Photos and info from Otakon 2015, held in Baltimore, MD July 24th - 26th, 2015
It's sometimes hard to write up a report for a convention you've been to nineteen
times. Granted, a lot has changed since Otakon moved to the Baltimore Convention Center in 1999. But over the last five years or so not too much has changed. The venue is familiar, Baltimore has become familiar, and while the hotels and food restaurants are rotating, Otakon has largely stayed the same convention. As I mentioned in 2011
Otakon has found it's niche and worked well in that capacity. Not every year is a huge blockbuster for Otakon, and in 2015 the excitement for Otakon was low. With more conventions popping up around the country and taking interest away many simply did not make plans for Otakon this year. GenCon, the huge gaming convention, was held the weekend after Otakon. Worries about riots in the city a few months earlier may have influenced some travel decisions, too. A shame, because Otakon this year felt (to me at least) like a great success.
With attendance down the normally very crowded hotel and convention center was less packed. Normally very high humidity and heat in Baltimore makes walking outside for even a single block a trecherous idea. This year tempuratures on Friday and Saturday were only a smidge higher than pefectly comfortable and a light breeze made venturing outside much more enticing for attendees. The attendance numbers felt similar to perhaps six years years ago and the atmosphere was similarly relaxing and enjoyable. That being said, finding people at Otakon without detailed planning ahead of time is nearly impossible and that hasn't changed. As always, you can go to about every part of the convention and still miss a lot of people and events.
And there were plenty of events. My schedule in the past has kept me focused on cosplay and bands, but this year I got a solid mix of things to do. The industry panels (see below) were well run despite a few technical glitches here and there. They had a pretty clear goal of informing fans and getting feedback. Anime has become a world-wide industry now and studios are looking for feedback from everyone, everywhere. Anime Music Videos had lost their original appeal to me for a few years, many setting into the same kind of amateur rut as the next one. While a few great ones stood out, most seemed to follow a formula of "established show + popular swhich left creativity and technical skill behind a bit. The Otakon AMV were a plesant surprise. Talented directors have long been found at the contests, but this year I was plesantly surprised at the rather high technical editing skill displayed.
The masquerade is normally the highlight of a convention (at least for me) but this year felt pretty flat. The first skit, a youth entry, was one of the best considering the entrant division. The most impressive skit was an exhibition skit at the end, a large and very well choreographed dance number. The winning skit was Queen Beryl from the Sailor Moon musical, and well deserved. Otherwise, very little was memorable at all. Luckily, very few skits were at the level of cringeworthy second-hand embarassment, which is often what brings the masquerade from slow-but-enjoyable to downright painful. The MC (a friend of mine) managed to keep the whole show running and the audience engaged. Otakon runs a very solid masquerade event so its a shame fewer cosplayers take advantage of it to put on a great skit. Of course, the lower attendance numbers probably have something to do with this.
Otakon has a full list of guests
online. Previous years have seen some very big name musicians and creators. The biggest guest in 2015 was arguably Romi Park
, who has many big name roles on her resume. Otherwise 2015 was more focused on directors, studios, and production. Aldnoah.Zero
were the big industry focuses this year. Despite the lower overall turnout for the convention the industry focused panels (at least the ones I went to) were fairly full. Industry representatives had plenty to ofer the audience, which in turn had good, focused questions for the panelests in most cases. The Studio Troyca panel was particularly in depth, with a walkthrough of their process in creating a scene from Aldnoah Zero. The Pony Canyon
panel talked a lot about the internationalization of the anime industry. They'll be doing business directly in the US as PonyCan with both streaming options (as that's now the de facto standard) and collectors editions for the dedicated fans.
Of the concerts I only caught BACK ON
, who performed during the masquerade half-time and the Thursday-evening Otakon Matsuri. It was a pretty good performance and made for a great event between the skits and the awards. I just hope the Matsuri crowd was a bit more enthusiastic than the masquerade crowd. The band came on with a lot of energy but had difficulty getting more than about half the audience to get into it. Many people come to the masquerade to cheer on friends or see cosplay, so for them a mini-concert is just time filler. Then again, a lot of people were clearly excited and enjoyed it. Having been part of the judging process myself at Otakon and elsewhere, it just takes a while to get everything sorted out and double checked. Having a co-event is certainly overall a good idea.
Anime cons have had some kind of game room for as long as they've been going on. What was once a collection of televisions and borrowed systems, with the occasional import game thrown in, is now a room that rivals commercial arcades in their hay-day. What was new to me, and not at all obvious from any of the official materials, is that a section of the game room is dedicated to game exhibitors. Since Otakon is a general fandom convention and not a games convention these parties may not fit well (content wise and literally) in the main dealer's room. Instead, they get a spot by the entrance of the game room to show off work in progress. I had a chance to check out Sombrero
which is a four-player 2D shooter. It was easy to pick up the mechanics of the game and enjoy, despite not knowing too well what exactly the best strategy was. I follow @PixelMetal
on Twitter, you should, too, if you'd like to hear more from the developer.
The few places in walking distance from the convention center that make for good photo shooting locations tend to be packed with tourists, if not croweded by other cosplayers looking to do photos as well. In the past I've done fairly well with a stabilized lens and a powerful flash while indoors. Compared to other local venues like the Gaylord National Harbor, Baltimore doesn't offer quite as much opportunities. My trusty 24-105mm zoom broke while on vacation as was out for repairs and cleaning during Otakon. I took this opportunity to rent a 50mm f/1.2 lens and don't regret it, depsite the high price tag -- $100 for the week. It's a technically much harder lens to use. Shooting at full open is almost always a bad idea for portraits; you'll get at best only part of somebody's face or hands in focus. It's very sensitive, too, so even a small change can put your photo out of focus even down at f/1.8. On the good side, the lens lets in so much light that the daylight streaming in from the windows (or the sickly yellow lighting of the large halls) is enough to provide plenty of light without absurdly high ISO settings.
On a full-frame camera a 50mm lens needs a bit of space to get a full costume shot. I ended up with fewer of those than I normally get. But I found that I really enjoy taking photos of cosplayers at least as much, if not more, than getting photos of costumes. So the 50mm lens really helped me take more of the photos that I enjoy, which tend to be portraits. The sensitivity of the lens really requires more thought with each shot, for example going from indoors to outdoors means five stops of light, more than the range of an SLR shutter. But with a bit of attention both shots indoors and outdoors have much better lighting than the zoom/flash combo I'm used to, so much that I'm probably going to buy the lens for myself.
Next year will be both the final year for Otakon in Baltimore (at least for the time being), and also my 20th Otakon. I've already reserved a room
for next year (August 12th -- 14th). Rooms in the choice hotels are taken but more often open up over the year. I'd recommend checking back often if you're interested in going. Regular rates at the nearby hotels are also not exceptionally higher than the convention rate, due to Otakon's popularity, so consider that an option, too. The details of Otakon 2016 won't come for a while, but I'm going to guess the convention will do something very worthwhile for its last year in Baltimore.
Thanks to everybody who passed along their contact information and/or a business card at the convention!
Galleries provided by other attendees