Isabel Anderson, who graduated from DigiPen’s Master of Fine Arts in Digital Arts program last year, has been obsessed with action figures for as long as she can remember.
“You know those things you think you’re going to grow out of and never do?” she jokes.
It’s a good thing she didn’t, as making action figures is now how she makes a living. Shortly after completing her MFA, Isabel landed a job at wildly popular collectible toymaker Funko, makers of the Pop! series of figurines.
“I definitely wasn’t expecting my job to be so closely related to my work,” she says. “I still can’t believe it. I get to make action figures. It’s so crazy!”
Though Funko actually employs quite a few DigiPen alumni and recruits at the annual DigiPen Career Fair, Isabel’s graduate work was particularly suited to the company. For her thesis, she designed an original series of action figures from start to finish, drawing concept art, writing detailed backstories, creating 3D images of all the parts, and using a 3D printer to make them real.
“It was a way too ambitious project,” she says, “I did an undergraduate thesis, so I kind of knew the ropes. I knew that you get really sick of it by the end, so I wanted to make sure that when I did it, I was obsessed with it. However long it takes you, you have to like it at the end.” How did she stay invested? For Isabel, the figures she created are more than just figures. They’re strong female role models with realistic body types, something she says is often lacking in the action figure world. More often, she says, female action figures fall on the extreme end of body types.
“I have a couple of those,” she says. “They can be gorgeous, but it just doesn’t speak to me.” In a sense, she says, the project was easy to invest in, because she got to make her ideal action figure.
“I’m going for a body type that, as a woman, I find appealing and that I identify with or look for,” she says. “I think that is sort of the point I was trying to make, too… As a female collector, this is what I’m looking for.” While body image is a big part of her project, it also extends into more abstract issues around gender.
“It’s not just an unrealistic standard that Western women almost universally subscribe to,” she wrote in her thesis. “It’s communicating that the audience is never us. The lack of ‘normal’ bodies, interesting protagonists and female-driven stories…tells me, and girls like me, that we are not important.”
Before my thesis, I had applied to Funko and I didn’t have a stylized portfolio, and they didn’t even look at it.”
Her three characters, Dahut, Neffie, and Ceara, were created to subvert that notion, and their backstories are a big part of that. The project, titled Andraste, is set in a dystopian future where “corporations now control the remnants of our once expansive civilization, cavorting in opulence while the rest of the world scratches a living from the wastes.” The three women each hold an amulet of “unimaginable power” that make them both humanity’s best hope for justice and the corporations’ prime target for elimination. She envisioned that each character would be sold with an accompanying comic book further fleshing out the story. She drew inspiration for the three characters from such notable heroines as FBI agent Dana Scully from the X-Files, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo’s Lisbeth Salander, and everyone’s favorite warrior princess, Xena.
Unlike Xena, the costumes for these characters are far from revealing, being designed more with the realities of a post-apocalyptic life on the run in mind.
“She wears heavy linens and doesn’t have anything she can’t carry and run with,” the character development page for Ceara reads. Dahut, whose power is the ability to read minds, is ensconced in the type of long, flowing garments one might expect from a mystic. And Neffie, who can go invisible or blend into her surroundings like a chameleon, wears boots, patched jeans, and a worn-in sweater.
The unique nature of her project raised eyebrows at first, Isabel says, but she was ultimately encouraged to go for it by her faculty mentors, including MFA Program Director Mark Henne.
I got so many skills. I learned how to draw way better than before. I learned all these 3D skills that I clearly use now and use all the time.”
“Mark was really supportive of that aspect of my thinking, going for something that was unique and not commercial,” she says, describing his attitude as, “if you can think it up, we’ll make it happen.”
Whether or not her dolls would sell, the skills she had to obtain to make them a reality proved to be in high demand at Funko, where everything sells.
“I’d seen a couple of their action figures and they didn’t have a lot of articulation,” she remembers. “What I really specified with my thesis was that I really wanted as much articulation within the range of normal joints in toys. It just super coincidentally happened to be something that they really wanted to get into at Funko. They wanted to start doing more articulated action figures.”
As part of her thesis, Isabel also taught herself how to create functional designs for a 3D printer, which is something she now does on a daily basis. Part of her job at Funko is prepping sculptors’ work for 3D printing before they are sent out to the actual printer.
“I definitely got that out of DigiPen,” she says. “I got so many skills. I learned how to draw way better than before. I learned all these 3D skills that I clearly use now and use all the time.” DigiPen, in addition to giving her a wealth of new technical skills, also gave her the crucial “in” at Funko. Isabel’s fellow MFA student, Claire Cordeiro, had been scouted by Funko at DigiPen’s Career Fair and was working as a 3D sculptor for them. Isabel continued working at her retail job for a few months after graduation, before deciding it was time to take the plunge and go full-time on the job hunt. As luck would have it, Claire found out that Isabel had applied for a position at Funko. She put in a word for Isabel, and also gave her some crucial tips on her application. That, combined with Isabel’s very “on-message” portfolio, sealed the deal.
“Before my thesis, I had applied to Funko and I didn’t have a stylized portfolio, and they didn’t even look at it,” she says. “They were just like, ‘Nah.’ So I wasn’t confident at all that I was going to get a job at this place that had already said no to me twice.” But get a job offer she did, and not just one! Her portfolio landed her a simultaneous offer from Laika Entertainment, the company behind hit animated movies like Coraline, The Boxtrolls, and Kubo and the Two Strings.
I know that when I work I put everything into it. That was the reason I went to DigiPen.”
As with Funko, Isabel had been applying to Laika for years, typically for entry-level positions such as office assistant. Now, they were asking her to operate the custom 3D printers they used to make models for their stop-motion animations. It wasn’t an easy offer to turn down, but she ultimately did.
“I would rather work on toys,” she says. “A long time ago when I originally decided that I wanted to work at Laika, it was because I eventually wanted to make toys. I just kind of skipped a step.”
Either way, she says, getting her MFA was clearly the right move.
“I’ve always wanted a job that was really satisfying at the end of the day,” she says. “I know myself. I know that when I work I put everything into it. That was the reason I went to DigiPen. I knew I wanted something better, because if I’m going to put everything into a job it better be good.”
So far, she says, it’s been a satisfying job indeed.
“Today I got a couple of prototypes in that I put together and took photos of for the factories in China,” she says. “It was like, ‘I made this!’ I didn’t sculpt it, but it was just super satisfying to work on something that was so beautiful and well-done. To be able to make that into something that some kid will be able to have in their toy collection, it’s amazing!”