shawnsmithShawnimals Earth Day Interview

Interview by: Bill Jones

Shawn Smith, aka Shawnimal, is the Chicago artist behind the designer toy line Shawnimals and last year’s critical Nintendo DS hit Ninjatown. Smith launched a new limited-edition toy series this year based around the anthropologist Professor Fliggins, and today heralds the release of a special eco-friendly plush in honor of Earth Day, the Forest Spirit Wee Ninja. Pads & Panels caught up with Smith last week at New Wave Coffee in Chicago during the Bits + Pieces collaborative art show with fellow Chicago artist Blutt. Smith chatted about everything from Earth Day, to Professor Fliggins to Ninjatown.

How did the Bits + Pieces collaborative project with Blutt come about?
Blutt and I have worked together on a variety of artwork for a long time. The important thing to point out is that my background – people know me from Ninjatown so they think it is video games, or they know me from EGM so they think it’s video games, or the designer toy stuff so they think it’s plush – is in fine arts, so drawings and paintings and so on. I still do that. I still maintain an active studio practice. So hanging out with some of the Chicago artists like Blutt, we always do collaborative work meeting different Chicago artists. I’m part of this art collective in Chicago called the Cartel which consists of about eight guys. We just get together and try to show together. This show is one of those types of events.

bitsYou mentioned that people know you most from Ninjatown and the characters, toys and a game that have spawned from the Shawnimals universe. With a background in fine arts, how did you get started on designer toys?
I’ve always drawn. I remember looking in old sketchbooks. A lot of kids will draw things, and I remember looking back and seeing my Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles on skateboards on a half pipe drawings in the oldest sketchbooks I can find. And they’re ridiculous. There has always been that pop-cultural draw. That was always there, and it stuck with me. Now, that’s really where a lot of the stuff feeds from. While each specific theme is different, from a drawing, to a painting, to a plush doll, to a videogame, the content and the concepts behind that is similar, these strange characters that have developed stories, sort of weird interactions. That’s where a lot of this stuff comes from. Starting when I was a kid and into college when I really started thinking about it more seriously and I’m developing Shawnimals from some sketches I had in my sketchbook.

Last time we talked (for AMP Magazine, issue 34), you were on the verge of releasing Ninjatown for the Nintendo DS and we played a bit of the unfinished version. How happy were you with the way the game ultimately turned out? Any idea how well it is selling? Are there any plans for a follow up?
I loved it. It reviewed really well. We were very pleased with all of that. I think outside of a couple reviews in the UK, we did quite well in the States.

ninjaboxThe UK doesn’t dig Ninjatown?
There were two specific publications. By and large we were really, really pleased. It’s crazy, because it’s something that came out in late October, and we still get Twitter replies and emails of how they just picked up the game and loved it. They want a sequel. We’ve always done stuff that has gone out to the public, product-wise, but not with that far reach and exposure. So it’s been really interesting to see how things propagate. More and more people are finally getting a hold of it and playing it and enjoying it. We were so close to the project for a year. You kind of forget that. As a video game consumer, you figure, well it comes out and everyone gets it. We’re really pleased with it. I would love to do a sequel, but there is nothing on the table at this point. We’re talking about a lot of different things, but with the economy the way that it is a lot of stuff is just on hold at the moment. I think it’s doing well in the States. For us it’s great. For a bigger publisher, I don’t know how that translates to their sales numbers.

You mentioned the economy. How is that affecting the designer toy industry? Do you do anything different to try to survive through this, or simply carry on as an artist and hope people stay interested?
We’re pretty scalable. There’s always that idea that the smaller you are, within reason, the better you’ll be in this sort of economy. You don’t have the crazy overhead that some of the bigger businesses have. We can just scale back and do things by hand. We can just cut down production and keep developing characters, basically use our creativity to continue what we were doing, but use it such a way to know, “We need to stay afloat from a nuts and bolts financial standpoint.” We can do so by just making stuff, because we know how to do that.

royal-barber-frontfullMost of your major characters to date exist within the country of Ninjatown. You recently launched the Professor Fliggins lineup of characters. What can you say about those characters? Do they exist within the same universe or are they totally independent of Ninjatown?
They exist in the same world. Professor Island is in the Southwest Territory of Shawnimaland. It’s an island nation as the name suggests; it’s Professor Island. At its core, it started as this professor character that I thought was funny and maybe we’d do something with this guy some day. From there, this anthropologist sort of character is born. Over time, it just made more and more sense. We have this rich world, and realized we had so many new people coming to Shawnimaland and realized they only knew about Shawnimals through Ninjatown, and thought that Shawnimals was, in fact, Ninjatown and Ninjatown only. It’s a way for us to continue not only what we’re doing with character development and toys, developing narratives and so on; it’s a way to show new people that we have this whole world outside of Ninjatown. So that’s basically what the anthropologist character Professor Fliggins is doing. He’s traveling around the world, ultimately trying to find his way back home because he’s kind of lost in the Shawnimal world that he didn’t know exists. And vice-versa – they didn’t know Professor Island existed. So it is discovery for him and all these other characters he’s meeting.

And these characters that are coming about, how do you feel they compare or contrast to the Ninjatown characters so many people know?
It is similar in spirit. Again, I think the core character design is similar. I don’t want to say more developed, because Ninjatown is very developed, but the difference exists in the way the products themselves are presented. The stuff that we release is going to have artifacts and other accessories – just a little more detailed and robust of a package. Because that’s really what it’s supposed to be, a limited-edition plush art-toy.

forestninjaEarth Day – You’re releasing the Forest Spirit Wee Ninja. How did this come about? What can you say about the project? What was it like trying to figure out an eco-friendly plush?
It was interesting. It was something we thought about a lot. It’s always this weird thing. Our friends at Noon Solar – which is a company that we partnered with on this – they’re sort of tapped into that world of eco-conscious, eco-friendly materials. They make designer handbags that have solar panels embedded in them or on them to power your cell phone, iPod, you name it. Really, really neat stuff. That’s what they do, and obviously there’s not a direct connection to what we do at Shawnimals, but knowing them and knowing that we’ve thought about this before and talked generally, “Wouldn’t it be cool if we could develop a Shawnimals plush of some kind that would be eco-friendly, made with organic materials or sustainable materials?” There’s always that weird thing, business versus personal – how do you bridge those gaps? Is it the same? Is it a parallel universe or is it separate? For us, we like the exploration of that as well as making this cool toy. That was sort of a no brainer. If we’re going to do this, let’s do our iconic character; that’s the Wee Ninja. Talking to them, they turned us on to all these new materials, whether it is the stuffing that’s completely natural, made from trees with these weird pods. It looks just like stuffing – feels just like stuffing, but it’s completely natural. Organic cotton, hemp fabrics, using hemp cord, naturally dyed felts and fabrics, rather than using the synthetic dyes and sort of harmful materials that usually give fabric color. Then using things like wooden eyes instead of plastic eyes, knowing that wood is a natural material that can biodegrade without any issues, and go back into nature. As we developed these ideas for materials, this character came from that. This is perfect. Not only does he sort of look like a weird ghost because of his eyes, it’s sort of reversed from how ninjas usually are. I really like that. I started thinking about the idea of it being a forest spirit, and it made sense. Yeah, that’s what he is – a forest spirit. He’s got his hemp chord with his felt leaves on it. We’re pretty excited about it.

You mentioned that it has a very specific look to it. From what you’ve learned doing this project, can you use any of it with your other characters, or is it creatively restricting or cost prohibitive?
It is costly. And the cost is definitely a consideration, but I think it is important. It’s not necessarily something we might do for a mass-produced line, but for us to be able to have a limited edition product like this, I think it makes a lot of sense. If it is costing us X number of dollars to actually produce this thing, yeah it’s a little more money on the front end, but we know it is limited edition. It is what it is, and it makes sense.

detail_cadet_forkBut aside from your reasons for doing the eco-friendly product, I assume the Forest Spirit Wee Ninja has a place in the Ninjatown story. Is he the hippie ninja, or what is his role?
Yes. So the Forest Ninja is sort of the hippie ninja, more or less, and then this Forest Spirit is taking the Forest Ninja up a notch. He not only lives in the forest and knows the forest, he kind of is the forest. That’s really where a lot of this is coming from, and playing on the idea of – whereas the Dark Forest Ninja is evil, sort of possessed by the Dark Forest, the Forest Spirit is like the good counterpart to that character.

What’s next for Shawnimaland?
We’re really focusing on the product releases at this point. I would like, at some point, to announce some sort of game sequel, but there’s nothing concrete at this point. We’re going to continue with Professor Fliggins. We are on the third month, so we basically have nine more months of Professor Fliggins releases. Generally speaking, what we’re doing now is the Fliggins release every month. We’re also going to be doing a separate, other release every month. In this case, it’s the Forest Spirit Wee Ninja. In other cases we’re just going to continue to make some other thing. It might be a bigger project; it might be a smaller project. And of course always developing new characters, trying to stay innovative and have fun with it. And the occasional art show. One thing to keep in mind is the next two Fliggins things are going to be of particular interest. That’s all I’ll say.

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