Tucked into a corner of the Warner Center Marriott, a mid-sized room has been transformed into The Cantina. For three days beginning Friday, the place was open 24 hours a day as part of a new fan convention called BlasterCON.
The Cantina was lined in retro video games: Pac-Man, Space Invaders, Gauntlet and so many other coin-op classics you might remember from the heyday of arcades. There was a stage in the front of the room prepared to host a bevy of musicians. Some of the artists on the schedule played music inspired by science fiction and fantasy. One guest makes music with Game Boys. The house band was called Science Fiction Jazz.
BlasterCon chairman Todd Whitesel remembers when the BlasterCON team started working on this room. “It felt like that scene in Xanadu, where you're in the derelict warehouse and the potential of the space suddenly starts occurring to you,” he says.
The Xanadu reference is on-point for this convention. BlasterCON, which kicked off Thursday and ran through Sunday, was dedicated to science fiction and fantasy that emerged during the 1970s and '80s. The organizers had films like Star Wars and The Dark Crystal on their minds, but Xanadu works too.
The long tagline for BlasterCON is “Celebrating the late 20th century renaissance in science fiction and fantasy.” The short version is “history, hardware and practical effects.” The convention's goal was to capture those years when make-up, puppetry and other forms of movie magic were drastically changing what we watched, both on big and small screens.
Whitesel rattles off a list of people involved in this movement, like ILM (Industrial Lights & Magic), the effects branch of LucasFilm, and Henson & Associates. “You had Steven Speilberg and a number of other artists that were really leveraging technology in a new way and using it to tell better stories and to serve the story better and to just bring special effects to a whole new level that people had never seen before,” he adds.
There was a how-to angle to the convention as well. Upstairs at the Marriott on Saturday, a group of attendees sat through a four-hour make-up demonstration from actor Bill Blair and make-up artist Carl Taliaferro. Slowly, Taliaferro turned Blair into a Klingon. Blair is a background actor who holds the Guinness Book of World Records title for “Most Special Effect Make-up Characters Portrayed in a Career.” He has played alien characters in Alien Nation, Babylon 5 and multiple Star Trek series.
Meanwhile, in other convention rooms, there were panels looking at the history of various franchises. Inside the Game Grid Cafe, the Mochi Maid Cafe turned out the lights and let the signs glow-in-the-dark, giving a rave-y vibe to games of Connect Four and Apples to Apples. Yet another room hosted a compact Laser Tag course.
There was a lot going on at BlasterCON. However, the crowd was sparse Saturday afternoon, only slightly picking up steam later in the day. BlasterCon also ran short on staff for some of the pre-event work. Those who were left on board, like Whitesel, were stretched thin. “It flabbergasts me, the whole parade of challenges that we faced,” says Whitesel. “We still threw a party and yet no one came, but, at least the party itself was executed reasonably well.”
What BlasterCON lacked in numbers, it made up for in ideas. The concept itself is different from what you typically see at conventions in the Los Angeles area. Typically, conventions here fall into two camps. There are the events that are devoted to specific franchises, like Gallifrey One, which focuses on the Doctor Who universe. Then there are the general events, which is where BlasterCON fits into the convention world. Out of general conventions — anime, sci-fi, comic book or multi-genre events — the emphasis tends to be on newer properties. You'll see panels promoting forthcoming television shows, writers and artists signing their latest work, people cosplaying the newest anime series. BlasterCON's retro edge offers potential for intriguing convention programming that other events miss. The possibilities of exploring both famed and obscure movies and television shows of the era are bountiful.
Maybe BlasterCON didn't blossom the way it should have for its debut show, but it's too good of an idea to abandon. That's not lost on Whitesel. “As long as the only complaint that people have is that we didn't have enough attendants, then I'm actually still happy with the event,” he says. “It basically shows what we're capable of next year.”