Sunday, November 24, 2013

The day Batkid defeated me, and rekindled hope in humankindness

Last Friday, I kidnapped a celebrity, 2 billion people saw it happen, and I got away with no (real) charges.

(Before I get deported back to my homeland of Canada, I should clarify: I played "The Penguin" in the SFBatkid Make-A-Wish caper)

"I'll get you, Batkid!" Ultimately, I ate these words.
While my character's fiendish plans for domination of Gotham City were ultimately foiled by the brave Batkid, my real-life secret identity had a day I will remember for the rest of my life. I wanted to write up this summary blog post for a few reasons: to share a few fun behind-the-scenes stories and photos, to reminisce together about some of the hilarious and heartwarming moments of the big day, to describe how I got involved, and to encourage everyone to take positive action in our own communities.

Wahh wahh wahhh!!!!!!!!!!!!
So, how did I get involved?

Make-A-Wish Greater Bay Area had been planning Miles' wish "I wish to be Batman" since March 2013. I got involved in Summer 2013. Make-A-Wish's tireless efforts are to thank for this incredible day, and I was just so psyched to be a small part of their magic. In this post, I'll talk about the prep and the big day from my point-of-view.

Awesome logo for the big day
I moved down here to San Francisco from London, Ontario, Canada in 2007 to work at Industrial Light and Magic, the film division of Lucasfilm. The Visual Effects/Animation industry tends to attract a very interesting type of human being, someone who is a strange mix of both artistic and mathematical skill, someone creative, interesting, hardworking, and often pretty odd (but in the best possible way). It was in this group of unique, unbelievably awesome people that I met Eric Johnston.

EJ created video games for LucasArts since 1989 and is a true legend of the Computer Graphics industry. He is also an incredible acrobat, stunt-man, and super, epic, all-around kindhearted genius. In clearer terms, he’s basically Bruce Wayne... as such, I was not surprised in one bit that he was going to be Batman for this caper. EJ did some amazing work for Make-A-Wish back in 2004 when he and wish kid Ben Duskin co-created Ben’s Game, a video game where the player fights cancer cells. EJ and Ben were honored by the Dalai Lama as “Unsung Heros for Compassion”. EJ is a true role model for humankindness.

When EJ and I were furiously eating hamburgers and pasta salad in my backyard at a BBQ in Summer 2013, he said to me, “What are you doing Nov. 15? And please say ‘yes’”. I paused for about half-a-second, checked my calendar app (nothing scheduled!) and said... “Umm... Yes!” and then wondered “So, what did I just agree to?” He said it was a little event for Make-A-Wish and would involve dressing up as a villain and running around. Naturally, this sounded awesome and if EJ is involved, my answer is always yes. I assumed we'd put on some costumes, run around a jungle-gym for a bit and try to make a little kid smile. Sounded fun. I don't think any of us had any idea how big it would get and what larger, global message it would send out. But more on that later.

Location Scouting for Batkid
The other capers had been scouted for earlier in the day, and then I joined everyone else in the afternoon to help figure out what to do for the Batman/Batkid/Penguin standoff.

The kind folks at AT&T Park invited us to come and scout the area a few times. We weren't sure exactly what areas we were going to use in advance, so it was a really fun day of skipping work and running around in an empty ballpark.

EJ chasing me through AT&T Park. We ended up removing this ballpark stand chase from the Batkid event, in favour of Batman and Batkid coming down the Coke fountain slides and finding the "Penguin's lair".
This streetcar replica offered a nice little place for Batman and Batkid to chase me. This ended up being the first part of the AT&T Park caper.

After playing essentially "cops and robbers" with EJ for a while, we got a clear idea of what the flow of the event might be on the day-of. We also got to play "cops and robbers" in an empty ballpark. That rocked.

Next step: Penguin character research
Being one of the two "bad guys" for Batkid, I was particularly concerned about making sure Miles got the right feeling from the villain. I needed to appear villainous, but if I was too scary or intense, it would be a major failure on my part. I wanted him to recognize that I was a bad guy, but not be too apprehensive about joining Batman to take me down.

Watching Batman (1966). Thank you Netflix Instant Watch!
We were instructed that Miles had seen the older Adam West 1960's Batman TV show and was familiar with that form of the Bat-characters. That was ideal, because that iteration of the show is much more light-hearted and sillier than the (epic, yet darker) more recent Tim Burton and Christopher Nolan films. With only a few weeks to go and having not watched the old Batman TV show since I was a kid, I thankfully found Batman (1966) on Netflix and it was hilarious. Burgess Meredith's Penguin character immediately popped back into my memory from many after-school Batman TV show days as a kid. It was goofy, it was ridiculous, and it seemed an ideal character to play for a 5-year old's enjoyment.

I practiced the "Wahh wah wahhh!" penguin squawk in the mirror, on the couch, on the way to work, when talking with my girlfriend, my sister, and my parents... and they seemed to approve.

The Penguin's walk, though, required a bit of iteration. Burgess Meredith's character had a walk reminiscent of old silent-films, and it reminded me a lot of Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton and Groucho Marx performances. I'd also just recently watched Benny and Joon (where Johnny Depp does some amazing physical comedy). Watching tons of those films in the past was just enough inspiration to get something basic down.

Trying this out and several variations at the 2nd run-through, our Make-A-Wish film Director John Crane said I should "Dial in the Penguin Waddle!" We tried a few different versions and ended up opting for a sillier Penguin "waddle" over the Groucho Marx-like walk. It had a few benefits: it was sillier and bouncier (funny for Miles to watch) and it was also slower. The Groucho Marx-like walk is too fast, which would make me move much too fast for Batman and Batkid on the day-of, and also I'd be zooming past the cameras too quickly too. The strategy of experimenting and just being flexible with what "looks and feels right", even if it's different from what's in your mind, was a great plan-of-attack.

SFist and San Francisco Chronicle had already posted about the event at this point, and press was starting to get excited about the event. Despite the many attendees and cameras that we were starting to expect might be there on the day-of, the ultimate aim of the day was all about Miles and fulfilling his "I wish to be Batman" wish to the best of our abilities.

Next up: Costuming
San Francisco Opera graciously costumed us and I headed down to their costuming department with fellow bad-guy Philip Watt, who played The Riddler. I hadn't met Philip until then, and we had a great time chatting about how excited we were for the event while getting fitted.

Initial fitting for costume at SF Opera
It was comforting to get some advice from Philip, who is an actor here in San Francisco. I was glad that some of my fellow cast-members had proper acting experience. People often complain about taking Math in high school and say, "I'll never use that!" For me, it was the opposite. Since I followed a career in Computer Graphics, Math was obviously important to my future when I was back in high school and was my main focus. That said, oooohh maaan was I ever glad for arts education in this moment... who knew that the improv acting unit in Grade 11 Drama class was gonna end up being so important. :)

Trying desperately to keep that monocle in my eye :)

Next step: More location scouting, Pyrotechnic tests
As the day drew closer, we went back to a few locations to do some more prep work and to discuss logistics for the big day.

Again the morning capers were scouted first and then I joined up for the parts I've be involved with. We started at Union Square, specifically in the Burger Bar where Batman and Batkid would be eating lunch and then would be notified by the flash mob that Penguin was kidnapping Lou Seal.

EJ with his cape on, surveying Union Square from Burger Bar
Even superheros need to eat!
From there, we headed back to AT&T Park for more scouting there. We also made a plan for the "flash pot" - a pyrotechnic effect being done by Geoff Heron, practical effects mastermind behind many of ILM's filmography. (Photos below copyright John Crane Films).

Planning the mark for the pyrotechnic location
It was amazing to meet Geoff and to be in the company of someone with such epic film pyrotechnic experience. These photos rock too. :)

Planning the initial arrival of Batman and Batkid
The Caped Crusader

Batkid Day: Nov 15, 2013
And just like that, it was time for the big day. I hadn't met Miles yet and the first time I'd see him, I would already be in character. But I knew he'd be in the good hands of EJ and Make-A-Wish.

Costume, ready to go
A list of things not to forget to do in the bustle of the morning

I got dressed, tweeted a "Penguin-face selfie" photo from my bathroom and took the opportunity to taunt Batkid again, and headed out the door, ready for the big day. (FYI: You probably saw posts from the "@PenguinSF" twitter account -- though they were tweeting with my photo as their profile photo, this hilarious feed was being run by Clever Girls Collective social media company throughout the big day. Thx to them for doing such a great job taunting people on my character's behalf).

Via Twitter:
@jutanclan: "Duck face selfie? How bout a penguin face?!!!! Wahhh wahhh wahhh!!
Off to go defeat

And off I went. I chatted with my cab driver about the day to try to help calm my nerves. But I also remembered some good advice that my buddy Rob at work gave me the day before -- the most important thing of the day was to do my part to help Miles have a fun day. This great advice helped me set aside the nerves caused by so many cameras and people and just focus on the most important part: Batkid.

Staging area for the Penguin/Lou Seal "kidnapping"
Our staging area was the parking lot below union square. I arrived about 11:15, just before Batman and Batkid's Bat-Lamborginis arrived outside of Macy's/Burger Bar. I walked by the huge crowd in Union Square and someone commented, "Hey, man! Nice costume!". "Oh... thank you" I said, and kept walking towards my spot like a criminal hiding in plain sight. That was hilarious.

Crowds at Union Square
There I got Mic'd up for the video crew as well as meeting more amazing volunteers from Make-A-Wish. I met my "henchman", the guy who would be driving the Penguin's getaway car. We also played around with whether I should be in the front or the back of the car, because Lou Seal's costume is quite wide and we needed to make sure he had lots of room to move and sit comfortably. From the planning I was expecting an open-top Jeep (it was open-top so Miles and the crowds could see us well), but at the last minute this epic Bentley convertible was loaned for the event. So cool.

Me and my "henchman". Man this car was super fancy!
Lou Seal arrived and we decided it made more sense for me to go in the back of the car and to put Lou in the front. We "tied up" his arms with a bright yellow rope and then waited for the cue from the flashmob. Jenny, another volunteer, ran the flashmob as they alerted Batkid and Batman (watching from up in Burger Bar) as to our dastardly plans.

And with that, we were off, out of the garage, onto the street.

"I've got Lou Seal, and there's nothing anyone is gonna do about it!"
Amazing help from SFPD
Crowds of onlookers, worried about Lou Seal
"Gotham will be mine!!!!!!"
haha, apparently posing for a photo in the midst of it all
Lou's hilarious acting, trying to jump out of the car, and me having to "pull him back in".
Oh no, his hands are tied up!
We were there for a little bit while Batman and Batkid finished up at Burger Bar and high-fived their way back down to the street. Miles took one look at me and I knew the Penguin's evil plan was going to have some fierce opposition. They headed into their Batmobiles, though first Batman had to organize the car seat for Batkid, of course. :)

Once our police escorts were ready, the Penguin car took off down the streets of San Francisco. People boo-ed me while I yelled back, "Boo to you! Gotham will be mine!!" and so on. :) It was so fun.

"I've got Lou Seal!!!"
And... off we go, to be "chased" by Batman and Batkid

We got to AT&T Park to find out that the gate I thought we were going through was not ready for us, and on Lou's suggestion we decided to walk by the crowd gathered at the bottom of the stairs where Batman and Batkid would eventually enter. This was totally unplanned but a brilliant idea. This photo below has been tagged on Facebook as "The Penguin getting arrested by a police officer", but actually this was a kind SFPD officer helping Lou and I walk through the crowd of people towards the stairs so we could show off my dastardly plans to the crowd and pump them up for Batkid's arrival.

Kidnapping Lou Seal, on the way into the park
In another unplanned-but-awesome situation, we were originally going to have some Make-A-Wish volunteer "henchmen" tie up Lou Seal, but there were lots of media people poised right beside the mini-baseball diamond ("the Penguin's lair") so so it was a great opportunity to taunt the media folks ("Ugghhh!! Media!!!!") and tie up Lou. Again, Lou did some hilarious physical acting and tried to get away a few times which was really fun.

"Come with me!"
After tying up Lou, I ran back to my starting point as I could hear the crowds starting to cheer. This meant, of course, that Batkid had arrived. The crowd was yelling "Batkid! Batkid! Batkid!" and in a few lulls I tried to rally up support, trying to get them to chant "Penguin! Penguin! Penguin!". Sadly (for my character), the crowd could not be convinced. They loved Batkid and they wanted to see The Penguin's plans overturned. And so it went.

Batman and Batkid came up the stairs and came after me. We did our run through the trolley car and then I waited on my mark for Batman and Batkid to be in a safe location... and I said my line to indicate the flash-pot should go off. This was incredibly fun and planned very carefully and safely.

On the big day...
"I hope you like traps, Batkid!"

Batman and Batkid then went through a series of obstacle-course structures while I "Wah wah wahhh'd" away to my lair.

But that diligent Batkid was on my trail. Batman and Batkid determined that my lair was at the bottom of the Coke-straw slides in the park, and so down they went and they discovered me.

"Oh, no! Batkid!"
"You found my lair!!"
They chased me into the mini-baseball diamond and we had wondered if Batkid would chase me around the bases. He seemed much more interested in helping to free Lou Seal, so he did that (with some help from Batman), and then Batman chased me around the bases. After a solid run, the Penguin came crashing down, tackled by Batman and carted off by the SFPD. Batkid freed Lou Seal, got a big hug, and... stole my umbrella!!!!!!! That was totally hilarious and also one of those unexpected day-of happenings. He loved it. While I got carted off, I heard afterwards that he paraded around the park with the umbrella, holding it like a trophy. That was amazing.

Lou is free!
Stealing my umbrella :)
This is one of my favourite photos of the day.
And off Miles goes to get a congratulatory message from Police Chief Greg Suhr on the jumbotron.

I slinked away to make sure Miles didn't see me out of police custody, and took some photos with the crowds of people who were having a great day. This one was particularly ridiculous.

Sad to have had my plans vanquished by Batkid
I got onto the tour bus caravan with the Make-A-Wish staff and waited for the rest of the folks to arrive. Batkid's Grandpa got onto the bus... with my umbrella! "Nice work. I think this is yours", he said. I laughed so hard. We made sure to get it back to Miles at the end of the day so he could keep his trophy.

Off the bus went to City Hall for the finale of SFBatkid day, and presentations from the Chief of Police, Mayor, and an excellent speech from Patricia Wilson, a superhero of a person who was the mastermind behind this truly magical day. On the bus on the way there, we got yet another overwhelming surprise. Someone said, "Um... the President just tweeted about Batkid". I thought they meant, like, the President of Make-A-Wish. No. The ACTUAL President. The bus fell silent as we read President Obama's tweet and we watched President Obama's vine video.

@BarackObama: #FollowFriday RT : Here he comes!!!!

I just couldn't believe it. This was a high-five from The President, directly to Miles. What an amazing thing to happen, for Miles, his family, and for the entire Make-A-Wish Foundation. The thought of how many people this Presidential "thumbs-up" would inspire to volunteer in their own communities hit me immediately. I was speechless. I think I cried.

Crowds at City Hall
"Take that, Penguin!"
We got to City Hall to a crowd of approx 20,000 people. The Police Chief greeted us on the way in, first calling me a fiend and then shaking my hand. He is so awesome. His son's clothing company made Batkid shirts and donated the proceeds to Make-A-Wish. His speech was very moving and had a lot of people in tears around us. The mayor presented a key to the city, as well as a special chocolate key to the city (mmm!) to Miles. The FBI gave him a super awesome "raid-jacket" and an indictment for the arrest of the Penguin and the Riddler (uh oh!) and the California District Attorney's office issued a press release. Amazing. It was so cool how so many people were playing along and taking part. This was truly amazing.

Indictment against the Riddler and the Penguin

This was not good news for The Penguin, and also not good news for my evil cohort, The Riddler:
"Who tricks the Riddler?!??!"

My favourite photos of the day

Here are a few of the pictures which remain most visibly in my memory of the day and of all the news articles I saw.

Wrap Party
Whew. And with that, we headed back to the Grand Hyatt on Union Square and toasted, to the crew, to the Make-A-Wish staff, to the many, many, many volunteers, to the cast. And, most importantly... To Batkid!

Damsel-In-Distress, Batman, Penguin
Kickin' back after a day of crime-fighting battles
The world noticed
A few weeks before the event, I was really excited at the prospect of Make-A-Wish having a national news story about Batkid, as I presumed it would mean great things for the Foundation itself and would inspire many others to volunteer their time, donate, and help other kids' wishes come true. I don't think anyone had any idea that this was going to turn into a worldwide news event. As Patricia mentioned, we'd hoped to have approximately 200-300 people in attendance, cheering Miles on.

Numbers that came in (courtesy of Make-A-Wish) that were particularly nuts:
  • People who RSVP’d to volunteer via the Make-A-Wish website: 16,077
  • Estimated size of the crowd at City Hall: approximately 20,000
  • Number of #SFBatkid/#Batkid tweets generated (through Sunday 11/17): 545,576
  • Number of countries where Batkid was discussed: 117 
  • % of all tweets that were deemed “positive”: 96%
  • Total Twitter Potential Reach: 777,453,544
  • Total Twitter Potential Impressions: 1,816,783,718
  • Number of Instagram photos with #SFBatkid: 16,000
  • Number of hits per second to all Make-A-Wish websites during peak: 1,400
  • Number of staff in the Make-A-Wish Greater Bay Area office: 23 full time; 4 part time
The "Total Twitter Potential Impressions" statistic is particularly nuts. Clever Girls Collective estimated the social media impact of the event to have reached somewhere between 750 Million and 1.8 BILLION people. Yes, BILLION. And this does not include TV, News, Radio, Newspapers.

A friend at work collated a few of the international press headlines, this image is really cool.

Worldwide press collage

As I mentioned, I'm from London, Ontario. It's not a huge town, but as a Canadian I can sure tell you that Canadians LOVE a news story about other Canadians doing cool stuff. The day after Batkid, I was contacted by CBC News, Global News, CityNews and a couple other radio stations and print media (including Metro News, who wrote this sweet article). An old buddy of mine came to visit SF last week and told me that CBC ran the Skype interview I did with them only 3 minutes before the start of Hockey Night in Canada... so, basically, every single Canadian saw it. :) During these interviews, my aim was to channel some of the great energy that Mashable editor Chris Taylor wrote about in his excellent article: "Batkid Was Beautiful — Let's Keep It Going". Wouldn't it be awesome if our epic event inspired other similar wishes in other awesome cities. (In fact, someone from a Vancouver twitter account mentioned to me that they were interested in volunteering Vancouver for something like this).

A "Tornado of Sunshine"
This phrase came up in a conversation between my friends Pablo and Tom on Facebook in regards to the event. In Silicon Valley terms, I feel like we "disrupted" negativity in the world for a few days. My Facebook news feed has been amass with angry, annoyed, upset posts about the Rob Ford (Toronto Mayor) embarrassment. For weeks my feed has been article after article of friends posting how bad this news is, how bad it makes Toronto look, etc. When Batkid happened, we exploded Facebook. My news feed was nothing but Batkid for the entire weekend following Batkid. There was absolutely NOTHING about Rob Ford. For that weekend, no one cared to post anything else. Batkid was the ONLY news story. It takes something incredibly positive to overcome a mountain of negativity, and Batkid just completely owned it. There is so much bad news all the time, I think people were just hungry -- starving, even -- for something good.

Miles: "I don't have Superpowers"
Miles' family has recently announced the Batkid Fund, a new charity they are launching to give back to 3 foundations (Make-A-Wish Greater Bay Area, Ronald McDonald House Charities of Oregon and Southwest Washington, and Asante Rogue Regional Medical Center), who helped Miles in his fight against Leukemia. In a recent interview, Miles said, "I don't have Superpowers" -- and I thought this was a very strong message for this young world-changer to say.

I interpret Miles' message as this: none of us are superheros. You could look at the amazing size, scale, and overwhelming positive message of the Batkid event and say that superheros must have been involved. But if Miles doesn't even think he has superpowers, then none of the people of San Francisco do, either. The 20,000+ people who skipped work on Friday Nov 15th to come out, hold up signs of support for Miles, get dressed up in costumes, volunteer in the flashmob, cheer on Miles and boo the Riddler and the Penguin... none of these people are superheros. Not even the unbelievably wonderful staff and volunteers at Make-A-Wish are superheroes (though, I kinda feel like they might be) :) At City Hal, Patricia thanked SO many different people and organizations for their help: SFPD, SF Fire Department, Mayor Ed Lee, Chief of Police Greg Suhr, Clever Girls Collective, John Crane Films.... the list goes on and on.

All of the people who came out to support the event, the people who helped make it happen, and even the city of San Francisco itself: this is not, surprisingly, a group of superhuman people. These are just a group of normal people. They just happen to be exceptionally selfless, wonderful, childlike, sweet, organized, positive, beautiful people. And the rest of the world has taken note of the example that the people of San Francisco have set.

Getting involved in your community
How did I get involved in a day I'll remember for the rest of my life? It all started by simply just "saying yes". Batman said to me, "Are you free Nov. 15th? Please say 'yes'". And, thank goodness, I did.

There are so many problems in the world, and it's overwhelming to think of how messed up things can be. But a huge difference can be made to your community, to the people around you, to your loved ones, or to strangers. It all starts with just saying 'yes'. There are so many incredible, hard-working people in the world, and in my experience, volunteer organizations have always been happy to have another positive, hard-working, can-do person on board.

Think about what you love, what inspires you, what part of society or the human condition you are most concerned about. Pick a local organization that works in that area. Start with a small commitment. Tell your friends, and publicize your efforts to inspire others to follow your good example.

(Aside: the great debate of Hillel-vs-Shammai in Jewish thought is an old argument about whether one should do good quietly and anonymously, or if one should publicize one's efforts. I am clearly in the Hillel school of thought, as I believe the act of doing good can inspire others towards action. Thus this portion of this post, about how you can get involved.)

The world needs your help. As we can see from the incredible international response to Batkid, a story of humankindness and the triumph of a little hero is of huge worldwide interest. You, (yes, you!) can help the world achieve more amazing things like this. Positive action will make a difference in your community, and you can help. Many incredible organizations would love to have you on board.

I know humanity can do better. It all starts with the act of getting involved in our own communities with other committed, hard-working, selfless people. With this kind of positive action, we can perform (as we say in the Jewish tradition) the ultimate mitzvah ("good deed") of tikkun olam (lit. "repairing the world"). We can make the world a better place for generations to come.

The greatest achievement starts with the first step.

Let's all take it together.

With love,
The Penguin