Matt "Iron Cow" Cauley Interview
Thank you so much for taking the time to enlighten us customizers who admire your work and aspire to follow in your footsteps.
Hey, thanks! It's my pleasure, and I appreciate you approaching me about it.
What education or professional training have you had that best prepared you for customizing as a job?
Well, I attended Parsons School of Design and majored in Illustration. That really helped me focus my drawing skills. I've been in the Graphic Design field for the past 15 years, taking as many classes as I could here and there. Even though the work was mostly 2-D in nature, it allowed me the opportunity to explore all sorts of design and modeling programs. When it comes down to the toy stuff, though, you just pull from various bits of your own experience and interests. A lot of it was trial and error, experimenting with repaints, headswaps, that sort of thing. What started off as a personal hobby turned into a personal obsession, and I found the more I customized, the more I enjoyed it and the pieces themselves got better and better.
It was really the launch of the Iron-Cow Prod. website that helped get the work noticed. That's when the ball really started rolling. Word of mouth helped tremendously, as the more I became familar with the work of other customizers, the more we all fed off each other for inspiration and new approaches.
I've read that you started customizing after seeing Return of the Jedi and trying to fill in your collection with some of the characters from the movie, how would say your style has developed from then til now?
I think I may have even been customizing a little before that, actually! It may have been right after Empire Strikes Back came out. Anyway, I had this C-3PO figure that had some loose, floppy joints. Actually, that may have been the original release of the figure and I had replaced it with a removeable limbs version? I forget. Anyway, I had an extra 3PO, and my older brother, who was heavily into model space ships, convinced me to repaint it into one of the white Protocol droids you see floating around the Rebel Base on Hoth. We were both really into all the background characters seen in the movies, so that was the spark that got me fired up all those years ago.
Oddly enough, though my skills have gotten a lot better over the years, the approach has been pretty much the same. I'm really drawn to taking an existing line, and creating figures in that same style to flesh it out a bit. For years, I never treated the customizing as "art." To me it was a fun hobby that I quite enjoyed, but it wasn't until later that I really began investing myself in it to try and push the boundaries. These days, I love customizing figures based on real people. Trying to capture a likeness in plastic really isn't that far removed from doing a traditional portrait, and while my sculpting skills aren't THAT good on such a small scale, I've learned a lot of painting tricks that can really help bring out certain details on even the most generic figure sculpt.
You've done several custom projects for Toyfare including a "how to" article. How did that come about?
I'm really not sure how the ToyFare guys got my name, to be quite honest. I know we all haunt a lot of the same message boards, so maybe they'd been following my work for awhile. Anyway, they approached me back in 2005, wanting to commission an artist-specific INVINCIBLE custom. I had a blast working on it, and they seemed really happy with the results, so it immediately blossomed into a fantastic working relationship. I've got several more projects in the works with them currently, so keep checking out their issues for the new works. The ToyFare guys are fantastic to work with.
How did your work on Art Asylum's Battle Star Galactica minimates come about?
That was a total fluke! I was accompanying the guys from Millionaire Playboy, helping them cover ToyFair back in February of 2005. We were in the Art Asylum studio, and while the MPb guys were asking the questions, I was handling the photography duties. As we began wrapping up, everyone shook hands and exchanged business cards. I handed Art Asylum VP Adam Unger my card. He paused for a moment and did this crazy double-take, saying "YOU'RE Iron-Cow?!?" He then took my hand and gave me this crazy handshake. Apparently he was really impressed with the Minimate designs I had contributed to the SubCultures: Art of the Action Figure exhibit, and had even opened a file on my work. It was incredibly flattering, I have to say. Anyway, he introduced me to the other staff members and designs and told me then and there he wanted to bring me in to work on some projects for them. It took a few months for the right project to come along, but they took a chance on me with the Galactica line, and things kept going from there.
It should be noted, though, that while I developed the Classic and Modern (Toaster) Cylon Minimate figures, the human characters were handled by other designers at Art Asylum. Still, that Retro Cylon is a personal favorite of mine!
Have you found that now you approach customs differently for yourself versus the work you've done for a paycheck?
I'm a lot less lazy when it comes to the paid work! Seriously, though, the customs I do for myself are definitely labors of love. I used to be a Batman completist, but luckily DC Direct and Mattel seem to be handling all the characters I still want to see. And, now that Character Options has announced a Classic Doctor Who line, my "projects list" has been cut back significantly. That's a good thing, though. I can still have fun with the occasional personal project, in-between all the professional gigs.
Do you find that other professionals in the toy industry are as open and friendly as online customizers or is it really competitive?
I can't say that I've personally ever experienced anything really all that negative? From my own experience, the guys at Art Asylum and ToyFare have been a joy to work with. Sure, there are the headaches when a tight deadline might roll around, but that's the case with any job. The people in the industry, though, have been great to me. I'm not sure I would want to be doing it full-time, but that's my own personal nuttiness. My experiences with Art Asylum and ToyFare allow me the opportunity to take a passion for art and toys and explore it professionally, yet there's still enough time between projects so I can focus on my illustration and animation endeavors. This way, I avoid burnout. Well, mostly!
Has seeing how things work from the inside changed how you view the action figure production process?
It's a job I wouldn't wish on anyone! Actually, that's not entirely true. I take on toy projects, just like customs, as a break in-between my real passion of illustration. I tend to bounce around between projects (look for some ICP-designed apparel to be hitting stores this spring!) so when the toy work comes around, it feels "fresh." Keep in mind, the projects are a lot of fun, but if you want to do it full-time, you really have to have an intense passion for it. The pay really isn't that great, the hours are long, there can usually be a lot of revisions, but in the end, seeing a figure you helped design sitting there on the shelf makes all the difference. There are a lot of cooks that go into that action figure kitchen, so it feels great working with a team. And, like I said before, in my experience all the toy designers I've known have been a pleasure to work with.
Is there anything you would like to add or feel I've left out?
I think that covers it! The main thing is to follow whereever your passion leads you. If you want to pursue a career in the toy industry, get to work on your drawing and sculpting skills. Take a look at what other people are doing, but do what's right for you and put your own spin on it. It's that personal investment into a project that will really make the work shine.