- Dorian MacQuarrie
TFNation 2017 is just over a week away and boy oh boy is the hype train up to full steam. With a long list of amazing guests and a bevy of exclusives the team have certainly upped their game from last year's debut on the UK convention scene (and that was already an excellent event).
If you weren't at the premiere TFNation then not only did you miss out on a double helping of good-times, you also won't be aware of the very special atmosphere that permeates the convention. From a very genuine and warm welcome at the registration desk to the most community driven experience I have ever attended, the TFNation crew definitely put you, the attendee at the heart of their work.
With this in mind we fired a barrage of questions at the team behind TFNation, asking what sets TFNation apart from other conventions around the UK.
RRCo: With a diverse fan-base drawn in from three decades of shows, toylines and media, how do you try to cover all interests for potential attendees?
[Adam] - 'By understanding that every fan has their own passion for the franchise and that can be based on anything from the Bay-verse to the Ladybird books. Focusing on one aspect, even an element as significant as G1, can leave others wanting, so we look to try and offer something for everyone........and then add new areas that attendees wouldn't even consider. A positive trait of our growing, increasingly-diverse, fandom is that they are always bringing their own new element into the folds.....or rediscovering and championing older aspects. We listen and where we can, we act.'
[Ed] - 'Most prominently, with a diverse line-up of guests that have worked on different Transformers media. Voice actors from the various TV shows, movies and video games, comic artists from the entire history, writers for both fictional and factual backgrounds, character and toy designers......If we get a bead on someone who covers something we find new and interesting, we'll target in on them for inquiries.'
RRCo: To someone whom has never attended TFNation, what would you say separates this convention from other comic conventions and sci-fi events?
[Isa] - 'I truly think that the community TFNation is built around is very special. We are tight-knit, friendly and always ready to embrace new people into our fold. With us organisers being fans and friends were attendees and organisers of other Transformers events and later came together to ogranise TFNation, that community spirit is the driving force of our convention. We want everyone who attends TFN to feel the same way we did when we first me and befriended this community.'
[Gruffy] - 'Simply put, the community infuses the Con itself. Whilst the majority of conventions I’ve been to over the years have an atmosphere of some description, TFNation holds a special place in many peoples heart as being the place they can catch up with people they only see once a year and hang out in the crowd of internet buddies in a relaxed setting. Add to this, there's a full blown convention going on at the same time that involves the franchise of Transformers, with panels and events exploring all facets of the universe from toys to fiction.'
RRCo: What aspects of the convention are you personally proud of, and why?
[Andrew] - 'All of it, as being behind the curtain and I get to see the level of planning and attention to detail that gets put into things. So I'd have to say the crew involved in putting it together both before the event and on the day itself as the amount of work and dedication from everyone is massive and it all helps ensure that things go as smoothly as possible.
For the event itself, it's the atmosphere that makes it what it is. The fact is has such a laid back and inclusive atmosphere is something we can all be proud of, although I'd be lying if the ego wasn't massively boosted when people pointed out how nice the stage looked last year.'
[Techbot] - 'Though it may sound clichéd, it's the spirit and attendees who make the difference. We are blessed with an amazing crew and volunteers who add to the show. We try to be friendly and approachable and the feedback we receive points favourably to this.'
[Adam] - 'It’s so rewarding to hear from fans who are excited by coming to our event and make that weekend the focus of much of their year. Behind the scenes, it’s just crazy being part of this ridiculously talented group. Aspects like the TFNation art team…. the quality of their work is incredible, whether it be something attendees see, or ideas we have on hold for future years. We get as excited about seeing the results of their work as any attendee does!'
[Isa] - 'I hate to sound like broken record, but I’m afraid my answer to this will be pretty similar as the previous question. It’s about the people. I have had people say to me that TFNation is the thing they most look forward to in the year, or a place where they feel at home, most comfortable in being themselves and celebrating what they love with their friends, even that this community has given them more confidence or positively guided their life in some way. When people say things like that, you must be doing something right! It makes me extremely happy to be a part of creating the event that allows them the space to feel that way.'
[Ed] - 'Oh, man, there's so much to be proud of. That we get this thing together every year, and that people not only want to come back but that it means so much to them to do so... I think that's what I'm personally most proud of; how much we help to bring this community together, how many friendships we've then helped to happen, and how in turn that community become so supportive of each other even out in the rest of their lives.'
RRCo: From the outside the Transformers community is perceived as a very male dominated culture despite the large amount of women involved in various elements of the films, comics and fandom. Is this perception changing?
[Ed] - 'I really hope so. I guess from outside, where folks are only really exposed to the testosterone-fuelled movies based on an old 'boys toys' property that they only kinda maybe remember from childhood it can seem very male-centric. But if you dip in even slightly, I think it fast becomes apparent just how much women bring to it. At the time of writing this, two of the three main Transformers comics' primary artists are women, one of the writers of those books is a woman, and two are coloured by women. Those same books, as well as the TV shows are making a greater effort to, I guess, 'code' their characters more evenly, although there's still a ways to go. And the fans? It's genuinely hard to call where the percentage lies these days, and that is delightful.'
RRCo: Are you seeing more female attendees and what how does that effect your organisation process?
[Isa] - 'I am unsure of the exact statistics, but I perceive the gender balance of our attendees as being closer to an even split than other events from a few years ago and have noticed this growth. I think this is wonderful.
As far as this changing our organisation process, I wouldn’t say it has changed something about the organisation process, but that an inclusive convention was something we knew we wanted to strive for from the start.
In creating TFNation, we wanted to ensure that there is something at the convention for everyone and that as many aspects of the fandom as possible are represented. This, of course, includes ensuring that female fans, creators and voices are not overlooked. This links right back to our large team of organisers, which naturally helps many different perspectives be heard from the ground level when making important decisions about the convention.'
[Techbot] - 'We generally do not separate the sexes and rather see everyone as equal fans of the series. One area however we have tried to increase is within merchandise, different styles of clothing for example. We have also found that our forge area has been popular with a lot of the highly skilled female crafters, so we are pleased to be able to share their talents and work.'
RRCo: With conventions increasing in popularity, the format of charging attendees for signatures (with so-called “premium tickets” for big name star interaction) is becoming the norm. Would you ever adopt this format for the convention in the future?
[Isa] - 'This isn’t necessarily always up to the convention organisers. Some agents will enforce certain criteria for their clients by contract – such as whether and how much they charge for autographs and so on. This is commonplace at big general comic conventions. It is my hope that we can keep guest interaction at TFN free of charge after the price of admission to the event, but if we ever had the opportunity to bring over a guest whose agent wanted to charge for meet and greets and autographs, we would have to weigh up the pros and cons of that particular guest and those particular circumstances.'
RRCo: Would you adopt this format for a big name in the Transformers franchise?
[Adam] - 'As Isa noted, not only do some guests require such “Premium tickets” to fund an appearance, but that’s actually a condition in the contract. It honestly makes sense for guests of a certain level to do this and, while you might not be able to get an autograph from such a guest, following those rules would allow you to sit in the hall and listen to interviews, panels and script readings.If we were ever to consider it, we would reach out to our attendees and be open about the situation. The fact virtually nobody explains the reasons behind such premium pricing is bound to make folks suspicious of convention practices…. Especially in light of recent events.'
RRCo: How do you choose guests for TFNation? What part of the process is the hardest?
[Andrew] - 'Names out of a hat! I think the hardest part is probably the negotiations and discussions, thankfully not something I have much of a part to play in. There are always lots of discussions as much as we would like we can't bring everyone. It's great to get old friends back, but we're also conscious of trying to get new faces and voices, and to try and ensure we have a lineup that has something that covers a lot of aspects of Transformers both current and historic. So getting the lineup right takes a while.
Yes, there is passion for the guests, as we are all looking to make the convention the best it can be and everyone has someone in mind they want to see at TFN. For me it's a thrill to be able to say we are bringing Bob Budiansky this year as he's someone I've long wanted to see at a TF convention in the UK. Us old farts who grew up with the Marvel comic can meet one of the two pillars of Transformers history, and so that those who have come in as fans a little later on can see how much of what they love as Transformers can trace it's roots back to the work Bob did.'
[Adam] - 'We choose guests based on various factors, but a primary one is will this person be a great guest for fans to meet, and will they enjoy the unique atmosphere we aim for at TFNation. If you hear any TFNation crew refer to a guest as “a great bar guest” you know we regard them in the highest manner.As for the process itself, it’s relatively straight-forward as these guests (and their management teams) deal with events all around the world. Make no mistake, we all have a good laugh at conventions and events, but guest booking is still a very specific and serious business.'
RRCo: How are you using social media and media technology platforms to engage people? Are there any opportunities you would like to take advantage of in the near future?
[Techbot Wrangler] - 'Social and digital media is obviously a growth area but is also something that the TFNation crew excel at. We have numerous plans to make increased use of not only existing social media but also VR, AR and MR technology, along with IOT and more traditional mobile devices, to allow the community of fans to engage with each other and the TFNation brand throughout the year.'
RRCo: Looking ahead to the future what do you hope to achieve with the TFN convention as a whole?
[Gruffy] - 'To grow and achieve further heights. TFN is a different beast to the majority of conventions I have attended, due to the nature of the community it serves. It feed the community's hunger for both the franchise and the social event, whilst the fans very much push the convention each year. Slow but sure growth may be the best way to do this.'
[Techbot Wrangler] - 'When we started we had a goal to expand the reach of the convention to the core audience for transformers, kids. They are a huge market which is generally not catered for at fan events. As we see more uptake we shall be able to spend more resources in improving the area, which is one of our long term goals.'
[Techbot] - 'To grow the brand, to entertain people and ensure that the quality seen in year one is expanded. we are keen to see what people make of some of our panels, displays and exclusives.'
[Ed] - 'Convention goals... that we continue to be viable and desired, that we can keep bringing folks together, that we can always find a way to up our game. To never disappoint! To be around long enough for the Motorvators to get the love they deserve.'
RRCo: Finally, can you tell us about any surprises for this year? Even just a hint?
[Andrew] - 'Well if I did they wouldn't be surprises then. Do we have anything else up our sleeves...you might very well think that. I couldn't possibly comment.'
[Gruffy] - 'I shall be reading at Perchance to Dream, and I'm bringing something very interesting.'
And there you have it! A wee insight into the workings of TFNation and maybe just a glimmer into the madness that goes into organising a convention.
Thank you to Adam White, Ed Pirrie, Isa, Gruffy, Andrew Turnbull, Techbot, and Techbot Wrangler for taking the time to answer our questions.
As for the Refined Robot Co., we're planning something very special for TFNation. If you would like to get your hands on our first, limited release fanzine, complete with recommended convention purchases, stunning photography and of course, plenty of words, then keep an eye out for Ben and Dorian across the weekend.
Until next time, keep it #Refined