Dan Chung // Creating the Album Cover for Travis Scott's RODEO

April 27th, 2021 // Interviewer:: Shane Allen // Behind the Cover

To little kids, dolls and action figures are a huge source of entertainment. You look up to and want to be like those figures your playing with. That's why you have to be held in high regard to acquire the honor of having one made in your image. If you're made into an action figure, you know you did something cool, A prestige not many of the famous have accomplished, you can't just be famous to become an action figure, you have to be iconic.

The cover of Travis Scott's album Rodeo, features his iconic action figure that was developed and made by none other than Dan Chung. Dan has been a figure sculptor for over 20 years and we got to ask him a few questions about the process as well as the story behind the Rodeo cover.. Do you remember your favorite action figure growing up?

What were some of your favorite action figures you played with a kid?

I had a 12” Mego Batman that went everywhere with me when I was about seven years old, the classic MOTU He-Man, plus a handful of 4” Star Wars figures. Ultimately, not really a lot of figures, but boy they were well-loved and played with.

Did you have any homemade action figures? Did you ever make any as a kid?

Not full figures, but I do remember making tons of little heads out of plasticine. Mostly monsters, zombies and disfigured humans, I kept the bar low {Laughs}. My proudest accomplishment wasn’t even the sculpting, but the fact that I discovered you could make a good flesh tone by mixing purple and yellow.

Later, in a high school ceramics class, I made a pretty good Arnold Schwarzenegger/Conan the Destroyer figure that I was pretty proud of, but it got stolen the moment it came out of the kiln.

What was the first action figure you ever made?

So, the first full action figure I made was actually of Jackie Chan. I had moved to Los Angeles after grad school, written a martial arts epic screenplay, got it optioned by Arthur Sarkissian, who had just produced RUSH HOUR and was looking for the next Jackie Chan project. I was trying to steer myself towards directing and thought I could stay involved with the production, maybe impress a few important people if I could storyboard the key action sequences.

I bought a wooden artist’s maquette and began sketching when I realized, if I could swap the head of a poseable action figure for a custom sculpted one, I could just snap pics rather than a sketch to get the movement across. So the first head I ever sculpted in 1:6 scale was of Jackie Chan. I later molded the head and presented a duplicate figure as a gift to another RH producer, who ended up commissioning me to make a Chris Tucker to go with it. Once people saw them, I started getting flooded with commissions. It didn’t help that I posted pictures of the figures on the internet. I’ve been making them ever since.

Someday I’ll get back to filmmaking, but I’m already having fun.

How was the idea of making an action figure of Travis Scott presented to you?

Epic Records/Sony Music contacted me, asking if I could help them promote Travis’ upcoming RODEO album release back in 2015. I was a known figure designer in the community and someone had pointed them to my work. I agreed to meet with them at Travis’s house at the time in the Hollywood Hills.

What sort of direction did they give you?

After the meeting, they gave me a mood board with photos of Travis to make sure whatever I designed fit with his style and image, but regarding the actual figure’s design, they were very hand’s off and let me do my thing. They were really good about listening to my input. Initially, Travis’ idea was born out of his desire to reward fans with something akin to a Cracker Jack toy that they could package with his album, something along the lines of a green army man type trinket or smaller. But, as my specialty was in 1:6 scale design, I pitched the idea of something larger, grander, more detailed, more capable of hopefully blowing minds and becoming iconic.

Less "toy" and more "art".

What was interesting was that his management team and Sony Music had mentioned sometimes having difficulty scheduling photo shoots for publicity materials due to his busy schedule of performing and travel, and so one of the aspects of my pitch that really intrigued them was that I would be creating something they could actually photograph for those materials! Also, Travis, when I met him, struck me as someone more interested in being a musician/performer than a celebrity or model,

So the idea that a figure, a work of art, could double for him in these shoots interested him as well.

And finally, when I told them I could provide cast duplicates of the prototype, essentially production masters, for a run of mass-produced figures that his fans could purchase, they were thrilled, Travis especially. I made it a point to remind them that, not even the biggest names in music necessarily had a released, mass-produced figure of themselves. Just having one available for fans would not only be a status symbol of sorts, but can also function as a hack to elevate him in the world of public perception: here’s someone already big enough to have one. And hopefully, at the time, it would be the best one of a musician, ever. That was my vision of the goal.

What was the process like creating it, did you find it more fun or stressful?

The process of creating a figure is always fun for me, but sometimes yes, it can be stressful. With this figure, one of the primary considerations had become: how can I produce something that can become iconic and also stand in for Travis himself for publicity photography and marketing materials? This informed a great many of the decisions I made about the figure’s design: it would need to be hyper-articulated, and with the right kinds of joints, so that it could perform a wide variety of poses; it would need to be a certain size to accommodate the number of joints and points of articulation required and still be convincingly realistic. It would need to feature more than one head sculpt so that photos of it, with different expressions, could sell the illusion of the figure itself having life; it would need to be clothed in actual, sewn pieces, so that the illusion of a living being could be extended with alternative wardrobes; even the hair -- mini braids -- would need to be made separately and attached for individual poseability, so that they could be styled to give the impression that the figure was moving when photographed.

The figure was the end result of countless specific decisions in which form followed function and inspiration.

What was the hardest part? What's the hardest part of making action figures in general?

In general, the hardest part of making any action figure, in the style that I do them, is capturing not only an accurate likeness, which is critical, but also capturing the right vibe. It’s always possible to create something that is accurate but somehow comes off as either creepy, lame, or just not hype. You want to create realistically to some extent, to garner that double-take when people see the published materials and wonder what exactly they're looking at. But also stylistically and artistically, so that you do not end up in some uncanny valley. But... if you can manage to get the right expression, with the right clothes, the right accessories, pose it into the right poses, and light the image to capture the right mood.

Then maybe, just maybe, you might catch lightning in a bottle.

You had to keep it pretty secret right? Were you able to tell anybody about it?

You know, I was so caught up in designing it, sculpting it, painting it, photographing it, and the time table to deliver it was so short, I really didn’t have to struggle long keeping it secret.

It went straight to New York for photography when I finished it, in a non-descript steel briefcase with courier no less.

Shortly thereafter they popped up presales for the mass-produced version on his website right after. It hit like a storm. Sold out in hours. The secondary market sees them sell today for thousands.

Did you know it was going to be on the cover before you saw it?

I knew that if I could pull it off as a work of art, it could end up there. But I also knew, if it didn’t work, it wouldn’t. Nothing was guaranteed, so it was really great motivation to concentrate and think through all the possibilities to get it right. In the end, Billboard had us in their top 25 album covers of the year, and Complex had us at #2. Shout out to Kevin Amato for the cover photography, and eternal gratitude to Sony Music/Epic Records and Travis Scott for the high-profile opportunity to showcase what I do.

Did you design the clothes for it as well? Or were you creating the clothes based off of a reference?

I designed the look of the clothes as well, re-tailoring some off-the-shelf pieces, and patterning other pieces from scratch. I wanted a complex, multi-layered look to really amp up the “value” of the figure, hopefully elevating it from the familiar single-layer velcro-fastened outfits of most dolls.

Knowing the culture, I knew the choice in footwear was important.

I inquired about whether we could outfit the figure with Yeezys, but there wasn’t enough time to cobble together a cross-promotion, so I defaulted to the shoes he was wearing on the mood board: Old Skool Vans. They ended up genericizing them in the mass-produced figure, which was kind of a shame, since I think synergies were definitely there to be had.

What was the best part about making it?

The best part, for an artist like me I suppose, has been the validation afterward. The knowing that people have really connected with it. I’ve given numerous interviews about creating the figure. It’s been on billboards from Times Square to Los Angeles. Netflix used the figure to promote a documentary about Travis for their billboards. Designers like Virgil Abloh, who’s now Artistic Director at Louis Vuitton, have piggybacked t-shirt designs and other merch off of the figure's imagery and iconography. Fans have made posters, custom collectibles and personal artwork off the photos I took, which included the mini poster Epic included with the album.

The company tasked with making the huge head entrance for his Astroworld concerts approached me for help designing it to match the figure’s head. People have posted themselves dressing up, not as Travis, but as the action figure for Halloween. People have even sent me images of their tattoos of the action figure. So not only has the figure itself become an icon in its own right, but it’s been gratifying to see that Travis himself has used it -- not a photo of himself -- as his personal avatar on both Twitter and Instagram ever since, for six years now. Now that’s the biggest compliment possible, isn’t it?

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