Toys! Happy Meals! Pez dispensers! We often take for granted all the little gewgaws that find their way into our everyday lives. Sure, some of them can be collectibles that end up being worth a fortune years down the road, but even then who really thinks much about how these cool little items come to be? Well, it turns out that Little Wonder Studio puts a lot of thought into exactly that topic – not just the technical aspect but also the artistic side. It also turns out that ZBrush has been a revolutionary tool for them! This interview has been a true pleasure to put together. Right in keeping with the company’s roots and traditions, you’ll discover that it is filled with a good sense of fun, side by side with great detail. We hope you enjoy it!
Could give us an overview of Little Wonder Studio, its history and what you do? What makes you unique as a company?
At the start of the new millennium our three founding members worked together at a small product development company. We mostly made promotional items given away by fast food restaurants. Things went along pretty smoothly until management changed and the overall vibe of the place became cold and corporate.
A large part of the manufacturing community gets all their work done in China. This includes their prototype sculptures. It results in lower overall cost for each individual product but the resulting products have a cold, stiff look and the appearance of characters done this way always seem to be a bit “off”. China has some amazingly proficient engineers and machinists. Factories there house all any manufacturer could need: production lines, packaging and electronics expertise under one roof. They can reproduce almost anything but what they have always lacked is insight into what makes a character.
We all work in this business because, like so many collectors out there we love movies, television, video games and animation. It is great when a client asks us to sculpt Batman, Bilbo Baggins or Donald Duck. The variety of projects is the best thing about our work. 98% of what we do is licensed characters.
We sculpt for mass production, so the line we walk is delicate. On the one hand, we want to capture the likeness, the spirit and the body language of our subject. On the other hand, manufactures need to have prototypes that can be mass-produced in China at a reasonable cost.
Our mission is to be the bridge between art and industry. We have to keep in mind what the manufacturer’s end product will be made of and what sort of action it will perform (if any) so that when we sculpt we allow for material shrinkage, as well as the mass of a mechanism or motor. In toy making, engineering walks hand in hand with art.
I started out working in the Halloween industry at Cinema Secrets on the production line. After showing some of my sculpts done outside of work, I moved on to designing and sculpting the masks, props, and makeup fx products. After several years of that I wanted a change. Since I really liked modeling kits and toys, I decided to seek out a job in the toys and gifts industry. I found Little Wonder Studio through a friend and got hired for making molds, casting resin and traditional sculpting. The very first job I did with Little Wonder was a one inch golden snitch (with wings) from Harry Potter. They wanted all the scribe lines from the movie prop on this tiny piece, so I literally had to sculpt it under a microscope.
At the time I started with Little Wonder Studio we didn't have any digital modelers or 3D printing machines. Robert wanted the Studio to get a rapid prototype machine and asked what I knew about 3D modeling. I told him that I was familiar with using Poser 4 and Vue while also teaching myself Cinema 4D. Once we got the machine I started testing out how to use Poser and C4D together to create watertight meshes for printing. We mostly used these programs to quickly get a good starting point for the sculptor so that we could go from clay to wax more quickly.
I graduated from college as a 3D illustrator. My Husband and I moved to California and I initially started out sculpting professionally in clay and cleaning up my wax pieces at a product development company called Playworks. I mainly worked on toys and collectibles. That is where I met Robert. I am not a computer person, so early on I was skeptical about the ability of a program to replace what I could do by hand. In my experience, programs tend to be a bit too technical (like Maya) and not particularly intuitive or artist friendly. ZBrush really changed that perception for me.
My original goal was to get into computer animation. I got my degree from Cal State Fullerton in Entertainment Art and Animation. While I was there I discovered I couldn't handle the tedium of modeling and really got into traditional hand sculpting. I ended up getting an internship at Disney Consumer Products, working on product approval and some design work. As that was winding down I was able to meet with the folks at Little Wonder Studio who happened to be doing some work for DCP at the time. They took me on as a freelancer at first, doing design work. About 6 months later they let me get my hands on a sculpt. This was still before we had started digging into ZBrush, so we have all gotten to grow with the software together.