Rising to the Halloween OccasionSeptember 16, 2015
Do you feel it? The crisp air moving in, deciduous trees leaves beginning to tinge with browns and reds, and the smell of pumpkin, wafting out of nearly every coffee shop. Autumn is upon us, and with it comes some of the best activities of the year.
Perhaps one of the most trademark sign of fall, pumpkins are used in every aspect. For The Rise of the Jack O’Lanterns, pumpkins are the apex in its four shows. There is a lot of love that goes into the over 5,000 hand-carved pumpkins at each show, and Master Carver Tom Olton shares his passion, his nerdiness, and how it all wraps up into one of the greatest fall festivities.
The Rise of the Jack O’Lanterns has four shows across the country. With two locations in Los Angeles, one location in San Diego, and a fourth on Long Island, New York. Each Rise is about 1/3 of a mile long, set to original music, and featuring thousands of hand-carved pumpkins. Each year tickets are sold out, and the organizers encourage tickets to be bought in advanced.
The Rise of the Jack O’Lanterns is the perfect setting for someone like Olton to showcase sculptures of beloved comic book characters, depictions of video games, and other pop culture references that will have every visitor amazed.
Olton shared with The GCE how the Rise of the Jack O’Lanterns interplays with pop culture and what visitors to this years shows can expect.
What interested you in the carving profession?
I always loved Halloween and I always liked making things. When I was a kid I would draw quite a bit, so I grew up being a musician and an artist. I always did Halloween and did jack o’lanterns for the season, and I got a lot of enjoyment out of it.
What does carving allow you that other mediums of art do not?
In regards to jack o’lanterns, carving them gives you a free pass for mistakes. I think that is why so many people do it around Halloween and don’t get so emotionally invested. If someone goes around and does a painting or a sculpture it is going to be around forever. But if you make a pumpkin, if you love it or if you hate it, it’s gone in a few days. And there’s nothing you can do about it. One of the things about dealing with jack o’lanterns is it lets you appreciate it for what it is for as long as it will be around. I think that’s a good metaphor for Halloween, it’s not something you get to see everyday and you have to enjoy it while it lasts.
What is the most rewarding thing about carving pumpkins with a comic book/sci-fi/video games/nerdy and pop culture theme?
I’ll be the first one to admit to admit that I have more comic books at home then I should. I love comic books and video games – especially love comic books. As a kid that was my introduction to art. I learned to read as a small child because I loved the pictures and I wanted to know what was going on in the story. What I love most about doing those particular topics is that it resonates so strongly with children. When I see an exceptionally cool Spider-Man or Super Mario pumpkin, I might be in my 30’s but something about them reminds me of all the time I spent as a child with those characters. So to get the childlike reaction from them.
We try to do as many as possible because there is something for everybody. That’s why we fit so many pumpkins with a focus in pop culture. You never really know what will resound with someone so we cast a wide net; you tend to bring in more people that way. And more people can enjoy the experience.
We have over 5,000 hand-carved jack o’lanterns per show. That’s our number before all of our massive sculptures and art pumpkins. Of those that are pop-culture… there are so many of them. And ones that you don’t think are pop culture end up being related. One of the things we like to do are massive sculptures of dinosaurs. So as we all know dinosaurs did very, very well this year. I believe Jurassic World had the biggest opening ever for a movie. We can capture topics that are timeless and fascinating every year, but for this year dinosaurs are very, very relevant. Things you don’t even think could become pop culture become relevant and naturally fun. You never know what’s going to hit.
I would say a pretty healthy percentage of our show is pop culture reference. The fact of the matter is that a large portion is going to be pop culture because we want to be fresh and current and it’s what a lot of people are enjoying right now.
How do these pop culture pumpkins capture the essence of Halloween?
We try to capture the essence of Halloween in the fact that we are rendering them on jack o’lanterns, so that is an inescapable Halloween aspect of them. You’re going to see popular culture in Halloween all the time. Halloween costumes tend to revolve around pop culture. We don’t feel like it’s a matter of making pop culture fit into Halloween, I think that’s something that America does anyway. We use Halloween, just personally, as a way of expressing our love for a particular pop culture phenomenon occurring at the time. You’re going to see people wearing a lot more superhero costumes this year then you might have seen ten years ago because they are embracing that aspect of popular culture in their understanding of Halloween. Our show is just an extension of that phenomenon that occurs.
What is the pumpkin carving process?
We have a large staff and throughout the course of the year we determine which subjects get placed on the actual pumpkins. We have meetings to talk about what we would like to do, and write down what is popular and what we think will most resonate with the crowd. Then we will start doing illustrations and start planning the images well in advanced. Then once the show actually begins, we have the artists then on-site create the pumpkins. They do the illustrations and ink them. Our pumpkins are heavily illustrated. People ask if we used screen-printing or appliqués on them and people can’t believe it is all done by hand, but they really, really are. There are no machines; it is just a person and a pen, or a brush and a pencil, and they make that happen. That artist will then carve the pumpkin or we will have one of our experienced carvers come in and work with that artist and bring out the highlights and jack o’lantern qualities. And then we display it for people to see.
What inspires you?
What inspires me is seeing how far we can take them. When I was a growing up we all did regular jack o’lanterns, triangle eyes and zigzag mouth- that sort of thing. And then when I became an adult and could choose to do my own jack o’lanterns, I wondered if I could do more. A lot of our artists that come in have never tried doing anything other than the standard jack o’lantern. I think all of us embrace this concept of how far can you put this until it stops working. How complex can you get? How over the top can you make this? So we are constantly driving ourselves and pushing ourselves for finer art. If you look at the photographs of our shows throughout the years I think it shows a steady progression in our skills and abilities to wow people. And I love that aspect of it, for people to look at something our studio produced and unable to believe that they are looking at is what they are looking at.
What is your favorite pumpkin carving?
This year my favorite piece in the show is a very large sculpture of a Chinese dragon. It’s going to be absolutely massive and spectacular. I’m specifically focused on what we call the one-off, the art pumpkins. I prefer to do for my own work some of the more intricate and smaller detail, I love doing portraits and especially comic book characters. But looking at what the other artists accomplish as a team it’s kind of hard to hold one pumpkin up to it. My favorite thing to see in the show is the large sculptures and the big pieces because so many people contributed to it and build something that no one on their own could possibly make.
Is there any pumpkin carving you’d like to do but haven’t done yet?
Oh god! I, myself, I’m more into the sculpting people, they’re very much into the sculpted 3D ones that aren’t necessarily jack o’lanterns but are still pumpkins. That’s something that a lot of us are pushing towards to get that skill down.
Over the last few years it’s become very popular. So many of us are jack o’lantern people where we put light inside of the jack o’lanterns for interplay between light and dark to create that image in the pumpkin. I think sculpting the 3D images in the pumpkin is the next step for all of us. We certainly have some people on our staff that do it currently and do a bang up job of that, and I think that is where it is going.
What are some pumpkins we can expect for 2015’s Rise of the Jack O’Lanterns show?
At this years show you can expect to see some of the more popular video games of the year. I won’t divulge exactly which ones because you’ll have to see them and be surprised. There is a very popular movie coming out the end of the year and we may have pumpkins celebrating that.
Our shows happen all over the country, and I don’t know which venue it is, but there is definitely a large Spider-Man making an appearance at one of our shows, a massive sculpture of the web-slinger himself. The shows will definitely have more dinosaurs, because everyone loves dinosaurs and they are so popular and get such a good response. You’ll see your favorite video game characters, the most popular pop stars that are out there right now, and we will all over the place. You can expect to not know what to expect.
What does a Master Carver do when it is not Halloween?
Plan for next year! We have four shows throughout the country and there is a tremendous amount of planning that goes into making that happen. The pumpkins are only there for a very, very small part of it. There are entire teams of artists, carpenters, designers, producers, electricians, and more that work year round to ensure that when the season peaks we’re able to maximize the short time and show what we really love to do. So there is an army of people who work year round to make sure our guests have a great experience. That’s what we do. Trust me, as soon as I get back on a plane to New York, we’re going to start planning for next year because it takes that much time to produce a quality product.
Is Halloween the best holiday ever?
It is the best holiday ever! I know Christmas gets all the press and that is where companies make their money, but underestimate Halloween. The best thing about Halloween, especially for me, is everybody gets to make something; whether you are making a costume, decorations, or spooky treats for your family, or make jack o’lanterns. I get to make things for a living and I enjoy that aspect of it and it’s nice to watch everyone else come along for the ride even if it is only for a short period of time.
Be sure to pick up tickets to The Rise of the Jack O’Lanterns. The GCE would also love to see your own comic book, video game, and pop culture jack o’lanterns, please share with us on social media!