The inside story of Sideshow Collectibles
The Joker once mused, "Where does he get those wonderful toys?" For those not blessed with billions, the answer might just be Sideshow Collectibles. At least, if you're looking for great prop replicas, statuettes and figures. We decided to peek behind the curtain at the company’s facility to see how the likes of Batman, Superman and Luke Skywalker become collectible figures...
In its 20-year history, Sideshow Collectibles has earned a reputation as home to some of the best models, prop replicas and statues in pop-culture collector history. With pieces ranging from lifesize models of icons such as Darth Vader that retail for thousands of dollars to smaller, more affordable pieces, the company has manufactured licenced models from companies that include Marvel, DC and Lucasfilm. It’s a favourite among lovers of movie art and an essential stop for fans with money to spend and shelves (or entire buildings) to fill.
After years of slavering over its figures at Comic-Con, Empire decided to peek behind the curtain and see how Sideshow works. The company’s building is easy to miss, an obscure block in a Thousand Oaks business park, just north of Los Angeles. But step through the doors and you’re confronted with a fantastical sight. The entrance lobby is styled as a train station, boasting display cases of both works for sale – Iron Man, Alien Queen, the Universal monsters – and personal art by the team. Venture further in and you’ll discover work chambers that look like a Hammer Horror film knocked up a toy factory and produced a child who’s fond of Star Wars. Much like Pixar, Sideshow’s bosses, including creative director Tom Gilliland who talked to us in his own model-stuffed office, encourage their artists to express themselves on the walls and workbenches as well as in their products.
Sideshow creative director, Tom Gililand talks to Empire inside possibly the world's geekiest office.
Photo: Terry Smith / Sideshow Collectibles
The company’s story begins with Arnold Schwarzenegger. In 1994, the group that would become Sideshow worked as an independent art studio creating toy prototypes for larger manufacturers. Many of the artists and modellers there made their start working behind the camera in effects and design. In their art studio incarnation, several of the team had worked on Terminator 2: Judgment Day, creating a small puppet version of the Schwarzenegger cyborg. But it was with their work on True Lies, miniaturising Arnold in the Jump Jet, which established the complete core group that would become Sideshow and begin their transformation from art studio to producers of their own figures. It’s no wonder that both Schwarzenegger films still occupy pride of place in the studio; as we visit, there are numerous Terminator exoskeletons hanging around the company’s facility. In fact, the effects team of the new Terminator film, Genesis, have borrowed several of Sideshow’s versions to retrofit as background pieces.
"I like to look at these models a little bit from the abstract. Because there is an aspect of the expected and Sideshow has always provided the unexpected."
The vast majority of Sideshow’s pieces are official and licenced by the film or game companies concerned. But where does Sideshow start when making these models? Gilliland explains. “When we're in a license, the first thing you do is an evaluation of the key character pantheon. We're looking for the signature characters, the mastheads of that product line. Star Wars is an obvious one, so Darth Vader, Han Solo, Luke Skywalker... If it's DC, say, we're going to do something that is related to the Justice League. We've done a section on the trinity – Batman, Superman and Wonder Woman – which is a collection in itself. These are the kingpins. Then I like to look at these things a little bit from the abstract, or from the oblique: what can we do that is going to add a little dimension to this world? Because there is an aspect of the expected and Sideshow has always provided the unexpected.”
In 1999 the company began its shift from producing prototypes for others to making their own products. To establish themselves and build a reputation with fans and collectors, they initially focused on cult properties that had perhaps been neglected previously. The first collectible line under the Sideshow brand was a series of 8” Universal Classic Monsters, before they began to build bigger and widen their scope. “In our earlier days when we were first pushing the 12" ranges into characters you wouldn't expect, we did The Outer Limits,” says Gilliland. “They're really kooky late-1960s, early-1970s designs where make-up effects were still in their infancy on television, so taking that and trying to adapt it to a 12" figure created some pretty interesting interpretations of how that might work out!”
“We had Richard Kiel as a Kanamit alien from the Twilight Zone episode To Serve Man, and then again as James Bond’s Jaws. We did him twice! We’ve done the Monty Python And The Holy Grail range, and while the cast as knights was not that weird, when we started to drift into the Knights Who Say Ni, we had the character on the top of a Styrofoam cone base to get that shape, so those took some manipulation. And budgets back then were much tighter, with figures supposed to cost $40. In this day and age you can barely put a figure in a box for that.”
Welcome to Sideshow Station; the lobby of the firm's Los Angeles headquarters prepares you for the treasures that lie inside.
Photo: Terry Smith / Sideshow Collectibles
Sideshow started selling direct to their customers, establishing an unusually close relationship that has proved key. “You have to listen to your collectors! We get characters that people are consistently interested in, and we have to figure out if we put it into one of our stories or whether it's a story in of itself. We want to establish themes, stylistic connections between the pieces and collectors can appreciate that when they want to buy, and not just get swamped by an endless run of characters. There is very little we don't consider, whether it's films that are coming up, events that are going to happen, or there's a creative vibe among the team that this is where the passion is."
"We have one collector who has a full Star Wars collection - he bought a building to house his collection!"
“We love to pay off public sentiment when it's pushing at something", Gilliland adds, "though sometimes things are in the way of that. We're in a licensed space for 80-90 per cent of what we do and there are constraints, there are certain characters that we don't have the likeness rights for. It's not a terribly onerous thing, but there are situations where characters aren't as convenient or adaptable as you might hope.”
It soon became clear that some collectors were willing to pay for ever more detailed and larger pieces. From 8” figures not dissimilar in size to mass-market toys, they now go all the way to life-size replicas costing thousands of dollars. “The 1:1 full figure pieces, like the Darth Vader or Boba Fett, are exceptionally expensive,” says Gilliland. “Size does matter, and the complexity of what's going on affects the price. Even just Darth Vader having clean gloss black is a tremendous chore in manufacturing. It requires a lot of clean room work that is very hard to set up and takes a lot of control, so to get that fidelity puts a lot of weight on the production itself.”
Certain collectors even gather multiple life-size pieces – sometimes on a large scale. “We have a lot of overseas collectors, especially for the 1:1 Star Wars figures, who are just fanatics and they want everything,” says vice president of e-commerce Robin Selvaggi. “For Star Wars, it's the Arab Emirates and Dubai. We have a couple of our biggest collectors over there and they do everything half-scale and 1:1 scale. We have one collector who has a full Star Wars collection. And actually, he's one of the royal families over there and bought a building to house his collection! He's a very nice gentleman, and devoted to the point that if one of his things gets bumped, he's contracted us to fly one of our artists in to fix it.”
Gilliland gives an idea of the sums involved. “The half-scale figures come from several thousand dollars to about two," he explains. "Some of our Legendary Scale Format creations are more around $800 and they're easier to afford. We've done a Galactus at that level. As you move down into premium formats, we can do different things like Gladiator Hulk, which is a very, very big item and carries as heavier price than some of the more delicate characters, in the upper $300s. It gives us a sense of scale and allows collectors to find something no matter the budget.”
Clockwise from left: Senior Sculptor Nathan R. Mansfield refines the sculpt for the head of the Power Girl Premium Format Figure; Senior Sculptor Steve Schumacher works on the design of the base for the upcoming Black Cat Statue, which will be the next addition to the J. Scott Campbell Spider-Man Collection; Nathan R. Mansfield works on the head of the Power Girl Premium Format Figure.
Photo: Terry Smith / Sideshow Collectibles
They've also worked closely with creative people involved in the movies and even those whose characters are turned into models themselves. They have provided models for the likes of Mark Hamill, David Prowse and Jon Favreau, either as giveaways or because they’re big collectors. Now filmmakers are making requests even earlier. “We've had filmmakers that come in and say, ‘I want collectibles,’ even before they start the project! We did that a couple of times recently, particularly with Pacific Rim and Guillermo del Toro,” says Selvaggi. “He came in and told us he wanted all that stuff. He grew up with that genre of monster films and then became a director where he was not only able to make original content but get the collectibles from that. All those guys are collectors, taking what inspires them. Guillermo has a huge collection. We've collaborated with him on Hellboy – we made the original Samaritan gun for the film – and some of the other things he's done.”
Actually crafting the figures is a complex process. The company starts with concept art, going into considerable detail on the page (or screen) before sculpting begins. That is still largely done in clay or wax, although digital rendering is becoming more popular even there since it allows the artists to see results much more quickly when it’s 3D printed on a rapid prototyping machine. Those prototypes are then cleaned up and given all their additional detail by the sculpture pool to complete the process.
"We've had filmmakers that come in and say, ‘I want collectibles,’ even before they start the project! We did that a couple of times recently, particularly with Pacific Rim and Guillermo del Toro."
Actors are rarely available in person to be scanned or sculpted, unless they have a personal relationship with Sideshow. “One that we had a great rapport with was R. Lee Ermey,” says Gilliland, “when we were doing his Full Metal Jacket drill sergeant character piece.”
And actors can have issues with their portrayal. “You do have the case where it's an actor portrait and they have approvals. They might not think it looks like them,” explains Selvaggi. “One of the famous ones was our Buffy line with Sarah Michelle Gellar, where she didn't think she looked like the model. And the original portrait was a scan, it was literally her! But they don't tell the actors not to go out drinking before they get scanned (laughs). We had a sculptor go in and change the features under her direction.”
“Typically more of the support we get is from where a lot of us began in our careers, which is in the special effects world,” says Gilliland. “A lot of us were in make-up effects. So when it comes to Predator, for example, we have relationships with Legacy Studios, which used to be Stan Winston's facility. Nat Rose, who worked on Predator as a lead sculptor, was someone I worked with when I was at Rick Baker's. So we're able to step back into that world and ask if there are photographs available, or even the actual mask.”
From screen-grabbing key moments from a film to examine a prop to using modern 3D scans, the company will try just about anything to make their models convincing. They consult the original effects artists where necessary, and may consult studio or filmmaker archives for references; Gilliland singles out Lucasfilm’s famously detailed archives for praise. But CG creations can be a double-edged sword; while they are available there in 3D, CG assets might be tweaked until extremely late in a filming process, so that Sideshow can’t be sure that their model will precisely match the screen character until almost the day of release.
And while 3D scanning and imaging is now widely used in the film industry, the Sideshow team don’t want to rely too heavily on it. “We like to take a little creative risk,” says Gilliland. “Our approach to these things is that you can be a 3D Xerox machine; we don't want to just copy the characters. We're focused on trying to capture them. In doing that, we're going to play with certain aspects. In some cases, we might not get so caught up in the little tiny, millimetre-sized differences of the way a helmet looked, for example. When we're doing Vader, if we're doing a posed piece, we're trying to capture the essence of how our imagination sees him. Our prop-orientated people see his helmet as possessing facial features they want duplicated.”
Exclusive Superman Premium Format Figure and Batman Premium Format Figure production pieces (left). Galactus Maquette production piece (right).
Photo: Terry Smith / Sideshow Collectibles
"Something we're getting prepared to respond to is Batman V Superman. It's the two titans together on screen, which is great for what we do. "
Coming up from the company is a big Marvel sentinel “that will follow in Galactus's footsteps,” says Gilliland. “It has a really nice sense in that we did a paint job reminiscent of the '80s colour style with vibrant magenta and blue, but we put a lot of weathering onto it. So at first glance you get the sense that it's almost a silly colour scheme for such a violent robot, but when you look closely, you start seeing the machinery coming through the joints, and you see a lot of nicks and battle damage on it. We took something that is very graphic and laminated a sense of the realism on top of it.”
“We finally have a big-scale Godzilla maquette that I think really nicely represents the character from the current film,” he continues. “In addition to those, this year at Comic-Con we're also showcasing in a much bigger way one of our own concepts, The Court Of The Dead range, which focuses on a war between heaven and hell that’s taking the celestial universe to destruction. It's also a good demonstration of the flair we try to bring to all of our licensed projects. It's everything you'd expect from us, now with our imagination included.”
And further down the road? “I'm not sure how or if we'll get involved, but the new Mad Max: Fury Road has us interested. There are quite a few Road Warrior fans on the staff, including myself. On the distant horizon, something we're getting prepared to respond to is Batman V Superman. I liked Man Of Steel and its interpretation of Superman, and I think it'll all pay off. I'm excited by the look of Batman. And it's the two titans together on screen, which is great for what we do. It's like in the early Universal days when they'd put Frankenstein and the Wolfman together. Crossover!”
WORDS JAMES WHITE