JM: It’s safe to say that I’ve always been artistically inclined. I spent a lot of hours as a child doing both two-dimensional and three-dimensional experiments with my modest collection of art supplies. Some of my most enjoyable hours were spent using oil clay to make my own characters and have them act out a scenario.I was more seriously involved with painting and drawing in my teenage and early adult years, but I always retained a love of sculpture.
Throughout my time at CCAD I was doing sculptural work were I could reasonably fit it in as an answer to a class assignment, but never really saw it as a way to earn a living as an artist.
Not long after I graduated from art college, some school mates of mine began working at a small toy company in Columbus, Ohio called Resaurus. They recalled that I had done some sculptural work in school and were looking for someone to fill a sculpting position. I was working at an advertising agency at the time doing layouts and illustration. I got a call basically out of the blue from the Resaurus crew asking me if I still did any sculpture and if sculpting toys was something I’d be interested in trying.
My interest was piqued, and after a ridiculously brief and informal interview process, they offered me a freelance job doing an action figure for one of their current lines of toys.
They liked my work and immediately offered me a position. I’ve been doing collectibles ever since, and with some of the same people.
Jman: How did you get hired by DC Collectibles? Did they seek you out or did you go to them?
JM: I worked at Resaurus for maybe two years before it was clear they were in trouble financially. They began laying artists off slowly at first, and I was one of the last men standing before they closed their doors for good.
The group of Resaurus toy designers either formed their own small companies or moved on to other bigger outfits. The sculptors all went freelance, myself included.
I ended up doing work for the same toy designers in my freelance career as in my time at Resaurus, but each of them were working for a different toy company, so my portfolio became pretty well diversified fairly quickly.
I did freelance for several years for Palisades Toys, Plan B toys, Graphitti Design and a few others. During this period one of my fellow sculptors from Resaurus, Shawn Knapp, had gotten a job art directing for what was then DC Direct. He began to feed me a lot of work and since we had a history and worked well together, I was offered a position as one of their contract sculptors. I’ve been with them on exclusive contract for a little over a decade now.
Jman: How many action figures have you sculpted for DC Collectibles? Do they come to you with ideas already approved? Do you have any input in poses or styles?
JM: I think I’ve done somewhere around 75 or so action figures for DC. I’ve done 50 or so statues for them.
The process varies quite a bit, depending upon what DC needs from me. A lot of the figures I do are meant to be a three dimensional interpretation of a 2D artist’s drawing style. These figures necessarily take a more controlled approach. Sometimes the comic artist is involved in the process, providing drawings specifically for the toys, sometimes not. If drawings aren’t provided, I just look at the comic pages the artist in question is drawing and used that for reference. I know I’m finished when the sculpture evokes the drawings.
Some of the figures we do are more archetypical… “new 52 superman”, etc. In these cases, the creative process is pretty much down to whatever my art director and myself come up with. We will usually assemble a packet of reference from various comic sources and begin from there. The poses, physique and facial features usually evolve a bit during the process.
Finally, all figures have to pass an approval process within DC’s offices but once that’s been done, they head off to mass production.
Jman: How does the actual sculpting process work for you? How long does it typically take for you to sculpt an action figure? How about a statue? Do you prefer sculpting one over the other? Is there any real difference in the process of sculpting a figure compared to sculpting a statue?
JM: Any project I do for DC begins with character reference. How specific that reference need to be depends on what I described above.
When I have my character reference and size in height ( usually 6-7 inches tall for an action figure) I begin working up the figure in warm wax. I use a sculpting wax called castilene that is malleable when warm, pretty hard and inflexible when at room temperature. I’ll quickly block in the figure’s proportions to scale and let it stand to harden. From there, I’ll continue to massage in the details with dental tools, torches, sandpaper, etc.
I’ll usually work on any one figure anywhere from one to four weeks. The time is relative to the complexity of the action figure or statue.
The main differences between a statue and an action figure is scale and articulation. Action figures are almost always smaller than statues and they require me to cut in working articulation. All elbows, knees, wastes, wrists, etc. in the original wax action figure sculpture work just as they will in the mass produced piece.
Statues still have to be broken into parts for production, but they’ll be keyed back together using square pegs and corresponding square holes. I’ll cut any statue into parts at naturally occurring breaks in the surface detail of the costume in order to avoid an obvious cut line where it would detract from the look of the character. I’ll look for spots where a thigh comes in to super underwear, or where the neck comes in to the shirt collar. Tops of boots are good for break points. Things like that.
I can’t say I really prefer sculpting statues over action figures, as long as I’m not doing too much of one or the other. If I’ve been doing action figures for an extended period, it’s nice to switch gears and work on a statue. The reverse is true as well. Gotta have a little variety, even if it’s only in scale and breakdown.
Jman: You’ve said in the past that you sculpt primarily with castilene (a waxy type material), do you still sculpt that way? Do you do any digital sculpting?
JM: Currently every project I do is still in castilene. I guess I’m an old school traditionalist at this point.
I’m working with some digital sculpting, but am still very much in the “learning the program” phase. It has a lot of potential, but I admit the prospect of the industry going entirely digital makes me a little sad.
Jman: Is there anything in particular you prefer to sculpt (faces over hands, people over monsters, etc)? Anything that you put off until the end because you can’t stand it or it bores you?
JM: I think the most impactful parts of a sculpture are often the face and hands. They’re certainly the most intricate and expressive parts of the human form. Given their complexity and potential to make or break a piece of sculpture, I find them the most challenging and rewarding… and I often save them for last because they take the most time to get right. I’ll block in an entire figure at the beginning of my process and will include the hands and face, though they go through more of a refining process than the rest of the figure. The face and head in particular is the main area that my art director and I will go back and forth on.
I think it’s easier to make a monster (again, depending upon complexity) than a naturalistic human and can be a lot of fun. I can’t say I prefer to do monster or exaggerated characters over realistic ones… it really depends on what I’ve been working on the previous month. Again, gotta have that variety.
As for things I hate to sculpt- capes. So many of the characters I do have them and I’ll sometimes spend as much time on that one piece of the sculpture as I do on the rest of the project. Capes are great for adding expression to a static figure, but man that’s a lot of delicate surface area to finish!
Jman: How do you visualize a sculpture of a pose off a 2-D picture? Do you gather source materials? Or can you visualize how the end product will look without references?
JM: For the most part, I can see in my head in 3D what the 2D artist is intending for a pose on the comic page. Good 2D art is the illusion of 3D. There will always be some fudge factor with the pose from any other angle not represented in the drawing. It’s my job to make the pose work in all the angles not represented two dimensionally. I will occasionally gather some pose reference or shoot photos to help me along, but I can almost always just pick up and go right from the drawing. I have an effective working knowledge of human anatomy that I can draw from, and comic art is usually pretty stylized which adds more opportunity for interpretation.
Jman: What is the actual size that you sculpt an action figure? Is it bigger than the final product? How does the articulation get determined for an action figure? Do you sculpt a figure with the articulation in mind?
JM: Everything I do for DC is sculpted 1:1, exactly the size of the manufactured piece. Most of the heads I do for action figures are about the size of a thumbnail. Yes, I wear reading glasses while working.
As I said previously, the articulation on the figures I do has to work. I try to get as much range of motion in each point of articulation as I can while still preserving the aesthetic of the piece.
Typically, my art director will have determined prior to my starting a job where the articulation will be and what type of joint goes where. I’ll sometimes add one or two pivot spots where I can see they’d help and be well hidden, but mostly, the boss tells me what they want.
The joints we do are pretty standard: T-crotch, hinge elbows and knees, pivot wrists, biceps or thighs and ball jointed shoulders and head.
I’ll usually block in a figure for pose and physique and retrofit all the articulation.
Jman: What’s your involvement in the process after the sculpture is done and approved?
JM: I do my own prototyping for projects I sculpt.
After the sculpture is approved, I set up silicone molds for each individual part that makes up the complete sculpture. I do simple molds that involves me pouring liquid silicone over the original wax parts. When the silicone hardens to a semi soft rubber consistency, I use an exacto knife to cut each wax part out of the mold, leaving a hollow in the silicone the exact size and shape of the original part. When all original parts are removed from the molds, I pour liquid resin which hardens into a tough plastic into each mold to achieve a near perfect copy of all original parts of the sculpture.
I’ll do several copies of the entire sculpture, meticulously clean and patch each part where needed and re-assemble. When I’m finished, I have one casting that I send to DC from which the mass production molds will be produced. This casting is called the tooling pattern. I’ll do two additional castings that I painstakingly hand paint and also send to DC. One painted prototype they keep, the other they send to the factory to be used as a color pattern for the mass produced pieces.
Jman: Anything/anyone that you haven’t sculpted yet that you’d like to?
JM: There are a few characters that I’d enjoy doing. I’ve never done a Lobo or Etrigan the Demon. I’ve done a Darkseid, but love sculpting that character and would happily do more. Same with Big Barda.
Typically, if I haven’t yet done a sculpture of a particular character, I enjoy doing it.. there’s that variety again.
That said, the one exception is Batman. I’ve done a ton of Batman stuff, but love the character and never seem to get bored sculpting him. Even if he does have a big scalloped cape!
Jman: Of all your work to date, which has been your favorite piece?
JM: One of my best known and favorite pieces I sculpted was the Batman black and white statue based on Mike Mignola’s drawings. Two of my favorite things in one package.
Another of my favorites is a statue I did from Jae Lee’s drawing of Ozymandias from the Watchmen. I don’t think the statue sold that well, but I think it’s a really solid piece. Good design, with Ozy appearing to float above the ground in a meditative pose, supported by his cape. While sculpting this statue, my art director told me he wanted to flock (glue fuzzy material to) Ozy’s flowing purple robes. I cringed and thought it a bad idea, but it really works in production. The flocking adds a layer of textural interest usually not seen on statues smaller than 1/4 scale. I stand corrected.
Jman: What are some of your hobbies outside of illustrating/sculpting?
JM: Most of my hobbies are crafty or downright artistic, ranging from painting skateboard decks and RC car bodies to sketching and doodling.
I enjoy carpentry and occasionally putting together model kits. I’m one of those types of people who needs something to do with my hands, or else I feel out of sorts.
Many thanks to Jonathan for taking the time out of his busy schedule to answer my questions!
Wait! Don’t go yet! You haven’t checked out the latest episode of the Almost Internet Famous Internet show yet. Were talking Revoltech TMNT figures!