My Time Backstage At Star Wars Celebration 2019
Whether you were attending Star Wars Celebration in person or watching from home, it would have been hard to miss The Star Wars Show LIVE! Stage this year, as it was the epicentre for most of the weekend’s events and an imposing physical sight. And in a year when everything felt “big”, from the size of the venue, to the 88’ x 10’ Saga spanning mural, to the panel reveals, the LIVE! Stage was perhaps the biggest.
And if it felt bigger than the last few years, that’s because it was. Every aspect of The Star Wars Show LIVE! Stage was bigger, from the actual size of the stage, to the amount of speakers and lights, the number of streams and guests, and the size and amount of screens was doubled.
It played host to some of the more memorable moments from the five days in Chicago and the radiant energy in the main hall seemed to flow from it. The cheers from those in attendance every time a huge name walked on stage or something incredible was shown on the screens was deafening. You always knew when something was about to happen, as the crowd would slowly envelope the stage and the energy in the hall would rise considerably.
Being around The Star Wars Show LIVE! Stage at Celebration is unquestionably a surreal experience. Beyond its imposing size and intimidating façade, and I don’t mean the Imperial motif, it is truly a uniquely exciting element of an already unique event. Its intent is to make the fans at Celebration, and at home, feel the Force flow through them, and I think it accomplishes that.
And although on the fan side of that ominous black curtain there’s an overwhelming sense of anticipation, of who might walk through those blast doors at any moment, there’s something equally electrifying going on backstage that most are unaware of.
Blind to the actual size of the crowd but not immune to its roar, are two dozen or so Lucasfilm employees who are operating under what can only be described as organized chaos type conditions. Everything that we see and hear as far as content is concerned, whether at the convention, at home, or around the world, is filtered, processed, edited, streamed and posted by these folks. Yet, when you speak with them individually, despite the monumental task, they all project a coolness and calm in what’s expected and required of them.
But don’t make the mistake of assuming their malaise is due to a lack of sleep, late nights drinking, or sloth. Their calm demeanor is the result of hard work, preparation, and pride in what their doing. Each one, to the person, believes in themselves and each other and wouldn’t want to be anywhere else.
And even though they don’t, I wouldn’t blame any one of them if they expressed even the slightest hint of exasperation or fatigue. The days are long, the hours unfriendly, and breaks are at a premium. The only bright side of this rigorous and demanding schedule is when you create and control the content that is being put out; you’re able to shut it down after a certain point. But that doesn’t make the days any shorter and it doesn’t make the mornings any easier, especially by days four, five and six.
As you might expect from a production of this size and scope, the days are long and the postures tend to be static. In a situation such as this, where “fast” and “efficient” are more than just corporate buzz words, breaks are not always possible. But this group is made of sterner stuff and if there’s a “Guide to Office Ergonomics” anywhere, I didn’t see it.
Unlike us, they don’t always have the luxury of being able just to take a load off or slip back to the hotel for a siesta. And imagine being surrounded by all this incredible Star Wars content, literally having it at your finger tips, but being too busy to take advantage of it? It sounds far-fetched but for most, that’s a reality, and it comes with the job.
I ran into triple threat Matt Martin (Creative Executive, Story group member, Manager of Digital Content/Fan Relations) on the very last day of Celebration who was finally able to explore the show floor as a fan. When not backstage working or being a guest on panels, Matt spent the bulk of his weekend producing segments on the floor with co-hosts Max Scoville, Chastity Vicencio, and Jordan Hembrough. Anytime I saw him, he was hastily moving from one location to the next with his team, getting as much content as possible for us. What they recorded would then be brought back stage, edited, formatted and posted that same day.
Pictured in this photo: John Harper (front), Steve Meyer (left), Eddie Marques (right)
He made it clear in no uncertain terms, that there isn’t one person less valuable than the other. And when it comes to putting on this show, specifically the LIVE! Stage, working hard is not only the name of the game, but essential. Matt, similar to the others I spoke with, started out as a fan long before joining Lucasfilm in whatever capacity. So, the sting of long days and the aching of legs and feet are nullified by their love and passion of Star Wars. And the end results are the remedy for sore backs, stiff wrists, and any other musculoskeletal impairment encountered during the weekend.
Everyone backstage performs their given task with a quiet efficiency, rarely looking up from their station, or breaking stride, which could be costly as there are obstacles and hazards almost everywhere. Remember, this is a full-fledged production area and slips, trips, and falls can ruin the mojo of a production quickly, often grinding it to a halt. But each person moves around with a smooth, almost Jedi like precision, narrowly avoiding thick black cables, human traffic, and head bangers. It’s impressive self-awareness really since I tripped a couple of times and bumped into a few empty road cases, and I was only there for a short time.
I couldn’t tell you how many thousands of feet of cable and wiring are back there, along with all the staging, rigging, lighting and personnel that come with managing a production this big. And in the middle of this scene is the mobile command center, a huge black trailer housing the eyes and ears of the entire celebration. What secrets lay inside? I don’t know because I wasn’t allowed in, understandably so, but it was akin to something you’d find on location at a huge sporting event.
Inside, Producer John Harper, Director Steve Myer, and Audio Supervisor Eddie Marques, along with a few others, oversee the entire show. They control every camera, every angle, every close-up, and every screen. We see and hear what they allow us to, they are the oracles of Star Wars Celebration, the unsung heroes, and play a huge role in making the weekend so special. If you're watching Celebration remotely, either on a monitor close by, a laptop, or your mobile device, John, Steve, Eddie and their team are making it so.
All around the trailer, there's a constant flow of people and equipment. The success of this backstage recital is choreographed by a few folks, but it was two staff members who caught my attention. Associate Producers A.J. Camarillo and Anina Walas perform many duties but among them is ensuring the hosts of the segments and their guests are prepped, staged, and ready to go when it’s time. It's easy to see that if this link in the chain was weak, things could fall apart quickly, but A.J. and Anina keep things moving in an efficient and timely manner, no easy task when you have a relentless and never-ending guestlist.
Pictured in this photo: Anina Walas (left), A.J. Camarillo (right)
They are wearing headsets which are relaying what I can only imagine to be a flurry of activity but on the outside remain calm, almost stoic. They don’t waste words, and their communication skills are highly effective and precise, and when I asked A.J. what her “best friend” was, her answer was what I had expected it to be, comfortable shoes. You see, during my time backstage, I never once saw either of them stop or sit, nor did I see them waste any energy either. It’s a marathon not a race, and these two are at the top of their game.
Certainly, the overall goal of the team is to provide the best possible experience for the fans by producing the highest level of entertainment. And while that may be true, I learned that the magic isn’t exclusive to the exposed side of the stage. When you are immersed in a situation such as this and aren’t responsible for any of its form or function, you develop a heightened sense of awareness to little moments. And while these may seem innocuous to some, and occasionally indeed they are; I still found myself captivated by them all the same.
Host wise, the two that do the heavy lifting, are familiar to most Star Wars fans. Andi Gutierrez and Anthony Carboni have been the co-hosts of the popular The Star Wars Show on Star Wars dot com since 2016 and have staked their claim on stage at the last few Celebrations.
Not resigned to merely be talking heads, they are kind, engaging, and studious when it comes to their jobs, although I doubt, they would call it that. I spoke with Anthony briefly in the green room while he quickly ate what little food he could, going over the next guests talking points. He expressed a deep appreciation for the process and his co-workers, and how none of it happens unless each person does their job. I liked him.
And just like that, Scott Lawrence entered the green room and they were off. Seconds later they were both live on stage in front of hundreds of screaming fans, broadcasted for the world to see.
One thing the fans don’t see is that before each guest(s) walks on stage they are standing behind the curtain at the bottom of 4 or 5 steps. They are either simply waiting to go on or occasionally going over any last-minute details about what to expect during the segment. This isn’t to stay the show is staged, it’s not the WWE, but it’s important for flow that things keep moving. But nobody goes anywhere until Karen Higgins says so.
Pictured in this photo: Anthony Carboni
Karen is the stage manager for the LIVE! Stage and more than just directing traffic, she ensures our most cherished creators and talent are in place and ready to go when those Imperial Blast doors open. She also makes sure congestion is held to a minimum so nobody runs into each other and gets hurt. Because of the size of the stage itself, real estate is at a premium backstage and Karen, from where I was standing, was handling it extremely well.
Since we’re talking about stage management, there was one person who regrettably I didn’t get the chance to speak with, and that was Producer Scott Bromley. Scott is one of those unsung heroes I spoke of, writing the host segments and guest questions, and along with John Harper, really controls the flow of the entire show. The reason I didn’t get to speak with Scott was because he never left his desk or the stage once while I was there! In fact, every time I walked by the stage, there was Scott, in his green Imperial Officer’s uniform, working away.
Because of this he’s probably in more photos than anyone else besides the hosts so I guarantee you’ve seen him. The man doesn’t stop, and the show is better because of him, no question.
Now, the further back you go, away from the stage, you find yourself in what looks like a computer café on steroids. This is the Star Wars dot com/YouTube operational control area and is separated into three groups or banks of computer stations. You’ve got the main page/streaming/assets team, next to them you’ve got the social media squad, and finally you’ve got the editing elite.
Not once while I was there did I see any single one of them leave their station, or even stand up for more than half a minute. In fact, the longest duration any one of them stood up was when I approached them to ask a few questions. Now, of course they use the facilities and reach over to the craft services table (which is within arms reach), but not while I was there. Their focus was incredible.
Pictured in this photo: Karen Higgins (left), Dennis VonGalle (right)
Speaking with Dennis VonGalle from the main page side of things, says of course the days are long and breaks are not always possible. Was he complaining? Nope. In fact, he said it so matter-of-factly I’d expect him to decline the offer of taking a normal length break or lunch if offered. These folks take “micro-breaks” to another level, as even when standing up for a moment to speak with me, he was typing something and always kept one eye on the screen. And watching him work with his neighbors was impressive as they were transferring and formatting what looked like petabytes of images and video, that both needed to go up as soon as possible. They were formatting so quickly it looked like I was watching something being performed at a much higher frame rate.
Next to them is the social media team which as you might expect is constantly busy. Think how many seconds/minutes/hours you spend on Twitter or Instagram, and then turn that dial up to a hundred, oh and it’s being viewed thousands of times per second during peak times.
If the main page folks need content up as soon as possible, the social media squad needed it up yesterday. So, it’s no surprise at all that their answer to the same question I’ve been asking others, who or what is their best friend, was a strong and reliable internet connection.
I spoke with Social Media Manager Michelle Buchman and Social Media Strategist Alex Horwitch, who both commented on the amount of information being sent out into the world, was tremendous. And like the others, are updating often and didn’t venture too far off. The conversation turned into us both being vegan and the current state of veggie burgers, all the while keeping an eye on their screens. Their ability to multitask at this highest of levels was dizzying.
As I stated earlier, since they control the release and flow of content, they must be able to control their hours of work, right? Not entirely as it turns out. Alex mentions occasionally, but not always, there are after hour’s details that need attention for one reason or another. But since those are irregular and not the norm, there wasn’t a hint of frustration in his voice, again, that’s the job.
Now, the Grand Moff of this operation is Mickey Capoferri, the Senior Director of Online Content & Programming for Lucasfilm. If you’re looking at Star Wars content online in any manner, you have him to thank…he’s the boss.
Pictured in this photo: Scott Bromley
They say actions reflect leadership, and without sounding too much like a sycophant, Mickey’s leadership in the field would rival Patton. His attention to detail is second to none, he troubleshoots very well, and his pulse rate doesn’t appear to rise above 60 beats per minute. Not to say he doesn’t feel the weight of the moment or respect the process, he’s just better at than most.
This seems to have a trickle-down effect as you see those same attributes in the crew, whether it’s inherited or learned I don't know. If I had to guess, I suspect part of it is that he has an eye for talent and staffs accordingly.
What I like most about Mickey is that I’ve never had a conversation with him where he didn’t emphatically stress two points. First, that every decision he makes is in the absolute best interest of the fans, and second, that those working for him get the attention and respect they deserve. I’m here to tell you, from a fan’s perspective, be glad people like Mickey are at the top of food chain.
The backstage area is a carnival of talent, creators, stage, and technical crew. One minute your talking with Matthew Wood, watching one of the backstage monitors together (the ILM guys were on stage), and the next your seeing Sam Witwer and Matt Lanter doing a photo shoot. I even had a nice conversation with a “Talent Wrangler” all about his responsibilities, his insane schedule, and truck driving of all things (he was very impressed with the mobile command centre). And just after I had left, the cast of The Mandalorian walked out on stage, so you never know who you’ll bump into back there. Everything happens so quickly and can change in an instant, it’s disorientating if you’re not paying attention but again, no one seemed fazed by it.
Occasionally however, time seems to halt, and things seem to stand still for a moment. The energy shifts ever so slightly, and you feel it wash over you a little. Once I was there long enough to become furniture and they got used to looking at me (and began ignoring me, which was my goal), I was witness to some of these moments.
At one point, my eyes were simply scanning the area looking for something to take note of, when I caught a glimpse of Andi (Gutierrez) off to the side by herself. And while that may seem uninteresting to you, even uneventful, I was struck by the image.
Pictured in this photo (clockwise): Andi Gutierrez, Chastity Vincencio, Cameron Mathews, Max Scolville
You see, Andi is almost always being spoken to or speaking to someone herself. She’s always, in my limited experience, either being introduced to someone or being approached by someone to say hi. She’s recognizable, she’s popular, she’s very warm, and she’s outgoing. What all this means is that during the day, during her hours of work, moments to herself are extremely rare.
So rare in this environment, that it caught my attention when I spotted her alone, reviewing notes for her next segment, leaning on the stage, thinking to herself about who knows what. Amongst the craziness she found a quiet moment to herself, it was a pleasant sight and I couldn’t help but smile a little. I was happy for her.
Another one of those moments happened later when the backstage area, usually in constant flux, for some reason came to a full stop. Everyone that could was gathered around one of the many backstage monitors and together we all watched as Star Wars artists Brandon Kenney and Karen Hallion got engaged live on stage. It was an incredibly moving and emotional experience, and when Brandon and Karen came off stage, the crew was applauding, each waiting their turn for a congratulatory embrace. I couldn’t believe my timing, being there to see this very personal moment, one that the crew would likely recall for years when discussing Celebration highlights.
I was standing in my usual spot, away and off to the side, desperately trying to not be the way. As luck would have it, Brandon and Karen, who took no notice of me thankfully, left the gaggle of well-wishers and found a quiet spot amongst all the equipment. They were enjoying their first moments alone as an engaged couple, embracing each other. It’s a moment I’ll never forget, and I’m honored to have been there just to witness this wonderful moment in their lives.
Behind that big ominous black curtain, behind the flash and bang, behind the celebrities, and lights, and screens, is a group of incredibly hard working and dedicated folks. They don’t complain, they don’t scream and yell, and some of them don’t even sit down. They do what’s asked of them and they do it for us, they do it for Star Wars.
That’s the magic happening backstage. It’s a series of moments, both big and small, that when added together make the difference between success and failure. And instead of basking in the glow of those successes, I’m sure they are looking at any failures through a lens different from our own, already preparing for Anaheim, because that’s the job.
I’ve always been fascinated with process, to me, that’s art. And really, that’s the best way I can describe what I witnessed backstage, that synergy, that cohesiveness, all the pieces working together in unison to achieve a common goal…it was art.
Thanks to the entire team who all played a part in making Star Wars Celebration such a grand experience for all of us fans...MTFBWY!
*All images courtesy of Lucasfilm
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