The Intricate Art of Jeff Yagher
Updated: Sep 2, 2022
By Elizabeth Gracen:
Jeff Yagher is truly one of the good guys. I've known him for a very long time, yet his talent and big-hearted perspective on life never cease to inspire me. Our first collaboration was as a selfish, silly romantic couple in a movie called Lower Level in the early 90s, and we've stayed friends ever since. During a brief stint as roommates in the late 90s, I discovered his talent as a sculptor of miniature models. Back then, he was already selling his delicately precise art to model enthusiasts and was starting to earn a well-deserved reputation as the go-to guy for collectors who wanted extraordinary skill, attention to detail, and an uncanny ability to capture the true likenesses of iconic monsters and famous sci-fi, horror, and movie greats. I remember being amazed that Jeff could work on such small pieces of art with such passion, precision, and accuracy.
With close to thirty years in the profession, Yagher is considered "the godfather" of monster model sculptors, his work collected by the likes of George Lucas, Oliver Reed, Peter Jackson, and Guillermo del Toro. A father of twenty year-old twins and married to the incredibly talented Megan Gallagher, Jeff continues to work tirelessly to keep up with the demand for his work and still possesses a true love for the art, for monsters, and for movies.
I reached out to Jeff to ask him about his work, his process and his passions.
Meet Jeff Yagher!
EG: Jeff, I've heard you talk about your early days as a boy at the kitchen table with your dad, working on models from garage kits, model kits. What is the one thing that attracted you to them, viscerally or emotionally? What made you light up?
JY: You know, I've thought about that. And I can't quite put my finger on exactly what it is. I know it's something about having those characters in my room. When I was a kid, there were no videotapes. There were no DVDs. There was nothing. So if you missed the Wizard of Oz the one time it showed that year, you had to wait a year. So seeing those characters, other than the pictures, was really rare. So to have that all the time in my room, to see it anytime I wanted to, that was a big charge for me.
EG: And that activated your imagination.
JY: Yes, exactly. It wasn't only the monsters, I loved anything to do with movies, and pictures were rare. Nowadays you just go to your computer, you have pictures of anything at once. But, it was also sitting there with my dad, too, because he was kind of into it. He was busy and didn't have a whole lot of time for us, so to have him sit down in one area for a long time and put on the rubber bands and all this stuff—that was kind of special. I felt like a scientist or something working with my father. He's collected some of my pieces. He'll paint them himself at home and still does it.
EG: How old were you when you started collecting?
JY: I was five years old . . . and then I discovered girls and, like all modelers, I left the model kits behind. Well, I kind of did, but not really. They were always in the back of my mind. I was a collector of model kits that were plastic pieces when I was five, six, seven. In the sixties, there was a big Universal monsters craze, and a company called Aurora came out with all these model kits. I got all those—even when I was at Yale drama school. I’d get somebody to drive me into town, because I heard there was a hobby store. I’d look around and find a little model kit that I didn't have yet. They were five bucks, ten bucks. The Auroras were made of styrene, and they all came on these sprues on a sheet, and you’d take them off with tweezers. You glue them together with model glue—the kind of glue kids used to sniff in the sixties and get high. I remember getting headaches but never high. You’d use it in a well-ventilated area. It's really hard to come by that original stuff from the sixties because it's so toxic. Nowadays you use super glue.
EG: So how did you make the jump from collecting to actually sculpting your own?
JY: Well, I was a big collector, and I bought a model one time that I thought was really terrible. It was a Dune figure, one of those big-ass sand worms. It looked like somebody glued a dryer hose onto an artichoke. It was terrible. I paid the outrageous price of $11 for this thing, and I thought it sucked. I got so mad that I thought I'm just gonna do one of my own and pretend that I bought it. So I sculpted something out of this oil-based model clay, like the stuff you had in school, and it turned out fairly good. I made a little tiny ship and some dunes and this worm coming out. It was pretty good, but I didn't know how to make it into plastic.
My brother is Kevin Yagher—a special FX makeup artist out here in Hollywood—and he suggested that I use this thing called LW-101, which is what special FX makeup people use to make teeth and fangs for our monsters. It was basically two parts, and you mix them together, 50/50, and stir it up. You pour it into a mold, and it hardens in about two minutes. The color changes from dark to light, and you can pop it out. So, I did that with my sculpture, and it turned out great. And it was great. So then I started to think, well, if I could do this, I can do other stuff. And so I thought, well, one of my favorite characters was this Oliver Reed character from a Hammer film called The Curse of the Werewolf—a film I saw when I was a kid. My father used to let us stay up as late as we wanted for our birthday, so I always chose Saturday night because that's the night when the monster movies were on. And I remember him sleeping on the couch next to me, me watching this movie and it scaring the crap out of me, so I decided to make a sculpture from it.
EG: You couldn’t use something like Sculpey?
JY: I didn’t know about Sculpey at the time, so I had to use that heavier clay you used in school a lot to make stuff. You had to be really careful because it never dries, and you can't harden it. You can put fingerprints in it. I used to sculpt it and then spray it with a clear coat spray paint, and that would harden it up so I could handle it. I sculpted it and left it in my brother's shop. Rick Baker came by the studio and thought it was really cool and told Kevin that he thought I could sell them. So, I mean, it was Rick Baker, so I took his advice. I made a hollow version of it out of LW-101, like the old Auroras used to be. I took it to Kit Kraft, a local hobby shop, and they went crazy for it and said they’d put it in the window . . . and it was gone in an hour.
EG: Is Kit Kraft still around?
JY: No, it didn't survive the pandemic, and the owner, Mike Sitkin, wanted to retire. He’d taken it over for his father, so it had been around since the fifties, and was just the greatest story in the world—it broke my heart when it closed. All these other companies started up that produced the same type of models that Aurora used to produce, and I became the go-to guy to create them. So now, if you go into any hobby store, you will see my work in the boxes next to the model cars and model planes and model ships. You’ll see Jeff Yagher model figures.
EG: Do you have an agent who represents you?
JY: No, I've never needed it. I mean, my dance card's been filled for 20 years. I know most of the guys who own these companies because I’ve been doing it for so long. I’ve known them forever. I’ll do a piece for someone like Sideshow Collectibles and sell it to them for about fourteen to fifteen grand . . . and they’ll make $300,000 or $400,000 on it.
EG: So, you’re basically freelance. You can work for whomever you want. No exclusives.
JY: People have tried, but I don't go for it. I just tell them to approach me and that I’ll fit them into my schedule. I usually have about 10 projects on my board at a time. And every time I turn one in, somebody will either say, "Okay, now that you're done with that one, do this one." Or, people just find out about me, and new companies spring up all the time. Over the years there have been probably about a hundred garage-kit companies that have popped up but soon discovered how tough the business is.
EG: Do you ever just decide to create something on your own from one of your own ideas?
JY: Well, these days I'm so busy doing stuff for everybody else, but once in a while, I'll just put myself on my schedule. I'll have something in my head that I want to do, like the Harrison Ford bust.
I got this idea and wanted to add one arm. Busts don't usually have arms or hands, but I wanted to add a hand or some sort of accent piece to give it flow. So I did one of those, and the second I did it, I pre-sold about a hundred pieces in a week. The minute they hit, the modeling world guys started calling me up wanting the piece—can I take it over when you're done with it? Then I sell the rights to that piece, and then they come back and they want a companion piece for that. Will you do that for us? So then that's off to the races, and they take the thing and off they go. The same sort of thing happened with a piece I did for The Thing—a film from the early eighties with Kurt Russell. They don’t come out very often because I don’t have enough time.