Catching Up with STEVE VARNER
Tackling Turtles and preparing for the future...
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FIGURES.COM: Your name is synonymous with some of the biggest action figures in history, including TMNT, Star Wars and Star Trek. If you had to choose a favorite line you worked on, what would it be and why?
STEVE VARNER: It's true I've worked on quite a lot of action figure lines over the years and have enjoyed working on them all. However, the line I have most affinity with is definitely TMNT since I was responsible for creating the look of the first sculpted Turtle back in the late '80s and continued sculpting most of them through the '80s '90s and into 2000.
FIGS: What are some action figure projects Varner Studios is currently working on?
STEVE: We're currently sculpting some of the Disney Cars line and Princess figurines, also a couple major fashion doll lines and the new TMNT figures.
FIGS: Your stylish BeGoths have developed a loyal fan base over the years, but word is out that there are no immediate plans to continue the line. Why did you decide to end the series? Is there any chance the BeGoths will make a return in the future?
FIGS: Speaking of BeGoths, you've recently branched out into crafting fine jewelry reflecting the Goth culture. What got you started in this new endeavor?*
STEVE: I'm very proud of what we accomplished with the BeGoths and I am extremely thankful to all our loyal fans. I was unhappy to disappoint our fans when we decided to curtail production, however it was a financial decision based on three factors: 1) The high minimums required by our factories, 2) The factories raising the prices every year, and 3) Not being able to pass on those price increases to our wholesalers and retailers.
STEVE: I've always been interested in jewelry making, after all I am foremost an artist. These days mostly what we do is design and sculpt product for other large toy companies - which I realize is what I'm best at - since there's no marketing and sales involved. So jewelry making is a way for me to exercise my artistic expression without heavy marketing and sales involvement.
FIGS: Making jewelry appears like a radical departure from making action figures. How does the sculpting process differ? Is it more challenging?
FIGS: How do you come up with your jewelry designs?
STEVE: Jewelry making has a whole other set of challenges than making action figures do. The thing about jewelry is that it's very small, which is a particular challenge when you're sculpting in the computer creating it on a 30 inch screen. If you're not cognizant of this (size difference) you can get a real surprise when you print it out as a physical copy.
FIGS: What's next for the jewelry line? Any plans for stylish time pieces? My Hamilton could use some good company...
STEVE: They are just based on what we're interested in at the time. Some of them are Begoth based, some Steam Punk.
STEVE: I've been tempted to sculpt some watch cases, but haven't so far since I'm not a watch maker. I would be responsible for the reliability of the watch movements I purchased to go inside. So I'm not sure I want to do that. Maybe if I teamed up with a watch maker... if there any left out there.
FIGS: Toy making technology has really come a long way in recent years, advances Varner Studios have embraced. Do you find modern modeling programs such as Zbrush and Freeform fully replacing traditional sculpting methods? Is there a happy medium?
FIGS: What's your favorite digital sculpting tool and why?
STEVE: We've been sculpting digitally for over 12 years. In the beginning we would only do some parts of the projects digitally and then print those parts out and integrate those parts into a physical sculpt we still made with clay and wax. However, for the last 5 years or so we sculpt everything 100% digitally.
I'm a bit of a control freak regarding my clients security so I've acquired all the equipment needed to complete the whole process of making prototypes. We have several 3D scanners to make the physical into digital, Freeform and other programs needed to create the digital sculpt files and several 3D printers to make the digital into physical models. We also do all our own molding, casting and painting. The main reason I've done this is that most of my client's projects are secret. I don't want my client's files to leave my hands until I deliver the files, or the physical prototype, to them. For instance, if I had to send a file somewhere else to be printed over the internet - who knows who could get their hands on it? Maybe I'm just paranoid, but I like it this way.
We havenít been asked by anyone to sculpt anything by hand in quite a while.
STEVE: Freeform is still my favorite tool. There are other programs I use, like Zbrush and some others, but I always finish everything in Freeform and create my .STL files for building.
The other thing about Freeform is that if you have the Freeform Plus version, it has a tooling package where one can set the parting lines and take out all the undercuts, preparing the sculpt for tooling. I find clients enjoy this service when the figures or parts are being manufactured in ABS and other hard plastics since they tolerate no undercuts. The alternative is to let the factory remove all the undercuts from the figure, which usually has a bad outcome changing the look of the sculpt.
FIGS: You have a successful design studio and adventurous new jewelry business. What's next for Steve Varner? Any original sculptures in the works?
FIGS: We thank you so much for your time and wish you the best of luck with your many talented projects. Any parting words for our readers?
STEVE: Aside from the jewelry, which I really just do because I like it, I've recently been commissioned by the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences to do a 12.5 x 12.5 inch bronze relief plaque of Barry Diller and one of Thomas Murphy for a new addition to their Sculpture Garden in North Hollywood. I finished and delivered them this summer. This makes three bronzes I have now done for their Sculpture Garden. The first was in the '90s when they commissioned me to sculpt a life-size Mary Tyler Moore bust: one for the North Hollywood Sculpture Garden and one for the Acadamy Hall of Fame Florida.
A very special "Thank You" to Steve Varner for taking the time for this interview. To find out more about Steve Varner and Varner Studios, visit VarnerStudios.com.
STEVE: The toy business has gone through a lot of changes over the last three decades creating quite a rollercoaster ride for the people that make their lively hood in the business and it's very hard to see where the next move will be. However, I'm thankful that I learned hand sculpting from the best back at Mattel in the '70s. Being a studio sculptor who has made the transformation to digital sculpting in the late '90s... I'm prepared to go wherever the industry turns next.
- Jeff Saylor