Taking Story-Telling and Origami to a Whole New Level
“I think everyone is born an artist – we just forget it or lose confidence as we get older because we think we aren’t good enough. Kids don’t have those art hang-ups. I envy them!”
– Matthew Reinhart
Even before they get to preschool or elementary art class, our kids have explored and expressed their creativity through paper. They’ve feverishly scribbled with crayons into coloring books (and, sometimes, onto walls, furniture, and family pets), made collages with construction paper, and dipped curious fingers into paints to turn blank sheets into vibrant expressions of their imaginations.
But to transform the paper itself into art – to make it come to three-dimensional life –was truly mesmerizing. That was a feat of magic!
I remember the first time I succeeded in turning a piece of notebook paper into an origami frog that could really jump. The first paper football I flicked through index finger and thumb uprights. And I remember a phase where my friends and I became obsessed with folding “cootie catchers” bearing fortunes that either fulfilled our wildest dreams of owning a mansion and Trans Am, or portended failure of driving a Toyota Tercel home to a shack for eternity (for the record, I traded in my Tercel in 2000).
RocketteGirl and Lightning McQueen are at the infatuation-with-paper-folding stage right now and they’ve been quite prolific. While I love their creative enthusiasm and pride in productivity, I admit to routinely thinning the herd of foxes and fortune-tellers often to allow more space for our home’s primary inhabitants.
Paper Pastimes to a Master of Paper Engineering
From origami to passing notes in school, paper folding is a sometimes forgotten art that, nonetheless, captures your attention and imagination whenever you see it.
Matthew Reinhart, bestselling author, artist, pop-up master, and our latest Raising Nerd profile subject, takes these childhood curiosities a giant leap forward. He transforms ordinary paper into intricate worlds of creative depth and endless possibility. His pop-ups are works of art that let you not just read, but also inhabit a story.
It is undeniable that a sheet of paper is an arts and crafts staple and one of the building blocks to becoming a maker. Matthew, a true paper engineer, takes that statement literally.
I was introduced to Matthew Reinhart’s work by a SciFri feature video last fall and to Matthew by my friend Kara who’d seen the video posted on Raising Nerd’s Facebook feed. She told me she knew him through an old roommate. A few weeks later, I bumped into her while out trick-or-treating with the kids and leaped at the chance to ask if she could connect us!
Thanks to that personal intro and, especially, Matthew’s generous, enthusiastic cooperation, here we are.
Matthew always knew he’d be an artist. But like so many other creative professionals, his route to a fulfilling a career – and pop-up fame – took a few detours. In our Nerd profile, he tells us how his passion evolved into pop-up artistry and about the creative process that lets him tell stories, buttressed by breathtaking paper designs that engage readers in a way no other book can.
Meet The Nerd Paper Engineer: Matthew Reinhart
RN: When did you first know you wanted to be an artist and not the doctor you first went to school to become?
Matthew Reinhart (MR): I knew it back in high school before I actually went to undergraduate school for pre-med. I had wanted to be a cartoonist (thanks to Garfield, Calvin & Hobbes and Hagar the Horrible) or an animator (by that time, I’d clocked at least a million hours watching cartoons) because I was kind of dumb and thought those were the ONLY ways I might be able to use my particular artistic talents.
Back then, before the Internet opened up the world to everyone anywhere, knowing how I might be able to channel my creative potential was a little more difficult – especially in an extended family with very few creative careers. Even my uncle, John Kacere, a successful and quite well-known photorealist painter, cautioned against an artistic career.
“Anyways, you’re not an artist until you’re dead,” he said. (So much encouragement!)
I completely disagree, though. I think everyone is born an artist – we just forget it or lose confidence as we get older because we think we aren’t good enough. Kids don’t have those art hang-ups. I envy them!
RN: You attended art school, eventually, as an industrial design major with hopes of becoming a toy designer. What led from that to an interest in being a “paper engineer” and, finally, to pop-up book design as your particular art niche?
MR: My journey into the world of paper engineering was initially motivated just by survival. I needed a job! Throughout grad school at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, NY, I occasionally assisted an established paper engineer in his studio. After graduation, I began searching for a toy designer job, while still helping out in that studio. After a huge deadline, I had really started learning and understanding pop-ups, including all details of production. When small projects came in that my boss couldn’t handle, I took them on. Eventually, I really started to like what I was doing. It suddenly dawned on me that I could even start making books myself. There was never a plan, it just happened, really.
RN: Can you share a little about your creative process, from the spark of an idea to finished work?
MR: Ugh…this question has the LONGEST answer! Alrighty – here we go!
Endless factors go into a book’s creation, and none are the same. Creating a pop-up book like mine typically begins with just concept that gets me excited and inspired.
Is there a story I’m really inspired by? Are there interesting places, characters, or structures I want to create in three dimensions that I can share with the reader? Is there a new way to pull a reader into exploring and enjoying a book? Is there a niche in the market? Is there a subject out there I really love and want to explore?
I’ve become much more open to the possibilities of subject matter over the years. Some books I’ve got planned for the future would’ve shocked and perhaps frightened my past self.
Pen to Paper
Once I’ve figured out my subject, research, and writing begins. My manuscripts are relatively short since my pop-ups leave little room for text! Once my editor’s gone through and refined it, the manuscript or story is broken down into spreads, sort of like acts in a play. I’ll then begin conceptualizing what sort of paper engineering might work best for each page using words only. Drawing a picture of what a pop-up might look like really limits where the journey of paper engineering might go.
Engineering the Story
Next, I just start designing the pop-ups by hand, cutting, folding, and taping together pop-up mechanisms. I may be inspired by something that’s existed before or I may start from scratch – it really depends on what I’ve got in my head.
Coming up with the pops from a large book like Star Wars: A Pop-Up Guide to the Galaxy might take up to two months alone. One big central page pop-up design might take just a day for me to craft, or it could take me a week. If I’m stuck on a design, though, I usually give it a rest for a day, work on something else, and return to it later. A creative logjam in my brain usually loosens up after a little time away.
Breaking it all Down
After all the pop-ups have been hand assembled, I carefully take them apart, scan all the pieces, and trace them with a program called Adobe Illustrator. These vector lines, called “die lines,” are used in refining and later reproducing the pop-up design for production. Die lines are used to create a massive die, which is like a cookie cutter that punches out all the pieces for a pop-up book.
After all the pop-up designs are created and recreated in white paper (which takes about 2-3 months), a sketch prototype or pencil dummy, is assembled and submitted to the publisher for editing and to the manufacturer for production costing. Everyone from the publisher – including my editor, the marketing team, and the head of production – look over the book and suggest changes (if any). I’ll take their comments into consideration and implement what’s possible.
I try NOT to be too much of a demanding diva when it comes to my vision for a book because the process is a collaborative effort. Listening to criticism can be hard, but our collaborators have the book’s best interest at heart. They just want to make the book as amazing as it can be!
Once the paper engineering is shored up, the last stage is creating the color artwork. Most times, I create my own illustrations to fit onto all the pieces of the pop-ups. I use a variety of styles, from cut-paper collage to digital illustration using Adobe Illustrator and Photoshop.
“Getting someone excited about reading is most fulfilling to me. Being able to share my excitement with everyone is a gift.”
– Matthew Reinhart
Sometimes, I collaborate with other illustrators to make the color art. I love working with other artists because I have less work to do (heh-heh) and, more importantly, I get an up-close crash course on how they create their own art. I love to learn new ways of doing or seeing things, even if I never really master it myself. Inspiration comes from taking on another’s perspective. At least that’s what I think.
Next, the color art and the die lines are layered into digital art files and sent to the manufacturer for mass production. A couple of finalized prototypes assembled by my studio are sent to the manufacturing plant abroad so that the hand-assembly experts there can reproduce the book over and over again.
Phew! Long process, eh? Worth it, I think, though…right?
RN: What would you say is a paper engineer’s most important skill to develop?
MR: Problem solving is ESSENTIAL. If a pop-up doesn’t work properly, you often need to figure out a way to fix it quickly. There’s a problem? What are the ways I can fix it? Does the whole thing need to be redesigned? One needs an analytical eye for detail and the confidence to try out your ideas. One also needs the humility to accept failure and the determination to continue. It’s frustrating and annoying and time consuming, but I think the end-product is worth it.
RN: What’s the first pop-up book you remember seeing/reading as a kid? What’s the first pop-up you ever made and why did you choose that subject?
MR: The first and only pop-up I owned as a kid was A Random House pop-up book called Dinosaurs, illustrated by Dot and Sy Barlowe. It was destroyed by my 3-year-old sister in less than 24 hours. Because of that, pop-up books were never a big thing to me growing up. Memories of the book, did, however, inspire me to make a pop-up series of my own called Encyclopedia Prehistorica, a trilogy of prehistoric pop-up compendiums.
RN: Who were your early mentors/influencers? How did they inspire and encourage you to pursue a career in art?
MR: My pop-up mentor was the talented Robert Sabuda, rightfully hailed as the “Prince of Pop-Ups.” He introduced me to the world of pop-up books and inspired me in many different ways. I began my work for him as a less than eager apprentice, but slowly I gained an interest and a talent for paper engineering. Seeing his incredible work challenged me to WOW readers with my own work. While heading up our many “collaborative” efforts [including the Encyclopedia Prehistorica series], I primarily took the reigns as paper engineer, writer, and illustrator, and my skills grew exponentially. I’m forever thankful for his patience, his wisdom, and guidance during those years.
My illustration style, cut-paper collage, was inspired by the masterful children’s book legend, Eric Carle. His eye for color, texture, and composition is unmatched. To top it off, he’s a wonderful human who truly cares about sharing and inspiring people, young and old, to express themselves through art. I can only hope to contribute a fraction as much to the world as Mr. Carle.
RN: What was most challenging for you as a student/growing up? What is the biggest challenge for you today as an artist?
MR: Challenges growing up were normal stuff most people feel like being OK with myself and confident with my own work. Staying humble and open has proven helpful all these years. Sometimes it stings when an editor or designer isn’t happy with something I’ve created. Criticism is a bitter but necessary pill to swallow – but like most medicine, it makes things better. Accepting and dealing with change is hugely important. Change is hard at any level but once the discomfort subsides, it can be incredibly exhilarating. Evolution is the key to survival, especially for an artist like me.
RN: What fulfills you most in your work?
MR: Getting someone excited about reading is most fulfilling to me. Being able to share my excitement with everyone is a gift.
RN: What advice do you have for Nerds out there that dream of pursuing a career like yours? What activities, experiences, hobbies or other education should they pursue?
MR: Anyone interested in paper engineering: beware! It can be a difficult and sometimes frustrating career to pursue at times, especially in the rapidly expanding digital world around us.
Be prepared to fail A LOT – not everything you create will work. But if you’re persistent and passionate, there is a way and world out there waiting to be amazed. One should have good hand skills, enjoy building things from scratch, and have an ability to scrutinize one’s own work. Having an interest in geometry, mechanical engineering, paper craft, origami, model-making, or packaging design might give some people an edge over others, but that’s not necessarily true for everyone.
RN: At Raising Nerd, we believe failure is just an important part of the learning process. Tell us about a time where you had such a learning moment? How did you use that event as a way to help motivate you for or propel you to future success?
MR: My whole life has been a series of failures and learning moments – I fail on a daily basis with my work! For every pop-up you see of mine that is a “Wow!” there are 25 others that will make someone say, “What the hell is that?”
As for an event that motivated me, that’s tough to answer. Back in 2013, I was on the verge of quitting pop-ups, altogether. My business at the time was slowing down, and I was panicked about the future of novelty books, in general. Then, to top it all off, I got the WORST advance check for a big book project that I had ever gotten in my career. I was humiliated and then, suddenly, fired up. I wasn’t going to let self-doubt or fear stand in the way of success. I embraced the change, and started figuring out a new approach. It’s been very exciting ever since.
RN: What are your hobbies outside of your art and pop-ups?
MR: From about 1978, I have been a huge Star Wars fan, reader, and figure collector. My imagination has always longed to be in that galaxy far, far away, and I continue [to go there] by watching the films, reading the comics, and watching cartoons. These days, my massive 3 ¾” Star Wars figure collection needs a good organizing (I have at least one of almost every figure Kenner/Hasbro has produced since 1978)!
I’m also a huge Transformers fan and collector – which would, I suppose, make sense since what I do is sort of like making paper transform. My love for the “Robots In Disguise” started back in 1984 and it’s never waned. Like my Star Wars figure collection, my Transformers collection is pretty epic (I’ve got thousands, I think) and an off-site storage facility’s dream come true. Since I live primarily in New York City, I can’t have a proper toy room to display it all. So, I just make do with a special closet for my display. Whenever I have a bad day, just a peek inside makes me feel all better!
I try to exercise daily, whether it’s weightlifting, biking, running, or whatever. I love reading comics and science fiction. I prefer documentaries to dramas and reality television. I guess I just like to learn about stuff. I’m addicted to pop, dance and electronic music – so, I’m constantly trying to keep up with the latest songs and artists.
RN: What are your favorite media sources to consume to help you stay current with news, events, and industry trends (professional development, technology, etc)?
MR: NPR.com, Gizmodo.com, Associated Press/New York Times/Wall Street Journal, Entertainment Weekly, Facebook, and Instagram.
RN: If you were given the opportunity to tackle one ultimate dream project, what would it be – maybe an entertainment company or artist/author you’d like to work with, an amazing subject or book series you’d like to explore, or a seemingly impossible pop-up creation to attempt?
MR: I’d love to create the ultimate pop-up body book. Our bodies are amazing machines, and it’d be a challenge to recreate it in three dimensions for a book – and I’m totally up for it!
RN: For those who might think what you do – your art and design – isn’t connected to STEM, what would you say to them?
MR: I guess I wouldn’t say anything to them. I’d just show them what I do and let them come to their own conclusion afterward. Without STEM, pop-ups just wouldn’t pop!
RN: If your journey to a creative STEM/STEAM career had a theme song, what would it be?
MR: “Sledgehammer” by Rihanna
RN: Do you have any upcoming projects, events or collaborations coming up we should know about?
MR: I’ve just finished an upcoming PIXAR POP-UP CELEBRATION book that showcases a single moment for each of the 19 Pixar animated films since its beginning. A very tough book to create, let me tell you! Next I’m gearing up to create a pop-up retelling of the iconic The Nightmare Before Christmas by Tim Burton. I can’t wait to see what direction that’ll go!
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