Frank Nelson talks to United States-based New Zealander Nick Bogle, a movie studio model maker turned furniture designer.
Though you may not be able to place Nick Bogle’s name or the face, the New Zealander’s career credits read like those of a Hollywood A-lister.
He’s worked on the Star Wars prequel trilogy – The Phantom Menace, Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith – Men in Black, Pirates of the Caribbean, War of the Worlds, Hulk, The Nightmare Before Christmas… and more. He has just finished Mars Needs Moms, a kids science fiction film from Disney due out early next year; now he’s working on another Disney film, Yellow Submarine, a 3-D remake of the 1968 animated feature woven around Beatles music.
To be more specific, Bogle is working on the interior of a model submarine for that movie, which explains everything. An industrial designer by training, his expertise lies behind the scenes rather than up on the big screen.
Bogle, who was born in Howick and grew up in and around Auckland, has parlayed a design diploma from Wellington Polytechnic into an international career as a model-maker. He started in London, where he ran his own company for a while, making models for advertising agencies. Since moving to America almost 20 years ago he’s worked mostly in the film industry, creating small-scale models of people, places and other objects when it’s too expensive, difficult or dangerous to use the real thing.
But show business can also be a fickle business. Though projects may run from a few months to a year or longer, this is typically contract work with no guarantees about tomorrow. “It’s unstable, intermittent, on/off,” Bogle says.
Adding to the uncertainty has been the emergence of computer-generated imagery (CGI), software graphics programs, usually in 3-D, enabling film-makers to create on-screen special effects that previously depended on filming models. The recession is also hurting the industry. In mid-March Disney, blaming “economic realities”, announced the closure of ImageMovers Digital. The California studio, located just north of San Francisco, will be wound down by next January with the loss of 450 jobs.
This is the studio behind Yellow Submarine and though efforts are being made to cobble together a deal that would safeguard the movie’s development, Bogle has his doubts. “It doesn’t sound like we’ll finish it,” he said. The bottom line for many people working in the movie industry is that they need something else to fall back on… in this case it’s Nick Bogle Designs, a company producing high-end furniture, lighting fixtures and fiber-optic art works.
Bogle, 57 this year, may well have inherited that multi-talented and resourceful nature from his father who founded the University of Auckland’s electrical engineering department, originally based at Ardmore.
“Dad was very practical,” recalls Bogle. “He did everything on our car. We never had a mechanic. It was the same story for the lawnmower and everything else. He even used to sew mum’s ball gowns.”
Apart from his own penchant for making things, Bogle had few career ideas when he left Auckland Grammar School at 16. But after four or five years of trying various things, including a year of graphic design at Wellington Polytechnic, he homed in on industrial design. After graduating, he headed to England where he survived by cleaning houses until landing a job with a design company in the heart of London. He went in to show his portfolio and ask about work, was hired on the spot and started the same day.
About a year later he made a career-changing move, joining Metro Models as a model maker for some of the city’s major advertising agencies. He was trained in the use of different materials and techniques, developed new skills, such as spray painting, and enjoyed several years of model making in the “heyday before computer graphics”. By then Bogle had met his American wife Gail, who was also working in London, and once they bought a house he set up a home-based workshop and launched his own business, Don’t Panic Models.
He chose the quirky name for good reason. “You’re working in a panic industry,” he says. “Everything is always needed tomorrow. It’s high stress work.” Even on his latest project Bogle reports occasional 80-hour weeks and having to crash on mattresses at work.
The business thrived but when the UK economy tanked in the late ’80s, knocking down advertising agencies and photo studios, Bogle and his wife decided to bail out. By then they also had daughter Ava, born in 1986, who is now an actress and playwright living near Los Angeles.
They arrived in the U. S. in 1991 and settled in Mill Valley, just across the Golden Gate Bridge from San Francisco, an area that Bogle recalls “looked a lot like New Zealand.” Impressive model-making credentials landed Bogle his first job in the movies working on The Nightmare Before Christmas, a film made using stop-frame animation, also called stop-motion.
In this painstaking process, models are repeatedly moved infinitesimal amounts by hand and photographed frame by frame in each new position. Running all those frames in a continuous sequence then creates the illusion of the models moving on their own.
Bogle, who worked on Nightmare for about six months, was part of a team making more than 200 foam rubber and latex figures, each about 30cm tall, reinforced with wire and even ball-and-socket joints so they could be better manipulated and hold a variety of poses.
One of Bogle’s projects was a snake, about a metre long, that had to slither out of Santa’s sack and around a Christmas tree. To help make the movement realistic, Bogle fitted magnets inside the snake and had it “move” across a metal floor. Today it still clings tenaciously to his fridge.
Next he joined Industrial Light & Magic, the award-winning special effects company founded by Star Wars creator George Lucas, then located in San Rafael, only about 15 minutes from Bogle’s house.
In 14 years contracting with ILM, Bogle has created everything from the inside of an alien’s head, boats and landscapes, to buildings that were blown up and others that were flooded. Lorne Peterson worked with him for much of that time and was impressed by the New Zealander’s range of abilities and attention to detail.
Peterson was among the first model makers at ILM, joining in 1975 to work on Star Wars. He recently retired after 33 years in the business, the highlight of which was a special effects Oscar for Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. He reckons Bogle possesses a rare combination of mechanical, engineering and aesthetic skills. “Aesthetically he’s really strong,” says Peterson. “He’s definitely the person to deliver that final kiss of quality.”
About 10 years ago Bogle and his wife, an author who also works as a grant writer for a children’s museum in San Francisco, moved to the small, rather alternative, coastal community of Bolinas which has a history of attracting creative people. That’s where Bogle now designs and makes furniture, using classic woods like walnut and cherry to create armoires, tables, desks, bookcases, bar stools and other custom-made pieces that fetch between US$5,000 and US$10,000 each.
He also creates different styles of light fixtures and has begun exhibiting and selling framed artworks that combine graphics and fibre-optics: he has been using an LED to light the fine fibre strands and is now experimenting with solar energy.
Looking back over the years, Bogle has seen CGI gradually supplanting model making. “Computers are taking over a lot of the things we used to do. There’s definitely less work around now,” he says. “In the past there may have been 50 people in a model shop. We’ll never see that again.”
Still he remains optimistic and is buoyed by the successful Lord of the Rings movies in which Weta Digital used hybrid production techniques, combining computers and models. “That’s had a huge impact on our world,” Bogle says.
– Frank Nelson