Star Wars Episode III: The Revenge of the Sith might finally be dying down a little at the movie theaters, but miniature battles between the dark and light sides of the Force are still raging in playrooms across America, as kids stage their own dramas with the ever-popular Star Wars action figures.
Many of the figures were originally sculpted for Hasbro in a local Tristate basement. Native Cincinnatian Paul Brooke — a sculptor, painter and model-train maker — is the force behind several of the action figures you see in toy stores. Yet while the rest of the world is swept up in Revenge of the Sith, Brooke has already moved on.
When I meet with him in the basement workshop of his comfortable Clifton home, he's photographing a G.I. Joe figure whose head he's just completed. A wax rendition of My Little Pony stands nearby. The dryer is thumping, and a cat is skulking about. But it's a time of relative peace, as Brooke's youngest son is upstairs napping off the terrible twos.
The soft-spoken, gravel-voiced sculptor isn't terribly comfortable talking about Star Wars.
"I never actually played with the first Star Wars action figures," he says.
"I was in high school when the original Star Wars came out."
He prefers the new generation of Star Wars figures, which he says are expected to "push the limits of action figure quality." The higher standards make Brooke's job inspiring.
For example, when he was given the "Original Trilogy Collection" Chewbacca to sculpt, he was required to make it move fluidly. He responded by creating 16 points of articulation, some of which are ball joints that allow movement in a 360-degree radius. Brooke used the ample fur on the world's favorite walking carpet to conceal much of the articulation, and the result is a more detailed, layered look than seen on any previous Chewbacca.
The process wasn't entirely smooth — "little tendrils of hair kept breaking off," he says — but Brooke was so engrossed in the challenge that he kept the realism going right down to the pads on the bottom of Chewbacca's feet. It was a small victory for Brooke that his innovation didn't get lost in production. The feet on most action figures are flat, but the toes on the "Original" Chewbacca remain anatomically correct.
Brooke faced another hairy challenge when sculpting the Minotaur from the upcoming theatrical release of The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe. The Minotaur was designed by WETA Workshop, the Academy Award-winning designers of the Lord of the Rings movies.
WETA has maintained its museum quality standards with the Minotaur, a half-man, half-bull creature who dons armor as exquisitely detailed as the armor of an Orc or an Elf from Middle Earth. Brooke had to replicate the intricate bas-relief sculptures on the Minotaur's breastplate and shoulder armor but on an action figure scale.
Scale, however, is not a problem for a guy who designs custom model train sets at a ratio of 1:220. He slips on his magnifying glasses — they make him look like a bizarre cross between a World War I fighter pilot and a Victorian mad scientist — selects what look like delicate surgical tools and hunkers down to work.
Brooke's main concern with any fantastical character is to make it as life-like as possible by getting the hair (or fur) and the anatomy just right. When sculpting people, he pays special attention to perfecting the folds of their garments.
This attention is evident when I get a look at a JPEG prototype of his favorite project so far, the title character from the last year's wildly successful independent film Napoleon Dynamite. I can't tell by looking at the picture whether Napoleon's T-shirt and hiked-up jeans are cloth or sculpted.
Brooke started his action figure career in the converted underground parking garage beneath the Kroger Building downtown, which functioned as the paint department for Kenner Toys. As he moved up from painting mockups to becoming a "Design/Model Maker," he was given a cubicle upstairs with a decent view.
By the time Brooke's wife was pregnant with their second child, Hasbro had bought Kenner. Hasbro eventually left Cincinnati for Rhode Island, but Brooke opted to stay. The cost of relocating was too high and, besides, he says, "My family is here."
"I already had freelance jobs I worked on after hours to bring in extra money," he says. "I figured that even after the move Hasbro would continue to use me."
His hunch paid off. Brooke remains in high demand and has been able to support his family by working on freelance projects from the comfort of his home.
The downside? He's back in a basement.
"I'm always in basements," he laments. ©