Anyone with more than a passing familiarity with garage kits knows the work of Mike Hill. His hands have shaped some of the hobby’s most respected figure kits, including the characters in my personal all-time favorite, Janus’s incredible Dracula and Bride deluxe combo.
Read any “grail” list in an online forum and you’ll find Mike’s works cited repeatedly. If not the Janus kit, then perhaps one of his wonderful “Curse of the Werewolf” pieces, or a Universal Frankenstein Monster, or a Spider-Man, or … well, the list goes on.[caption id="attachment_318" align="alignleft" width="175" caption="The Janus Dracula. Photo from mikehillart.com."][/caption]
The kits — Mike guesses there are more than four dozen of them — have been offered by a range of producers including Killer Kits, Janus, Forbidden Zone, 5th Sense, GEOmetric Design, G-Force, Creatures Unlimited, Jayco, Zotz and, of course, his own company, Shapeshifters, which he ran from about 1992 until 2000.
Then there are his other works. To quote his biography from Mike’s website, mikehillart.com, “his career to date has included figure kit sculpting, wax figures, creature designing, prosthetic makeup, and creating hyper-real character statues.”
Mike has done amazing life-size sculptures, including full-size versions of painter Alex Ross’s Superman and Batman for Ross himself. He’s done wax figures for Madame Tussaud’s and recently visited online forums to share photos of an astounding life-size sculpture of Boris Karloff being made up as the Monster.
He has also worked in movies, including the current “Wolfman” remake with makeup legend Rick Baker.
“I am in the process of developing my own movie projects with my own production company, Pure at Heart,” Mike wrote in an e-mail interview.
Rick Baker, Alex Ross, Hugh Hefner and more own pieces of Mike’s work.[caption id="attachment_276" align="aligncenter" width="680" caption="Maleva the gypsy, left, work in progress by Mike Hill (note the clay eyebrows!). Maria Ouspenskaya played Maleva, featured in "The Wolfman" and "Frankenstein Meets the Wolfman". In the middle is Bela Lugosi as Dracula from the 1931 movie. At right is one of Mike's favorites of his own work, Boris Karloff in the makeup chair for "Frankenstein". Photos courtesy of Mike Hill."] [/caption]
Mike Hill was born in Cheshire, England, and now resides in Los Angeles. He recently celebrated his 40th birthday with his wife, Jessica, and his two sons, Colum and Connah.[caption id="attachment_322" align="alignright" width="291" caption="A young Mike Hill as Peter Parker. "I would ask myself and others crazy questions," he says in the biography at mikehillart.com. "What did King Kong do all day, when he’s not fighting dinosaurs and wouldn't he be scarred from head to toe, with all those prehistoric creatures he had to battle? And really puzzling details like, how come we can’t see Spider-Man’s web shooters beneath his costume, or his ears … or his underwear? Or stuff that still bugs me to this day, when a werewolf turns back to a man where does all the fur go? Does he lose his teeth fillings? People looked at me as if to say, 'Son, you've really got problems.'""][/caption]
He goes by “mickkk1969” in various online forums, a moniker he says originated with a difficulty he had selecting a username. “I was having problems with my log-ins so I typed something real fast. ‘mick1969’ … didn’t work. ‘mickk1969’ … didn’t work. ‘mickkk1969’ did. Groan — stupid answer I know. I really need to change it.”
His lifelong love of fantastic subjects, nicely illustrated on his website, helped inspire him to become a sculptor. “I messed with clay as a kid, I used to dig it up from the riverbank and sculpt various renditions of Kong and his dinosaurs, but I guess I took it more serious around 17.”
MIKE HILL’S WORK WEEK AND TOOLS OF THE TRADE
Resin the Barbarian: What kind of work do you do most? And, what kind of work do you most enjoy doing?
Mike: At the moment I seem to be doing life-size heads more than anything. But it can change daily. I’m hoping to get an exhibition in the near future which may also be an auction. My wife is really my biggest fan and champion … she seems to think I’m worth a lot more than I do! Seriously, it’s about time I busted my ass and put together a collection.
RtB: Is the bulk of your work done on your own, or with others around?
Mike: Usually by myself. But I’ll often get guys in to help out on a deadline, etc.
RtB: What hours of the day do you work? And how many days a week?[caption id="attachment_324" align="alignleft" width="190" caption="Christopher Lee as the Mummy, 1/4 scale. Originally produced by Shapeshifters, Mike Hill's own company. Photo from mikehillart.com."][/caption]
Mike: Ha, ha! This is like a grilling! Usually after 10 in the morning, sometimes into the evening, depends on the project and my level of enthusiasm for it. And of course deadlines.
RtB: What balance of your work is done on commission/for hire as opposed to personal projects?
Mike: Prob 75 percent to 25 percent in personal projects’ favor.
RtB: What material(s) do you sculpt with?
Mike: Smaller, Super Sculpey. Larger, WED clay. WED is great for larger stuff but dries out if you are not careful.
RtB: What’s your single favorite sculpting tool?
Mike: Probably a small steel dental blade. Sharp at one end, kinda spoon-shaped at the other. I lose them all the time so I buy four at once.
RtB: You’re also terrific at finishing figures, not just painting them, but clothing them, applying hair … everything it takes to make them look like real, living people. Any tricks of the trade you can share?
Mike: Thank you. I’m not sure if there are any tricks to it. If anyone reading this has specific questions I’ll be glad to answer. My stuff is far from perfect, and every aspect needs improvement.[caption id="attachment_330" align="alignright" width="175" caption="GEOmetric Design's 1/4-scale Ghost of Frankenstein bust, featuring Lon Chaney Jr. as the Monster. Photo from mikehillart.com."][/caption]
RtB: I read online that you are putting together an instructional DVD. How is that progressing?
Mike: Y’know it’s almost complete … but it seems every time I get back to it, someone brings out a conflicting one. It’s also been a constant strain to not make it a “look what I can do” thing.
SHAMELESS FANBOY QUESTIONS
RtB: What projects currently occupy your attention? Any chance that anything you’re doing will someday end up as a figure kit?
Mike: Actually, I’m working on a kit right now. Classic characters, of course. Let’s just say one of the characters is hairy. It’s a piece I’ve wanted to do in real bronze for the longest time, but I will do a resin version for the folks who like my stuff but can’t afford a bronze.[caption id="attachment_371" align="alignleft" width="125" caption="Mike Hill's Bride of Frankenstein."][/caption]
RtB: You have done a range of figures that appeal to hobbyists, including superheroes, King Kong and other monsters, various other heroes and villains. I’d guess you’re particularly well known for your werewolves, especially the Wolfman and Curse of the Werewolf; Alex Ross-style comic characters; and other monsters from Universal and Hammer movies. Do you enjoy sculpting these subjects as much as ever? Would you label any of them your very favorites?
Mike: Oh yes, I love the classic monsters and the superheroes, I never get bored, I guess it’s a nostalgia thing.
I really like making these things real “in the flesh”, so to speak. I recently finished a Bride of Frankenstein, actually she’s watching me type right now(!) and it’s an odd but cool feeling to see her, this iconic character looking at me like she’s real. I’m very proud of her.
COTW is my favorite character, always will be. I can’t shake my admiration for the character’s image. I recently spent some time in Ireland with Oliver Reed’s family, which meant a lot to me. I know dear Ollie was watching down on us with a beer in his hand.[caption id="attachment_332" align="alignleft" width="400" caption="Mike Hill recently completed this life-size piece of Boris Karloff being made up as the Frankenstein Monster. Mike says it may be his favorite of his own works, "Though I’m working on a life-size Oliver Reed now that I’m hoping will satisfy my longing to have one … famous last words." Photo courtesy of Mike Hill."][/caption]
RtB: Of all you’ve sculpted, what particularly pleases you? I don’t mean only figure kits, but any work you’ve done. If you had to call one specific sculpture your “masterpiece”, which would it be?
Mike: I feel the question is hard to answer without sounded conceited … but I really like my recent life-size Karloff in the makeup chair. Though I’m working on a life-size Oliver Reed now that I’m hoping will satisfy my longing to have one … famous last words. Oh, and I really like the new Bride piece.
RtB: My own sculpting skills are unimpressive, my training nonexistent. Can you tell someone like me how you create a likeness in clay? How do you make an assortment of features shared by all human beings look like, say, Boris Karloff? Or Bela Lugosi? Oliver Reed?
Does this make sense? I wouldn’t even know where to start. Does anything in particular leap out at you as the place to begin, or do you wait until you have a chunk of work done and then start shaping things more specifically?
Mike: Very hard question to answer in print, far easier by demonstration. Knowing your character is one of the most overlooked aspects. Their subtle expressions and quirks.
I usually start with the eyes and work from there, concentrating on the face. There is just so much, the folds, the rounds, the profile, the soul even … it’s not easy to get a likeness but you give it your best shot.
Biggest tip: Keep looking at the piece in the mirror!
RtB: Here’s a question most of the sculptors I contact prefer not to answer, but I’m always curious so I ask: Let’s say I would like to commission a 1/6 scale sculpture from you. Perhaps Max Schreck as Graf Orlok, standing on a small flagstone base. If such a project appealed to you, how much would it cost me?
Mike: Your first-born child. Seriously, it’s subject to a lot of factors. Time, material, detail are just a few elements you have to consider.[caption id="attachment_251" align="alignright" width="300" caption="No, that's not really Superman standing between Mike Hill, left, and painter Alex Ross. It's a life-size statue of the Man of Steel that Mike created, and based on Alex's artwork. Photo from mikehillart.com."][/caption]
RtB: On your website, you describe Alex Ross as a friend. I presume you met him through work and mutual interests. I see you’ve also met Rick Baker and John Landis. Anyone else who would be of particular interest to fanboys like me?[caption id="attachment_281" align="alignleft" width="125" caption="The Batman statue Mike Hill made for Alex Ross. On his website, Mike calls Alex one of his "greatest inspirations." Photo from mikehillart.com."][/caption]
Mike: Well Alex Ross is definitely a good friend and also one of my biggest inspirations. I still to this day get lost in his work. I pick up his book “Mythology” and I just absorb it. On top of that, Alex has been a good client for me and a good reason my name got known outside the garage field. I owe him.
Rick Baker is also my good friend, and HUGE inspiration. I’m just one of hundreds of artists he has inspired. I went to lunch with Rick a few weeks ago and took along my son, Connah, to meet him. My son wore a T-shirt with “An American Werewolf in London” image on it. My son said, “Do you think this is OK, not too fanboy-ish?” Only to find Rick was wearing the exact same shirt!
I worked for Rick recently on “The Wolfman” remake, that was two dreams in one. Thing is, the first day I was real nervous, but almost right away he made me feel at ease, he was very complimentary and fantastic to work with. I kept telling him this wasn’t work, it was like a paid dream come true. Not sure he believed me. We hang out occasionally and talk Universal Monsters a lot![caption id="attachment_377" align="alignright" width="350" caption="Rick Baker, left, and Mike Hill's son Connah, right, recently showed up for lunch wearing the same "An American Werewolf in London" T-shirt. Photo courtesy of Mike Hill."][/caption]
Also on “Wolfman” I worked with Steve Wang, who besides his incredible talent is extremely humble and just a riot to be around! He loved my impression of Harryhausen’s Cylcops. Actually, I do a hell of a Steve Wang impression also…
And last but not least David Fisher (of Amazing Figure Modeler), my favorite painter and one of my most trusted friends.
All of the above above artists have what I refer to as “The Eye”, they can see what others can’t. I’m proud to have worked alongside all of them.
RtB: Do you enjoy seeing the various things painters of different skill levels do with your figure kits? Would you say anyone in particular, besides yourself, is gifted at painting your works?
Mike: Of course it’s fun to see others’ interpretations … sometimes they are not always flattering technique-wise, but these kits are for fun, regardless of your skill level.
As for the second part of the question, the immediate answer is David Fisher. I’ve never seen him paint anything that I haven’t marveled at.
RtB: I know recasters have been particularly vexing for you. Would you like to say anything about that? And, is recasting an aggravation you encounter only with figure kits, and not with other works?
Mike: So far just with kits, I really don’t want to go into it, they don’t deserve either of our time.[caption id="attachment_344" align="aligncenter" width="680" caption="More monsters by Mike Hill, from left: Oliver Reed in a Shapeshifters Curse of the Werewolf bust; GEOmetric Design's Mr. Hyde; Christopher Lee in a Shapeshifters Dracula; a Dynamic Forces Hulk; and Mike's own take on a battle-scarred King Kong for Shapeshifters. Photos from mikehillart.com."][/caption] [caption id="attachment_342" align="alignright" width="225" caption="Mike Hill molded the hands of a local DJ for his Alex Ross Superman sculpture. Photo from mikehillart.com."][/caption]
RtB: You are the sculptor of many treasured figure kits. Some are out of production, including the Janus Dracula and Bride (your figures) and a Shapeshifters Curse of the Werewolf. Do you know what, if any, future those figures have?
Mike: I’m hoping they will be remembered. That’s all an artist can ask.
RtB: Would you like to add anything else?[caption id="attachment_349" align="alignleft" width="98" caption="A self-portrait of Mike Hill, which is among the photos in the gallery at mikehillart.com."][/caption]
Mike: Just a thank you to anyone who is interested or ever collected any of my work. I owe each and every one of you.
Being in the garage kit trade actually opened my horizons, not just in the work area but in all other aspects. I now live in L.A., I have friends now in Texas, New York, New Jersey, Japan … New York cops, judges, Academy Award-winning artists … all because of garage kits. Not bad for a little hobby.
Oh, and Todd, thanks for asking to interview me, it means a lot.