Beyond the Bare Bones: Behind the Scenes of Creating the Immersive San Diego Comic-Con Court of the Dead Display

Time here in the Mortal Realm can be a whirlwind. With San Diego Comic-Con 2018 upon us, the Court of the Dead team took some time to reminisce on the epic construction project of our immersive Underworld display. We’ve been sharing moments from that journey over the last few weeks on our Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter, but now we’d like to take a deep dive behind the scenes with an exclusive interview with Tom Gilliland, creator of Court of the Dead and Chief Creative Officer of Sideshow.


The 2014 display VS the 2017 display is immensely different. Why did the team opt for such a different approach for the 2.0?

Tom Gilliland: “While I really liked the cloistered, focused feel of the original display, we felt it was preventing people from seeing the exhibit, so we opted for a more open experience. A big part of SDCC is to get eyes on the target, and the new layout offered a more inviting way of accomplishing that. The new layout also offered an opportunity to bring a bit more of the World of COTD to the presentation since it would rely on a more architectural display.”

What was the most exciting part of creating the first Court of the Dead display at SDCC?

Tom Gilliland: “I’d say it was the pure ‘no rules’ approach I took to it. We had a pretty established and appreciated the way of displaying at SDCC, but after going to the LA art show, I saw a very different way of showcasing a body of work and I wanted to try it out. In fact, I was so hyped up on the idea of a draped semi-private display that I model built the first take on the booth that night with foam core and a bunch of my 28mm fantasy miniatures.”

What was the inspiration for the 2017 display?

Tom Gilliland: “Moving from the draped haunted corridor of the V1 display to an open display offered an excellent opportunity to bring sculpture and architecture from the Underworld onto the show floor. We had wanted to create some more prominent 3D displays, and this turned into an excellent opportunity to do so. Digging into the art used to create the Court of the Dead: Chronicle of the Underworld book gave Jesse Lincoln and Jerry Foote some great references for the eclectic jumble that makes up the Underworlds buildings. More commonly seen as patchwork, assemblies stacked upon themselves with an endless celebration of skeletal bone form the mortar between mismatched pieces of structure.”

How long did it take to plan, build, sculpt, and paint the display? And how long did it take to assemble at the show?

Tom Gilliland: “The construction team worked on this part time over about six months, with the final month leading to SDCC becoming a pretty full-time effort. There is a lot of staging and steel frame construction that made up the early stages; all the sexy architectural sculpting came in the final stages of the build, it was really the final skin. The build progressed over a couple of months with Jerry Foote and Paul Schmidt, which went smoothly as we changed things here and there to accommodate the need for this to display the products on. That balance had to be kept in mind throughout, which often required us to flatten or pull back on some expressions out of concern we’d overwhelm the statues. The paint portion was its own trial, as working in July in Thousand Oaks in a un-air-conditioned warehouse can be quite the crucible. Jesse and Anthony Mestas joined the other team members to push the deco along over some hot weekends and nights leading right up to the show deadline. I’m reasonably sure stuff was drying as it was being shipped to the show.  

Setup was pretty fast, due in large part to the planning the team put into making the piece.  We’ve done enough of these shows to know how hard set up can be so the display was built in massive superstructures over steel frames so it could mostly be put in place in large subsections and then covered with fabric drapes and props along with the statue displays. That part is always the longest as there’s a fair amount of primping to be done to get the unpacked pieces back into display shape.”  

How many people total did it take to bring the concept to life?

Tom Gilliland: “All cast included I’d say 8 or more. But the lion’s share was done by Jesse, Jerry, and Paul.”

What are the color strategies utilized when painting a display of such size and how do you keep everything consistent?

Tom Gilliland: “There’s a lot of base coating to get it staged, but once that’s done its mostly a hand brushed staining tactic to get the stone to feel natural and organic. Lots of slopping on color, adding more, or removing some with wet rags to coax the look of the big surface. It’s very different when painting stuff this size as compared to the base of a statue. For example, you don’t get to see the big picture of what you’re doing without standing 20 feet away to gain a perspective. The moving in and out part of that can be a bit exhausting but it does account for why when done the overall display seems to marry together in color as well as it does.”

How heavy was the Underworld United symbol?

Tom Gilliland: “The symbol is not too bad regarding weight. It’s a hollow fiberglass shell made with the fact we were going to hang it in mind. Painting it was a bit tricky due to its size. I ended up having it mounted onto 2×4’s so it could hang on a rig we screwed into a wall of the shop. I’d alternate from painting it on the wall to laying it flat and painting down onto it to see how it looked hung with the shadows from ambient lighting. Laying it down let me ensure I didn’t miss any underside spots with paint. The symbol was my significant contribution to the overall piece and a great fun paint project.”

Everyone seriously upped the display game for the 2017 show. What was it like seeing the final piece of the SDCC floor for the first time?

Tom Gilliland: “It’s always a thrill to see a party set up ready to go and this was no different, especially as I don’t recall us testing the layout prior. Wednesday night is the preview night for the audience as well as ourselves. It was a terrific moment as the team took in the spectacle and it was with great delight we about-faced and embraced the incoming horde of show attendees with smiles on our faces.”

What was one of your favorite memories working on this massive piece?

Tom Gilliland: “The uncountable dumb skits that took place in and around the display as we were making it. From the Austin powers ‘I’m on an elevator’ gag behind the piece to people perching all over it, everyone had a run at testing their terrible sense of comedy.”

Does reminiscing on this piece make you excited for SDCC 2018?

Tom Gilliland: “Indeed it does, and as much as showing off the display and the statues, my biggest thrill is still talking to the folks that attend the show. It’s certainly satisfying to create these big installations and add the displays, but the real drive is to share it with fans. The display serves as a gathering point, especially now for all our fellow Mourners that come to look at what’s new, drink in the details, and get the first-hand updates on our progress in pushing Court of the Dead into publications, art prints, and this year, board games!”

From its launch in 2014 to its impressively immersive Underworld display in 2018, sharing the Court of the Dead collection at San Diego Comic-Con has been an ever-evolving adventure. The booth further evolved for 2018, and we are excited to share the next stage in our evolution with you from San Diego Comic-Con 2018, booth #1929!

Adding a screen, modifying arches, touching up paint, switching where Death stands and adding a new custom table for the Court of the Dead: Mourners Call display were all new tweaks for 2018.

2018 was one of our best years yet. Thank you for joining us on this journey into the Underworld, and follow Tom Gilliland on Instagram and Facebook for more Beyond the Bare Bones. Follow Court of the Dead on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter for more behind the scenes.