October 2011: Wall Street Journal

Robert Sabuda in the Wall Street Journal

OCTOBER 1, 2011
The Reigning Prince of Pop-Up Books
Robert Sabuda makes paper do strange things. A tornado spins on its axis and tears across the prairie in his pop-up book version of “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.” A hot-air balloon inflates and hovers above the page, suspended by two strings attached to wood sticks. One hundred four tiny playing cards explode out of his pop-up “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland,” flying in an all directions—forward, back, sideways.
Robert Sabuda is a master at making books come to life. From “Beauty and the Beast” to “The Little Mermaid,” the New Yorker’s intricate works of art, include images that don’t just pop–they spin, float, flip and rotate.
  Mr. Sabuda’s pop-ups don’t just pop—they spin, float, flip, rotate. His books are cross-disciplinary works involving feats of engineering, drawing and storytelling (he often writes the text). He’s published 33 pop-up books in the past 15 years, and his methods are defiantly old school. He never designs on the computer and doesn’t even sketch out a book first. He starts by building a three-dimensional prototype on plain white card stock. “I’m just thinking about the 3-D world,” he said. “I don’t want to be distracted by anything else.”

He listens to the pop-ups as well as watching them. A creaking noise means that a piece is getting stuck. Some pieces require a dozen revisions. The hardest part isn’t getting them to pop up but getting them to collapse down again. Mr. Sabuda compares himself to an illusionist.

“A lot of what I do is kind of close to a magic trick,” he says. “You’re trying to hide how something is being done.”

Mr. Sabuda grew up in rural Michigan and comes from three generations of carpenters. His father worked as a bricklayer and woodworker, and his mother was a secretary. At his high-school art teacher’s urging, he went to Pratt Institute in New York City to study art and design. In his sophomore year, a teacher told the class to build a paper pop-up. Most students turned in simple shapes like pop-up triangles. Mr. Sabuda fashioned a boy in a propeller plane flying through some clouds.

The following year, he got an internship with a children’s-book editor at Dial Press. A few years later, in 1994, he published his first pop-up book, “The Christmas Alphabet.” Since then, he’s led innovations in the field, pushing the boundaries of scale, adding little books within books with smaller pop-ups, and creating all-white pop-ups—a rarity in the color-saturated world of children’s books.

Mr. Sabuda occasionally gets odd requests from people in other industries who want him to build things, ranging from Broadway stage sets to a pop-up architectural model for a skyscraper in Dubai to a foldable inhaler for people with asthma. He turns most of these requests down, citing time constraints or unrealistic expectations. Apart from a line of pop-up cards that he designs for the Museum of Modern Art, Mr. Sabuda largely sticks to books.

On a recent afternoon in his Harlem art studio, Mr. Sabuda, 46, sat at his desk in his eerily spare office (he finds art on the walls distracting). It was an unseasonably warm September day, and Mr. Sabuda wore a blue T-shirt, cargo shorts and flip-flops. His desk was littered with pens, scraps of black paper, opaque tracing paper, sheets of blue transfer paper, rulers, pens, glue and scissors. As he carved inch-high buildings for a tiny village out of black paper, he cut with quick, darting flicks of his wrists, almost as if he was sketching rather than cutting.
Mr. Sabuda was working on the final art for “The Little Mermaid,” which Simon & Schuster will publish next fall. Designing the images of coral castles, ships, mermaids and dolphins seems almost as laborious, though not nearly as fraught, as building the pop-ups.

He begins by making sketches. He copies the sketches in red ink onto tracing paper, then lays the tracing paper on blue transfer paper, which he puts on top of black card stock. He retraces the images again, transferring a blue outline onto the black paper. Then he carves them out with a No. 11 X-Acto knife and glues them to a piece of white paper. He scans that into a computer and has his two assistants digitally add color. The tortuous process gives the final images a high-definition, 3-D quality—they look almost like block prints rather than illustrations—an effect that Mr. Sabuda feels he can’t achieve by designing on a computer.

“Sometimes I feel like cutting,” he said. “I don’t want to be in front of a computer all day. My hands get itchy.”

Once he’s finished, a mockup will be sent to Thailand, where up to 1,000 factory workers cut the paper and glue on the images by hand, producing 100,000 to 200,000 copies. The workers have specialized roles on the assembly line, cutting, gluing, folding. There’s no room for error.

“It could be off by 2 millimeters and won’t work, because they’re such architectural marvels,” said Valerie Garfield, Mr. Sabuda’s editor at Simon and Schuster.

For “The Little Mermaid,” Mr. Sabuda took some risks. Several of the pop-ups are not only large but also extremely delicate, with intricate cut-out patterns. Then there’s the story itself. Mr. Sabuda hewed closely to the original, Hans Christian Andersen tale rather than the Disney-fied version; it’s not a happy ending.

When you open the book, an elaborate, multitiered structure with delicate, coral-like cut-out patterns emerges from the page. Mermaids swim all around the coral palace. In addition to the giant pop-up in the center, each page holds a smaller book-within-a-book with more text and pop-ups. One mini-book shows what the mermaid’s sisters saw during their trips to the surface, with pop-ups of jumping dolphins, flying swans, icebergs, children playing and a village. Turn the page, and a giant ship crashes through the waves.

The pop-ups aren’t static; they change and move as the angle of the page changes. One shows the little mermaid breaking through the ocean’s surface. In another, the men on the ship turn, rotating 180 degrees, to watch bursting fireworks. Another shows the mermaid transforming into a human and growing legs.

“Pop-ups are actually four-dimensional works because there’s an element of time,” Mr. Sabuda said.

Flipping through the book, he winced at an image of the mermaid he’s been meaning to fix.

“Wow, that is a lot of strategically placed hair,” he said. “She looks like a yeti. We’ll have to work on that.”

Miller Mobley for The Wall Street Journal
Robert Sabuda in his New York studio, with the coral city from his coming book ‘The Little Mermaid.’

Paper Worlds in Four Dimensions

Miller Mobley for The Wall Street Journal
Sketching a mermaid: Designing the images is also a laborious process.

  • When he’s stuck on a problem, like how to get a hot-air balloon to hover above the page in “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz,” Robert Sabuda tries to tackle it in a linear way, a little bit at a time. For example, he started by figuring out how to make the paper circle go from flat to three dimensions. He decided to use string to pull from the center of the circle, stretching it out. Then he had to figure out what to attach the string to, and he tried wooden sticks. He tinkered with it until it worked.
  • Mr. Sabuda gets some of his best ideas when he’s showering at the gym or when he’s just woken up from a nap. He feels his subconscious mind is working on solutions, and when he’s relaxed, they pop up. He was showering recently when he had the idea for a wedding scene in “The Little Mermaid”—a three-dimensional churchlike structure with pews full of people.
  • To get new ideas, Mr. Sabuda looks to other fields, such as architecture, fine art and industrial design, for inspiration. His latest discovery came from a Museum of Modern Art exhibit about communication between people and objects. The exhibit included a Muslim prayer rug with electroluminescent printing that lights up when the rug is pointed toward Mecca. The project made Mr. Sabuda want to experiment with fiber-optic paper that lights up when moved.
  • Some ideas and techniques still elude him. Mr. Sabuda says he’s been trying for years to come up with a pop-up that shoots straight out of the page, rather than rising up from the bottom or coming down from the top, but he hasn’t been able to figure out how to do it.