Interview: Robert Sabuda & Matthew Reinhart

sabuda & reinhartFirst published on 22nd October, 2006 in StarMag

A FEW years ago when my son was in hospital for surgery, I went shopping for books to cheer him up with. I decided that lift-the-flap and pop-up books would do a great job of distracting him from the pain of his surgical wound and other related woes.

I found some good ones at Kinokuniya Bookstore, including one about butterflies (A Young Naturalist’s Pop-Up Handbook: Butterflies). This was really beautiful and detailed, with pop-up butterflies that looked like they might lift off from the page and fly off in a blur of iridescent wings. At the time, I was not familiar with pop-up books and did not recognise the names on the cover: Robert Sabuda and Matthew Reinhart, whom I now know are two of the most highly respected pop-up book artists (also known as paper engineers) in the world.

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Butterflies: A Young Naturalist’s Handbook

It was Sabuda, 41, who inspired Reinhart to become a paper engineer. Although Reinhart had always loved art, he studied biology in college, in view of becoming a doctor, like his father. However, he continued to take art courses and pretty soon realised that a career in medicine wasn’t for him. Instead he moved to New York, where he met Sabuda. The rest is pop-up history.

Sabuda, too, has been drawing and painting since he was a child. His chance encounter with a pop-up book in a dentist’s waiting room started a life-long love affair with paper engineering. All his life, friends and relatives have given him pop-up books as gifts and he started experimenting with his own pop-ups when he was in primary school, using the manila card folders his mother brought home from work.

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Knights in shining armour get the pop-up treatment in Castle.

Sabuda studied art at Pratt Institute in New York City, where he is now an associate professor, having founded New York’s only course in pop-up artistry at that school. In fact, when Reinhart attended Pratt several years after Sabuda graduated, he did a stint as an intern at Sabuda’s studio. They are now colleagues, life partners as well as frequent collaborators.

Sabuda and Reinhart have, to date, published six pop-up books together. Castle: Medieval Days and Knights is their latest effort and the first title under their new ‘Sabuda and Reinhart Present’ imprint, which comes under the Scholastic Books umbrella.
But Sabuda and Reinhart, as a team, are especially memorable when it comes to pop-up books about animals. The butterfly book I bought was one of two Young Naturalist titles featuring amazing three-D models of insects (the other focuses on beetles) that look and move and, often, feel very close to the real thing.

In the last couple of years, the artists have released two books (Dinosaurs and Sharks and Other Sea Monsters) in their Encyclopaedia Prehistorica trilogy, which features monsters, not

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Producing pop-ups of pre-historic beasts looks like a mammoth task.

from the realms of fantasy, but those that really used to stalk the earth, as well as those that still live in our seas and oceans. They have just completed work on the final book, Mega-Beasts, which will be released next spring.

‘It’s kind of a catch-all book,’ says Reinhart in an email interview Star Mag conducted with him and Sabuda. ‘There are ice-age beasts like mammoths and sabre-toothed cats, and also car-sized armadillos, flying pterosaurs and even a giant beaver.’
Sabuda adds that it is the most challenging project he and Reinhart, 35, have worked on so far. Their bibliography includes solo efforts as well as books done in collaboration with other artistes and writers.
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The Emerald City from The Wizard of Oz, complete with green ‘glass’ spectacles.

 

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Mommy? in collaboration with Maurice Sendak and Arthur Yorinks.

Reinhart’s latest published book, for example, is Mommy? (below, right) with Maurice Sendak and Arthur Yorinks, while many would agree that Sabuda’s most memorable work to date is his pop-up versions of the classic children’s books, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (below) and The Wonderful Wizard of Oz(above).

Most of their books feature a main pop-up on each two-page spread, with corner flaps that open to reveal smaller mechanisms. Alice ends with a gob-smacking pop-up comprising playing cards arranged in an arc above the book’s heroine. The suggestion of movement is quite amazing!

In an interview with National Public Radio in the United States, Sabuda reveals that this pop-up actually features two decks of cards, 104 cards in all, and that he was careful to get all the suits right!

When choosing what to pop-up in a classic story, he ‘picks scenes that I think are most important to telling the story. Or scenes that completely wrap the reader into the story’s world.’

Reinhart who has done a pop-up Cinderella and Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book, has this to say on the subject: ‘After really studying the text (of The Jungle Book), I understand why it’s endured for so long. There are so many exciting scenes and fantastic characters in Mowgli’s wild jungle childhood that it was easy to pick pop-ups to design.

‘Between Hathi’s herd of elephants, the ferocious attack of Shere Khan the Tiger, a stampede of water buffalo, and a visit to ancient ruins occupied by a troop of mischievous monkeys, I did not have a bit of trouble making decisions about pop-ups at all.’

In fact, he designed more pops than would fit into the book: ‘The Jungle Book I have created actually is the fattest book Robert or I have made so far. It has the coolest pop-up of an ancient Hindu temple filled with dozens of monkeys. It’s nearly two feet tall!’

 

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Card games for Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.

When choosing what to pop-up in a classic story, he ‘picks scenes that I think are most important to telling the story. Or scenes that completely wrap the reader into the story’s world.’

Reinhart who has done a pop-up Cinderella and Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book, has this to say on the subject: ‘After really studying the text (of The Jungle Book), I understand why it’s endured for so long. There are so many exciting scenes and fantastic characters in Mowgli’

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Monkey business in The Jungle Book.

s wild jungle childhood that it was easy to pick pop-ups to design.

‘Between Hathi’s herd of elephants, the ferocious attack of Shere Khan the Tiger, a stampede of water buffalo, and a visit to ancient ruins occupied by a troop of mischievous monkeys, I did not have a bit of trouble making decisions about pop-ups at all.’

In fact, he designed more pops than would fit into the book: ‘The Jungle Book I have created actually is the fattest book Robert or I have made so far. It has the coolest pop-up of an ancient Hindu temple filled with dozens of monkeys. It’s nearly two feet tall!’

 

The Jungle Book will be released in November, but Reinhart is already looking forward to fall of 2007, when his Star Wars pop-up encyclopaedia will be published.

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Star Wars goes pop!

‘I just designed a pop-up of an Imperial Walker yesterday that is pretty amazing!’ he says. ‘I am so excited because I have been a religious Star Wars fan since its release in 1977! I have all the books, comics, action figures – you name it! If all goes well with my engineering, readers will see the Millennium Falcon, Chewbacca, Boba Fett, Yoda, and even Darth Vader’s helmet, all in glorious moving 3-D paper pops!’

Reinhart says it takes about eight months to complete a pop-up project. However, Mommy? took four years. Obviously, the construction of pop-up mechanisms is very time-consuming.

sabuda 9‘Sometimes it can take several weeks just to get one complex mechanism to work properly, like the T-Rex head from Encyclopedia Prehistorica: Dinosaurs [left],’ explains Sabuda. Sometimes, ‘the difficulty is in getting the pop-up to pop shut, not pop up!’

Reinhart admits that there is a downside to making pop-ups. ‘So much repetitive work and tedious rebuilding!’ he says. ‘We have to make sure it works repeatedly, so, often, we correct problems multiple times. It can involve lots of problem-solving!’

And no, being a pop-up artist doesn’t mean he finds regular picture books boring. ‘No, they are fun but hard!’ says Reinhart. ‘I have just finished my first picture book with author Margie Palatini called No Biting, Louise! It’s about a baby crocodile who bites everything in sight , including her family. It’s really fun, and I love the characters. It’s just hard for me to shift gears while working on it.’

Sabuda says, ‘Picture books take less time, for me, to create. Also, one is not limited to what can be created in a picture book. Anything is possible. This is not the case with pop-ups. The paper engineering for the mechanism has many limitations which must be obeyed and respected.’

One of the most amazing things about pop-up books is that they are largely made by hand as the mechanisms have to be folded and glued into place.

Considering how much time goes into engineering these mechanisms and then constructing the actual book, it’s no wonder how costly pop-up books are.

Sabuda and Reinhart’s books retail at an average of RM100 each. It’s really no wonder then that most parents baulk at the idea of purchasing these books for their children, especially considering how easily they can be damaged by over-enthusiastic little hands.

However, Sabuda doesn’t see this as a problem. Speaking to The Guardian newspaper, he said, ‘Our books are an opportunity for a parent to spend time with a young reader, and that can only be a good thing. It’s not a bad thing for children to understand that books can also be delicate objects, and to learn to handle them with care.’

If you’re convinced, you might like to buy your child his first pop-up book this Christmas. A special edition of Sabuda’s The 12 Days of Christmas will be officially released on Oct 24 to celebrate its 10th anniversary in print.

Says Sabuda, ‘In the original version, I never got the chance to show all of the gifts on one page. With (this) I finally do! There is a brand new, huge pop-up on the last page with all of the gifts together. The tree even lights up. It’s awesome!’

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The 12 Days of Christmas
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