Curt Chiarelli - Sculptor
Posted by Sketch at 2/20/2003 7:26 AM PST

Curt Chiarelli, Sculptor

By SketchFactor
Thursday, February 20th, 2003, 3:26 PM

There's something to be said for tangible art - stuff you can pick up and hold in your hand. A well-designed CD is always cooler than a folder full of MP3s because you it's not just data on a hard drive, it's a physical package that looks cool (and if you buy the vinyl, you get a huge 12" version of that art). Likewise, as cool as it is to see the world of Halo in all its bad-ass video-hardware-enhanced glory on a TV screen or PC monitor, it's really cool to have sculptures and action figures you can display at your desk or in your living room.

Longtime readers of this site will no doubt remember our article about the Covenant Elite sculptures. Juan Ramirez, who worked on the Elite and several other custom sculptures for Bungie, suggested we use Curt Chiarelli of Chiarelli Studios for some of the Halo action figures. Thus far he's sculpted two of the Halo figures (Cortana and the Covenant Elite), with more to come. We've included some shots of those figures at various points in their development.

With the first prototypes of the Halo action figures on display at ToyFair this week, we thought it would be nice to learn a bit more about the process of creating pieces like these. Curt graciously consented to an interview about his art in general and the Cortana and Elite figures in particular.

How did you get into sculpting in the first place?

By the time I was 12 I had pretty much solidified my career aspirations. I had decided that I was going to become a commercial illustrator. However, by the age of 15, the filmmaking bug had infected me and I wanted, more than anything, to become a stop-motion animator in the mold of Jim Danforth. My mind is naturally restless, always searching for new challenges; filmmaking, with its multi-disciplinary aspect, really turned me on. Assessing the situation, one of the skills that would be necessary to enter that demanding field was sculpting. So, in preparation for that career choice, I began to teach myself that, amongst many other necessary related skills like cinematography, machine tool technology, moldmaking, drafting, art direction, set design/construction, etc.. As I struggled during the early days of my career, all that early discipline and hard work paid off with regular employment - but in widely different fields and seldom in special effects. With the onslaught of the digital paradigm in the mid '90s, increasingly fewer films using stop-motion animation came to be made. At about this time I began to transition into this phase of my career. Up until 1995, sculpture for me was only the means toward the end of creating a stop-motion model, an animatronic puppet or a make-up prosthesis, never the end unto itself. All that changed very quickly. Although I'm known primarily as a sculptor, my background is far more diverse.

Were there any classes or training you found especially helpful?

Most art schools are a scam when you closely examine what they purport to bestow upon a student and what that student ends up with at the end of his/her education. The core of the problem lies with the fact that most teachers are academics, people schooled in theory. The act of creating art is, by necessity, a very practical matter with sculpture even more demanding in this regard than painting. I've always maintained that the only thing that can be imparted to a student is a mastery of materials and techniques. Occasionally, if the teacher is really outstanding they can inspire the students but, outside of those considerations, this is all that any school can or should promise. Anything other than this is fraudulent misrepresentation. Later on, after the piece is completed, you can project as much rationalized intellectual humbug as you care to onto your art, but, priorities being what they must be, the bottom line is that the actual act of creation must first take place and then the dialogue it establishes with the audience can be allowed to take over.

It could possibly be claimed that the art college I attended was worse because it claimed to have real working professionals as the core of its faculty. This was a deliberate misrepresentation of the facts since many were unsuccessful in the private sector; for them it was just a steady paycheck. Furthermore, many were using the college's resources to further their own career aspirations, often to the detriment of the student body they were hired to instruct. In many cases they were in direct competition with the students for resources and what little technical knowledge they did possess was deliberately withheld out of insecurity and rivalry; a complete conflict of interests if ever there was one.

Later on, when I entered the ranks of the professional workforce while still in college, the same dynamic was not only present but intensified many times over. Because of job insecurity in a highly precarious business, I received little or no training from my employers or, for that matter, any help from fellow employees: it was purely a "sink or swim" proposition. It didn't matter anyway because I came to the workforce completely self-trained with a full range of marketable skills; no artist worth his or her salt can be otherwise.

So, to fully answer your question: no, there were no classes or training that helped me advance my career and none in my knowledge that I could, in good conscience, recommend to the reader.

In general, how do you pick your subjects? Or do you find that projects pick you?

A little bit of both is probably evident. I have a natural affinity for subject matter that can give my imagination free rein, my design sensibilities a good workout and allows for a strong emotional impact upon the viewer. There must be poetry and the breath of life in it and, most importantly, this must be communicated to a viewer or I don't consider the undertaking worthwhile. There also must be a balance between precision and passion for it to hold my interest. All the other details are merely ephemera and, accordingly, I don't like to be pigeonholed or align myself with any genre, cliche, school or any other rigid framework that might limit my growth as an artist.

Do you have a preference for high-tech science-fiction stuff like Halo?

If I had to state a preference, I would probably say that I lean more toward the organic qualities found in the fantasy genre as opposed to the hardware-intensive nature of science fiction.

Are there any particular artists or sculptors who serve as influences or inspirations to you?

My God, yes, but there are so many of them I couldn't do the list justice within the parameters of this format. I will say that the discovery of the works of Ray Harryhausen, Willis O'Brien and the Brothers Hildebrandt in my youth were not merely revelatory but closely approached the level of an epiphany for me. My synapses are still crackling from my first viewings of "The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad", "King Kong" and the 1978 J.R.R. Tolkien Calendar, a malady I hope never to recover from! However, as a visually oriented person I'm always compulsively viewing the work of others which leaves me in a perpetual state of inspiration. How can you not be? There's so much wonderful stuff out there, I'm deeply impressed by the fecundity of creative expression I see being produced in the arts community here and abroad!

Of all the pieces you've done, do you have a favorite?

I'm always asked this question to which I always answer: "The one I'm working on now"! [Editor's Note: As of this writing, that means a 1/24th-scale scientific reconstruction of Acrocanthosaurus atokensis. ] This is not as flippant as it may sound since I throw everything I have into the piece I'm currently working on, without reservation, without exception. For me, each one is a kind of milestone, a journal entry that says, "This is where I am in my development as an artist today." I always joke that I sculpt each of my pieces as though they were the only one to be used to mark my grave!

Thus far you've done two pieces (Cortana and the Elite) that have been turned into Halo action figures. What sort of tools and materials did you use?

This decision is entirely dictated not only by the subject but the media it's being created for. A 6 foot tall animatronic puppet created for a film will not require the same approach that, say, a 6 inch tall static figurine fashioned for the toy/collectible market. To impart the highest polish, the most subject-appropriate quality to whatever I'm creating, I taught myself to be flexible in a variety of different media and technologies. I allocate and apply all my resources to provide the right effect; I use everything from waxes to modern polymer-based modeling compounds, my knowledge of metallurgy and plastics technology, and everything from a simple stylus on up through to vacuum forming machines and a lathe to create the work at hand.

The Elite has both mechanical and organic surfaces. Did this present any problems?

That piece and others of the same nature present tremendous technical challenges to an artist for a number of reasons. Although it's not immediately obvious to the average fan, the first major hurdle to overcome is the fact that the original character design, which was created specifically for application in one medium, is now being reconfigured and adapted to another entirely different one with special demands and limitations of its own. Once this set of issues is resolved, the next set of challenges centers on the interpretation of the various textures, the maintenance of the illusion of distinct materials, both synthetic and organic, and their representation on the sculpture. It's a tricky act balancing these technical aspects while still maintaining a sense of heightened emotional excitement and dynamic movement so all the separate elements flow together seamlessly to produce the desired gestalt . You cannot begin to imagine the amount of planning and elbow grease that went into the creation of that critter.

Juan tells me that female figures are often tricky for sculptors. How did you approach the Cortana figure?

Yes, it seems that very few sculptors (most of whom, incidentally, are male) have any kind of empathy for interpreting female subjects. From what I've observed as a commercial artist for almost 20 years, most guys find it exceedingly easy to make rampaging, scaly monsters or testosterone-saturated barbarians, but ask them to create something with charm, grace and delicacy like a female or child and they gag on it. I believe the trick lies in the subtlety of your approach as well as one's own sensitivity to nuances. Outside of a few obvious external differences, the underlying structural anatomical differences between a male and a female are actually negligible - for a successful interpretation of a female subject it's all about suggestion of the form rather than overt, chiseled delineation.

Having that firmly in place, Cortana definitely presented a unique experience for me because the psychology of the character and the communication of that element to a viewer was very important to me as an artist. I sculpted Cortana with the proportions of a very petite young lady - had she been a real person and not a hologram, she would probably have stood at about 5'0". She's very intelligent with a strong and commanding nature yet she had to be appealing and sexy without any hint of demeaning her character to the level of an object. A tricky balancing act, once again, but an enjoyable one.

Any advice for young sculptors who want to follow in your footsteps?

Yes, arrange to have yourself born into an independently wealthy family! Art, like entering the priesthood, is more a calling than anything as prosaic as a career choice. Getting that first job in the business is relatively easy but keeping your hand in the game for the long haul is what separates the wheat from the chaff and the men from the boys. No matter how you slice it, it's your life and career and you're responsible for every bit of it, so think in terms of what type of effect your actions today will have on your career tomorrow. To put a finer point on it, a lot of young artists, either through insecurity or the arrogance of that first berserk flush of success, feel that screwing others over is a necessity to advance their career when, in fact, it only prematurely terminates it. It wouldn't surprise anyone to know that many consider a career in the arts as a kind of dodge. These dilettantes, after getting a taste of the long hours and brutal economics of the business, get weeded out very quickly. Work hard and just when you think you've reached the limit of your ability to cope, work harder still. Learn the materials of your trade but don't neglect to master the legal and business aspects of it also - many artists forget this and in doing so establish a recurring and unnecessary pattern of economic hardship in their life. Never become complacent; remain open and keep striving to learn and grow as a person and an artist. Always keep in mind that your success depends more on your drive, dedication and persistence than on your talent. Also, in spite of all the odds placed against you, never stop caring about the quality of your work and taking risks. The difference between a hack and a genuine artist is not reliant on some false, arbitrary distinction between "fine" and "commercial" art (I've got a news flash for the critical fraternity here in this country: if you make or even have any vague intention of making any money from it, it automatically becomes a commercial endeavor) but on the amount of love and commitment you bring to the job. Maintain humility before the artform but never debase yourself before your fellow man - take comfort and pride in that, as an artist, you provide something of great value and enduring worth in a culturally bankrupt society like our own.

We'd like to thank Mr. Chiarelli for taking the time to speak with us for this article. You can (and you should!) see more of Curt's work at

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