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Robert Sabuda
Paper Engineer/Illustrator/Author
New York City, New York
Written By: Paul Maniaci
Posted: 08/27/2006

Pop-up books have always fascinated me maybe even more so because I’ve never quite understood exactly how they work. Fortunately Robert Sabuda, a master paper engineer at the top of his profession, was more than happy to explain the history of the craft and how he designs his intricate books. The Career Cookbook interview details how Robert has been able to find joy, amazing success, and challenges in his work while helping share the secrets of pop-ups. Check out some of his diverse titles including Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, America the Beautiful, and Encyclopedia Prehistorica Dinosaurs. They are a great illustration for us dreamers of where imagination can lead us.

CCB: On the back of your America the Beautiful book it describes you as a paper engineer. Is that how you identify yourself?

RS: Many paper engineers just do the 3D work in a pop-up book. I do the illustration work and sometimes I do the writing. Paper engineer is fine but sometimes I’ll say I’m a bookmaker but that doesn’t cover it either. (Laughs) Author /Illustrator/ Paper Engineer how about that.

CCB: I was curious what you say if you meet someone and they ask you what you do.

RS: Often times I’ll say I make children’s books. Then the conversation will go further into detail. That covers things in a general way.

CCB: Did you ever truly think your love for pop-ups as a kid would sustain itself into adulthood and become your career?

RS: I made pop-up books as a young boy. I did not know as a young adult whether this would be something that I would do but I’m not surprised that this is what I’ve become. (Laughs) When you are young I feel some things you hold onto staying with you even if they are a little dormant or hidden. But, I’ve always loved books and art. So the field doesn’t surprise me, but I am surprised by the success pop-up books have found today. That’s been very nice. 

CCB: That began with The Adventures of Super Pickle?

RS: Oh, yes. Oh, my gosh.

CCB: What was it about that book?

RS: It was the first pop-up book that I saw. I had never seen a book that had an element on the inside that was 3D. Not so much that it was 3D but that it folded shut once you closed the book back down. I had never experienced that before. Also you have to remember that this was in the ‘70’s and the way that books were for children in the ‘70s is very different from they way books are for children today. There is a much greater variety. Parents spend a lot more time picking out specific books for their child or with their child. When I was a kid it was go get what you want because my parents didn’t really know the exact type of stuff that I was reading. Parents today are much more savvy about their children’s interests.

CCB: How have pop-ups changed since the 1970’s?

RS: Well, pop-up books I think today have become, and this is certainly partly my fault, much more elaborate and therefore much more expensive. Another huge difference from when I was a boy in the ‘70’s was the books tended to be specifically for an eight to ten year old reader. Often times they were funny, the art work was bright, sort of comic like. Not all but many of the titles were that way. Today pop-up books really cover from 3 to 103. I’ll go to a book signing and someone who is very young will find it as exciting as someone who is very old. So I think the subject matter also crosses a wider path of readers. There are certainly many more non-fiction titles than there were in the ‘70s, books about animals or insects or space.

CCB: What do you think accounts for the change in the audience?

RS: I think more people who are older perhaps remember those books when they were younger. Also I think it’s a slight backlash against the technology that has invaded our lives on so many levels. I think that one of the reasons for the failure of the e-book (electronic book) is that the book is the last bastion of private time, of a human holding something in their hands in a private world. We are willing to take all this technology into our lives, videos, DVDs, PDAs, cell phones but the relationship between a human and a book is kind of sacred. I think parents today are recognizing that and putting forth an effort to have that as an important part of their children’s lives. That effort makes the experience more than just academic. If they have a book that is interactive or exciting in a nontraditional way that will be acceptable to a parent who is going to buy an expensive book for their child. There is some art element to it, there is some educational element to it, but it’s definitely a book moment not an electronic moment.

CCB: You mentioned the history of pop-ups. It goes back two hundred years?

RS: But, that’s not even half of it. I could talk for hours about that. (Laughs) Just to give you a brief synopsis, pop-up books are traditionally called movable books. Before there were pop-ups there were books that were called movable books. Movable books have a history that goes back to the early 1200’s. They were the first books that had movable paper elements in them. They were called vovelles. Vovelles were paper disks that you would turn around, sort of on the back end of a chart in a book, and you could do astrological calculations or you could use it to tell someone’s future, supposedly. Early movable books were for adults. They were expensive and they were teaching tools. That’s the origin of where we get books that do moving or three dimensional things.

CCB: How about the more modern version of that?

RS: The more modern version of that came in the late 1700’s. So you cross over but still there were movable books during that time. During Leonardo’s age, after the printing press was developed there would be medical books. They were called fugitives because these sheets would fall out. It would be a fugitive and you would never find it again. But there were medical fugitives and they would have flaps that would show what a human body looked like because it was illegal to dissect bodies. These had engravings on them and you could lift them up and see what they looked like under the skin. Then you would lift that up and see what it looked like under the muscle. Again they were teaching tools to learn about the human body. Then moving forward to the late 1700’s was the real golden age for children’s books in general. That’s when parents started to think about getting books to be read to their children or by their children. Just flap books, very simple. You’d lift the flap up and it would transform. You lift the flap down and it would transform. It would have a very simple story for a child.

Pop-up books, the way we know them today, where you open them and something springs up and you can look at it at 360 degrees, that’s from around 1927. There were still some interim books in between, some simple books in the mid 1800’s like stage scenes that would stand up when you lifted up a ribbon. But the pop-up as we know it today is from the late 1920’s.     

CCB: What did you learn at Pratt about children’s books?

RS: Amazingly sometimes the stars just align in life, which is a good thing. My second year at Pratt I had a teacher in this technical graphic design class. It was a class where we would learn the technical aspects of making certain types of books or magazines or binding. We were learning the hardcore stuff. One of the assignments was to make a pop-up and design all the diagrams of how it would be put together and how all the die cuts would be made. In my second year I made a pop-up in this class. I still have it I’m happy to say. I went completely overboard because I was fascinated with it. I made this one pop-up and I did not explore pop-ups for the rest of my time at Pratt because I was really moving towards illustration. But there was that mid-point and that happened my second year at Pratt. That was like ’84 and ten years later my first pop-up came out, Christmas Alphabet.   

CCB: You knew while interning at Dial Books (JR year in college at Pratt) you were going to be an illustrator for children’s books?

RS: I walked in and I knew this is what I wanted to do, there wasn’t even any question. I didn’t even waver. The fact that you could use pictures to tell stories. As a child I knew that, but not as an adult. The variety of illustration work I saw at Dial was phenomenal. I realized you didn’t have to illustrate like everyone else to get a book published or be successful. That really gave me some hope in the field.

CCB: How did that morph into pop-ups?

RS: One of the things with Dial was that they had so many different types of illustrators and books there. At that time I was a print maker. I was doing illustration work and print making when I did my first children’s books. Then as I became more well known I was able to go on a limb with some techniques. I was still working in two dimensions, but I was working in paper a lot. I was doing paper collage and paper mosaics in my picture books. I thought this is great working with all these different techniques with paper why not try something 3D. From my Pratt days I’m very big on exploration. I taught myself how to make a few pop-ups. I thought I love this. This is so great. I decided to make Christmas Alphabet. Why I chose a pop-up book that has 26 pop-ups I have no idea. But that’s where it was and started everything for me.

CCB: How did you break into the industry initially?

RS: This is a Cinderella story. Oh God, I can’t believe you asked this because it would never happen now. When I took the internship with Dial it was my junior year. So I decided for my senior year at Pratt to really focus all of my illustration work into the children’s field. I was able to take my portfolio when I graduated to an editor, she had been at Dial and she had moved to Putnam. I showed her my portfolio and she said, “Oh, we have this manuscript would you be interested in illustrating it?” (Laughing) Maybe that happens today, but I doubt it because children’s publishing has become much more corporate. But at that time they gave me my first manuscript, it was Henry Thoreau’s Walden. It was my first big color book and that led to another book and another book. I slowly began to build up a career and got the opportunity to try many different techniques, which brought me to where I am at today.  

CCB: It was kind of good fortune on your part.

RS: There is something to be said for being at the right place at the right time. Sometimes that is true.

CCB: Is there a typical day on the job or do you have routines that you follow while working?

RS: I do. I’m up at 5:20 everyday in the morning. I go to the gym. (Laughs) I then go to the studio. I work here with my partner, Matthew Reinhart. He does the same thing I do. We have three full-time designers that work for us here. We have a few interns as well. We always have interns because we are trying to interest young people in the work we do and keep the generations going for pop-up work. I spend the whole day either working on the project or I find I am spending more time now doing things like this, doing interviews or promoting works or sitting in little meeting we have. Not only do we do books but we do pop-up cards and ornaments for The Museum of Modern Art and Matthew has all his projects. We are juggling all these balls at one time. We are very, very busy. Then at six o’clock I am out of here. I do not work on Saturday or Sunday. I could I’m sure and I did at one point in my life but I don’t do that anymore.

CCB: As far as the interviews and press that you are doing now does that depend on what stage the books are in or if you are working on something new?

RS: I’m always working on something new. I’ve spent the last week with Japanese public television shooting a documentary on what we do. They’ve been coming to the studio and recreating what we do, following us around for awhile now. Those things are to educate the public about the world of pop-up books too as well as promote our stuff specifically.  

CCB: You taught yourself about pop-ups by researching other titles. What was the actual learning process?

RS: As a child I don’t recall. I had some pop-up books. As an adult I got some more. I took them apart and hopefully I was able to put them back together. I think not enough time and attention is spent on just observing to get a result for some thing. We have become a nation of just give it to me, like an i-pod nation. I want what I want and I want it now. You can’t always find success doing that. You have to sometimes slow down and examine what you want or are trying to do in order to come to a successful result and that’s what I did. There was tremendous frustration and lots of mistakes and that continues to this day. When I’m designing something if it doesn’t work it doesn’t work. I’m going to have to try something else. There is still a great deal of trial and error in the type of work that I create.

CCB: So, when you were actually taking those books apart you were trying to see how the paper came together?

RS: I would pull one tab out and lay it flat and trace around. Sort of recreate the pop-up myself. See how that works. Say it was a box in a book. It’s a box, how do I make it into a house? I’d say a roof can go on here and a chimney can go on here. It’s just a matter of evolution. From something you begin to understand in 3D and then develop it into something new. 

CCB: Can you talk about your interest in sharing your trade with others?

RS: The world of paper engineers, we are the people who make paper sculptures. In the ‘70’s there was sort of an old boys club, all men and it was kind of a secretive thing. They all knew each other and went out drinking all the time. I met one of the guys from the old boys club years ago after Christmas Alphabet came out. He told me this, I’ll never forget it. He said, “Don’t ever tell people the secrets of what we do.”  I remember thinking that was a horrible thing. A) I didn’t even know this guy. B) I didn’t owe him anything. C) I thought that was really presumptuous to say that to me. I specifically remember him saying that to me and thinking you’re crazy, you’re totally wrong. In my view that’s not how the world should work. We are the only place in New York that does this. (Makes pop-ups) There are probably 36 paper engineers on the planet at the most. I mean on the whole planet. We are certainly the youngest people doing it. For me it’s really important to make sure we are not the last. I feel like what we are doing is continuing this whole tradition of movable books that has been around for centuries and therefore feel obligated to continue that. I feel obligated to show it to younger people who will then go out and make their own great books and they’ll show it to somebody too. I’m constantly encouraging and trying to find people who are interested in pop-ups.  

CCB: I noticed you show how to make pop-ups on your web site, robertsabuda.com, and have other resources on the subject as well such as videos.

RS: A lot of the stuff on the web site is for educators because we don’t have as much time to travel now. People all over the world can go to the web site and learn about pop-ups if they want, learn about what it means to be a paper engineer. See projects that are being developed right now. We get emails at the site from places like Scotland where they ask, how did you do that? Without that site that question would not come to me. That person would never be able to get any kind of response. Go to the site and get some of the books on his bibliography and teach myself the way he did. Maybe that’s being very idealistic but that’s my hope.

CCB: What is your process when making a book? I read it starts with text, sketching in 3D similar to storyboarding, from card stock.

RS: That is correct. We don’t really sketch in 2D in the beginning because there is no way that we could make those pop-ups that we are sketching, so we just avoid 2D sketches. Often times we do brainstorm for example is this pop-up going to be of a ship? If it’s a ship is the ship going to move? We do verbalize the thing that would be nice and then go directly to the paper and scissors and begin trying to make those constructions act in those ways. After we get the book roughly developed, the ship doing all those different kinds of things we continue to refine the paper prototypes. I mean we haven’t done any artwork yet, it’s all in white. We get the details on the sails and if there is water is there water. We spend a lot of months developing the actual pop-up mechanisms themselves. Once we have all the mechanisms working properly along with the publisher’s approval of the direction we are going in, we will create the actual artwork. The four color art that will go on each side of each piece of each pop-up. Sometimes that’s over three hundred pieces. In the meantime what are called die lines are being made. They are technical drawings that look like a cookie cutter for each actual pop-up piece. The manufacturer will use this to make actual cookie cutters, strong steel cutters that will be embedded in a block of wood that will be used to print out all the pop-up pieces once they are printed onto a sheet. This work is done overseas in Thailand or China. Everything is printed overseas. Its die cut so all the pieces come out and then everything is folded and glued by hand into the book.

CCB: Do you make one dummy copy of that book and go from there?

RS: Yes, we make one master prototype and that prototype will go directly to the manufacturers. They’ll have the digital photos of the die lines, have all the artwork, they’ll have the prototype and know exactly what the book should look like. Of course there is a lot of back and forth and conversations throughout the year, before the assembly begins for the final book.

CCB: Let’s say you are making a boat. You draw your 3D version of it and then start working with the paper and try to shape it?

RS: Yes, that’s correct. Attach it, open it. It’s not so much that the pop-up pops up it has to pop shut. If you close it then is the boat sticking out the top, then you have to move it. It’s always making sure A) It looks like a boat. B) That it will fold back into the page.

CCB: How do you choose what projects you work on and are there different goals that you set?

RS: There is no set way how that happens. For the most part we initiate the projects that we want to do here and then discuss it with the publisher. Some are just ideas that have been percolating for a long time. I’m probably going to start working on Peter Pan soon and that has been percolating for about ten years. My mom is a dance teacher and when I was a boy I played John in a recital and my sister’s name is Wendy from Peter Pan. I knew eventually that was going to come around I just didn’t know when. Then a book like Cookie Count I loved cookies and I wanted to do a younger book that librarians could use at story time.

A lot of people think you go out and talk about your ideas with kids and we don’t. I’m like a big kid already so for me I want to do books that I like, that are cool. I know that sounds selfish but that’s going to be the most exciting because I’m interested in it. We get a lot of ideas from outside where people are like you should do a pop-up on motorcycles. Well, motorcycles don’t interest me so I’m not going to do a book on motorcycles. In terms of a goal the goal is always to make the best book we can. It should be beautiful to look at. It should be graceful in its movement. If it has an educational value to it like Dinosaurs does, all the better.  

CCB: How does the text play into the design of the books?

RS: Pop-up books tend to be a little bit shorter and have less space for text. It’s sort of a back and forth, how much room do we have here, how much room do we have there, and it’s just part of the general planning of how the pop-up will proceed.

CCB: How do they mass produce your books? You create one dummy version and then there is some type of assembly line?

RS: We give them the one copy. We give them the digital die lines. Then they print out all the artwork on big sheets of paper. The sheets of paper are then cut with the cookie cutters, all the pieces are cut out by machine. Then it rolls into a hand assembly room. There are big long tables and one side of one table is responsible for one pop-up. The first person will take a piece and glue it and add something and hand it to the next side. Then they will go to the next person and the next person and it will go all the way to the end of the table and it will be part of a finished pop-up for the book. Then all the pop-ups are combined into the pages and all the pages are glued together and the books are all bound together. Then you have a finished pop-up. That takes months, six to eight months at least for that hand assembly. Of course they are doing reprints of our other titles at the same time. It’s a big production. Someone from our studio physically goes to the plant to oversee this process, if they have any problems or questions they can discuss it with one of the paper engineers who is there.

CCB: Are there any similarities between origami and what you do with pop-ups?

RS: There are similarities but when origami is completed it’s in its final 3D form. We are creating stuff that starts 2D, becomes 3D, and then it has to go back to 2D. It has to do that hundreds of times, over and over. When you are finished with the origami it is a beautiful, precious thing that is now complete.  

CCB: How do you know that the pop-up is going to last? Is it the strength of the material or paper that you use?

RS: That’s a good question. We try and use strong paper. We try to have them designed so that they are constructed well. We try not to design them delicately if we can. There is certainly going to be an amount of loving that goes on with the book. People will come to a book signing and have a book that is a little loved. More often than not people say we’re surprised how well this has held up. They’ll have a first edition of Wizard of Oz from 2000, that book is now six years old. They’ll bring it in and it’s in pretty good shape. Some librarians are adding pop-up books to their collection because they can circulate them knowing that they are going to be loved but if they get circulated 100 times they can justify getting another one.

CCB: Have any advice for people interested in becoming paper engineers??

RS: I would say if you are interested in becoming a paper engineer to just start building, start making. Go to my web site, robertsabuda.com, there are a whole bunch of pop-ups that you can print out. Learn the basics. There is a bibliography. I think partly because it’s such a small field no matter how you slice and dice it you are going to have to do a little bit of self teaching. But that’s good because when you are young that is when you should really be exploring.

CCB: Are there other resources to learn about pop-ups besides your web site?

RS: Some people ask me that who are outside of NYC. I always say they should see if they have a local book arts center. Many large cities will have a center for book arts. Those places will often offer courses or a weekend seminar in pop-ups.

CCB: Are there any other places that you know of apart from what you are doing hiring interns, where people can get real life experience?

RS: I’m a firm believer that if you have a fire in your belly and you want to do something you’ll find the place, you’ll make it happen, someone will see you. In children’s books pop-ups are such a small field. If someone lived in Scotland and really wanted to make a go of it and did amazing work we would find out and we would lead them in a direction. We just would.     

CCB: What was the purpose behind America the Beautiful?

RS: I had known for a long time that I wanted to do a book with white architecture in it. We had been asked to do some very large pop-ups, white pop-ups of architectural scenes, for a very famous woman personality who had a show on TV. Then she got in trouble and went away to prison for a little while and now she’s not in prison anymore. We made these big, huge pop-ups for the show and it was great. We thought this is so good we need to find a book project to put these pop-ups in. That’s where America the Beautiful came from.

CCB: Are you still working on roughly two pop-ups and one picture book a year?

RS: Not working on the one picture book anymore because I’m working on the cards, the ornaments. For 2006 we have like four or five (pop-ups) coming out. I’d say we’ve got about four books coming out a year now.

CCB: How does that occur if a typical pop-up takes eight months to two years to create?

RS: That’s why we have the other designers now. (Laughs) Projects are in completely different stages here at the studio year round. Something is just starting; we are getting a finished copy of something, and all the stuff in between. By having the designers here we don’t have to spend the part of the eight months doing the technical work of the book, we can hand it off to them and they’ll do it.    

CCB: What is the most difficult part of your job?

RS: Finding the proper amount of time to give to every detail of what this business involves. It used to be just making the books but now its’ much, much more. Many of those are just as important like talking to you is just as important as working on a book. Really scheduling out my time efficiently enough to be able to get everything done, which is why I get up at 5:20 in the morning. (Laughs)  

CCB: What has been the most rewarding thing about the job so far?

RS: It’s that I’ve never had to grow up and feel like I have an adult job. I don’t have to sit in a corporate office and wear a tie. I know for some people that’s what they want and they love that, and I get that. I’m so glad I don’t have to do that. In the summer we are all wearing t-shirts, shorts, and flip flops. Then it doesn’t make me feel like my life has changed so profoundly and now I have to be this serious grown up person because I don’t ever want to be that. 

CCB: People would be surprised to learn what about your job?

RS: People would be surprised to learn not so much about my job, but about me, that I don’t know how to drive a car. I don’t have a license. People are shocked. (Laughs) They would be surprised to learn how difficult it is. We get interns in here who after one semester they are out. They can’t stay. It’s too intense. So much of the work we do here is problem solving from scratch because each book is different. For some people the problem solving is so challenging that they are not capable of continuing with it.

CCB: You really have to love what you do.

RS: This is definitely a love what you do job or you aren’t going to make it. There is no kind of half way here at this studio.

CCB: What has surprised you the most?

RS: I’m surprised that I’ve become so successful in this field. I had never anticipated it and to this day I’m still shocked that people want to call up and talk about books. Absolutely amazed.

CCB: Is there a big discrepancy between what you imagine and what you can then actually create? Are there any limitations?

RS: One of the differences in working in the world of pop-ups since you are working in the world of 3D and the world of 4D with an element of time is a page opens up in a certain amount of time and in that time span of half a second or a second things can get caught, things can get stuck, all these things can happen in time. There are certain things the paper will not do. This is not 2D illustration. 2D illustration you can make anything. Not in 3D. It has to obey the laws of physics to a degree. There are times when we want something to look a certain way or do a certain thing and we can’t do exactly that, we have to come up with a little paper engineering magic to make it appear like it’s doing that. We are sort of magicians hiding all the surprise and the wow with all these mechanics behind the scenes that you don’t see.

CCB: Have you been able to use computers with what you do?

RS: 50% or more is done using the computer. The designing of the actual pop-ups is done by hand, the old fashion way. Once the prototype is created and approved we do use the computer to create the digital die lines. We’ll scan in the flat version of the pop-up into the computer and then one of the designers will draw the die lines. Scan in the original artwork so that they can print that onto the die lines. So we can print that on the color printer and build that in the studio. Now we can build a color version of the book here in the studio whereas six years ago we couldn’t do that. We were guessing what it was going to look like in color. The computer only as a tool has helped us to do that. The computer is only equally as important as one sharp pencil in this studio. That’s it and that’s fine. 

CCB: What do you having come up career-wise?

RS: This fall is the tenth anniversary of my book The Twelve Days of Christmas so I have a deluxe edition of that coming out with a big pop-up at the end that has lights on it and this big Christmas tree. It’s awesome. Peter Pan will probably start up soon. More cards for the Museum of Modern Art and more ornaments as well. Encyclopedia Prehistorica Sharks and Sea Monsters comes out April 11th. It’s part of the Dinosaurs trilogy.

CCB: Can you talk about how you are involved with the CCR Fund (Caucasus Children’s Relief Fund for orphans)

RS: I feel obligated to give back and to share. I read an article in the NY Times about an orphanage in the former Republic of Georgia. Of course living in this big bubble that is the US and living in the smaller bubble that is New York City, I didn’t even know orphanages existed anymore. I’ve traveled around the world and I was so shocked to read about this and to see the pictures of where these kids slept. What really struck me was that they didn’t have pillows. For some reason that made me completely crazy to hear that. I got involved with the fund immediately. I’ve actually been over there to the orphanage. I can do good. I don’t live in a big fancy house. I don’t even know how to drive a car so I couldn’t even get an expensive car. I feel like if I had this kind of success there are things I can do with it. I can give money which I do and I can raise awareness and other people can give money through my web site to people who need. Do I need right now? I do not need.

*Find out more about pop-ups, Robert, and how you can help with the Caucasus Children’s Relief Fund here: robertsabuda.com