Hero Solutions’ Ira Amyx and Jay Neander knew just what to do when advertising agency FCB Chicago asked them to fuse a stuffed animal with a firearm.
“We made a metallic-silver looking teddy bear with a pistol coming out of his face,” says Neander. “The bear was 3d printed and then re-coated and finished.”
“The gun was a .357,” adds Amyx. “We cast a real one and made a fake one.”
The resulting hybrid became the centerpiece of Teddy Gun, a commercial for the Illinois Council Against Handgun Violence. It is an essential part of a campaign that won FCB several awards, including a recent Gold Lion at the prestigious Cannes International Festival of Creativity.
The name “Teddy Gun” refers to a comment that former Senator Dan Kotowski made while campaigning for tougher gun laws — “Teddy bears are more regulated than handguns.”
Building the prop was pretty much business as usual for the Chicago-based fabrication shop.
Within the past year, an enormous baby stroller, a giant hand, an eight-foot-tall maraca, a real life Rube Goldberg machine and a fully functioning miniature retro kitchen have rolled out of the former west side bookbindery that Hero calls home.
“If it’s something that doesn’t exist and you can’t buy or rent it, that’s generally when we get the call,” says Neander. “We’re pretty resourceful, if you asked us to build a spaceship, we could probably have you something by tomorrow morning.”
Besides TV commercials, the props appear in films, videos, theater projects and experiential events.
Amyx and Neander met on the set of R Kelly’s Rock Star, a music video wrapped in a short film featuring Kid Rock and Ludacris that was shot in a suburban Chicago dive bar. They were kindred spirits from the get-go.
“When you meet another builder, you know,” explains Neander. “Ira didn’t use the same screw hole to readjust something on the set. I was like, ‘okay, cool, this guy’s a maker.’”
Amyx “grew up making houses and building cabinets and stuff like that” in Idaho, where his family owns a cabinet shop. After receiving an MFA in acting from Indiana University, he spent six years performing in New York City.
During that time, he expanded his repertoire to include set design and construction. His familiarity with both sides of the camera was especially useful on the Teddy Gun job.
“They cast me in the commercial as a fabricator,” he says. “It just kinda worked out.”
Neander is a native Chicagoan who dreamed of becoming “a mad scientist or a bank robber” when he was a kid. After graduating from Southern Illinois University with a degree in Radio & Television Communications, he returned to the Windy City and got a job as a PA on the set of ER.
“People give PAs more responsibility as they succeed,” he says. “In this business, it’s basically the same thing: we keep succeeding, and people keep bringing us projects.”
At work, the pair observes a finely tuned pattern of trial and error. It involves a varying combination of electricity, metal, fire, chemicals, wood, rubber, foam, latex, wire, glue, power tools, PVC tubing and homemade industrial equipment assembled from cannibalized parts of other industrial equipment.
When necessary, they call on the community of artists within the 25,000-square-foot building that Hero also leases.
“There are a lot of other film guys, a lot of other clever builders and fabricators and welders and sculptors,” says Amyx. “I can get started on a project without even going to the store.”
This resources come in handy when jobs arrive at the last minute, which is often.
“It’s generally a voicemail or a call in the middle of the night — ‘I need an eight-foot-tall maraca,’” says Neander. “If we’re lucky, we meet the client and get a napkin sketch, then we start building.”
The timing creates a tricky balancing act between planning and execution.
“The fool will simply say ‘I know how to do that,’” explains Amyx. “Other designers will sit there and think about it and draw it for three days. This industry just doesn’t afford that. We make the right choices and get a lot of mileage out of common sense.”
Fortunately, the Teddy Gun request came in long before production began.
After procuring the .357 through a collaborator who holds a valid Firearm Owners Identification (FOID) card, they made a cast and destroyed the original.
“Now, it’s listed as a non-operational firearm and a collector’s item,” says Amyx.
Over the next eight months, the Teddy Gun took shape.
The final product is composed of “plastic, rubber, metal and a splash of love,” according to Amyx. It was coated with silver auto paint in a spray room that the partners transported from Joliet and rebuilt, piece-by-piece, in Chicago. Its shiny, seamless perfection suggests something from the future.
When describing any of their props, Amyx and Neander mention a kind of magic that can only be conjured by the unfinished materials.
“You’re just helping the prop create itself,” explains Neander. “You can’t will it into being perfect.”
“Every project’s like a living organism,” says Amyx. “It’s just like acting.”
The Teddy Gun is currently in storage, but most of their other creations dwell in the imagination from where they came.
“At the end of the job there’s this cleansing,” explains Neander. “All this stuff is so important for forty-five minutes, then it’s the biggest piece of wasted space you’ve ever had. It’s soothing to cut it into little pieces and put it in a bag. You hack it apart, recycle it, throw it away, clear your head and do the next job.”