Pop-ups for grown-ups

December 20, 2006|By John Woestendiek | John Woestendiek,sun reporter

Were you to have popped into Bruce Foster's workshop three years ago, you might have found the artist working on Charlie Brown - cutting, folding, taping and gluing pieces of paper to depict, in three dimensions, Chuck's ill-fated attempt to kick the football Lucy holds in place, and the inevitable airborne outcome:

"AAUGH!"

Were you to have wandered in last year, you might have found Foster applying the same techniques he used for the Peanuts "pop-up" book to show British actor Hugh Grant receiving a certain service from a Hollywood lady of the evening in the front seat of his BMW.

Pop-up books have grown up - fast.

And, partly as a result of that, they're as popular as ever. However sluggish the flat-page publishing world might be, movable books, invented nearly 800 years ago and still assembled primarily by human hands, are thriving.

That pesky little Internet? The one that, a la Lucy, has left some parts of the publishing industry feeling like their football has been jerked away? No problem. Pop-up books - "interactive" before the word became a catchphrase - survived that nicely by increasing their quality, expanding their readership base and, most of all, being able to do a little magical something the Internet (where the term "pop-up" has an entirely different meaning) can't.

In the past 10 years, pop-up books have made the most of their three dimensions, reaching new heights of sophistication - both in terms of the engineering behind them and the topics they cover.

After decades of focusing primarily on children's themes and being viewed by most as a children's format, pop-up books have entered an era in which anything goes, even - AAUGH! - sex.

Or as a young couple gasped in unison last week as they opened The Pop-up Book of Sex in the humor aisle of an Anne Arundel County bookstore, only to have two naked bodies rise up off the page and into their faces: "Oh, my God!"

Foster, one of about only a dozen full-time paper engineers in the U.S., passed on the chance to work on that book, but he did tackle his first pop-up book for a mature audience last year. The Pop-Up Book of Celebrity Meltdowns was released this year by Melcher Media.

The book re-creates - in that in-your-face way only pop-ups can - such embarrassing moments as Janet Jackson's wardrobe malfunction at the Super Bowl, Paris Hilton's sex video and Michael Jackson dangling his baby boy off the fourth-floor balcony of a Berlin hotel.

"A pop-up book can be a children's book, but it is certainly not required to be," said Foster, who lives in Houston and was the paper engineer for Little Red Riding Hood, published in 2001, and Peanuts: A Pop-up Celebration, published in 2004.

"I would hope that people would realize that pop-ups are not the exclusive province of children's books but can be enjoyed by all ages, if sometimes separately." In the case of Celebrity Meltdowns, he said, "the work we did has brought more laughter to people than any children's book I've been involved in."

And it has had no negative repercussions on his career. Foster has been signed for several children's book projects since, including one being released next year in conjunction with a Disney movie.

Growing up on a farm in southern Louisiana, Foster missed out on pop-up books during his childhood. He went to the University of Tennessee, attended art school and worked for decades as a graphic designer before seeing his first one in the 1990s - Kees Moerbeek's Hot Pursuit, the story of a continual chase that can be read forward and backward.

Foster, who has always been fascinated by the three-dimensional, was instantly intrigued: "From the first time I saw it, I really wanted to do it. I thought it would be a great way to combine my three-dimensional urges with the skills I already had."

With no formal training as a paper engineer - as those who design pop-ups are called - he taught himself by taking pop-up books apart. "I destroyed a lot of them trying to figure out how they were done," said Foster, who usually describes his occupation by the more modest title of "paper folderoverer."

Foster spent seven years working on pop-up books in his spare time. About a year ago, because of increasing demand for his services, he was able to quit his job as creative director of a packaging firm and work on pop-up books full time.

"In a day when everything is becoming electronic, there's a yearning out there for people to still be able to hold something, to turn a page and have something wonderful and magical happen. A flat page that suddenly becomes something larger and fills the space - it's almost like that should not be happening."

Foster said it has been magical for him, as well.

"The neat thing for me is that, here I am, 53 years old. Most people my age are bored with what they do and just waiting to retire, but my job is getting more interesting. That's the most cool thing in the world."

13th-century art form

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