Sgartz Interview

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Excellent work on your camo applications! What advice would you offer to a new customizer attempting to learn camo techniques on Joe figures?

First of all, thanks! The most basic advice I can offer about painting camo is to pick a camo pattern that you want to use and really study the way the colors interact with each other: most camo patterns have a sort of abstract logic behind them, particularly in the way in which the colors of the pattern are layered (which color goes on first, which ones tend to overlap others, etc.). If you're making an original camo pattern, you can still find something similar to what you're planning and study it. The other thing I try to do with camo is to carry it across joints and underneath straps and other breaks in the figure: it takes more time, but it looks a lot more realistic to see the pattern disappear underneath a holster or strap. Using a good paintbrush, and if possible, a variety of small brushes, is another thing that will make the process easier. Honestly, though, the most important aspect of painting camo is patience. It can be a very time-consuming process, and the more detailed you get, the longer it takes. But when it comes out the way you wanted it to, all the time and effort is well worth it. Plus, it can be kind of fun.

What have your experiences been when it comes to customzing vehicles and dioramas?

Shameful and slow, respectively. I've been wanting to get into vehicle customizing for a few years now, but I've been limited by a lack of space, both to store the vehicles in my house and to work on them. That's a bit of a cop-out, though, because the main reason I've never really done too much vehicle-wise is that I've always been more interested in the figures than the vehicles. As a kid, I viewed the figures as the important part of playing with Joes; the vehicles, while cool in their own right, were really just props, things for the figures to jump out of or use as cover on the battlefield. Still, I've got some ideas for a few vehicle customs, and one of these days I'll probably get around to finishing at least one of them, if for no other reason than to say I did.

As for dioramas, I've spent tons of time over the past few years making fairly elaborate plans for proposed dioramas and playsets, and very little time actually constructing them. In this case, a lack of proper tools was the culprit, but I'm working on solving that problem. I've got a couple of playsets in the works right now, actually. My job has really helped me in this area: I didn't work on models as a kid, and I had never done a whole lot of building from scratch, but I've done a bit of miniature construction over the last year or so, and it taught me a lot of things about materials and construction techniques that have come in very handy when working on 3 3/4" projects.

What would you say are your 3 most important tools you have in your tool arsenal?

Sandpaper, my Dremel, and a very small paint brush. When I started out making ARAH customs, I had some kind of weird apprehension about using sandpaper on the figures, as if it was going to damage them beyond repair or something. After a while, I found myself needing to sand down certain molded-on pieces, and before too long, I was using sandpaper to reshape the figures entirely. There was a point a few years ago when I didn't feel like I had worked hard enough on a custom if there wasn't a pile of little folded-up pieces of sandpaper, worn down to the backing, lying on the ground next to my work-space. I have Grand Slam to thank for showing me how much you can do with a little sanding. The Dremel is useful for obvious reasons, and for people who work with the 25th figures (and most other figures that use the softer plastic), it's a necessity: with the lack of standardized neck-balls, arm sockets, wrists, feet, and pretty much everything else, hollowing out the joints is a big part of the process. And, I can't overstate the importance of having a quality fine-pointed brush for detail painting. The easiest way to make a custom look good is to be very, very careful with the detail work: getting even edges along straps, sleeves, and other lines on the figure is simple enough if you take your time and fix your mistakes, and it makes the figure look a lot more professional.

What single custom of yours do you think most personifies your style?

Well, my favorite custom that I've made is my second attempt at a Low-Light figure. It came out exactly how I planned, and it has a lot of play value (removable accessories, etc.).

The figure that best represents my approach to customizing would probably be my Stalker custom from a few years back: he was intended to be a realistic take on the character, keeping the elements that I liked from the original figure and giving it a more "military" feel, while (hopefully) retaining some of the individual character. And with that, I think I've set the record for pretension in a discussion of action figures.

What 4 customizers in the Joe customizing world's work do you admire, and why?

Before I even get started, I want to mention that I'm leaving out a bunch of people whose customs I love; these are four people whose customs have had the most impact on me, personally.

-Evilface: I'm sure everybody else's list includes him, too, but for good reason: he's one of the giants of the field. Evilface's site, along with The Bivouac, was my introduction to the larger world of customizing: prior to that, my knowledge of customizing was limited to the figures I had made, and the customs of a friend who also made his own Joes. Evilface's figures were clean, crisp, and uniformly excellent, but the most impressive thing about them was the ingenuity of his parts choices. He used Cobra parts for Joe figures, Joe parts for Cobra figures, parts from crappy figures for great figures…basically, he proved that you could make any figure you wanted to with existing parts.

-Grand Slam: A great customizer in all areas, but Grand Slam really revolutionized the way customizers use figure parts. He "saw the sculpture within the block", as they say, and used sanding and sculpting to make figures that completely disguised their components. His customs were always unique, too: he had consistently interesting takes on existing characters, and his original characters were among the best I've seen (his original Dreadnok figures, in particular, were great, and I don't even like the Dreadnoks very much!). He was also one of the first customizers that I corresponded with regularly, and he gave me tons of great ideas and suggestions over the years. Plus, he sculpted ears on a custom! Ears!

-Kowalski: One of my all-time favorites. He wasn't the most prolific customizer, but he was easily one of the best. He was the first person I saw using hand-sculpted elements on his customs, and they always came out looking great. My favorite aspect of his work, though, was how thoroughly planned-out the figures were: he made concept drawings and then reproduced them exactly in figure form; instead of letting the available parts determine the design of the figure, he made the parts fit his design.

-Kamakura: He's the first fellow customizer that I've had the chance to hang out with regularly. I was a huge fan of his customs before meeting him, but now that I've had the chance to observe his process and see the figures up close, I'm even more impressed. The thing that really surprised me is how good he is at identifying uses for parts and accessories. While I'm busy staring at some crappy Mattel figure and thinking about how much it sucks, Kamakura is thinking about how he could use the coat for some character that it would be perfect for. If that isn't a useful customizing skill, I don't know what is.

Have you attempted customizing the 25th anniversary figures yet, and if so, how does your approach differ than with RAH? If you haven't, why not?

I've messed around with them a little bit, but I haven't really gotten very far with any of my efforts. There are two things that have kept me from getting too excited about customizing the new figures: first, their construction makes working with them challenging, and not in a "hey, isn't this fun, I'm being challenged" way, but more in a "if I can't get this little bastard's chest apart, I'm going to slit my wrists with an X-Acto knife" way. In addition to the obvious problems with disassembly, the ball-joints make paint chipping a huge issue, much more than it was with the ARAH figures. Dye is an option, but it has huge disadvantages (not every piece can be dyed, especially considering the mix of hard and soft plastic on the 25th figures; dark-colored pieces are not dye-able; and, bleeding, both through paint and onto other pieces, is always a concern). And second, I'm just not crazy about the new line. I've been buying some of them here and there (when I can find them, that is), but there haven't been more than a couple that I've really liked, and even fewer that I consider an upgrade over their predecessors. And considering all the time that I've spent making my definitive ARAH customs of my favorite characters over the years, and all of the production figures that I've accumulated, it's kind of a daunting task to start all over again.

What other experiences in life, perhaps work related, do you find helps you when it comes to customizing?

I've got an unfair advantage in this area, because my job is basically customizing on a slightly larger scale. I do prop work for the entertainment industry, which means that in between tracking down ridiculously specific items and waiting for people to change their minds about the most minute of details, I occasionally get to build things. Every now and then, I get the chance to make something interesting (scale models, stunt weapons, and in one case, a custom figure of the host of a TV show I was working on), and in those instances, I get a chance to practice techniques that I can use when customizing. As I mentioned earlier, the scale modeling, in particular, has been very helpful. I also went to art school and focused on sculpture, so I had a lot of opportunities to learn casting techniques, construction methods…basically, everything I did in school has helped me when making figures. I'm aware of the axiom that you shouldn't make your hobby into a career, but honestly, it's kind of fun to combine the two every now and then.

If time, space and money were not an issue, what would be your dream project?

I've toyed with the idea of building large-scale playsets like The PIT and a Joe-scale submarine (as well as a few large-scale Star Wars playsets that I'd love to make someday), but my real dream project would be one of two much smaller things: I'd love to eventually make a custom of all of the ARAH characters that I had any interest in updating (which would be a very large number of customs). And I'd also like to try my hand at scratch-building and casting a few figures: it's something that I've always wanted to do, and I think it would be very gratifying to have an action figure that was purely my own.

On a scale of 1-10, how do you rate your own work, and why?

Well, it depends on the custom. But I will say this, and I hope it doesn't come out unintentionally egotistical: I'm a firm believer that you should always be making your own favorite whatever-it-is-you-make. Not necessarily that you think you're the greatest musician/artist/customizer/whatever in the world, but that you're making exactly what you want. If you're able to identify what you're not satisfied with about your work, then it's always possible to fix those things; all it takes is putting in the effort. I tend to put quite a bit of thought into my customs before I start making them, and I've made a few customs that turned out exactly as I wanted them to. In those cases, I'd give the figures a 10, because they're my ideal version of that character. Even if everybody who saw them thought they sucked, I'd still give them a 10. But, in terms of my work in relation to the customizing community as a whole…I really don't know. I guess that's for everybody else to determine. Cough…(cop-out)…cough.

How often to do go back and 'fix' earlier customs that you've done before?

Not as often as I should. I notice things about my customs that I want to fix every now and then, but between work and everything else in my life, I don't have an unlimited amount of time to work on the figures (I hear that's a common problem). So, a lot of times, I tend to focus on new customs and make a note of what I want to fix about the older ones. I tend to give priority to my favorite characters, too: if I spot a flaw in Clutch, for example, I'm a lot more inclined to fix it immediately than if Dee-Jay has a rough spot in his paint-job or something. Having said that, I guess I'll have to make a Dee-Jay custom now. I also have a nasty habit of rethinking figures that I've already completed, so instead of fixing the old custom, I tend to start over on a new version of the figure. I've probably made four or five different versions of some of the Original 13 over the years. I do think it's important to keep updating the figures as my skills improve, though.

If you were all alone in the middle of the Grand Canyon, which 4 figures and 2 vehicles would you want with you?

Well, for the vehicles, it would definitely be the Sky Raven, so I could use it as a reflector to signal rescue crews. I'm sure everybody else who answers this question makes a similar joke, so I'll just apologize and move on.

For the figures, I'd probably take the 87 Tunnel Rat, 86 Low-Light, and 84 Clutch (the VAMP Mk. II driver…I'll explain why in a second), and Copperhead. For the vehicles, I'd bring the VAMP Mk. II and the Water Moccasin. And here's why:

-Tunnel Rat and Low-Light are two of my favorite figures from the Joe line: great designs, great characters, and great specialties. -Clutch and the VAMP Mk. II would have to be included, because they were two of my favorite toys as a kid. The VAMP Mk. II was one of the best presents I ever got, and since Clutch is probably my favorite character, he's a must. -Copperhead is my favorite Cobra, and since I had a hard time coming up with a Cobra vehicle (lots of cool ones, but none really stood out), I thought I'd give the guy his favorite ride. I should point out that I lost my childhood Copperhead in a river in Colorado while playing with him and the Water Moccasin, so maybe I should be careful if I ever get stuck in this situation.

I hate to leave out Stalker, because he's one of my favorites, but he gets an honorable mention.

And there you have it: the wordiest custom-related interview of all time.

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