Dan Chung is low-level famous in a way that wasn’t possible before the internet. A custom toy creator, Chung may be America’s last real action figure auteur. Even before he was selected to create a figure of rapper Travis Scott for the cover of his debut album, Rodeo, Chung was a known entity among serious toy collectors thanks to his talent with a scalpel. He’s one of the last old-school, wax-sculpting toy makers his culturally eclectic work has earned him a lot of fans. Since Rodeo dropped, an increasing number of music industry movers have joined that group. Chung says a rap action figure boom is coming, but acknowledges that articulated figures have largely ceased to amaze people.
Action figures are losing a fight with technology. But that doesn’t mean Chung won’t carve out a career. He’s done it before.
When Chung moved to Los Angeles 20 years ago, he had ambitions of screenplay writing and directing. After one of his scripts was optioned as a potential Jackie Chan vehicle, Chung enthusiastically storyboarded the entire film. But, instead of drawing every scene, he created a detailed Chan figure then posed it in a series of photographs. The movie was never made, but he’d found an unexpected calling — also, an audience.
“I posted the figure on a personal hobby website,” says Chung, the father of two girls. “The next thing you know I get emails from people saying, hey would you make me Jackie Chan? Could you make me a Chris Tucker figure? And then people had asked me for an Indiana Jones figure, and it grew from there.”
Chung spoke to Fatherly about how the high-end toy industry is changing and why the music industry is coming to the rescue.
What’s the average cost of a Dan Chung original?
It depends on the complexity. Some guys will just want a custom head because they want to modify the head of their own figures. That’s $5,000 from me. Guys out there will do it cheaper, but they’ll use digital technology. I do it old school: carving and wax. For a complete figure, let’s take Travis Scott for example. I created 2 heads, 2 bodies, a few different outfits and that was $25,000. People come to me because I’m a guy who will get the whole thing done top-to-bottom from the clothes, the accessories—everything.
It makes intuitive sense that rap action figures would be popular. They have crossover appeal with adults. Do you think a boom is inevitable?
Once it becomes established, I think it’s going to become part of the culture. They brand a musician, especially a rap artist, with clothing, bling, shoes…. Add toys and that will be the coolest representation of the rapper. These guys grew up with G.I. Joe toys and now they’re successful enough that their record company will pay for a custom figure.
I don’t know if you’ll be able to answer this, but who are you going to work with next?
I’ve been contacted by so many of the biggest names in hip hop and music for the last two years. Everyone you could think of—all of the top names. It’s been thrilling. I can’t mention anyone, but there will be hyper-realistic 1/6 scale figures for musicians. It’s absolutely inevitable. It’s going to happen. It’s going to be too cool. It’s all part of the hype.
You sound pumped.
I’m on the front edge of this, trying to make it happen.
So what’s the hold-up?
The problem is the way how the music industry works. These musicians are putting their album together and they can’t really know when it’s done. But the moment it is done, the record company wants to rock and roll with it and get it out there ASAP. On the action figure side, it takes nine months to a year for a figure to be mass-produced. And that’s been the sticking point in all of these conversations. They want something in a month and it just can’t be done. The moment it gets to timetables, it all falls apart.
Do you think you can teach people in the industry enough to make it happen?
It can happen. Look at Star Wars: tens of thousands of units ready for the movie release. When one of these top guys discovers what it takes to make it happen, they’re all going pre-sync and it’ll happen.
Highly detailed 1/6 scale figures are leading the hobby market. Which company is the best out there right now?
Hot Toys is in the lead. In volume, unequivocally they’re the biggest gorilla out there. CEO Howard Chan really blew up the company by bringing in the best sculptors and painters in the world. And they produce mind-blowing figures. But some of the sculptors have moved on or freelance for up and coming companies like Molecule 8, Blitzway and Enterbay. But no one has the license that Hot Toys has.
That all sounds good, but it’s hard to imagine that the future of toys for kids industry is going to be built on a foundation of old-school artistry.
When your computer can render an image of your digital sculpt, using virtual camera lenses, you can replicate the exact perspective of that publicity shot or movie still. In some ways, new guys are incredibly talented in learning how to manipulate the software, but on the other hand, it’s less and less an artistic thing and more of a technical thing. It’s a mixed bag.
What does that mean for the future of figures?
The good news is more and more figures will hit the market in less time. But all of that speaks to commerce. As an artist who sculpts with his hands and wax—I’m less interested in mass manufactured and more into positioning what I do as fine art.
I find more validation when people see this as an art more than just a toy.
Is the art of toy sculpting dying?
Photographers didn’t replace oil painters, but a lot of people don’t do oil family portraits anymore, right?