This week it's my pleasure to bring you an interview with the very talented Jean St. Jean. I ran into Jean at the DC booth down at SDCC this year, and it was very cool to meet the man behind so many cool creations. Jean has a long history in this industry and has worked for and with some of the best. This week, we talk about Comic Con, music, the state of the industry and more. I hope you enjoy the read.
AP: It was a real pleasure to finally put a face to the name behind all those great sculpts I've seen over the years. I hope that you enjoyed this years San Diego Comic Con.
JSJ: Comic Con’s always a blast.
AP: Talking about Comic Con, what do you think about venues like SDCC in regards to the industry, as a collector and as a sculptor working in the industry?
JSJ: I started going out to SDCC for McFarlane years ago and was hooked. The opportunity to see all the things being done in toys, comics and all entertainment areas is very energizing. I also enjoy socializing with people I work with all year but never get to hang out with otherwise. In relation to the industry itself, I think its great to see all the various companies show all their stuff in a huge venue that’s geared towards the collector rather than wholesalers. It really has begun to take the place of NY Toyfair in importance.
AP: So, I know you and I share a lot of the same interests, including music and collectibles, but you're actually quite an accomplished musician and clearly a very talented sculptor. How did your interest in these fields start and which came first?
JSJ: I started playing piano at 7 or 8 years old, but I really didn’t get all that into it until I started listening to Rock music in like 3rd grade. My first love was Kiss. They tied together my interest in comics, monsters and added music to the mix. From that point I started drawing Kiss on everything I fucking owned instead of Batman. I played in bands in High school and after high school tried to go somewhere with it, playing out at as many crappy clubs as possible. I went to Western Connecticut U initially for engineering and fucking hated it so I transferred to music. I was basically a rock and roll jerk so I had to really bust my ass to try to even hang with people who had studied seriously for years. I came out of it with a Bachelor of Music in piano with a minor in percussion and I spent quit a bit of time focusing on notation and composition. After college I spent most of my time composing predominantly in a progressive vein. Other than teaching, it was pretty hard to make a living as a musician because all the primary options were just detestable to me and original music is hard to showcase in clubs that tend toward dance music and cover bands. So I taught private piano lessons and played organ at mass in a few different churches, which wasn’t bad. I couldn’t bring myself to do the wedding band thing because I hated the music.
In the early nineties I fell into the toy field through an apprenticeship I found in the NY Times. I started working at a studio that did mostly dolls and pre-school toys and worked there for 5 years. I got a pretty solid foundation in traditional toy sculpting and a strong work ethic, which have given me an edge in my career.
AP: Having been in this industry for a while, and having worked with different companies with different aesthetics, how have you seen the industry change over the years?
JSJ: When I started, production concerns dictated the aesthetic. But this was the way in all the mass market co’s like Mattel, Hasbro Tyco, etc. Now the aesthetic forces production to adapt and progress. Todd McFarlane really brought this about with his company, by bringing in sculptors who had the style he wanted, but who were not necessarily toy guys. Consequently a whole new niche opened up in the collectible market, a lot of it as a reaction to his innovative ideas.
AP: Toys and collectibles have gone from simple, not heavily detailed sculpts, to amazingly intricate and very realistically detailed creations. Where do you think the industry will go from here?
JSJ: The industry seems to ebb and flow in and out of high detail work into more stylized things like urban vinyl and back. The biggest challenge at least for the action figure manufacturer is the predominance of video games. I think as far as kids, product action figures are on their way out, as they’d rather play the games than screw with a plastic toy of a character. Action figures seem to have become an adult collectible, even some of the kid oriented properties, probably because like guys my age, we grew up on GI Joe and megos etc. and video games didn’t exist.
AP: As a collector, what excites you about new action figures and statues? Which companies (in your opinion) are really pushing the boundaries of cool?
JSJ: I personally collect mostly anime statues at this point but I still collect a shit-load of Batman stuff. Things like Queen’s Blade, Dark Stalkers and the live action show Garo, have some great looking figures out there. I have also been on kind of an Iron man bender since the first movie though. I love this shit.
As far as pushing the boundaries of cool? There’s a lot of great stuff but nothing that knocks me out. It’s all been done and re-done and then done again, and with the economy in the shitter and the wage and price increases in China all the companies are in protect our asses mode. Right now everyone just wants to survive so no one is really taking chances.
AP: What do you think of the growing interest (especially among the garage kit industry) in original character sculpts? Have you considered putting out a line of your own characters or monsters?
JSJ: I certainly have a lot of my own stuff I’d like to do. The vast majority of people don’t respond to things they don’t know even if they’re monumentally cool. If you’ve got 200 bucks burning a hole in your pocket you’re going to drop it on your primary colleting obsession, probably not on a no name character. Consequently, you’d need to gear any original production to small runs, which cost much more per unit to produce. And the things that seem to do the best mostly just look like other properties people collect already. That’s why there are never enough companies making Spidey products and Freddy Kreuger and Batman.
AP: It seems as though you've really built a reputation for being a "go to" guy for a lot of companies. So how much of the work you're doing now is stuff you've designed, your own concepts and series? or do the companies bring the projects and designs to you?
JSJ: I was pretty lucky at the outset when I first left McF. Diamond came to me and basically said they’d work with me in just about any capacity I wanted. You can’t put a price on that kind of faith. After handling their BSG, SG-1 and SG Atlantis lines I’ve established a pretty good rep for producing quality sculpture and prototypes. Their faith also extended to allowing me to really bring everything I have to offer as an artist and an art director/project manager to the table. The Marvel Milestones I did for them are some of my finest work and they are all my designs except for the Frank Miller Daredevil cover.
Other than Diamond all the other companies provide art work and drive the bus themselves, I fill in the blanks where needed.
AP: Stylistically, your work is very diverse. Everything from comic style, to anime, to realistic figures and portraits. Is there any one style that you prefer to work in? Is one style harder than another?
JSJ: I like a variety. What I like most is high detail stuff that has a realistic edge but it’s sort of out of kilter to actually be real. Monsters and whatever that have reasonable anatomy as though they could exist but don’t.
AP: Most of the work I've seen from you is 1:6 scale and smaller. Have you worked on larger stuff? Do you have any interest in larger scale work?
JSJ: The Pumpkinhead for SOTA was the biggest project so far. I’ve toyed with the idea of bigger pieces but I have so much 7” figure work over the last couple of years that it has mostly become my concentration, at least professionally. Life size busts would be cool, there’s some great looking stuff going on with that in the industry esp. at Sideshow.
AP: After having created hundreds of figures, are there still some characters or subjects you'd like to work on, that perhaps you haven't had a chance to do yet?
JSJ: Too many to name, but I’d like to do my spin on the Batman universe. Also Asian horror characters. I did a figure of Samara from the ring that was never released. I would love to sculpt Asami from Audition and the girl and cat and kid from Juon.
AP: Now that you're running your own company, do you have a team of sculptors you go to, to help finish your projects, do you do it all yourself, or do you hire new guys? If you do hire new guys, what do you look for when hiring a sculptor?
JSJ: I have a pool of vendors who are all ex McF guys that either worked for or with me, some of whom trained under me for a while there. I put together teams based on the project description and the abilities I need. I do look for new guys to keep things fresh, but I really haven’t had much time to properly check out and train guys to my specs.
I’ve started doing most of my own fabrication and molding work just for the convenience of keeping it all in house and to vary my own responsibilities a bit.
AP: You had a different start (with your apprenticeship) than what is generally available for sculptors today. So what advice would you give to artists trying to get their break in this industry?
JSJ: Now there are many schools with toy programs, so there are lots of people flooding the industry. I’d say go old school and look for an apprenticeship. The industry is changing and a lot of the traditional knowledge is disappearing and people are very specialized.
Of course the old stand by is to bust your ass, study all the elements that are your weaknesses. Talk to people in the industry and learn about it. Cultivate good work habits. You have to enjoy what you do, if you want to pursue this than kick its ass 6 ways to Sunday. Have fun and bring that to your projects and be the guy that everyone wants to work with.
AP: Thanks for taking the time to answer my questions. I'm looking forward to seeing all the new projects coming from JSJ Studios.