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The Magic of Pop-Up Books: An Interview with Paper Engineer Bruce Foster

Debbie Glade was overwhelmed by the detail of America’s National Parks: A Pop-Up Book, so she asked Bruce Foster, the paper engineer if he’d answer some questions and enlighten our readers.

bruce-fosterBruce Foster is one of those lucky people who lives his passion every day through his rare talents as a paper engineer. He has designed many intricate pop-up books and also designs pop-up scenes in movies such as Disney’s Enchanted. Today he shares his passion with our readers and provides us with insight into the fascinating and often painstaking process of creating pop-ups.

How old were you when you realized you had artistic talent?

Well, I had been doodling space ships for awhile (I gorged myself on superhero comic books as a child) when in the 5th grade I discovered a set of three books:  The Lord of the Rings. On each cover was a beautiful foil embossed elven symbol. Fascinated, I copied them over and over. In hindsight, that was my first awareness of graphic design, a skill that I have used throughout my career. But my first true artistic validation was as a freshman in college. Actually entering in Pre-Med, I was introduced by a friend to a class in drawing. The class was magic and shortly thereafter I changed my major to art.

Please tell us how you went from majoring in Art/Painting at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville to becoming a paper engineer.

So here is the rest of that story. As a grad student in painting, I became friends with several people in the sculpture department. This exposure began to inform my choices, and before long my work was more like sculptured abstract paintings.

Later I became a graphic designer and art director. And then years after that, I had an assignment for a direct mail piece for Hi-C Juice that stipulated 3-D. I conceived a pop-up element, even though I do not recall ever seeing a pop-up before in my life! Really! So I grabbed a few pop-up books and taught myself how to make this pop-up, although I would never do it that way now.

The realization that I could create sculptures using my graphic design skills was a revelation. Later, a publisher in Baltimore saw it and offered me some freelance paper engineering work. From there I pursued it with a passion, buying books and studying them inside and out (I call them book autopsies!) Eventually I made a breakthrough in New York with Simon & Schuster.

How did you even know what you were doing with that first project?

Actually, I did NOT know what I was doing! I was just inventing it as I went along and had to use an elastic band inside the pop-up to make it work. Today I would not need that crutch. Maybe one day I’ll revisit that project to see what I could do with it today.

In designing the pop-ups for America’s National Parks, how does the process work? Do you give the artist direction first or do you determine the pop-up function from whatever the artist provides for you?

The publisher, Don Compton, gave me a list of the parks to concentrate on, sending me a box full of books I could study and draw inspiration from. Then I shared thumbnail sketches and photo inspiration with Don and our illustrator, Dave Ember. Dave would do some pencil sketches that furthered my own sketches, and from there I began to work out the engineering. I built a dummy and sent it to Dave along with templates of the pieces, and he began illustrating. It was very much a back and forth exercise over the course of nearly two years, much longer than I normally spend on a book.

Dave was illustrating with point and click Vector drawing tools, so it was extremely time consuming for him. From spread to spread we discussed features we thought would be good for the park and the book’s flow as well. We certainly didn’t want a book full of nothing but rock! So for instance, Everglades very quickly focused on wildlife. Even later, we had decided that the red jammer cars would be the focus for Glacier, but after designing it, we felt we had tilted too far toward inanimate objects and decided that Glacier needed to be refocused on a living thing. Inside one of the small booklets is the logo for the Great Northern Railway that was cut through those mountains. It features a mountain goat, so I actually designed the pop-up now to feature a mountain goat in the exact same position!

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So it actually took you two years to complete those six National Park spreads featured in the book?

Yes! I was first contacted for this project in March of 2010. We wrapped up the files and sent them to Thailand in March of 2012.  However, individual spreads would usually take me two weeks each to work out, although over the course of the two years, I would refine them over and over, especially when Dave’s illustrations began arriving.

The book is so complex and spectacular, I’m not all that surprised by how long it took to complete. Have you personally visited any of those National Parks in the book and which is your favorite? 

Well of course, as a student in Tennessee, I was basically at the foot of the Smoky Mountains, so I would visit and camp up there a lot. I miss it so much! I would even go white water rafting down the Ocoee. Other than that, I have not visited any of the parks in this book! So in a way, I am a perfect example of one segment of the public we would like to reach: those who do not know what they are missing! Hopefully I will be able to visit some of them soon.

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Grand Canyon National Park

I watched the fascinating Smithsonian Library video about Paper Engineering where you are featured. During the process of designing pages, do you have many different prototypes you experiment with to get it right? And is this process ever frustrating to you?

It depends. Some pops only need two or three builds. Some may require multiple. The Hogwarts castle in Harry Potter took seven attempts to reach the point that all of us working on it felt it was nailed. And if you think building something seven times isn’t frustrating, well, let’s just say um, yes. There are times when I am attempting an idea for a pop and after days and days of working, just have to decide that my approach is a dead end, and I must start all over with a new idea. So there are times when this is nothing but pure fun and others, nothing but frustration. But it’s important to not give up! Persistence is behind the efforts of every paper engineer. There is a lot of experimentation that sometimes works, and sometimes doesn’t.

Thank you for sharing that. I think it’s important for admirers of these kinds of books to understand just how much work is involved. Are you involved in the printing process of these books in any way? I’d imagine it is fascinating to watch the pages being printed and even more amazing being assembled.

You know, I’ve been doing this for more than 23 years now, and despite my pleas to travel to Asia to see this process, it was not until this wonderful book and the patronage of Mr. Compton, that I was finally able to do so. Publishers usually have their art directors travel for the press checks and as a freelance talent, there was never a budget for my travel expenses. Mostly I would receive models via FedEx or DHL that the printers constructed. From those I made my comments and suggestions for refinement.

Sometimes however, the publishers never consult with me at all after I submit the dieline files, which I firmly believe is a mistake. Being at the printer, with America’s National Parks Sirivatana, in Bangkok and Laos, I was able to make refinements on the spot, discussing issues with the assemblers, and working with them to solve any problems. I can look back at past books that might have something not working as smoothly as it should, and realize that if I had had the opportunity to see what they were doing and work with them, sometimes a very, very small adjustment would have completely fixed the issue.

You have designed both pop-up books and pop-up scenes for movies. Can you explain to us what is entailed in making a pop-up scene?

The processes are not that different, except for books that have a defined purpose for each spread (like popping up the Taj Mahal). Designing the whole of a book is very much like designing the scenes for a stage play or movie. Just as the stage designer has to decide what the overall scene is going to be in a particular act, even though many things may happen during that act, its the same for the book. I have to decide what is important in this spread, how to get it to where it needs to be and make sure it flows in a way that carries the story logically. Sometimes the small pops inform or provide exposition to carry the story forward.

Are there specific projects you’ve done that you consider your favorites, or is it impossible for you to choose?

Any given project I’m working on at the moment is usually a favorite, because I’m still discovering it. However, looking back, there are a few favorites, for different reasons:

  • Little Red Riding Hood my first book for a New York publisher. Wow!
  • The Pop-Up Book of Sports – I just loved the creative team at Sports Illustrated and they were so supportive of my solutions
  • Harry Potter – I love that series and I used to read the books aloud to my daughters. My eldest daughter, Nicole, was actually the same age as Harry at the same time
  • America’s National Parks – This book is beautiful but more than that, it has a soul. It is infused with Don Compton’s love of the great parks and conservation efforts. Our parks are more in danger now than at any other time. Both because of climate change and the other our national politics. The budget cuts are very harmful to the present and future of these national treasures. Our hope is that this book will help foster an urgency in people to help these parks survive for our future generations.


From The Pop-Up Book of Sports

Can you tell us more about the Harry Potter pop-up book you engineered? I have seen photographs of it, and I was blown away by how detailed and spectacular it looks.

First of all, that was a true labor of love for me, and as I said, it was already a favorite series for my family. I was given permission to really pull out the stops and try to accomplish something extraordinary. But then the icing was that Warner Bros. was fully involved with this and arranged for us to have their great concept artist, Andrew Williamson, as our illustrator. The resources that were at his command were immense. Working at the London studio itself gave him access to details that no one else could even begin to replicate. In the water below Hogwarts most people don’t even notice, but there are tiny mermaids in the water. It was just that detailed. And the speed that he was able to turn these out still amazes me. But he was able to go into actual concept art and use them to inform his illustrations. Sometimes we would ask for reference and he was able to just walk over to the set and take a photo. Like the opening spread – it’s a view of Dumbledore’s office, but from his desk’s point of view. Andrew was able to actually walk into the set and take a shot from a vantage that was never seen in the movies! Access like that and talent like he possesses was a dream come true for this project!

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Hogwarts in 3D

That is truly amazing. Now that we understand a bit more about the work these books require, do you have any tips on using and preserving pop-up books?

First I’d like to stress to people that pop-up books may look like toys, but they are not. These are delicate, hand-assembled works of art. Also people often think pop-ups are just for kids, but in truth, most of my body of work is not aimed at children. However, my advice is to take advantage of the opportunity for bonding with your children that a pop-up book offers. Sit with your child in your lap and share the book with him or her. Teach her to turn the pages with respect and the books will last long enough for their children to enjoy. Other than that, its good to keep them in their acetate sleeves when you can.

I love the fact that pop-ups must be physical books that are to be held and are interactive. What is your opinion about the recent shift away from paper books as e-books are becoming more and more the publishing norm?

Well, we are at a turning point in history. Not just for pop-up books, but books as a whole. A pop-up book, in its current form, is the only way to truly “get” them. It is a magical transformation of something that your mind tells you shouldn’t be happening! If and when someone figures out how to electronically reproduce a pop-up book, it still will not have that “magic.” We suspend disbelief for everything computer. Of course it can do that; it’s a computer! But a book that transforms… ah. Magical.

Unfortunately, the ease of downloading electronic books is also endangering the bookstore. If you don’t see a pop-up book on display in a store, how do you know it’s there? If you can’t open it to experience the magic, how do you know it’s something you must have?  And facing limited budgets, publishers have little recourse but to divert money from pop-up books – among many types of books – to the electronic versions. A librarian once told me I must be very lucky because with so few skilled paper engineers, I must have a built in market for my skills. You can’t have a pop-up book without a paper engineer, after all. But in reality, if a publisher can’t see a way to make a profit on a project, it…just…won’t….happen.

Do you have any advice for artists who want to become paper engineers?

First, don’t let my previous answer discourage you! I don’t know how much of a career there is going to be for this in the future, but if you love this art form, think of it as just that: an art form. There is never any guarantee of financial rewards with art, and that has never stopped artists from doing what they are born to do. Since there are very few schools that even teach paper engineering courses (and no such thing as a degree program), study as many pop-up books as you can. The best way to learn this, short of interning for an established paper engineer, is just to do it. Copy the mechanisms. Rebuild them. Change something to make it your own. Do it again until it works the way you envisioned. Some of you will figure a way to make a career out of this, even if the established model of going through publishers is diminished further. As the saying goes, when one door closes, another opens. I’m constantly looking for those opening doors and you should, too!

When you are not designing, what do you most like to do?

I love movies, and I love to read and cook. We’ve been fans of Top Chef from its beginning and I’ve been fortunate enough to meet some of them and dine in their restaurants. So it’s a hobby to be inspired by their dishes as I prepare meals. My wife and I have a menagerie of pets (three dogs and five cats) all of whom I love. I also love to travel, although now that my children are recently out on their own, we have a bit of problem with the pet-sitting situation!

Bruce, I am in awe of your work, and I have truly been enlightened by your words. All of us at Good Reads with Ronna are so grateful to you for taking the time to share your passion with our readers. If everyone could see and touch a copy of America’s National Parks, pop-ups books would certainly endure! Best of luck to you with your next project; I for one can’t wait to see what that will be!

Readers, click here to purchase your copy of America’s National Parks. For every copy of the book sold, $8 will be donated to the National Park Conservation Association (NPCA) For more information about Bruce Foster and his pop-up books and movie scenes, visit his website.

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