Finding Pope Francis

Sculptor Mike Leavitt Opens Up On Inspiration,
Action Figures & Latching Onto Positivity

FCTRY’s Zoe Cronin talked with Mike Leavitt, the designer of Real Life Action Figures, about finding “divine inspiration” during a moment of political upheaval.

Zoe Cronin: So, Jason told me a little bit about the story of how you created the Pope Francis Action Figure. I heard that the idea actually emerged out of negative feelings for Trump. Could you tell me a little bit more about that?

 

Mike Leavitt: It was towards the end of 2016, maybe January 2017, when that big bummer from the election started to kind of settle down a bit, although I think we were all sort of traumatized still. I was definitely desperate for something positive to do, something that I could latch onto. I wasn’t having any great ideas about it; I was kind of like, “ah maybe I can get politically active, give money to charities” and that was all good, but it was around that time in January 2017 that the Pope came out with a paper on the environment, and suddenly it kind of clicked like ok, this is awesome, this is a good person. My first thought was, we should do a Pope Francis action figure — and I think I texted Jason within the hour and he immediately texted back. All I said was something like, “the pope?” with a question mark, no major proposition, just like ‘hey what do you think of this’ and he said “I was just thinking the same thing”. He and I have sort of had that give-and-take in the past, where we won’t talk for weeks and months and then suddenly we’ll have the same idea at the same time. So it just seemed like it had to be done.

 

 

ZC: Sounds like it was divine intervention.

 

ML: (laughing) I think so, I think so. I think if you reach down into our non-Christian souls, yeah.

 

ZC: With Pope Francis, people probably don’t think of the Pope as someone who is superhero-like, but you talked about his statements on the environment and things like that. What is it about him that you think makes him a good action figure?

 

ML: Well, for one he’s really cute. He’s just kind of this adorable character. I think that was something we were missing from the last Pope and maybe the guy before, not just cuteness but also this warm glow. He’s someone who just has that hue. I think that was the feeling I got from the Dalai Lama and other spiritual leaders like that, and I think maybe that was something we were all wanting from a Pope-like figure that we hadn’t had before. It’s just this positive feeling that comes from him. I’ve never practiced Christianity at all in my life, but I remember growing up liking Pope John Paul II in the 80s and just thinking, ‘he seems nice’. Then I guess as an adult you get cynical and bitter, and somehow this guy Pope Francis tapped into that same nice feeling. I don’t know if that’s a superhero quality, but it definitely is a quality to symbolize as an icon.

 

ZC: I think, in 2018, just being nice probably does make you a superhero.

 

ML: (laughing) I guess that is what it comes down to. Just be nice and everyone will love you.

ZC: Absolutely. So, up until this point, the action figures you’ve created with us at FCTRY have all been political figures, particularly US political figures. Where do you think Pope Francis fits into that group?

 

ML: Well politically, the Pope always influences US politics. It’s always been a direct relationship there, on a larger scale. And that’s the way I feel. So much of the US is Christian or Catholic, and many US citizens are looking to the Pope as a leader. And I don’t know if you could call that a political leader, but I think he fills some of that role. As far as fitting in with the rest of our figures, it feels like a natural transition out of politics, because of the way Pope Francis has kind of meddled in politics — and I mean that in a good way — he’s that kind of guy, coming from South America and being politically active. So as far as Popes go he’s kind of a political guy. And Jason and I, as we’ve moved forward, we’ve wanted to get out of politics, knowing we’ll keep doing that, but wanting to branch out. It felt like this guy in particular was a nice step in that direction.

 

ZC: Definitely. So I know it’s probably a long process getting an idea to become an actual sculpture or an actual product, but could you break down for me the creative process you go through when you create these action figures?

 

ML: Yeah, so the first step was Jason and I saying ‘let’s do this’. Then I sit down and try to do a really nice, refined drawing. That really helps the design process. Then Jason and Alyssa and I and anyone else at FCTRY will look over the drawing and give general notes about the outfit, pose, and anything else. Then from the drawing it’s pretty much straight into sculpting. I do a lot of measurements and proportions from the drawing; now I even print the drawing to the same exact size that the figure will be sculpted at, so sometimes I don’t even have to make measurements. Then I’ll build a little armature to hold the clay, it’s pretty simple but it’s a steel wire base.

And then as I’m sculpting, the more we’ve done this, the more back-and-forth we do while I’m sculpting. So I’m taking pictures and sending them back to FCTRY and getting notes, and we move forward from there. But the sculpting process that takes up the bulk of the time is pretty intense; I have to really sit down and channel these characters. I’m printing out a lot of photos, doing a lot of reading, and trying to capture their essence and figure out what really moves them. A lot of times you don’t see it at first glance, but I try to get that in the subtleties, like how they hold their face or hands, or how their smile relaxes on their cheekbones, just little tiny things like that. It’s an intuitive process that I’m going through while I’m sculpting to get all that down.

 

ZC: It’s a big job to condense all that down to six inches!

 

ML: Yeah, and it is nice to work bigger so I can get more detail, but when something is that tiny and miniature, it’s more important for me to make the caricature simpler. I don’t have the luxury of doing a whole bunch of detail in an eye, so I just have to make it a little bit cartoony, and that actually demands that I capture their essence even better. It has to be a really simple snapshot.

 

ZC: That’s surprisingly very poetic. So, what is your biggest dream that people will get out of these figures? Do you have any thing that you hope people will ultimately gain from them?

 

ML: To be perfectly honest, I would love to see the Pope action figure being sold in the Vatican gift shop. That would be super cool. I think it would be very cool if a Catholic person or family who did a pilgrimage to the Vatican to go see their lifelong hero actually bought one of these things in reverence to him. I think a lot of our figures with FCTRY so far have been a little bit tongue-in-cheek, especially Trump and maybe a little bit Hillary, and I think there are a lot of Bernie lovers, but there’s still some irony that we’re playing with, and I love that. I’m definitely into satire. But I think this one in particular would be interesting for me to see — if people who do really love him, and there are a lot around the world — if they saw the figure in the same way.

 

ZC: Definitely. And as for the larger group, when you started making these political action figures, was there any major dream you had for them at the beginning?

 

ML: Yeah, it’s been a long time for me. I’ve been sculpting figures like one-offs and sculptures since 2003, so it’s been 15 years. And it’s only been in the last maybe 5 years with FCTRY. I guess my original inspiration 15 years ago has finally come to fruition, because when I first started sculpting them it was kind of a joke. I was like, ‘yeah, it would be funny if I made action figures out of famous artists’, and that went great. The one-offs I was able to sell in art galleries, and that felt really good as a sort of parody on art culture. So that I could really sink my teeth into, and I did for a long time.

But when I first started the action figures, it wasn’t just about making fun of consumer culture and toys, it was also because I used to love these things! As a kid I collected hundreds of them! And the idea that I could actually make money making them is a dream come true. And now in my adult art career, going back to that original inspiration is fantastic. And especially with Jason being a like-minded person, the two of us going back and forth and sharing a similar vision, he definitely wants to respect whatever I want to do. And that’s another layer of beauty — not only do I get to work with a toy company that’s helping my career, it’s also people who I love, and we can meander forward not necessarily knowing what we’re going to do next, but eventually finding something that vibrates really well.

 

ZC: Wow, I honestly wasn’t expecting this conversation to be so touching! You kind of stole my next question away from me — what is it about action figures in particular that is most impactful as a product? Because we could be making political stuffed animals, or we could just be selling sculptures, but what do you think it is about an action figure that makes these characters more interesting for you?

 

ML: Well one thing is that it’s figurative sculpture; it’s somewhat realistic and I really love that. That to me carries a lot of art history to it, because I’m still studying old masters like Michelangelo and Renaissance sculptors and all that, which I really love. I also love the fact that, with action figures, art history and figurative sculpture gets shrunk down to such a tiny scale so that it fits in your pocket. When I was a kid that was what made those things awesome. I could carry them out of my house and have like 5 in my pocket, and then wherever I went I could have them around and be able to play with them. And I guess nowadays for collectors who are adults that’s nice because pragmatically you have more room to display them or store them. And the other thing that we’ve landed on through the last few figures we’ve been doing, especially with Liz Warren and Hillary, it’s become really interesting to be doing action figures of women in particular in the context of dolls. We got into this when we were marketing Hillary. It was really interesting and powerful because when I was growing up with action figures, the whole joke was that “oh, you’re just playing with dolls”. And we’d always be really defensive and angry and say, “they’re not dolls, they’re action figures, don’t call them that!”. And that comes back into play because a doll has this kind of sexist body type that it’s supposed to be, but as soon as you try to make those proportions somewhat realistic, you call it an action figure.

ZC: That’s really interesting. One last kind of silly question, and maybe you’ve already done this in your life before, but if you could make an action figure out of anybody, who would it be?

 

ML: That’s not silly at all! There are so many of them, that’s tough. Of anybody?

 

ZC: I’ll give you permission to list a few.

 

ML: (laughing) Well, I haven’t made one of myself in a long time. It’s probably overdue to make another one of myself. My dad passed away last year, and I did one of him a few years ago, but I should do another one of him. It feels really nice to kind of memorialize people, and I’ve done this for other people sometimes as a commission, to make one of someone who’s passed away. So I think more of that. I’ve done a lot of famous people and celebrities, plenty of those. So I think it might be really nice to do more of those memorial-type figures. ●

 

Mike Leavitt is a sculptor and pop artist from Seattle, Washington, and the designer of Real Life Action Figures. For more on Mike, visit his website.

The Pope Francis Action Figure is available now on FCTRY.com.


Vote for the Next Action Figure

In our quest for turning our real-life heroes into action figures, we’ve turned it over to you to help us decide who we should make next. Take a moment to read about each of these fearless women and let your voices be heard on who you want.

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Junko-Tabei (1)

“I can’t understand why men make all this fuss about Everest– It’s only a mountain.” 

September 22, 1939 – October 20, 2016 | Japan

Junko Tabei was the first woman to climb Mt. Everest and the first woman to ascend all Seven Summits. She relentlessly pursued climbing despite perceived frail health, modest finances, and sexism with her male counterparts. The women in her Japanese Women’s Everest Expedition had to stitch together much of their own equipment for the journey due to lack of sponsorships while also balancing jobs and motherhood in order to make the history-making journey. Following her mountaineering adventures, Tabei devoted her life to ecological efforts focused on preserving mountain environments.

 

Berta-Isabel-Cáceres (2)

“They are afraid of us because we are not afraid of them.”

March 4, 1971 – March 3, 2016 | Honduras

Berta Isabel Cáceres was an environmental and indigenous rights activist who worked towards defending the land and rights of the Lenca people. Caceres co-founded the Civic Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras (COPINH) to unite and support indigenous groups against corrupt government and the destruction of indigenous land. She was best known for organizing the campaign to stop the construction of the Agua Zarca dam in Río Gualcarque for which she was assassinated for in 2016.

 

Grace-Hopper (1)

“Humans are allergic to change. They love to say, “We’ve always done it this way.” I try to fight that. That’s why I have a clock on my wall that runs counter-clockwise.”

December 9th, 1906 – January 1st, 1992 | United States

Grace Hopper was a pioneering computer scientist and a US Navy rear admiral, known for her impact on modern computer programming languages of today. She invented the first compiler for computer programming languages, which replaced obtuse mathematical symbols into ordinary English words to make programming more accessible. Her work led to the development of COBOL and has impacted the core philosophy behind the creation of subsequent programming languages. In addition, Hopper served in the Navy during World War II as a part of an all-female division called Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service (WAVES), which placed women in fields beyond nursing. It was during this time that Hopper discovered her love for programming after previously striking a career as a mathematics professor.

 

Tawakkol-Karman (2)

“I think if I can be in the street with the people I can achieve more than if I am the president.”

February 7, 1979 | Yemen

Tawakkol Karman is the first Yemeni and the first Arab woman to receive the Nobel Peace Prize, for which she earned through her work for women’s rights. While working as a journalist in Yemen, Karman vocally protested for press freedom and organized weekly protests calling for reform. She is the co-founder and leader of Women Journalists Without Chains (WJWC), a human rights group that promotes the rights for freedom of opinion and expression, and democratic rights.

 

Billie-Jean-King (1)

“When you oppress people either by gender, by race, by sexual orientation, when you do that and the doors become ajar, they will fly open and they will come, and they have.”

November 22, 1943 | United States

Billie Jean King is regarded as one of the greatest female tennis players of all time with 39 Grand Slam titles. She cemented that title when she won the Battle of the Sexes tennis match against Bobby Riggs, who had declared female players as inferior. King is also one of the first professional female athletes to come out as a lesbian when she was forcibly outed in 1981, which led to losing all of her endorsements overnight. Since then, King has become an advocate for LGBT rights, gender equality, and social justice.

 

Yayoi-Kusama (2)

“Every time I have had a problem, I have confronted it with the ax of art.”

March 22, 1929 | Japan

Yayoi Kusama is a Japanese multi-medium, avant-garde, contemporary artist. As one of the most influential female artists, her work has impacted pop, minimalist, and feminist art movements. Her success did not come without conflict: she defied her family who did not support her artistic ambitions and has openly (and candidly) dealt with mental health disorders. She is known for her Infinity Rooms, her love for polka dots, and exquisite works of art encapsulated in everything from performance to installations.

 

Wangari-Maathai (2)

“When we plant trees, we plant the seeds of peace and seeds of hope.”

April 1, 1940 – September 25, 2011 | Kenya

Wangari Maathai founded the Green Belt Movement, a grassroots, indigenous organization focused on environmental conservation and community development that trains women in forestry, bee-keeping, and other trades. Her work uniquely bridged environmental conservation, women’s rights, poverty, and democracy. Maathai was the first Eastern African woman to receive a Ph.D., and the first African woman and environmentalist to receive the Nobel Peace Prize for her work in sustainable development, democracy, and peace.

 

Miss-Major (1)

“When I see younger girls out shopping in the daytime in their attire, it fills my heart with so much pride. Our visibility is marvelous. Who knew it would turn out like this?”

October 25, 1940 | United States

Miss Major Griffin-Gracy is a transgender rights activist, known for her actions during the Stonewall Riots and community organizing for trans women, particularly for trans women of color. During the AIDS epidemic in San Francisco, Miss Major organized community efforts to provide services and care for those affected. Miss Major is a vocal critic of the prison-industrial complex as well as the exclusion of transgender persons in mainstream society. She is currently the Executive Direct for the Transgender GenderVariant Intersex Justice Project, which supports incarcerated transgender persons.

 

Wilma-Mankiller (1)

“The most fulfilled people are the ones who get up every morning and stand for something larger than themselves.”

November 18, 1945 – April 4, 2010 | United States

Wilma Mankiller was the first female chief of the Cherokee Nation who oversaw a rejuvenation of the Cherokee community through her focus on economic development and health. Born in Oklahoma, she was raised in California when her family moved there as a part of government relocation programs for Cherokee people. Experiencing the Civil Rights Movements led to her progressive and revolutionary passion for revitalizing the Cherokee Nation. She faced rampant sexism from existing Cherokee leadership but was determined to better her community and prove to young Cherokee girls that they could achieve the seemingly impossible. Mankiller was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame in 1993 and honored with the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1998.

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The Trump Action Figure

The Donald Trump Action Figure preorder starts today! But whether he’s actually produced is all up to you.

It’s Happening! …Well, kind of.

The Donald Trump Action Figure preorder has started! But the fate of the Trump Action Figure is completely in your hands.

How is it all up to you? Well, we’re following a Kickstarter-esque model. We need to reach our $15,000 goal by Election Day, November 8th, or the Trump Action Figure will be cancelled. That’s about 750 Trump Action Figures that need to be preordered before we give it the full greenlight for production.

What happens if we don’t reach the goal? Everyone gets a full refund and we pretend that this never happened.

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Our Un-Trumpiest Cause

We’ve picked our Un-Trumpiest cause to donate to after going through all of the suggestions sent in from survey voters. 5% of all profits from Trump Action Figure sales will be donated to our cause of choice: Border Angels. They’re a human rights organization that is helping to save lives along the US-Mexican border. Their founder and executive director, Enrique Morones, has quite an opinion on Trump.

Make It Happen

Preorder yours now and get the full rundown of the project.

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The Vote Is In

We Asked 24,000 Bernie Sanders Supporters If We Should Make A Trump Action Figure. Here’s What They Said.

 

Last month, we shipped out about 27,000 Bernie Sanders Action Figures to about 24,000 Bernie Sanders supporters. In every package, we included a card inviting our Bernie customers to help us decide whether we should make a Donald Trump Action Figure, an Elizabeth Warren Action Figure, or both.

The results are in and, as could be expected with all things Donald, they are polarized. Let’s dive into the data.

 

Question #1: Who would you like to see turned into an action figure next?

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Interesting, right? At first blush, it’s clear that the majority wants us to make Elizabeth Warren into a toy. All in all, 77% of voters. Even clearer though, statistically, is that basically everybody wants us to make at least one of these political action figures, as only 2% of voters said “neither”. That’s great news for us!

But what to make of the Trump numbers? Only 45% of respondents wanted a Trump Action Figure. Not an overwhelming endorsement, but if you consider that we’re talking about an audience made up entirely of ardent Bernie Sanders supporters then that number is actually shockingly high. Nearly half of them want us to make Trump?

Interesting. Let’s dig a little deeper.

Question #2: How excited would you be for a Liz Warren Action Figure?

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To give it some context, let’s look at that next to the same question for Trump…

Question #3: How would you feel about a Trump Action Figure?

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This is where it gets fascinating for us. If you look at the averages on a 10-scale, Liz crushes Trump with 7.52 to his 5.34 in terms of excitement. But if you dig deeper, something interesting emerges.

The top answer for Liz was a perfect 10 out of 10. For Donald, it was the exact opposite – a perfectly miserable 1 out 10. But when you look at the second most popular answer for Liz, it’s a respectable 8 while Donald somehow jumps up to 10! In fact, he has nearly as many 10’s as he does 1’s! Look at his graph – it’s basically a dumbbell (no pun intended) – weighted at both ends.

As product designers, what are we to make of that?

What we’re aiming for, first and foremost, when we create any product is a strong emotional response. At the end of the day, we’re selling tiny sculptures and the reason people buy them is that it makes them feel something. If that little bit of magic doesn’t happen as a creator then you’re stuck in the Land of Meh.

So rather than focus on the overall average, or just the positive scores, we added together the extreme scores for each candidate to get an Emotional Index. America, guess who won.

Elizabeth Warren

 45% + 12% = 57% Emotional Index

Donald Trump

35% + 27% = 62% Emotional Index

They both look pretty good and, based on what we’re seeing, we’d like to move forward with both figures, but we feel a little safer with Trump. All in all, the impression we have is that he’d be like the Darth Vader in our collection whereas Elizabeth Warren would be something more along the lines of a Lando Calrissian. (Either you get that analogy or you don’t!)

The Wisdom of The Crowd

One of our most favorite things to do is to get our community involved in our creative process. It’s about the funnest way ever to answer those tough little questions that inevitably come up during the product design and brand creation process. Nine times out of ten, we will go with the crowd’s answer on this stuff because it’s the closest things there is to a “right answer”.

Question #4: If we make Liz, what color should her blazer be?

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Question #5: If we make Trump, which face should he have?

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Question #6: And which hand size; tiny or regular?

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Ha. This turned out to be the closest we got to a unanimous response on the whole survey!

 

Ease our Guilty Conscience

We can’t lie – the question of whether or not to make Trump has been incredibly tough for us. We really are the starry-eyed idealists that we’ve portrayed ourselves as in our Kickstarter campaigns. A big part of what makes life at FCTRY so much fun is that we get to feel like we’re doing a little good when we make our stuff. The possibility of making Trump makes us uncomfortable because he is literally the antithesis of all the things we support.

But at the same time… we just know that he’d make such a funny little toy! And everyone knows that villains are the best characters. So there’s that.

Our solution to this dilemma is that if we make the Trump Action Figure, instead of donating to his campaign as we did with both Bernie and Hillary, we will donate to the Un-Trumpiest cause we can find.

Once again, we turned to our Bernie backers and asked them the following…

If we make Trump we’ll make a donation to a really un-Trumpy cause every time we sell one. Any suggestions?

Here are some of the answers that appeared most frequently:

*turns out this one wasn’t real

Where Do We Go Now?

Armed with all the feedback from the poll, we went back to Mike Leavitt, the man who makes the magic happen, and asked him to sculpt prototypes of both Trump and Warren. We’re not going to lie; he hated working on Trump, but that did not stop him from knocking it out of the park on a technical level. You can see for yourself below; he nailed it with both Trump and Warren.

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If you ever wondered what Trump would look like without his trademark helmet hair, wonder no more!

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Showtime

All that’s left now is to cross that chasm from art to mass production. Fortunately, that’s our specialty. We haven’t fully decided if and how we’re going to bring these guys to market just yet. But stay tuned. We are hoping to have some fun news on that front pretty soon.