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CIC VI: MsBigPileofDust

This week, I sit down with MsBigPileofDust (aka Sasha), an amazing customizer from across the pond.  She’s been making Jossverse customs for years now and has risen to the top of the heap.  You’d be wise to read her interview!

CTV: Are there any tools that you couldn’t live without?

MsBig: My painting tools are fairly standard. For sculpting, I use a scalpel and 2 ‘colour-shapers’, one pointy, one wedge-y.

For the last year, I’ve become much more careful about smooth surfaces. I use a metal file to sand the sculpted figure and a dry blusher-brush to keep the dust off. Here’s a photo:

CTV: What inspired you to get into customizing?

MsBig: I went into mourning, when Buffy the Vampire Slayer aired its last episode in the UK, June 2003. I had never collected any kind of action figure but decided to buy one little Bunny Anya. It snowballed from there.

I first became aware of the art of customising figures, when I bought a few custom-made Buffy figures on eBay (made by Flobbo and JediDoug). I first had a go myself with head-swaps and repaints in July 2003 and Flobbo introduced me to the BtVSFigs Forum.

In November 2003 I first started using sculpey clay to alter the figures. After a few malformed attempts, I got the hang of it!

CTV: What does your mother, a professional painter, think of your work? Does she ever give you tips?

MsBig: My mum has always been completely supportive of anything I’ve ever done. She encouraged me from the beginning, even when my work was very basic. She’d never sculpted or customised herself (she’s a 2D fine-artist), so she was genuinely intrigued by a new medium.

I visit every Sunday and I show her my the new work on my website. She enjoys it; she’s an avid Buffy/Angel/Firefly fan herself.

She’s never really given me tips directly but everything I know about colour and painting came from watching her. She’s noticed in my recent work that I’ve got the hang of the body’s structure… where the centre of gravity is for balance… the correct proportions for limbs, etc.

CTV: What would you say your specialty is?

MsBig: In recent years, I’d say I’m good at naturalistic poses and realistic body shapes, particularly on my ‘real’ people. I get the biggest buzz from making a figure of an everyday person. I find them really beautiful… quirks and all.

CTV: How do you choose who to make?

MsBig: For the last 3 years, almost every figure has been a commission. I give guidelines on what I’m prepared to make… it has to be ‘real’ or Whedon-verse. It also has to be an outfit I haven’t made before. I get too bored doing copies.

My regular buyers are good at getting the best work out of me and my muse. They ask for a particular scene but they know to let me decide on the exact moment or pose for myself. Then I can still be inspired. I book commissions a few months in advance but I don’t plan out the pose or parts until the moment I start making them.

Here is my thinking on my last 3 customs:

Wham-Bam-Thank-You-Ma’am! Spike & Buffy. On the DVD, this is quite a graphic scene, despite the fact that they are fully clothed. I chose to make the moment where Spike’s back is to the wall, rather than Buffy’s. I didn’t want it to look like wall humping. I think the pose I chose is both hot and amusing (Spike’s expression), where as a moment later it could be vulgar.

Yellow-Crayon Willow & Xander. This is a long scene with lots of possible poses or effects… there is Willow throwing magic at Xander, their reconciliation, then the final crouched hug. I fancied making the Demon Effigy, so I did that first. Once I had made Proserpexa, it was obvious to me that I had to show Willow and Xander crouched down, so that she would tower over them. It gave the diorama real poignancy.

Lady-Hacks-Away Buffy & Repentant-Demon Anya. This was another long scene. The buyer asked for them to be fighting. The trouble with fighting dioramas is that they have to either be sideways-on or one have their back turned. Also, for the early part of the fight, Anya was in demon face and the buyer wanted her in human face. After watching the scene, I decided that the optimum custom for Anya was her slumped against the wall with the sword in her chest. I then took a little artistic licence by having Buffy turning away after stabbing her. I think it works because of the poignant expression on both their faces.

CTV: How many commissions do you receive on a weekly basis? Monthly?

MsBig: I get more commissions than I can handle, so I’m pretty strict, especially with new buyers. I ask for immediate payment from a new buyer, at least one month in advance. This weeds out 90% of them. I also make sure to explain to a new buyer that a custom figure is hand-made, flawed and not factory smooth.

I make 2-3 figures on commission per week. I reserve 2 spots per month for each of my regular buyers. I then pre-book my semi-regular and new buyers to fill out the rest of the month. I book for 3 months in advance.

CTV: How do you decide how much to charge for a commission?

MsBig: This is the advice I give to anyone looking to find the optimum price for their work. Do eBay auctions for 6 months. It will tell you what the market price is for your work. Don’t under charge and don’t over charge.

Back in 2004, I started selling my customs on eBay. Once I was producing a certain quality of custom (in mid-late 2004), I looked at the winning prices. Most of the single figure customs went for just over £100. Some for £200. One went for £300. I felt so guilty that I made the winner a freebie.

I stopped selling on eBay, contacted a few of the winners who could obviously afford £100 and offered to make commissions for them at that price. I have stuck to that price for 3 years.

I noticed just recently that it takes me twice as long to sculpt a figure as it used to. I rely much less on the original figure and re-sculpt almost everything. With this in mind, as well as the fact that I can’t keep up with the commissions, I put my prices up to £110 per figure.

CTV: Are there any characters that you absolutely love to make, as many versions of possible of?

MsBig: Buffy is my favourite character. I still can get bored if I’m making lots of her in a row, though. At least I never make the same outfit twice. I just can’t bring myself to do that.

It has been much better recently because it’s more fun to do Buffy with a foil. The doubles allow for dramatic tension and the chance to make a different character. My muse never gets bored of these.

CTV: Do you have an ultimate goal in regards to your customizing?

MsBig: I wouldn’t say I had an ultimate goal. I have a yearly goal to mix it up and develop. I look back at each year and I’m happy to see that there is a difference between my body of work for 2004, 2005, 2006 and 2007.

I had an idea for something just recently. I may try to make it for the Summer CustomCon. At first, I thought that it was too hard, not my bag… I’ll get someone else to do part of it and pay them. Then I realised that was exactly why I *had* to do it. I’ve enlisted the advice of a Fwooshnet guru. He’s going to mentor me.

CTV: What do you like most about customizing? What do you like least?

MsBig: Most. It keeps my imagination alive. With the Whedon-verse customs, it is a way for me to re-live my favourite piece of TV art. With the ‘real’ people customs, I feel like I’m honouring those people by capturing their portraits.

Least. Hmmm! There isn’t much of a down-side for me. If I didn’t enjoy it still, I would stop.

Back when I first started, I agreed to make a copy of a custom I’d already made. I can’t even describe how much I *hated* the process. My whole body went leaden and refused to respond. I felt depressed and lost inspiration to make anything else for 2 weeks. That proved to me that I was in it for the art, not the money. I’ve had people offer me a fortune to make copies since, but I won’t do it. Luckily, I’m pretty good at refusing to let myself be nagged or bullied. I’ve collected a really great bunch of buyers that I trust and enjoy working with.

My only other problem was that I started getting a really sore hand from all the detail work. I’m left handed. I solved that by becoming ambidextrous. I now use my right hand to operate the mouse on my computer (even for drawing on the ‘puter). This saves my left hand for cutting, sculpting and painting.

CTV: What type of process do you go through as you customize?

MsBig: I find a good screencap of the scene I’m customising and I print it out as a photo. I keep that in front of me the entire time. That is my big tip for all customisers trying for realism. You can see how a person’s clothes hang, the folds of cloth, the body shape and exact stance, and later on, the correct colours for painting.

For my sculpting and painting methods, you can get more info and see pictures of my working environment on my “How To” page.

CTV: How do you feel about being called the "best jossverse customizer of all time?"

MsBig: Ha! I don’t know about that, but thank you for saying it.

I’m a huge fan of Joss and his universe and I see my work as my homage to his art.

My early work is of the exactly the same quality as dozens of newbie BtVS customisers. My current standard has been achieved by my abiding interest in the Whedonverse but also by hard work and dedication. I’ve spent almost every day for 4 years sculpting and painting. I’ve produced 500 figures.

CTV: Do you own any one else’s customs?

MsBig: I don’t. I only collected figures briefly in 2003/2004. Then I realised that I was a customiser, not a collector. I sold the few I owned from other customisers (Flobbo, JediDoug and Alyrenee). I then sold all of my own, or gave them to charity or as prizes.

CTV: Do you keep your own customs?

MsBig: I have my self-portrait. It’s clunky early work but it’s still me! I kept Silver-Coffin SMG because she fits neatly on my DVD shelf but I may sell her eventually. The only BtVS custom I keep and believe I won’t ever sell is Sacrificial-Lamb Buffy. I love her because she looks like Ophelia.

CTV: Who is your favorite customizer?

MsBig: On the BtVSFigs Forum, it is WillowsWarlock. He’s an 18 year old Brit. I mentored him when he started out a few years ago. He’s talented and dedicated. He is admires my work but doesn’t copy me and has great fresh ideas of his own.

I also really enjoy seeing the work of the Fwooshers. All the usual suspects, but especially Glorbes. I particularly adore his original characters.

CTV: What was the first custom you ever made? Do you have pics?

MsBig: I don’t, I used it for parts. It was a repaint of a Prophesy Girl Buffy. The earliest one (just a repaint) that I made in July 2003 is a Buffy from the “Becoming” episode. You can spot the difference between that and my recent creation from the same episode.

CTV: Do you have any words for customizers just starting out?

MsBig: Definitely! Don’t try to do everything at once. Hone one skill at a time. I made 50 figures just using head swaps to develop my painting skills. Then I tried sculpting. It took about another 50 before I got the hang of that. Then I tried experimenting with expressions and poses, then some technology, etc.

CTV: Thanks for sitting down with us, MsBigPileOfDust!

MsBig: Thank you for having me! Oh, before I forget…My niece and nephew wanted me to help them make a custom of their cousin Sarah for her 18th birthday. I sculpted the figure. They’re painting her this week. Here’s a sneek peak for CIC.

MsBigPileofDust’s Customs Galleries

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