INTERVIEW WITH AN ARTIST: Rob Roberts Talks Sculpting Movie Monsters and the Future of Special Effects


K: Who are your predominant influences now?

R: I don’t have a lot of “influences” now. Rather, I have many artists who inspire me.

When I was young, I was definitely influenced by the special effects artists I mentioned. I wanted to work like them, in their styles, creating their types of creatures and characters.

But I’ve grown over time to realise that I want to make MY work, in MY style. And so I take great inspiration from many artists – their work makes me want to create more, work harder, be better. But I don’t (at least consciously) aim to blend a certain artist’s style into my own.

I’m inspired by artists like Ron Mueck, Thomas Kuebler, Greg Polutanovich, Aris Kolokontes, Romain Van den Bogaert, Jordu Schell, Mark Newman, Philippe Faraut (really just a small sampling – I have so many!).

K: What is your favourite material to work with?

R: I use WED clay for big mask sculptures and Monster Clay and Chavant NSP for just about everything else. I love clay, even more than any finished medium.

K: If you could design a character for any movie, what would it be? What would your design be like?

R: It would be something for a horror movie (as opposed to sci-fi or fantasy). I love horror the most, but I’m noticing that most of my stuff so far is more sci-fi/fantasy based.

My design would be subtle and yet horrific, centred more on the character himself than on some gruesome, over-the-top gore and unnecessary bells and whistles.

My go-to ideal is always Mr. Barlow from Salem’s Lot. The design is mainly just contacts, fangs, and some blue make-up, but he’s still the most terrifying character I’ve ever seen on film.

K: What is the first piece of work you were really proud of?

R: My Yoda resin statue from 2005.

Yoda was my first real project after I had stepped away from art for a while. Aside from some minor early practice, it was also my first experience moulding with silicone and casting in resin.

I had never previously done anything on that level, from sculpting a true known character likeness to moulding/casting/assembling nine separate parts. And I’m extremely modest, but to this day I still pat myself on the back when I look at the likeness – I kinda nailed it.

K: How have you changed as an artist since then?

R: How much space do you have here? Haha. I’ve changed in too many ways to even begin counting. I’ll just say that I have a LOT more confidence in my work and my abilities than I did back then. At the end of the day, that makes a bigger difference than anything else.

Without at least a basic underlying sense of faith in yourself and your work, you’re lost as an artist.

K: What is your process for creating a sculpture?

R: When it comes to mask making, I generally start with sculpting a maquette that’s only about two inches high. I’m not a proficient drawer when it comes to translating ideas from my head, so I sketch in clay instead. These rough, small-scale sculptures allow me to fully realise a piece in the round. Then when I’m happy, I simply scale up the size to make the finished sculpture.

Of course, I make some adjustments along the way. But having that initial clay sketch makes sculpting the final piece so much easier.

K: A lot your work has its own creative twist, like your Frankenthulhu piece. What inspires these ideas?

R: Well, in the case of Frankenthulhu it was actually a total bout of non-creativity. He was the first piece I made once I decided to get into mask making. I was coming off of a dry spell with art and was drawing a total blank in the imagination department. So I simply thought of two of my favourite characters and mashed them together. And it worked! He’s still my most popular character.

With others, I mostly let an idea pop into my head on its own, and then I run with it. I find that if I try to force a design, it just stays hidden in my mind.

K: What made you want to make latex masks?

R: When I was a kid, an excellent local Halloween store would open every season with a killer selection of masks. I absolutely loved every one of them. Between that, the awesome Nightmares masks ads back in old Fangoria issues, and a healthy love of monsters in general, it was meant to be.

As any mask maker or collector will tell you, nothing compares to holding a well-made monster mask and inhaling the intoxicating smell of the latex.

I love making resin models as well, and I also have a new-found fascination with ceramics, but nothing beats creating creatures in rubber.

K: How do you ensure that your more unusually-shaped masks are comfortable to wear?

R: I use the time-tested method of crossing my fingers and hoping for the best!

Really, masking making does involve a certain degree of guesswork. Or maybe I should say practiced estimation. Latex shrinks about 10 percent, so the size of the sculpture isn’t the size of the final mask. Because of this, the sculpture needs to be larger to begin with. So I have to take that into account when working. It’s not too difficult once you’ve done it a few times, though.

K: Do you have any plans to create stories for the characters you create in your masks?

R: If I had the time to do everything creative that popped into my head from day to day…

I earned an English degree as well as art, and I greatly enjoyed creative writing in school. I have an idea for a line of character sculptures that I’d like to get to sooner or later. It’s always possible that they could translate into story form.

You never know – maybe someday!

K: What’s the longest it has taken you to make a piece?

R: Haha – my girlfriend will chuckle at this question. Let’s just say that with a lot of trial and error, an occasional sprinkle of procrastination, and an often crippling perfectionism, I’ve taken a year of on-and-off work to finish a piece.

K: You create some sculptures of pop culture characters. What about a character will draw you to create a mask of them?

R: Actually, all of my masks so far are original characters (with Frankenthulhu of course being a combination of two pop culture characters). My resin statues, on the other hand, are most definitely drawn from the pop culture pool. I’ve never thought about that before – why my masks are originals but my resin pieces mainly aren’t.

A few are just characters I love, a couple were gifts, a couple were commissions. Usually, unless I’m making a particular character for a specific person/purpose, I’m kind of manic in my selections. I just get really excited thinking about this character and this character, or this one and that one. So at times, what winds up on my work table is simply the character that was standing when my mental music stopped.

K: Your art has taken all kinds of forms, including phone docks and switchplates. Do you have any other plans to blend form and function like this?

R: Actually, I’ve taken a break from masks and models and have switched over to ceramics for a while. I’m still in the early stages, but I’m working on building a portfolio of functional, sculpted character pieces. First up was my Thanos/Infinity Gauntlet sugar bowl and creamer set.

I also have some detailed coffee and tiki mugs in the works and on the drawing board.

I found in this style of ceramic art a way of using my sculpting/moulding/casting skills to transcend the niche mask market and create pieces that are more accessible to a larger audience. But I fully intend to get back to some masks in 2018!

K: What is your favourite monster movie?

R: John Carpenter’s The Thing – the undisputed king of monster movies (yeah, I know it’s technically an alien).

K: What do you think the future holds for hand crafted special effects in the media?

R: Honestly, I have no idea. I would love to say that I believe there will always be a need for practical effects.

But with technology (digital make-up; 3D printing; etc.) developing at the rate it does and studios constantly pumping out bigger and flashier movies, I can see a point (albeit a ways down the road) where digital completely eclipses practical.

On the individual artist level, however, people will always want handmade work. That’s not going to change, even with the digital world creeping into this arena as well.

K: Do you have any advice for aspiring artists?

R: Don’t let yourself get in the way of your work and aspirations. We all start on different levels with different talents and skills. If you want to be an artist – especially if you want to create for a living – you must believe in yourself and your ability to learn and grow over time, however long it takes.

Just keep going and make your art, no matter what.

We’d like to offer an enormous thank you to Rob for taking the time to talk to us about his art. If you want to see more of his creations and support his work, you can check out his website and follow him on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

Find out more about Rob Roberts and Afterlight Sculpture:

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