All Pop-Culture Roads Lead to Comic-Con

Joe Strike and Bill Desowitz traveled to Comic-Con, discovering that the exploding event has become everything pop culture.

Welcome to the Best (or Worst) Con Ever, depending on your perspective. All images courtesy of Rick DeMott, unless otherwise noted.

Welcome to the Best (or Worst) Con Ever, depending on your perspective. All images courtesy of Rick DeMott, unless otherwise noted.

Movies, TV, animation, videogames, collectibles, costuming... and oh yeah, comics: in July, all pop-culture roads lead to San Diego. Every year Comic-Con International manages to squeeze a few thousand more geeks, fans and pros into the city's bursting-at-the-seams convention center than the last time around. 2007 was no exception, with 125,000 folks turning the event into a full-fledged sellout. (For the first time ever Saturday tickets sold out in advance of the Con's opening.) Lines for higher-profile panels snaked from one end of the multi block-long building to the other (and back again), while red-shirted security personnel struggled to keep hallways passable and fire marshals happy.

The Thursday-Sunday event actually began with a Wednesday night sneak preview of the Exhibit (i.e., sales) Hall, but Warner Bros. treated early arrivals to a sizeable chunk of Beowulf, Robert Zemeckis' latest adventure in motion capture at a local mall multiplex. The film was introduced by co-writers Neil Gaiman (who referred to the poem it's based on as 'the oldest story in the English language") and Roger Avary (who added "filmed with the most modern technology available"). "I had to labor over this in high school English," Avary told the crowd. "I wanted to make it easier for future generations."

Fans of motion capture will be impressed with the seeming reality of the mo-capped characters and the hallucinatory camera moves and imagery the technique makes possible. Its detractors will likely remain unconvinced, put off by those same characters' somewhat uncanny, not-really-real quality. Then again, the sight of a computer-rendered Angelina Jolie, striding atop a lake with spike heels growing from the back of her bare feet, a yards-long braided pony tail undulating behind her like a reptilian appendage may persuade a few mocap skeptics to put aside their doubts. As the monster Grendel, Crispin Glover is nowhere as attractive, instead resembling a human-shaped mass of scar tissue and open wounds.

Gaiman extolled the film's use of mocap -- "you're seeing the performance down to every tiny little muscle" -- and described the cast (which includes Ray Winstone, Anthony Hopkins and John Malkovich) "wearing their suits with all the little dots on... they looked like the cast of Tron." According to Avary, motion capture solved the problem of depicting the actors at different, decades-apart ages of their lives, and made possible "the cheapest dragon fight ever filmed." "Bob told us to go wild," Gaiman said, quoting Zemeckis: 'nothing you could possibly write could cost me more than $1 million a minute to film.'"

Beowulf will be released in Real D, IMAX 3D and flat versions. At one point Ray Winstone angled his sword out towards the audience (wearing, as Gaiman described them, their "magic Clark Kent glasses"), bringing back memories of 3D's 1950s glory days.

Neil Gaiman (right), who was the special guest of Comic-Con 2007, also promoted LAIKA's stop-motion feature, Coraline, with director Henry Selick.

Neil Gaiman (right), who was the special guest of Comic-Con 2007, also promoted LAIKA's stop-motion feature, Coraline, with director Henry Selick.

The following afternoon Paramount had first dubs on the convention center's massive Hall H to tease their upcoming slate. Gaiman, one of the convention's guests of honor and seemingly everywhere that weekend, introduced the about-to-open Stardust, based on his graphic novel. Asked about the possibility of his signature character Sandman being adapted to film, Gaiman responded, "I'd rather no Sandman movie be made than a bad Sandman movie," but then allowed that "the time for one is getting closer," although a film based on his comicbook mini-series, Death: The High Cost of Living (to be directed by Gaiman himself) is up first.

J.J. Abrams presented his mysterious, pseudo-home video "Statue of Liberty" trailer (with the statue's head landing in downtown Manhattan like a football kicked for a field goal) for his still unnamed monster movie. Abrams refused to divulge any more info to the frustrated audience, only saying, "I've wanted to make a great monster movie for so long." (Audiences will have to wait until year's end to see who or what sent Lady Liberty's head flying.)

Writers Holly Black and Tony DiTerlizzi, along with special effects legend Phil Tippett, introduced footage from The Spiderwick Chronicles, based on their popular series of children's novels. Paramount's entry into the Harry Potter/Narnia world of magical beasties will premiere next February. "I love Brian Froud and Jim Henson," DiTerlizzi enthused. "I want to do for faeries what Jurassic Park did for dinosaurs." Tippett (introduced by DiTerlizzi as "the Ray Harryhausen of our generation") showed concept art and test footage of the creatures populating the film, led by "Redcap," a "bull goblin."

Jon Favreau showed up on behalf of Iron Man, an independent Marvel production Paramount will be distributing. Before coming out in person a pretaped video segment of Favreau appeared on the room's giant video screens of him introducing the movie's in-progress 'special effects' -- which turned out to be 1960s bargain basement Iron Man TV animation. It was the first of the director's two appearances on behalf of the film, the second coming later in the weekend at Marvel's own session.

Steven Spielberg and Harrison Ford put in a surprise appearance -- via a live satellite remote from the undisclosed California location of their fourth (and still untitled) Indiana Jones film, due out next May. "This is all for you," Spielberg told the ecstatic crowd. In the 26 years since Indy's first appearance, "we've grown a lot wiser, and a lot richer," he added before introducing Jones' new sidekicks Ray Winstone, Shia LaBeouf ("I don't know what I'm doing here," the Transformers star admitted) and Karen Allen, returning as Marion Ravenwood.

Comic-Con draws big stars like Get Smart's Steve Carell to preview their films for fans.

Comic-Con draws big stars like Get Smart's Steve Carell to preview their films for fans.

J.J. Abrams, entrusted by Paramount to revive its currently dormant Star Trek franchise, returned to the stage to announce the casting of "our Spock:" Zachary Quinto, one of NBC's Heroes, will take on the pointy-eared role of Lieutenant Spock when the Enterprise soars once again in December 2008. Leonard Nimoy, the show's original half-Vulcan beamed in to pronounce Quinto's casting "logical," while Abrams said he hopes to talk Nimoy into "putting on the ears one more time" for a role in the new film.

The next morning Warner Bros. took over the big room to promote its 2008 slate. First up was Steve Carrel on behalf of his big screen version of the 1960's sitcom Get Smart ("I wanted a comedic Bourne Identity"), followed by a trailer for Roland Emmerich's 10,000 B.C. replete with CGI-rendered wooly mammoths and saber-toothed tigers.

Comicbook fans keep saying their medium of choice has finally earned the respect it deserves. Judging by Hollywood's appetite for big-screen adaptations, they've been right for a while, but that respect took another step forward in the trailer for WB's Kate Beckinsale Antarctica-based thriller Whiteout: an early title card announced the film was "based on the Eisner Award-winning graphic novel," putting that comics industry award (named for the famed creator of The Spirit) on the same promotional level as an Oscar or Golden Globe.

Beckinsale (famous for her dressed-in-leather Underworld role) played up her bad-girl image for all it was worth, delighting the crowd with quips like "I slept with the director way fewer times" on Whiteout than her other films; "I got bruised and beat up making this picture -- and I liked it;" "When I bent down on Underworld, everyone went 'oooh!' That never once happened on Whiteout [where her wardrobe consisted mainly of sub-zero parkas]."

Whiteout producer Joel Silver briefly plugged his upcoming live-action version of the 1960s classic anime TV series, Speed Racer, starring Emile Hirsch as Speed and Christina Ricci as girlfriend Trixie. "It's remarkable what they're doing," said Silver of the Wachowski brothers, the film's directors. "The races are unbelievable." (It might be worth pondering for a moment whether the final image in the cartoon series' opening titles -- a 90-degree dolly around a freeze-framed Speed -- was the direct inspiration for the brothers' famed 'bullet-time' effect in The Matrix.)

300 director Zack Snyder with his wife, producer Deborah Snyder, shared details on the highly anticipated Watchmen feature.

300 director Zack Snyder with his wife, producer Deborah Snyder, shared details on the highly anticipated Watchmen feature.

Fans of Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons' legendary graphic novel Watchmen -- the story of a superhero team stalked by an assassin -- were treated to news of the long-anticipated film version's cast, courtesy of director Zack Snyder (300): Billy Crudup, assisted by mocap and CGI will play "Doctor Manhattan" ("He needed to be more than a man," Snyder told the crowd. "He needed to glow and be 200 feet tall. The tests are looking pretty cool."). Patrick Wilson is the conflicted, Batman-ish "Night Owl," Jeffrey Dean Morgan the in-your-face, cigar-chomping "Comedian," Malin Akerman the gorgeous "Silk Spectre," and in what may prove to be a particularly inspired choice, Jackie Earle Haley as the obsessed vigilante "Rorschach."

Snyder said he hopes Moore -- who was so disgusted with Hollywood's version of his V for Vendetta that he took his name off the picture -- will ultimately, "watch it some rainy afternoon in England and say 'they didn't f___ it up too much.'" With Watchmen not due in theaters until 2009, fans had to content themselves with a poster for the film drawn by Gibbons in the style of his comics' covers.

For reasons as yet unexplained, 20th Century Fox bailed on its Friday morning show and tell, leaving Hall H's 6,000 seats free to fill up for New Line's presentation, beginning with Michael Davis touting his meta-shoot 'em up, Shoot 'Em Up, starring Clive Owen as the leather-jacketed 'Mr. Smith.' In near tongue-in-cheek manner, the taciturn Owen mows down infinite numbers of villain Paul Giamatti's similarly-dressed henchmen. "I wasn't ready for this," said Owen of the pumped-up crowd. "The fans are so excited it's a little jarring."

Chris Weitz appeared onscreen in a pre-recorded video from London with clips and making-of footage from The Golden Compass, New Line's offering to the Potter/Narnia audience. Judging from the extremely rich production design, the slew of shape-shifting talking animals and high-powered cast (led by Nicole Kidman and Daniel Craig) the studio is hoping to repeat their Lord of the Rings success.

The production team for Prince Caspian shared an animatronic head and warrior costume with the audience. 

The production team for Prince Caspian shared an animatronic head and warrior costume with the audience. 

Speaking of The Chronicles of Narnia, director Andrew Adamson appeared live from Prague via satellite feed at the Disney session to introduce the series' next film Prince Caspian, due out next May. Unlike Spielberg, Adamson attempted to chat with the onstage panelists, a start-and-stop effort thanks to the two-way time lag of trans-Atlantic video transmission. According to Adamson, Disney plans to release the remaining Narnia films on a once-a-year basis, a schedule that may challenge cast, crew and post-production houses alike. After a reel of in-progress footage the audience was treated to onstage demonstration of an animatronic satyr head and an actor modeling grim-masked 'Telmarine' warrior armor from the film.

After successfully tackling The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, vfx supervisor Dean Wright admitted that the bar has definitely been raised for the second installment, Prince Caspian (from Disney and Walden). There is not only more action, but also more complex models from creature supervisor Howard Berger. "There are huge battles in this film, so we've got a lot more character integration," Wright said.

Since this time they shot primarily in the Czech republic, it made financial sense to use London-based MPC and Framestore CFC along with Weta Digital for vfx. Framestore is doing Aslan, Trufflehunter, the badger, the River-god sequence, kids entering and leaving Narnia, supervised by Jon Thum. MPC, under Greg Butler, is doing mainly the battles. Weta is doing three things: a werewolf, a wild bear and all of the environments for the castle.

Pixar director Andrew Stanton followed, on behalf of WALLE, the studio's summer 2008 effort about a trash-collecting robot (whose resemblance to Short Circuit's "Number 5" is unmistakable) spending centuries cleaning up an abandoned, trash-strewn Earth while yearning for love. An altered version of Pixar's famous Luxo Jr. logo featuring WALLE was shown, followed by a mock commercial for a Wal-Mart style robot superstore where WALLE s are on sale. Sound designer Ben Burtt joined Stanton to discuss the robots' beep-and-boop voices. It's a subject the Star Wars veteran is intimately familiar with, and which apparently constitute the majority of the film's 'dialog.'

Following Stanton's, brilliant, detailed presentation of WALLE, he discussed some of the joys and challenges of directing Pixar's first foray into sci fi and the story of a rusty 400-year-old compacting trash robot. ("What if mankind had to evacuate earth and someone forgot to turn the last robot off... it really combines two things I love -- the space movie genre and the giving of life to an inanimate object.")

In the most comprehensive panel of the event, Disney-Pixar shared concept art, plot details and character info for WALLE. © Walt Disney Co.

In the most comprehensive panel of the event, Disney-Pixar shared concept art, plot details and character info for WALLE. © Walt Disney Co.

Inspired by Luxo Jr. and then by using his son's binoculars at a baseball game, Stanton saw the potential for facial expressions. "I just wanted it to feel like R2-D2: The Movie... I definitely knew that I didn't want it to be the world of the Tin Man. You get a whole different audience response when we look at a pet or an infant, because they don't fill the whole equation and they can't express exactly how they feel, so you're forced to pull from yourself... to fill in the blanks, and I think you get a much more tactile response.

As for the lonely Robinson Crusoe scenario, he remembered reading that the biggest fear was loneliness and it stuck with him for seven years. He also longed for a great space adventure. "We're in a weird place now where if you can think of it, it can be done..."

However, Stanton admitted that there have been some technological hurdles.

"I felt that there was a look to the space genre, because of the special [large format] cameras and anamorphic lenses that I hadn't seen in any of our work, and a lot of the R&D guys said you could use those same kind of lens settings and get shallow focus and depth of field and barrel distortion with an anamorphic lens. And, we put in the settings and it didn't look like that at all.

"We honestly got a dp and consultation from Roger Deakins and we made a mock, actual size WALLE and Eve and put them in space at Pixar with the grids and everything, filmed them with the correct lenses and correct cameras and then we made the virtual set with the virtual characters with our virtual lenses and, sure enough, they didn't match at all. We had to have that to prove to the guys that it's not doing what it's supposed to. So there's a little laundry list of things like that we have, in the last three or four years, fixed and corrected, and then there's been a lot that we've gained and learned since Finding Nemo, The Incredibles and Ratatouille for improving our lighting and rendering that contribute to it making feel much more familiar territory -- for what it's like to watch any movie with the right camera rig, specific kind of lighting and so forth. That was a big thing for me. I said I want it to feel just as real and as dimensional as if we were underwater in Finding Nemo."

The Incredible Hulk star Liv Tyler was nervous for her first Comic-Con appearance.

The Incredible Hulk star Liv Tyler was nervous for her first Comic-Con appearance.

Comic-Con's dense schedule -- with 15 programming tracks taking place simultaneously -- made difficult choice impossible to avoid. A dedicated Futurama fan had to bail early on Pixar (missing an extended WALLE clip) to attend a panel in the smaller Ballroom 20 (a mere 4,000 seats) on the rebirth of Matt Groening's sci-fi spoof. The beloved series is set to return as a quartet of direct-to-DVD movies beginning with Bender's Big Score this December. The show's entire voice cast did a "table read" of the promotional comic handed out to attendees. "Bender," aka John Di Maggio, almost as outrageous as his robot counterpart dominated the panel, at one point shouting out Professor Farnsworth's catchphrase "good news, everyone" in Bender's voice.

After a trailer for the movie screened, the cast discussed the origins of their characters voices. (Billy West: "Fry is my natural voice when I was 25... Zoidberg is a combination of [character actor] Lou Jacobi and George Jessel.") According to show developer David X. Cohen, "every dollar [of the production budget] is on the screen -- the writers took the hit."

Marvel Studios followed Disney into Hall H to preview its first two independently produced films, The Incredible Hulk and Iron Man. Edward Norton follows Eric Bana and Bill Bixby as the conflicted Bruce (aka David) Banner, donning a motion capture suit to portray his green-skinned alter ego. "I didn't want to be replaced by a technical version" of the Hulk, said the Fight Club star. "I was shocked by how excited my friends were when I told them I'd be playing the Hulk." Asked which version of the character's origin (comic book, TV series or first movie) the film will be based on, Norton revealed his version will start from scratch. "We don't want to race through his origin... we're going to spool it out throughout the film."

The once again, Incredible Hulk is set to stomp into theaters next summer in hopes of making audiences forget Ang Lee's well-intentioned 2003 misfire. Director Louis Leterrier told the crowd his version takes place in the Marvel universe and will contain "lots of Easter eggs and homages, which is French for stealing ideas from American films" to the Marvel mythos.

Iron Man was everywhere at the event, making a big impression with the 150,000 plus people in attendance.

Iron Man was everywhere at the event, making a big impression with the 150,000 plus people in attendance.

Jon Favreau made his second presentation on behalf of Iron Man, re-screening the action-packed trailer shown at the Paramount session, and was accompanied by Robert Downey Jr., the film's star. "Couldn't there have been more of me in the trailer?" Downey mock-asked. According to Favreau, with the exception of a few in-flight glimpses of Iron Man, all the effects in the trailer were "practical" and accomplished on-set.

Unlike good guys Peter Parker and Banner, Downey's Tony Stark starts out as a cold-hearted weapons genius and smug celebrity before donning his armor. ("They call you the modern DaVinci," reporter Gwyneth Paltrow tells Downey in the trailer. "Ridiculous," he says, "I don't paint." Paltrow tries again: "They also call you the Merchant of Death." Downey thinks for a second, then replies, "that's not bad.") "Iron Man was never meant to be likable," Downey told the crowd. "The question is how far to push the character and keep him empathetic."

Favreau credited the example of Batman Begins director Christopher Nolan's casting choices -- and Marvel's independent financing -- as enabling him to pick the actors he wanted for Iron Man in place of high-profile stars. Was Downey's own rehab-studded history a subtext for his performance? The audience member's question was tabled when Stan 'The Man" Lee put in a surprise appearance. "I have 20 lawyers going over the script," Lee warned, "you'd better be careful."

For Ridley Scott's upcoming Blade Runner: The Final Cut (from Warner Home Video), DVD producer Charles de Lauzirika assured everyone that the new digital vfx would be seamless. John Scheele served as the vfx supervisor, consulting with the landmark film's original special photographic effects supervisors Douglas Trumbull, Richard Yuricich and David Dryer. Sony Pictures Imageworks did the Zhora head replacement (for actress Joanna Cassidy) during her fight scene, other work was done from Lola and The Orphanage, among others. Most of the work consisted of wire removal and stabilization and better matching of elements, such as in the opening or in the dove scene.

The cast and crew shared the new DVD artwork for Blade Runner: The Final Cut with a packed 6,500 Hall H crowd.

The cast and crew shared the new DVD artwork for Blade Runner: The Final Cut with a packed 6,500 Hall H crowd.

As for Scott, he was very pleased with a print of the director's cut that he screened before embarking on his final cut, so there are no substantive changes. The voice over narration is still out since he was never satisfied with all of it, and he still maintains that Harrison Ford's Deckard is a replicate, suggesting that cloning technology has caught up with the film and it's only a matter of time before we'll be able to implant memories too. This, he argued, adds great irony to the interpretation.

The Simpsons, Futurama and WALLE were far from the only animation on the Comic-Con schedule. Three separate screening rooms presented non-stop anime episodes for the convention's entire four days. Historical cartoon buffs could enjoy "Treasures from the ASIFA Vault," UPA, Popeye, Hanna-Barbera and He-Man retrospectives, or Jerry Beck's masochistically hilarious "Worst Cartoons Ever." There was no shortage of panels dedicated to specific animated series, from upcoming (a revival of Biker Mice from Mars, Nickelodeon's Making Fiends), to departing (Billy and Mandy) and continuing (Ben 10, Class of 3000).

Cartoon Network's vp of longform Ramsey Naito and senior director of development Heather Kenyon unwind from a day at the Con at the WB Animation party.

Cartoon Network's vp of longform Ramsey Naito and senior director of development Heather Kenyon unwind from a day at the Con at the WB Animation party.

Ambitious cartoon creators were able to soak up how-tos from the program development execs at the "Pitching Animated Shows" panel. Disney Channel's Jill Stewart and Mike Moon, Nickelodeon's Eric Coleman and Cartoon Network's Heather Kenyon were joined by El Tigre creator Jorge R. Gutierrez.

"Four years isn't a long time" for a project to spend in development, Coleman warned for starters. "You don't get rich from development," he added. "The further along a project goes, the more money is involved and the more executives are involved." Coleman estimated a year's time goes by between production beginning on a series and it actually reaching air.

According to Kenyon, having a show clearing legal hurdles and negotiating a contract between the creator and the network can take anywhere between three months and two years, depending on the issues and personalities involved.

The panelists agreed that a "gimmick or a cool visual" isn't enough to sustain a show; kids have to fall in love with the characters. All agreed they preferred shows with protagonists the same age as their audience Adult heroes like Jackie Chan, Beetlejuice and G.I. Joe are characters whose time has passed. Stewart said that "sustainability" is an important factor in her eyes: can the concept last for 65 episodes? "You should be able to five episodes with just your characters in a room together, without guest stars," advised Kenyon.

Gutierrez (who found the template for his pitch bible on awn.com) described the pilot process as "brutal -- talented people put their DNA into their shows. They [the executives] want to see how much you love your idea."

Coleman said Nickelodeon's on the lookout for "breakout comedies with kid, or kidlike characters," while, according to Kenyon, Cartoon Network is seeking boy-skewing shows for its 6-11 audience, including action/adventure shows like Ben 10 and "crazy-weird stuff" for the Network's nascent primetime, live-action block.

No action/adventure need apply at Disney, said Moon. "Kid relatable, gender-neutral" shows are on his agenda. The panel's takeaway: Ask the execs what they're looking for; regardless of the merits of your show, it simply might not be what they're in the market for.

By Sunday afternoon, Comic-Con's energy level, and the convention center's population dropped to manageable levels. Animation was still on the schedule, with late-day panels focusing on the "Animation Production Process" and 4 Kids' Viva Pinata series. Finally, at 5:00 Comic-Con 2007 closed its doors. In the year until it begins all over again, its tens of thousands of attendees will find out if the films they saw teased live up to their hype -- and start planning their next trip to San Diego.

Joe Strike is a regular contributor to AWN. His animation articles also appear in the NY Daily News and the New York Press.

Bill Desowitz is editor of VFXWorld.

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