The Intricate Art of Jeff Yagher
Updated: Sep 2
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.
EG: You’ve mentioned in another interview that you think that what is now a multi-billion-dollar industry for collectibles, monster models, and toys was spawned from people like you: model enthusiasts, people with a collector’s hobby. You mention jokingly that early enthusiasts like you were in the closet for a long time. I think you call the enthusiasts (like yourself) "Basement Squids"? "Auroaphites"?
JY: I mean, I’ve been doing this for 30 years, and before that even still as a collector. Hell, I was kind of there at its birth in America. There was a Japanese company that was doing what they called garage kits about the same time I started, but I was the first American to do something in a two-part polyurethane resin. Now there are 50 companies worldwide—multi-million-dollar companies. My brother always teases me that I should have formed one of these companies a long time ago. I’d be sitting pretty at the top of my own universe. At the time, I just said that I wanted to be an actor. That's what I wanted to do. Owning a business wasn’t the kind of life I wanted to lead. Now I’m running my own show. I'm my own boss. I don't have to go to a studio, and I don't have to answer to anybody . . . and all of this started just because when I first came to Hollywood I got a series called V, and I suddenly had time on my hands between scenes on set. I would get so bored, so I started bringing clay to my trailer and making little sculptures. Then I put my first kit out. When that started to take off, suddenly every makeup artist in Hollywood saw my stuff and thought they could do the same thing too in between gigs. So all these makeup people really all started putting these things out or hiring me to do it for them. And it just grew nonstop from there. Suddenly the number of hobby stores increased. There was one in Hollywood, there was one in the Valley. There was the Golden Apple on Melrose. Suddenly they all started opening, and it took off because the collectible world exploded.
EG: And why do you think that happened? Did you ever anticipate that you’d be doing something like that for a living?
JY: I actually was surprised by the amount of interest there was in these pieces, because in the old days, as wonderful as those old kits were, they're not very good. You have to do what's called “pyramiding.” If you took my face and looked at it from a crosscut this way, it all has to pyramid. You can't do nostrils. You can't do earholes. You can't do deep eye sockets or anything like that, or the mold will grab on. So you have to sacrifice the look of something in order to get it to be mold releasable. Well, you don't have to do that with garage kits now because the molds are flexible. So you can peel the molds off. They're not like the metal molds, which is what they make these styrene kits out of.
EG: Ah, so you can be much more exact, more detailed.
JY: Specific—and that started to happen. Suddenly all these guys who are modelers at heart went, oh my God, there's a whole new world out there. And every comic book company started doing them. This was probably about five years after I started doing them. Suddenly some of the guys who were pioneers went out and started big companies. And those companies made a lot of money really fast. Now, I was busy as an actor, so I would work for them, but I didn't get too involved because I didn’t have time. I was making a good living at acting, so I just did it more for boredom.
It goes through waves. There'll be nothing going on, and then five years from now suddenly there'll be another surge. The Lord of the Rings turned everything around. I've got 10 Lord of the Rings pieces. At one point, Sideshow Collectibles was floundering for awhile. The Lord of the Rings came in and started giving them millions of dollars in order to produce these. There's a company out of New Zealand that makes them now, and there's a company in Japan as well. So, something like that happens renews the interest, and then people start having groups and meetings and start forming little clubs.
EG: And the interest in genre in general has exploded too.
JY: With the superhero movies and everything, you can't really make a movie that's not genre now. Seriously, everything has either supernatural or an alien element to it, almost everything. The one thing that's killing us is the computer. Now they scan all the actors. So, I can do a [young] Harrison Ford, because nobody scanned back then. All the new guys in the Marvel movies, they scan those actors and sell the scans to the companies. And so they're very precise.
EG: But, it’s not the same. What you do is more precious.
JY: They also all have the same expressions, because they sell the same scan to everybody. So it has the same facial expression, which is usually kind of neutral. It looks like the character, but I can sculpt them where they have a more light-in-their-eye expression on their face. So I still can edge my way into it, but now there’s ZBrush. It's catching up to me. There's nobody right now who can do portraiture like I can in miniature, but they're getting close. They're coming after me.
EG: There's always been an interest in figurines—the three-dimensional, tactile aspect. Kids love them. You can actually touch these things, look at them. If you go to a museum, you can't do that, but you sort of want to.
JY: You can participate in building them, which makes you feel like an artist. Even somebody without artistic skills, by the time they're finished, they have something pretty decent. Then they feel proud.
EG: Did you ever in a million years—and I swear that I read this somewhere—think that you would become the “godfather“ of monster modeling?
JY: I actually thought I would be an actor for all my life. I didn't think that this would become my number-one thing. I was 23 years old when I started doing this for a living. I didn't advertise myself in this hobby. People just knew me by name. So all the people who didn't follow my acting career thought of me as this little old man who lived in a tree and did these little magical things. Well, finally, after many years now, I've grown into that little old man that they imagined.
EG: You’ve said that you were a collector when you were young. Would you consider yourself one of those people back in the day?
JY: I'm still one of those people! I understand the collector mentality. If you start something that has several parts to it, like a franchise . . . Like if I do the characters from Alien . . . , well, once you put one out, if you put a second one out, then you’ve got to have them all because then it’s complete. You’ve got the whole set.
EG: And then you move to the next one.
JY: One likes to have the whole set, and I know what that's like. I used to do the exact same thing. Like, even if there's a character that's not very popular, by the time a couple of years have gone by and it's out of production, guys are seeking nothing but that unpopular character. They call these pieces “grails.” I used to collect everybody else's work, and then it got to the point where I had a thousand pieces and I thought, so here's what I'm gonna
do . . . because I'm a “completest”: I'm only going to have Jeff Yagher art, so that way I could sell everything off because I'll never collect it all. There are literally hundreds of thousands of pieces out there now, and I'm only responsible for about a thousand of them.
EG: So how would you describe your technique?
JY: Well, I just push clay around until it looks like what I want it to look like. I mean, that's basically what I do.
EG: Did you take art classes, or are you totally self-taught?
JY: I'm pretty much self-taught. I took one art class in high school, but it didn't teach me anything that I didn't already know. My teacher would look at my work and say, "Wow. You should be an artist for real." And I’d say, “Nah, I'm gonna be an actor.” So my real learning ground was my trailer while I was waiting around to shoot a scene on set.
Sculptures by Jeff Yagher
EG: So take me through a typical workday. How do you begin with a new piece, a new idea? Take me through it.
JY: Well, the first thing is to build a sub-structure out of aluminum wire—an armature. So once I have the design down and I know what I'm doing, I build stick figures out of wire, then pose them the way I want them to be posed. I will then cut the head part wire off, or I'll just make the head separately. I'll start with the head. Models are created at different scales, so if it's 1/8 scale, the head's about an inch tall. If it's 1/6 scale, the head is about one and a half. If it's 1/4 scale, it's three and a half, and on and on. So, once the scale has been determined, I take the head and I make my little ball of clay and I use all my photo references, which used to be a lot of pictures taped to my wall; now I just Google an image and create a collage onscreen—the image from as many angles as I can find. Then I start to work on the head.
Once I get that finished, I cook it—because I use Sculpey—to make it solid. Then I put it on top of the armature. Then I will build out of clay for the rest of the body. Sometimes I create the hands separately, sometimes the shoes. When I have the head and the hands, I already know what the pose is going to be, what the facial expression is. So, I just fill in the body in between. Depending on what they are wearing, I may have another substructure—like if the character has a flowing cape. I'll have to have little screws that come off that support the weight of the clay. Sometimes I use an overhanging rod arm piece that holds it up from the top if it gets too heavy. That’s usually for the large pieces. Once it’s finished, I put it in the oven and cook the whole thing.
Then I take photographs and say, "Here it is." Then they pay me. Then I cut it up and key it like a puzzle because you can't just make a mold. It has to be separated down into castable pieces. I make keys—like a square peg into a square hole kind of thing—so the modeler won't have any problem recreating the pose. I have to be very precise about how it all fits together. Then I take the separate pieces and I wrap them up and I'll send them to the producer, and he'll hire a guy who will make molds of all these things. In the garage-kit world, they stuff all the pieces in bags and put them in a box with nice artwork.
EG: And then the collector buys it, paints it . . .
JY: Yes, they’ll use sandpaper to smooth everything out. They're just so good at all of it. They're very patient. These things are precious to them, because they spend an average of $200 on one of my models. They are treasures to them, and they take their time. They'll put them all together with special glues and then they paint them. They've become quite good artists themselves. They take classes, or online classes. For instance, at Wonderfest, they'll take painting classes and mold-making classes. So, they make an effort. They'll have classes on how to make them personalized and make little accent pieces to make their models even more realistic. These guys go all out. I call it an interactive art in that I take it halfway, and they take it home. It’s really cool to see some of their ideas, because everybody's take is different—their styles are different. Some guys do chalk highlights and some of it is just fantastic. Of course, some of it is amateur, but so passionate, and they love it. I get a lot of personal messages where people say, "I was at home in the pandemic, and I had nothing to do, and what kept me sane was having these pieces that you're putting out. So please don't ever stop this." Even though some guys would say, "My wallet's killing me, man."
EG: Who are the big players now? Who are the big companies?
JY: Sideshow Collectibles is still huge. Although mostly what they do now is they act as a conduit for other companies and they market everybody else's stuff. Cinema Kit is still big. There's Prime 1, which was doing some high-end pieces for a while. A lot of these companies will get a half-a-million dollars, and they'll do their first piece and really overdo it, and they'll find out they're not making money. Sometimes there are one-hit wonders, and those pieces become rare really fast. But, every couple of years, there's a brand-new company that comes in saying, "It's us now." And they usually call me and ask me to create new pieces.
There are three things that are important for success—the Three Ps: Portraits, Pose, and Price. If you get those right, you got a hit. If you mess up the portrait, you're dead. It doesn't matter how good the rest of it is. You could have multi-layered components, clear glass, and all kinds of cool stuff, but if the portrait's wrong, people don't want it. In the world of pre-paint statues, you can be just raked over the coals, too. I mean, they literally are merciless.
EG: And do those pieces fail?
JY: If enough chatter gets out there, yeah. They can destroy it before it even gets out.
EG: So, what’s the network? Chat rooms? Facebook? How do people communicate in your world?
JY: Well, there are tons of 'em. The Yagher Army is one example, but there are Facebook pages that have been around for years and have 10,000 followers. There's, like, an Aurora page for people who are old Aurora collectors, and that's something like 10 or 20,000. Monarch has one, Mobius has one. There are garage kit compendiums, magazines, YouTube channels. There are several people who review pieces. But, those come and go, too. There are guys who do reviews for 10 years and then suddenly disappear. A couple years later, they’ll be back. They can’t help it.
EG: Having a passion for something is so important—especially in these crazy days. It’s nice to feel good about something.
JY: I hear story after story after story about people who loved these things as kids and then they got distracted with families and everything else that they have to do. Gotcha. When they start to retire or they become empty-nesters, they want to return to that feeling of magic. Like when you open something for the first time and you look at all the pieces and you start to put it together. There is sort of a Christmas-morning feel about it; opening that present and feeling those feelings—the return to that takes all of your cares away.
EG: A simple joy.
JY: Simple joy. It brings the feeling of youth back. I remember Christmas morning was the most magical time in the world, where you would open that door or go down those stairs and suddenly there would be presents, and how did they get there? That pure, unadulterated, magical joy.
EG: You've done something that a lot of people will never do in their life—you thought you were going to always be an actor. You had this plan, but you also had a passion, this hobby that you really loved. Life changes, and everything moves forward and winds around this true passion that has become your livelihood. You've found something you love to do, and you have such a positive connection with it. It’s an organic journey that has led you here—making a living at something you really enjoy doing, which is everyone's dream. So do you have a life philosophy that brought you to this moment, or was it just luck and roll of the dice?
JY: Actually, I think that if you really love something, there is no choice. I think you will end up gravitating toward that all the time. I tell my kids to pay attention to what they do when they are not in school. What do you do when you're not doing your job, or for money? Whatever you like to do in your spare time is what you should be doing for a living. So if your favorite thing to do is write, like for some reason you get ideas in your head and you want write them down, that's what you need to be doing. You need to be a writer. I mean, when I've sculpted my 900th tiny shoe, it can be daunting, or doing hair when it’s a gorilla that you're sculpting, and there's a billion hairs that you have to sculpt—it can be so tedious that you want to kill yourself, but getting to that final look and having it look right, that's what keeps you going beyond where you think you can go. I work a hundred hours a week, because it just leaps back up into my hand.
EG: Thanks for talking to me and sharing your work, Jeff. The only thing left to do is talk specifically about some of your fantastic pieces!
This is Marlon Brando from The Godfather. I did the head for this one. It is sold as a pre-painted model—really expensive from a company called Cinemaquette. It’s a 1/3 scale model. It’s a high-end collectible that originally went for about $3,000—now it sells for about $6,000.
At one point, everyone had tried to sculpt Christopher Lee, who played Dracula for Hammer all those years. His face is so plasticy. Every little expression changes the entire structure of his face. I cannot find two pictures of this guy that are the same. It's almost impossible. For years, his image had eluded artists, and I finally decided that I was going to sculpt him neutral and then make little alterations and try to come up with something. I finally cracked the code and got one that actually looked like him, which was celebrated and everybody went, okay, that's been solved.
This is from the 1931 movie Dracula, Bela Legosi and Edward van Sloan as Van Helsing. This one is made at 1/8 scale. So those figures are only about 9 or 10 inches tall. The heads are about an inch high.
Loki is about 21 inches tall. That's 1/4 scale. That's painted in China, and the cape is actual cloth. Sideshow likes to do mixed medium. Part hard plastic, part cloth, and sometimes part rubber. If they need a delicate piece that could break, it’s made of plastic. If it could fall, those pieces are made of rubber.
This is the head for the monster in Frankenstein. Sometimes a buyer or company will want something, like from Frankenstein. They ask for my input, and sometimes I will make changes to the idea. Sometimes I will come up with something that is easier to cast. There are a lot of considerations. It’s kind of a collaboration.