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Our second exclusive interview with a industry insider, is with toy sculptor Michael Norman.
He has created many of the masterpieces we love, including Sauron, Rohirrim Soldier, Gandalf the White, several versions of Legolas, and much more.
He also sculpted for Play Along on the Armies of Middle Earth 3" line.
His work is brilliant, and his attention to detail is incredible. I’ve had a few late night, long chats about his works with him in the past. Today, he answered a few questions solely for the group.
Donnie: How did you get your start in sculpting toys?
Michael: I began with customizing action figures when I was very young. If I had a figure that I didn’t think was quite right, or I just wanted to improve a little, I would adjust it with paint or superglue or whatever. The first figures I remember changing were the Mego Pocket Superheroes in the mid 70's. Mostly I would make the paint jobs a little more detailed.
I got more advanced with the modifications I would do over the years. In the early 90’s I began making customized action figures and selling them through a few comic shops.
I have sculpted all my life and always preferred a smaller scale and human characters. So by the late 90’s I thought I would try and get some work sculpting for toy companies.
The first work on a produced action figure I did was for Blizzard. Then after that I began doing work for Resaurus, Palisades, Applause, Play Along, Diamond, Jakks Pacific, Disney, Toy Biz and many others.
Donnie: How many figures did you sculpt for the Lord of the Rings?
Which was your favorite?
Michael: Things were pretty fast and furious for a while. Lord of the Rings was an absolute phenomenon and a lot of people and companies were getting in on the excitement.
I sculpted so many I don’t remember exactly how many I did for each company as I didn’t keep prototypes for all the ones I did and didn’t even buy one of each final product since there were just so many.
For Toybiz I sculpted in the neighborhood of a dozen, most produced but some not.
For Playalong I sculpted somewhere around 70 to 80 characters, horses and creatures. Also, some produced and some not.
I also sculpted some figures for Burger King, Applause and a few other companies for cake toppers, statues, bottle toppers, and various other stuff.
I really don’t know the final total number of Lord of the Rings figures out there that I sculpted.
My favorite is a difficult choice. Probably the Sauron or unproduced Legolas for Toybiz, although the Helms Deep Aragorn or Gollum for Play Along are also favorites.
Donnie: What kind of reference materials were provided to you for the sculpt?
Michael: New Line Cinema was absolutely on the ball with this. They had fantastic reference photos of the actors in costume, stunt people in costume, models showing each individual layer of costume, accessories laid out on tables or the floor from many angles, accessories in place on the costume and just about anything we could have needed.
With all the hundreds of characters, creatures, monsters, animals and whatever else this was invaluable in helping the products to be as completely accurate as possible.
This reference from New Line came in handy for every company I sculpted for.
For Toybiz, they provided great turn around drawings of the figure they wanted.
Play Along initially started with a drawing of the figure they wanted. Then as the project progressed they seemed to be very happy with what they were getting and quickly just went to providing a list of the characters they wanted for each round and let me choose the pose and what they were doing unless they had a specific action in mind for the set they were doing, in which case they might just provide a quick description.
For the most part, most companies would provide a drawing of the piece they wanted. On occasion I would do a quick drawing myself before starting the sculpture.
Donnie: Can you tell us about your experience sculpting Sauron?
Michael: That figure was so amazing and such an honor to sculpt.
When I saw the images I was a bit nervous as he has a lot of detail and is quite larger than the other figures in the line. Up to that point, I was given a couple of weeks to work on each character and it turned out this one was on the same deadline.
To make it into production in time it had to be completed in two weeks.
I started sculpting and worked very long hours on him. He was indeed completed in two weeks and I was so excited about this figure that I also made a prototype of his multi layer cloak even though that wasn’t part of what I was required to do.
When I went to WETA in New Zealand the first time, I was being introduced around the studio by Richard Taylor. We stopped in the model building room and I saw one of the Toy Biz Sauron figures there on a workbench.
I said “Hey, I sculpted that guy!”
They said, oh we have it here as reference for the statue of him we made.
I said, “But you guys made the actual armor that was used in the movie!”
They said, “Well the figure is good reference!" A fairly proud moment in my career.
Donnie: You mentioned that you went to New Zealand, and were part of the creative team.
Do you have any favorite moments?
Michael: I met Richard Taylor because of my work on the figures. He invited me to come work at WETA for a bit but only after the movies were completed so I didn’t get to work on the movies themselves.
My first few minutes there I was being walked around the studios by an incredible artist named Gino Acevedo as Richard hadn’t made it in yet and he asked Gino to start introducing me around.
We turned a corner into a large hallway in which the walls were completely covered with Lord of the Rings weapons. Gino said these are all weapons from the Lord of the Rings, there are so many I’m not even sure who’s they are.
I said, “I am! That is Aragorns sword and dagger, that’s Gandalfs sword, that is Boromirs sword and shield, that’s Legolas bow from the first movie, that’s his bow from the second movie…”
He said, “How in the #&!! do you know all that?”
I said, ”I have been sculpting these in several different scales for the last five years!”
At one point during my time there Richard said to me it’s a shame we didn’t meet you sooner, there are a shortage of people who can ride horses in New Zealand, you could have been a Rohan Warrior, also you look like a Gondorian Soldier, and you’re tall and thin, you would have made a good elf, you would have been all through those movies.
That was one of the best and at the same time saddest things I’ve ever heard. These are only a few, there were loads of other favorite moments.
Donnie: You are a very accomplished artist, with a huge catalog of work.
What would you say is your best sculpt?
Michael: That is a bit like asking a parent which is your favorite child.
As mentioned earlier it’s hard to think of a favorite. The unproduced Legolas you have shown on your page I am quite fond of. As well as the Sauron.
Some of the pieces I did for Pirates of the Caribbean I quite like. But these are existing characters that I was simply reproducing.
Like most artists, I think I most like the pieces that I design as well as sculpt. For instance I am proud of some of the subtleties and detail in my Cthulhu model kit.
I am happy with the goblins from an upcoming series of mine and I am also proud of the giant dragon from the same series.
Donnie: What are you up to now?
How can the fans see more of your work?
Michael: I just wrote a series of fantasy resin model kits centered around a very large dragon I am soon to be releasing.
But before that I have a series of animal kits that are intended to be mounts for 1/18th scale figures.
They will be offered with or without saddles for your action figures to ride them into battle.
The dragon series was actually inspired by the Hobbit movie and action figure line. As soon as I heard there would be a 1/18 scale figure line, I anticipated that there would be no dragon with it. At least not in scale.
So I began thinking about making one for myself. A friend of mine saw the 1:1 scale drawing and asked that I make molds of the sculpture once it was completed as he wanted one as well. So I thought if I mold it and make one for him, I might as well make one for anyone else who wants one!
My model kits are available on my store website
More of my past work can be seen on my portfolio website
current and past work can be seen if you follow on Facebook