Emily S. Whitten: SDCC 2015 Part V – Nerd HQ: The Experience

Zak Levi

Ladies and gents, it’s time for my fifth and final SDCC 2015 column, and although my coverage of Nerd HQ happens to be my last SDCC write-up this year, it is certainly not least. In fact, Nerd HQ was one of my favorite parts of my whole San Diego adventure this year and is well worth talking about. Of course, the other parts of my adventure were all super fun too, and if you missed them, please go check out Part I  (the con floor!); Part II (the Her Universe Fashion Show!); Part III (the party round-up!); and Part IV (the panels!). But then come back here, because this year’s Nerd HQ was chock-full of great stuff I want to share!

For those who don’t know, Nerd HQ, now in its fifth year, was started by Zachary Levi to benefit the worthy charity of Operation Smile, and takes place during and adjacent to SDCC. Generally speaking, some of its biggest draws are the ticketed Conversations for a Cause, 200-seat discussions and Q&As with celebrities who are often already in town for SDCC; and Smiles for Smiles and Signings for Smiles, photo and autograph sessions with these celebrities. (All of the proceeds for these three things go to Operation Smile.) However, Nerd HQ also offers access to a chill place to hang out with other nerds, free gaming, and a variety of other fun free activities that vary from year to year.

I’ve been covering Nerd HQ and Zac and The Nerd Machine (which would also be an excellent name for a garage band) since 2013, when I wandered into Nerd HQ for the first time (appropriately, with one of the Gazillion Entertainment community forum moderators whom I’d gotten to know during my stint in the Marvel Heroes beta), to see what this interesting offshoot of the SDCC scene was all about. In 2013 and 2014, Nerd HQ was located at Petco Park, where I appreciated the arcade-like atmosphere of where the video games were set up for free play, and the open-air feel of the setting. There were some neat things to see and do, as well as places to hang out and take a breather from the much more crowded and intense SDCC. All-in-all, it was a pretty cool place to be.

This year, however, I feel like Nerd HQ (sponsored by AMD, IGN, and Sony Playstation 4) really, truly hit its stride, something I got to discuss with Zac Levi in this interview, along with talking about future plans for Nerd HQ and what’s new with Levi’s career right now. It was a delight, as before, to talk with him, and I recommend you check out the interview. Not only does he talk about cool Nerd HQ stuff, but also, it really highlights the time and thought he puts into both his work with Operation Smile, and the planning and execution of Nerd HQ. In particular, he talked about “creating a place where fans feel like they have a voice;” and summed up his choices with the following wise statement: “I don’t want to make decisions out of fear; I want to make decisions out of faith.” He’s a guy with a lot of intelligence and heart; and it shows in everything that Nerd HQ has become.

Speaking of which, here are some things that I thought really made Nerd HQ great this year. First, it implemented RFID registration and wristbands to scan everyone easily in and out of the building and keep track of things very efficiently. Second, it moved to a new venue, The New Children’s Museum, and I just loved the feel of it. With its high ceilings, colorful accents, weird and fun bits of art on the walls, and interesting layout, it made for a great backdrop and contributed to a chill vibe, and the great Nerd HQ staff and volunteers were able to set up the activations (various things to do as you wandered around) and traffic flow in a way that made it easy to get to all of the activities without getting stuck in too much of a people-jam.

The lowest level of the Museum hosted the Conversations, and the highest level hosted primarily gaming (Project Morpheus and Star Wars Battlefront were the featured products that you could try). Everyone trying the games upstairs was having a blast; and on Friday, some fans even got to compete in a 20 versus 20 battle in Star Wars Battlefront in which Levi played too.

The middle, ground level featured a variety of options. There, nerds could chill on the patio or the couches inside; play Star Wars Battlefront; get food at the Cafe (or the food trucks right outside); get their names printed on Coke bottles; get a drink at the Geeks Who Drink bars; talk to the folks from Operation Smile; buy Nerd Machine merchandise; check out displays from sponsors; and contribute to the fun chalkboard-graffiti on a big pillar behind the bar (I totally did a drive-by ComicMix tagging near a Deadpool head, because of course). They could also take pictures with celebrities at the Smiles for Smiles photo booth (for a donation to Operation Smile); compete for LootCrate prizes by shooting at Cylons; and get their images green-screened into stills from X-Men: Days of Future Past – The Rogue Cut, as well as buying the DVD, which came with a special limited edition print and two wristbands to the at-con screening of the film.

In addition, they could take Star Wars Battlefront-themed photos at another photo booth; and pose for photo booth photos with the Nerd HQ logo just for kicks. The photo booths were especially cool and easy to use, since scanning your RFID bracelet automatically posted your photo to the NerdHQ Facebook page and emailed it to you; and, you could print out a copy as well. I especially liked the fun and friendly touch of the clothespin wall, where some people opted to hang copies of their printed photos (I hung one up, and my friend later saw it and tweeted a photo of it back to me!). It seemed to reinforce the feeling that we were all there to have a good time together as part of the same big Nerd family.

That feeling extended to the Thursday and Saturday night parties, which I covered in detail in my Party Round-Up. To recap here, the music was super-fun, the dance floor felt like one big happy dancing family, and Levi even made his way out into the crowd and danced with all the other nerds for quite some time. And I literally made a new nerd friend while hanging out on the dance floor, bonding over nerd things. Plus, there was a Wookiee. You can’t go wrong with a Wookiee.

The familial feeling was also present at the Conversations for a Cause, in part because they are limited to just 200 fans per panel, and in part because of the somewhat casual setting. In those I attended, there was a real feeling that the guests on stage were relaxed, having a good time, and happy to be there with the fans; and that made the experience special. It’s one reason it was great to be able to be there in person for a few, although IGN also live-streamed them all, for fans who couldn’t go to San Diego or couldn’t score tickets; and you can now watch a bunch of them on the IGN YouTube channel (sweet!).

I was fortunate to be able to attend four great Conversations. The first was with Levi and the founders of Operation Smile, and you can watch it in full here. Despite all the other awesome, nerdy, amazing Conversations that were offered, I found this one to be the most valuable I’ve attended, because it focused on the whole reason why Zac Levi started building Nerd HQ – to help Operation Smile; and on the great work that is done by founders Bill and Kathy MaGee, and the enormous need for such work. The entire Conversation is filled with stories of their experiences that will move you, possibly to tears (and moved Zac, as he talked about his experience with Operation Smile). But I especially appreciated this story from Bill MaGee:

“In the very first trip, there was a thirty-five-year-old man who came in to see us. Now you don’t see a thirty-five-year-old person in the United States with a big hole in his lip. You just don’t see it. And his mom brought him in; he had never been to school, he couldn’t read, couldn’t write. And I took care of him literally in the light of day, on a stretcher in a hall with some Novacaine, like you would in a dental office. And forty-five minutes later I brought him back to his mom and she said, ‘That’s not my son.’ And I said, ‘Of course it’s your son.’ And she said, ‘No it’s not.’ And I had a mirror in my pocket, and I gave it to him, and as he looked in it, he began to cry; and I’ve often thought, ‘What would it be like to go through thirty-five years of your life, and never whistle; and never feel the gentleness of a kiss, because somebody didn’t have forty-five minutes for you. There’s absolutely no justice in that.’ And I think it’s that simplicity of the fact that you can go, ‘before’ and ‘after.’ And before and after is a metaphor that says, involvement can create change. And no matter what it is that you’re involved with, whether it’s like Zac, who’s been such an incredible help, or whoever; just think of something that you can see with your skill sets and your talents, where you can make a significant difference. And I can tell you, it will transform the way you think, the way your family thinks, and what you do in your life.”

What a great inspiration. Another great part of the Conversations is of course that the audience gets to ask questions, and at this panel, I got to ask a question, which is always cool! (And regarding Zac’s answer to the question of whether they might be able to figure out how to have more Nerd “outposts” at different cons, a) I hope they do! and b) Oh, I have ideas.)

The panel wrapped with a great summation from Levi that really showed the passion he has for what he does. He first reminded people that they can look into different ways to contribute to Operation Smile. He then said, “even if Operation Smile is not what you feel like God or the universe or your soul or whatever is telling you: ‘That’s my thing,’ that’s okay. But find something that’s going to change the world. Find something that’s going to help people in a bigger and more amazing way; that is transcendent of you. Because we could be dead tomorrow. You have no idea how much time you have left. But there are so many people that are hurting in the world. There are so many people who have the gift of a palate that need to be told, you have this thing, and their spirits are broken; and we need to be there to love on them, and to help them to mend that. And so I don’t know what that is for you, but find it with everything you have. Go find that. Go do that. I guarantee you it makes your life, here, in this existence, in whatever time we have left, far more, not just powerful, but worth it. Because ultimately, that’s the value that we find in our lives.” Dude. Preach it!

The next Conversation I got to attend was with Alan Tudyk, Nathan Fillion, and many of the cast members of Con Man, the trailer for which is amazing. Seriously, you guys – I am so excited for this series. If you haven’t heard of it yet, this is the best place to go for an explanation, but in brief, it’s a Tudyk and Fillion project that was funded on IndieGoGo and will be airing on Vimeo; and is a comedic and fictionalized look at some of the experiences Tudyk and Fillion have had as stars of Firefly and regular fan convention guests. In Tudyk’s words: “The series is a light-hearted take on the personalities, luminaries, and characters in the sci­fi community of which we are privileged to call ourselves members. Con Man is a way to share some of the surreal occurrences we have had, while telling the story of a guy learning to love and embrace his fans.” It also features a ton of celebrities you’d recognize from big-time genre fiction shows (like Tricia Helfer and Michael Trucco from Battlestar Galactica), and at least one awesome voice actor (holla, Nolan North, voice of Deadpool!).

The Conversation, which you can watch here, featured eight of the cast members, and was super fun. They talked some about the process of making the series, including crowdfunding it, and the reactions from Hollywood when they pitched the project there. I found Tudyk’s discussion of Hollywood’s reaction particularly interesting. “Hollywood didn’t understand this at all. We would talk to studios and they were terrible with it. They’d be like, ‘Ah-ha, I went to Comic-Con once: craaazy! Whoo! All the costumes.’ Like, ‘You sure, or did you just turn on the nightly news and watch the guy outside going, ‘Look at this person!'” He also said that they passed on some potential studio deals, “because they would start out by going, ‘Let’s brainstorm on a couple of ideas. Like, there’s this goofy person, ’cause they’re a total nerd fan…’ And that was their understanding of this world. They would come at it from that direction. They could only see it from that perspective, because they haven’t been to a bunch of cons; they don’t get it.”

Speaking as a full-time practicing attorney, a weekly genre entertainment columnist, a webcomics writer, a convention co-founder and organizer, and a huge geek and regular con-goer, I appreciate Tudyk’s perspective that fans and con-goers are more complex than just being “this goofy person,” and am looking forward to seeing how Con Man addresses the dimensionality and diversity of geekdom.

This particular Conversation was also cool because it ended with everyone at the panel having the opportunity to donate to Operation Smile for a picture with all the cast members present, which, let’s face it, would be really hard to make happen almost anywhere else. Chalk up another cool point for Nerd HQ! (Also, during the photo Alison Haislip told me she liked my Portal Aperture Science shirt. Thanks, Alison!)

The Con Man Conversation was back-to-back with a Conversation with Elijah Wood (which you can watch here, and which was also really fun, and moderated in turn by Levi and Tudyk). Wood seems like a totally laid back, down-to-earth guy, who called Nerd HQ “a breath of fresh air” in the midst of the craziness of Comic-Con; although later he also said, “I love Comic-Con so much. I really do. It’s the best. I went and had brunch earlier, at Cafe 21, and you’re sitting down and there’s characters from Game of Thrones having brunch, in front of you, and then there’s someone else in a hood and a mask, and they’re having a Bloody Mary. It’s wonderful. It’s just so wonderful. And no one bats an eye. It’s this time in which everyone gets to express themselves, and express the thing that they love, and they’re as normal as can be. It’s fucking awesome.”

I enjoyed it when Wood talked about dealing with the hugeness of being a star in The Lord of the Rings. He said he really had to compartmentalize; to which Tudyk replied that it must have been “a big compartment, a huge compartment;” and Wood quipped back that “it was a walk-in closet.” It was also neat to hear about his somewhat surreal experience being on the set of The Hobbit years after starring in The Lord of the Rings. Altogether it was a really fun, mellow panel; and also ended with the opportunity to get a photo with Wood; so of course I did.

The last Conversation I got to was billed as Nathan Fillion, but actually (shockingly!) Alan Tudyk was the moderator, and so it immediately turned into The Nathan and Alan Show. These guys are an absolute riot together, as you can see in the video, and spent the entire time riffing off of each other and interspersing answers to fan questions with auctions of items they’d brought with them to benefit Operation Smile. My favorite bit was Fillion wearing this Captain America sweatshirt, although the whole thing was epic.

Aaaand…whew! I think that sums up all the awesomeness I was able to cram in during my time at the spectacular Nerd HQ, although there was plenty more I didn’t see (and speaking of that, I understand the Marvel: Partners in Prime Time Conversation was a contributing factor to another of my favorite things to come out of San Diego this year, The Great Dubsmash War, so thanks for that, Nerd HQ)! But for all the stuff I (literally) saw, check out my whole Nerd HQ photo album here or my whole SDCC collection of photos here.

And until next time, Servo Lectio!