Urbanite renewal

Christopher Lee

Photo By Don Button

Christopher Lee spends a lot of his time among Urbanites, his whimsical creations that friends liken to “twisted Paul Frank characters.” In the last few weeks, Lee’s Urbanites (see www.thebeastisback.com) have been making the transition from two to three dimensions, as the California State University, Sacramento, graduate student oversees production of his own line of vinyl figures. A longtime designer-vinyl collector, Lee has been keeping busy with art shows in San Francisco and Los Angeles, a pending animation deal with Disney, and a children’s book all in the works.

How did you get into vinyl figures?

It started when I got a figure from a family member about three years ago as a Christmas present. It was a character from Pete Fowler’s Monsterism series, and it came in a little blind box so you don’t know what you’re getting. When I opened it up, I happened to get a rare figure. And that kind of started the whole interest in it all. So, kind of a sign, kind of not, but I’ve always been interested in that style, just because of how eclectic and different it was at the time. And that was three years ago, before it started to catch on. Just the media exposure it’s gotten in the past year-and-a-half has been insane.

How do you design for vinyl and then carry the process out?

Well, my characters, the Urbanites, didn’t start with the goal of being turned into figures. It was always a dream of mine, you know, one day if it happens. But they started out as a graphic project for me, one that kind of blurred the line between graphic design and character design. That’s why my characters are mainly composed of simple shapes, bold colors and just a lot of design elements that I applied to characters. But as far as turning them from 2-D to 3-D, it depends on how the modeler wants to do it. They can either mold them by hand using traditional sculpting methods, or they send them into a 3-D program, which is used for rapid prototyping. And from there, they can output the model directly into a three-dimensional form without having to physically sculpt it. Both approaches require a considerable amount of skill, but it really depends on the maker. For my stuff, the guy is using a 3-D program. He takes my character drawings— which I provide in front, back, side and top views—so he can get a three-dimensional look at how it would lay out. And then I pretty much leave it in the hands of the modeler to create as best he can from my sketches and my notes.

So, how do you output to three dimensions? It’s not like your printer can just push out a model.

Yeah, it actually is like that. It’s not a printer, but the process is literally laying down thin layers of wax until it creates the form. There’s these nozzles that pretty much spray out the wax in the three-dimensional form. It’s insane. So, you use that as the basis for the final mold, and it saves a lot of time vs. sitting down with clay or some other modeling material. It’s actually being done in Los Angeles, and I’ve been proofing the figures online through e-mail.

As a kid, were you much of a collector?

Yeah, like most true children of the ‘80s, I collected action figures, and we both know the best cartoons were on then. For me, it was all about He-Man and Dino Riders and Rock Lords. I wasn’t a G.I. Joe person, except for some of the obscure ones. Captain Power and Ninja Turtles, not so much Transformers.

How did you hook up with Disney?

That actually happened through an art show that I had in L.A. It was a Ninja-themed art show at this gallery called Nucleus in Alhambra. The curator is friends with the production manager for Disney Channel. And they were looking for new edgy character designs for possible pilots for new shows, just to kind of spice up the Disney Channel, because they felt it was getting stale. And so I just sent him my work, and he contacted me back, and that was that. We’re just trying to work out the details now. Nothing’s set, but it’s been a long, fun process.

Having been born and raised in Sacramento, do you expect to stay here? Is this a place where a designer can have a happy life?

A lot of people think nothing is happening here in Sacramento. And it’s half-true. You have to kind of extend yourself. I try to expose myself to as much culture as possible, and doing that has just led me to out of town. And I’ve also established some good relationships here in Sacramento, too. Eventually, I’d like to move if I have a chance. I’ve been to L.A. a lot of times, and before that I used to think the Bay Area was my calling. Anywhere, actually, is fine, as long as I’m comfortable and I still get to do what I can do. If I stay here, then that’s fine too. I don’t find Sacramento suffocating. I’m kind of in my own little world already.