Skip to main content

Forest Rogers Interview


Originally Published in Prehistoric Times Issue #92 (2009)
Forest Rogers
Safari Ltd's Carnegie Collection Sculptor
Interviewed by Dan Liebman,

DL: You've been working with Safari Ltd for quite some time. How did this collaboration come about?

FR: I've actually been working with Safari since 1988, when we began the first Carnegie models. I'd been in Pittsburgh working on my MFA in costume design at Carnegie Mellon University, which is right up the street from the Carnegie Museum of Natural History. The dinosaur collaboration occurred in an eccentrically roundabout way, however.

My mother, Lou Rogers, was then head artist at the Rohn Liturgical Art Studios of Pittsburgh. At about that time, she'd design a mural for the dome of a Russian Orthodox cathedral, and I was painting a ring of twelve angels for it, each with a pterodactyl-worthy wingspan of 14 feet.

Also at the Rohn Studio was a woman making molds for the Carnegie Museum. It was this woman (she shall remain nameless) who first took on the Carnegie dinosaur model job. She subcontracted the sculpting to me. The museum thought she was making the models; I thought she was creating the molds. Turns out, all she did was have the shipping crates built. And, we wouldn't have needed the shipping crates had she not mistakenly told me the molds had to be made of wax, with no armature. As a result of this misdirection, the first set of prototypes were solid wax. The Diplodocus came back to me in a baggy, broken to bits. The crate woman quickly went by the wayside. Yet I remain grateful to her for the connection.

Thereafter, I did many other figures for Safari: Monterey Bay Aquarium's Sea Life series for a number of years, many of the “Vanishing Wild” animals, including the large elephants, giraffes, lions, Siberian tigers, polar bears, wolves, and more. Grape-scented squid erasers, too.

Dan: Your work extends into many realms, but what is it about dinosauria as a subject matter that attracts you?

FR: I was fascinated by dinosaurs when I was small, and had a favorite set of dinosaurs models. They were, in retrospect, wonderfully quaint: made of a strange waxy plastic, with no size scale at all. Reminiscient of some archaic bestiary. Later, more accurate models and books took their place. I thought, early on, that I might become a paleontologist. I spent a lot of time looking for fossils, finding some nice brachiopods and collecting bits and pieces. By college, however, I realized I was inevitably an artist. I believe it's a calling one cannot avoid, if it's really built into one's psyche.

Given my interest, it's a special pleasure to work with paleontologists on the Carnegie dinosaur project. I'm a bird person too, and it's looking like birds can claim a grand heritage here. My feathered companion is a disabled dove named “Little Ahab”, after the limping Captain in Moby Dick. When I look at his tiny scaly feet and round beady eye, I feel I live with a wee dinosaur. Birds have special needs as pets; I'm sure dinosaurs would too.

And of course, there is an enduring mystery and strangeness that keeps ancient life forms ever fascinating. Aliens right here and available for exploration, as it were. The same can be said of the current dwellers in the deep sea.

Dan: The figure produced by Safari are renowned for their resculpts and revisions in order to confirm to the most modern scientific theories. Howe do you feel whenever you learn that a particular model is scheduled to be retired or revised?

FR: Actually, I'm always eager to improve upon my earlier efforts. Were there an appropraite support group for troubled dinosaur artists, I'd have to stand up and say “My name is Forest, and I've made some dubious dinosaurs”. Also, some of the early figures have by now been compromised by factory efforts to “renew” the detail in the production molds without using a fresh resin cast. This means it's rather like playing “Telephone”. The pieces gradually get further and further from the original sculpt. I'm ever game to update any and all.

Dan: Tell us a bit about the process behind deveoping a new figure for Safari Ltd.

FR: Matthew Lamanna, Ph.D., Assistant Curator of Vertebrate Paleontology at the Carnegie, along with Safari, picks our subjects for the year, generally two new figures. Dr. Lamanna has what our project calls for: the knowledge, the discerning eye, ready humor, and much patience. Once the subjects are confirmed, he sends me reference material and links, and I begin to rough out the model, using my favorite polymer, Kato Polyclay. When I have something respectable, I email preliminary digital images to him and Allen Shaw, the Carnegie's PaleoLab Supervisotr. These two give me much excellent and minutely specific guidance.

Matt Lamanna also contacts experts on our particular current subjects, and we receive a great deal of valuable feedback from those who, sometimes literally, 'wrote the book' on that animal. For me, it's exciting, and a real honor. Since it's impossible to name all of these exceedingly generous people here, Ill just say that I'm working on a blog for our Carnegie models where I hope to thank our consultants and also to beg a short bio from as many of them as are willing.

When all involved have approved the original prototypes from digital images, often after several rounds of alteration, I ship the models to Matt at the Carnegie for an 'in person' check up. Once Matt gives the go-ahead, we ship the models on to Replicast, outside Providence, RI. There, Mike Pereira and his trusty sidekicks create a flexible mold and resin duplicates of our figures. Three resin casts come back to me. One will serve for factory tooling, two I paint as color prototypes guides. After color approval, these go to Safari, and thence on to China for production.

Dan: Are there any figures that you have a particular concern about? Do you have any favorites?

FR: I am always mightily concerned about the problem of production models falling over, but I'll address that in the question about three pointed stance, below. Otherwise, yes, I'm concerned about a number of the older models. I've not seen them in person for some time, being a sort of Dino Cinderella and rarely getting to the stores, but I suspect some of them cry out for a redo. I'd like to do a new Stegosaurus, for example. We can do better now. And I'm concerned about our most recent Tyrannosaurus. Last I saw a production model, the tip of the lower jaw looked to have been damaged and poorly replaced during production. I'd pointed out this issue early on, but I fear it was not corrected. My guess is, the original resin cast got broken at the factory or in transit, and instead of sending for a new one, they tried to fix it there. Bad idea. At least some production casts of Tyrannosaurus have a nasty overbite as a result.

I do think some of the doubtful, early models have a kind of naive Medieval Bestiary charm about them, not unlike the set I played with as a child. I hope they can be thought of as “collectable!” Personally, I've a soft spot for little Caudipteryx. And I'm smitten with our latest Spinosaurus.

Dan: Recent figures appear to be getting more realistic and detailed than ever before. How has this affected your creative process when working on the original sculptures.

FR: Actually, it's more the reverse. Our processes have evolved, and improved the models. First is the diligent enthusiasm and knowledge of Matt Lamanna and Allen Shaw, and the increased output from specialists. And, I have surely grown as a sculptor. I'd better have, after so many critters! I also thank Safari for allowing us to do what we do without micro-managing. That's a wise and valuable trait in a company. I would Safari has grown in that respect. We are all getting better at this.

Dan: One of the trickiest elements of freestanding theropod figures seems to be centered on getting the animal to stand on its own two feet, without relying on the tail as a third support leg. Some of Safaris' figures suggest that this careful balance is feasible. Is this something collectors can look forward to seeing more often in future sculpts?

FR: Ah, here we're in a bind. There are three qualities to be desired, which in a production model are somewhat in conflict: animation of pose, balance, and accuracy in foot size. We also have more than one audience to think about: the collector audience, and the play audience.

It's easy enough to create a model in the studio that balances well only on its two accurately sized feet. But that doesn't take into account the distortions and pressures that can occur in production and shipping. Indeed, as I note below, these can have an effect even on the pieces with three-point stance.

To make the pair of theropods that balanced on feet only (Albertosaurus and Sinraptor), without any exaggeration of foot size, it was necessasry to keep the poses somewhat conservative and centrally aligned. After those two were produced, Safari voiced the need for more animation of pose. An animated pose tends to be by nature a less stable and balanced pose, when froze in 3D. To have theropod figures balance on feet only and yet be more animated in pose, some companies exaggerate foot size, giving the model more to balance on. We didn't want to do that; we're trying to be as accurate as we can be. We refrain from adding actual bases, because that reduces “playability”. That tends to take us back to the three-pointed stance.

Yet given the collector interest, perhaps we might need to do more two pointed models – we shall see.

What pains me most is when I do the three pointed stance, and we have falling problems anyway. Each original prototype that leaves my studio is stable and stands well. But, that quality hasn't always carried through production on some of our pieces. Why? Distortion can take place in casting and during shipping; that's part of it. But the problem is worse than it should be.

What am I doing about it? In this year's theropod, a smaller specimen, I did a sort of extra tip-test. I balanced him/her on the edge of my turntable, toes projecting over the edge, put a finger on his snout, pressed him forward over the abyss, and made sure there was some extra tip-resistance, if you can picture what I mean. It would take a good deal of distortion to tip him over. I am also thinking that in future theropods I may work with a weight in the belly area of the original model, as a bit of balance overkill. This should help me adjust to prevent the problem appearing in the production models.

I apologize to any and all buyers who have models that fall over. Be assured, I aim to do everything within my power to prevent the problem in the future. It's a thorn in our leathery side. Sometimes I long to do a collector's series with bases; then we could go wild!

Dan: Is there a particular species you would like to work on that Safari has not officially requested yet?

FR: Really, I become involved with and intrigued by whatever subject comes down the road. For wishing, I would enjoy doing some ancient mammals. With my friend and stalwart ally of old, Dr. Mary Dawson, Curator Emeritus of Vertebrate Paleontology at the Carnegie, we long wanted to do more mammals. However, Safari did a separate set of those, not involving the Carnegie, so I'm not sure we'll get to do that, alas.

Dan: Can you drop any clues as to what we might be seeing in future figures?

FR: Ah, I myself never know until we are near to beginning the models! I would hope for a continued mix of improved old favorites, and the new and strange...

Dan: Thank you so much for taking the time to answer our questions.

FR: Thank you for wanting to know!