Interview with Jason Freeny
Jason was a guest at this year’s STGCC. He’s here for another collaboration, this time with local startup, Mighty Jaxx. Our resident toy enthusiast, Samuel Toh, sits down with Jason to “dissect” his brain, in hopes of finding out the method behind the madness and his dealings with our local toymaking scene.
Thank you! It’s my first time here and I love it! Everything’s making me a bit… dizzy. In a good way, you know. I realize everything here is built so high up, with the skyscrapers and all. I went out with the guys from Mighty Jaxx last night, and they brought me to Newton Food Centre to get some eats outside the tourist area.. hawker food. I love it! I’m a foodie!
Well, actually I’ve only attended one con consistently in the past, and that’s New York Comic Con, simply because it’s local. I would say that this con is smaller, which is good because I don’t like crowds. BUT the turnout for my stuff here has been, easily, 10 times more than what I get back in the States.
So would you say Singaporeans love their toys?
I think they’re like everybody else! Who doesn’t love toys? It’s a bit, like, how in America we have this fascination with Asian culture and toys. I think it’s the same here in Asia where they have a similar fascination with America. Where in America, the American artists and designers… or maybe it’s just me, that don’t get that much attention. So, when I came here I’ve just been overwhelmed. It’s a shock (laughs).
You’re one of the more prominent toymakers around in recent years. How long have you actually been doing this? What got you started?
Well, I’m 45 (smirks). My father was a sculptor and painting professor. My mum was a costume designer. So it’s always been my life. I’ve been doing this as far back as the 90s’. What got me into toys happened when my son was born. That time I was mostly freelancing, so I had to quit my freelance job, because my son’s mother had the insurance. Yeah, kinda works like that in America. After my son got a little older, I started looking for work again, and I found out someone was looking for a toy inventor. So I applied because it sounded fun. Now, prior to that, I had no experience in toys. Mine was mostly in theater, in stage and set design, in TV, in properties… stuff like that. They took me on! I did that for about a year. I wasn’t very successful at it, because in the real toy industry, the focus is a lot on features… like, what does the toy do? You know… does it transform into something? It has do something. During this time that I discovered art toys, where basically it’s all about what it looks like. And I’m like, “that’s what I want to do”. Remember those little bear keychains? Those got my really excited and I began doing illustrations that were very toy-like, and not just that, but with child-like objects. I had a balloon dog that I was using in couple of illustrations, and I made one to use it as pet (gestures as if using a leash), because I thought it was funny. I was like, “Wow! I’m treating this thing like a living creature.” What would it’s skeleton look like, be it all grotesque or extruded and all since it’s a balloon? So that’s the first illustration I did with the see-through anatomy, and that just took off with my toys as well.
I have a fascination with detail, of what goes on inside. Most toys are just on the surface, but I like depth. I like information graphics… you know, just lots of details coming together. I like it when a bunch of stuff I like gets put together, and packed into a toy.
Yeah! Toys, sculpture and all this other stuff, for a long time, has been very elitist. Because you bronze cast it or you make a one-of-a-kind thing. Now the whole manufacturing process of toys has gotten cheap enough, where sculptors and designers can finally mass produced their art. So that’s how the toys are being embraced, as an outlet for three-dimensional artists.
It’s mostly the parents, but the kids love it! I told my kids’ pediatrician that they love watching me make everything. In fact, I use my children’s anatomy books as a reference for myself. The pediatrician told me that it’s a learned thing to be scared of the insides. It’s usually gore and scary movies that, as you get older, you learn to be afraid of the insides. Really, it’s just the parents and the fear of their children who, they think, are gonna be upset by it. I haven’t met a kid yet that went: “Woah, that was scary!” Maybe they exist, but I haven’t met them.
I get that a lot, and my answer is I don’t have any favourites. I have ones that I enjoyed, which are the human kind, but have very deformed features. It’s kinda like reverse forensics. Like for Mario, he has this huge child’s skull. They put a mustache and a hat on him, and suddenly he’s an adult! And he has the body of a dwarf, with stunted bones and everything! So those are probably my “favourite” ones.
Absolutely! I do all the time! I’ve actually put the anatomy stuff on hold for a while. I had a show in LA at the beginning of the year, and I promised myself that as soon as that show was over, I have all this other stuff I wanna do. It started getting repetitive, as a sculptor and as an artist. Doesn’t mean I’m not gonna be doing anatomy again. It’s just that it’s becoming almost unenjoyable.
That’s a good question. It goes back to how toys are being made. Like I said, toys are much cheaper to produce now compared to, say, 20 years ago. So much so you can just pay for it by yourself now. I couldn’t afford it, so you’ll have toy companies step in, do everything for you such as production, promotion, distribution and shipping, in exchange for royalty. So that’s the path I’ve taken. I’m gonna get to the point where I can produce my own stuff, but folks like Mighty Jaxx pretty much give you the full service. It takes a lot off my shoulders, so it’s a good relationship. They’re now one of my favourite people!
To any aspiring toymaker here in Singapore, what would be your greatest advice to them?
You have to remember that selling toys, even though it is creative, at the end of the day it’s about money. You need to realize that if you want your toys produced, a company isn’t gonna pick it up if they don’t think it can sell. So you will have to make compromises between your own artistic vision, and what people want to buy.
I have my website, which is under JasonFreeny.com or MoistProduction.com. It’ll probably direct you to Mighty Jaxx most of the time. I like it when other people take over the distribution and just let me do the work.
Interview with Sarah, founder of Firestarter Design
In Singapore, only a few brave souls dare to tread the unknown realms of toymaking. Sarah is one of them, and our resident toy connoisseur had the opportunity to pull her aside for a few brief moments for a little chat. At the time of this writing, “Noodles the Panda” (pictured) was already sold out at STGCC!
Alright! Tell us a bit more about yourself and the stuff you do.
Hi, my name is Sarah and I’m actually a dragon… just kidding. I’m not actually a dragon, but I run Firestarter Design. I like to draw kaiju (a term used in Japan to refer to monsters) and creatures!
Nice intro (laughs)! How long have you been doing this?
For a VERY long time. This is my fourth year with a booth at STGCC, but I’ve been drawing seriously since 16.
Did you get any formal education with regards to that?
I did! Went to NYP to do a diploma in animation. Realized that I hate animation and I suck at it (chuckles), and that I have an affinity for creature and character design.
So how that the lead you to do toymaking?
It was an accident… I didn’t mean to do it. What drove me in that direction, was mostly desperation and experimentation. I saw it as a good chance to use what I like and channel it into something, but it was not easy. I used a lot of my own money! I didn’t take a bank loan or anything.
Woah! Did you go penniless for a year or something like that?
No, not really. I actually got a gig with Warner Bros, so that got me pretty good money. I was a style guide for some redesigning of their characters, so that was pretty cool.
So after that you decided, that, maybe toymaking was better for you?
I won’t say “better” because this is only my second year into toymaking, and toys are not the most profitable thing. The big guys who are doing it have many more years’ experience than me, and have a WAY bigger fan base. So I’m still starting out, and still figuring out whether it’s a thing to do.
And previously you did a collaboration with Mighty Jaxx?
Sort of. Now, by collaboration here meaning I pay them, they did the work.
What are some of the stuff you are most proud of?
I’m proud of the fact that I even have a toy out to begin with! Toy production is tough. It takes about a year going from concept to finished production and then ready on the floor for sale. It’s like the biggest thing I’ve done in my life.
I think the most prominent toy you have is Noodles the Panda.
IT’S THE ONLY TOY I HAVE SO FAR(laughs)! This kind of stuff is expensive to do. If I had more money, I’d produce more stuff, but at the same time, I don’t want to flood the market with too many of my toys because people have a limited budget.
Are the any other toymakers that are also starting out just like you?
I’ve met mostly people like Daniel Yu (www.thedanielyu.com) who has been doing it for a while. He’s even better than me because he sculpts and he casts AT HOME! Or his office, or wherever he does his thing, but he handcrafts everything by himself. I haven’t gotten to that level yet, so to me that’s very impressive.
What about yourself? What is your process like?
I do a lot concepts, figure out the turnaround drawings, the colours, and I get some person to help me with 3D modelling. I’m there to see that entire process as well. Then begins the casting, the moulding.. y’know, all the difficult production work. Then more colours and the packaging… all the more difficult production work. And then finally, you see on the actual floor sale.
Nice! What other plans do you have in mind now?
Actually, it’s just toys all the way for now. We’re working on a kaiju sculpt now if I’m wrong. That is slated for Christmas, hopefully. You will see it when you see it.
What would be your advice to any aspiring toymakers?
Serious advice? DON’T DO THIS!
Okay, don’t this until you are really steady with what you’re doing in terms of art because you don’t want to end up with a crappy toy. I’m real honest about this. Secondly, if you’re going to do this, you definitely need another source of income. To rely on this for a living is kind of silly, because no one knows who you are, you unsure whether your toys are going to take off, and you really may starve just doing your first toy. So you gotta have backup. You gotta get a day job, so DON’T QUIT YOUR DAY JOB! Don’t quit it just yet!
That said, this is currently a side thing for you as well?
Yes, it is a side thing. I tried to freelance for a year, but man… it was hard! Between running this and finding outside clients for gigs and stuff, it was hardwork. You become your own boss, and so you’re driving the work yourself the whole time. It’s very different from when you get a normal job, and switching off when you get home to do your own stuff. That’s more relaxed.
Can you do a shameless plug so we can find and buy your stuff?
Oh yes! I’d love to! You can find my stuff at firestarterdesign.bigcartel.com. It is my online store. Anything and everything I’m selling will be available there. Please buy something from me and support your local, starving artist! Well, I’m not exactly starving, but if you want me to make more stuff, you gotta help me pay the bills yo! Haha!