Interview with Benjamin Zafrany

Interview with Benjamin Zafrany

During the past Japan Expo Sud celebrated in February in Marseille we had the opportunity of interviewing Benjamin Zafrany, the main organizer of European Cosplay Gathering and the face of the show everywhere. There were many the questions we had about the past, present and future of the contest and its presence in Spain and Benjamin didn’t hesitate in answering everything for us:

Tell us Ben, what is your job inside and outside the world of events and cosplay?

My job inside the world of conventions and cosplay is basically organizing the cosplay contests, the different cosplay contests and all its facets from start to finish. In order to do that I work with the association EPIC in all the events it collaborates with, not just Japan Expo. We work in other events like Epitanime and others.

The work consists basically in starting in deciding which contests we would like to organize, we talk about it, draw up the rules, and make the contestants’ registry.

We manage all the preparations of the contests, then we have to make sure that everything goes fine with the show, and finally making sure everyone is happy at the end of it.

How long have you been attending conventions?

Since the year 2000, so it’s been sixteen years.

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How and when did your start to support the world of cosplay?

I started supporting cosplay… how would I say it? When I entered the world of conventiosn of anime, manga and so, I started with cosplay because basically I was the spare one in my group of friends. “Oh my God, we’re missing a member! You, cosplay!” and my reaction was “WHAT!?” So I started right away. And some of the first people I met in this community were cosplayers.

So I started with cosplay, I made some very quick costumes (please-don’t-look-for-it ) in the beginning but I stopped very soon. For the greater goof of cosplay I stopped. And then I went into organizations in 2005, where we started organizing cosplay with some other people from another association.

Do you consider yourself a cosplayer or just an enthusiast / support / spectator?

I don’t think of myself as a cosplayer. I do some funny (I hope they’re funny) contest presentations wearing costumes, but I don’t consider myself a cosplayer.

Wearing a cosplay you can consider yourself a cosplayer even if you’re just wearing it, you don’t have to make it yourself. But personally I feel so…envious and have great admiration for cosplayers making their cosplay from scratch. To me, I can’t consider myself a cosplayer, call myself a cosplayer, seeing all the talent and the skills those guys show.

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How was the idea of creating EPIC born?

EPIC was born because we needed an association status. Basically, at first, we were a branch of a grand association, but for the different reasons we decided to split. But we still wanted to enhance cosplay, so we had to build our own association, so EPIC was born this way. And we had our view about cosplay organization, we tried to make it as best as possible for the cosplayers and for the organizers who trust us, and for us as well. If we didn’t enjoy it, we would stop.

How did you get conventions as big as Japan Expo to entrust the organization of cosplay to you?

Basically, like a said, we were part of another association before that was already working with Japan Expo for a long time. We had to go back to the origins of Japan Expo, which at first it was an association managed event, and it grew so big that it had to create a company. Then, for legal reasons, they had to change the way they were managing it, and another association was created with the cosplay branch.

But the people managing the company and the association were already friends, people knew each other, so it started this way. And then, when we decided to make EPIC, we just rolled it, because they were used to work with us.

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How does an association like EPIC survive monetarily speaking?

Like any association. Basically, we are a non-profit association, so we don’t earn money. But we ask for the different costs to be covered by the organization, like food, drinks, transports, and some other needs that we need to make a contest happen. That’s how it works.

And then we ask usually a bit more, for the technical part, so we can invest in more stuff to make the contest and everything surrounding it run better.

 

In Spain there’s always been this inquisitiveness to create a group similar to your own… what would be the guides and advice to follow to accomplish that?

I think what made EPIC the way it is now is that the people that are in this association are very good friends, they have very strong bonds. They have the same will, the same vision about what they want to do in a cosplay organization.

At first people told us that we were elitists because we weren’t very open in the applications at first, as we needed to make sure about our structure and our vision of being all together and keep it that way. Because there’re always good times and bad times, good things happening, bad things happening an you need to stay as one in those situations. You need to be able to say “okay, we screwed up here” and when we say something went wrong, it’s not just one person that made mistakes, but the whole team. Nobody take it personally. They have to understand that we need to try to improve, starting with oneself, so that everyone works better. And I think that is what has driven us so far for the moment.

After we were stable enough, we of course opened applications, and people joined us, so we needed to have a strong place where people would feel good and safe coming in. We were really, really careful about whom was joining us.

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Doubtless you association EPIC seems to be really tight, giving support and friendship between all the cosplayers in it. How did you get the cosplayers to set aside their egos and quarrels for a common cause such as this one?

Honestly? I think drama is everywhere. You don’t realize it unless you are part of this community, part of this country. But not everyone is coming along. Of course, we don’t have big dramas, I think, but we still have a few people who don’t get along with each other, and sometimes are very talkative about it.

But it also comes with the experience; the French cosplay community is quite old. I think the first cosplayers started in 1996, so it’s been some time now. So I guess it grew and grew and people got more used to it.

Of course, we had a lot of drama in the early years, different drama from time to time. Still, I think it all depends on the people. I know some countries with loads of troubles, having big groups fighting each other, and bitching each other, but we don’t have much of that in France. It also comes with the fact we don’t have many cosplay teams, I think.

People interact a lot with each other. Some people just stay together, and just enjoy cosplaying together, but I think in France we have a lot of people doing cosplay once with that guy, then with that girl, then with another one, and it created bonds. It created tensions, as well, but I think that’s just the way it is. There’s drama in France as well, people don’t get along perfectly.

What are the essential points to organize and develop correctly a cosplay contest?

I think, to me, you have to be completely honest with the participants, you have to stay open. If you make a mistake, you have to accept that you made a mistake, say that you’re sorry and try not to do it again the following year. Or if there’s something the cosplayers are asking and you’re not able to give it because you don’t have the budget, or is logistically complicated, you have to be clear about it, and be honest about it.

We try to be honest as much as possible with our organization and the participants. Because if we were to lie it would be dishonest and it would create some weird mood between the participants and the organization, and that’s not what we want

Of course there’s always people saying that we’re not being honest, and we’re being nicer to some cosplayers than others, but it’s not true. We have friends with some cosplayers, we are more friends with some than others, and that’s normal, I guess, but we still try to treat everybody the same way. As long as you are respecting the rules, we will respect you and do our best to help you.

How was the project European Cosplay Gathering born?

Japan Expo was always interested in having an European cosplay contest taking place there. At some point I was working with them, inside the company directly as a graphic designer, video editor… Then they told me “we would also like to make a European cosplay contest. Could you do something about it? Do you have any idea?” So I thought about it, and I came up with the concept of ECG. So it started there. It was Japan Expo who asked to. They had means, and they entrusted those means to me to bring that project to life.

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In which way did you want to differentiate or highlight ECG compared to EuroCosplay and World Cosplay Summit?

I think I didn’t even compare myself to those events. ECG is very personal, in the way that it is the way I enjoy watching cosplay, seeing cosplay. To me cosplay is, indeed, going back to the source of the word, which is costume and playing. So I wanted cosplay to be just as much performance as it is costume, that’s why the contest focus in the best balance and having the best of costume, and the best of performance.

EuroCosplay is more focused on cosplay, and that’s fine, because some people are more about costume. WCS is something different because it is going to Japan with everything that it entails.

I’ve been to WCS as an organizer and I’ve been to Japan; I know, it’s an experience that goes beyond the contest. The whole city of Nagoya is going along with WCS for a week, more than a week, and when you have the mayor of Nagoya in cosplay doing the parade with you, on the red carpet. Who could imagine the mayor…?. I don’t know who the mayor in Barcelona or Madrid is, but do you imagine that person wearing a Sailor Moon or Son Goku costume and being next to you like “yeah!”? Honestly in France that wouldn’t happen, but in Japan it happens!

And you have tons of people on the side saying“oh my God! My favourite character, oh my God!” And all those girls being like “oh my God, he’s so cute!” It’s Japan. WCS is an experience in itself. It is the contest whether you agree or not with the way things go, the criteria, and the results, and everything, but it goes beyond the contest. Is an experience where you get to meet so many people. It’s great.

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What has been the most difficult part to organise and obtain in all of ECG’s career?

The first finals. The first year itself, the first finals that were hell. Basically, I was working for Japan Expo, I was doing Graphic Design, video editing, plus ECG, during my working time, and I’d been working on the weekends. I’d been working from 9a.m. to 3a.m. weekends included.

The night before going to the airport to pick up the the first year participants, there were so many things I never thought about doing, because I was like “we’re fine”, and so I hadn’t slept, because I needed to finish the videos; I drank two Red Bulls, one coffee, took ten guaraná pills, drank some tea… and basically, on my way to the airport my heart started to go really fast, and not feeling good at all. Then I arrived at the airport, and the night before there was a storm, lightning hit the airport, and all the flying plans were gone. Basically all the planes from Air France for that day were cancelled or delayed. All of them! And when I arrived at the airport, I saw the panel with all ‘delayed, cancelled, delayed, cancelled…’

So many things happened that year. It was so bad that even… like I said, EPIC is a big family, there are many strong bonds, but it went so bad that at the end they came to me, they all stood together, and went to talk to me together and told to me “Ben, we need to talk. Because this is just… it’s not possible for this to work again. We managed to do it, but it cannot work like that. We have to work on some things; you have to give us more information”.

It was my first year as well, I was learning. I ended up on the floor wasted like hell. I learned a lot. It was pain, but I learned a lot through pain. And since then, we’ve been working on improving many things. I’m sorry the participants of the first year had to go through such a hellish year. Some cosplayers lost their luggage because of the flight that was cancelled, and it was hell.


And the Spanish girls arrived at a different airport…

Yes, and because we didn’t have any other choice. And I didn’t have any transport to go and pick them up, so they had to go take the bus themselves to get to Paris. I’m very sorry you had to go through this. I’m very, very sorry. But we managed. On the audience side, the audience was like “oh, it’s a cool show!” and we on the back were all crying.

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Do you think there’s room for improvement in the contest and everything around it?

I think there is always a way to improve. There’s many ways. Sometimes the audience or the media don’t see it, but to make the experience better for the participants, to make the experience better for us, we need a management that is easier for our nerves

It wouldn’t be relevant to tell you this, but some other things that I would love is to have fireworks on stage to make it even better, even with people complaining “I can’t see!” It would be fun to get fireworks on stage, to give more possibilities to the cosplayers; or give some cheering material to the people in the audience. I made a whole list to my boss with many propositions.

And it’s not just ECG, there’re many things to create, and many things to improve on Japan Expo for the cosplay and I’m working on it. I’m doing my best. It’s not easy, because sometimes it’s a matter of budget and time, but we have many ideas and I hope we can make them happen. It’s going to be a lot of fun.

Undoubtedly, what everyone commends of ECG is the stage, with its great framework, almost like a concert (giant screens, video, lights…). How did you come up with all of this?

I didn’t do much in that respect, as the stage was built this way by Japan Expo. At first they were like “oh, we’ll put some showcases on it; we’ll put some artist here, and then we’ll need good light”. And then, cosplay happened, ECG happened, and it turned from “those artists need those lights” to “oh, cosplay uses those lights; cosplay needs those lights!”

So, the set-up of the Japan Expo stage, Ichigo Stage, is honestly mainly made for the cosplay contest and ECG, because now there’s another stage on Japan Expo, entirely dedicated to music, to bands. And there’s a stage dedicated to, let’s say, more cultural activities. Now the stage is like that mostly because they saw how it could look like for cosplay, and they said “there’s no going back”.

We’ve known that this year Finland and Romania are joining the contest. Are you in talks with any other countries that want to join in?

We are in talks with, I think, around nine countries that want to join the ECG. Like I said before, it’s all a matter of budgets and logistic. And, unfortunately, I can’t say no more at the moment. I’d like to, if I knew myself I would tell you “this is gonna happen”. But right now honestly I don’t know because there are many, many question marks.

Let’s talk about the contest in Spain. The last few years ECG has managed to capture the attention of great part of our cosplayers, shadowing even World Cosplay Summit. How proud are you of that accomplishment?

I am honestly very… I wouldn’t say proud, but thankful. I’m thankful for the cosplayers in the community, especially in Spain, for being so eager to come to Paris, to Japan Expo. It’s a great thing for me.

Japan Expo is, of course, trying to have more visibility in Europe, and I want to make a cool event for cosplayers around Europe. I’m very happy to see that cosplayers are enjoying ECG so much. I will do my best for this to at least stay as much, and get bigger as possible.

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What do you think that countries like Spain or Denmark don’t have an exclusive contest for ECG, but having a few international representatives elected in the same contest?

For Denmark, it’s a small country, there’s a small community, so of course it’s not easy to have different events for each contests, especially we organizers want to work with the best event, and make sure there will be great costumes and great people managing it.

For J-Popcon, for Denmark, I feel it’s okay to have just the one contest and there are so many great cosplayers there, and such a great level… it’s impressive. And it’s okay, I know I will have one of four participants there, and in each country is like that, but in Denmark is something special, about the mood, especially the performance. There’s of course drama in Denmark, but they help a lot each other; I’ve seen that, because I’ve got to know a lot of Danish cosplayers , and there are really strong bonds between all of them. They help each other with performance, for advice… I really enjoy that, I really enjoy when I get to go to Denmark, to J-Popcon and I see that.

For Spain, I would say it’s the same, as it’s bigger. Salón del Manga is the biggest event you have, and of course it’s a great quality event, for cosplayers and organization. So I’m really happy I can be there at Salón del Manga. I would love to have a dedicated ECG selection there, I talked about it with the organizers and it’s a matter of planning and how to organize it.

I understand that it’s something complicated, because we are running an event here and I know how tough it is to try to manage everyone’s demons. Still, I know the current method in Spain creates a bit of a mess for the cosplayers, even for the audience, they think “so, there’s a cosplay contest and this one goes here, this one goes there…” So yeah, it’s not easy.

Would you prefer that Spain had an exclusive contest for ECG, like we have for WCS, then?

I would love if we could have an exclusive ECG selections. I wouldn’t say prime, but all the cosplayers in Spain participating in the ECG deserve to have, just like WCS, a dedicated contest because they bring a really great show. So I think they would deserve their own show. No offense to the others! I don’t want to have any enemies!

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Do you find it necessary that in countries like Spain, that has a mixture of contests, specifies in the rules the criteria chosen to elect the winners of each of them? That is to say, to know what is asked of the cosplayer to aspire in each contest and not to be completely a decision based on the jury’s personal criteria.

To me, at least for ECG, and at least for what I understood of Salon del Manga, ECG is supposed to be the most balanced between best costume and best performance selected there, group and solo. I don’t know how it’s done for the other contest and the other prizes, but for me it would seem logical for the best costume to go to EuroCosplay, because that’s what they’re looking for, that’s what they’re asking for in London. For C4 I’m not exactly sure of the criteria…

But for me it goes beyond first, second and third place. This or that group follow the criteria of this contest more, and this one the other, and this one…

But we don’t have any information in the rules saying how they distribute the prizes. We don’t have any type of information in the rules saying what’s considered a first or second prize that allows you to classify for one contest or another.

I think that despite it not saying “first prize” or “second prize” I think the jury chooses with a criteria, like “the best costume goes to EuroCosplay” not just the second prize. I think the cosplayers who are taking part of the jury in those contests are aware.

What would your suggestion be to solve this problem in order for all the cosplayers to know how to aim for a specific international contest out of all of those distributed?

If you’re referring to the issue  in the Salón del Manga 2015 contest, we’ve mostly solved it for the future. We talked to the organizers and next year there should be boxes you can check to choose what contest you’d like to enter. It’s not even that you would like or not to go to this contest, more like “are you available to go to this contest or not?” for example and see if somebody has some exams or simply cannot go. So it will be done this year to my understanding.

Anyway the best thing would be to have separate ECG selections. But I understand. But ticking boxes, if there’s a contest you were already aiming for, I think you should tick that box and go for it. However, if you want to enjoy going to an international event, to meet new people, just tick all the boxes. You’ll always be a winner if you manage to get to one selection.

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Do you think that outside conditions (like the past or career of a cosplayer, or the number of different vacancies to give) should interfere in the deliberation in a competition?

As long as it’s not against the laws and the regulations of the contest (like ECG when there’s a restriction if you get selected solo, you cannot enter for solo for next year) EPIC tries never to take that into account.

For example, imagine Ussain Bolt. He’s a great runner, who wins every time, but for some reason sometimes he’s a bit slower and ends up being second. But if you had to be like “he’s always winning, let’s kick him out” it doesn’t make sense. It’s like a race. Were you the best that day? Okay, you deserve to win. Those guys are usually the winners? Too bad, just try to do better next time.

What is asked of an event to host an ECG preliminary?  Is it more important the number of attendees or the way it organizes cosplay?

It’s a bit of both that has to be taken into account for an event to become an ECG selection event. Of course, I need to make sure that the selection will be well managed. I don’t want to be there and ask “so, who’s organizing” and they shrug. I just want to be sure I’m working with people who are dedicated to it and who will do a great job.

And then, of course, I need to take into account the attendance of the event. It’s not the best part of my job, but I need to take care of the visibility and communication of ECG, because making it grow comes also through that. I’m also there to make some visibility and help promote the event.

Would the organization of ECG in Paris be open to study proposals of other events that would like to host the current preliminaries?

The thing is usually, unless there’s a big issue with the organization, there’s some kind of problem, some disagreement with the event, usually I want to try to build a relationship of trust between the events and us ECG. I don’t want to be like “you better be good, otherwise I’m going to leave you!” It wouldn’t be fair. But if there was some issue regarding…

For example, here in France you have big cities like Paris, and Marseille, and such, but if I was going to any event that was in a small, tiny village then it would be complicated for cosplayers to get there, for me to get there, for other stuff to go there. And then the sponsor would complain that is not a big city and it would have to say “I’m sorry, but me might have to change the event” because it’s something they cannot fix.

But imagine if a convention reached to you and said “Hi, Benjamin. We are from ‘x’ city, we want to show you our project with our idea”, would you listen to that idea?

Usually, if is a country I don’t have any issue with I’d say “I’m sorry, but I’m already working with this event” and I wouldn’t be… I don’t know, it’s personal, I guess, but I wouldn’t be honest if I were like “yes, I will listen to you”.

I guess it’s just a matter of… how do I say it? I wouldn’t mind listening proposals, but I’d be like “come on, just because this guy looked at you this way you’re going to…?” You know what I mean?

I want to have a partnership with the organizations based on trust, but if for some reason there was a really big issue with the event that I couldn’t fix it, then yes I would always make the ECG come first, because I want this event to be the best quality it can.

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Are you part of the jury when you go to witness other preliminaries?

As much as possible, I try not to be a part of the jury for the selections. It happens at times at some countries where I jury for some reason, but I don’t necessarily feel comfortable being part of the jury, at least to decide who’s gonna get selected and come to Paris.

But in most of the countries I’ve been to I’ve asked to be there with the jury. Not giving my opinion, but listening to what they say, and making sure they’re following the right criteria for ECG, because I just want to make sure they’re going to select the one group or solo that fits the most to ECG.

In Spain we’re used to see Damien (shout out to him!) visiting our preliminaries. Are you planning on personally coming to Spain sometime? We know you’re going to Italy.

I would love to come, but I have to check because Italy is always on the same weekend, and I don’t think that either Salon del Manga or Lucca Comics are going to change their dates any time soon, so I might have to send someone to Lucca. And Lucca, as big and as unique as it is, it’s a bit of a mess to go there, because it’s a small city, and there’s no airport there, and you have to fly to Florence and then take a train. And don’t get me started on the Italian trains. It’s hell.

So, I want to try to go to Spain, but I don’t want any of my friends and co-workers to suffer going to Italy and get lost “where the fuck am I?” Because, I promise, most Italians don’t have a good level in English, so if they’re lost, well, they’re lost. Do you know any Italians that speak English?

Nadia and Mogu?

No, they don’t speak English, they speak Italian but LOUDER (laughs). Kind regards and kisses to Nadia and Mogu.

What can you tell us of Spain’s cosplayers you’ve met and Spain’s cosplay community?

Honestly? The Spanish cosplayers that I’ve met in ECG are the most awful people in the world. Just kidding!

They’re always adorable people. They were always very friendly. And I don’t remember the year when one of them didn’t get along with everyone or almost everyone. They were always very friendly and very open. Especially, Eduardo, you are a crazy man. You are a crazy, crazy man, but we love you, come here!

They’re always the friendliest people, the friendliest cosplayers that we’ve had. Everybody loves them, so it’s always a pleasure having them around, if they come back to Japan Expo, or their friends, it’s always a pleasure talking to them.

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Do you know or have read anything of us EsCosplay?

I so would multiple times, but I’m sorry, I don’t read Spanish at all, so I cannot understand much of what’s going on. But I am very grateful for the work that you guys are doing for the Spanish community of cosplay, both in Spain and around Europe, and around the world. So, keep up the good work, because I realize that it is a big, big amount of work that you guys are doing, so I hope everyone is realizing it, and I hope that you will continue this.

Without further ado, say bye to our readers.

Bye bye, Spanish cosplayers. Bye bye EsCosplay, and I hope to see you, see many of you in the ECG finals in July in Japan Expo. See ya!

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