramount Studios. Since my younger days as a "Star Trek" fan (the original series) I have loved paramount productions, and if tfeels incredibly appropriate that "Transformers", one of my other genre favorites would be produced by them. The party was outdoors at the New York City set. Buffet tables were set up throughout serving a mix of mac and cheese, burgers, salad and more. It was a really nice set up and I have to say that the Paramount staff is amazingly polite. I can't imagine what a logistical nightmare dealing with 800 or so Transformers fans crashing their set must have been like, but if it was high pressure you would have never guessed.
The set was a surreal experience for me since I'm from New York City. As I explained to my girlfriend as I called her from the set, it's like someone took pieces of Wall Street, the Village, Chelsea and the Upper West Side and mashed them all together. If you looked at the streets and sidewalks they even had cracks to look worn and the lines painted on them were appropriately faded and then painted over again, but slightly off the way I have seen them in real life many times before. Behind the dessert table was even a fake entrance to a subway station in New York City (Broadway-Lafayette for those curious, complete with the appropriate train lines indicated). Add to that the gigantic Ironhide real life vehicle that greeted us when we entered and you can imagine it was an incredible experience to say the least. But there was more to come!
I had just finished eating my salad when I heard some ruckus from the stage set up in front of one of the "Wall Street-esque" setting buidlings. I walked over calmly and just as I got near the stage where Greg Lombardo (Senior Marketing director of Transformers) was speaking, I saw flashing and out drove the Ratchet vehicle used in the movie! I got out of its path and saw a driver inside putting on the brakes and turning the wheel slightly, then the a team of security personnel began to swoop in and I knew something was up. The door flung open and out stepped Tyrese Gibson, aka Sgt. Epps from the "Transformers" films! The actor waved at everyone and quickly took to the stage. He declared his love of Transformers and thanked the fans for their support. When Peter Cullen jumped onto stage, it was a love-fest as Tyrese and the Optimus Prime voice actor hugged and joked. For fans it made the experience ten times more exciting and for me it made it ten times more surreal.
After Tyrese left I milled about and caught up with David Kaye and his family at their table. We enjoyed dessert together, but not wanting to ignore my friends I made it a point to mill about, take pictures of the incredible buildings in the set and chit chat with whomever I ran across. Then the traditional awards ceremony began, with Brian Savage on stage giving out medals for prizes, but suddenly he interrupted the ceremony and told us we needed to go to "the theater" to see something!
When we arrived at the theater, we quickly checked in our phones and cameras and sat down in the paramount Theater I had only heard about before on shows like Entertainment Tonight. Greg Lombardo came out and explained that we were going to see "the trailer" but everyone knew something else was up. Suddenly Michael freaking Bay steps out and tells us that we're going to see something special instead! What we wound up seeing were two sequences, one of which I had been dying to see: the combining of the gigantic Devastator!
The Devastator combination sequence was, for lack of a better term, insane. Several vehicles converge upon Simmons and an unknown character in the desert. A reveal of a Decepticon symbol on Mixmaster's mixing drum and on the "bulldog symbol" on the hood of a car showed the true nature of these vehicles. Then they began to break apart and combine. It was not a transformation as we traditionally think of it. The vehicles didn't stack on top of each other, they literally merged. It almost look like the vehicles were eating each other and grabbing each other, feeding the giant entity that is Devastator. It was truly stunning to see such amazing detail in this scene.
After that we saw a scene of Sam, Mikaela and Sam's parents running for their lives from Rampage. Sam mentions "The Matrix" and sets up the Constructicon to be taken to task by Bumblebee who gets some nice, clear on screen fighting done (no guessing who's elbow we're seeing this time). Ravage then joined in, but let's just say his fate is a bit unexpected! This scene was brilliant with action but also had emotional weight as we see Sam willing to sacrifice himself to protect those he loves.
After being led out, the evening ended with us being given a tour of the studio on those carts you often see in movies. I geeked out aplenty as we passed the "Gene Roddenberry" building, the studios where Star Trek shows were filmed as well as other series such as "Angel". We also passed buildings used for movies such as "The Godfather", "Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull" and "Pretty Woman". It was a perfect capper to the night!
Sunday is traditionally the day I wake up a little bit depressed at Botcon. It's "the end" and despite a full roster of events still to occur, I leave my hotel room thinking "Man, I have to begin packing this evening, get to the airport etc." and it bums me out. I break out of it by the time I get back to the convention, but it's a feeling that is pervasive in the back of my mind throughout most of the day.
This Sunday however, fate intervened and made it perhaps, the best Sunday I have ever had at Botcon. We atteended a "Hasbro design" panel, similar to previous years in format we were shown the process of making a figure, grey models with color and a picture or two that weren't shown in the previous panels. However, this day Aaron Archer cut the panel short to bring in a "special guest" - Tyrese himself!
After a round of furious picture snapping, Tyrese explained that he had gotten quite sick the night before but wanted to come out and show some love to the fans. I give the man massive kudos to have done that. His appearance the night before would have been enough, but this was a fantastic touch. I did note with some amusement that he was flanked by uniformed police officers and came in the back door. They weren't messing around!
Only ten questions were allowed so I made it a point to get to the mic, something I generally avoid since I want to let other fans get their questions in. This time however I wanted to definitely say some words. While his career is still young, I recently read an interview in "Men's Health" magazine where Tyrese talked about how he mentally and physically prepares for roles, and how he recently had to drop a certain amount of weight and get into a better frame of mind to further his career. On some levels I can relate to this. About five years ago, I weighed about 285 pounds and I was miserable. When I separated from my ex in 2004, I made a choice to take control of whatever I could in my life, and that included my weight and health. I began to eat better and work out, and years later I have dropped over a hundred pounds and I'm in the best mental and physical shape of my life. I wanted Tyrese to know that I admired his dedication and I asked if I could shake his hand. My intent was to reach up to the stage and over the table to do so, but he asked me to get on stage instead. It was so cool getting to shake his hand and give him a quick hug. I even managed to get a picture with him! Talk about a way to get me out of the "Sunday funk"!
Later, I was milling about the dealer's room and I noticed that Aaron Archer was giving someone and his family a tour of the Hasbro display, explaining the history of the line and the various toys in the "Animated" section. Behind the group were a couple Hasbro folks that I knew so I asked quietly who the gent was. It turned out to be director Guillermo del Toro! Among his works you may know are "Pan's Labrynth" and the recent "Hellboy 2". My brain exploded and I knew I had to shake this guy's hand and get a picture with him. I asked gently if I could and the Hasbro people hooked it up. It was so cool getting to shake the man's hand and tell him how much I appreciated his work. The "Sunday funk" officially vaporized and it never came back!
The final panel I attended was the G1 writers panel. I confess that I took no notes, but they said pretty much the panel would be a repeat of their Botcon 2009 panel (which is interesting as the last time they were together was at Botcon 2004, also in Pasadena). They talked at length about the difficulties of having to constantly introduce a flood of new toys/characters into a show while keeping some show integrity. In a staggering statistic, they estimated that in "Rebirth" they were charged with introducing new characters about every twenty one seconds! You could tell these gents truly treasured their time on "Transformers" and worked well as a team.
Exhaustion & Happiness
Botcon 2009 ended low key for me, with a small dinner and a call to my girlfriend. Now here I sit in a plane on the way back to New Jersey basking in the glow, feeling exhausted but ever so happy that I was part of this experience. In many ways, Botcon acts as an annual rebirth of my fan spirit, and this year I was definitely reborn once again stronger than ever with a renewed sense of purpose. Sometimes people wonder why I love Transformers, and in the past few years I've finally figured it out. Botcon is not about toys. It's about friendship, cameraderie, creativity, enthusiasm, amazing surprises, interesting people, fun and the joy of seeing a new generation become the fans of something I enjoyed as a child. The toys and entertainment are simply the jump off points for all those elements. Oh, and somewhere in there is good food too. Heh.
The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of Benson Yee and do not represent the opinions of Hasbro, Takara, Fun Publications or any other entity.