I’m a fan of Dan Brownlie and his actress wife Jessica Brownlie. We often end up having some ranting philosophical conversations at the odd event here and there.
I was wowed by Dan’s work at his infamous Tombs Event held at the actual Tombs attraction in London Bridge. He had recreated scenes from his film, but within The Tombs haunt. It was an incredibly scary experience with no warning whatsoever of what to expect.
Being a horror fan and thinking that I had a natural aptitude and thick skin to the delights the genre has to offer, I was proven wrong at Dan’s Tombs experience.
Six months ago, I saw that Dan had been making toys, almost like props for movies, but works of art in their own right. My eyes fell upon this baby Frankenstein monster and I knew I just had to have it. It was so grotesque, yet incredibly adorable at the same time.
After contacting him, he told me that he’d be having an exhibition in the new year and of course, he offered to create a custom-made ‘Franken Foetus,’ just for me.
Now in the present, the launch of Dan’s Toy Box has arrived. A month-long exhibition, based in the rather convenient prime location of Orbital Comics.
From film director to toymaker, along with Dan’s other titles, I had to find out how this all came about. I went directly to the man himself.
“Two New Year’s Eve’s ago my wife and I got drunk and she passed out and for no reason whatsoever I decided I’d make a mask. I had some oil clay and some other special effects stuff. I made a clown face woke my wife up and she screamed. I thought ‘Ooo I’m onto something here,’ so I started making masks.”
“While on set during The Tombs: Rise of Damned film, all the American actors found out I loved American cereals and they bought me loads of cereals. There was this box with Reeses Puffs and I poured some out and a little troll fell out and thought ‘oh my god I remember these, we get free toys!’ Being obsessed with American cereal, these free figures and horror, I felt that I would combine them all. I made characters Cap’ n Belile, 13 Trix, BlobBerry and Frankentart and they’re all obscure 80s horror characters and American cereals combined into one.”
I mention to Dan that I thought that his cereal figurines had originally reminded me of Pop Tarts, from the first time I spotted them in the display case. Dan explains the formula and breaks it down for us:
“Pop Tarts are the weirdest ones because everyone thinks it’s Frankenstein, but it’s actually Frankenhooker which is a Frank Henenlotter film and that’s why it’s Frankentart which is Frankenhooker as a Poptart.”
There seems to be a lot of concepts in Dan’s world and I wonder whether there’s a clear crossover or inspiration in making toy characters that somehow inspire the films he makes.
“My inspiration comes from random things, like making masks came from me being drunk. I started films because a friend said ‘I’m going to start making films,’ and I knew nothing about films and I said ‘Yeh alright.’
“The toys were inspired by a free toy inside of a cereal. The foetuses I make are inspired by freak shows as a kid, I loved haunted houses and freak shows. My love for haunted houses led me to do The Tombs which then gave me the break and artistic need to do the toys.”
There’s currently a resurgence of horror theatre and pop-up haunts where directors are using illusionist magic to create immersive horror experiences within a narrative structure.
The Twilight Zone, Jakob Ahbolm’s recent Lebenstraum, The Exorcist and even Derren Brown’s ride at Thorpe Park takes the concept of theatre, attraction and haunt to its most practical and entertaining limits.
“I think in the UK haunts get a raw deal as they’re not taken seriously whereas in America they take it seriously. I don’t think the world knows quite how good UK haunts are. The London Tombs is voted the top all around attraction in the world. American judges voted a UK Haunt.”
“Back to magic, last year we attended a secret haunt and this woman just levitated and we just stared for a good minute and tried to pick it apart. It’s theatrics, but it’s art. I don’t think it’s considered as art but it is art because it’s a haunt. It brings me back to toy art and how some people think toy art is just toys. Take Transformers, well someone makes those. That’s an amazing talent, you try and fucking make Optimus Prime!”
While there are a number of groups and workshops that offer a platform for small-form toys such as painting and miniature wargaming communities, there aren’t many specific Designer Toy Conventions.
Take for example the Gunpla community. These are aimed at a distinctive group of painters and ‘modders’, where they can take a Gundam model kit and craft something completely unique on the pre-existing design. Then there is also Games Workshop and their sister company Forge World, up until recently they had their Games Day event where they would have an open competition to painters in the community to show off their skills and hope to take home a Golden Daemon trophy or even the greatest of accolades the Slayer Sword (yes this is an actual sword). But this form of miniature art isn’t just dominated by Games Workshop. There are companies like Privateer Press, Studio Mcvey, Scibor and Kingdom Death which has made an impact on the miniature community with their range of beautifully sculpted pinups and grotesque monstrosities.
“In the UK we have Toy Con and Toy Chronicle, we have places that are really good at shining light on the UK toy-art industry but I want to do my part as well and get a bit more known,” says Dan.
There are so many branches to Dan’s tree with his skills and talents covering all different cliques and industries. But Dan appears to be fairly individual and not associated with any one movement or circle.
“I don’t fit in with anything I’m always the nutter who does weird stuff on the side. I make films, but I’m not really within the film clique, I make masks but I’m not in the mask clique, I make toys I’m not in the toy clique, I just get ideas and chuck them out there,” Dan elaborates “But what I’ve found is that when you put stuff out there, you do get some very nice feedback and people who share tips and say ‘use this material,’ and it’s quite a loving little community.”
Looming over the display cases are these hideous yet sweet looking masks which remind me of the Care Bears. The unassuming and the vile combined, Dan’s tells us of how they came about.
“These are the Scare-A-Lot masks. I really like the Care Bears and I loved their heart noses. I had a grumpy bear for years and I loved the fact that he was like an unapologetic moody bastard at a kid’s party. I also love Rob Zombie, and I like getting cute things and really fucked up gross things and combining them.”
After asking Dan which is his most intricate piece of work and hardest to create, he shares his most challenging works of art: The Tombs film.
“You’re working with 30-40 people, execs, producers, even DOPs and as director, you have to get the best of everyone and mould it together. Not only did I have a responsibility to the execs who put a lot of money in, but to The Tombs themselves who’ve been so nice to me over the years. I felt an absolute duty to them to make their venue look as amazing on screen as it is in real life.”
“Solid art-wise, a cross between my Foetus-stein because he’s only four inches and kind of chunky but I love the texture of the skin as there’s all these lovely little creases. For my Pumpkin Ray masks, I did the same thing with the boils. I don’t like smooth skin because if a Pumpkin creature did exist, it wouldn’t have smooth skin, it’d be gnarly.”
“The Tree Inside ones are simple as they’re based on cartoon characters. They’re nice and smooth which in a way was difficult as with creases, you can get away with so much. Japanese potters called it ‘The beautiful mistake,’ if it’s got to be smooth it’s got to be smooth but if you do a nick, you’re like ‘bollocks.’
Dan then shares his thoughts on managing inspiration and how he fits everything in.
“I have downtimes like the run up to this exhibition, I didn’t sculpt for four months. Sometimes your brain goes ‘you know what fuck off,’ and sometimes I’m like ‘I’m doing a film, sculpting, painting!’ It’s just how your brain works and it’s kind of nice when you have a constant and sometimes you get crazy. For example, you have to make ‘this thing,’ but by Wednesday, but why by Wednesday, ‘because it’s Wednesday and it has to be fucking made!’ which is quite cool but you can have a burn out from that.”
“I’ve had a burnout after filming which I call the emotional hangover. You spend so long with the build-up and you spend another three or four weeks just in this contained emotional field. Then you stop and you become emotionless for a little bit or possibly quite cranky.”
“When we shot The Tombs, Jessica and I went for our second anniversary to Las Vegas for Halloween. When we returned and because we were shooting at night, I stayed in American time zone because what’s the point of going back to English time?!”
“When we stopped I was so knackered, my sleep pattern went straight back to normal, but because my brain was used to being active, for two weeks it wouldn’t shut down. I’d be dreaming that I was lying in my bed sleeping but whenever the AD would shout ‘CUT!’ I’d wake up. They’d be other times where I’d be lying on the sofa and shouting ‘Jess Jess what’s the next scene!’ and Jess would be like ‘Dan, you’re at home now,’ and I said ‘Yes I know I’m at home, but what’s the next scene!’ It was like PSTD as my brain was so used to being active. For two weeks, I was having really vivid dreams that the whole crew were in my room filming me sleep and it was really surreal.”
Dan’s Toy Box Exhibition will run at Orbital Comics for a month in the heart of central London. It’s incredible that he’s managed to secure the spot.
“I made a film many years ago called Bear Scary and I was selling it for £2 and I took it around everywhere and everyone told me to fuck off apart from Orbital who said ‘Yeh sure!’ I found out they do art exhibitions every month and I think this is their first toy art one. If an artist/group of artists has a decent body of work and they think it’ll fit, they’ll give them a shot and really support UK artists.”
Dan is keen to continue his toy art, but also develop more awareness about haunts and is making a documentary about haunt culture.
“It’s just not very well known globally. I’m a haunt fan and I didn’t know some of the haunts listed until I began the documentary.”
And check out Orbital Comics
Thanks Dan for what feels like an incredibly intimate insight into your world!