In our Interviewing the Expert feature, we talk to people who work in the fields that we love. Today, we speak with Ben Misenar who has created figures and accessories for Pathfinder, Heroclix, and more. He’s sculpted toys for Marvel, DC, Star Wars, He-Man, Transformers and more. So how did he get into this field? What tools does he use? Well, that’s what we learn. Hope you enjoy!
1) I know you design miniatures and accessories for action figures. Do you collect them as well? Do you play tabletop games? If so, when did you start?
I do have (and have had) several collections over the years. As I started working in the industry I had to adapt the way I collect. Things accumulate quickly, through product samples and exchanges, so I had to assume the attitude that it’s okay to enjoy things for a while then send them on their way for someone else to enjoy. Taking that stance has allowed me to refine my collections into things that I truly love rather than a gotta catch em all Poke’mon style collection that would quickly take over my living space.
Regarding tabletop games I played Heroclix for a number of years but got a little burned out by the pace of the product releases. The first actual Tabletop game that I played was the West End Games Marvel RPG with the trifold paper game pieces. I had a knack for unorthodox ideas, like squirting shampoo into the Hulk’s eyes to avoid getting clobbered or puppeteering an unconscious Electro (think Weekend at Bernie’s) to try to fool his fellow villains. My schemes rarely worked but they were always fun to try.
2) When did you first begin designing figures?
In my youth, I spent a lot of time taking apart G.I. Joes and Transformers to try to figure out how they were made. I believe I was about 10 when I started carving a Robocop figure out of a block of wood. I made it as far as the head and torso before it disappeared to the bottom of a toy box never to be seen again.
3) What tools do you utilize to design with?
I got my start with traditional epoxy sculpting which involved some custom metal sculpting tools and a tube of chapstick to keep the putty from sticking to the tools. Eventually, I moved into digital sculpting and now I work with a combination of software: Rhino, Freeform and Zbrush.
4) How did you actually break into the industry? Are you freelance? What companies do you work for?
It wasn’t until I was out in the soul crushing world of retail customer service that it dawned on me: somewhere out there someone was making these things I love and getting paid to do so. And they probably didn’t appreciate the gravity of the position they held. That thought inspired me to go to school for Industrial Design which led to an internship and eventually a position at the Games Workshop headquarters in the UK. That’s where I was introduced to miniature sculpting and started turning my attention towards working in that field. Now I am the Sculpting Studio Manager for Ninja Division. They publish Super Dungeon Explore, Ninja All Stars, Relic Knights and bunch of other fantastic games. You should drop everything and go buy all of our products immediately!
In my off hours from Ninja Division I do freelance for several companies. Most recently, I got the opportunity to work on some accessories for Four Horsemen Studios. I made a bunch of weapons for their Mythic Legions line. I also got to sculpt some of the weapons and the collect and connect grapple gun for the Movie Masters Batman v Superman action figures. Also I got to sculpt the centerpiece of my “cool stuff I made” shelf, the throne of Skeletor!
5) What are some of your biggest accomplishments within the industry or achievements you’re proud of?
My biggest accomplishment is getting to do something I love on a daily basis and make a living at it! I have a mental list of toy brands from my childhood that I’ve wanted to be involved with on some level. I’m proud to say that so far I’ve managed to work on Marvel, DC, Star Wars, Voltron, He-Man, Thundercats, Robotech and Transformers. The only things I’m missing are Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Exo Squad and G.I. Joe, although I did sculpt a chibi Arashikage for Ninja All Stars that is similar to a certain storm shadowy ninja from G.I. Joe.
6) What’s an example of a particularly difficult design you’ve had to work on? Have you ever had a final product that didn’t translate well from your original creation?
I did a figure for Privateer Press called the Transfinite Emergence Projector. This was a challenging piece because it needed to be built in a way that would be reproducible in hard plastic. Softer plastics are a little easier to design for because the molds are more forgiving but with hard plastic everything has to be precise or you run the risk of locking your part into the mold and ruining it. Fortunately, it went well and I’m very happy with how the final model turned out.
Every sculptor ends up with a piece or two that stings a bit when you look back on it. Mine is the lamp post Spider-Man that I did for Heroclix. Spider-Man is a particularly difficult character to sculpt in miniature with traditional epoxy putty. Add to that the restrictions of everything needing to line up in a single plane so that it can be produced as one solid piece and my being relatively new to the industry at the time and you end up with a clunky, out-of-scale Spider-Man. I felt so bad that I ended up doing a revised lamp post Spider-Man of my own accord later just to prove to myself that I could do better. It’s essential to learn from your mistakes so that you can grow and improve in the future.
7) Are there designers in the industry you look up to? Or artists in general that you draw inspiration from?
Of course! Four Horsemen studios produce some of the finest action figures around. I’ve been a big fan of their work for years. It was a dream come true to visit their studio. Then to actually get to do some work for them blew my mind! Tim Bruckner is another legendary sculptor that I look up to. I’ve visited a few of his gallery shows and I’m always fascinated by his ability to capture expressions not only in the faces of his work but in the gestures of the body. I recommend picking up his book Pop Sculpture. If you ever wanted to learn how to make a statue or action figure it has a wealth of information.
8) What kind of people or roles do you interact and collaborate with?
The main people that I need to give a nod to are the concept illustrators. Referring to me as a designer is a bit of a misnomer; it would be more accurate to call me a skilled craftsperson, as the concept illustrators are the folks that come up with the ideas that I work from. Some sculptors do both the concept design and sculpting. On occasion, I do as well in my personal work but most of what I do professionally is translating a two dimensional sketch into three dimensions. In order to do this effectively, you need to be a good communicator and you have to understand that the goal of what you’re doing is not to just do what you want, but rather to bring someone’s vision into three dimensions. Once you wrap your head around that idea it’s a lot easier to have a dialog about changes that can bring the sculpture in line with that vision rather than getting bent of shape because you’re being asked to change what you wanted to make. It’s that rare humility thing. It’s an important part of being an effective production sculptor.
9) You’ve worked on miniatures, accessories, a variety of sizes and genres. Is there anything in particular you enjoy working on the most? Miniatures vs. action figures? Fantasy, sci-fi or real world genres?
In my high school years I wanted to go into cel animation and I spent a lot of time scribbling in sketch books. Because of that initial interest in animation I find that I really enjoy working on animated/anime style figures from any genre. Miniatures are my bread and butter, I love working on them! But it has been overwhelmingly fun to stretch my mental muscles to work on action figures. I will always have a weakness for sci-fi. Being a child of the 80s, I grew up watching Star Trek, Star Wars, The Last Starfighter, Knight Rider, etc. One of my guilty pleasures is watching nearly unwatchable sci-fi movies or shows. At the top of the list are MegaForce and Ice Pirates. These are best enjoyed with drinks and equally inclined friends.
10) What are the challenges of creating a new figure from scratch vs. adapting an existing, well-known one?
The main challenge with creating anything new is that you have to give people a reason to be interested. Established characters already have the interest of their fans so you have something to build on. It’s a bit of a safety net in terms of making a commercially successful figure. But if you are making a work of art as a personal expression, then the definition of success becomes relative. Not having to work within the strictures of a particular character might be liberating. Personally, I enjoy working on established characters but I do feel the draw on occasion to create something new and unique.
A huge thank you to Ben for taking the time to talk with us. If you want to learn more about Ben and see his portfolio of work, you can visit his site HugeMini.com. Ben also recommends visiting Ninja Division, Four Horsemen and reading Tim Bruckner’s book if you want to learn more about the field.