15 Minutes of Fame: Break down the process of creating Abotu's figure for us.
Abotu: Well, I really liked how Trolls looked in WoW, so of course my instinct was "make a toy of that." I had one of those Tomb Raider figures, so I knew they were really well-constructed, so I bought another one on sale.
I bought an X-Men Nightcrawler, thinking his hands and feet would be perfect for a Troll, but they ended up not being perfect (so that ended up being a lot more work than I thought). Probably would have been easier to make them from scratch, but I'm glad I kept the extra articulation. I attached the new hands and feet by drilling out the old pegs and replacing them with bamboo skewers. If they were too loose, I would pour some Krazy Glue on them and twist them around in there until it dried. That's tricky, because if I let go too soon, the glue sets up and it's stuck in there.
I didn't like the hip joints on the Lara Croft figure -- she was only designed to strike one or two sexy poses and had trouble crouching or sitting down -- so I did some weird surgery on the figure and changed the way her legs moved. That took a couple days, but it worked really well.
After that I began the long, slow process of sculpting leather armor onto the figure, which was really an exercise in patience. There are 32 points of articulation, and every one basically adds an extra step to the process, because I have to sculpt around it. You know, I look at these guys that do statues and I think, "You've got the easy job, buddy." It's a whole lot easier to make a figure without moving parts!
Anyway, that was really where the skill took over. It's hard to explain "how" I sculpt. I grab a piece of clay, and I do it. I've been sculpting all my life, so it's just second nature. If you want to be good at sculpting, do it for 20-some years and I promise you'll get good at it. Don't be afraid to just dig in and screw up a few times if you want to do this. Toys are cheap. Sculpey is cheap.
I will say that I made a little tool for all the tiny rivets. It was a bamboo skewer with a little hole drilled in the tip, and when I pressed it gently into the clay it would leave a little rivet-shaped mark. That saved a modicum of time.
I used a special kind of clay called "Sculpey Flex" for a lot of parts that overlapped, most notably those loincloth-looking flaps, the shoulder pads and her ears. It's really tough stuff to sculpt with, very gooey texture, so I had to sort of build up each piece in small layers and bake them in between. The end result are pieces that feel rubbery and flex without cracking, so I can still move her arms and legs around pretty freely without breaking anything. I've used the stuff before, but not so extensively.
The best way I've found to make blades for little swords is to carve them out of wood. I used Popsicle sticks in this case, which are very easy to carve. I built armatures for the finger guard things out of thin cardboard, Krazy-Glued in place, and built details on top of that with Sculpey. The finger guards are really there to keep the daggers from falling out of her hands, because those finger joints are a little wobbly! I made the scabbards by wrapping the blades in paper and sculpting over that with Sculpey flex. Tip to modders: That is a really easy way to make realistic scabbards/holsters for just about any kind of weapon or accessory.
The head and face
I did the head last. I always do the head last when I make a figure, because by that point I really have the character's "personality" figured out. It also helps to get all the proportions right and make sure it looks natural.
It's also the fun part, in my opinion. I've made the mistake before of sculpting the face before I'm really done with the figure, and it kinda kills my momentum on a project, because I don't have that to look forward to anymore. It's best to build up a face in layers, pre-baking in between. I started with sort of a skull shape with eyeballs and tusks, baked that, built a face over it, baked that, then added ears.
The braids were made from boot laces. I went shopping and picked out some that were dark brown and really chunky. I drilled a bunch of holes in the back of her head, and I'd plug a bit of boot lace into each one. I cut the little plastic bit off one end and burned it with a lighter so it would melt, twisted it to a point, stuck it into her head and glued it. Wrapped a bit of thin copper wire at the end of that "braid," cut the lace, and there's one braid. Repeat 9 times. I had to carefully unravel and trim the ends of each braid so they looked like hair instead of tassels.
At that point, it was painting time. I popped the figure apart into as many pieces as I could and got to work with acrylic model paint, mostly Testor's and Citadel. There are a whole lot of painting tutorials online that explain it better than I could, but I made lots of use of dry brushing, washes, clear coats, all that good stuff.
The skin tone was tricky. It's hard to see in photos, but I used layer upon layer of dry-brushed blues, greens, browns and pinks. To get the green to pop out more, I actually mixed in a little bit of fluorescent paint.
The eyes are always the last step, because they're so easy to mess up. Gotta warm up to it. It took me a couple of tries to make both her pupils the same size and pointing in the same direction. I usually mix in metallic paint for a figure's irises, because it gives them a nice sparkle.
Wow. What about your other custom figures?
I've done occasional custom jobs for money, but the vast majority have either been just things I wanted for myself or gifts for friends. I've made a few sets of personalized "cake topper" bride and groom portrait figures for couples I know that got married. That's always fun, but those deadlines are serious business!
I did get hired once to make a toy prototype for a small company, but it didn't go into production. They liked what I came up with, but they decided to stay out of the toy business. I won't name names.
What's ahead for you and your customs?
It wasn't until recently, when I lost my day job, that I thought I should start putting together some real showpieces and try to get my name out there a little bit. That's how I ended up spending two months on Abotu there. It got a bigger reaction than I expected right out of the gate, so that's cool!
We'd agree. Best of luck getting your work out there!