Mecha Zone owner David White creates art of a different kind in Easthampton — action figures



Last modified: Monday, July 20, 2015

EASTHAMPTON — David White is an artist. He fills sketch books with his drawings — pen and ink are his favorite tools — and does his work at Cottage Street Studios alongside dozens of other creative people.

However, his final product is much different than an oil-on-canvas landscape or mosaic.

White, through his company Mecha Zone, creates 3-D printed action figures, occupying a niche space in the market known as “designer toys.”

And while his action figures can be moved and posed like something from Mattel, it is adults who are typically interested in White’s designer toys.

“It’s just a different medium,” White said of his craft. “How is this not a sculpture? You can play with it — maybe it’s more valuable.”

White, 42, was trained in the same way as other, more traditional artists. A native of southern Indiana, White studied illustration and animation at Columbus (Ohio) College of Art and Design, graduating in 1995.

White worked at Northampton-based video game producer Cyberlore Studios until it folded about 10 years ago. Working on games like Mechwarrior, White said he honed his three-dimensional modeling skills at Cyberlore.

“It’s the same thing, mine just aren’t animated,” White said. “That skill set translates directly to 3-D printing.”

3-D printing is a process by which a printer creates a three-dimensional object by “printing” layers of plastic on top of one another. The technology has been used to create everything from household objects to medical devices.

White took the leap into 3-D printing in 2013, after seeing one in action at a toy collector’s gathering. “I looked at it, and I looked at my wife and said ‘Uhh, honey, can we get one?’” he recalled.

She said yes and White took the plunge and bought a $1,200 model.

To create an action figure, White first renders 3-D model using programs such as Blender or Sculptress. He said he then feeds that information into one of his two 3-D printers, he said.

Two years later, White says he now has a following for his “Predanauts” and “Mechanauts,” the bad- and good-guy figures he has created.

They come in various sizes, from 2.5 to 6.5 inches and feature up to 22 points of articulation and range in price from $15 to $70. Their bodies are nuanced, featuring detailed design and color contrast.

He created his first 3-D printed toy after a process of trial and error, checking out online conversations between printing enthusiasts and talking to friends.

White’s first toy was one with plenty of detail, though it was hand-painted and did not move. “I wanted to see how far the printer could go,” he said. His first moving toy had floppier joints and featured only two colors — white and silver.

Today, White uses 35 different colored spools of ABS plastic, which feed into the 3-D printer to create his toys. The printer heats the plastic up, laying it down in a pattern. “It’s like a really complicated hot-glue gun,” he said.

It takes White about eight hours to print all the parts for a toy, which are printed together in sets. He then uses a wrench to peel off some of the plastic, and further refines the detail with an X-Acto knife. The final step is treating the plastic in acetone vapor, which makes the finish shiny and hard, he said.

Other work

Despite his current role as toymaker, White considers himself primarily an illustrator.

His major body of work has been children’s books. He’s illustrated 22 Hotwheels books, and done Lego Star Wars illustrations.

He creates the drawings by hand, then shades them on the computer. However, an untrained eye might have a hard time telling his lines were not mechanically done thanks to breathing and posture techniques he has mastered.

“Have you ever heard how snipers only shoot when they exhale? I do that when I draw,” he said.

Inside his Cottage Street Studios room, his dozens of action figures sit on a set of 6-foot-high shelves, looking down at him as he works.

He said he has always been fascinated by action figures, and continues to buy them. 
“It’s my inspiration and reference library,” he said of his set, comparing himself to an author who uses other great works of literature as inspiration. “I can look at the way someone set their lines up and colors to contrast.”

White counts business sense and networking as key components to being an economically viable artist.

He uses Instagram to connect with other people in the hobby, and White said he plans to solidify those relationships at the DesignerCon conference in Glendale, California during November.

He’s taken business classes, keeps an annually updated business plan and said he considers cost and risk with every business decision.

White said he’s now eyeing larger-scale production. “Everybody asks me if I can make them cheaper,” he said.

In order to do that, White said he’ll have to redesign his toys so that they can be cast and manufactured in a factory.

It will cost $25,000 to $35,000 to make casts for a 6.5-inch figure, so he is planning a 4.5-inch figure and simplifying the parts, reducing the cost to about $15,000.

Asked why he chooses to make his living from a non-traditional art, White was quick to answer. “I have a vivid imagination and a passion for creativity,” he said. “It’s just a way for me to express myself.”

Chris Lindahl can be reached at clindahl@gazettenet.com.


 


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