Kevin Lillard

by Mikhail Koulikov, Mar 27th 2005
From California to Virginia, from Texas to Minnesota, if an anime convention is in town, chances are pretty good he's there with his camera. Chances are that if you're in costume, he will ask for a picture. And chances are that a day or two later, your picture will be added to the thousands that are already available on his site, a unique visual record of the anime convention experience. The site is fansview.com, one of the most popular anime/manga websites on the internet. And he is Kevin Lillard, anime photographer.

What is it about cosplay that interests you so?

The general public is fascinated with anime convention costuming, and cosplay has become the major event for most anime conventions. The fans who created anime conventions as offshoots of sci-fi cons in the 1990's probably didn't expect cosplay to grow so much, but costuming has gradually become the main reason for conventions to exist.

The "A Fan's View" site has a reputation as a cosplay site, but I've spent as much time writing stories on the creative people at those conventions as on cosplayers. It's typical for the site to have more features on the artistic guests of honor than on costumers, but most visitors to the site go to the cosplay pictures. Anime costumes are bright, colorful and outrageous, the sort of thing that doesn't take any knowledge of animated series to appreciate. That's what drives the content of the web site.

Mainstream reporters who cover anime cons usually concentrate on the costuming to the exclusion of everything else—artists, animators, producers, directors and actors. When the St. Petersburg Times covered last December's Otakucon in Miami Beach, the story was on cosplay. When Cable News Network and the New York Times ran stories on Anime Expo New York, they were cosplay stories.

Do you have any kind of formal photography training? What kind of equipment do you normally use?

No formal training, just learning from experience. It goes back to using a succession of cameras, starting with a plastic Brownie and a relative's roll-film Polaroid. The inspiration came from seeing motorsports pictures in Car and Driver and Road & Track, and wanting to make the same sort of pictures. I started taking things seriously when I graduated to a Pentax point-and-shoot, and when I got a job assembling a race track web site in 1996, I bought a Canon SLR and a telephoto lens. Burning a few hundred rolls of film and needing to get a usable shot was the best training in the world, and the best instruction was watching other racing photographers and learning how they operated.

One of the best sports action photographers, Walter Iooss, also is one of the best portrait photographers. Iooss is supposed to have said that his best lessons happened when he was taking action shots, and those lessons carried over to his portraiture. I'm no Iooss, but I understand that attitude. Learning how to get a good shot when you don't have total control is great preparation for when you have more time. I've found that when you learn how to get pictures of things that move and situations that change, it's far easier to get images to things that don't move much - like posing costumers.

The equipment has been a succession of digital cameras, matching the progression of that equipment. My latest cosplay camera, a Fuji FinePix S7000, cost far less than the Kodak DC50 I got seven years earlier, yet it's a far superior camera. The S7000 is the most flexible camera for use with flash I've found, because it doesn't have a maximum "sync speed," which is the fastest shutter speed with which you can get a flash picture. That means you can use 1/2000-1/4000 shutter speeds to cut out ambient light with the flash and concentrate on a foreground subject, or use that same setting to underexpose the sky as a background and intensify its color. But the S7000 doesn't react quickly enough for action, so I've held on to my old Canon D30 digital SLR.

The site exists because of digital cameras. I got a lot of use out of my Canon film SLR for the old racing site, but the cost of processing – and the time lost waiting for one-hour minilabs - led me to switch to digicams in 1997. Digital cameras have advanced so much in the last seven years that they've become the preferred imaging solution for more than just fan web sites; they're preferred by anyone who needs to get pictures on a deadline. Most daily newspapers and weekly magazines have dropped film for digital, and the best digital cameras are more than the equal of 35mm film. On the occasions when I have cosplay picture sales setups at conventions, I can turn out 8x11 prints that are as good as you'd get from 35mm film.

What was the first convention you attended?

The first anime convention was Anime Weekend Atlanta in November of 1997. Back in the days before the Internet ruled online life, I subscribed to the commercial online services of the day and learned of conventions from them. I nearly went to AWA in 1996, but finally made the trip in 1997, combining that with a side trip to the NASCAR race at the Atlanta Motor Speedway. The convention was as fascinating as the race and I couldn't wait to go to another one, which was Katsucon in 1998. That was the year of the first wave of new conventions—Animazement, Anime Central and Nekocon—so it was a good time to get started.

Just how do you manage to make it out to so many conventions per year - without either burning out or running out of vacation days. And how can you afford all this travel?

I have a Sunday-through-Thursday work week that clears time for the first two days of most conventions. Going to cons is a lot less intense that some of the travel I've done—four towns in Kentucky and Tennessee in four days, five stops in Florida in ten days. I afford it through two jobs and web site sponsorship from Funimation that's popped up in the last couple of months.

I went to 27 conventions in 2004 and hope to match that number in 2005. It's possible to get to 40 or 50 conventions in a year, and I wouldn't mind doing that. Compared to the 60 races I used to work each year, 50 conventions would be easy. Air travel's easier than driving since I can sleep during the flights.

To be able to make it to this many conventions per year, you must be pretty familiar with airports all over the US. Do you have any one that is your favorite?

The only airports I'm not fond of are Los Angeles International, the Comair terminal at the Cincinnati-Northern Kentucky airport, Midway in Chicago, and the dreary G concourse at Dulles International; they're too much like small-town bus terminals to be comfortable. The rest of them are pretty much the same, although the "warpgate" tunnel at O'Hare is fascinating. There's no reason to get too emotional about a terminal where you're only going to spend a couple of hours.

Any tips for the rest of us out there on how to make the travel experience as painless as possible?

Get to the airport at least two hours before the flight leaves. Take the first flight of the morning. Ear plugs are essential to comfortable flying since there are no really quiet airliners. Try to book yourself into an exit row seat for the extra leg room. Be careful of SuperShuttle—had a driver from that company once who couldn't find Disneyland.

What was your most memorable experience at a convention?

There was this year's Ushicon where some costumers decided to use me as a character, played by a cosplayer, in a skit... the time I was drafted into an Ohayocon skit where I had to make up a fight with Godzilla in a Twister game and lost... the guy in a cardboard Gundam who tried to dance at an Otakon costume and fell on his back; the stage staff had to pull the costume apart so he could get back up... the 2003 Katsucon where many of the fans were caught in a blizzard, kept the convention going for another day, and had a lot more fun than the people who tried to travel home in the snow.

How much traffic does fansview.com get?

For the last year, about 100,000 visitors a month, and as much as 25 gigabytes of file transfers in a single day. The site's reputation brings in all the traffic I can handle.

Have you ever considered cosplaying yourself?

Haven't done it since grade school and I'm not interested now—someone has to watch and take pictures. Costume making is so involved and complex that I don't have the patience—and impatience is the secret engine behind the way the web site works.

Have you ever thought of traveling to Comiket and taking pictures of Japanese cosplayers?

If it were less expensive and time-consuming, yes. To do the trip right would take several thousand dollars and more than a week. Japanese events that might be as interesting would be the World Cosplay Summit in August and the World Science Fiction Convention in 2007.

Have cosplayers and cosplaying trends changed much since you started taking pictures at conventions?

More costumers and younger costumers. Cosplay was a college kids' pastime in 1998, but it's turned into something for high-schoolers, middle-schoolers and elementary school kids. There were a couple of conventions in 2004 where grade schoolers won best of show awards at costume contests, and it wasn't a fluke. The other obvious trends are gaming cosplay with Final Fantasy and the like, along with J-rock costumers and Gothic Lolita. The Naruto trend is the most fascinating because it's a show that, as of this writing, hasn't gotten an official release in the US, yet it's among the most popular cosplay source in fandom.

Do you have any other subjects that you enjoy photographing in your spare time outside of work?

I warm up for anime conventions by taking motorsports pictures and sports stuff. Two weeks before Katsucon, I took pictures at a hockey game, since that's the second more difficult sport to photograph (baseball is the toughest). One week before Katsucon, I got my timing down by taking a few thousand pictures of a Supercross indoor dirt motorcycle race. Those pictures are on the A Fan's View site at the "racing and more" link.

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