Sculptor's Confidential

Sculptor's Confidential

 

Disclaimer: These are entirely my personal reminiscences and subject to all the vagaries of memory, I do not present them as facts. Other people who were there will undoubtedly remember things differently, and who am I to say they are wrong.

A Miniature Underbelly:

It seems that a lot of people want to know things which aren’t in the bare biography my wife has put on the website. I thought I’d write a personal reminiscence of my work and business dealings, perhaps it will have some instructive value for people in the miniatures hobby or people thinking about making a career of sculpting miniatures

As the bio says I first sold a sculpture when I was fifteen, I had first made one about three months before which I took into a local hobby shop and got a flat refusal of anyone to believe I’d made it from scratch. They didn’t even know what it was made of. I suspect they’d have been even more incredulous if I’d told them it was the first sculpture I’d ever made, or that I wasn’t ‘artistic’ and didn’t like to draw, though I did make models rather well.

The material my figure was made from was called E-POX-E putty a blue and yellow ribbon. I had chosen it because of a conversation with Stan Glanzer (sp?) of Heritage Models, over a game of British colonials at a local convention. I asked him what originals were made of and he said, “Epoxy putty” meaning ‘A-B plumbers putty. I chose the green (it turns green when blended) putty by mistake. I found out years later it had only just come on the market. It was this conversation with Stan which first awoke me to the idea that miniatures originated as being made by someone, not extruded by a machine.

Green putty is very difficult to work, especially if you are used to clay or wax. It’s characteristics are similar to sticky chewed bubble-gum, but as I said I had no experience of any kind, I was in high school and I had all summer. When I had made what I thought was a pretty good figure I took it to Stan and he cleared up the misconception about what epoxy meant. He said he’d try to make a mold off my model and if it worked he’d give me $60 for it. $60! In 1974 that was as much as my paper route paid in three months… that was thirty lawns mowed… that was REAL MONEY! I later learned that the going price was more like $100 but heck,, I was a kid and that’s life.

The figures I made were really bad in almost every way compared to today’s figures. About the only thing that wasn’t terrible was the symmetry (the arms and legs were the same length on each side of the body) I seem to have always had an instinctive eye for that. I modeled my style on the figures I was familiar with and these were very crude, partly by stylistic tradition, partly because they were carved in wax or solder. The A-B epoxy was causing something of a revolution at the time and small figures were becoming more detailed. The Green Putty was to cause this revolution to accelerate and take new directions.

Besides the material the other thing which made my figures unusual was the subject matter; fantasy. In 1972 there were no fantasy figures or rules. Miniature gaming was historical only. By 1974 there were still only a handful of fantasy figures and these were made by historical manufacturers and designed by people who didn’t understand the genre. I was young with no traditional outlook I had read nearly everything worth reading in fantasy published up to that time. My work was instantly and remarkably successful. Besides the reasons I’ve mentioned there was another for their popularity, which had particularly to do with the fantasy genre, my figures were not so much game tokens as little statues in conception. They had individual character. They weren’t very good yet but the concept itself was revolutionary in gaming miniatures

In 1974 I and five other enthusiasts set up Ral Partha, my partners were all at least ten years older than me. None of us expected RP to be more than a hobby, the whole thing was more like a hippie commune than a business venture. For four years I sculpted in my spare time and RP wrote me promissory notes (for $120 a figure now, there was a lot of inflation during the Carter presidency)
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It takes a person with more insight than me to know when they are in on the ground floor of a trend. The miniatures hobby in 1974 was, at most, three million dollars worldwide, and was divided up by more than two dozen companies. Half of it was in England where the hobby was much larger per capita than anywhere else. It was nearly all historical. Having the kind of head start RP had is an opportunity that never happens to most people. Opportunity knocks once and it doesn’t wait around outside the door. To carry the analogy further the history of Ral Partha could be summed up by saying, they opened the door, asked opportunity what she wanted, tried to haggle then told her to try elsewhere because they were busy right now.

The reason they did this in my opinion is no one there really understood the fantasy market. I probably had a better understanding than any of them and I really only understood the war-gaming side. Role-playing had never really interested me, it impressed me as being not so much a game as a form of psychotherapy (now, I wonder if there’s much of a difference there). The other owners were all old historical gamers and that’s what they wanted to make. In business, marketing is king, and I don’t just mean advertising and salesmanship. Marketing means understanding your customer and anticipating his desires. The owners of RP didn’t understand their main customers, in some cases they even had contempt for them,. There was some animosity versus fantasy gamers who had ‘stolen’ the hobby back then. Role-players seemed to have a different mindset uncongenial to wargamers. RP’s management wouldn’t step aside and let people who did understand the market call the shots. I don’t know whether this was egotism or mistrust or a bit of both but it spelled doom as clearly as if it had been written in three foot neon letters over the door. Partha had the measure of success they enjoyed largely because they didn’t interfere much with their sculptors, this was a sort of tradition which started because they had no control over me. I was an owner and they didn’t actually pay me at first so it was kind of hard to give orders.

One story from my RP days illustrates all this beautifully. At a board meeting the perennial subject of, should we make more historical figures came up. The answer from everyone but me was a resounding “yes”! Problem was they couldn’t make me, so they had to coax, and I had a big objection, to wit, historical figures lost money. This time they were ready, the sales manager presented a formula which proved we made 25 cents on every pack of historicals we sold. What could I do but bow to science? The meeting went on, as meetings do, and at the end I piped up:

“About this formula?”

_“Yes.”

“Well if you apply it to fantasy figures it says we make $1.00 profit for a sale equivalent to a pack of historicals..”

_”So.”

“90% of our sales are fantasy.”

_”That’s about right.”

“Well if that’s the case then we had a gross profit of $175,000 last year and the financial statement says it was only $35,000. I want to know what happened to the money?”

He took my calculations and studied them for about ten minutes but couldn’t find any fault. I told them I thought the mistake was miscalculation of overheads. If you took the actual profit and worked backwards you would find that in the best case we were giving away a quarter with every historical miniature sale. They flat refused to believe this, though they couldn’t think of an argument against it. Their attitude seemed to be ‘we are very intelligent thirty-year olds and you are some kind of weird twenty-year old with an extraordinary talent in just one area, you cannot possibly be right and us wrong and anyway we don’t want it to come out like that’. Nothing was changed and historical figures continued to be subsidized by fantasy sales during RP’s whole existence.

By 1978 I was in college studying biology and RP had been doubling it’s sales almost every six months. They needed to borrow money to keep up with cash flow and they couldn’t do it with a $35,000 outstanding debt to me ( I’d made a lot of figures in four years) so they came to me (or rather the President did) with a great new idea, I should take a 5% royalty in place of my promissory notes. You see, although the sales had been doubling they were still relatively small (the whole hobby was much smaller) so a royalty would reduce RP’s debt from $35,000 to more like $10,000. He very enthusiastically explained to me how though it might LOOK like a lot less money it could potentially be a lot more. Neither of us believed it possible the hobby could grow the way it did, I reckoned that given the loss of interest on the notes it would take 10 years to become the same amount, and that was optimistic. I also realized that if I called in the notes I would own the company. What I thought to myself was, “do I really look that much of an idiot? I need an image consultant!” (I’ve always been a bit eccentric, and at that time it tended to come out in my clothes and grooming) What I said was,” sure, whatever”. My thinking was there’s no way out of the situation. I had neither the time, resources nor the inclination to run RP. I was never going to get paid anything unless they succeeded and they weren’t going to succeed unless they could borrow money. For the bank to accept the debt had been erased we had to have a contract drawn up.

With the infusion of cash RP took off like a rocket. In 1979 I quit college and decided to dedicate myself to sculpting as a career. I knew I would have to get a lot better at it if I was to rely on it for a living. This might seem obvious, but remember I was perhaps the most successful miniature figure sculptor in the world at the time, everyone was telling me I was the best ever, a phenomenon.. I seemed to be the only one who could see how awful my stuff was, I set about training myself and studying. This was when I made the Renaissance line for RP. I learned a lot in a short time. My technique improved but also my understanding of design and production. If you want to make money making figures you have to be able to make them good AND fast and they have to be cast-able. Even if you can sculpt a perfectly realistic figure on a small scale you might not want to. There are a host of considerations and while most people make them unconsciously it’s better to know what your doing and why to get the most out of your effort. When you can look at your work a week later and not see anything wrong with it you’ve stopped growing,. I sometimes look at other sculptor’s work and it seems perfect to me, but never my own. I suspect they do the same thing. ‘Talent’ is a small (but essential ) part of success in anything, determination, organization and insight are all more important. The world is full of talented people who never accomplish anything

By 1981 the royalties I was getting from RP were almost $50,000 a year and they were deep in arrears again. Now the President came to me with a new proposal, also greatly to my advantage, a royalty buyout. True they didn’t actually have the money but the notes they would issue me would maintain their value….. I know it’s rude but I couldn’t help it, I started laughing so hard I thought I’d have a seizure. He didn’t bring it up again.

Some time after this Rawcliffe Pewter approached RP with the proposal of making their product under license for the gift-ware market at a 10% royalty. There was just one problem 90% of RP’s designs at that time were held under royalty from me (we had hired Dennis Mize shortly before and just after that Julie Guthrie). We held a board meeting at which they proposed that I continue to be given 5% (of the 10% Rawcliffe was to pay or .05% of sales). I asked them what they thought they had done to earn 95% of the money from the use of designs they did not own and were in arrears of the rent on. They replied that they had negotiated the deal. I pointed out that Rawcliffe had approached us and that in any case this would entitle them only to an agents fee. They responded that Rawcliffe was only interested because of the market profile of my designs due to their efforts. I said that I still didn’t see how this entitled them to more than a finders fee. What I thought was, “this company is so badly run that it is arguable that the reputation of my designs is more despite their efforts than because of them”, but I didn’t say it because it wouldn’t have helped anything. Now I strongly suspected that my view would win in court, but that would cripple RP and hurt all the people who worked there. I also knew that by demanding my royalty arrears I could take control of the company but for the same reason and for the reasons mentioned earlier I didn’t want to do that. They proposed that we split the Rawcliffe royalty down the middle and I agreed.

I do not think my partners were malicious or greedy at all, they really believed they were being fair but I think the reason they believed this had more to do with their own point of view than with any objective measure of fairness. They wanted RP to succeed and RP needed the money. I agreed to something I didn’t have to, against my interests, because I believe you are poor if you need money and you’re rich if you don’t, I didn’t need money. I know a lot of people still feel they need money even if they’ve got an obscene pile, which makes them poor in my book and I pity them, I honestly do. I also believe that to be greedy when you’re rich is bad manners, not sinful, not wrong, just bad manners. Demanding every last penny I was owed to the detriment of innocent people who had worked to build the business would have been greedy. I believe that bad manners are contagious and when a person, especially a successful person who others admire, is badly behaved it’s the worst of all. I have heard it said that your principles are only worth what you’ve had to actually pay for them, if that’s so, mine are going for at least half a million. I did, however, look around the boardroom and wonder why I was working so hard for the benefit of these people. From that time on I only worked part time for RP. Atlas shrugged.

[Authors note: My wife would like to interject that this is evidence all aspiring sculptors should get married young. If we’d been together at the time she’d never have let me do something this stupid. Thanks honey!]

Fortunately for RP there were a whole crop of rising sculptors ready to more than take my place.

There is a lot of petty egotism in the arts. People in this line of work seem to have trouble separating the value of themselves from the value of their work. That’s a shame for lots of reasons not least of which is, it gets in the way of your becoming better at what you do. Some people try and take credit for other people’s efforts by claiming a share of them, they, “taught ‘em everything they know”, or “gave them all their ideas”. I’d just like to say I never taught anybody who worked under me or with me anything. They learned it for themselves, the few contributions I’ve made were little more than short cuts they’d have found anyway. It’s not that I don’t try to be helpful, it’s just that I think you can’t teach people things they’re not ready to learn and by then they’d have figured it out even if you hadn’t been there, the credit goes to the hands that made the work and only there.

Another all too frequent complaint people make is about ‘copying’ figures. I don’t mean just taking a figure and reproducing it in a mold, that’s generally called ‘pirating’ and it’s theft, petty theft is you do it for yourself and you friends, serious theft if you do it for profit. What I’m talking about is copying ideas. I used to regularly get people coming up to me and saying so-and-so just copied your design. This is a rather silly attitude. Any artist builds on the work of others. Originality is a matter of degree, of subtle shades. Frequently the idea that someone ‘copied’ from me is one I got from an old illustration, which the illustrator almost certainly got from someone else. A good artist puts his own stamp on his work by choosing ideas and welding them into something his own. Being upset because someone used ideas you introduced is as silly as a painter being angry that another artist used the same color paint. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery after all, and if you were first to bring ideas to a new field you are almost certain to be imitated. Frequently it wouldn’t even be an idea that was copied so much as a pose. This is even more inane as there are only so many castable poses which can be made economically in a two part mold.

I had already done some traveling especially overseas to England, I now began to spend most of my time abroad. I recommend living abroad to anyone who can manage it. It let’s you develop freed from the expectations of people who have known you all your life. By the time you go back the new habits are so deeply ingrained and you have been gone so long, people accept that you are different in a way that would be very hard to bring about if you stay in one place. I did some work for English companies but because I didn’t have a work permit I couldn’t accept money for it, so I had it given to a friend of mine and we used it to throw some parties which are still remembered fondly by those who attended. It’s remarkable how happy a little music, free beer, and a place to snog or collapse in a drunken stupor out of the rain makes the English. We could all learn a lot from them.

By traveling to England I spread the good word about Green Putty there. Many of the sculptors I met were using the old methods or Milliput which is great in it’s own way but not like the Green Putty. They wanted to know how I had gotten certain effects, like hair or chainmail and I was happy to share what I knew. My attitude is there’s plenty of work if you’re good and if you’re not you should do something else for a living. Being jealous is almost as bad manners as being greedy.

I continued in this vein for some time but I began to grow tired of miniature sculpting. It didn’t seem to have much I, or someone else hadn’t done. Also the style and scale of figures was changing, in the seventies and early eighties the price of tin had fluctuated wildly but by the late eighties it had dropped to a new low and looked like staying there. The lower price of materials meant there was less reason to keep figures small and so several companies began to creep upwards in scale making figures of ‘heroic’ proportions. These figures were designed with a younger audience in mind who were weaned on comics and action figures rather than scale-models. The companies who made them also had excellent marketing so it was obvious the ‘new’ style was going to sweep the boards.

Of course no model of a person just over an inch tall can really be to scale. A sword at 1/65 (25mm = 5’ 7”) would be as thin as paper, ankles would be too delicate for handling, faces unpaintable. All figures become more caricatured as size decreases, the only question is whether you minimize or accentuate the effects. I find people’s preference one way of the other depends on what sort of art they’re used to and how they see their hobby. I’ve never been much of a fan of comics, old children’s book illustration is more to my taste.

The origin of two of the main small scales of the 70’s and 80’s (25mm and 15mm) is an interesting tale in the vagaries of business. In the first days of wargaming 30mm was the dominant small scale. This was the size of a range of plastic figures from Germany and early metal manufacturers made their figures compatible to it. The hobby didn’t really start to take off until the 1960’s when advances in spin-casting equipment made it possible to produce figures at a much lower cost. Several English companies were at the forefront of this expansion and managed to dominate the hobby by sheer variety of product. They made figures in 25mm as they called it though it was really more like 26mm or 1/65 scale. Later for mass wargaming they introduced 15mm, once again more like 16mm or 1/110. These scales had always struck me as odd. When you make a model to sit on the shelf it doesn’t really matter what scale it is but when you are using models in conjunction with other models as in gaming or model railroading, consistency is more than a little humbug. It seemed to me it would have made much more sense to make wargaming figures in 1/76, railroad OO scale, in which there was, and still is, a plethora of plastic figures to supplement and allow for easier, cheaper entry to the hobby. For mass gaming railroad HO or 1/87 is the most popular scale with lots of buildings and other useful auxiliary products for the figure gamer. I finally got to ask the man responsible for the introduction of these scales about them when I traveled to England on business. He was an old-time designer who worked in solder and was curious about the new epoxies but could never get the hang of them. I asked him why he had chosen to introduce new incompatible scales rather than match existing ones and be of more service to the hobbyist. He put his finger beside his nose and said confidentially, “that’s where we were clever, you see. By making our stuff incompatible they’d have to buy everything from us!”.

I was flabbergasted. Well, I thought, just because you’re clever one way it doesn’t stop you from being stupid in others. I pointed out to him that his company didn’t make everything a gamer needed and further that as soon as his company started to succeed outer companies and new companies had made figures to match his so that the only real, lasting effect of his ‘cleverness’ was to inconvenience his customers. Oh well, if the world were a logical place it’s men who’d be riding sidesaddle.

Some of these small differences in scale seem like fine gradations but it’s an odd effect of scale modeling that the eye becomes intolerant of normal variations. In real life if you collected a group of twenty random men you’d find the difference between the largest and the smallest to be at least 10% height and 30% mass but small figures with this much variation look like different scales. Everything has to be more standardized as it gets smaller to fit people’s expectations.


In 1988 I started Thunderbolt Mountain to have a free hand and explore new ideas. Things went wrong almost right from the start. I was supposed to go into business with a partner who would handle the production and management side while I took care of the creative, technical end. My experience at RP and elsewhere lead me to believe two people can run a business but more than that becomes exponentially difficult. In any case my partner had to bail out (not his fault) and I was left with all my preparations to decide whether or not to go ahead. If I have impressed you so far as being a sensible person let me now disabuse you of this notion. A sensible person would have called it off until he found a replacement partner, I went ahead.

What followed was a tale of frantic work and hemorrhaging funds. I lost over a quarter million of my savings, if you reckon the lost income of five years (against the tax deductions) it’s more like half a million.
Worse than that, the whole purpose of the venture was lost as I had to crank out work just to keep up turnover. My needs are modest and I still wasn’t hurting, but I had to call a halt to full scale production and any attempt at growing the company. In 1995 I put Thunderbolt into stasis and went to work for toy companies freelance, to recoup.

Toy company work is quite different from the miniatures industry, for one thing, they’ve got real money, for another they don’t have a clear idea how long it takes a sculptor skilled in miniatures work to do something. This can be a highly lucrative or very frustrating combination. The considerations when working for a company with lots of levels of management are also different. Your goal basically becomes, to make your contact man look good. He’s the one who’s going to decide what you’re going to be offered. Making him look good generally consists of being on time, (so as not to embarrass him in front of his superiors) getting it right (ditto) and delivering more than was expected (earns him brownie points). On the whole if you know the meaning of a deadline, can work in any style, to any parameters, and read minds you can make about triple what you can freelancing miniatures.

This brings us up to date. On the way RP finally imploded in a combination of mismanagement and infighting. I think a lot of it comes down to people refusing to take a back seat when it’s called for, everyone thinks they deserve one more chance to get it right no matter how many times or how badly they’ve screwed up in the past. I’m no different I suppose.

Now I’m moving house and so things will be disrupted for awhile. I’ll be making some things after that (I’ve already done some oddball stuff, perhaps I’ll post some pictures of the masters, if anyone’s interested) some fantasy army pieces I think, in 1/60. If the price of tin goes up I can always have them made in plastic. The technology has been making great strides in recent years.

That’s all folks!

Tom Meier