You never know what’s being done in the apartment next door.” So says New Paltz apartment-dweller Joe Laudati, whose home is a mini-museum for comic-book and monster-movie geeks. He comes off as a low-key, soft-spoken guy; but in the ComicCon world, he’s something of a legend.
Laudati has spent most of his life making stop-motion animated films and sculpting creatures and characters that become action figures, theme-park props, model kits and collectibles, but he’s reluctant to own the title of “artist.” “I’ve always believed ‘artist’ is a title that’s applied to you, like ‘genius’ or ‘rock star.’ You don’t claim it for yourself. At best, I consider myself a craftsman with above-average skills as a sculptor. Not particularly great skills, mind you, but good enough to keep me working in this field for over two decades. I’m constantly comparing my work to superior artists, and striving to improve,” he writes in his 2014 autobiography, Pushing Clay: 24 Years of Garage Kit Sculpture.
But in his field — which is rapidly being replaced by CGI and 3-D printing technologies — Joe Laudati is regarded as one of the last and most accomplished true hands-on artisans. Born in Brooklyn, his family relocated to White Lake in Sullivan County when he was a preschooler; he recalls the Woodstock Festival, which happened practically next door, merely as distracting noise while he was watching a Godzilla marathon. He grew up fascinated by dinosaurs: first the life-sized models at the Sinclair exhibit at the 1964/65 World’s Fair, and later the skeletons at the American Museum of Natural History. “From then on, I wanted to be a paleontologist,” he writes.
He also watched a lot of monster movies, and found a lifelong role model in mid-20th-century creature animator Ray Harryhausen. As boys, Joe and his two elder brothers, Tony and Mike, began experimenting with stop-motion animated home-movie projects, and that pursuit eventually morphed into Joe’s major at SUNY Purchase. Even now, precise small-scale replicas of characters from Harryhausen movies — Jason and the Argonauts, The Three Worlds of Gulliver, One Million Years BC, The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad, The Valley of Gwangi — adorn his bookshelves, along with a tribute bust of the groundbreaking “Dynamation” animator that he was commissioned to make.
Laudati’s senior film school project was a 30-minute feature about a teenage animator whose painstaking devotion to his craft inadvertently conjures up a demon in real life. “I drew a parallel between stop-motion animation and idol worship,” he explains. His novelization of the screenplay was published in 2006 as In Darkness It Dwells by Medallion Press. More recently, he has reacquired the rights and self-published the novel under its original title, Ten Thousand Demons. Research for the script led him to an interest in theosophy and the occult; and nowadays, if you’re a patron of the Awareness Shop here in New Paltz, you’ve doubtless seen the figurines of Celtic Pagan deities — Cerridwen, Cernunnos, Rhiannon — that he sculpts for the shop’s exclusive distribution.
After college, Laudati spent a brief period doing stage makeup, including for Judd Hirsch and Cleavon Little in the Off-Broadway run of I’m Not Rappaport. And he spent some years doing animation for children’s television, including Nickelodeon, Sesame Street and Pee-Wee’s Playhouse. But it was an introduction to Mike Fosella, proprietor of the pioneering Westchester-based model-kit manufacturer Resin from the Grave, that led him onto the path that would become his primary life’s work: creating the maquettes used to mold assemble-it-yourself plastic-resin “garage kits” for monster and superhero fans. He started off with a rendering of a scene from a Ray Harryhausen epic, Mighty Joe Young, and his “modeling career” quickly took off. “My dream pursued me,” he quips.
In the cultish world of kit-builders, the 50ish Laudati is now seen as one of the “old masters.” At ComicCons, where contests are held for who can produce the most spectacular finished model from one of his kits, he gives talks and demonstrations and sculpting classes. Many of his discontinued figures now command high prices as collectibles on eBay. In 2001, his incredibly detailed model of a Nazgûl on horseback with fabric cloak — based on design sketches from Peter Jackson’s then-not-yet-released The Fellowship of the Ring — won the Best Toy of the Year award from Toy Fair magazine.
Most of the sculpture that Laudati does in his home studio today — typically using Sculpey clay overlaid on an aluminum wire armature — is on commission from a company called Monogram International, creating characters licensed by Marvel and DC Comics. “We’ve got Wonder Woman in the works,” he says. Sexy female warriors of the sword-and-sorcery ilk have long been an area of specialization for Laudati, along with 1940s-style “pinup girls.”
A variant of these scantily clad heroines — somewhat toned-down for the middle-grade book market — is the star of his latest publication: a dragonfly-winged pixy named Faella. He says that she has been fluttering around his head since his college days — initially as a screenplay concept for an animated film that never quite got made, due to producers backing out of the project. Now, decades later, using CreateSpace, he has self-published Pixylations: A Fairy’s Tale in novel form with his own illustrations. A mischievous sprite who refuses to play by the rules of her kind, Faella is assigned by the Fairy King to redeem herself by helping out Katie, a young human girl who lacks self-confidence. The lighthearted adventure story, set in rural Ireland, also features gnomes, goblins, shapeshifters, a villainous Pooka and just a bit of G-rated romance.
Both Pixylations ($13.99) and Ten Thousand Demons ($19.99) are available to purchase online from Google Books; Pushing Clay is currently out-of-print, but occasionally available secondhand on Amazon. His first book-signing event for Pixylations will likely happen at the Awareness Shop, but no date has yet been set; other local bookshops will doubtless follow suit, so keep an eye out for announcements. Meanwhile, Joe Laudati will keep on scraping away at the clay, pursuing perfection in a highly specialized artform beloved by the geeky set. His advice to parents of youngsters with a creative itch? “Whatever your kids are doing in their basement,” he says, “let them do it.”