The Pop-Up Paper Engineer

“I always try to push myself in new directions with the engineering,” Reinhart says. “I try not to use similar mechanisms throughout my  books.”

In a small, messy studio in Chelsea, Matthew Reinhart sits at his desk, cutting paper for children’s pop-up books and listening to Howard Stern. Star Wars memorabilia and cutesy anime posters adorn the walls. Interns – along with one full-time staffer – flit in and out.

Reinhart, the author and illustrator of elaborate, awe-inspiring pop-up books like Star Wars: Pop-Up Guide to the Galaxy, typically spends about six to eight months conceiving a storyline and cutting out hundreds of pieces for one of his books, some of which are as thin as a piece of thread or as small as a speck of pepper. His newest project – a book involving large transforming robots that he is deliberately vague about – is slated to take even longer.

Many hail his work as sophisticated engineering, but Reinhart remains is bashful. “I’m just this guy who sits in a studio and cuts up paper,” he says. “I’m an art student, not a math student.”

Yet his dedication to art was not always so clearly defined. Below, the author-slash-engineer discusses how gouging out eyes from corpses at New York City morgues made him realize the importance of pursuing a career you love.

Age: 40
Graduated from: Clemson University, biology major; Pratt Institute, industrial design major
In the business for: 13 years
Based in: New York, New York

You studied biology as an undergraduate. Did you always have a hidden passion for art? I always took an interest in making things, but my parents didn’t want me to be a starving artist. They wanted me to be a doctor. So I majored in biology at Clemson, and if I ever had an elective, I took an art course. My notebooks in biology class were out of control – I drew massive ink sketches in the margins.

When did it click that you should study art instead? I got into medical school, but decided to first take a year off and live in New York. I started working at the Eye-Bank for Sight Restoration, through which I went to morgues and took out people’s eyeballs, sometimes in the middle of the night. By the time I was 22, I had been to every morgue in the New York City area. I saw a lot of dead people – a lot of whom were really young. That made me realize that life is short, and I have to do something I love.

So death inspired you to take advantage of life. [Laughs.] I went to my parents and told them I wanted to pursue art, and they were totally behind me.

Why pop-up books? I met [acclaimed children’s book author] Robert Sabuda doing volunteer work together for a local community center. When I graduated from Pratt, I began working with him on a book, and then we began co-authoring books. It grew bigger, and I started my own projects.

At the end of Star Wars, pieces of an Anakin Skywalker pop-up fold away as the light saber turns from blue to red. The pop-up fully transforms into Darth Vader.

What would people be surprised to learn about your job? It’s a lot less technical than people think. I’m an art student, not a math student. I don’t sit here with my trigonometry calculator and figure out the sine or cosine; I cut paper and see if it works.

Which comes first: pop-ups or words? Words are almost always first. Once we agree on a manuscript – which is like writing a term paper only three pages long – we outline what will go on each page. Then, I create the rough pop-ups, cutting and folding paper, which takes two or three months. Next is the cut-paper collage and placement in the digital file. One book might have 200 to 300 separate pieces.

Time span of creation, from start to finish: About six to eight months, but Star Wars took a little longer.

Tools used: 110-lb. cardstock; scissors; white artist’s tape; double-stick tape; white glue (similar to Elmer’s); scanners; and X-Acto blades. I use tweezers to pick up the really small pieces.

Do you use computers for design, or just implementation? Some people make pop-ups totally on the computer, but we don’t. You don’t know how all the pieces are going to fit together unless you’re holding them in front of you.

Last year, eBooks passed print in adult fiction for the first time. Pop-ups can’t exactly be digitized. Do you perceive that as a disadvantage? It’s a really weird time, and there’s a lot of nervousness in the publishing industry. Some of my work has slowed down, but I think kids will always play with [physical] books, especially picture books.

Do you use an eReader? My iPad is easier when I’m traveling, and I can get a lot of different comic book titles on it without worrying about collecting them. But if I find a really beautiful book about graffiti, I want the actual book.

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Best part of your job: Working with amazingly creative people, like DC Comics. And I get to wear shorts to work if it’s hot.

Most challenging part of your job: Deadlines are the worst. The changing economy makes it hard to create something spectacular and also cost-appropriate.

Do you have certain ideas for pop-ups that are simply too expensive to be produced en masse? Yeah, there are certain elements. But I get to put light sabers in books, which is pretty cool.

Were you an avid reader as a kid? It’s funny – throughout my entire childhood, I didn’t really have any pop-up books. I wasn’t a big reader. I remember faking a report for A Wrinkle in Time using the liner notes on the book’s inside flap. I wasn’t even smart enough to use CliffsNotes! So now, I think about how I can pull in young readers who aren’t so interested in reading – the young versions of me.

In the New York Times, David Pogue wrote that calling your Star Wars book a pop-up book was like calling the Great Wall of China a partition. That was one of the most amazing things to have ever been written about me. I truly love this work, and sure, there are times when I’ve neglected my social life or personal life for it. But it’s very much a part of me.

One book character you’re dying to meet: The Cat in the Hat or Horton would be pretty cool. Optimus Prime would also be pretty kickass.

Your required reading: I did a book with Maurice Sendak – rest in peace – I love his work. The artwork of Mercer Mayer and Peter Spier is fantastic, too.


1. Paper engineering is a competitive field right now, especially with the emphasis on digital media. Be persistent and look around at what exists – then make sure you’re doing something completely different.

2. Acknowledge that you won’t be on top in the beginning. You’ll spend a lot of time working under someone else, paying your dues and being patient. Don’t assume, I made this book, so it should be published. [Success] doesn’t always come quickly.

3. Invest in a copy of The Elements of Pop-Up by David A. Carter and James Diaz.

Follow Matthew’s work on his blog and learn how to create your own Darth Vader pop-ups on his website.

For more crafty No Joe Schmos, check out the miniature food artist, the roller coaster engineer, and the textile jeweler.

The Roller Coaster Engineer

Jeff Pike on the Ozark Wildcat at Celebration City in Branson, Missouri. Photo:

Many people associate roller coasters with fingers squeezed tightly around the cold, hard metal of a lap bar. Jeff Pike associates them with rocking chairs.

Pike has worked at Great Coasters International, Inc. for 13 years, since even before college graduation; with nine weeks left in his senior year, he picked up from school in Kentucky and finished his degree in California, where a job offer waited. Great Coasters is the only company in the world that not only designs wooden roller coasters, but also builds them. Its work ranges from the Wildcat in Hershey Park, Pa. (85.2-foot drop) to the Mountain Flyer in Shenzhen, China (131.2-foot drop).

One might not expect the conservative, antisocial Cincinnati engineer – who doesn’t like “neighbors, people, or any of that crap” – to ride roller coasters at 3 a.m. But he does, thousands and thousands of times over.

Title: VP of Sales and Design, Great Coasters International, Inc.
Age: 34
Graduated from: University of Louisville, degree in mechanical engineering
Years in the coaster business: 13
Number of coasters built: 22
Previous jobs: Internship at Lexmark, doing inkjet printer experiments; internship at D.H. Morgan Manufacturing, Inc., doing drafting work

Working at Great Coasters was your first job out of college. How did you nail that down? During a college internship, I met the president of Great Coasters, who hired me before I even graduated. With nine weeks left of my senior year, I packed up my things [from University of Louisville], drove to California, and finished my degree out there. To this day, my mom still says I dropped out of school.

Evel Knievel at Six Flags in St. Louis, Missouri. Photo: Scott Rutherford

Did you have an “aha” moment? At Lexmark, I got a real dose of corporate culture. I thought, to hell with this, I want to make roller coasters.

Your first time riding a roller coaster: At age 8, my dad took me to Kings Island in Cincinnati, which was my first time on a big coaster. I was terrified, and my sister made fun of me. So I forced myself to ride it again. That’s when I decided to dedicate my life to building roller coasters.

Do you still visit Kings Island? They’re customers of Great Coasters now, and I still get a little bit of that magic when I go back.

Job responsibilities: I spend half my time drafting up proposals and coming up with new layouts and theme concepts. The other half of my time is split between traveling the world trying to sell rides and doing the greasy, dirty work of putting cars together on the tracks.

Do you try out all the coasters yourself? That’s one of the coolest times. We’ll ride them 15 to 20 times to take measurements, and then test them at 3 a.m. when nobody else is there.


Where do you draw inspiration from? A lot of places, including seaside roller coasters that run parallel to the beach or jut out on the pier – they have a very distinct shape and feel. Once, we were drawing in the office, and a People magazine lying around had a picture of Jay Leno. We followed his hairline and chin to plan one of our coasters in Holland.

Does Jay know about that? No. We’re trying to figure out a way to use that to get on his show.

Your primary work is wooden coasters, not steel ones. Wooden coasters are like nice pieces of framed artwork in a museum of technology. They stand out because they seem so anachronistic, but they meld so well into the background.

Take a virtual ride from the front seat of a Great Coasters creation:

Are wooden coasters a very niche market? There are basically three companies that build wooden coasters in the world, and we’re one of them.

Average coaster size: 2,800 to 2,900 feet long.
Amount of lumber per coaster: About 50 truckloads.
Average coaster cost: $7 million to $13 million. Mountainside coasters are very expensive, while parking lot ones are a piece of cake.

Do you have any kids? An 8-year-old and a 5-year-old who are wild about coasters. They believe the world is about roller coasters and playgrounds.

Are you a hands-in-the air guy? As a kid, but now, I’m a patient rider. It’s relaxing; coasters are like giant rocking chairs for me.

Really? A rocking chair? It’s almost like surrendering to the world – you let the machine take you wherever you want to go. It’s an escape from gravity.

Pike giving a tour of Kentucky Rumbler, the first coaster he designed entirely on his own. Photo: Ashley Hancock

Something people don’t know about your job: Nothing that you feel on a coaster is by chance – every bolt, screw, and nail has been carefully planned. People also don’t realize that the only power on coasters is the single lift motor that brings you up the hill – once you’re rolling down, there is no such thing as emergency brakes to stop you.

Most frustrating part of your job: We build coasters across the world, and China is the absolute worst with regulations. It’s mind-boggling how difficult it is to navigate the bureaucratic channels.

Valuable lesson learned: I’ve learned to depend on other people a lot more. It’s exciting to do that first solo project, but it’s nice to have a good support network. People brag about working 80-hour workweeks, but I don’t think that’s healthy.

Do you listen to music while you work? Lady Gaga.

Do you agree that coasters have grown more extreme over the years? I think overall design is more conservative than the 1940s and 50s. Coasters now are taller and faster, for sure, but they don’t have higher accelerations. In the 1940s, theme parks had nurses stationed outside roller coasters.

What are you working on right now? A coaster in Wildwood, N.J. for Morey’s Piers; a coaster for Europa-Park in Germany, which is Europe’s third-largest amusement park; and a project in China. When I hit coaster No. 50, I plan to retire and move to Santa Cruz, Calif.

If you could be any superhero in the world: Superman is really the whole package. All the other guys have weaknesses, but Superman’s is just some rock you’ll never see.

Renegade, a wooden coaster in Minnesota, setting off. Photo: Dustijn Hollon,

Jeff Pike describes the roller coaster ride that is the world of engineering.

1. Dedicate your life to designing coasters, and do it yourself. Starting out, I traveled to amusement parks around the country, took a part-time job as a ride operator, and tracked down maintenance guys to ask about things I didn’t understand.

2. Sending a resume isn’t enough. Show up at trade shows and conferences, make yourself known, and don’t be afraid to break protocol. I skipped a lot of classes in college to attend conferences and try to get the guys designing coasters to notice me.

3. That said, dedicate yourself to learning in school and out of school. You can sense a person’s intelligence and dedication in the first sentence of a cover letter, by how they communicate with you. This job is not easy – it takes a specific skill set and talent – but it has the potential to be very lucrative.

Follow Great Coasters on Twitter at @GreatCoasters and on Facebook. Learn more about career opportunities as a coaster engineer here.

Check in next week for Foodie Friday!

Next week's Foodie Friday: Mia Bauer, a co-owner of Crumbs. Photo credit:

Sorry to disappoint, but no Foodie Friday today! The series will continue next week, with the co-owner of Crumbs Bakery, Mia Bauer. Be sure to tune in next week to read about Mia’s first experience with the dessert and what she loves most about baking.

In the meantime: trying to decide on a well-paying career path? Science and tech are always a solid background. Check out this article on The Huffington Post about how science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) play a key role in the sustained growth and stability of the U.S. economy.

Happy Friday!