Emma Rubini packs a ton of imagination and creative passion into her tiny 4-foot-11-inch frame.
Rubini, 20, who just finished her sophomore year studying illustration at Maryland Institute College of Art, is bubbly and fresh-faced one minute, and then terrifyingly surreal the next after slipping in a pair of costume contacts, donning a dirty brunette wig and transforming into Little Sister, a character from the hit video game franchise BioShock.
Standing with a handmade yarn replica of Big Daddy, a protective strongman in the game, and holding an impressive, carefully constructed syringe that lights up and has a gas pump for a handle, Rubini comes alive talking about her love of cosplay and her hopes for the 13th Annual Metrocon: Florida’s Largest Anime Convention.
“It’s definitely a creative outlet,” said the St. Petersburg native. “It’s really cool to be wearing something you made and be recognized and have people tell you that they like it. It’s also a confidence boost.”
Rubini is one of an estimated 12,000-plus people expected to attend Metrocon, which started Thursday and goes through the weekend at the Tampa Convention Center. Focused on Japanese animation and video games, the convention is known for its fans who love cosplay, an abbreviation for costume play, and who dress to draw attention throughout the event.
Metrocon already has sold out three hotels with two additional overflow hotels still taking reservations, said Alexander Craddock, co-owner and director of operations for Team Dynamite Productions LLC, which puts on the show.
This year, the convention has expanded to four days after drawing 10,745 fans to last year’s event.
With the expansion has come a ticket cost increase, but Craddock said the price for a three-day weekend pass will remain fixed at $60 so as not to discourage people who can’t attend all four days.
The convention has added two live performance shows, increasing the number of performance events to seven, and it has booked more celebrity guests — voice actors and performers from video games, Japanese anime shows and more — than any year previously.
“There’s more guests than ever, but there’s enough time to see them,” Craddock said. “I can’t stress how important that is.”
The new performances, a retro-superhero show and a sketch comedy performance called Metro Night Live that uses iconic animation and videogame characters to re-enact classic routines, such as Mario and Luigi from Nintendo’s Super Mario Brothers doing Abbott and Costello’s classic “Who’s On First,” join established events such as the Fantasy Masquerade, a formal ball, which will be held tonight.
“It’s one part interactive theater, one part high school prom,” Craddock said of the masquerade. “That’s what we tell people.”
All of the performances, except the Fantasy Masquerade, are included free with admission.
In addition to discussion panels and vendor booths, another returning attraction is the sixth-annual Anime Human Blood Drive called “Build Life.” Individuals who donate blood will receive a limited-edition T-shirt and a drink tumbler. The blood drive is open all four days.
Metrocon draws fans from across the country who long for the chance to spend days dressed as their favorite characters, surrounded by thousands of like-minded youth.
The convention skews younger than other fan conventions like Tampa Bay Comic Con or MegaCon in Orlando. The average age of attendees is between 13 and 20 years old.
Ayron Hamilton, 22, of Columbia, Maryland, is traveling to Tampa for her first Metrocon experience. A 10-year veteran of cosplay, Hamilton said her favorite creation is Aerith Gainsborough from Final Fantasy VII. She has been dressing as the character since 2007. She has six distinct costumes planned for Metrocon.
“Conventions are virtually my stage,” she said, speaking online through Facebook. “When I get into cosplay, I become a whole new person and feel as though I’m taking on the life of my character.”
For many people, cosplay conventions offer the chance to see friends, meet other rabid fans of popular gaming and animation properties and experience the support of a large community.
For Rubini, it’s also a chance to bond with her father, Bert, who took her to her first fan convention when she was 13 years old. They have since dressed up together often for conventions, portraying characters such as the Mad Hatter and Alice from American McGee’s Alice, a dark take on Alice in Wonderland that became a hit desktop computer video game.
“This is our way of spending time together and doing something we really enjoy,” Bert Rubini said.
They go every year to at least one convention together. This year, they plan to attend Dragon Con in Atlanta and one other convention once Emma returns from a summer study session abroad in London.
Because Metrocon appeals to a younger audience, Bert Rubini, 51, said he only plans to attend the costume contest on Sunday to watch his daughter compete with a group of cosplayers all dressed as characters from Borderlands, a popular role-playing, first-person shooter video game that debuted in 2009. He won’t be in costume, he said.
He has marveled at the time and energy his daughter devotes to her creations. She has spent up to three months and as much as $200 to create and design some of her favorite cosplay outfits.
Emma Rubini said she’s currently working on a series of alternate reality character costumes such as Jedi Elsa, combining Disney’s “Star Wars” and “Frozen.” For her father, she envisions him portraying a mashup of Darth Vader and Captain Hook.
“If I post a picture on Facebook, people will say, ‘My parents hate when I cosplay,’” she said, laughing. “I say, ‘Mine don’t.’ It’s really cool.”