Gregg Keefer's Trip From Customizer To Professional Sculptor
My strange trip into the world of commercial sculpting began in a way I'm
sure a lot of you can relate to, making custom action figures. I started out
altering Toybiz Marvel superhero figures, chopping heads and swapping limps
and such. I'd been doing it as a hobby for a few months and had been showing
my stuff around town at comic shops and took the plunge and shot some
pictures of some of the better efforts and sent them in to Wizard magazine.
In issue 11 they ran a pic of the Man-Thing figure I had done and a few
issues later they ran pics of some Valiant Comics figures I had cobbled
This raised my visibility in my home town and I actually started taking commissions and selling customs. It was chump change really, the time I was putting into the figures was huge compared to the 30-40 bucks I was getting per figure but it felt good to be paid for my efforts.
Then one day I went in to pick up some comics at a local comic book store and made a connection that would change my life. The store manager knew me and told me that there had been a fellow in earlier that day who was looking for an assistant and he was a commercial sculptor who made action figures for the toy industry. They immediately thought of me and mentioned my customs to the guy and got his phone number. I walked out of there with a pretty amazed look on my face and a scrap of paper with Jesse Nolan's name and number.
I called him up and he invited me out to his shop to meet with him and see if I would be interested in helping him out part time. I brought my "portfolio" of customs with me and to this day I can't imagine why he hired me, I look back on them and they are so BAD. He must have seen a spark of something in there though because he took me on part time and started training me from the ground up. I initially started out just doing cleanup and finishing on waxes when he was in a crunch and some occasional 4:00 am courier runs to the airport to actually put figures on airplanes to get to toy companies on the razor's edge of a deadline. I started learning how to make molds and made myself more useful. And all the time Jesse was showing me hands on how to sculpt, how to look at the big shapes and build on that and I was getting a feel for the materials, the special clay we use and the wax and all the various tools and techniques. I did a few small pieces for Gallo Pewter which we actually got paid for! Little by little, Jesse started trusting me with more and more. Eventually I made the jump to full time, I was of enough use now that he could take on more work than he could before.
After I'd been there a couple of years, a couple of dream jobs came our way and I was just barely skilled enough to take them on. Hasbro New Ventures sent us some parts to do for 12 inch Star Wars figures. The first ones we got were hands and forearms for Admiral Ackbar. Jesse already had a figure he was working on so he gave this small job over to me to do. I did them directly in wax, agonized over them and made the deadline and they were approved on the first go around, a rare thing indeed.
They were pleased so they sent us more work. Next came the Cantina Band Musician (Bith) head. I had to beg a little bit but I got to do this one too! This one was more of a challenge because not only was there the sculpting to do but we also had to size it up slightly to account from shrinkage not only in our processes as we went from clay to wax, but also shrinkage in the final manufacturing. It took a lot of calculation.
The reference from Hasbro New Ventures was top notch, they sent Lucasfilm archive pictures front and profile of the Bith and I was able to get every fold and wrinkle. I did not have and pictures of the back of the head so I kind of had to make it up. The head flew through approval with only one very minor change, a small detail on the mouth. I molded the original clay and poured a wax and finished that up and made the change in the wax. When making the mold I was very careful so as not to destroy the clay. Usually the clay is discarded after the wax copy of it is made but I knew I would want to save this one. I still have the one of a kind, super delicate original clay sculpt of this piece in my personal collection!
I also hid a little Easter egg on the head. On the right side of his face (his right) on one of the cheek flaps that goes down into the neck, I hid my stylized GK. I melded it with the folds well enough that it made it all the way through production and if you look closely (and you open your figures!) you can see it.
I also did the hands for the Hoth Luke and Han, which they also used for the Royal Guard and most recently the Coruscant Guard. Jesse did the figures for both of the Remote controlled Speeder Bikes, the Biker Scout and Luke and I got to work on them too.
It's a cool job but the reality of it is that it is still a job. It's work. We have deadlines to meet and Art Directors to please and the work is either feast or famine, you go for a month with no work and then you have more than you can finish on time but you have to take it all on to make up for the down time. One missed deadline can lose you a client and you have to try to make new contacts at a new company to make it up. Still I would not trade with anybody. I'm a lucky dog!