It's a new year and the AP Sculpture Studio Blog is starting off strong. We're starting this year with a fantastic interview, with the very talented Mr. Ruben Procopio. I'm sure many of you guys know his name, but for the few who don't, you'll recognize his work. Ruben has worked for all the big companies out there, designing and creating amazing collectibles. In this interview we talk about childhood, influences, early career stories and lots more. So, grab your pad of paper and a pen, cuz you're gonna want to take notes. Enjoy!!
AP: Were you always interested in art? At what age did you realize that this is what you wanted to do for a living?
RP: First off, thank you, Alfred, for the invitation to do this interview.
Yes, I was fortunate and lucky because I grew up in a very artistic family. My Dad is a sculptor and my Mom was a fashion designer/seamstress. Both worked with their hands so I grew up with an artistic influence at home. My Dad's Disney work plus his freelance work were a constant source of inspiration. I'd say I was about six years old when I knew I wanted to be an artist. My Dad saw this inclination and started teaching me. Perspective, Anatomy, Art History... he even left me assignments to do during summer vacation. They also sent me to art school for kids, Samsels' art school in North Hollywood, run by Mr. & Mrs. Samsel, both amazing painters. On Saturday mornings I learned how to draw and paint in pastels, watercolor, acrylic and oils. Later in High School I got scholarships to Art Center College of Design, where I got my introduction to life drawing. This was a great program for High School students to learn from live clothed models.
My Dad worked with sculptor Blaine Gibson. Blaine was an animator/sculptor, well known for sculpting many of the Disney parks audio-animatronic figures such as Mr. Lincoln. Blaine would go over my drawings and teach me what to look out for, especially in terms of animation. Although I had initially wanted to go to New York and get into the comic book business, I eventually got a scholarship to Cal Arts in the Animation Program. I was not there very long, three months, then started the animation trainee program at the Disney Studios, training with animator Eric Larson, one of the legendary nine old men. I passed, and got put onto production at age 18. This opportunity was too good to pass up, so I put aside my desire to go into comics. That led to a 20+ year career in Feature Animation.
AP: What or who were some of your early inspirations?
RP: When my family came to America in the early 60's I was 4 yrs. old. One of the first things I saw on TV was the Batman show staring Adam West, which made a huge impression on me. When my Mom used to pick me up from kindergarten, the bus stop was at a corner drug store that carried comics. Those who grew up in those years will probably remember the round comic racks. I quickly became a fan of Neal Adams, in fact every other word that came out of my mouth was Neal Adams! I was also influenced by Saturday morning cartoons like Space Ghost, The Herculoids, Mightor and Birdman.
I later learned that Alex Toth was the character designer of these shows. I became a huge Toth aficionado. Eventually we met years later and became very good friends. There were others, Jim Aparo, John Buscema, Carmine Infantino and many from the Silver Age of Comics. In comic strips it was Milton Caniff, Noel Sickles (which Alex introduced me to), Alex Raymond and Hal Foster. On the sculpting side, aside from my Dad there were sculptors he would introduce me to, from the classics such as Michealangelo and Bernini, to Burne Hogarth, illustrator of Tarzan and author of the incredible series of books on Anatomy. I like animalier Barye and the sculptors that made the models at Disney Animation during the earlier years of the studio, like Charles Cristodoro.
AP: What or who do you draw inspiration from these days?
RP: Frankly with the advent of computers, a search will bring inspiration from countless artists and sculptors around the world. One link leads to another, every day is a fresh dose. I'm also inspired by my colleagues in the animation, film, comic and the collectible worlds.
AP: What was your experience like, working for Disney?
RP: The early years at Disney were terrific, it was like going to school. Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston, another two legendary nine old men were doing their famous book on the process of animation called "The Illusion of Life." I was fortunate to be there during the renaissance years and work on some great movies like The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin and The Lion King.
I had the best of both worlds, able to draw and sculpt as well as wear many hats, including as a storyboard artist, character designer and even supervise a department. I applied the golden rule, treat them like I'd like to be treated, it was very rewarding. I was part of the team that saw it grow from a sleeping giant to a big success and then saw it go downhill until the ultimate demise of hand drawn animation. The last five years or so that I was there were tough. But the departure from Disney opened up many doors and I started Masked Avenger Studios.
AP: Did you find animation more rewarding than sculpting?
RP: Actually for me they complement each other, since you are essentially drawing on a 2D surface, but thinking 3D. When sculpting I think of animation elements like silhouettes, line of action, follow through, overlapping action, etc. I like both drawing and sculpting equally. When I draw I feel it in the round, when sculpting I look at it as a design. I've always said that an artist who draws should sculpt something, even if they don't show it to anyone. They will draw differently after that. Although not a prerequisite for sculpting, I equally encourage sculptors that don't draw, to draw, especially what they are going to sculpt before they sculpt it. There is so much you can figure out and analyze before you put clay on an armature or pencil to paper.
AP: So Tony Cipriano tells me that your dad was a big sculptor for the theme parks. Why didn’t you go into that line of work, or working for the Imagineering team over at Disney?
RP: My interests were in comics and animation, I really never thought of going into theme park design. That didn't diminish my interest and admiration for what my Dad or the Imagineers did. Interestingly enough, I actually have more of an interest in that type of work today, it seems like a perfect fit. My career took a path in film making instead, something I grew to like. Many Imagineers were actually ex-animators that Walt Disney steered into designing and building the parks when he started his theme park division. Blaine Gibson, whom I mentioned earlier, head of the sculpting department, was an incredible animator in his own right. There was also Herb Ryman, Marc Davis, Claude Coats, Al Bertino, X Atencio, Bill Justice and many more who came from animation that made the switch.
AP: Speaking of Tony, what were some of your early impressions of the young Tony Cipriano?
RP: His focus shift from animation to sculpting. I remember his fascination with the maquettes I had in my office and the sculpting process. He questioned me as to why I wasn't still sculpting at the time we met, why would I head up a department instead? My drive during my years at Disney was to play different instruments in the band and actually I kinda let go to see where they needed me most. Some artists just do one thing, I like to move around across many areas. I remember Tony working hard at learning how to sculpt, outside of work he would sculpt anything and everything. It was great to see his enthusiasm. It's great to see how far he's come and his stick-to-itiveness made his dream come true. He's a great example of the type of artist I described earlier, proficient in both mediums, drawing and sculpting.
AP: So the new (and frankly Amazing looking) Pop Sculpture Book has recently been released, how did the Pop Sculpture book come about? Who’s idea was it to make a book?
RP: Actually it was the idea of publishers Watson and Guptill. I had just finished a sculpting panel at the San Diego Comic Con, moderated by Daniel Pickett (www.actionfigureinsider.com). I was thanking him for the invitation to participate and he happened to be talking to two representatives of the publishing company. He introduced us saying that they were interested in doing a book on the process of collectible action figures and statues. I said I'd be interested, they asked for a proposal and an outline, I did one and they said okay. Later I asked Tim Bruckner to participate and he suggested including then-Toy Fare editor Zach Oat.
AP: What are some of your favorite subject matters to work on?
RP: Anyone who knows me knows of my passion for the heroes of yesteryear, hence the name of my studio, Masked Avenger Studios. Characters such as The Lone Ranger, Flash Gordon, The Phantom, The Green Hornet, Zorro and the like made such an impression when I was a kid. Something about the dual identity, no super powers, yet a noble code of ethics and wanting to fight for justice and what's right always appealed to me. And they just looked so cool too. Tracy Lee, a good friend and founder/owner of Electric Tiki, indulged me on a suggestion to do a Classic Heroes line where we pay tribute to these heroes.
AP: In your long career, has there been any character you’ve wanted to sculpt, but never had the opportunity?
RP: Good question, I think I've been lucky to do most of the ones I've wanted. That said, I probably would like to re-sculpt half of them over again. I'd be interested in tackling sidekicks, like Tonto. I also have a bust line I'm producing at Masked Avenger Studios called Really Retro(TM). The idea behind this line is to pay tribute to the actors and actresses that played our heroes and villains of the past on both TV and movie screens. The first in line was Adam West, that production run sold out. Others we hope to include are Burt Ward, Clayton Moore, George Reeves, Van Williams, Yvonne Craig, Guy Williams, Buster Crabbe, Julie Newmar, etc. So that's something I look forward to. Also I'd like to do gallery type pieces. All these years I've done so much licensed work, I'd like to dedicate some time to work on some of my own visions.
AP: What are some of the ways you’ve seen the industry change over the years, good or bad?
RP: More and more collectors, artists and sculptors are in the industry than say, 20 years ago. People like to collect mementos of their favorite characters, and it's become a big business. The more obvious change is in recent years, doing sculpts digitally. I've even embraced that process. Mind you, I have not thrown the clay or my tools out the window. On the contrary, there is still room for both and I like both, but like anything else, the technology is there and growing, and it's yet another way of sculpting in my arsenal of tools.
I got interested because I'd hire out freelance digital artist to do accessories, like guns, bases, etc. and when I get them back I'd say to myself, I should be doing this. I took a class and next thing you know I've adapted. Change is hard, learning a new language is hard... but if one takes up the challenge and sticks to it there's a benefit in the end. Among the several reasons I like digital sculpting is symmetry, how it mimics on the opposite side of the sculpt what you're doing on one side, hence you just sculpt one eye, one ear, one hand, etc. Also, the amount of detail you can put in is tremendous. You can literally zoom into the pupil if one wanted. Then there's the cleanliness! In my studio I have clay, wire, wood, silicone, epoxy, tools, plaster, so on and so on... but when I walk to my computer, literally it's just the tablet, stylus, keyboard, computer screen, reference and what's in my head. So, that appeals to me. Also I'm eager to bring 30 years of experience to this new technology.
AP: With so many talented young sculptors out there, just trying to get a foot in the door in this industry, what kind of advice do you have to keep them motivated?
RP: I suggest they not only learn traditional sculpting, but also how to sculpt digitally as well. It's like knowing several languages, you become more valuable and versatile, a plus in the workforce. With the internet, everything is at your fingertips, no more going to the library or clip-files, not that going isn't still valuable, but with the world available at the touch you can easily search out a wealth of inspiration to motivate you. I usually like going through the recommended links of artists that I admire and respect. I get motivated when I see others' work. Good old fashioned discipline is the best. Freelancing out of your own home requires discipline, you don't want to fall into a trap of procrastination or distraction.
I know when I've completed anything be it a drawing or sculpt, it gives me a great sense of accomplishment... that motivates me to do more. Sculpting takes a great deal of time and patience. When people ask me how do I do this or that, I say I go to the hardware store and buy a bucket o' patience. So, don't give up when you're starting. Get past that first hour, where you think you're no good. Get past the nine rejections, the tenth time you knock on the door, someone will open it. I've found that self discipline and belief in yourself are the best motivators.
AP: What are some common mistakes you see in rookie work and what are some ways to avoid those?
RP: Learn anatomy, both human and animal. Learn to draw. Don't get caught up in details, don't do the perfect eye without looking at the whole head. Observe, learn. I remember reading Alex Toth's tips, one was don't draw it until you see it clearly and know what you're about to draw. The same skills apply to sculpting. Draw out your sculpt from all different views before sculpting. Avoid stiffness, keep rhythm in your sculpt. Keep looking, turning, from all different views. Don't get caught up in the minutia, look at the whole. Be persistent and don't give up.
You have a voice, learn from others, but bring what you have to say to the table. Don't say I did this in an hour, standing on my head while watching TV -- I know that turns me off. Let the piece speak for itself. It matters that you hit your deadlines but no need to brag how fast or slow you are. Give your talent some worth, don't cheapen it by saying you can do it in five minutes. A gentleman's agreement goes a long way in my book. Keep your word, keep a deadline, contract or no contract. Remember, you're part of a team. Someone designed it before you and someone will have to produce it after you, so keep it all in perspective. Have a good attitude. People like to work with artists that are a pleasure to work with, that's how you'll get more work.
AP: What are some suggestions for the type of work a young sculptor should include in their portfolio when looking for work in this industry?
RP: Pieces that show your knowledge of anatomy, proportion, interpretation and style. Add some variety by including realistic, cartoony, collectible and commercial sculpts. The more variety the better. Show pieces from several views, including some close ups. Update your portfolio as often as you can. Above all, nurture your talent, so a good art director will see potential. Don't give up!
AP: Thanks for taking the time to do this interview. I really appreciate it. Is there anything else you’d like to say to all your fans out there?
RP: Thanks again, Alfred, for asking and for putting together such a great website and blog together. My hat's off to you for your incredible talent and for giving back so much to the sculpting community with this blog. To all the fans, thanks for all your support and kind words throughout the years. I've always said, hearing the collectors' feedback makes all the hard work worthwhile. One of the neatest things I can ever hear is that a sculpt that I've done has gone to the home of a fan who appreciates that character. I do sculpts with two things in mind, one is I do them for my own personal pleasure and the other is I do them for the fans. I hope to achieve this every time. Thanks!
All images are copyright Rubén Procopio. Characters are copyrights and trademarks of their respective intellectual property owners.