Hey Convention Goers,
While we were at Comic-Con, we had the chance to sit down with production designer and director extraordinaire Greg Aronowitz. Though you may not recognize his name, you are sure to know his work if you’ve been watching television, films, or webseries over the last 25 years. As a special effects artist and design specialist, he’s worked on everything from big budget movies (Dances with Wolves, Terminator 2, Castaway, and Saving Private Ryan), to our favorite web series, (The Guild, Jeff Lewis 5 Minute Comedy Hour, and Save the Supers). Greg has become the “go to guy” for production design in the web world. In addition to his film/web series work, Greg has partnered with Zydeco Studios to bring us Floppets, a collection of cool characters you can attach to anything. Greg chatted with us about Floppets, webseries and what it takes to be a production designer.
WHR: So Greg, can you tell us how you got involved with Floppets?
Greg: Two of my very dear friends Ilyse and Rich live in Chicago. Ilyse is a teacher, she works with special needs children and she wanted to create some kind of product that she could give them as a reward for good grades. But in schools they try to not have trading cards, and they don’t want any kind of distraction, so she wanted to come up with some kind of collectible tradable thing that they could bring in but wouldn’t necessarily take all their attention. She was on summer break at a beach and she saw the kids running around with their flip flops and she thought, well what if I make some kind of little thing that can attach to that (flip flop), and that’s where Floppets came from. They’re like flip flop pets. She talked to Rich about it, who is an engineer, and they came up with the Velcro tether and the little PVC character. Then they called me, and said they wanted to do all these things but we needed to design some stuff and I created a bunch of characters for them and I said, you know what these things are so awesome I think we can take it to the next level and go to known brands and licensing. We are a really small company so we didn’t want to go to Disney or go to Marvel but I said you know what let me call some of my friends that have really cool things and let’s start there. So, we called Felicia Day and we got The Guild and I called Rod Roddenberry and got Star Trek and we just started building from there. Now we have almost 100 different designs.
WHR: Were The Guild Floppets the first licensed Floppets?
Greg: No. I really like my character Labou from the movie I directed, that you can get on DVD from MGM. So I thought let’s try to see how we work with the factories and the design process doing a character that I control. Because that’s the hardest thing of licensing, trying to produce a product that the owner of the brand really likes and with every kind of manufacturing process there is limitations. So I said, let me do my own character and see if I can get it to my quality and then I’ll feel more secure with asking other people if I can make their products. So we did Labou and we did three different styles and it came out really well. So the next person I called was Felicia and she really liked it for the shows because it could be a two dollar or four dollar item, and you know when you have the posters, the T-shirts, the comic books, and the DVDs everything is like 20 dollars. So, you know, if a fan wants five things that’s like 100 bucks. So we did do a full set of The Guild, we do all 6 characters and then the shield, and we can sell that for 20 bucks, so you get so much more. She (Felicia) was like, yeah let’s do it, and I think they came out pretty cool.
WHR: Then you did the Star Trek ones?
Greg: And then I was talking to Rod Roddenberry. Rod is the son of Gene Roddenberry, creator of Star Trek, and he still owns part of the brand and is allowed to manufacture and sell original props and shirts. We were having a conversation and I said that I started this new company with friends call Floppets. We’re making these cool little things and he was like you totally need to do Star Trek Floppets and I was like, yes I totally do! He set up a deal where we actually manufacture those for Roddenberry and we did series one, it’s premiering here in at Comic-Con. We have the Enterprise, the Enterprise D, the Star Trek logo, an original series phaser, the Orion slave girl, a Klingon warrior, the IDIC symbol, and the command logo, so there’s a bunch of different ones and at the shows we have an exclusive that’s a blue command symbol. So if you buy all nine, you get that tenth one. We’ll be at the Vegas Star Trek show, we’ll have them there and then we’re going to do series two and on series two we’re just basing it on feedback from people right away. They’re just like where are the Borg, where is the Klingon symbol, they want the Gorn. Rod right off the bat wanted to do like 42 and I was like, OK. He sent me this list of 42 characters he wants to do so we’re just trying to figure out in groups of 9 which ones they’ll be.
WHR: Is there one that you really wanted to do yourself?
Greg: Wow I’m a Sci-Fi/horror (fan). I want to do them all, I want to do a Floppet of every single thing.
WHR: We see you did one for Team Unicorn…
Greg: I did Team Unicorn because they are friends and they are lovely and, you know, I strongly believe in their movement. They are not just hot girls cosplaying for attention. They are saying that everyone has the right to be into things and trying to break the lines of geeks and jocks and mean girls, and they are bona fide Sci-Fi anime gamer girls. They’re just trying to encourage all other women out there to be proud of what you are into no matter what anybody says. I wanted to help promote that and I thought that if we had something we could give away to everybody we see here at the show that’s coming out and showing off their geek pride (it would be great), so we did the Team Unicorn logo.
WHR: Can you tell us a little bit about the design process? Once you have an idea do you sketch it out and then show it to Rod and say do you like this? How do you go about it?
Greg: You know right now I’m spoiled and I’m in for a rude awakening as we grow into more official licensing with companies who don’t even know who I am, because they’re going to want all of these processes. But I did it with a phone call like, hey Felicia (would you like The Guild to have their own Floppets) and she’s like oh my god that would be so great. So, I took the art from the opening animation and I just made them. We shipped in a couple 1000 of them and I was like, hey come check these out and she was like I love them. It doesn’t work that way for real. For real I have to do multiple concepts. They’ll have to pick them, it has to go through a series of approvals, they’ll make changes, then we’ll have to do prototypes and have the prototypes approved, and then we’ll have to have line samples. It will be a slightly longer process. Even with Star Trek, Rod and the guys that run the whole marketing and manufacturing for Roddenberry Entertainment were like yeah we totally trust you and we know that you are such a hardcore fan that you probably have higher standards than we would ever even expect. So I was allowed to just run with it and I showed it to him the first time Wednesday when we started the show. I said, look they’re here! The Star Trek ones are one of the coolest ones we’ve made so far.
WHR: So what’s next? Where would you like to go with it?
Greg: Well let’s see, I mean I dreamed the dream. I’m all Star Wars, we’re sitting in a Star Trek booth right now so I might get just randomly punched, but I’m all about Star Wars so I dreamed the dream of doing Star Wars. Doctor Who, I would love Marvel, I would love Disney. I mean Disney is infinite; we could do Floppets (forever), I don’t even have enough life in me left. It could continue on, my children’s children could still be making different characters for Disney Floppets, that would be the dream. We’re also creating a lot of our own original products. We have our own line of munchkin monsters they are these cute little alien things. We have a new line coming out in the fall called FlopJocks. They’re all sports, they’re angry footballs and soccer balls and every kind of ball in sports with these angry faces. We’re also doing pom poms. We’re trying to also be non-exclusive we’re doing (them) for girls and guys and everybody. There is a Floppet for everybody.
WHR: So Floppets are real versatile, what is your favorite thing to do with one?
Greg: My favorite thing to do with them personally is to wrangle my data cables with them so when I have my iPhone and my iPod, one million Apple devices and one million cables, I have a Floppet that stays on there permanently as a marker. Because everyone in my shop has apple stuff, so they know that if there’s a Labou Floppet on it then it’s mine. Red 5 has her Codex Floppet and everyone has a different character so you know that that cord is theirs. Then when you wrap them up you can use the velcro to hold it (the cord) together. I don’t necessarily wear them, like at the show I have them on like jewelry, I’m not that kind of a jewelry guy.
WHR: So what else do you do with Team Unicorn?
Greg: With Team Unicorn I have designed a few of their videos. I did the Alien Beach Crashers video. I worked on the Christmas Special, A Very Zombie Holiday. I made a bunch of signage and stuff for that. I was supposed to have an exclusive Team Unicorn piece of artwork here for the show but I didn’t get it done in time.
WHR: What other recent projects have you worked on?
Greg: Well there’s Save the Supers, which I’m super proud of, that Sandeep Parikh from The Guild created, and asked me to executive produce and design. You know, it was rough, basically we were talking about it and I said you realize that right now Joss Whedon is home throwing up his guts because he can’t get the Avengers perfect and he only has a budget of 200 million dollars. We’re essentially trying to do the exact same thing for like a few grand, and we have this story about six superheroes and a hall of justice and all these villains and all these custom made props. But I love the challenge because within the web world the creative minds are so amazing. They joke that I can’t say no, but I can’t say no because the ideas are so perfect. I’m always like, well if I don’t help that’s going to be the greatest thing people have ever seen and I won’t have been there and that would be terrible. So I tried to do as much as possible. Save the Supers premiered this week and it is awesome. I just did a thing with Sean Becker and Jeff Lewis, Chatroom of Solitude, for Stan Lee’s YouTube channel. It’s basically about a chat room for superheroes and supervillains. They were working on the deal and it’s taking a little while as it always does, but then the week before Comic-Con they were like, you know what we really want a trailer. And everything was a go, so they called me up and they were like, This is crazy, it’s Friday but can we make supervillain costumes and sets for Sunday night? So they shot it at the barnyard. We did all four characters at one time with live cameras on everybody. I built these little vignettes and it’s amazing. I have to give it to Sean (Becker) and Chris Darnell, who shoots The Guild, because they made these little 4 by 4 sets that were all next to each other look like four completely different worlds. I mean I feel like with the creativity that’s behind these guys I could do anything and it will be amazing, so it gives me so much more freedom (than non-web work). It’s been pretty awesome. And then the Jeff Lewis 5 Minute Comedy Hour, I production designed the season and it’s insane the amount of stuff that’s going on. I did season 2 of Husbands with Jane Espenson. It’s such a good show, it’s a little out of my wheelhouse in terms of, I’m open to anything, but people don’t usually call me for drama or straight comedy. But because it’s Jane (I did it). They live in this house and they’re just like two eccentric celebrities and so I can’t really say the super crazy things I did because it’s not out yet, but there’s just a lot of crazy interior design. Mostly what I do is pull out my bag of tricks, again it’s low budget. Jane and Cheeks pay for that show themselves and the quality is like what it should be for an episode of Friends or like an episode of Dollhouse, but the budget is like 1 /100th of it. My job is to make it look as good as a network show without having the money and the resources, so it’s just like working with the DP (Director of Photography) and the director to creatively figure out how to fill all of the space without the tens of thousands of dollars we’d normally have. And (I worked on) Fresh Hell which is wrapping up with Brent Spiner. I love the whole web world. When I would work on the big shows it’s like you meet different celebrities and you have to work with them, I did make-up on Gillian Anderson for X-files, and you get to hang out with them. But the web world really is, like Seth Green told me that he thinks it’s like summer camp, we are all just buddies hanging out trying to do something and it’s true. For instance on The Guild, we shot a lot of that at my house at the studio in the barnyard so when Stan Lee gets kidnapped and is in the basement, that’s my workshop. So it’s like I have freaking Stan Lee in my workshop! When I did Fresh Hell, Brent Spiner was filming there and Levar Burton came into the house. You know like every childhood dream I could ever imagine. All the people that would come over, it’s just super bizarre. I take a picture of every celebrity that comes to my house with my dog Art, so he has this whole portfolio. Also, I directed an episode of Written by a Kid for Geek & Sundry so that’s coming out.
WHR: How many people do you have working with you?
Greg: It’s usually just me and Red 5. Red 5 was an intern for Dragon Age. She applied to the The Guild intern thing and she came in and did such a good job on the show that I hired her and now she is my art director. So in the past 2 years that she’s been there she’s done like 100 shows with me so her resume went from nothing and trying to get an internship to now working on all of these projects. I have this guy Mazin who does a lot of the computer graphics. He did a lot of the stuff for the guild hall at the end of season four. And then there’s Amish, he builds a lot of stuff. He help me build the Voltron lion for Alex Albrecht’s Voltron: The End. It did pretty good. Actually the guys from Voltron said that that video did more for the brand in a couple weeks than they had been able to do in years and it brought a lot of attention to it again. We built a big model of one of the Voltron lions. Amish did that and does a lot of the after effects and he did a lot of the blimp effects in Guild season 5. We all work together on the Floppets. Red does the tag design and Amish does the vector art. I’ll come up with the concept of each one and draw it out and we do it in Illustrator. We create a vector art so the factories can work with it.
WHR: So if there was someone reading our article and they decided they want to be you when they grow up what would be their path be to becoming a prop master?
Greg: If you want to be me the first thing is you have to really love art and love movies. That was the thing, I am worthless to society. I cannot do anything else but the art I do for film. I’m an artist in films. You have to really just love art and have it consume you and love movies. If you want to be a prop master or a production designer or a director, you just have to absorb all of that information. It’s better than any film school, just watching every movie you possibly can and having those in the back of your mind as preexisting storyboards for how you want to do things, and then from there your originality grows. But the biggest thing you can do is try to work with somebody that’s already doing it. It doesn’t have to be like a Hollywood professional it could be like in school and some shops. But try to learn the trade. You can’t really go to a school and learn all of this stuff you have to be able to do it and you have to be willing to make the mistakes and learn from your mistakes and be prepared for long, long hours because it never ever ends.
We’d like to thank Greg for taking the time out of his busy Comic-Con schedule to talk with us. If you’d like to keep up with Greg and his latest exploits, you can visit his website at http://barnyardfx.blogspot.com/ or chat with him on Twitter https://twitter.com/gregaronowitz.
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