They say that reality is nothing more than what you make of it, and for one man, that holds especially true. Meet Jake Johnson, the master model builder of Shadow Machine Films, producers of Cartoon Network’s acclaimed stop-motion animated programs Robot Chicken and Moral Oral.
Throughout the programs’ season, Jake and his colleagues in the miniature set shop in Shadow Machine’s art department, create remarkable parallel universes that somehow manage to both recreate reality with total authenticity, yet take the world around us to a new place altogether. It’s a craft that requires a combination of architect and artist, carpenter and dreamer.
“Ever since my parents bought me a model train set at the age of five, I couldn’t resist the urge to build models,” Jake fondly remembers. “It started with a 4’ x 8’ train layout, which is about typical of any kid that gets started. But as I got older, the setup gradually disappeared and the individual models I was building grew increasingly sophisticated. I started to understand the level of detail I wanted, and I started taking pictures of my models and becoming critical.”
For Jake, it was a passion that only grew stronger as time went on. He was soon building complex railroad cars out of wood, striving for perfection of detail, scale and authenticity. “I love building old, weathered railroad cars, the kind that are all beat up and sagging and full of character. You get this nice combination of wood and metal and rust and grime and dirt and just anything to make them look older rather than newer. I tend to like things that are weathered and broken in a little bit.”
After college, where Jake studied filmmaking, his first gig was building full size sets and props. “But my heart was always in models,” says Jake. Soon, he landed a 4-year stint freelancing at Mattel. “They saw my model train stuff and they could tell I was good with my hands. I built miniature sets for catalogues and packaging; Barbie at the beach, or in a shopping center or walking down the street. It gave me a great chance to work with a variety of materials and really hone my craft in a production intensive environment.”
Today, Jake’s models are considered state-of-the-art, praised by critics and admired by his colleagues. Listening to Jake describe the process of stop-motion, it is apparent he loves seeing his work come to life. “I have the unique ability to be able to see something on screen and forget that I’ve made it. I can still watch a movie and disconnect myself from the whole process of it. Sometimes I don’t even see my work. I’m looking at it, but I don’t see it. I like to get caught up in the illusion. If that quirk disappears anytime too soon I’m not going to be too happy about it.”
For Jake, life is a constant search for materials and shapes. “Whether it’s a hardware store or an art store or a dollhouse store, I’m always looking for something that has a shape that can be used to represent something else,” he explains. “Every time I look at some object, I find myself breaking it down into what shapes and geometry I would need to make it.”
With all Jake’s carpentry skills, does he ever fantasize about building full size architecture? “Actually, what I like about building miniatures is that at the end of the day, whatever I’m finished making isn’t very heavy. I like the idea of building something that I can pick up easily and move.”
Jake’s been a member of First Entertainment for little over a year, having joined so that he could receive the best interest rate possible for an auto loan. For a real, full-sized car.
“I wanted a better loan than I’d ever get at a bank, and since I joined, it’s been a great experience.”
Thanks, Jake. We hope we can always create a reality as enjoyable and involving as the ones you build. Only bigger.