Pop Art: From Flat to Fat


Skyscrapers rise from the gutter. Characters stand up, move a limb. Eyelids wink, lips open and close. Objects dangle, spin, and fly past each other. Open a modern pop-up book and a seemingly two-dimensional page transforms itself into a rich three-dimensional world. The minds behind the paper engineering—as the discipline is called—must solve several kinds of problems at once. Building an intricate world with moveable parts out of paper is one marvel. Making it entirely collapsible is another.

And, unlike other areas of engineering, where the problem solving is hidden from the end user, the wit behind a pop-up is on display. It's meant to wow.

And "wow" is the reaction that paper engineer Bruce Foster has been eliciting from readers for more than 20 years. The man behind the making of Harry Potter: A Pop-Up; Big Frog Can't Fit In; Architectural Wonders; Wow! The Pop-up Book of Sports; The Pop-Up Book of Celebrity Meltdowns; and a soon-to-pop-out book on national parks, among many others, says his knack for expandable literature harkens back to a class he took in high school. After quickly tiring of his art class ("I did not want to sit there and draw twigs."), he dropped it and took mechanical engineering instead. The problem-solving skills he picked up in the class stayed with him. Though he was an art major in college, he found that his paintings "started growing off the wall."

Bruce Foster designing a spread for Christmas Around the World. Image source: Paperpops.com

Foster didn't actually open a pop-up book until the age of 35. He was working as a freelance designer when Coca-Cola asked him to make a pop-up to go with their 3-D-themed super bowl ad campaign. Finding that the budget wasn't big enough to produce one through the regular pop-up producers at the time, Foster decided to make one himself.

Impressed with the result, a Baltimore pop-up company hired him to make simple pop-ups. "During those seven years, I started getting into it, buying pop-ups and dismantling things to see how it was done," says Foster. "By reverse engineering them I figured out that when you're doing paper engineering your main mathematical discipline is geometry. After a while, you learn what kinds of angles affect motion, and form. You learn how to combine things in different ways." Forget anything over 90 degrees. 45 degrees is where you get the most motion. "If I can have two things move past each other at 30 and 20, they won't touch each other."

Long before an illustrator has his way with a book, Foster has figured out everything that pops and moves, their mechanics, and the layout. "I study the manuscript and sort of break it all down into outline form, and treat it like a play on a stage. I figure out what the acts are, what the important action is, are there things that need to be stationary? What has to come in form the right, come in from the left," says Foster. "The first phase is an exploratory play phase."

In that first phase and every other, everything must be able to collapse when the page is turned. With any structure "the first thing I do is collapse it and see if it works," he says. "I work with foldability at every step. Sometimes the act of collapsing corrects the angle for me."

Once Foster has a complete, albeit blank, pop-up book constructed, he brings in the illustrator. They receive merely the flat pieces that they need to illustrate.

When all the parts and drawings are finalized, the package is sent overseas. That once meant South America but now means mostly China and Thailand. There, the dies are made by hand since laser dies tend to burn the paper. Once cut, the parts are assembled by hand by a team of workers at least 30 large (and sometimes, as was the case with the Harry Potter pop-up, as many as 1,000). Each worker glues only two or three spots. "For Harry Potter we did 150,000 copies. That was a lot of hand assembly."

Take a look at Foster's oeuvre (and those of his competitors) and it will be plain that we're living in a golden age of pop-ups. And behind each fold is a paper engineer, an engineering problem, and a solution—often one that to readers seems impossibly ingenious.

Says Foster: "I like to tell kids it's magic."

Michael Abrams is an independent writer.

By reverse engineering them I figured out that when you’re doing paper engineering your main mathematical discipline is geometry.

Bruce Foster, paper engineer


November 2012

by Michael Abrams, ASME.org