An Interview With Tom Spina of Spina Designs
Recently, we here at GalacticBinder.com had a chance to chat with one of the most interesting people in the Star Wars fandom universe, Tom Spina. As you can see from the picture above, Tom has been hooked on Star Wars from a very young age. A masterful artist, he is the owner of Tom Spina Designs as well as The Spina Cantina. He started out as - and remains - an avid collector of props, masks and costumes and has parlayed his passion for monsters, pop culture and Star Wars into his own business and a successful career.
GB: Thanks for taking the time out to answer some questions, Tom. In our research for this interview, we learned your interest in making fantasy creations began at a very early age. You’ve commented that you started with basics such as tape, markers and paper bags and worked you way up into plaster and clay. Our question is, at what point did you realize, “Wait a minute, I’m actually really amazing at this…” and begin to take it dare we say “seriously”?
TS: I don't think I've hit “amazing” yet, though it's a goal that I hope I'm working my way slowly towards. It's really hard to pin down a specific time where I've felt that I'd achieved real proficiency. I tend to take each project as an individual challenge and do my best with it. Looking through my older work I can see improvement as I progressed, but looking at my most recent work I can see room for improvement, so I just keep plugging.
As for taking things “seriously”, I think that came about during some of my puppet work in the early 90's. I had the great fortune of being an intern on set at Sesame Street... that opened my eyes to the fact that people can do creative and interesting things and make a living at it. It took me a long time (much of it spent working on the technical side of TV, which was also rewarding) to work myself up to the point where I could manage my business and create full time, but the journey was well worth it.
GB: We know you’re a real monster maniac. We’re big fans of classic horror over here at GB also. No need to wait for Halloween, there’s always an excuse to pop a Universal monster flick into the DVD player in our offices. Based on your collection, can we assume your favorites tend to be Frankenstein movies and maybe “An American Werewolf in London”? Also, tell us about the awesome “lifemask” collection you have in your personal display.
TS: Solid assumptions on your part! I love both the Universal and Hammer Horror series and their varied takes on the Frankenstein movies especially. Peter Cushing is probably my favorite actor of all time (his performance in Revenge of Frankenstein in particular. The doctor really was the monster in his films!). An American Werewolf in London and the Howling are two more “modern” faves. I just love a good werewolf flick. I've recently had the opportunity to restore the original wolf prop from American Werewolf and that was an incredible honor. You can see my photo gallery for the project here.
The lifemask collection is something sort of “old school” I guess. I always used to marvel at photos of classic makeup artists in their studios, with plaster faces lining the walls. Now, through the magic of ebay, you too can start your very own wall of faces! For my collection I chose mainly classic horror icons, which I'm sure is no surprise!
GB: You’ve mentioned in the past that the cantina scene from “Star Wars: A New Hope” is what really captured your early imagination. We know that scene has become a central focus for your personal collection. What was the first piece from the cantina scene that found its way into your hands and what’s the story behind it?
TS: Hmmm... probably the first piece other than Kenner figures was Don Post's classic Cantina Band member mask. Man, I loved that thing! While I was still a kid I repainted it (with the wrong kind of paint) and wound up ruining it, but that rubber mask had a special place in my heart.
TS: That's a tough question. I had the good fortune of chatting with Mr. and Mrs. Freeborn for quite a bit of time, and they both had some great stories. I think that Stuart's talking about how the Greedo masks began as a “pea pod alien” from a television commercial for peas might be my favorite. I just love ingenious re-use when it comes to film props. It's amazing to look at the original trilogy and see all the little things that had once been something else before they were Star Wars.
GB: Also, as many people know, Rick Baker played a pivotal role in the make-up effects for the other part of the cantina shoot. Have you had the honor of meeting Rick or invading his studio?
TS: Ask me that one again sometime...
GB: Are we correct in saying that the masks you’ve created are mainly designed for display? Are there many more concerns when creating pieces for actual use? People like Frank Oz, Toby Philpott, David Barclay and Peter Mayhew must have some amazing insight as to the integration of creature design with performance. Have you ever had a chance to pick their brains about what it’s like bringing foam and latex to life?
TS: I've had the great fortune of “talking shop” with quite a few SW related crew at this point (some to a much greater degree than others) and it's always enlightening!
Outside of the occasional puppet, I mainly focus on display pieces these days and not “wearable” stuff. It's just the area that I've become most drawn to (and comfortable in). People are often surprised when I say I'm not really looking to “break into Hollywood” but I really enjoy what I do.
GB: Your Snaggletooth display is truly astounding. Would you share with people how you put it all together and how long it all took?
TS: Thanks! That one's really a two parter. From a collector's POV, finding the costume was a cool experience. The shirt was purchased via ebay some time ago. I knew several other collectors with original SW wardrobe and they were able to verify that the tags looked correct and such. Research is everything when looking for movie props! The trousers didn't turn up until years later, in a Bonham's auction of Angel's costumes. I managed to “snag” those and the pieces were reunited.
The display is a great example of my favorite sort of work. Taking something that was initially on a hanger or in a box and building it into a more impressive complete character. I heavily customized a fiberglass mannequin (for height, pose, build and “hump”) and then added realistic hands and a head which I sculpted to match the old Freeborn piece. With some replacement boots and a clean black base, he really comes to life. It's always nice to take a little time and finish a project for myself (something I wish I could do do more often!)
GB: Your cantina mask collection is simply jaw dropping. You have secured or created characters and species including Dr. Evazon, Ponda Baba, Rodians, Duros, Gotals, Ithorians, Mosep, Devaronians, Givin, Djas Puhr, Lak Sivrak, Leesub Sirlin and of course Wuher. Is there a particular alien you’re dying to add to your collection? A holy grail piece if you will? What about a Bith musician or the most famous cantina alien of them all… Chewbacca, of course!
TS: Thanks! I've actually got a great band member which a friend of mine sculpted. It's not my old classic Don Post mask, but it's fantastic piece.
Not sure who'd be on my “must have” list these days. I do like the anvil headed guy that you first see. He's got a great design and is probably up there on my list. Gotta like Muftak as well, though he's a big one!
GB: One of your main enterprises is the restoration of latex and foam masks and props. It seems to us that it must be a real delicate process – balancing the integrity of the original piece with what needs to be done for a proper restoration. For us novices out there, can you take us through the basics of the process – maybe using your Ugnaught mask restoration as an example?
TS: Delicate is a very good word. I mainly work restoring foam latex movie props, and that type of foam can get dry, brittle and fragile over time. The Ugnaughts were very extreme cases. Most of them were in a dreadful state when they arrived in my shop. “Crunchy” is really the best word to use.
The process is actually a bit like assembling a puzzle. You create a head form that's the proper shape and carefully apply whatever is salvageable to it. Often there will be gaps and cracks which need to be filled, patched or rebuilt in such a way that they blend with the existing, original work. Once the textures look right, it's on to carefully matching old and faded/discolored paint (which is often the most challenging part of a project) and redoing any needed hairwork.
For me, the most important thing is the approach. My aim is always to keep a prop or mask as original as possible and not “overdo” things. These pieces have an incredible vibe and sense of history about them that must be preserved. The goal is always “good for its age” (the way a great screen used movie prop would look) and not “brand new” (the way a replica might look).
TS: I had an old sculpture teacher who was always talking about getting “air” under a piece. He was the king of mounting sculptures on a base and dowel! He also hit upon what I feel is one of the most important principles in display... air. Not just under but around as well. IMO, providing a piece some space on all sides really helps give it a sense of importance.
GB: Wow, we never really thought of display in terms of “air”. That’s a very enlightening tip! As well as your restoration work, you’ve made some insanely awesome original pieces of functional furniture/art. You created the Han Solo in Carbonite desk for Mark Hall of Casting Crowns, and you just presented your Galactic Throne. Man, oh man… we want more! You must tell us some of the background of the creation of these pieces. For instance, what are some of the features of and materials used in the throne? And any idea what Star Wars creation is coming next?
TS: Glad you dig those pieces! Those were a lot of fun. The throne is a crazy piece. It's almost entirely welded metal and has a clean look that's inspired by a mix of the Emperor's throne and Kirk's bridge chair from the 60's.
I have to give a big thanks to Richard Riley (seen sitting in the throne chair in the picture above), who does some really incredible sculpting and fabrication, for all his input and effort on those projects. For years, he and I talked about the idea of doing some wildly themed furniture. We did a few pieces before but that desk really connected with people and hopefully we'll build on that and continue to have the opportunity to create unique furniture art!
GB: Tell everyone more about Tom Spina Designs and how and when you started it. Besides making insanely cool Star Wars inspired furniture, what other types of projects have you guys worked on or do you have on tap? What types of services can you provide for private collectors? Do you guys take on projects big and small at this point, as long as they are interesting?
TS: The “stock” press-release type answer is: “Tom Spina Designs is a NY-based company which creates custom displays and meticulously restores one-of-a-kind and often fragile original movie props. We also accept commissions to create highly unique sculpture, furniture and artistic elements for home theaters, offices, themed attractions, trade shows and more.”
The company was created several years ago as a natural extension of the sculpting and restoration work I had been doing privately. Momentum built and the timing was right for me to make the move to doing this full time.
I've been able to include the work of several other incredible artists and friends (Richard Riley, Mike Thomas and Kelly Delcambre, among others) who share a similar creative vision. Making stuff with those guys is a tremendous experience.
What's great is that we each have our own specialties and our work is extremely complementary. This allows Tom Spina Designs to cast a pretty wide net in terms of projects we can tackle. Realistic or classic styled human or monster busts, one of a kind themed furniture art, 10 foot tall carved foam characters and signage and even the restoration or creative display of a priceless movie artifact... we cover a lot of ground.
I think the coolest thing is that every project is a new challenge and a new creative opportunity. That kind of variety keeps an artist sharp and keeps the enthusiasm and creative juices flowing.
GB: You were a panelist on the original props and wardrobe panels at Celebation III and Celebration IV. How cool was it to share your passion with all those other Star Wars fans, and assuming that there’s a Celebration V someday, can we sign you up right now?
TS: Indeed you can. Should be no problem signing up my friends and co-panelists from those presentations as well! Those were a lot of fun to participate in and it was just wonderful to meet all those other collectors and share stories.
GB: If George Lucas called tomorrow and said he needed you to create some creatures for the Star Wars live action television show, but he couldn’t afford to pay you (ha ha!) and they were shooting in Antarctica… would you leave your life behind and ferry the first plane to the South Pole?
TS: Twenty years ago, my answer would've been “in a heartbeat!” but now with a home, a business and a lovely wife who's got a career of her own (Hi Honey! Look at me, I'm being interviewed!), I think it would be a much more complicated decision. Now, if he wanted to HIRE my company, well, I think I'd be happy to discuss that! :)
GB: Finally, here's a question we're asking to everyone we interview at GalacticBinder: If you were transported into the Star Wars universe... what era, location and/or setting/situation would you want to end up in, and what's the first thing you'd do and with whom? (Keep it somewhat clean, Tom!)
TS: A while back I realized that what's most intriguing to me about the Star Wars universe is the story of how it was created. Even as a child, I wanted to “MAKE” Star Wars rather than “BE” Star Wars. So if it's not too much of a cop-out, how's this... I'd like to travel back in time to the late 70's and hang out on set during the filming of the the Muppet Star Wars episode!
Aw, we love the Muppet Star Wars episode! Fond memories indeed and a great answer. Thanks so much for chatting with us, Tom. We can’t wait to see what Tom Spina Designs has in store for us in the future, and we hope to see you some day at Star Wars Celebration V.
TS: My pleasure! See you there!
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