Exclusive Interview With Action Figure Sculptor Jean St. Jean

If you dig action figures, chances are you own something that was created by Jean St. Jean Studios. The sculpting house, founded by St. Jean himself, has grown since its creation in 2005 and now boasts clients such as NECA, Diamond Select and DC Direct. Jean began his career making dolls and preschool toys for Appollo-Juno, Inc but soon moved to McFarlane Toys, where he eventually rose through the ranks to become Sculpting Supervisor. A few years later, Jean ventured out on his own and eventually founded Jean St. Jean Studios, which has become one of the most popular and highly-regarded sculpting houses in the industry.

Jean was kind enough to answer a few questions about his career, what influences him and what may lie on the horizon for Jean St. Jean Studios.

PCZ: You’ve been in the sculpting industry for a number of years. After all the work you have done, what stands out as your favorite, or the project that you are most proud of?

Jean: There are two actually; The Tomb of Dracula Marvel Milestones for Diamond Select Toys and the 18” Pumpkinhead for SOTA. The Dracula in particular was something I had wanted for someone to make, let alone get the chance to design and sculpt it myself. The Marvel Dracula had been ignored for years and I’m very glad it was me that got to do the first statue. I put a lot of time into rereading the whole series and studying Gene Colan’s art, especially the face and body language.

Production issues aside, I love the Pumpkinhead; partly because I never thought any company would be nuts enough to do an 18″ action figure. Also because typically, I’m not the guy folks come to with monster jobs. Generally, I’ve been typecast as a realism and portrait sculptor, so when something like Pumpkinhead or the Day of the Dead figures for Amok Time come up, it’s a nice change.

PCZ: In the Diamond Select Stargate series, you were able to incorporate ‘build-a-figures’ such as the Stargate and MALP. How does your approach to sculpting these large-scale devices/accessories differ from a standard action figure? Do you prefer working on action figures or accessories?

Jean: The ‘build-an-accessory’ idea was Diamond’s and I think it is awesome. From a fan standpoint it allows us to make oversize accessories that are iconic elements of the shows. It also adds a buying incentive for collector’s to pick up the whole set. Having said that, they have to be sized and decorated within certain cost parameters to make them a reasonable addition to each of the blisters. These things are very expensive to produce so in order to get them out to fans, compromises have to be made.

There are plenty of examples of companies promising the moon on some insanely expensive product and then having it slip below the radar because of unrealistic costing for production. Within my team of artists I have guys that specialize in fabrication (or, a more mechanical form of sculpting) for vehicles, weapons and architectural elements. I’ve begun doing more of it myself, for instance the (DC Direct) World of Warcraft Gnome Mechanostryder as well as the weapons for my Warcraft figures. Figural and accessory sculpting each have elements which I enjoy doing, again because I prefer to have variety in my workload.

PCZ: Has there been an instance where the final packaged product has drastically differed from your original sculpt? What is your reaction to this and how much control do you have over the finished product?

Jean: Rarely does a final PVC toy look like a hand painted prototype. In fact, never does the final product nail the prototype. Concessions have to be made for cost and for practicality of reproduction. Because I understand this, I generally expect to be underwhelmed, though I’m mostly pleasantly surprised. That’s not negativity, it’s just practicality. However, McFarlane has made some amazing innovations in the production process that have completely changed the look of the average action figure. They have forced everyone else to pick up their game. The average collector is much more discriminating and savvy of the production process.

PCZ: Not many fans know that you are also an accomplished musician with a degree in classical piano. To what extent does music influence your sculpting work (or vice versa)?

Jean: Over the last ten years I’ve traded one obsession for another. Where I used to practice (music) 16 hours a day, now I work those hours making toys and statues. I’ve gotten to sculpt a few of the musicians I listened to like the Kiss Alive Gene Simmons, Alice Cooper and the ‘Roid Rage’ Ozzy Osbourne for McFarlane. I also worked on the (Iron Maiden) Phantom of the Opera Eddie and Freddie Mercury in the yellow jacket. Both of these were for NECA.

PCZ: Can you tell us a little about what some of your upcoming projects are? Anything new with Diamond Select or are you working with other companies?

Jean: As far as I know (Diamond Select) is still rolling ahead with Stargate: SG-1, Stargate: Atlantis and Battlestar Galactica. On other fronts I’m working on Mezco’s Cinema of Fear (wave three was my first line), DC Direct AmiComi (Poison Ivy was the first) and Day of the Dead and other cool properties coming up for Amok Time.

PCZ: Have you ever worked on a project that required you to work with source material that you were unfamiliar with? Have any of your projects made turned you into a fan of a show/book/movie that you were previously unexposed to?

Jean: Actually, Stargate was a property I had only passing knowledge of before the Diamond gig came up. I started cramming to become immersed in the show, and thank God I ending up really liking it. I’m more of a horror guy than a sci-fi enthusiast but (Stargate) is a fun show with really well written characters and great casts. Plus… there are some cool aliens!

PCZ: You have mentioned in previous interviews that you got started in this business as a toy collector. What new toys keep you hunting shelves to add new items to your collection?

Jean: Indeed. An addiction worse than crack, I’d wager. Super Powers started it for me in my ‘20’s and I just can’t get clean! Right now I collect mostly anime figures and PVC statues. Just this weekend I picked up two of the Hasbro Iron Man movie figures and two of the Gentle Giant Hellboy figures.

PCZ: Have you ever worked on a line that didn’t make it though final approval with the licensor (for whatever reason)? Anything that you wish you had a second chance with?

Jean: The only thing that comes to mind is Samara from The Ring for NECA, but that had nothing to do with the sculpt; it was an issue of international versus domestic licensing rights. I’d love to attack that and other Japanese horror properties at some point.

PCZ: What’s on your short-list of musicians that you would want to turn into an action figure?

Jean: I think a Diamond Dogs, Aladdin Sane and Ziggy Stardust Bowie would be cool. Also, guitarists like Ritchie Blackmore and Michael Schenker or a line of metal screamers like Rob Halford, Tate Dickinson… and especially Ronnie James Dio.

PCZ: What are your long term goals in the sculpting industry? You are already the owner of your own company… where do you see yourself a few years down the road?

Jean: More of the same but with more capacity and efficiency. I’m constantly trying to improve on my own abilities. Maybe, eventually doing some of my own manufacturing.

PCZ: We here at PCZ are big fans of your work on NECA’s Highlander box set. What future do you see in kilted action figures? Do you think that it’s high time that Scotsmen were given their due in the toy industry?

Jean: I think the irrepressible engineer Scotty from Star Trek and Connor MacLeod are forced to carry the banner of the Scots alone. However, the kilted action figure allows for more range of motion for the ball joints (Nyuk! Nyuk!) and easy access for long wedgie-prone car rides. Personally, it took me eons to get out of black jeans and into shorts , so unless I’m an immortal like MacLeod and his ilk, it’s unlikely I’ll ever make the bold fashion statement of the kilt, where junk roams free and wedgies are a thing of the dark and distant past.

We want to thank Jean St. Jean for the time and patience (especially with that last question) he took in this interview. You can see more of Jean’s work over on his MySpace page. Or, run down to your local toy shop and pick up one of the many amazing figures sculpted by Jean St. Jean Studios!