When the hotel elevator door opened, you didn't know what to expect. It could have been three young men clad in black, one carrying a four-foot cross, another a saxophone. Or maybe a geisha with green hair.

Other guests staying at the Sheraton Premiere at Tysons Corner over the Columbus Day weekend may have been befuddled, but for those attending "Anime{acute} USA 2002," a celebration of Japanese animation and pop culture, such film and cartoon characters were a simple fact of fan life.

In three days, hundreds of participants exchanged thousands of dollars to admire each other's outfits, watch screenings of favorite shows and browse in a dealer room packed with items they usually have to hunt down through specialty stores and Internet suppliers.

Thanks to a recent boom in anime{acute} exposure, their search is becoming easier. For better or worse, we all know Poke{acute}mon, the trading card sensation and series on television and film. It's the most successful imported anime{acute} -- the word for Japanese animated cartoon -- so far, opening the gates to other shows such as "Gundam Wing," an action-adventure series set in futuristic space colonies, and "Dragon Ball Z," an action comedy with sci-fi aliens.

The anime{acute} field runs the gamut from cutesy kid shows such as "Hamtaro" (yes, cartoon hamsters) to extremely sexual and violent anime{acute} (hentai, literally "perversion" in Japanese) that is generally not part of the convention experience.

This crowd, heavily skewed to teens and twentysomethings, delighted in meeting like-minded obsessives drawn to the stylish characters and complicated plot twists of anime{acute} and its companion world, manga (Japanese comic books).

Ask Cybele Amaud of Bethesda, for instance, how many conventions she's been to, and she's not entirely sure. "Seven, or maybe nine, this year," she said.

She was posing in the lobby as Ramirez, from a role-playing game, or RPG, called "Skies of Arcadia," wearing an elaborate uniform that she customized entirely ("each arm took about three hours"), save for white gloves.

In the hotel's grand ballroom, hundreds of chairs faced a large video screen controlled by two convention staff members. They huddled over computers that broadcast streaming anime{acute} music videos submitted by film-savvy fans who edited together segments of anime{acute} films to the beat of popular songs. The music was loud and varied, everything from the Police and Metallica to European techno and Japanese soundtracks. Audience members screamed when their favorite characters appeared, however briefly.

The ballroom also hosted what many considered the convention's main event -- the Cosplay competition, in which participants truly get to act out their passions in costume and comedy skits. In the costume event, awards recognize creativity and verisimilitude. Though some items could be purchased online, the greatest pride and biggest honors were for those who made their outfits from scratch. Adaptation, not acquisition, was the rule.

Among the winners: Balvina Oscgueda, 18, of Forestville and her boyfriend Jonothan Kwak, 19, of Springfield, whose playful skit ("We made a lot of jokes about famous characters, and I pretended to flash him.") topped the novice category. The two met at a prior anime{acute} convention in Rosslyn.

"After today," Oscgueda said, "We'll be planning for 'Katsucon,' " a similar anime{acute} convention scheduled for February in Crystal City. She's dressed as an angel -- a recurring prototype in anime{acute} -- in a dress adapted from a nurse's uniform; his dashing dress coat and cape evoke Gene Starwind, the dashing yet comical hero of the space adventure video "Outlaw Star."

At first glance, it appeared that Cody Surface, 12, of Winchester, Va., dressed as the titular star of "Inu-Yasha," a romantic feudal fairy tale series, got his complicated costume from a theatrical store. But his mom, Ruth Surface, assembled it herself.

"It took about 70 hours of sewing," she recalled, "and about 100 hours to find the materials," including a 60-mile drive to a Fairfax store stocking the elusive red stretch Lycra. Foam boots, a deadly mufflike "Z-buster" and a laser blaster completed the ensemble.

Jordan Cloud, 15, of Herndon, veteran of five other conventions, also had his mom's help with a complicated head-to-toe outfit of "P-Chan" from "Ranma 1/2," a video series popular with kids for its mix of teenage romance, screwball comedy and martial arts.

"It's really hot," Jordan said of the fuzzy suit, designed by mixing elements from bear and kangaroo costume patterns. And with the headpiece, made from the reliable balloon-covered-in-papier-ma^che{acute}, "It gets more hot, faster."

For other thrills, autograph sessions gave fans the chance to meet stars of the genre, including voice talents Scott McNeil (heard in "Gundam Wing" and "Dragon Ball Z") and Amy Howard Wilson, a veteran of one of the first anime{acute} series in the United States. She was the voice of Nova, member of the "Star Trek"-like crew of "Space Battleship Yamato," defending Earth against the evil Galman Empire.

Ann Gordon and Mary Fitzgerald, moms and sisters from Centreville and Fairfax, respectively, waited to meet Hidenori Matsubara, animation director of (among others) "Ah! My Goddess," a romantic adventure film adapted from a TV series popular with teenage girls. The pair was at the convention with four such teenagers, and Gordon bought an autographed DVD to give as a gift.

For every successful Matsubara, there were scores of aspiring anime{acute} artists. Jamie Simpson of Burke was plotting out a four-part graphic drama about a Laura Croft-like heroine named Lenna and hoping to find ways to fund it.

Across the aisle sat Andy Lee of Atlanta, who had made that crucial career contact at a prior convention. His pieces, done in traditional Buddhist brush-painting, caught the eye of Todd McFarlane. McFarlane, creator of the "Spawn" series and savvy businessman in the action-figure collectibles market, paired Lee with a writer to create a new graphic series that will debut next year.

Most of the young creative types in the Artist's Alley area displayed portfolios of sketches for sale or offered to create unique souvenirs based on customer requests. You could get a small chibi, an anime{acute}-style caricature of yourself, for $5. For twice that, Kate Barr, an artist-writer with Ryuhana Press, would do a pen-and-marker character sketch to your specifications.

Grace Poltrack, 12, of Reston wanted "an angel with purple hair, a little bit Goth and wearing a really cool outfit."

As befits one fulfilling fantasies, Barr dutifully wrote the directives on the back of a sketch board. Poltrack's breathless opinion, when she saw the results at day's end: "Awesome!"

Kamui Motoaki, above, of Stafford made a costume like Squall's in the Final Fantasy game. Below, Hidenori Matsubara directed animation for the film "Ah! My Goddess."