Cartoon art comes to life Convention: Weekend of Otakon at Hunt Valley brings together the stars and devotees of a Japanese art form.

August 08, 1996|By J.D. Considine | J.D. Considine,SUN POP MUSIC CRITIC

Anyone who thinks watching cartoons is a passive activity has never been to an anime convention.

Take Otakon '96, for example. Billed as the "Convention of Otaku Generation," it will bring several hundred otaku -- that is, fans of "anime," or Japanese animation -- to Marriott's Hunt Valley Inn this weekend. And while there will certainly be plenty to watch, what with four video theaters screening material virtually around the clock, cartoon-viewing barely scratches the surface of what Otakon will offer.

"Otakon includes almost any activity imaginable," says Todd Dissinger, 29, the convention's Industry and Guests Coordinator.

"We have an art show. We have a costume contest and game show Saturday evening. There will be artists' signings.

"We also have panels where we have guests from the industry and fans who discuss anime- and manga-related topics." Among the speakers will be Japanese animator Masaomi Kanzaki, who did "Xenon" and "Street Fighter II," Adam Warren, who does the American comic adaptations of the "Dirty Pair" and "Bubblegum Crisis" anime, and Robert DeJesus, who is the artist for "Small Bodied Ninja High School" and "Anime Nation."

"Plus, there will be all sorts of workshops," adds Dissinger. "We have model workshops, we have two cel painting workshops, we have costuming workshops.

"Basically, we cover pretty much every niche -- even filking and fan videos."

Making up lyrics

"Filking," by the way, is not a typo, but a tradition common to fan conventions, or "cons." A filksong is a sort of warped folk song, taking the tune of some popular or traditional song and outfitting it with lyrics pertaining to the interests or arcana of a specific hobbyist group. Science fiction fans are believed to have written the first filksongs, but many groups have them. Otaku are just the latest fan group to develop a filking tradition.

But that's only natural, since many anime cons grew out of the SF con circuit. That was certainly the case with Otakon.

"I was a student at Penn State, started talking to some people and going to some club meetings, and got interested [in anime events]," says Dave Asher, 24, Otakon's chairman. Like many in his circle, he went to various science fiction conventions in the mid-Atlantic region. "We went to one in New York called Icon, a big New York media convention," he says. "They get actors from 'Star Trek' and that sort of thing.

"What made it special that year was they were having several rooms showing anime, and guests, people from the [anime] companies. It was more to our focus of interest, so a bunch of us decided to go.

"Frankly, they didn't do that good a job," he says. "We thought, 'We can do better than that.' You get an idea in your head, and you sort of make these grandiose plans that you never really expect to follow through on.

"But we ended up following through, and now we run Otakon."

In its first two years, Otakon was held in State College, Pa., but although that location was convenient for the con's founders, it wasn't terribly attractive for others.

"The problem with State College was that it's equally inaccessible from all directions by all modes of transportation," laughs Dissinger. "It doesn't give many Japanese an incentive to come. If they want to come to the States, they want to come to a large urban area where they can do things before the convention; they want to make it a vacation/business trip. So now we can say,'Do you want to do stuff in Baltimore? Do you want to do stuff in Washington?' "

Larger audience

Relocating to Hunt Valley should also broaden the scope of the Otakon audience. "Hopefully, we'll have opened the doors enough that we'll get more people through this easier access -- what we call 'newbies,' " says Dissinger. "Which is what you need, because you just can't live on the hard-core fans. You have to infuse new blood somehow."

Activities like the fan video contest and cel painting workshops help ensure that new fans become just as dedicated as the old-timers.

With fan videos, Dissinger explains, "somebody takes a song and then constructs a music video using anime footage. Some of them are quite satirical, some of them are rather comical, some of them have more of a dramatic edge. Basically, they'll watch anime and say, 'Hey, there's a song I know that would go perfectly with some of the footage in this.'

"So people submit two videos they would like to show, and then we have, during the weekend, several showings in one of the video rooms. People vote on them, and we give out an award at the end of the convention for the best video of the convention."

Cel painting is more instructive than competitive. Cels are the "moving parts" of animation, individual drawings inked onto sheets of clear acetate that are then layered over static background paintings. Each sheet is hand-inked and hand-colored, and the workshops at Otakon teach just how that coloring is done.

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