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INTERVIEW: James Freckingham of Robotic Industries!!!

I am really lucky to have been in touch with one of my favorite toy artists, James Freckingham, who I am glad to say agreed to take part in an interview. This is the first part of that interview and there will be a follow up which will go into more depth and other areas of his work and career at a later date.

Nick aka The Toy Finder: Tell us some basics about you and your family and where you grew up?
James Freckingham: I grew up in the UK but moved around a lot as a kid so never really had many friends local to me. This meant I spent a lot of time by myself playing with toys and watching old sci fi movies on TV. Being left to play by myself means that I had plenty of time and scope to make up my own adventures and stories for my toys, something I still do for most of my creations today. As I grew out of playing toys I found that making models filled a lot of my time and was something I was quite good at, that with a growing interest in art pushed me in the direction of an Art Foundation Course and then into a degree in Model Design. My first job after leaving university was working on toy prototypes and in my time I've made toys based on The Simpsons, Star Wars, The Muppets, LOTR and Dr Who, to name just a few but I always wanted to create the characters rather than work on designs for other people’s licences. I was collecting toys at this point (mainly Star Wars and vintage Transformers) and creating my own 2D artwork in Illustrator. One of my web searches brought me across designer toys which seemed to involve character design, toys, illustration and model making i.e. all the things I loved! From there the rest is history, I picked up a Munny from ebay customised it into Roboy and started creating my own characters and worlds for them to inhabit.

TTF: Your first toy - tell us about it.
JF: I can't remember my first toy as such; I do remember having these Fisherprice construction trucks that came with removable men who could hold picks and shovels, I think they’re called Husky Heros. My dad was a civil engineer so was always working on building sites and I guess I just made an association between him and these toys. My nephew has inherited them and they still have as much play in them as they did 30+ years ago. They still look great, big bold shapes and bright colours perfect characterization of the trucks you see on building sites.

TTF: Can you remember the point in time when you knew creating toys would be your life?
JF: I don't think I ever thought I would be creating toys, I knew I was always going to be working in a creative field but I almost accidently fell into the toy industry.

TTF: Are you passionate and involved with your work to the point of excluding other people at times, or are you always easy going and approachable?
JF: I do find that if I’m in the middle of a project I can get a bit to focused and forget that it’s way past bed time or that I’ve forgotten to eat lunch, I’m always happy to discuss what I’m working on though. I do work as a bit of a one man band doing my own designs, CAD, moulding, casting and packaging design (although I have had casting done by the talented Evan Morgan and my good friend Jazzy Dan is great help with my 2D stuff). Don’t get me wrong I do enjoy working on collaborative projects with other artists and had great fun working with Jesse Hernandez and Patricio Oliver on the RAJE toys pieces). It's just my own pieces that I don't really have a chance to discuss with other people.

TTF: You have worked for a number of companies whose output of toys is on a larger scale than the throughput of independent artists. Can you tell us the upside and downside to working as an artist for a larger company?
JF: The upside is the pay is more regular and it's not just you putting your neck on the line, there's a whole team of designers, model makers, engineers, injection moulders and marketing people all trying to get it right before it hits the shelves in Toys'R'Us.

The down side is that the design is rarely yours and yours alone; it sort of gets diluted going through all the different people and departments. Also if you're working on a licensed product (Simpsons, Dr Who etc) you have a whole host of extra people looking over your shoulder and causing problems. For example: a manufacture wants character X from the new series of some TV show, only there are very few images of X as none were taken on set (or they are unwilling to release them in case they get online). So you sculpt X as best you can with the information you've got and send the figure off, this then goes to the TV production company, the licensor and even the actor’s themselves all of whom have comments and amends. You amend your sculpt and send it out again for more comments by which time some images from the set have been released showing that you've got the costume or some other detail wrong. You then complete a 2nd round of amends and finally everyone is willing to sign off on the sculpt. At this point you send it to the manufacturer, who is very unhappy that the entire sculpting process has taken so long as they want them in the shops for when the programme airs on TV and they have less time to produce their 10,000 units. It's at this point that the manufacturer’s injection moulding company realises that the figure is too complex/expensive to produce and you have to remove all the detail/articulation that you have spent so long getting right in the first place, at this point a request to create a much reduced version of the figure is sent and this has to be rushed through approvals and sent off to be produced. I will add that not all projects went like this (but a lot more than one did) and there is a massive thrill in seeing your work for sale in the shops.

TTF: Do you find that it’s easy for you to manage and control your own time effectively and how do you approach deadlines?
JF: I’ve worked in the commercial world for so long that project planning is almost second nature. I always try and get as much done at the beginning of the project to give myself a buffer in case of any problems that cause delays later on I know I've got time to deal with them rather than rushing right down to the wire. There's nothing worse than praying that paint will dry more quickly than ever before just so you can get to the post office before closing time.

TTF: Which part of the process of creating a toy gives you the most satisfaction?
JF: The initial concept process, where I plan out how to tackle a project. Sitting down with a pen and paper to design the nuts and bolts of how something will look and how it will come together. The point where anything could happen and nothing is off the table, could this part be Perspex so that it looks like its floating, could it be held on with magnets or that would look great in gloss black!

TTF: Do you consider yourself to be an artist or a toymaker first and foremost?
JF: I guess artist, the fact that my sculpture tends to look like toys is a design choice that I make.

TTF: Is there ever a time when an artist should avoid creating an art toy, or can any artist's work translate well in one way or another?
JF: I think any artists work can translate into 3d it’s just that the better designed the character the easier it translates. If you’ve never considered how you character will look from the side and back then it will be tricky to bring it to life in 3D but the best artists will have planned this from early in the process

TTF: You can pick 3 art toys of any kind to show a complete stranger to the world of art toys what we see in them - which would you choose?
JF: I’d start with something like a Usugrow Rebel Ink to show the Graphic/Tattoo/art side as well as the quality that can be achieved. Then I’d move to a Dunny to show the collectable/blind box side and then a limited resin piece to show that it’s a very inclusive art form that anyone can get involved in.

TTF: Do you find it easy to consider art toys that you don’t like but you understand are important?
JF: Yes of course, beauty is in the eye of the beholder after all! I love Kaiju especially Jeff Lamms work but very good friends of mine who are heavily into toy collecting just can't understand why I like them and vice versa I don't get why they are attracted to the things they like. Doesn't mean either of us are wrong, just different tastes. Probably a lesson we could all learn from!

TTF: Can you recommend any artists who you consider absolutely essential in anyone's collection?
JF: Yes my own, please everyone buy some of my work!

But seriously as I said before what I like/think is important will not necessarily appeal to everyone. I do think everyone should own something from all the different areas of toy design, Kaiju, Dunny, Mass produced, highly sculpted/detailed, very simple/clean, vintage, one off custom, resin, 1/6th, something from a movie, something directly from the artists imagination. One of my favourite pieces is a little Playmobile robot that shows what wonderful characterization can be made within the confines of injection moulding and only using 3 colours and I happily display this alongside my 3A robots, my KaNo Hi-def and the one off pieces I've picked up from artists like Lisa Ray Hansen and Run DMB. All very different but all beautiful in their own way.

Some quickfire questions...

TTF: Favourite colour?
JF: Orange

TTF: Favourite food?
JF: Sausages

TTF: Favourite movie?
JF: 2001 : A Space Odyssey

TTF: Super hero power you wish you possessed?
JF: Invisibility

TTF: Marooned on a deserted island, what 3 objects would you have with you?
JF: I'm pretty practical, so a Swiss army knife, some kind of fire making device and the complete works of Iain M Banks to while away the time before I'm rescued.

TTF: If you could meet any person (dead or alive) who would it be?
JF: Henry Rollins I'm a massive fan of his music, books, and spoken word stuff, his positivity and get up and go energy is something I think we could all do with at times. I went to see him doing spoken word a few years ago and he was in the foyer before the show and I chickened out of speaking to him. I regret it to this day (I still don’t know what I’d say to him).

TTF: Punk or Funk?
JF: Punk, I've seen so many Punk and Hardcore bands over the years and I'll never tire of the energy and passion I feel watching those bands. It's a cliché to talk about the sense of family and belonging at these shows but when 300 fans are bellowing the chorus of your favourite song back at the band along with you it's difficult not to feel as one. Also I can't dance (much to the eternal sadness of my wife who is a trained dancer) and you never really need to dance at punk shows.

TTF: Money's no object - what do you do first?
JF: Make sure my friends and family are sorted! And then a holiday in Japan.

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