Extracurricular Activities – Matt Jacobson, Sci-Fi modeler

Matt Jacobson is an associate professor of film and science fiction modeler.

When did you start building these models and why?

I started building models in the early 1970’s, when I was around 7 or 8. My father built models, and one day at a swap meet he bought me an Aurora “Seaview” kit from “Voyage To The Bottom Of The Sea”. I think my fascination with space and science-fiction modeling had a lot to do with the zeitgeist of the Space Age- I grew up in a house where we watched all of the space missions launch and land, and building models of space-age subjects was like holding a piece of that future in my hands.

As an adult, there’s something very relaxing about building a model. The repetition of the process- trimming, gluing, puttying, sanding- is soothing. I’ve come to realize that some of the attraction of building models involves a little of the element of control, too. It’s nice to have one spot in your life where, no matter how small that spot may be, you are in complete control of the process- where you are bending the materials to your will, creating a little bonsai moment of beauty that wouldn’t exist anywhere else without your insight and labor. It’s actually very similar to the approach I take as a cinematographer, when I film a scene- creating a little piece of perfection in a frame.  

I don’t go into my model room to hide- I go there to relax, and express myself in a fashion that is different than any other creative aspect of my life. I enjoy building models, and sharing those models (and the process it takes to build them) with a large audience who appreciate my work, both online and in person. Building models is like painting, or pottery, or gardening, or working on cars, or any other hobby- lots of people do it, for lots of different reasons.

IMG_20120724_145955How often do you build a model?

I try to get down to my “build room” as often as possible. I’ve got an entire room in my basement just for building and painting models, complete with spray booth and his-and-hers build areas. (My wife Ashlee also builds science-fiction models.) It’s actually the second-largest room in the house! My model room is my “happy place”- it’s where I can go after a stressful day or week, and lose myself in the process of building something new and original.

Why did you decide to work with science fiction models specifically?

I’ve always been a big fan of science fiction films. When I was a little kid, I loved watching all of the Gerry Anderson “Supermarionation” shows- “Thunderbirds”, and the like. I was also a big fan of “Star Trek”- it was the first show my mom would let me stay up past 10 to watch! The special effects, (especially the models of futuristic vehicles) were a big part of the appeal- that, and the positive outlook of a future where technology would solve all of our problems.

The 1970’s cemented my fascination with science fiction, with television shows like “Space: 1999” and “Battlestar: Galactica” and movies like Star Wars and Close Encounters. That was also around the time I started reading serious science fiction.

By this point, I was starting to consider what I was going to study in college, and eventually what I was going to do for my career. Growing up in LA, going into the film industry just seemed to be the natural choice. I did my undergraduate work in film at Cal State Los Angeles, and my graduate work at USC. After I graduated, I finally got the opportunity to work on special effects and models on a few films, including Carnosaur, Mighty Morphin Power Rangers: The Movie and Ed Wood.

It was a lot of fun building models for the film Associate Professor Kevin Willmott, my creative research partner at KU, and I made in 2013, Destination: Planet Negro! Kevin and I have been collaborating on movies since 1999, and he knew I’ve always wanted to do a big special-effects movie. When he came up with an idea to do a pastiche of 1950’s sci-fi films, with rocketships and robots, I knew this movie was going to be a lot of fun to do. It’s not every day you have to figure out how to build a model of a one hundred and twenty-foot classic silver rocketship that looks like it could be parked on the stage at the Lied Center!

IMG_20120917_230022What is your favorite type of model to build?

It’s not so much a “favorite model”, it’s more a “favorite way to build”. There’s a subset of model building called “kitbashing”. Some modelers will take a kit, and try to recreate an actual plane or tank as faithfully as possible to the original. Instead of doing that, kitbashers use their imaginations to put parts and paint together differently than the original kit creators might have conceived- they literally “bash” kits. Kitbashers strive to create a realistic model of something that never existed before, based on their own original ideas.

For instance, I just built a model for a contest where I took a Pegasus Hobbies’ “Aerial Hunter/Killer”- one of the chrome flying robots from the Terminator movies- and turned it into a black-and-white futuristic police drone for the LAPD. I even wrote a short story to go with it. That model won first place in its category.

Now, having said that, I will always have a soft spot in my heart for Star Wars and “Battlestar: Galactica” kits. Of course, I almost never build them the way they looked onscreen.

It is somewhat discouraging whenever someone refers to my work as “just a toy”, or fail to realize the hundreds of hours of work that can go into one model. Building models straddles that line between art and craft. Yes, a mass-produced kit is the base material, but I’ve seen some incredible, museum-worthy work, where so much additional work is done to the base kit that it transcends the original and becomes a one-of-a-kind piece of art. I’d like to think that the best of my work approaches that standard.

Do you have a favorite model you’ve created? If so, what is it and why?

I really like the design of the “Mothership” from Destination: Planet Negro! For our first meeting, when Kevin and I were discussing how to build the ship, I knew that the basic model was going to be based on the big 1/24 scale Pegasus Hobbies’ Bell X-1 model- the plane that Chuck Yeager first broke the sound barrier in, in 1957. We have pictures from our first meeting, where I’m already holding up part of that model kit and discussing where things are going to go. That model didn’t really change much from its initial design.

My favorite kit from a non-movie standpoint is a little more notorious in nature. A while back, I came up with an idea for a humorous model diorama involving two AT-ATs- the walking tanks from Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back. Let’s just say that it involved one AT-AT attempting to pick another one up in an awkward fashion after it had slipped on the ice. That kit, “Some Like It Hoth”, won Best Humor Kit and a Silver at Wonderfest, and First Place in Humor at both the IPMS Regionals in Kansas City and the IPMS Nationals in Omaha in 2011… after almost getting disqualified from both, for “adult content”. (It was also the ONLY winner in the entire IPMS Journal article about the Nationals NOT to include a picture of the whole model…) “Some Like It Hoth” was also the first kit I’d ever entered in the Nationals, and having a kit win First in its category, as a first-time entrant going up against the best modelers in the United States, is very unusual.

What’s your favorite part of creating these models?IMG_8840

My favorite part of the model-building process is the planning process-using my imagination to visualize what I’m going to come up with next. Kitbashing models allows me to be creative, and use my imagination to create my own idea of what the future might look like. A lot of my building process is actually just me, holding a model part or sub-assembly, thinking about what I’m going to do next, while NPR plays in the background.

I do have to watch my perfectionist tendencies, however. It’s easy for me to start a project, but a lot harder to finish. That’s why I’ve tried to adopt the motto of one of the modeling groups I belong to, the “Colorado Modeling Militia Enjoying Science Fiction” (the CoMMiES)- “Finished is better than perfect”.

Do you showcase or display these models anywhere? If so, where?

I enter a number of online contests, at websites like starshipmodeler.com. The Internet has been a HUGE boon for modelers like me- I can exchange ideas and seek feedback from modelers all over the world, which is important in a solitary hobby like this. It’s also enabled me to find kits and supplies that I never would have been able to obtain otherwise.

I also show my models at model shows like the IPMS Regionals, and at the big yearly national convention for science fiction, fantasy, and horror modelers, Wonderfest, in Louisville, Kentucky. For the last few years, some of my models have also served as table decorations for the Campbell Conference awards banquet, sponsored by the Center for Science Fiction Studies every summer here at KU. It’s a great feeling when some of the best science-fiction writers in the world compliment you on your work. (It’s also one of the few places you’ll see “Some Like It Hoth” in person.) I also plan to display my models at the World Science Fiction Convention, when it comes to Kansas City in 2016. And I’ve always got a few in my office.