Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Jim McPherson: A Digital Interview About Digital Sculpting

When putting together Pop Sculpture, we knew we wanted to touch on digital sculpting in some way. Luckily, Rubén knew Jim McPherson, 3D Art Director and one of the lead sculptors at Gentle Giant Studio, and he was willing to share some info about the process. While his insight is included in the book, we didn’t get a chance to get into his prolific career, which includes makeup design with the legendary Rick Baker, as well as iconic pieces for DC Direct, Electric Tiki and more. Read on for the complete interview!

What made you want to become a sculptor? How did you get into the business?

Jim McPherson:
I was really inspired by the early toys from Ideal, Captain Action and especially the Justice League/Batman Playset. I'm not sure how many people sculpted on these, or if it was mainly one really talented guy. The figures are very naturalistic, but also it seems to me that the comics the characters came from were looked at very carefully. I'm guessing they pulled a Wonder Woman comic, an Aquaman, a Justice League of America and a Dick Sprang Batman Annual among others. There's a perfect Dick Sprang-style Joker in the set, for instance. Captain Action's Captain America Mask looks a bit like Jack Kirby's design, and the Aquaman looks like Nick Cardy's. It's sort of the early version of now, when Tim Bruckner does dead-on Alex Ross figures. I was really impressed by that.

I loved The Munsters, which got me interested in makeup. I loved the Adventures of Superman and Batman TV shows, which got me interested in toys and comic art. I wanted to be a comic book artist, but I had always done sculptures. In college, I decided I liked sculpting a lot more. I actually walked into a company called the Puppet Workshop and got a job sculpting puppets and walkaround costumes and performing in the puppet show(!).

I moved to New York, sculpted on music videos and commercials and Broadway shows and then moved to California, showed my portfolio and got work helping out on Howard the Duck ( the makeup on Jeffrey Jones, not the Duck). Eventually I got hired at Rick Baker's and did a lot of behind-the-scenes character design work, which is really my favorite thing to do. Rick mainly sculpted his character designs in clay. Sometimes he did airbrush paintings. I do a lot of character design and visual development now, and use much of what I've learned from Rick and the other great artists who worked for him.

I saw on your Website that you sculpted the stretchy-face Ash prosthetic from Army of Darkness?

Yes, he was Plastic Man and didn't know it! Plus, stage one was made to look like Fred Gwynne (of The Munsters), but I never told anyone until after it was on film.

What material did you work in before you went to digital?

I worked in Plasticine (oil-based) and WED (water-based) clay on all the film sculptures, and Sculpey for toys. I wish I had used wax, but I didn't want to make any more molds, so I spent weeks sanding the Electric Tiki sculpts until every scratch was gone. Maybe I should have suffered with a few more molds and some wax burns.

When did you first go to digital? Did a specific project prompt the move?

A friend, Chris Bailey, was developing his own short called "Major Damage." I did Sculpey maquettes for Major Damage himself. I asked if I could learn how to build digital models, too, and he got some sponsorships from Maya and Hewlett-Packard, so I was able to work on the computers those companies lent to the project. I ended up modeling the Giant Stone Tikis that are in the short.

What program do you use?

I use Zbrush, but any high-poly sculpting program will work. I like the advantage of painting my sculptures while I'm sculpting them. The client and the artist have a much better idea of what the final painted product will look like, in my opinion.

What are the benefits of working with a digital program over traditional sculpting?

A large part of what I do is character design, and I used to design film characters as clay maquettes. Doing them in the computer is a lot faster, and often directors and Visual Effects Supervisors sit with me, and we collaborate on the designs. I can actually save many versions in the same file, so that I can easily flip through them and see which ones I like best.

I did a sculpture of a walking, crouched dragon for Reign of Fire traditionally, It had armatured wings which had clay on both sides, and I was constantly grinding away the armature to get the sculpture to look thin enough. Years later, I designed my own dragon digitally. I have a printout of it at my desk and a casting of the Reign of Fire dragon, also. Rick Baker came by one day and said "the digital one is way better." I can see a big difference in just the sculptural quality. On the traditional piece, at a point I could no longer change the armature without having to re-sculpt something that had already taken many hours to do. I was stuck with things I didn't like and had to give up on improvements. Digitally, I could change the pose and proportions all the way up until I was done. I have no more problems with "make the head 10 percent smaller" critiques from a client. In traditional sculpting that's an unpaid "do over."

Does traditional sculpting experience help you as a digital sculptor?

Of course. I think about everything the exact same way I always did. I still have to pick up tools off a table and add or subtract clay to try to achieve what I think is good sculpture. Except now I pick my tool up off a menu on a computer screen. I've done a 7-foot figure and a 12-foot cartoon shark back in the day; now we're milling figures larger than this, which are sculpted digitally. Learning about how form creates character applies to all three-dimensional work.

Do you still send physical prototypes to the factory for tooling? If so, do you output and prep them yourself, or send the digital files directly to the client?

We have printers at Gentle Giant. One of the printers we use mostly for small action figure parts, as it leaves no artifacts to be cleaned up. But we do whatever output and prep that is necessary in-house. We do send digital character files out for films and sometimes don't print a physical copy.

What are some pieces you've sculpted the traditional way, and what are some you've sculpted digitally?

Actual traditional sculpted products include the early Spumco Dolls and Pencil toppers -- Jimmy, George Liquor and Sody Pop -- and nine of the earliest figures for Tracy Lee's Electric Tiki design. These were all done in Super Sculpey. Digitally, I've sculpted a Will Eisner Spirit PVC for Dark Horse, the Batman Year One Statue designed by David Mazzucchelli, and two Superman action figures for the Superman vs. Doomsday animated line. I also do a large number of likenesses for actors and sports action figures digitally.

What is your favorite traditionally sculpted piece of your own?

A seven-foot Zeus sculpture for Jekyll & Hyde's Restaurant in New York City that I sculpted at Creative Character Engineering. My favorite makeup is the Planet of the Apes orangutan makeup test, and my favorite digital piece is my Atomic Dragon...


  1. Love the book! Its fricken awesome! My pre-order came in ages ago and its my new bathroom reading (sorry 10th Anniv. Toyfare collection) ever since.

    I been talking about doing my own casting for years, and well I guess I have no excuse not to do it. So I guess my customizing hobby will now turn into a figure making hobby.

    So damn good.

  2. My husband put the book on his Christmas list so I came to check it out - but FYI - the link to Tim's site goes to some place a little more . . . adult.