Sight & Sound at Dragon Con: Behind the Scenes with TechOps

Anyone sitting in a DragonCon audience, whether it’s in a small track workshop or a giant ballroom, expects to see and hear the guests who’re presenting.  In all but the smallest track rooms, that wouldn’t be possible if not for DragonCon TechOps.  Wiring all those rooms is a big job. To find out more about it, the Daily Dragon sat down with Jason Allgood, aka Wolfman, the Director (Day) of TechOps.

Daily Dragon (DD): What drew you to working TechOps at Dragon Con, and how long have you been doing that?

JasonAllgoodJason Allgood (JA): Once upon a time, I came to Dragon Con to participate in a video game tournament (Descent II) because of some influence of a high school friend. He was already working on TechOps and just through hanging out in the TechOps dispatch office, by the end of that show, I found myself helping move equipment around and setting up technical equipment. That was 19 years ago…

DD: How far ahead of the con does your department start planning?

JA: Luckily we kind of establish a ‘no Con’ zone for about 6 weeks after all of our after action reports are done, but we have to usually start doing some preliminary planning before people start disappearing for Thanksgiving and winter break. We usually hit the ground running pretty hard by January.

Photo by Scott Moss
Photo by Scott Moss

DD: How many rooms do you wire for audio, and how many for video?

JA: For the most part audio & video (A/V) follows hand-in-hand. There are only a few spaces that are audio only such as the concourse stages in the Hyatt and America’s Mart and perhaps a few of the track rooms that did not require a projector or LCD screen. Almost all of the remaining spaces have audio and some type of video. So 50+ spaces in total that TechOps sets up and maintains in some fashion.

DD: What kinds of problems commonly arise during the event?

JA: We have the typical “live event” type of failures like equipment failure due to the fact that it is traveling equipment and can get damaged and often involves us having to swap something on the fly or repair that equipment in place—sometimes even while a show is going on. We have “guest/performer failure” where someone did something silly and damages equipment such as knocking over a water pitcher onto microphones or blowing glitter into an amplifier stack (Fire BAAAD!!!).

We also have the “oops I forgot” types of failure where someone did not request the type of equipment they needed for their space, did not bring the appropriate adapter(s) for the equipment they wish to connect (laptop dongles, adapters for recording devices, etc.), or they just want to suddenly add more function to a particular space—“oh by the way we are adding 3 more panelists and an electric guitar.” We are usually pretty well able to accommodate those situations, but we would certainly prefer to avoid those when possible.

DD: Did someone really start a fire by blowing glitter into an amplifier? Is an amplifier stack just one on top of another?

JA: Yes. Rarely is only a single amplifier required for a large ballroom. Typically the amplifiers are stacked together in one very heavy rack so we can just run one large power connection to it from the hotel. We did in fact have a scenario where a performer used glitter in their act, and the intake fans on the amplifier rack sucked a cloud of glitter in and literally caught on fire. There are lots of crazy stories of stuff like this over the nearly 20 years I have been a part of this convention. It isn’t something we like to happen, it is just something that happens sometimes.

DD: Do you screen volunteers for technical experience?

JA: ABSOLUTELY. We have a whole questionnaire-based application process. You complete your application and it goes into our application review queue. We review skills and qualifications of potential volunteers against the types of positions we have available to try to find the right fit. When possible we try to screen candidates in person at volunteer meetings to make sure that not only are the technical skills the right fit but that the personality is the right fit too.

We probably have one of the tougher job roles at Dragon Con because of the skillset needed in general, but it isn’t all technical. We have job roles that run the whole gamut from the highly technical to leadership and mentoring to basic administrative types of roles—and we need ALL of them. We are also fortunate that TechOps volunteers have a habit of recruiting their friends and colleagues into volunteer roles.

DD: What is the TechOps sound school event?

JA: The TechOps sound school event is an annual event that we hold at the rental company that rents all of the AV gear to Dragon Con. We do an orientation for new volunteers and veterans alike and go over all of the basics of how to set up equipment that we use for the show. We also go over all of the basic TechOps policies and good reminders for safety-related things to be aware of such as: gloves, composite toed shoes, and back/knee/ankle/wrist braces during equipment load-in, being aware of walking in rooms where rigging is going on because of things being suspended above your head that are very heavy, etc. It gives volunteers the opportunity for some equipment hands-on time and the ability to ask questions in a slightly more intimate venue than being on-site. There is usually only about 60-ish people there and not 300+.

DD: How many volunteers do you use in an average con weekend, and what kinds of jobs do they do?

JA: Our official headcount for 2015 is 330. We are the single largest volunteer department at Dragon Con. We have to cover 16 ballrooms nearly 24 hours/day plus the multitude of track spaces that are spread throughout the 5 host hotels and auxiliary spaces in places like the America’s Mart building. We collect our own data internally, and ignoring our Wednesday load-in hours, our volunteers put in an average of 36 hours each with a total of nearly 9,100 man-hours logged in 2014.

We cover the full spectrum from HR functions to room and hotel leadership (and mentoring) to highly technical troubleshooters (we call them Firefighters) to general staff that can literally run a piece of equipment from point A to point B or help direct traffic coming into a ballroom. We do a little bit of everything; 300+ people is a small to medium size business, and we basically have to operate in the same fashion.

DD: By HR, do you mean human resources?

JA: Yup. Human Resources. This is dealing with the TechOps on-boarding process including verifying all of the Dragon Con requirements like first year volunteer fees, issuing our volunteer badges/t-shirts/etc., making sure TechOps has all of our paperwork completed to Dragon Con for volunteer ratings, etc. They are also tasked with handling basic personality conflicts, schedule changes, verifying that we have enough staff assigned to the appropriate areas at the appropriate times. This team is the nerve center of TechOps.

 DD: What is room and hotel leadership?

Photo by Scott Moss
Photo by Scott Moss

 JA: The way we have our organizational structure laid out, each room has someone in charge of the room. This is our “room lead.” That room lead in addition to being responsible for the goings on of their space, is also responsible for directing the activities of others assigned to work in their space as well as provide mentorship to help those volunteers to learn other skills and try to ensure that they are having as much fun as they can while doing the job.

Similarly, we have leaders for each hotel both for day and for night. Those hotel leads provide a similar type of support structure for the room leads that run each of the individual rooms in the hotel they are responsible for.

DD: What is the biggest challenge you and your staff face during the event?

JA: General logistics are usually the toughest part. Getting all of the equipment loaded into the hotels, sorted out by destination, getting it to its intended destination, then getting it set up is by far the most difficult part of the convention. It takes a solid group of people approximately 2 days before Con to make that all happen. Once it is in place, the teams of people we have running each of the rooms are almost self-contained and can maintain their spaces. Then we have to go through that all again in reverse to break gear down and pack it back on to the trucks.

The other part is simply the sheer volume of scheduling. We have an amazing pre-con team that helps to process all of our volunteers to log availability against what our requirements are for the various spaces and we have even written some software in-house to help manage those tasks more efficiently.

DD: What’s the most fun part of the weekend for you?

JA: For me personally, I love to wrangle the chaos. I love the challenge associated with trying to cover the scope of what we do. I love to walk in to a crowded ballroom, to see smiles on attendees’ faces that are being entertained by DCTV while we get them seated, then to see every one of them be able to see/hear/experience whatever is going on at the stage because of what our crew does. I love to see the TechOps crew have the same experience and be able to give themselves a pat on the back for pulling that off too.

Don’t get me wrong, I love to hear the thanks from track directors, guests, attendees, etc. as do our volunteers, but I really don’t do it for the applause. I do it because I love my job and what we accomplish as a team.

DD: Would you like to share any particular experiences with our readers?

JA: It is such a different experience on the TechOps side of Dragon Con from being an attendee to the convention. It is like going backstage at an amusement park—you get to see where all the magic happens that you had no idea was ever there.

Just general anecdotal information: I have seen TechOps grow from a group of ~15 folks. That group just kind of collectively pulled it all together because we knew what needed to be done. TechOps has now evolved into this massive department to scale with the ever expanding needs of the convention itself.

When we are doing our job perfectly, you really never even notice that we are there.  You might happen to look over at the sound stage and see someone running the sound board or catch a glimpse of a black t-shirt pulling something off the stage, but for the most part we exist as the backdrop to the space. We’re there, but you don’t really know that we are. You are paying attention to whatever is going on at the stage, and that means we have done our job.

DD: Thanks very much for your time.

Author of the article

Nancy Northcott is the Comics Track Director for ConTinual. She's also a lifelong fan of comics, science fiction, fantasy, and history. Her published works include the Boar King's Honor historical fantasy trilogy and the Arachnid Files romantic suspense series. Collaborating with Jeanne Adams, she also writes the Outcast Station science fiction mystery series.