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.

 

LAUNCHING YOUR CAREER>>
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 Artificial Limb Maker

David Sisson working on a plaster cast for a leg. Photo credit: Patrick Sisson

In 1974, as a high school junior in a “blue-collar ghetto neighborhood,” David Sisson delivered pizza. But on the side, he designed and fabricated artificial limbs. They were carved from a block of wood, and he made adjustments with sandpaper and a chisel.

Since then, prosthetics has taken huge strides. After receiving his college degree – he was the first in his family to do so – David Sisson founded the Sisson Mobility Restoration Center, Inc. in Madison, Wisc. There, he implements personal, customized treatment for amputees, war veterans and victims of physical abuse. He records their information using no measurements: only his hands and plaster. In his 37 years of treating more than 10,000 amputees, he’s learned a thing or two about the process.

Age: 53
Graduated from: City Colleges of Chicago, Associate’s degree in prosthetics (included clinical training at Northwestern University)
Dream job in college: Trust-funder
In the industry for: 37 years
Cost per device: Below-knee prostheses average from $8,000 to $10,000
Previous jobs: Lifeguard; pizza delivery boy; worked at the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago

How he got the job: I was working as a pizza delivery boy, and one night, I was delivering this girl’s weekly Friday night pizza pie. She opened the door, and a there was a huge guy holding a 45-caliber gun in the room. I said, That’s it, I quit. My high school had posted an opening for a prosthetic technician, and the pay was better than my rate as a pizza delivery boy, so I applied. I started sanding wooden legs in shop class.

Heather Mills, Paul McCartney's ex-wife, took off her prosthetic leg during an interview on Larry King Live in 2002. Photo credit: freerepublic.com

Why did you start your own center? I’m a terrible employee. I was raising a family in Madison, Wisc., so I tried to buy the business I was working at. They wouldn’t let me, so I started my own business.

Do you mostly order devices from a catalog? I’m old school, so we make about 98% of what we use. If you’re missing it, I make it – externally, that is. But a majority of prostheses are below the knee, due to the diabetes epidemic.

Are diabetes-related injuries increasing?  Yes, and patients are getting younger. Most of diabetes patients used to be over age 60, and now it’s more like age 40.

What’s the process of creating an artificial limb? It’s more art than science. After someone loses a limb, it takes about a month to heal from the surgery. Then, we squeeze out any built-up fluid and take a cast of the stump for accuracy. Finally, we sculpt a plaster cast and make sockets depending on the person’s age and activity level.

Most important part: The quality of the socket [which connects the prosthesis to the stump]. If it’s not comfortable to wear – if it hurts to walk – you’re not going to use it.

Harrison Ford with Sisson's prosthetic arm in The Fugitive. Photo credit: movieforums.com

Coolest moment of your career: I was in the film The Fugitive alongside Harrison Ford and Tommy Lee Jones for about two seconds. I created the prosthesis for the one-armed man.

People don’t realize: There are many more amputees in this world than you’d expect. Many always wear long pants, so you can’t tell.

Do you have any special techniques? I don’t take any measurements – I just use my hands and plaster impressions. I’ve seen 10,000 amputees in my 37 years, and can record lots of information by feeling soft tissue and bone structure with my hands.

What materials are used for the artificial limb? Heat foam with aluminum and titanium fittings. Sockets are made of fiberglass, carbon fiber, and other materials. We attach limbs with suction instead of leather straps, which is how it used be.

Once the limb is replaced, can a patient return to everyday life? It takes anywhere from six to eight weeks for the soft tissue to remodel itself and heal internally. It can also take that long for patients to get used to the stresses and strains, so physical therapy can be very beneficial.

Are the limbs water-resistant? Most are not, although we can specially design them to be. Some people develop a closet full of limbs over the years, so they’ll use an old foot or leg to go in the water and then throw it out.

What if you don’t have a closet full of limbs? Tie a garbage bag around your thigh – or wherever the stump is – to keep out the water during a shower or bath.

Luke Skywalker's legacy lives on today. Photo credit: scifi-review.net

How has modern technology advanced your work? Patients are running marathons and going back into active combat wearing prostheses. Luke Skywalker’s replacement hand in 1977 had fingers that moved independently, and we thought that would never happen. Now, we create hands with five motorized fingers.

Hardest part of the job: Every amputee is different, and people have lists of expectations. They can get very hung up on cosmetics and appearances.

Are you more protective of your kids because of the injuries you witness on a daily basis? No. My older son broke his arm twice in one summer, and I was in the emergency room with him, but was kind of jaded. I’ve seen people ripped in half, people missing halves of bodies from electrical burns. So I wasn’t too overwrought over a broken arm.

A boy in Nicaragua who lost his leg in 2007. Photo credit: htc-il.org

You also work with amputees in third-world countries. A group called Healing the Children provides medical care to children in need. When the group traveled to Nicaragua, they brought back some cases they couldn’t take care of. I made several prostheses for boys who had suffered machete injuries.

That must be incredibly rewarding. Yes, but it’s essentially a bait-and-switch for young kids. You can give them a new leg, but if they need minor repair, they don’t have the three cents for a bus ride into town, much less the two cents for a new rivet. There needs to be an infrastructure where someone is on-site, in the matrix of society in these third-world countries.

Something people don’t know about you: I grew up a blue-collar ghetto neighborhood, and am the first in my family to receive a college degree. Also, I’m left-handed.

Have you used your skills outside of working with patients? [Using my hands] also comes in handy with making costumes. I helped make props and set pieces for my son’s school performance of Aida and a local theater group’s performance of A Christmas Carol.

Best lesson learned? You can decide a prosthetic limb is just one more challenge in your life. Or you can do the best you can with what you’ve got.

David Sisson creating a prosthetic hand (note: not Luke Skywalker's). Photo credit: Patrick Sisson

LAUNCHING YOUR CAREER>>
Want a future in artificial limbs? Dave Sisson gives you a leg up.

1. Visit a local limb shop and ask the prosthetist if you can shadow him or her for a few days. Some parts of our job are kind of gross, so you need to make sure it suits your sensibilities.

2. The American Board for Certification in Orthotics, Prosthetics and Pedorthics offers many resources, including the curriculum for individual certification and continuing education courses.

3. What I do is very abnormal, so part of the process with new amputees is developing a language with each patient so he or she can describe how they’re feeling. You must be able to communicate with folks.

Click here to listen to patients’ testimonials from the Sisson Mobility Restoration Center.

Have you or a loved one ever lost a limb? How long did it take to readjust? Comment below!