Thursday, July 15, 2021

Rob Hawkins, the Master Miniature Architect

Today I have a special guest interview with Rob Hawkins, the master of miniature architecture! You may recognize his iconic Death scenery, or his detail rich tables for other games like Star Wars Legion and Wild West Exodus, or even from White Dwarf magazines from the early 2000s. Wherever you know his work from, one thing is always true; its astounding!

Tyler: How did you first get into the hobby?

Rob: I've played role-playing games since about 5th or 6th grade, and had a few Dragon Lords miniatures that I painted, but I didn't get into miniature wargaming until well after college when a friend introduced me to Warhammer. Prior to that, I had dabbled with the West End Games Star Wars miniatures game as a way to enhance our Star Wars RPG campaign with larger ground battles. I had collected some of the little Micro Machines Star Wars figure sets, and painted 15mm green army men to look like Stormtroopers. I even cut out a ton of hex tiles from foam-core, and textured them like desert scenery. The campaign unfortunately stalled as everyone drifted apart, so we never got to use it, but I clearly had been bitten by the miniatures bug. So when I was shown the Warhammer 5th Edition starter box in 1997 and all the models that were available for it, I was immediately hooked. On a side note– Somewhere before this, in the mid-90s, I had also played Blood Bowl. I didn't really recognize it as a "miniatures game" and didn't know that it was produced by Games Workshop. It was just this awesome board game with cool figures that reminded me of the old arcade game "Pigskin 621 A.D." After playing Warhammer for a few years, I was reintroduced to Blood Bowl, and thought "oh yeah, this was that cool little football battle game we used to play!" Blood Bowl remains one of my favorite miniatures games.

Tyler: I remember seeing a lot of your armies featured in White Dwarf back in the early 2000s, can you talk a bit about what it was like working for GW at the time?

Rob: Ah, that was the golden age of Games Workshop retail. I started as a Red Shirt in 2000, and worked my way up to manager after about a year. The best part of it was running events in the shop – campaigns, weekend mega battles, painting competitions, and lots of little "launch" events for new products. One of the first that I remember was a knightly tournament to celebrate the release of the 6th Edition Empire Knightly Order regiment box. Players could bring in any cavalry-mounted figure and compete in jousts and other trials. So much fun! The staff members were also responsible for painting the shop's collection of miniatures, so we got to paint a little of everything, for every game that came out. It was a nice way to scratch the itch of wanting to paint some Dwarfs or Tau, for example, without having to collect your own Dwarf or Tau army.

Since I was in New Jersey, the Glen Burnie Maryland headquarters was just a few hours drive away, and I was able to visit HQ for training seminars, gaming events, and the all-important bits run– As staff members, we were allowed to go into the packing room and pull individual parts to purchase by weight at the battle bunker. I still have BAGS of metal that I never got around to building! I eventually transferred to the Customer Service department, where I worked as a Mail Order Troll, and Rulezboy. A lot of the headquarters staff got to contribute content for Troll Magazine (the old black and white mail order catalogue). If I recall, I think the Troll Magazine hobby content was almost exclusively provided by the Mail Order and Direct Sales staff. In those days, Games Workshop published different White Dwarfs for each region, and the US Hobby Team oversaw the US White Dwarf. They also published the General's Compendium for Warhammer 6th Edition, which I got to contribute some content for. I built a small fleet of Skaven ships, and my Vampire Counts army was photographed laying siege to a Dwarf fortress.

I went to work for the US Hobby Team where I got to stretch my scenery legs. I learned so much about resin casting, and different building techniques. We built many of the thematic boards for Games Day mega battles, and mass produced battlefields for the Grand Tournament circuit. There was a sort of "scenery renaissance" that took place during my time at GW– When the Lord of the Rings game launched, the stores were provided with materials and instructed to build "more realistic" looking LoTR demo boards. Prior to that, the GW game board aesthetic used a lot of simplified techniques– Plain sawdust for the ground texture, often painted Goblin Green and drybrushed with Scorpion Green, with stepped hills. The Lord of the Rings terrain was more organic, with rolling hills, static grass, realistic looking rocks, water effects, and tall grass. A lot of these techniques bled over into the Warhammer and 40K terrain, resulting in a much higher, almost "model railroad," quality of scenery. I was fortunate enough to be there as it developed, and was able to apply what I learned to my own boards.

Tyler: What drew you to the Death factions the most?

Rob: I think it was the movies that I watched as a kid– The zombies of George Roero's "Dawn of the Dead," the skeleton hordes in "Army of Darkness." Even back when I was playing Dungeons & Dragons, I had always been fascinated with the undead monster entries; wights, wraiths, ghouls, and such. When it comes to miniature wargaming, I love the idea of rank upon rank of skeleton warriors, shambling across the field, coming back to life almost as fast as they can be killed. Just as there are a variety of ways to die, there are lots of ways to model interestingly-slain zombies and skeleton regiments, and any miniature can be converted into an undead variation of itself. The undead also benefit from simple, dirty paint jobs, and can be knocked out quickly. (There also aren't a load of faces to fuss over!)

Initially, my first Warhammer army was made up of mostly skeletons and a few units of Dark Elves, but when the Undead book split into the Vampire Counts (months before the Tomb Kings would be released) the model range and lore finally provided me with some solid direction. That's when I really began to dial in the narrative for my army and characters.

Tyler: Your Death army has been pretty consistent in theme, style, and painting over the years, can you talk a bit about that?

Rob: Armies benefit from a unified appearance, so I tried to keep my color scheme simple: Black, red, and bone. My first necromancer, Nieman Kimmel was converted from a Necromunda arch zealot, and the model carried a book with a flaming skull on the cover. Since I was also a fan of Marvel's Ghost Rider, I decided to carry the flaming skull motif throughout the army, and used it to differentiate my wights from the skeletons. (I don't think the Age of Sigmar lore differentiates between wights and skeletons anymore, other than to identify "Wight Kings," but the black knights and grave guard were wights, not skeletons.) I gave all the wights in my army skulls wreathed in hellfire, and applied fire wherever I could– banner tops, the wheels of the black coach, my general's hellsteed. I even replaced Nagash's spirits with flame trails. Back in the day, most units didn't come with sculpted banners; you were expected to photocopy printed banners out of the book or draw your own, so my illustration background came in handy. I drew, inked, and colored all my banners with Prismacolor markers. Now I still hand-draw them, but I scan and color them in Photoshop.

I've been collecting this army for more than 20 years now. Because of the wide breadth of model types in the old Vampire Counts, I differentiate my army by three aspects– The "Martial" aspect has all the regimented units: Vampires, wights, and skeletons. These all use the black, red, and bone color scheme I mentioned, with lots of fire throughout. It's really the core of the Legion of the Infernal Skull. The "Feral" aspect has all the ghouls and beasts: bats, wolves, led by led by the ghoul king, Marduk the Wolf. Most of these models are what's become the Flesh Eater Courts. These are painted in more pallid flesh tones, with greys and browns for the wolves and bats. The "Spectral" aspect has all the ethereal units like spirit hosts, banshees, and wraiths, and has since been repurposed as Nighthaunt. These get more blue-green ethereal hue, with black and touches of red to tie it back to the main army colors. And of course, a consistent basing scheme throughout the entire army helps tie everything together.

Tyler: You’re probably most famous for your amazing scenery, how did you get started in making such elaborate pieces of custom scenery?

Rob: When I was just getting started in wargaming, GW was still producing printed cardboard scenery. I think the very first Warhammer terrain I ever built was the bridge and tombs from the Circle of Blood campaign book. I added a cardboard base under the bridge with foam-core embankments on the river and matching river segments. The water was just painted blue, with sand and flock on the sides. I read books like GW's "How to Build Wargame Terrain" for inspiration and built simple things like basswood fences and foam hills. The 40K Cityfight book also had some great urban scenery and ruined buildings, and we built a whole table's worth of Cityfight buildings for the shop. My first really complex build was a ruined building that I made with the old injection foam Cityfight building that GW used to sell. I made a tutorial that was published in Troll Magazine. I still have that building.

As I mentioned above, during my time with the GW Hobby Team, I worked on some Games Day tables and learned a lot of new techniques. On the Hobby Team, we got to come up with our own proposals for the boards we built. We needed to design inspiring boards but still finish them within a reasonable time frame. Because everything we made was intended for mega battles or tournaments, it was really important that the scenery be "playable." It became a force of habit to make sure hills weren't too steep, and that there was plenty of area for models to stand on. After my time with Games Workshop and then Privateer Press, I guess I had earned enough of a reputation and made contacts, so I was able to move on to working in a freelance capacity for other game companies, building demo boards and dioramas for them to take to the trade shows. I must have built close to 40 fully-detailed scenic boards over the years.

In addition to the freelance work, I've also started my own company, Skull Forge Scenics, to produce resin terrain and scenic elements like tombstones, graveyard bits, and other pieces for basing and modeling.

Tyler: Your collection of Death scenery is fantastic and extensive. How do you keep coming up with new ideas for it?

Rob: Thank you! Since the scenery in my "Land of the Dead" collection are all personal projects, they benefit from not having any deadlines or budgetary limitation. As for where the inspiration comes from, Games Workshop made it easy with some really fantastic kits– the Warscryer Citadel, and the Sigmarite Mausoleum, which make up most of the "kitbash" parts that I use. Then it's just a matter of combining them to create some interesting structures and filling in the gaps with foam, styrene card, and the odd Halloween skull, or sculpted component. I'll often play around with the parts, just to see how I might fit them together in unique combinations, even upside-down, which is how the "fanged" balcony came about on my Watchtower. In the case of the Warscryer Citadel, I didn't want the bridge to just extend out to nowhere, so I bought a second Citadel to build the other half of the bridge and the small observatory that it leads to. There's a cemetery in town with three statues in a small fenced-off alcove. Every time I drove past it, I'd think that I wanted to build something similar, and that's how my Statue Garden came about. I try to use every part of the model, so I'll even save off cuts of walls and bits of fence as rubble around a ruin. My only regret is that my personal scenery is limited to stand-alone, modular pieces, and I don't have a fully modeled board to incorporate them all. I'll have to remedy that in the near future.

Tyler: You also do quite a bit of other scenery, including some Marvel scenery for Atomic Mass Games, can you talk a bit about that?

Rob: After Games Workshop, I worked for Privateer Press for about four years, where I built a lot of scenery not just for gaming, but also for use in book photography, and diorama displays. When I left them, I began working on freelance projects for a lot of companies like Cool Mini Or Not, Outlaw Miniatures, and Fantasy Flight Games. I was approached to build some boards for the Marvel Crisis Protocol miniatures game. Every project presents a new challenge, and the scenery for the Marvel game was unique because it might have been the first modern-day scenery that I'd ever built. "Normal" things like subway stations and city streets, where attention to detail became more important because these are things we see every day, and can recognize when they are "wrong."

I ended up doing more research than I typically would, and used reference photos for elements of the subway station– the design of the signs and the escalator, for example. I also modified some O-Scale subway cars and sculpted and cast resin train tracks for the cars to run on. In addition, some scenic elements in Crisis protocol are movable, so I made all of the support columns "breakable" with magnets that would hold them in position and allow them to be knocked off their bases. I made sure that things like the subway cars, trash cans, and vending machines were painted and detailed 360 degrees so they could be knocked over and still look like finished terrain on their undersides.

The X-Mansion was more of a display piece for photography, and I strived to match the comic book reference I was given. A lot of brick-textured styrene card and O-Scale model railroad windows went into that one. When I take on projects like these, I'm given the well information ahead of the release announcement, so I can't show off the scenery on my blog until the company has formally announced the product and used the scenery for their promotional material, sometime six months after I've finished and shipped off the finished piece.

The Brooklyn Bridge required more planning and reference than anything else because it was based on a real-world location. I even took a trip into the city to see the bridge in person, walk across the pedestrian path, and take lots of photos. Building the bridge support cables was maddening! There were horizontal support beams over the roadway that needed to be omitted, along with a layer of diagonal support cables, just to make the piece accessible for miniatures. I also designed the rows of support cables to come off so they wouldn't be in the way for photography.

Tyler: What was your most involved piece of scenery and/or table?

Rob: Some of the boards I made for the Wild West Exodus miniatures game have to take the cake for "most involved." In addition to its water effects, buildings, and crane, the WWX Harbor has a full-size ship moored at the dock. I had received very detailed concept illustrations for the board and faithfully recreated them, while keeping all the components modular. The ship was built from scratch with layers of insulation foam and foam-core to achieve the unique shapes, covered with styrene card and basswood.

The Watcher Hive incorporated some techniques I'd never tried before– I built infinity mirrors to create the illusion of depth on the walls and in the floor, and it has LED lighting running throughout. There's a smaller mountain exterior with a removable top, and a large "portal" with both an intact and damaged version.

Tyler: Which piece of scenery or scenery collection are you most proud of?

Rob: I love my Death scenery, but if I had to choose one collection or genre from all the scenery that I've built over the years, it would be the Wild West Exodus terrain. Every board was a unique setting, challenging me to come up with new ideas and techniques– The town was a mix of old west buildings with sci-fi elements (and fully detailed interiors on some of them); I used source lighting to paint the glow of the neon signs, and sculpted and cast resin components to create some of the tech bits. The industrial complex features a lot of rusted metal and buildings with walkways and gantries running everywhere, and every area accessible via stairs and ladders. The mine has a removable top to reveal a series of tunnels below the forest. And of course, there's the harbor and watcher hive that I discussed above.

Tyler: What pieces of advice would you have for anyone out there looking to start making their own custom scenery like your own?

Rob: If you're just getting started, my advice is to keep things simple. Focus on the basics like hills and walls until you're comfortable with the tools and techniques, and then move on to more ambitious projects. Read plenty of blogs and books about building scenery, and watch video tutorials to get new ideas. Try to replicate what others have done, but never be afraid to experiment. Some of the best tips that I can give:

• Avoid white packing styrofoam; it has its uses when you can find a unique shape but needs to be coated with plenty of wood filler and wood glue or Mod Podge because it's so soft and chips easily. Pink or Blue insulation foam (also called extruded polystyrene) is more durable.

• Use waterproof wood glue when applying your sand or ground coverings. If it's not waterproof, the glue will reactivate when it gets wet during painting, and the sand will start sliding around and make a mess.

• Keep your color palette limited when painting an entire board of scenery. If there are too many colors on the board, it will appear too busy, and will detract from the miniatures that are in the environment.

• Check out the toy aisle at the dollar store to find unique components. Things like water guns, and even plastic flutes can be cut up to make sci-fi terrain and chimneys. I'm always finding cool bits and trinkets to incorporate into terrain projects. Likewise, visit the Halloween store to find skulls and objects for Death-themed terrain.

Tyler: How often do you get to play games with your armies and scenery?

Rob: I never get to play on the big scenic boards that I produce. Those get packed up and shipped out almost as soon as they are finished, I barely have enough time to take photographs. Plus, since I'm often bound by an NDA, I can't show them to anyone anyway. (I don't even let my wife take pictures to show her family! Ha!) Before Covid, I would get out to the game store at least once a week to play a game, though, usually with my undead army.

Tyler: Lastly, a little off topic, what are you most hoping to see out of GW in the future when it comes to the Death range of models?

Rob: I would love to see more wolf-themed Vyrkos units– Something like doom wolf mounted blood-born cavalry, or a proper Vyrkos blood-born regiment or monstrous "werewolf" infantry. I think the terrorgheist model is perfect as-is, but the zombie dragon version of the kit feels lacking. I'd really like a new zombie dragon with four legs and wings, less bat-like, and more dragon-like. Aa return of skeleton archers, or maybe even a living unit of conscripted militia thralls would be cool too!

A big thank you to Rob for taking the time to do this interview and share his awesome work and experience. I would love to play on tables this insanely nice looking! Which of these is your favorite?

I definitely recommend that you go check out his own website and look through all of the awesome tables and scenery, as well as the logs showing how he built all of them!

Until next time,

Tyler M

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