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Comic-Con Without the Stars

It is quieter at San Diego Comic-Con this year. The SAG-AFTRA and WGA strikes mean that the headline-making events in the cavernous Hall H, the ones that people line up the day before to make sure they get to see, are all canceled. Press events for upcoming series “Twisted Metal” and “The Continental” were removed from the schedule at the last minute. Still, I got to talk to a performer from last year’s top-grossing movie and attend panels featuring Oscar winners. And I did get an early look at some new television shows and a hand-drawn movie short called “Mushka” from former Disney animator Andreas Deja. Walking around the convention center and the neighborhood, I saw dozens of dancing Cap’n Crunches, the hitchhiking ghosts from Disney’s “Haunted Mansion,” and the cosplayers, with many people dressed as Barbie and hilarious one-offs like Merryweather, the fairy from “Sleeping Beauty,” in the misshapen dress she tried to make without magic and Disney princesses as Bridgerton characters. A Mr. Burns (from "The Simpsons") cosplayer held up a sign that was a wink at the studio executives' response to the strike.

The panels I love most, featuring the below-the-line talent, were as illuminating and inspiring as ever, most beginning with a strong statement in support of the strikes. But the most powerful statement of support was the chance to see some of the hundreds, sometimes thousands, of talented, dedicated people who make vital contributions to movies and television shows. The panelists were so scrupulous about supporting SAG-AFTRA and WGA that many refrained from mentioning any upcoming projects, so there was more focus on the films and television series of the past.

Warner Brothers TV Previews Adventure Time’s new spin-off, “Fionna & Cake,” is aimed at a YA audience. In episode one, Fionna gets fired from her job as a tour bus guide and worries that her cat, Cake, seems sick. We meet some quirky characters, including Fionna’s friend, a baker, and there are hints of a magical alternate world where their lives are very different. I got a big kick out of the preview of a new episode of “Teen Titans Go!” with the team getting stuck in a series of classic cartoon series intros, including “The Flintstones,” “The Jetsons,” and “Scooby-Doo.” And a preview of an episode from the last season of “Riverdale” continues the series’ rounded, complex explorations of its characters and the challenges they face.

Stunt performer Molly Miller and actor/stunt performer Chris Bartlett were very careful not to mention the names of their films because, in support of the strikes, they did not want to promote any particular project. But the IMDb pages show that we’ve seen Miller in “Avatar: The Way of Water” and Bartlett in “The Book of Boba Fett” and both in “The Mandalorian.” Miller is a little person, 4’4" and “proportionate,” so her specialty is stunt doubling for child actors. Bartlett laughed when I asked if he was the kind of kid who fell out of trees. “I was the kid who did wild things.” Inspired by “The Dukes of Hazzard,” he decided to do stunts and then became an actor. “Because of the kind of work I do, the characters I play, there isn’t another person who can just jump into the suit. “I started off as an actor,” Miller said. But doubling for children was “a nice niche that I found for myself, and I just love it.” She said staying safe requires always “being completely aware of your surroundings and knowing how to fall the right way.” Solid training makes all the difference. “Saying something when you don’t feel comfortable, or the situation is not optimal is important,” Bartlett added. They ended the interview with a strong statement in support of their union and the strike, with particular concerns about the use of AI.

The fourth annual Hollywood Game Changers panel, featuring women who work on some of television’s most popular shows, featured makeup department head Alisha L. Baijounas (“Abbott Elementary”), hair department head Jaala Leis Wanless (“Grease: Rise of the Pink Ladies”), production designer Sara K. White (“Swarm”), costume designer Rafaella Rabinovich (“The Imperfects”), and editor Maura Corey (“Kevin Can F*** Himself”). 

Each described what their departments do to help tell the stories and define the characters. For “Pink Ladies,” Wanless did “a huge deep dive” into researching the period, especially looking for material that could help define the way people of different backgrounds, ethnicities, and income levels did their hair. That meant looking at ads, catalogues, and other less formal sources. She had just three weeks to try out 20-30 looks on each of the performers and had to find looks for all of the background actors as well. She also spoke about her work on the women’s committee of her union, IATSE, and her commitment to pursuing diversity and pay equity. Baijounas spoke about subtle changes in makeup to show how the characters become more confident and mature, “finding story points to make them look more grown up and sure of themselves.” She used brighter makeup on some characters introduced in the second season to make the changes for Ava and Jeanine seem more natural. And she said the secret to her success was “hiring people better than me” and “making sure they get along with the talent.”

Rabinovich said the “Imperfects” costumes had to be “sci-fi but grounded. We want people to find themselves” in the show. White began as an interior decorator but found that “production design is so much more inventive than working in the real world.” She described the subtle asymmetries she used in “Swarm” to show the main character’s state of mind. “Her own space is childlike,” she said, and the foster parents have a very controlled environment. Corey talked about the difference in editing comedy and drama (and both in “Kevin Can F*** Himself”) and said, “If I’m not laughing or crying at my job, I’m not doing it right.” 

There is no more celebrated costume designer in Hollywood than four-time Oscar winner Colleen Atwood, and it was thrilling to see her on a panel with two of her colleagues, Jose Fernandez and Christian Cordello. She was the one who suggested that the Little Mermaid’s sisters be from each of the seven seas so that their costumes and tails would reflect the different marine life around the world. “Not one of those costumes was really underwater,” she confided. But they had to look like they could have been created underwater and moved underwater. For the wardrobe on dry land, she used the shapes of the period but a lighter fabric, so they seemed float-y. "You don't wear velvet in the tropics."

Atwood spoke about working with Tim Burton (“take the period and make it fantastic”) and about revising her ideas until they look the way she wants them to: “I’ve never been afraid to take out my scissors and change the way something looks. Maybe it looks better upside down!” She shared some regret about designing “the ‘Superman' that never happened." She likes to put in details that no one may notice, “but they matter to me.” And she gets a kick out of it when trick-or-treaters come to her house on Halloween or at Comic-Con in costumes based on her designs, not knowing that she was the one who created the originals.

One panel featured seven specialists in designing what they call creatures, and the rest of us call Monsters. Theirs was a sizzle reel that lived up to its name, with wildly imaginative drawings of one scary creature after another. Plus, Pokémon. The newest addition to this group was RJ Palmer, who started putting his drawings of what Pokémon might look like in real life online just for fun. Then, when Legendary Pictures decided to do a live-action Pokémon movie called “Detective Pikachu,” they saw his drawings and brought him on board. The designers explained that even though they compete, they also help each other out and are always happy to provide feedback or guidance. They also agreed that all of the fancy digital tools are great, but what matters is drawing. They all still practice and study to help make their creatures even scarier. 

Comic-Con celebrated the 35th anniversary of “Beetlejuice” with a tribute to the Oscar-winning makeup artist Ve Neill, who told us many backstage stories. It was Michael Keaton’s idea that the character should have some moss on him, as though he’d been under a rock. He also wanted to look like his nose had been broken. A combination of foam core from a hobby shop and some prosthetic lips one of the assistants happened to have were applied to make Keaton's nose look crooked, contributing to the character’s now-iconic look. Neill only had two-and-a-half weeks to figure out what would work, and director Tim Burton’s original request for pastels looked too washed out. It finally came together with many different layers or makeup and acrylic nails. Neill also dyed Winona Ryder’s blond hair black and gave her “funky little bangs” with circles under her eyes to make her look tired. She said she never laughed harder than watching the filming of the “Day-O” scene, when the characters are possessed by a Harry Belafonte song, and most of the actors kept laughing, too. Neill gets a kick out of seeing cosplayers dressed as Beetlejuice. “In a hundred years, I never thought I’d see that guy walking around.” I spotted at least three Beetlejuices in the audience, including one with a merry-go-round with real lights on top of her head.  

Neill also shared stories about some other films she worked on, including another Oscar-winner, “Mrs. Doubtfire.” “Robin was very buoyant,” she laughed, when asked what it was like to have him sit for hours of make-up. “It was hard to get him to sit still.” And she talked about working in black and white for “Ed Wood,” when she had to put black lipstick on the women so that it would come across as red. And she talked about what it felt like to hear her name called out at the Oscars. She was in a daze the first time, but the second time she could enjoy it. 

I spoke to some of the technical crew behind “Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny,” editor Dirk Westervelt, visualization supervisor Clint G, Reagan, global head of production at Proof, Inc. Patrice Avery, and Visualization Supervisor Proof Inc. Stuart Allan. They all talked about how much they love the Indiana Jones movies and how thrilled they were to be a part of one. Allan worked on the tuk-tuk chase scene and the underwater sequence. I asked him about the tuk-tuk chase, which I loved because normally, chase scenes are very fast, but the tuk-tuks were more like bumper cars than race cars.

“They’re silly, aren’t they? And they allow for the changing of seats. It did start to feel like a moving jungle gym, so everywhere’s fair game, the front, the back, the top, sidling back and forth, switching drivers. They could get in things like the Three-card Monte situation, where they’re hemmed in by two other cars, and have a unique vantage point where Helena can reach out and break the back of one of the cars. They’re so versatile.” Westervelt talked about editing the action scenes to maintain the focus on the characters so that even in the midst of the action, we see Teddy’s feelings of jealousy and competitiveness for Indy and Helena’s mixed loyalties. 

Reagan talked about loving the “Wacky Races” Saturday morning cartoon when he was a child, which was a good preparation for his job. He talked about his intricate system for analyzing the earlier movies beat by beat, which shots are used, how fast the cuts are, and the level of intensity of the performance. “That is the reference card for when I’m directing the artists. I love doing that because it helps inform me on what my boundaries ought to be when I’m designing the film.” He said they use all the latest technology, but “the key is always the story. How does this motion enhance the experience of the character and what we should be feeling.” Interestingly, the first half of the very complicated parade sequence was done by traditional storyboarding, but the second half was pre-viz, from Reagan and Proof.

“Where they wanted me to get involved and where I took over is when the horse jumped over into the parade and over a car and weaving through the traffic, moving through space really fast. Having the pre-viz guide that is actually moving (even though it’s virtual) through physical space, I can tell them measurements, we’re traveling at 30 mph, and he covers 300 feet, so they can plan the shoot and devote all of their efforts to making sure the physical space has what they need in terms of size and design." If they’re there longer, they might do practical design—they were using Glasgow as New York—if it is so far in the background, they will used digital effects on the scenery.” 

He said he saw “Last Crusade” four times in the theater as a teenager. “I sat there in the back, and it made me feel so much. I had to be on that screen someday and help other people feel what I was feeling that day. My heart did a back flip to get to help build part of that legend, bring a little bit of that joyful adventure into the world.” 

The Black Panel is always a highlight, and moderator Michael Davis, who has worked with Motown, Wayne Brady, and co-founded Milestone Media, as always, kept things very lively. All of the panelists were very encouraging, telling the audience to start their own if they cannot get their stories out through existing media outlets. The panel then discussed the importance of removing the stigma of therapy and mental illness in the Black community with heartfelt, touching personal stories.

Legion M, the fan-owned entertainment company (note, I am one of the over 150,000 fan-owners), was prohibited by the strike to discuss plans for filming “Defiant,” based on the true story of Captain Robert Smalls. He was an enslaved man who captured a Confederate ship and escaped to freedom with his family, then was the highest-ranking Black man in the Union military, served in Congress and ended up owning the mansion where he had been enslaved.  

Screenwriter Rob Edwards talked about the upcoming graphic novel version of the story but made it clear that a feature film or miniseries will be coming. He emphasized the importance of telling true stories about characters that are not part of the usual narrative of enslavement and the enthusiasm of Bill Duke and others in coming to the project. “I tell everyone, 'You don’t want to not do this.'”

One of the best films ever from a teenage girl’s point of view is “The World of Henry Orient,” released in 1964. The co-star of that film, Merrie Spaeth, was interviewed by comics historian Nat Gertler about her remarkable career, including serving in the Reagan White House, writer of horror comics, journalist (her documentary about Liberace is available on YouTube), author, and head of a communications business. She said that her role in the film came about by accident—literally. She tripped over an electrical cord on the floor in her audition, and director George Roy Hill said she was right for the role. She was self-deprecating about her acting career, which continued for several years after the film, but showed the audience why her communications firm is so successful by telling her story with great charm.

In its eighth year, Leslie Combemale’s “Women Rocking Hollywood” panel featured writer/director Rosemary Rodriguez (“The Waking Dead,” “Hail Mary”), director Sam Bailey (Marvel’s “IronHeart”), director Jen McGowan (“Star Trek: Discovery”), cinematographer Laura Merians Gonçalves (“Black is King,” “Dead Ringers”), and Andria Wilson Mirza (ReFrame Project). Combemale wore bright pink lipstick to honor director and co-screenwriter Greta Gerwig for the huge box office success of “Barbie.”

Just a few years ago, almost every woman on the panel owed her current job to one person, Ava DuVernay. Seeing how many different paths these women had taken to get to their current projects felt like progress. They all emphasized their commitment to bringing diverse crew members to their projects. Bailey brings in students to shadow every department and learn the different skills required for filming. If the producer is not on board, she will call the person she is mentoring her assistant. Gonçalves is the daughter of a photographer and comic book publisher. His influence on framing a shot and making every image tell the story is foundational to her cinematography. “Every frame tells a story,” she said. “I’m a minimalist. I like to do that as efficiently as possible.” She gave an example from the Rachel Weisz series “Dead Ringers,” where a pregnant woman’s fears were indicated by a zoom toward her belly. “The style of the show lent itself to simplicity.” She talked about getting contacted by Beyoncé for what would ultimately be “Black is King.” When the message was, “Are you available tomorrow for Beyoncé?” she told us, “I quickly became available.”

Rodriguez talked about how much she loves “telling stories about the good and bad but looking for the gray areas.” In “The Walking Dead,” she was glad to have the opportunity to show the humanity in Jeffrey Dean Morgan’s very dark character. Her new horror film, “Hail Mary,” is inspired by the story of Jesus’ mother, but it is contemporary. Mary is an immigrant trying to get to America to have her baby. “You take the ride of this crazy movie, and then it hits you—this is real,” she said, tearing up.

McGowen’s indie film, “Rust Creek,” led to offers from television, and after working on two episodes of “Star Trek: Discovery” in the last season, she will be directing the fourth and final season. 

One of the highlights every year is You’re Wrong Leonard Maltin, featuring the brilliant critic/historian/memoirist and immoderately moderated by his delightful daughter Jessie. He responded to all of the “What were you thinking??” comments with affable humility, though he did say with regard to “Laserblast,” “I am not interested in re-visiting it.” His two-star reviews for “The Shining” and “The Shawshank Redemption” were raised, and he said it was his honest assessment at the time. It was touching when one of his former students paid tribute to all he learned in Maltin's class before telling him how he was wrong.

I'm looking forward to having the filmmakers back next year, but I predict I'll be nostalgic for this year's more low-key vibe.

Nell Minow

Nell Minow is the Contributing Editor at RogerEbert.com.

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