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!


  1. I remember seeing photos of Badrock at trade shows and the prototype photos for the Youngblood busts through Wizard and maybe even Hero magazines back in the 90s.

    It's a small world that you worked on them! GREAT meeting you at PMC2! Looking forward to more of your work!

  2. I have that Badrock bust, and love it. I would Die for that DieHard Bust!