Friday, December 31, 2010

Happy New Year! The Guild Hall

It’s almost frightening that I remember writing my “2 blogs a month” resolution in the blog I posted last New Year’s eve as if it were just a few weeks ago! This year went by so fast! Maybe the Earth is rotating faster? Or, maybe it’s just been an incredibly busy year. I think the latter theory is the easier answer, and doesn’t require elaborate scientific testing to prove!

I almost honored my resolution fully, but there have been a few months where things got so crazy I couldn’t check my email, let alone blog! My apologizes for the inconsistent postings, but the bright side is that all of the busyness means so much more to blog about!

Since these are the last few hours to post in 2010, I will tell you about my favorite project this year: The Guild Hall!

I’m sure I need not tell you that this project was for Felicia Day’s THE GUILD. I’m also sure that you have already seen season 4 of the show. If not, you are missing out! Definitely check it out. No, really. Go now. I’ll wait. We have till midnight…

The Guild is a show about a group of gamers. We follow them in their daily lives, and see how the game affects their social interactions. Or, lack there of. But, for the first three seasons, we never got to see what this game was that so influenced their lives. The music video “Do You Want to Date My Avatar?” gave us a peek at what Codex and friends looked like as their avatars, but it still didn’t reveal the world the game was played in. So it was very exciting for me to be able to create the first realized view of the Guild’s “in-game” universe.

Felicia had a general sense of what she wanted for the Guild Hall, mostly centering around Vork’s need for a very practical, minimal aesthetic. She described it in the script as cold and pointy, like you would hurt yourself just leaning against the wall. One of the character’s line of dialog was, “It looks like a prison in here!” So that’s where I started in the concept process.

The bigger question was how to execute the hall. We knew we were going to shoot the actors on a green screen and composite them in. But into what? A CG model? A series of matte paintings? There are many ways you can go about the effect, but I personally favor using miniatures.

My fear with pure CG was that, with our limited budget and time, we might not be able to control how convincing the effect would be. I felt that with a physical model, we could see what we were filming in real time, and make adjustments in camera to get it the way we wanted.

Sean Becker, the Guild director, and Chris Darnell, Guild director of photography, were completely on board with the idea. The thought of having an old school model suddenly made the Guild feel more like Star Wars or Lord of the Rings!

Photo #1: But planning was everything in order to fuse the real actors into the small scale miniature, so I began with a crude “white model” so that everyone could understand the space and how to move the actors around in it. On the green screen day, there was no environment to speak of, so it was really important that we kept all the heights and distances of the imaginary Guild Hall in mind, so everything lined up with the miniature Guild Hall later. This foam core and paper towel tube version of the model was used to do that, and the little plastic soldiers helped us keep track of where the actors were during the many shots filmed.

Photo #2: Once everyone was happy with the size and scale of the white model, I bumped it up to a more suitable scale for filming. Movie miniatures are usually not small! Actually, up until ILM did Star Wars, they were often huge. This is so there is no lack of detail when the film is projected 20 feet high. The bigger the model, the more real it will look. I chose to make the Guild Hall 8 feet long, 4 feet wide, and 3 feet tall. Way smaller than it would be in real life, but compact enough that it would fit in my truck if we needed to take it off lot for filming! The final scale actually ended up being ¾ inch equals 1 foot.

Kirsten and Nick built the shell from 1x3 and ½ inch ply. All the walls are “wild”, meaning that they can be removed one at a time so the camera can film from all sides. We put all the walls together, and Nick climbed inside to build the columns. This way, we knew everything would line up after we took it back apart.

Photo #3: In order to achieve the “pointy” look Felicia called out in the script, I decided to cover the walls in a series of spiky pyramids. I started by sculpting a single pyramid, made a mold, cast 15 more, glued them together as a plate, molded that, then Nick and Bryan spent the next week casting hundreds of those!

Photo #4: The center columns were made of PVC pipe and blocks of wood attached to the ends. These were covered in the pyramid plates, and the corners were filled with Bondo. A light coating of Bondo was stippled over the entire column to give it a rough stone quality.

Photo #5: Back in the box! Just happy to not be casting more pyramid plates, Nick and Bryan spent hours gluing all of the plates around the two-tiered lower wall. They needed to line up perfectly, because remember, what might seem like a ¼ inch difference to the naked eye will look like 3 inches on camera! (203)

Photo #6: Once all the plates were in, we taped off the outline of the walls, removed the walls, then used Bondo to create the cobblestone floor. Nick mixed batches of the Bondo, which sets in about a minute, Bryan would spread it in roughly one-foot square areas on the wooden base, and I would use a popsicle stick to carve in the individual stones. Right before the Bondo fully cured, I would brush it down with acetone to remove the sharp edges and give it a more organic look.

Photo #7: The next major element was the giant Vork statue. This was never mentioned in the script, but Felicia and I agreed that it goes without saying, if Vork built his own Guild Hall, it would have an enormous statue in his likeness!

Originally, I had secretly hoped to be able to use the Vork Unbreakable Bank I made last Christmas for the head, but the scale was way to large. In the end, it worked out for the better since I decided to sculpt him in more of a harsh imperial style.

I started, as always, with a wire armature.

Photo #8: Then I roughed him out in roma plastilina.

Photo #9: I did, however, use the Vork Unbreakable Bank as a reference! Dimensional reference always helps move things along faster than 2D reference, and I find that it helps even more when you created that reference in the first place! It’s like a sense memory thing, I guess.

Photo #10: Here’s the Vork sculpture complete. I carved in some chips and cracks to make it look like weathered stone. But the statue is still missing the sword he is resting his hands on. I decided to do that as a separate element.

Photo #11: I took some measurements for the sword, then started the molding process on the statue. I used a silicone matrix mold with a fiberglass jacket, which you can read about in another Guild post I did last January, GUILD XMAS BLOG 2: CLARA MOMMY AND ME COOKIE JAR.

This is during the prep for the back half of the mold. Now is a good time for jokes about Vork having a stick up his…

Photo #12: The silicone can take up to 24 hours to cure, so I used the time to make other elements of the hall, including the miniature version of Vork’s sword. I made it the exact same way I did the full sized sword, only, well, miniature!

Photo #13: When the Vork mold was done, I cast up a copy out of 1630 urethane backed with expanding rigid polyfoam. After he was cleaned up, I placed him in the hall and we primed the whole thing.

Photo #14: The primer dried pretty fast, and painting began. I used the gray primer as the base color, and did a series of acrylic washes to model up the walls. I let the acrylic pool inside the deep textures, and kept colors darker in the shadows. We wiped the washes off with rags, using more pressure on the forward surfaces so there was less wash up front. This created a very gradated coloring, and made the faux stone look ancient.

I also did an overall wash of Payne’s gray on the floor, then went in with browns and grays to accent individual stones.

Photo #15: The Vork statue also got a Payne’s gray wash, but I added a few other layers of color to help separate him from the background. I also painted in some drips and runs, and gave a final light gray dry brush to pop the highlights.

Photo #16: And in case you are wondering, this statue is indeed Vork approved!

Photo #17: As the gang did final touches to painting the miniature, I went back to the desk to do some miniature paintings!

Even though this is Vork’s vision of the ideal Guild Hall, director Sean Becker wanted to make sure the rest of the guild was represented, too. So we decided to hang large tapestries of them on the walls between columns.

I though it would be funny to do the paintings in a darker style, showing more imposing versions of the Guild, like the oil paintings of 16th century monarchs. I did them in acrylic on canvas, so there would be a lot of texture. Technically, brush strokes and canvas weave wouldn’t read at this scale, but sometimes you have to push reality aside to sell an idea when it flashes by in a few frames!

Photo #18: Every column in the hall has a sconce, and the intention from the beginning was to have fire in them. As a general rule, the two things you should avoid the most in miniature photography are fire and water. You just can’t change their scale, so it’s hard to get them to look like they fit in a scaled down environment. We decided early on that Mazin would add the sconce fire digitally, but we still needed practical interactive light to help marry the CG fire into the physical model.

So Maz took apart a half dozen superbright LED flashlights and rewired them so every sconce projected a pool of cool light on each column.

Photo #19: And then filming began! Chris Darnell set up lights to simulate sun coming through the windows, raking across the hall is stark beams. We used a fogger to create a little atmosphere and diffuse the light.

Ultimately, we decided it would be easiest to shoot at the BarnYard. We left the model outside so we had more room, and it was easier to control the fog. But we shot at night so that the only light we had to deal with was what Chris provided.

Photo #20: When watching a film, you often forget how wonderful movie magic can be. This is the miniature of the Guild Hall from outside the camera. A wooden box and a few lights…

Photo #21: But this is the Guild Hall from the camera’s point of view! I love my job J

Photo #22: We started shooting from the front of the hall for 3 reasons. One, it was already set up that way from when we were building it. Two, majority of the shots were in that direction. And, most importantly, three, I wasn’t finished with the front wall yet!

Photo #23: Chris set up a mini motion control rig to get the dolly shots for the end of episode 11 and the beginning of episode 12. The rig was necessary because the shots needed to be perfectly smooth in order for us to be able to track and composite the actors in later. Doing it by hand, even with dolly track, would make it to uneven and create flutter in the composite.

Photo #24: After the big tracking shots, we removed the left wall and moved in for coverage around the base of Vork’s statue.

Even though it seems like we have a bunch of fancy equipment (we borrowed it!), we are still a very small production. With a very small crew. Bryan, Nick, Maz, and myself kept building, dressing, and arranging the set as Sean, Chris, and Kim handled the production.

Here, Sean operates the fog machine as Chris lines up a shot.

Photo #25: So we are on the second wall, and it’s about 1am. Kim got us some 7-11 coffees, and we took a quick break. And what better thing to do on break than get some love from the French bulldog Art!

Photo #26: Kim couldn't play with Art for long, there was so much to do! But he wasn’t giving up that easily! He found her computer bag and made himself at home on it, sleeping there for the rest of the night as we worked away!

Photo #27: Print managed to find a warm spot, too. Warm, yes, but safe? He’s a rebel, living on the edge.

Photo #28: After the break, I was finally finished with the front wall! The delay was caused by my compulsive need to actually put Vork’s self-indulgent gargoyles in the model. I thought Jeff’s delivery of that line was hilarious in the show, and I wanted to add that element into the model, but I ran out of time. Until I realized that if we shot that wall last, I could squeeze them in during filming. So, there I am squeezing in through the front door to finish them!

Photo #29: In the words of Kim Evey, “Creepy!” Yes, but funny, too! And of course, the Knights of Good royal crest above the door.

Photo #30: In order to make sure that the green screen elements matched up with our new model plates, Mazin did a quick 3D model of the Guild Hall and composited the actors into it for every shot. Essentially, this was our “pre-viz”, like live action storyboards. This helped Sean and Chris decide where the camera needed to be in order to match our real set with the virtual set we mapped out on the green screen day.

Photo #31: Another helpful device was the use of a perfectly scaled figure to help line up the shots. Especially with close-ups on actors, we always wanted to make sure that the backgrounds behind them were at the right height and the figure help to find the exact camera position.

Turns out the figure that worked best was one I did of Playboy model Alley Baggett for our Image comic “Alley Cat”. Luckily, I have a few of those around! Want one?

Photo #32: A solid 12 hours of shooting and the Guild Hall was wrapped!

Photo #33: And not a moment too soon! The sun was rising as we cut on the last shot.

Photo #34: There was a bunch of compositing and after effects to do still, but that’s another blog for sure!

The Guild Hall model is still around, so hopefully you will see it again soon!

That you for all the support you have shown my blog this past year! I can’t promise that I will post more often or regularly in 2011, but I can promise for sure that there will be many more exciting projects to share with you. The year hasn’t even started and I’m booked solid till next winter!

And if you feel like you need more BarnYard FX right now, check out my Guild Season 4 bonus feature, "Painting Team Cawkes!" It's a free download exclusively on itunes! Oh, and don't forget to pick up The Guild Season 4 on dvd!

Hope everyone has a fun, safe night, and an exciting new year!

Your friend,


Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Legends in 3 Dimensions Part 3

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Legends in 3 Dimensions Part 2

I received an overwhelming amount of mail from people saying that they either already owned an L3D piece, or that they were now seeking one out on eBay after the last blog about my sculpture house. I often look myself to see what’s available, as the original Legends line-up has been out of stock for almost a decade, and I’m always curious as to what the demand might be for them. There are a few pieces that seem to always turn up, and then a few others that just never make themselves available. Hopefully you can find the one that interests you the most!

Photo 1: The most popular by far, and probably the sculpt that got the most attention from collectors and critics alike, was my rendition of the Green Goblin. I presented to Marvel the idea of doing a “Versus” line, pairings of heroes and villains, squaring off face to face, yet still capable of standing alone if the collector only favored one or the other.

The first in the series was Spiderman, to be followed by his nemesis, the Green Goblin. I was able to convince the creative execs at Marvel to let me do my own interpretation of their characters, and I picked my favorite traits from various incarnations to design these busts.

The web-shooter wrist mechanism as Spidey’s base is probably my favorite of all the L3D bases. I took the design right out of a John Romita comic, and it fit perfectly. Stan Lee told me this bust was his favorite sculpture of Spiderman, and it can often be seen in the background of his publicity photos.

Photo 2: Even though the Goblin is a mask, I wanted to portray my portrait as a living entity. And I wanted to give the static piece a sense of flying, as if he was standing on his glider in hot pursuit of the web slinger. With pointed ears and twirling hat, this ended up being one of the most challenging busts to manufacture. A lot of times, sculptures will be done as one whole unit, and artists will let the factories decide how to separate the components and engineer the final fit. But you can never guarantee the outcome, and the art usually gets altered. So I try to do all the engineering as I sculpt the piece, keeping all the parts separate, as they will ultimately be molded.

Photo 3: Things started getting really busy for me as L3D got more and more licenses. I was travelling back to China more often, all along still working on film and television projects. I found that I was able to get the most sculpting done on the plane during the 14-hour flight to HK! Of course, I can’t do that any more, now that I’m not even allowed to carry on nail clippers, never mind xacto knives and sculpting tools!

Photo 4: My Marvel busts became very popular, getting a lot of press and prominent store placement. The popped up everywhere, like this ad for Sassy’s Satellite, a kit and collectible company out of New York. I started to feel like the hatred for pre-painted statues was beginning to dissipate. Fans were embracing the option of having a “model kit” that they didn’t need to build themselves.

Photo 5: We leveraged all the press to convince other studios to let me create pre-painted versions of some of their older licenses, things I loved as a kid but couldn’t get product for anymore. Battlestar Galactica was at the top of that list.

I know it sounds weird now that BSG is a household topic again, but in the mid 90’s, it was a forgotten relic of the 70’s. Often considered the “poor man’s Star Wars”, the original Galactica suffered a barrage of bad merchandising mishaps, including a young boy choking to death on a Viper missile which led to mass recall, and the cancellation of the rocket firing Boba Fett!

I had to beg Universal to let me shake the Galactica from the mothballs, a process that took several months. At the same time, Rob Liefeld pitched a new comic series to them. We finally convinced them there was enough interest that they gave us the go-ahead. Of course, the first piece I did was the Battlestar herself. I wanted the final product to be amazing, so I brought in my friend Ron Mendell to help me. He’s the best model builder I know, and he added an amazing level of detail to the Galactica.

Photo 6: As with all the licenses I took on, I had a whole series planned. BSG was meant to be a 5-piece collection. This Cylon Base ship was the second installment, and unfortunately the last.

Photo 7: This Cylon fleet had me more scared than a lone colonial pilot. I didn’t think it would ever leave the factory. Not because of lack of fan interest, but quite the opposite. Liefeld’s comic flew off the selves, and my prototypes received all kinds of press. The studio started getting a lot of movement on Galactica, which had been an idle property for 15 years. They started reissuing old licenses, and a rush of toys and model kits hit the stores at the same time my high-end collectible ships did. My limited edition of 1,978 pieces crawled out of the warehouse at $149.00 each, not able to compete with the under $20 toy reissues, and I had to pull the plug. I thought I was saving the best for last, but I never got that far. So you’ll have to visit my workshop if you ever want to see the Viper, the Raider, or the Cylon Centurion bust up close!

Photo 8: A completely different experience was had with the L3D Terminator line. I had originally only intended to do the Endoskeleton, and possibly talk Arnold, er, the Governor, into a bust. But Universal was developing the T2-3D attraction at studio tour, and they took a liking to the idea of a high-end collectible line for the gift shop. So I expanded with a miniature Flying Hunter Killer diorama.

Photo 9: The Hunter Killer tank followed, complete with crushed skulls. I was surprised how dark I was allowed to make the pieces, considering they would be for sale at a theme park.

Photo 10: I worked on Terminator 2, but not in the model shop. So it was an awesome experience to go down to Digital Domain and study the screen used models. They where flawlessly executed, and I did my best to capture all of the detail in such a small scale.

Unlike the busts, starships and vehicles start out with foam and plastic rather than clay. The basic shape of the tank was carved in a high density urethane foam, coated in a thin layer of glazing putty, sanded smooth, then finished with etched in detai

Photo 11: The Endoskeleton was a hybrid between a sculpt and a model build. I did the basic skull in super sculpey, baked it, sanded it, and then added plastic and metal details for the mechanical elements.

The studio really wanted LEDs in the eyes, but I felt strongly against it, believing it transformed the piece from a statue to a toy. Ironically, they did use my sculpture to make a toy. And a bottle topper. And a glowy flashlight thing. I think there ended up being 7 varieties of my sculpture available at Universal Studios, but I was proud of the fact that, despite the cheaper toy versions, the original cold cast porcelain version continued to sell out.

Photo 12: I think I may have cried when I got the phone call saying Paramount had agreed to give L3D the Star Trek license. I had always been a fan, and even more so had a great appreciation for the groundwork Roddenberry had laid for both science fiction and merchandising. I had had the honor of working on Star Trek before, but to actually have the title in my own line was something I could have only dreamed about.

But where to start? The Star Trek universe is ever expanding, and there is so much history in the lore. The original series was the obvious choice, but the studio was vague about its tangled web of likeness rights and approval procedures. The Next Generation was a random launching point, but First Contact was in pre-production, and it seemed like there could be some Cinergy in the cross promotion.

Locutus of Borg was my first Star Trek bust, and probably my most memorable experience while doing L3D. Patrick Stewart agreed to model for me as I sculpted, and I was to work in his private trailer between shooting scenes for First Contact. I had it in my head that I would be meeting the stern, uniformed captain of the Enterprise, and when I said I was there to sculpt his portrait, he would say, “Make it so.”

Instead, I met the soft-spoken British actor, wearing a bathrobe, who offered me tea and introduced me to his cat, who enjoyed sleeping on my lap as I worked.

Photo 13: Locutus was also the first release where the edition numbers where engraved on the base. I sculpted the edition size into the mold, but the factory was having difficulty matching the style for each individual edition number. So they were shipped to LA, where I opened each one and hand numbered them myself. Because of the movie release, Paramount had requested a limited edition of 5,000! That’s a lot of numbers to Dremel in! I started getting sloppy around 600, so I apologize if you own a higher number. Luckily, we ironed out the problem at the factory for all future editions, and Locutus was the one and only time I had to do it myself. Well, one and only 5,000 times…

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Nightmare before Christmas 4D!!!!

So what's your favorite movie? I know...Labou! Ok, so what's your second favorite? Probably, Tim Burton's NIGHTMARE BEFORE CHRISTMAS!

One again, Disney's El Capitan theater is doing a special holiday run of this classic Halloween/Christmas cross-over. They've done it in 3D for several years now, but this time it's in 4D! I don't know how that will play out exactly, but I sure wanted to see for myself. I was able to get a hold of 6 tickets for opening night, which is tonite (10/21/10) Unfortunately, a very important event came up and conflicted my schedule. So I'm offering my tickets up to whoever asks for them!

Oh, and did I mention that my buddy Danny Elfman is hosting tonite's screening? It's the only night he will be there, and it obviously sold out quite some time ago. And it gets better! You don't need to stand in line or worry about sitting all the way up front, because I have VIP tickets. Assigned seats, no waiting, and free popcorn and beverage. Damn, this is depressing me as I write this.

The good news for me is I get to be the special guest at tonite's Hammer Improv show with the funniest people I know: Felicia Day, Sandeep Parikh, Jeff Lewis, Tony Janning, Alex Albrecht, Tara Perry, and Brooke Sequin. You may know those guys from a few projects I've worked on. I definitely plan on laughing so hard I forget all about the Pumpkin King.

But, You can visit Halloween town for sure. Just tweet at me if you are interested @gregaronowitz I will be running around all day, so I won't have time to check comments on my blog. Just thought I'd post all the details here so you could see what its all about.

And if you don't get my tickets to Nightmare, definitely come to the Hammer Don't Hurt'Em show! Click here for more info.

Last thing! Sorry for not returning any Halloween costume inquiries. I never get any time to do stuff like that around the holidays. But be sure to check out past posts on this blog for tips and techniques on how to do your own!

Hope to hear from you soon,


Thursday, September 30, 2010

Legends in 3 Dimensions

Last weekend, I attended my friend @geekyfanboy’s 40th birthday party. There was great food, fun people, amazing cake, and a table of presents that could have just as well been for a 12 year old’s birthday! Tons of Firefly, Harry Potter, and Trek stuff. I wanted to give Kenny something personal, yet still fitting in the genres he loves. I chose to give him one of my last 1/2 scale Star Wars Greedo busts, as it is one of my favorite pieces I did under the Legends in 3D banner.

Everyone there liked the sculpture, and Kenny pointed out my picture on the box. Even the most in-the-know geeks, like Team Unicorn goddesses @micheleboyd and @thegamerchick, then asked me, “Did you work for Sideshow Collectibles? Or Gentle Giant?” Well, no. Actually, long before there was Sideshow or GG, I was helping convert the garage kit hobby business into a mass-market industry. No one seemed to know what I was talking about. So I came home and started writing this blog:

I have wanted to be an artist all my life. When other kids were playing sports or riding bikes, I was drawing or building models. I was told I could draw a glass of water when I was thirsty before I could actually speak the words to ask for one. I think I knew I wanted a career in art before I entered kindergarten.

But “artist” was not a popular life goal in New Jersey, where I grew up. It’s like Springsteen said his father told him, “You should be a lawyer. Make somethin’ of yourself”. Even if I had gone the rocker way like Bruce, Jersey would have been more accepting of my choice. But I can’t play guitar! So I had to prove that being an artist wasn’t just about pretty pictures. I started early, selling custom-made action figures in the schoolyard at 8 years old. By 10 I was painting holiday sale signs on local store windows, and by 14 I had expanded into doing illustrations for commercial firms and theater companies in Manhattan.

Of course, none of that satisfied my desire to work in film, but it did help me gather enough capitol to make my way to Los Angeles once I graduated high school. I found true happiness in Hollywood, getting to work on amazing projects, and with the people that inspired me to want to do this job in the first place.

I jumped around a lot early in my career, as previous blog entries will show, expanding outside of the film work I did. I spent some time prototyping for Mattel, made mass-production counter displays for retail chains, resin model kits for cult movie production companies. But I always loved working on the films the most. It was during the making of Batman Forever that I realized not only did the merchandise industry gain from the film business, it also molded it. I wasn’t surprised to have notes and input on Bat weapon designs from the film’s director or production designer, but I did find it interesting that companies like Nerf and McDonald’s had to have approval, and often changed things to suit their post-marketing needs. I also realized that anything I designed or built would later be mass-produced and gross an income beyond anything I originally got paid, or could imagine, for that matter.

I need to make it clear that I don’t do what I do for the money. If the film industry went belly up next week, I would still keep working on movies. If movies went away completely, I’d still work on web series! But, if there is a way to gain greater access to doing more of what I want to do, then I will seek that out. So I decided to get into merchandising. But not just as the designer. I wanted to actually start a merchandising company.

So I formed Legends in 3 Dimensions. This is the logo I designed. The actual art was done by my friend Matt Codd, who helped me a lot with the company. You’ve seen his work on movies such as Judge Dredd, Men in Black, and the above mentioned Batman Forever. I wanted something that inspired me the way Drew Struzan’s interpretation of the original ILM logo did. I chose the three Musketeers, each representing, well, a dimension, and holding one of the tools that would make the product they would grace possible. Originally the main guy had a pencil, but I ultimately changed it to a quill pen to fit the aesthetic better!

I started formulating the style of L3D while I was still doing garage kits. I write that as if everyone will now what that is, but I think the art of sculpting, casting, and selling un-official resin model kits out of the garage has been lost for 15 years! But in the early 90’s, mainstream pop-culture statues were pretty rare. There was an underground league of artists that immortalized dimensional versions of their favorite film, television, and comic icons. I did at least 30 kits myself, spending nights and weekends casting and packaging to sell at comic conventions, and yes, there used to be model kit conventions!

Almost all of the kits were fully body statues, action poses, scantily clad women, giant monsters. There was some amazingly cool stuff. But I felt that the one thing the market was missing was a category for the geek “professional”. I wanted to split the difference between snobby art and my nerd obsessions. My pitch was basically this: Everyone has the right to love sci-fi and fantasy. But if you walk into your lawyer’s office, and he has a desk full of Spiderman action figures, you might think twice about his professionalism. Not because it makes him any less of a lawyer, just because our culture has dictated a “place and time” for such things. But that’s not fair to fandom! I thought that if I represented Spiderman in the style of a classical bust, he might find a place among those leather bound law books and fit right in.

For my first experiment with this concept, around 1991, I chose General Urko from the Planet of the Apes series. I liked the expression John Chamber’s gorilla make up had, and the leather helmet and studded tunic reminded me of a Roman bust. I painted the original in a monochromatic brown scheme, which I though made it look more like a Llardo than a Kenner. This piece was intended to be a kit, so the design worked well in that it was only 3 parts: the solid head and shoulders, and the two helmet flaps.

I also incorporated the themed base, a column of coiled whip. This is something I would carry through all the L3D pieces, and something I smile at every time I see new companies doing.

Years later, I ran into director John Landis (The Blues Brothers, Animal House, American Werewolf in London, Coming to America) at a model kit show. He was a huge fan of the hobby, and as it turned out, a fan of mine! He told me he had purchased my Urko at a show a while back, and had it sitting on his desk. I have always loved his work, especially Michael Jackson’s Thriller video, so it was a great honor to hear that.

As I got L3D moving, I needed original product. I used my Planet of the Apes bust as a sample during my pitch meetings, but I didn’t OWN the license for it. I didn’t own the license for anything. And licenses are expensive. So I needed to create pieces that were original ideas, but not new characters that no one would be interested in. My first produced piece was a pirate skull wearing a leather bandana. It was generic, so I had the right to manufacture it, but it captured the essence of Disney’s Pirates of the Caribbean enough that the mouse agreed to sell it at the parks. This was a decade before the Johnny Depp blockbuster, so they were in need of interesting product for the “fresh off the ride” gift store.

That was a lucky break, though. What I didn’t want L3D to become was a cheesy novelty item manufacture. I didn’t want to do “generic spaceman” and “ cartoon rabbit” to sell to supermarkets and amusement parks. I wanted to pay homage to my favorite sci-fi heroes, and capture the frames of cartoons that made me happy as a child in sculpture form. But it wasn’t like that was an original idea, either. Merchandising was all around me. Star Wars is probably why I always assumed that everything was merchandised. Actually, it was so many of the horror stories I heard about early Star Wars product manufacturing, like sculpting action figures in the wrong proportions due to lack of reference, that made me want to start a company were the product we sold was created as close to the original source as possible. I wanted the designers of the subject I was sculpting to be involved, the actors to comment directly, I wanted to hold the props I was to recreate in my own hands. The studios told me I was crazy. The banks told me I was crazy. But it made sense to me. So I figured I better get a license from someone who knew I wasn’t crazy!

I went to my friend Rob Liefeld. Rob changed the comic book world by being the founding member of Image comics, and the first penciler to unbutton his jeans on national television. I worked with Rob previously to create full sized walk-around characters for the convention circuit, based on his comic Youngblood.

I also did a resin kit of the stone golem Badrock, along with a series of latex masks, which were very successful.

I had just finished a full figure kit of Youngblood’s team leader, Shaft, when I told Rob about my idea for a licensed line of busts. He decided to put Shaft on hold and gave me the rights to produce Youngblood as L3D product.

Rob also introduced me to Henry Unger, a licensing guru and manufacturing rep. Henry and his wife JoAnne saw the potential in my idea and signed on as my investors and partners. Henry took my Urko and the prototypes I made for Youngblood, like these DieHard busts, and began pitching potential licensors.

I needed to make multiple prototypes, because we would keep one in the workshop for reference, one to send out for approvals, and one or more to travel over seas for manufacturing bids.

And you though 3 Die Hards were a lot! I can honestly say there is no more awe-inspiring sight than an army of your own sculptures! L3D set up manufacturing in China, starting with Badrock. Our first runs were not limited edition, but we still manufactured limited amounts. I would fly back and forth between LA and Hong Kong regularly to make sure that each new batch matched the original prototype. Quality control was of the utmost importance.

Badrock was probably the best test to see how far I could push the mass production envelope. He was 6 separate pieces, 20 colors, had a length of real chain, and had to have his heavy shoulders solidly mounted onto his tiny base. I learned a lot from manufacturing this bust, and it helped me bridge the gap between garage kit making and overseas production.

I also wanted L3D to be more like fine art than commercial product. I put a lot of work into the originals, and at first I thought I could move on to the next sculpture once the prototype was shipped overseas. But I couldn’t help but to be actively involved with every piece on the assembly line. So the factory would set up all the finished product, and I would go through with arrow stickers and mark off all the blemished I wanted corrected. Fingerprints, paint overlap, bad seams. As I write this I realize I sound like a tyrant, but I was really trying to think like a consumer. If you are going to pay money for something, don’t you want it to be made really well?

From '94-'99, I ended up spending more time in China than at home! I learned a lot, gaining an appreciation for the culture as well as a greater understanding of how our culture affects the rest of the world. Things we take for granted everyday in the U.S. are amazing events in other parts of the world. I was there the night Hong Kong gained its independence from Britain. And the morning the HK stock market crashed. 16-year-old boys in uniforms were running through the city streets with M-16s, trying to keep the panicked crowds in check. But one of the craziest things I saw was this never-ending line to get into the newly opened McDonald’s. People actually camped out on the street for days to try a Big Mac…

Henry was able to work his magic, and the studios finally started taking the “pre-painted market” seriously. The first major studio to bite was Paramount. Henry was trying to wrangle the Star Trek franchise, but Paramount was more interested in selling us their MTV division. At first, they were pushing hard for me to sculpt Beavis and Butthead. I though the show was funny, but I felt strongly that the property strayed from my “lawyer’s office” philosophy. Although, now, I think Beethoven-like busts of those guys would be priceless. But at the time, I didn’t see people lining up to buy them. Then, MTV said they had a new cartoon coming based on Sam Keith’s “The Maxx”. That got my attention. I knew Sam from my Image stint, and I thought his work was some of the most creative and fresh stuff out there. There were several versions of the character, and I liked that I could be the first to draft off of the new animated series.

I also liked that I could call Sam directly and learn what he really wanted the end product to be. We would talk for hours about everything except the sculpture, but somehow knowing more of what was in his head helped me understand The Maxx more. The final design came out of one of those conversations, where something Sam said inspired the idea of an Izz attacking Maxx in the garbage. He responded to the concept immediately, and had very specific ideas of what he wanted my focus to be, right down to the items in the trash!

MTV paired The Maxx with a surreal cartoon called Aeon Flux. I think the time slot was called "Liquid Television". Aeon Flux was an experimental avant-garde collection of bizarre shorts starring an unnaturally thin female assassin wearing skin tight black latex.

I was going to create the ONLY licensed physical representation of Aeon Flux, so Paramount was not comfortable with the bust concept. I pushed as hard as I could, but they dangled the Star Trek franchise out there, and I opt to make them happy. I mean, it wasn’t going to kill me to sculpt a half naked woman…

Coming from a background in sculpting for animatronics, it is my instinct to make things as symmetrical as humanly possible. Aeon proved to be a challenge, as creator Peter Chung pointed out that she was supposed to be awkward and irregular. Luckily, he was all for hanging out at my studio and assisting me on the sculpt. Aeon Flux is a monumental piece in the L3D line, because she was the first to be created to the fullest standard of the company’s mission statement. I have to laugh when I read old reviews in collector’s magazines, saying, “The sculpture doesn’t quite capture the character.” It was practically sculpted by the creator himself!

Peter liked the final product so much, he was kind enough to make a rare appearance and be my special guest during L3D’s premier year at comicon. He signed our statue, along with t-shirts and animation cells. He hung out at my booth all weekend doing sketches for fans. We sold out of Aeons by Saturday afternoon, and they have been hard to get a hold of ever since.

Next on board was the Crypt Keeper from Tales from the Crypt. The show had been on for years, and Kevin Yagher’s puppet host was a staple of the horror genre. I wanted to do the character reading from a tome, with a tombstone base.

I happened to be working on an unrealized version of Speed Racer at the time, which was being produced by Richard Donner (Superman, Lady Hawke) and Joel Silver (The Matrix, Die Hard) who were the original producers of TFTC. Every time I went into their offices, I saw the Crypt Keeper sitting in the corner. When my contract for the license was finalized, I asked Richard if I could borrow the display piece for a few days. He was reluctant at first, because it was one of Yagher’s original puppets, but eventually he had a truck deliver it to my studio! I was able to study every tendril of rotting flesh to make it as perfect as I possibly could.

One key element to the Crypt Keeper’s ghoulishness is his fogged over eyes. He has a definite cataract effect, which I achieved in my prototype by not-fully-mixing a drop of translucent white acrylic into a clear gloss. Unfortunately, the artists at the factory had a difficult time recreating this. They were amazingly talented, and I even have a hard time telling my originals from final product. But the cataracts kept getting painted too opaque, spotty, or non-existent. So I decided to paint them myself. I think there were 2,500 Crypt Keepers made, which means 5,000 eyes to paint! It took me about a week, and hopefully I will never have to do that again! But if you own a L3D Crypt Keeper bust, I painted those eyes!

The Crypt Keeper was also the last of the “white box product”. When I first started the company, the goal was to keep costs as low as possible so that the maximum effort could go into the statue itself. One idea was low cost packaging. The factories offered generic white boxes for pennies a piece. We were already spending a fortune on custom made Styrofoam inserts to make sure the statues didn’t break in transport, and I was used to shipping garage kits in brown UPS boxes, so it seemed fine. Until the first batch of product got delivered to the shop. A stack of generic, white boxes. Nothing says, “Don’t buy me” like a blank white box.

So the first run of product got stickers slapped on it to try and make the box more enticing. Badrock had a halftone image of one of Liefeld’s comic panels, and production designer Sean Hargreaves recreated an environment for Aeon Flux. Matt Codd did several beautiful pen and marker drawings for me to use as backgrounds, including this cemetery for the Crypt Keeper. I photoshopped it into a cover of the original comic book.

At this point, executives started recognizing the L3D brand, and hotter properties were becoming available to us. One of the biggest heroes on TV was the Tick, and I was invited to give him the bust treatment.

Once again, I was fortunate enough to be able to get as close to the source material as possible. Tick creator Ben Edlund came by the studio often during the various processes and gave me input. During the sculpting phase, he was afraid to mess with my version, so he took spare clay and roughed out his own Tick, focusing on the areas he though we should address. I had his version in a display case next to my finished product for years, but I realized it was too valuable to be left out in the open! That was probably around the time Ben started producing a little show called Firefly!

Around the end of ’96, things really started shaping up for L3D. We were getting a lot of press, and larger retailers started carrying our product. A lot of independent creators where asking me to create product for them, and it was difficult to decide which pieces to chose. I didn’t want to “sell out” and only do big properties, but at the same time, I wasn’t trying to be a sculpture house for hire. I really only wanted to do characters that inspired me. If I wasn’t excited about a property, I was worried my heart wouldn’t be in it, and that would be cheating the end consumer. Henry asked me to make a wish list of the properties I wanted, and he would do his best to license “a few of them”. Remember the old saying, “Be careful what you wish for…?”

Put it this way: I wanted to be an artist who made some stuff that you could own. I never imagined that my sculpting studio would need a full staff to keep it on track. In the four years I helmed L3D, I did 50 sculptures for 33 licenses. I though the only paperwork I would need to be involved with would have drawings on it, but there were contracts, deal memos, inventory sheets, purchase orders, you name it. We were manufacturing in Hong Kong, Mainland China, Thailand, and Taiwan. The time zones were flopped, so my fax machine would go off at 4 in the morning, and we would have to have conference calls in the middle of the night. Luckily, I had Gigi, Brian, and Meika to keep all of that in line. They handled the accounts, vendors, timelines, everything they could to keep my hands in the clay!

So much more L3D to talk about, like that classical Spiderman Bust I dreamed about making! But I'll get into that in L3D Part II!