By Bill Mayr
In Shawn Knapp’s career, hobnobbing with powerful and well-known people comes as a daily part of his job.
True, they are people such as Superman, Batman and Batwoman, fictional characters all — but Knapp helps make them more real than you might imagine.
Knapp (CCAD 1991) serves as art director of product design and engineering for DC Entertainment, a subsidiary of Warner Bros.
Working with the Best
DC Entertainment traces its roots to DC Comics, home to a comic-book all-star team that includes classic good guys Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman, as well as archetypal bad guys Lex Luthor, the Joker, and the Riddler.
These days, though, superheroes don’t just appear on pulp pages. They can be found in digital versions and big-screen movies, too.
Expanding on those venues, three-dimensional versions of the heroes and villains come right into the homes (and offices, no doubt) of fans. With collectible figures, you need never be far away from your favorite character.
When Duty Calls
Knapp, who works in Burbank, CA, helps get the figures to the fans. “We have a tiny group of about 13 dedicated to creating our collectibles…based off anything from movie, comic, or video-game content,” he says.
Figures are made from materials such as vinyl and resin. For example, Warner Bros. released the movie Man of Steel this summer, which portrayed the origins of Superman. One-sixth-scale resin statues of Superman and other characters went on sale to correspond with the film’s premiere.
Knapp spoke via email about “this whole crazy business called toys” as he traveled on “trains, planes, automobiles, and boats” during a business trip to China.
“If I were to say what my shiniest object is at the moment, it would be the Man of Steel movie product. We had amazing access to the filmmakers and assets, which in turn made a better product. We experimented with a new application in resin to get more realistic skin tones, which I hope going forward ups the ante for us first and foremost, and the industry as well,” he says.
One Designer’s Path
Knapp, 44, majored in Industrial Design at CCAD.
He started out in the toy industry as a traditional sculptor “using my Industrial Design background and model-building skills to create mostly accessories, vehicles, and play sets,” he says. He has worked for DC for a decade, moving from sculpting into management roles such as art directing and overseeing manufacturing of the collectibles.
“I deal mostly with the higher-profile projects like film and TV projects. We do set visits and meet the people involved with these projects, so it’s been quite an evolution” in his career, he says.
Keeping up with technology such as computer-aided design and advancing it, even, are essential. Toys being created today are no longer merely disposable playthings for children.
“The amount of sophistication that goes into the products has evolved — from mind-boggling sculptures, painted details, and finishes that were never considered for use in toys in the past to manufacturing techniques that now can mass produce hyper-realistic, scaled versions of characters, vehicles, and accessories,” Knapp says.
After all, comic-book-hero connoisseurs of all ages set high standards for the products they buy.
“‘Serious’ might be an understatement,” Knapp says. “Fans are rabid to have their version of Batman or Superman done right. You also feel a bit of obligation to the (comic book) artist that has inspired the piece…It’s always a sense of accomplishment when they sign off on a piece.”
“The toy industry is often compared to the fashion industry,” he says. “It’s a very fast-moving beast. Always being interested in technology, I was the first to bring the use of digital sculpting to DC, starting small with accessories [and continuing] to now where I’m using ‘screen-used’ movie and video-game files to make full-blown statues and action figures.”
His Place Today
Knapp has found a career he loves. Asked about the favorite part of his job, he replies, “The easiest answer is everything.”
Management “allows us a great amount of creative freedom and autonomy,” he says. “We get to ‘play’ with some of the world’s best-known and loved characters, and we get to put our fingerprints on them. The varied aspect is all the creative people I get to work with, from our sculptors, one of whom is a CCAD graduate as well (Jonathan Matthews [CCAD 1997], who I helped bring in), to the comic artists, of whom I have access to almost anyone in the industry, and the factories whose responsibility is to mass produce these mini-masterpieces.”
“They say it takes a village to raise a child — well, it takes a small army to create a collectible,” Knapp says.
Despite the unending advances in technology, the basics of artistic creation taught at CCAD remain vital, he says.
“The foundations, where you are actually using your hands, whether it’s sketching, painting, or sculpting — I think this aspect is huge,” Knapp says. “Design and art in general need to be equal parts conscious effort and happenstance. Mistakes happen more often in the tactile world and being able to think through them pushes you creatively. Plus, anything that you do in the digital world has its roots in the analog world, and having more understanding of the world around you can only make you a better artist.”
Published in print twice a year, CCAD’s IMAGE magazine shares stories about our creative community, whether here in Columbus or around the world—what we’re doing, thinking, and planning next. The IMAGE blog brings those stories online for transmission at the click of a mouse.