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Interview Simon Arizpe

05/21/2019
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Simon Arizpe, who started his career as a Paper Engineer in the studio of Robert Sabuda and Matthew Reinhart, recently won the Meggendorfer Prize for engineering Hamid Rahmanian’s Zahhak: The Legend of the Serpent King. Simon, who also illustrates, worked on famous pop-up titles like the Star Wars pop-up book and the DC Superheroes pop-up book. He started a successful Kickstarter campaign in 2016 for his pop-up object/paper toy “THE WilD” and also engineered one of the most wanted and collectible pop-up books of all times, Mister Babadook.

We had the opportunity to ask Simon a couple of questions about his work, his career as a Paper Engineer and also about how Zahhak was created. Read all about it in this exclusive interview! Below this interview, we will list some video reviews of Simon’s work!

The interview

BPUB – First of all, congratulations being last years Meggendorfer prize winner with the Zahhak pop-up book. You must be really proud?

SA – Thank you. Yes, Getting the Meggendorfer Prize is a huge honor! My collaborator Hamid Rahmanian and I worked on Zahhak for over 3 years so getting this recognition is really exciting for us. The award is voted on by paper engineers, collectors, and people in the publishing industry, so receiving this award from my peers and colleagues makes it that much more meaningful. For me personally, it is a really good reminder to keep taking bigger risks in my paper engineering moving forward.

BPUB – How did the idea of making a pop-up book about Zahhak start and how did you get involved in this project?

SA – Zahhak is part of a larger project that Hamid has been working on and developing for several years. Zahhak is one story in an ancient Persian epic poem called the Shahnameh written by the poet Ferdowsi around 900 CE. Hamid originally created an illustrated book of the Shahnameh that is over 500 pages long, full of beautiful illustrations detailing all the stories of the Shahnameh. Aside from these two books, he has created several shadow theater performances based on the Shahnameh, an audiobook, as well as other incarnations of the story.

When we decided to work together on this project we met up and talked about which story from the Shahnameh we thought would translate best into a pop-up book. There are a lot of beautiful stories in the book but we decided on Zahhak because we felt it was a really exciting story with very powerful, action-packed visuals.

BPUB – Can you tell us about the process of combining the artwork by Hamid Rahmanian and your paper engineering for Zahhak?

SA – Every time I collaborate on a pop-up book project is very different. Working with Hamid we wanted to stay true to the art he had already created while making sure the paper engineering was able to bring a new aspect to the project. I think our two art styles go well together because they are both so detail focused.

Hamid has created this amazing image library of shapes, creatures, and figures that we were able to draw from when creating the pop-up book. If something from his original art didn’t fit in 3D we were able to draw from this well of images and create new art that would match our needs. Every dragon, person, or tree you could ever wish for is at your disposal if you needed a new element. It was a really cool way to work.

“I am always looking to nature for inspiration. Seeing how nature creates physical structures to achieve specific goals”

Simon Arizpe

BPUB – This book contains a lot of detailed and complex pop-ups and paper animation. Can you tell us more about some of the techniques used in this pop-up book?

SA – I strived to make the paper engineering of the book as complex as Hamid’s original artwork. With his original illustrations there are many layers and repeating shapes weaving in and out of the frame. I tried to capture that same movement, and feeling of weightlessness in the pop-ups. Like you are never sure where you are looking.

For each of the spreads we really looked at what aspects of the page needed to be animated to tell the story, and also be the most eye-catching. For example, in the castle spread on page 8, we really wanted to make it as big and imposing as possible, whereas in the dream spread on page 5, our goal was to make the whole page have movement and feel surreal and dreamlike.

We also wanted to create mechanisms and side flaps that were very unusual. In the last spread the hero sits alone on a pillow off to the left of the page. As you open the side flap the page transforms around him and the same figure is suddenly in a scene of celebration. These smaller surprises add to the overall tone of the book.

BPUB – We were impressed by the size of Zahhak which is a huge book with nine very detailed spreads. How long did it take you to make such a big and complex pop-up book?

SA – The book is super heavy too! The whole project took over 3 years. Some of the pages were very straightforward and I had a clear vision of what I wanted to make pop-up as soon as I saw Hamid’s artwork. Other pages were much more murky to figure out at first and took several rounds of revisions. Some times having to start over altogether a few times. We really wanted to make sure to do the story and the artwork justice.

BPUB – Which pop-up in Zahhak was the most fun and challenging to work on?

SA – For me, the most challenging pop-up to create was probably spread 5, “The Dream”. It shows the evil king Zahhak being visited by the vision of the young hero Fereydun, who will one day overthrow him. This spread was really challenging for me because there are a lot of separate moving parts to it. All of which are being asked to do a lot of very specific movements. The young Fereydun turns a full 180º in the middle of the page as it is opening. This movement is based on 5 or 6 V-folds on top of one another, that make the start pop-up and end point of the rider switch directions. Figuring out that mechanism kept me up for about a week. Also in that spread the king’s eye is meant to open just as the viewer has finished opening the page. It is meant to appear as though he is waking up from the dream. Motions like these are really hard because you are asking the paper to show a very specific moment, which has a binomial: yes or no. It’s not like making a pop-up of a mountain or something, where if it doesn’t work right it is still a mountain. If the eye doesn’t open at just the right moment then the scene won’t work correctly.

Narratively this is also the part in the story where the point of view shifts from that of the evil king Zahhak to the view and inner life of the hero Fereydun. In that sense it was very important for me to have both figures appear on this page in equal size and complexity.

Zahhak: The Legend of the Serpent King, created by Iranian award-winning artist and filmmaker Hamid Rahmanian and Meggendorfer Prize winner Simon Arizpe

BPUB – As a paper engineer, where do you find inspiration for your designs and techniques?

SA – I am always looking to nature for inspiration. Seeing how nature creates physical structures to achieve specific goals. I live across the street from the Brooklyn Botanic Garden and I go there a lot when I need to think. I also look at the work of the illustrator Charlie Harper any time I am feeling uninspired. His work is really good at distilling down complex shapes right to the line of abstraction, while still retaining a recognizable narrative quality. He is basically my patron saint of design.

When I start designing a pop-up spread I try to get inspiration for the engineering from the concept of the story itself. If it is a wild storm, then the pop-up should be wild and chaotic. If it is a quieter scene than the pop-up should feel sparse and intimate. Hopefully you can understand the tone of the story just by looking at the pop-up without reading the text. Double points if the pop-up can speak to you with just white paper before there is even art on it.

BPUB – How did your love for creating pop-ups start and how did you develop yourself as a professional Paper Engineer?

SA – I was always drawing and making things as a little kid, and I really don’t think I had any other option than to keep making art when I grew up. I moved to New York when I was 18 to study illustration at the Pratt Insitute. For my senior project I tried to make a pop-up book, (it was really bad, like really). My classmate Jess Tice-Gilbert, who is herself a great paper engineer and art director, told me she was an intern at a pop-up book studio and I think I basically begged her to get me an interview there. I started as an intern working for Robert Sabuda and Matthew Reinhart right out of college. Eventually, they hired me on full time and I learned every aspect of the field from them, as well as Kyle Olmon, Shelby Arnold, and Jess, who also worked at the studio. Matthew and Robert are always supportive of their employees developing their own careers.

I started working on my own projects during nights and weekends. Getting the Babadook pop-up book project was a really big deal for me and helped me get my name out into the world. About 5 years ago I was able to branch out and start my own pop-up book studio. I try to take on projects that are interesting to me, either conceptually or in how I can design the pop-ups. These days I work out of a nice little studio space in Brooklyn that I share with a few other artists. It’s a really great spot with a big window right next to my desk.

BPUB – You teach about paper engineering at The Pratt Institute and Parsons School of Design in New York City. Can you tell us more about your classes and teaching methods?

SA – This is my 2nd year teaching the pop-up book class at Pratt and it is a really fun course to teach. Each week I have the students start off the class by learning a new mechanism of paper engineering, and the mechanisms get more complex as we go through the semester. By the end the students have made their own pop-up textbooks that they have been adding to each week. The larger assignments throughout the semester allow the students to apply what they are learning and explore new ways of creating pop-ups for themselves. It is really exciting to see their skills and confidence evolve over such a short amount of time.

The course I teach at Parsons is called “Seminar in 3D illustration”. While it does have a section in it about pop-up books, I also have the students design lights, 3D spaces, and even create their own forms of currency. I introduce the students to new concepts and artists each week that I think exemplify the overarching themes of the section we are working in. Sometimes it starts up really interesting discussions on art, design, and social responsibility. I try to lead the discussions in a productive way while letting the students come to their own conclusions.

BPUB – This summer you will be a teacher for a two-week course in paper engineering in Sienna, Italy. What can we expect when we join in?

SA – It is going to be a really exciting program, all skill levels are welcome! The course is a two-week intensive where students will learn the fundamentals of paper engineering all the way through to combining them into advanced techniques, and use them to create their own pop-up books. It is basically the class I teach at Pratt distilled down into its most concentrated form! The class size is small enough that I can really work with each student one-on-one to get them to the level they are trying to achieve. Registration ends May 22nd, and there are discounts and scholarships available. We still need to get the minimum number of students signed up for the class or it will be canceled. Which would be a real shame. Check out this website for more info on the class.

THE WilD Pop-Up Object by Simon Arizpe

BPUB – Why do you think it’s important to share your knowledge about creating pop-ups with upcoming Paper Engineers?

SA – I think it is really important to demystify how pop-up books work to the next generation of paper engineers. When you show someone a pop-up book they either freak out and back away slowly, or look at it intensely and try to figure out how it works. I love when that happens. I think if someone is trying to understand the mechanisms behind a pop-up book, it is important to give them all the information I have already learned if I can.

In a certain way it is totally selfish too. Teaching helps me see things in a fresh perspective. Having to explain concepts and mechanisms I take for granted, really reminds me how powerful some of them can be.

BPUB – Do you have any plans for a new pop-up book soon? Or maybe any other plans or projects for 2019 that you would like to share with us?

SA – I have a few projects in the works right now that I am really excited about. The biggest one coming up is a pop-up book of house plants in collaboration with the photographer Daniel Gordon and the Aperture Photo Foundation. His work is really surreal so I think we are going to be making a really wild pop-up book, in a good way! I have another project in the works that is still in the development stage. It is a work of original content that I am writing, engineering, and illustrating solo, something I have not done all together in a while. I am excited to show it to you in a few months when it is finished.

BPUB – Thank you, Simon, for this interview! We can’t wait to see your next pop-up book!

SA – Thank you!

If you would like to know more about the work of Simon Arizpe, make sure to check out his website simonarizpe.com and to follow Simon on Instagram. On our website, you’ll also find more about Simon’s work like reviews, video’s and photo galleries.

Order at Amazon: Zahhak: The Legend of the Serpent King

Concept, art & design by Hamid Rahmanian
Paper Engineering by Simon Arizpe
Text by Ahmad Sadri & Melissa Hibbard
Published by Fantagraphics Books

Video reviews

Zahhak: The Legend of the Serpent King
Mister Babadook Pop-Up Book
The Hearthstone Pop-Up Book
THE WiLD Pop-Up Object


Pop-up books engineered by Simon Arizpe

Watch our video reviews, discover books on our ranking lists, find the best pop-up books for kids and much more! We will also keep you updated on new pop-up book releases.

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