DanOfTheDead Featured Customizer

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Featured Customizer for February 2011

DanOfTheDead brings the whole package to the table when he customizes. His painting is phenomenal, his part selection superb, and his character selection zany and unpredictable. His customs look like production level figures that would only stand out because of how awesome they. Go check out his customs in the Gallery Archive and in the Critiques Section, but if you don't do any of that, you have to read what he says below.


What do you enjoy customizing the most?

A snapshot of my figure room’s left wall; Muppets, Marvel Legends, movie characters, and original Astonishing X-Men art framed on the wall.
The right wall; modern GI Joe, some Star Wars, Marvel Universe, X-Men Evolution, Cheat Commandos, and original art by Steven E. Gordon, director and character designer for some of Marvel’s animated films. I’m slowly organizing all the junk in the middle of the room, hopefully for diorama space!

I split my customizing between modern style GI Joes and Star Wars figures. I’ve found that I prefer the GI Joe style as a catch all for any character under the sun that’s NOT Star Wars, and the majority of my Joe style work is doing “portrait” customs of friends and family (usually in the style of a video game we’re all into) or incorporating characters from disparate sources into a single shelf space. Strangely enough, I’ve yet to do a lot of customs of Joe characters despite preferring that style. I’m always hesitant to do characters that might get an official release... I thought Cobra De Aco was a pretty safe bet, and now he’s a con exclusive! I am interested in updating some of the foreign releases into 25th scale though, and as I did with my “Ultimate Cobra Commander” I’ve got some ideas for very regal versions of the Cobra high-comand to go along with the Ares Dictator I made.

Cobra de Aco and Sokerk, two international based customs.

Star Wars is where I make most of my original characters and concepts. It’s a set universe, and one that I’ve thought about a lot since I was a kid, so anytime I’m working on a Star Wars custom I’m day dreaming about who that figure is as a character, and where they fit into the universe. This often leads me to working on “sets” of figures in a row, as one character inspires another and another as I work out their relationships. I often enjoy adapting other Sci-Fi concepts into the Star Wars universe, and turn to sources like Mass Effect for ideas and design concepts.

A Star Wars custom inspired by Mass Effect’s Asari species.

I feel like I’ve really improved my figure customizing and mastered some of those skills, so I’m dipping my toes into diorama and vehicle building and am very excited to see where that leads me. The Ares Dictator, my first real attempt at a custom vehicle.

What brand of paint do you prefer?

I started using Citadel paints and really like them, but here’s my big secret tip regarding paint: whatever acrylic you’re using, mix in a little Testor’s Model Masters Semi-Gloss and a few drops of water. It goes on thinner but so much smoother. I’ve gotten great results out of cheap craft store acrylics with that mix, and I think it makes the Citadel paints (which can be all over the place from flat to gloss) a little more uniform in finish.

One of the informational panels from my gallery show, depicting some of my paints and tools.

I’ve yet to select a good finish, so my custom chip more than I’d like, and I just can’t get those joints to not chip. These are the area I really need to improve at... I feel like if I could master these, I’d consider myself a real “pro” customizer.

Where do you find inspiration for your customs?

Everywhere! Right now I’m very intrigued by the mini-war gaming hobby for the amazing terrain and diorama tutorials related to the hobby. So much inspiration is available online, but I love to find related books and just leaf through them and keep them around to help jump-start ideas.

Likewise, I love concept art books from movies and video games. The Force Unleashed art book is a favorite, and lead to my “Corpse Droid” figures which get a lot of great feedback.

The Force Unleashed “Corpse Droid” concept art.
Two of my interpretations of the concept art.

And then there’s just a lifetime spent obsessed with pop culture when it comes to picking out what characters to tackle. Love doing updates like Doctor Claw, or characters that deserve a toy but will probably never see one like Captain Hammer and Doctor Horrible.

Updated Dr. Claw with MAD CATS - Cybernetic Animal Troopers.

But none of this compares to the custom communities here at joecustoms and yakface.com. That’s not to say these are the only good forums and custom sites, but in my experience they’re the friendliest and most supportive groups of customizers I’ve seen. Having like minded artists to bounce ideas off of, to critique fairly with, and to borrow concepts from is what keeps me in the hobby. I’d like to think if there was no Internet, I’d still enjoy the hobby. But I’ll be honest, a lot of the enjoyment of making these is to hear what people think of them, even if it’s what I can do better next time. I was a lurker for a long, long time, and didn’t think I was really “good enough” to share a lot of my stuff... but as soon as I sucked it up, tackled the projects I wanted to tackle, and didn’t give up when it didn’t come out perfect, I learned so much. And the feedback I got inspired me to keep working and improving my skills.

What do you consider to be your best tools of the trade?

This is a tough one, because it’s not something you can go out and buy... but my productivity sky rocketed when we dedicated a room as my work room. Having the space to work, and having my parts and tools organized, has done more for my customizing than any specific tool I invested in.

If you do have a corner, a closet, or a spare bedroom you can claim as your work space and are serious about customizing, I really recommend it. As soon as I turn the doorknob, I’m ready to work. This kind of goes along with learning to accept myself as an artist and accepting customizing as my art... more on that in a bit.

A quick look at my work room. I spent the first two weeks of this year going through and organizing a lot of the clutter.

What is your strongest area when it comes to customizing?

As far as a specific skill, honestly, it’s photography or presentation. My customs aren’t flawless, and there have been some I was hesitant to photograph because they just didn’t look that good to me when finished. But under the right light with a steady camera and a clear shot, they just pop. I recently upgraded to a very nice semi-professional Cannon Rebel T1i, and I love it, but I was getting wonderful shots with just a simple point and shoot. The trick is to bring in a lot of light, learn a little about how to manually adjust your settings, and to not shoot by hand (use a tripod or a beanbag).

For a little more in depth information regarding my photography set up, you can check out this post for an interview I recently did at Yakface.com.

My photography set up in the work room. Desk lamps and cheap lights with a pvc frame that only took an hour or so to make. I’ve got blue and gray posterboard to swap out for backgrounds as needed.
Some Jedi and Padawans. The left side shows the color corrected original, while the right shows further color adjustment to match the added digital background.

I’ve been very inspired by Insight by Gianni Lopergolo. While he doesn’t get into a lot of very specific detail, the points he does share were fascinating to me, and his work is something I truly aspire to.

An early attempt with creating a simply diorama/background with added digital effects for atmosphere.

If I can get a little more touchy-feely for moment, a really big turning point for me in customizing was learning to take it seriously. This is hard to describe, but I’d always lumped it in with collecting as purely “hobby”. I won’t argue that anything I’ve created is a work of art, but I did have come to accept that customizing IS very artistic and that yes, that does make me an artist.

I tried every way under the sun to excuse that label (well, it’s not like I’m sculpting these from scratch) but that was really just an attempt to distance myself from the possible rejection of a failure. If I DID take it seriously, it meant I CARED about the result, it meant that what my friends and family thought about it all would matter to me and I couldn’t really hide behind the “I play with toys, deal with it!” mentality anymore.

I don’t know if I’d have ever really confronted all that if it wasn’t for an extremely rough year I had about two years ago. It started with our house being damaged in Hurricane Ike and ended with partial facial paralysis and complete hearing loss in my right ear. In between those book ends were living out of a hotel while our house was repaired, getting fired 3 hours after finding out about the tumor near my brain stem causing the hearing loss, and the major surgeries to remove the tumor.

I had a lot of time on my hands between getting the diagnosis and the first surgery. It was, in hindsight, a pretty scary time for me and my wife. But I turned to customizing. I had done about 2 of my Sally Squad customs based on my friends up to that point, and really started planning our the rest of the figures. I also poured myself into assembling a Star Wars team for a project at yakface.

”The Renegades” allowed me to really focus on something I enjoyed rather than dwelling on my upcoming surgery. I felt they were some of my best customs at that time, and I think it’s because I really just poured myself into the work to cope with all the stress in the real world.

It was an excuse to keep my hands busy, daydream about the things I like, and with the Sally Squad figures focus on friends and family in time where I really needed support but didn’t know how to ask (everyone was extremely supportive of course, without even having to be asked). But it got me through that horrible waiting period without focusing on the upcoming surgery. And as soon as I was well enough after, I was right back into customizing and I didn’t stop.

My “Sally Squad” project was a way to involve the people I care about into my art. This image is the result of long time planning, creating, and tweaking the figures and their accessories and building a background diorama to photograph them in. “Portrait customs” like these and my Left 4 Dead figures often help people unfamiliar with customizing understand what I do.

I put together my first Custom Con project, finished Sally Squad, churned out more customs in a year than I had in decade of dabbling in the hobby, and eventually got to display some of them at a small art gallery.

A quicksnap shot of my figures as they were displayed at the gallery, along with some of the informational panels I designed to help explain customizing.
Another snapshot of my gallery displays.
The “Anatomy of Custom” panel I designed for my gallery show describes how a custom goes from store bought pieces to an entirely new character.

It was an incredibly rewarding time for me, and I feel I have a lot to show for it. And through it all I was learning that customizing wasn’t just something I did, but it was an artistic outlet. If I was willing to let it, it could be my art, instead of being the thing I did while I tried to figure out how to do art.

It’s let me view the work I’ve done as legitimate. I’m trying to pull together dan-of-the-dead.com as an online portfolio... It’s not that I think my custom work would be an appropriate part of any resume I were to send out, but it is for the types of places I’m interested in working at these days.

I know that’s all rather rambling, but I feel like it is an essential part of why I’m turning out the body of work I am. Hope you don’t mind me sharing!

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