William Vaughan: 3D Artist and Toymaker
October 14, 2011

William Vaughan: 3D Artist and Toymaker

William Vaughan has a diverse portfolio. His work can be seen in all types of media: children’s books, print (Fortune, Macworld, Rolling Stone, Entertainment Weekly, and more), multimedia, toys (sculpted toys for Pokemon, Polly Pocket, Littlest Pet Shop, and more), commercials (Compaq, Care Bears, and Sky Dancers), video games, and film (having recently worked with Disney’s Pixar Animation Studios on “Partly Cloudy”).
For several years, Vaughan was the director of industry relations and head of curriculum at the Digital Animation and Visual Effects (DAVE) School at Universal Studios in Orlando, Florida. He has personally trained hundreds of students to become professional animators at major studios, such as Rhythm and Hues, Digital Domain, and EA Sports. Among his prized pupils: those at the art department at NASA’s Johnson Space Center and actor Dick Van Dyke.

For more than six years, he played a major role in the evolution of NewTek’s LightWave 3D software, which is  used in all areas of the CG industry. While working for NewTek as its LightWave Evangelist, Vaughan helped write the manual, as well as provided the training for CGI artists throughout the world, authoring more than 300 tutorials and instructional videos. His online tutorials are required reading for anyone learning 3D.

Vaughan, in fact, has been published by every major CGI magazine, as well as contributing to 17 books. His writing is not limited to tutorials and case studies, though; he has also written and directed several award-winning films, such as Batman: New Times and X-Men: Dark Tide and Spoonman.
His career path led him to New York City, where he was animation director at Splashlight, before finding a home at WorldWide Biggies, where he continued his duties as an animation director, working on several projects that include content for the iPhone and iPad, as well as pilots for television shows and movies.

As creative director at Applehead Factory, Vaughan works in tandem with Joe DiDomenico, art director, and the rest of the creative crew on a wide range of creative productions. Vaughan had formed a bond with DiDomenico and the company’s president, Phil Nannay, while getting his person pet project—Tofu the Vegan Zombie—off the ground. He then bought into the company, literally as well as figuratively.

Today, Vaughan is using the skills and technologies from his years of experience working in the CG industry, albeit in a different capacity: toy creation. (Applehead also functions as an animation studio.)

Recently, Vaughan sat down with Computer Graphics World chief editor Karen Moltenbrey to discuss his new career path.

Are you still teaching?
I'm no longer teaching at The DAVE School, but I do go back regularly as a guest speaker, and have been a guest speaker at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia on several occasions. I'm a teacher at heart and will always find a way to squeeze in some teaching whenever possible.

Do you still do work at NewTek?
I'm not involved with NewTek in any official way, but I still keep in touch with them and try my best to help send ideas to the development team that will help the software evolve, as well as keep the community updated on cool things being created with LightWave. I probably e-mail someone at NewTek at least 10 times a week. It's like a crack addiction, I can’t seem to let go.

So what have you been up to lately?
For the last several months my focus has been on Applehead Factory in Philadelphia, where we are continuing to build our own brands, like Teddy Scares and Tofu the Vegan Zombie, while offering our services to clients as well. We are doing everything from toy design to VFX for commercials. We've carved out a unique niche and have gotten quite proficient at developing pitch bibles for clients. It allows us to use all of our strengths, and is one of my favorite types of projects to work on.

We've been shopping both IPs around in hopes of landing a TV or film deal. We also do several [comic-book and toy] shows a year to keep promoting the brands and to attract new fans. We find that our sales always spike during and after a show.

We are currently developing new merchandise for both properties and just sent out a new custom Teddy Scares that was created exclusively for Easter State Penitentiary. For the past five years, Eastern State Penitentiary has teamed up with Applehead Factory to make custom Teddy Scare dolls for Terror Behind the Walls. As a result of a chance meeting at a haunted house convention years ago, Applehead Factory and Eastern State have worked tirelessly each year to bring a new and different Teddy Scare to our biggest fans’ collections. (Terror Behind the Walls is America’s largest haunted attraction, located inside the walls of Eastern State Penitentiary, a real massive abandoned prison in Philadelphia.) This year, Applehead mocked up three separate designs for us to choose from, and by taking the best parts of all three, we bring you Hester! Hester is an orderly-turned-zombie that will be roaming the corridors of Eastern State at Terror Behind the Walls this season. A gnawed-off arm and a removable brain are what make Hester his own unique addition to the Teddy Scares family.

Ultimately we'd like to see both brands become household names and live on for years to come.

Though a lot of focus is on both brands, we are also developing new brands that we hope to release in the near future. They are back-burner projects that we work on as time allows.

What look were you going for these characters?
Tofu definitely has a Burton-esq  design about him. I love Tim Burton's character designs, and I'm sure I was influenced by his work when designing Tofu. A lot of people say they can spot my character models easily, though I've yet to figure out what it is about my characters that make them easy to tell I created them.

Ultimately, I wanted Tofu to be the Casper the Friendly Ghost of zombies. I wanted him to have a creepiness about him while still maintaining that cuteness that seems to attract more girls to the product then guys. We've found that consumers include females and males ages 13-35, with the largest portion of the group being females in the 16-28 age bracket.

Which is your favorite character and why?
That's an easy one, but also a trick question. Tofu is my favorite, but he's also been kicking around in my head for almost 10 years. I love the dual personality of when he has the tofu block in and out of his head (it is removable). I see so much potential in this little guy and hope to have the opportunity to share  all the great stories I have cooped up in my head. Hester Golem is my favorite Teddy Scares character, and I was so psyched when Rick Baker agreed to voice him in the animated short.

Were there any characters you were unable to turn into a doll because of technical problems?
We've only released the Tofu character as a vinyl and plush toy so far, but we've prototyped Addie, Lab Monkey #5, and Tofu's dog, Jack. We haven't run into any problems, but have had to change elements of the characters’ designs to ensure they work as a toy. Examples of changes would be thickening up Tofu's neck, limbs, and fingers to make sure they didn’t snap off. We also had to really think about how we were going to do Tofu's stitches since they are so thin. We settled for thin, black wire, which turned out to be a great solution.

The biggest technical challenge was working out the articulation areas of the toy. It's a completely different world from rigging a 3D mesh with bones. I called on my good friend Steve Varner, who's been making toys for over 30 years and was responsible for the first Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle toys. With Steve's guidance, I was able to adjust the model and work out the articulation. The one area that I had no control over that has been an issue is the ball and socket joint for the head. Some of the toys were packed in China while the paint was still drying. This has led to a small portion of the Tofus not being able to pose the head easily as the paint dried and acted as a form of glue. Not ideal for a joint that is supposed to move.

So, you are a fan of 3D printing?
Yes! When you can hold a 3D object in your hand of something you created (in the computer), it’s a great feeling. I am used to seeing my models on the screen. Even though they are created with 3D software, you see them in two dimensions on the screen. The day when my first 3D print arrived, I took pictures of it everywhere, in all kinds of lighting. My wife couldn’t understand why I was so excited because she had seen the model all the time on the computer. But it wasn’t the same.

Be sure to read the feature article in the October/November 2011 issue of Computer Graphics World for a detailed look at the transformation of Vaughan’s Tofu project from concept, to computer model, to animated short, and, finally, to a toy.