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Mapping pinball trends for the casual enthusiast…


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PEOPLE: Jeff Miller, the Pinball Pimp

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Jeff Miller appears to be living the pinball enthusiast’s dream. The Tampa-based graphic designer-by-day took a life-long passion for pinball and turned it into his own burgeoning restoration business. The self-proclaimed “Pinball Pimp” began turning tricks in 2005, by restoring his own Bally Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy and hasn’t looked back—situating himself as one of the go-to pinball restoration artists in the south-east United States. Further, Mr. Miller has recently expanded his Pimping business (as it were): he now supplies the pinball community with high end cabinet stencils for hobbyists to complete their own restoration work in the comfort of their own workshops. The Pinball Pimp stencil store currently offers twenty complete sets of stencils across two different pinball manufacturers, with the promise of many more to come. Judging by the reception from the community, these stencils are of the highest quality, the easiest to use and the most complete versions available on the market. I had the opportunity to conduct an interview with Mr. Miller concerning the manufacture of his line of stencils, the restoration business and what the future holds for the Pinball Pimp brand.

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Credit Dot: How long have you been a pinball enthusiast?

00-pimp06Jeff Miller: I have been playing pinball since I was 8 years old, dating back to 1974. I used to play the machines in front of the Danners 5 & 10 Store on Saturday mornings as a kid. I started all this as a hobby back in 2005 when I restored my first pin which was a Bally Captain Fantastic.

CD: What lead to you offering decal sets for other enthusiasts to use in their restoration projects?

JM: I have been designing vector art for over 25 years and stencils for the past 10 years. I knew for a fact that the other pinball stencils available to the public just did not have the quality of artwork and the exacting standards that I designed for my own use. I then decided to start designing my own stencils each time I restored a game and ended up with a nice collection over 10 years. After hearing the constant frustration people were having with the other stencil vendors and all the rave comments I received on my restored machines, I decided to start offering my own stencils to collectors and fellow restorers.

CD: What are some of the deciding factors when selecting a game to make stencils for? Do you take requests?

JM: I usually only put my design time into game titles that are considered more “A” list, or classic, titles people want to restore. It also depends on whether or not CPR or someone else has made a reproduction playfield for the game. I do take request and do custom stencils/work for people as long as they pay me for the design time.

CD: Can you walk us through the process of creating a new stencil set?

JM: The first step is to start with a cabinet which has nice artwork that you can get a good scan from. Taking off the stainless steel side rails and removing the entire coin door and shooter are even better so you can get scans all the way to the edges of the wood. The next step is to scan the actual cabinet, using a flatbed scanner. I scan the cabinet in sections, with some overlap on each scan, so I can weld it all back together in Photoshop as one full-size image. Once in Photoshop I may spend several hours just cleaning up edges of the artwork so I can get it good enough to make separation. The artwork is then converted from raster JPEG image to VECTOR line art which a plotter can cut. Once it’s converted to vector art, the fun begins! This is when I go into my vector program and spend between 8 to 20 hours cleaning up all the artwork based on the full-size JPEG image of the original art… smoothing curves, straightening lines, etc. Once I’m satisfied with the art and have made every tweak, I consider it a master stencil ready for cutting.

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The cleaned up colour separation of Bally Playboy side cabinet art on the left, the final pained product using the Pinball Pimp stencil on the right.

CD: How is a stencil set “cut”?

JM: Stencils are cut on an industry standard, low-tack vinyl paint mask using Roland plotters. The master line art file is sent from a computer to the plotter which then cuts the paint mask with a carbide tipped blade. Artwork is then “weeded” or peeled along with a pre-mask material applied on top so all art stays perfectly intact when applying to the cabinet.

CD: How do the Pinball Pimp stencils differ from those of the competitors?

JM: My stencils are designed from actual scans of the actual cabinet with zero distortion, rather than using photographs which can cause perspective issues, lost detail and sizing to be skewed or wrong. My artwork goes through an entire cleanup process to make the artwork for every single title nearly perfect. I also use a unique registration system which guarantees your 2 color stencils lineup perfectly every time.

CD: Your stencils are all approved under license. What is the approval process like?

JM: You have to have a quality product to begin with, otherwise it will have a tough time getting licensed. I had to go through Planetary Pinball to get my stencils licensed by them. To comply with the conditions of the license, I have to purchase holographic decals and each set has its own unique serial number. The serial number and holographic decal are affixed to a Certificate of Authenticity and sent out with every set of stencils I sell. The serial numbers are also recorded and archived.

CD: For those who have never used a stencil kit before, how difficult is the re-stenciling process? Any helpful hints?

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Detail of the side cabinet art of a Bally 6 Million Dollar Man, restored using a Pinball Pimp stencil set.

JM: The stenciling process is actually not that hard at all. I tried to make it as user-friendly as possible for anyone to use. It’s basically just like applying a large decal. With the instructions and the squeegee provided it should be a fairly simple task. It’s sort of like using lettering stencils and spray paint.

[Ed. Note: Each set contains multiple stencil sheets, representing the different colours used on the side cabinet, coin door area and the head. The backside of each stencil holds a mild adhesive, making the stencil sheets good for one-time use only. If for some reason, an enthusiast encounters a problem when using the stencils due to their own “user error”, Mr. Miller is able to cut a partial stencil set and sell only the necessary pieces of the kit rather than forcing the stencilor re-purchase the entire set. This just another perk of buying from the Pinball Pimp, and should bring comfort to novice pinball restorers and old hands alike. Everyone encounters an “oops” sometimes…!]

CD: What type of paint do you recommend using?

JM: The best EASY paint to use would be Rustoleum or Krylon out of the spray cans. You could also use a water-based paint but I would suggest putting a clear coat on after that for durability. I do not suggest using lacquer paint as it tends to soften the adhesive on the paint mask and may leave residue.

CD: What are some of your pro tips for a smooth cabinet in preparation for re-stenciling?

JM: The best way to get a beautifully smooth cabinet is to strip the entire cabinet down. The more you can take off the cabinet, the easier it will be once you get started sanding and filling. I either sand or chemically remove all we old paint from the cabinet down to the bare wood. I usually fill all of my nicks and scratches with Bondo and then sand smooth. I may repeat this process 2 to 3 times in order to get a cabinet baby smooth. Once this is done, I spray the base coat color on the cabinet, which may require 2 to 3 coats, which should result in a very smooth paint job. The smoother the surface the better the stencils will work.

[The following gallery is a selection of cabinet art restored using Pinball Pimp stencils.  An extensive gallery can be viewed by following this link.]

CD: For a typical cabinet, how long will cabinet re-stenciling take, giving curing time for the separate colors?

JM: Once your base coat is dry and you are ready to use your stencils it only takes a few minutes to apply the stencil. It actually takes longer to tape the cabinet up to avoid any over-spray. Depending on which paint you use, and dry times, I usually let the first color dry for a day or 2 before spraying the second color.

CD: Is the sky the limit for Pinball Pimp stencils? Do you foresee an exhaustive line of stencils across all pinball manufacturers?

JM: As long as there are guys out there who want to restore these old classic machines, I will keep trying to design as many classic titles as possible. I’m in the process now of getting the license from Gottlieb to start selling stencils for all of their classic titles as well. I would love to be the curator of all pinball stencils.

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An example of a serial number stamped directly onto the left side of a Bally cabinet. This one from a Nitro Ground Shaker, which resides at the Vintage Flipper World in Brighton, MI.

CD: An ethical question, of sorts. Late-1970s and early-1980s Bally games have the serial numbers stamped directly into the side of the wooden cabinet. Should a restorer fill and sand these numbers when preparing the cabinet for a re-stencil, effectively erasing the unique identification numbers, or should one leave the indentations as they came from the factory?

JM: I think this depends on the individual. When I do high-end restorations, nearly half of the parts are new reproductions anyway, so I usually fill in the stamped numbers. When the final machine is done, everything is beautifully smooth. I also add a pinball pimp certificate inside the machine with a serial number of 00001, since I basically rebuilt the entire machine from scratch. The way I look at it, it is basically born again.

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A Pinball Pimp “Restoration Certificate”, included on the inside of the cabinet of each game that is made whole again by Mr. Miller.

CD: Stencils are just one part of your “Pimp” business. What kind of restoration work do you undertake?

JM: I restore machines from the mid-70s all the way up to complete decal jobs of the newer WPC games. This all includes playfield swaps, playfield touch-ups, powder coating, chrome and nickel plating parts–the COMPLETE start to finish restore process!

CD: What are some of the most memorable, or most difficult, restorations you have ever tackled?

JM: The most memorable was the full restoration of my 1976 Bally Capt. Fantastic machine. This being an EM machine, I disassembled every hardware mechanism in the lower cabinet, rust dipped and polished, and installed all onto new wood which was painted to match the cabinet color. A very daunting task if you know how many parts are in a 4-player Bally EM. Mind boggling!

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Detail of a stunning Gottlieb Target Alpha, after receiving a full Pinball Pimp makeover.

CD: Do you rely on restoration projects brought to you by customers, or are you surfing Craigslist for broken-down restoration candidates to fix and flip?

JM: Back when I first started in 2005 used Craigslist to find all of my pinball machines to restore. Since the pinball “resurgence” has taken over, it becomes harder and harder to find decent machines and deals on Craigslist. At this point I have enough customers across the country to where most people just send me their machines to be restored.

CD: For solid state games, do you perform your own board work as well?

JM: I do some of my own solid-state work if it’s simple, but more difficult tasks I leave to a friend who is an electronics master. Some clients have me replace they are restored machine with all new boards if they are available.

CD: You also maintain a close relationship with Classic Playfield Reproductions. What work have you done for them over the years?

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Detail from Mr. Miller’s work on CPR’s Fireball backglass repro, available now.

JM: I’m not currently working on any projects for CPR at the moment since I have my hands full with my own businesses. I have designed four artwork packages for CPR in the past: the plastic sets for Williams Comet and Bally Bobby Orr’s Power Play, the speaker panel for Bally Creature from the Black Lagoon and the Bally Fireball backglass which is one of CPR’s latest releases.

CD: Is this a full time job for you, or just a part-time hobby? Moreover, do you describe yourself as a businessman or an enthusiast?

JM: What started out as a hobby 10 years ago has basically turned into a full time, second business. I’m still a top level, graphic designer/artist and do freelance work for Samsung and other large companies, but still love the pinball business end of it most.

CD: You are based in Florida—how would you describe the present pinball collector scene in the Sunshine State?

JM: I am based in Tampa, Florida and have been here for 25 years. I’m originally from Columbus, Indiana. I think the collector scene in Florida is probably as good as it is in any other state. Although, I don’t think as many older classic games migrated to Florida—most are still up in the Midwest, in the Pennsylvania and Chicago areas. The migration of games to the California market hasn’t been replicated on this coast, for the most part.

CD: How did you come about the moniker “The Pinball Pimp”?

JM: Around the time I started restoring pinball machines, I remember watching the TV show “Pimp My Ride”. Being in design and marketing my entire life, I thought it was a catchy and easy name to remember. Since my restorations always involved being a little over-the-top with custom accents and exacting detail, I considered my restored machines as being “PIMPED”–hence the name: Pinball Pimp.

CD: What games are currently in the Pinball Pimp collection?

JM: My collection has changed a little over the last 10 years, working towards my ultimate lineup of games—including some buying and selling along the way, obviously. My modern collection contains a Williams Funhouse, Williams Fish Tales, Williams White Water, Bally Creature from the Black Lagoon, Williams No Fear, Williams Tales of the Arabian Nights and Stern AC/DC Luci. My classic collection includes a Bally Capt. Fantastic, Bally Eight Ball, Bally 6 Million Dollar Man, Bally Playboy, Bally Eight Ball Deluxe, Bally KISS and Bally Fathom.

CD: Any closing comments to enthusiasts who may not have the nerve to tackle a re-stenciling project?

JM: Re-stenciling a pinball cabinet is not that hard when using my stencils if the instructions are followed properly. It’s not a weekend warrior project that you’re going to get done in a few hours. The more time you put into the project the better the result. More importantly, it’s about having a passion wanting to restore your cabinet back to its full glory! I guarantee if you take your time and do it right your end result will be a beautiful cabinet that you will be proud of.

Further Reading:

Pinball Pimp Restoration, Sales & Service – Homepage
Pinball Pimp Cabinet Stencils – Homepage
Pinball Pimp – Pinblog
Classic Playfield Reproductions – Creature from the Black Lagoon Backbox Speaker Panel
Pinside – PINBALL PIMP – Bally STRIKES and SPARES – Museum Restoration
Pinside – For sale: PINBALL PIMP CABINET STENCILS – AVAILABLE NOW!
Pinside – Twisted Pins Stencils are Garbage
Tampa Bay Times – In Tampa, Two Pinball Wizards Work to Restore their Hobby, January 7, 2010

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PEOPLE: Brett Davis from XPin

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For nearly five years, XPin has been the collector community’s choice for re-engineered replacement displays.  With a strict adherence to quality control and an eye for innovative design, Brett Davis has engineered a bevy of replacement parts for our beloved games.  With his newest innovation, 7Volution, he has also changed the way we play our games as well.  Credit Dot Pinball is pleased to present an interview Mr. Davis about his beginnings, innovations, business philosophies and new products.

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Credit Dot: How long has Xpin been in the pinball business?

Brett Davis: The XPin brand has been in existence since September of 2011, which is when the first distributors started to receive their product.  The actual http://www.xpinpinball.com website when live in January 2012.

CD: What were some of the first Xpin displays offered for sale?

BD: That’s a tough one.  Because of the product line, it only makes sense to offer all similar products at once, so it would be all of my Williams and Bally displays.  They were all released about the same time.  The Dot Matrix displays were released a little bit later.

CD: Is there a history between Xpin and Pinscore? There is some overlap in the products offered.

BD: There is some is some history between XPin and Pinscore.  I am the original designer of the Pinscore products.  When I chose to separate myself from Pinscore, the original Pinscore designs became the property of Marco Specialties because they owned the name Pinscore.  This forced me to re-engineer what I had done to make XPin.

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XPin’s XP-WMS10877 display kit, in blue, installed in the author’s Pin*Bot.

CD: What makes the XPin product a better choice for aftermarket displays as opposed to those of your competitors?

BD: There are a couple of reasons that XPin is a better choice for aftermarket replacements.  First, each product is a true re-engineering, or re-design of the original product.  I did a lot of research into the failings that occurred with the original designs.  I guess you can say it was a little forensic engineering.  I chose to avoid copying the original design because in doing so you just duplicate the problems that caused them to fail in the first place.  Second, technology today is so much more capable than it was 20-30 years ago.  The majority of failures that occur due to the circuit design can be eliminated with newer technology and different circuits.  Third, using modern manufacturing methods, reliability and cost can be controlled to make a quality product.  Obviously with exceptions to components and the circuit boards, all XPin products are manufactured here in the US.

CD: Can you share some of your best selling display kits at the moment?

BD: The XPin bestsellers are the Williams System 11 displays and the XP-DMD4096 (dot matrix) displays.

00-xpinint08CD: Can you tell me a little about your groundbreaking 7Volution display kit?

BD: Modern technology is what makes 7Volution possible.  Over the years people have hacked the game code, modified the MPU boards, added wires to the harness, all to make 7-digit scoring possible.  The problem is that once you choose to go down that mod path, it’s hard to go back.  Also, if you are not an experienced tech, making the mod is fairly daunting.  7Volution’s prime goal was to be a plug and play solution: no mods, no cut traces, no rom changes needed.  The heart of 7volution plugs into the MPU and watches the display data.  When it sees that the score boundary has been crossed, it jumps in and takes control and displays the new score…and then keeps track of it.  If it wasn’t for the processing power of new technology, 7Volution wouldn’t be possible.

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Pinside user bcrage88’s Paragon with 7Volution display kit installed. Vinyl filters were used to achieve the three colour effect.

CD: Where did the idea for integrating a seventh digit originate?

BD: 7Volution is an idea that came to me in 2008 or 2009 at the Northest Pinball show.  I took a Bally Six Million Dollar Man to the show with my (then) Pinscore display system in it.  A gentleman played the game and it was amazing the way he was playing.  While I was sitting there at my booth I saw this man roll the game 3 times!  Afterwards we talked about how all of these great classic Bally and Sterns would never keep the high scores if rolled.  This started me down the path…

CD: I find it really cool that Xpin customers can customize the look of their game by choosing the colour of their displays. Generally speaking, does one colour outsell the others?

BD: Surprisingly Orange is still the preferred color, at a rate of about two to one!

CD: I noticed a slight price difference between some of the colour choices, with blue being more expensive than the red and stock orange. Why is this?

BD: It is all about chemistry.  To manufacture blue or white, a different set of elements are required to get to those colors.  Elements for red, orange, and green are more readily available.  The elements used to create Blue and White generally cost two to three times more than the other colors, so they end up costing a few more dollars.

CD: Are all of your display products plug and play?

BD: Yes, everything is plug and play…with a caveat.  WPC games with dot matrix displays have an exception when it comes to the colors Blue and White.  There is an original design flaw in the dot matrix controllers.  Blue and White draw more current because the blue and white LED requires more current (it is that chemistry and element thing mentioned previously).  Realizing this I developed plug-in modules, my X-Bridge XP-WPC-HV and XP-WPC95-HV.  These boards compensate for the original board shortcomings.

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XPin’s versatile XP-WMS8345, that will replace the power supply in a staggering 51 different pinball games!

CD: Xpin is known for their replacement displays, but you carry a lot of other replacement boards as well. What is your best selling product in that area?

BD: The power supply arena is a big one.  My universal Williams power supply, XP-WMS8345, is my most popular.  It can be installed in every Williams Sys 3-11b that used either the Williams part number C-7999 or D-8345.  It also will work in all of the Data East games that used alpha numeric displays.  That is 51 different titles serviced by one board!

CD: What do you do to ensure your customers are receiving the best possible replacement parts for their games?

BD: Component selection is always a key in any redesign effort, along with an understanding as to what is expected by the end-user.  This of course is a major part of the product development, but the manufacturing of the product is just as important to maintain quality control.  Every product has a test fixture that is used–the fixture will test as much of the product as possible.
For example, the XPin dot matrix display has over 300 components on it.  Look at each individual trace on the board– if you laid them end to end, you would have about 300 feet of copper trace.  Over 2,000 holes are drilled into that board.  When you have that much happening, you do not skimp on testing.  Most boards go through at least 2 minutes of functional testing before they are released from production for packaging.  Every few months I do a random sample and put them on a test fixture for a couple of days.  There are a lot of great engineers capable of doing what I have done from the design side, but managing the production side is a whole different ball game, and if you have that down, you will end up with a great product.

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Pinside moderator gweempose’s Tron with a blue XPin DMD display installed. Absolutely stunning!

CD: When developing new products, be it a board or a display, what are some of the factors that are considered?

BD: Considerations for any product development come from my customers.  I give all suggestions consideration.  Some are actually quite doable, but then it comes down to how much will it cost to execute.  In turn, you also have to consider reasonable expectations for a retail price.  Also, when considering a new project, I look at how many games will it go into.  Take for example Williams’ Banzai Run.  That game’s display is completely unique.  It was never used in another game, but I still made it.  Why?  BR is a very collectable game.  I currently use the driver board in my XP-WMS10877 system.  I just needed the big board and connection mechanism.  I look at all of the designs this way.

CD: Are there any memorable design challenges that Xpin has overcome in updating PCB technology over the years?

BD: Each design has its own challenges.  I have three general requirements for each design:
1. Make it consume less power than the original design.  This is a very important requirement because these products oftentimes are going into old, tired machines where the electronics may not be up to original specs.
2. Make it plug ’n’ play.  Most of my customers tend not to be do-it-yourself hobbyists or knowledgeable about electronics.  They usually can disconnect a few cables, take out screws and then replace them all with a new board.  If they have to do much more than that then they will, more than likely, need to call a tech for help.
3. Make it as bullet-proof as I can.  More times than not, someone is replacing an original board with an XPin product because something caused the original board to fail.  If the time wasn’t taken to find the original failure, then the likelihood of continued failure is high, even after a board change.

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Pinside user Stretch7’s Alien Poker with Xpin’s XP-WMS8363 kit installed.

CD: What are some of the improvements that Xpin has made over the original designs by the big names in pinball?

BD: In the displays you see some of the best improvements.  Brightness control for display brightness, test buttons to illuminate all segments/dots.  Along with this is the low power aspect.  Lower power means less heat released by the older power supplies.

CD: How active is Xpin in the pinball community?

BD: I like to think I am very active.  I frequent Pinside quite often.  I sponsor tournaments when I can, such as the Retro Tournament at the Texas Pinball Festival.  They will actually have two classic Bally games that will be running my 7Volution Systems this year.  I am also scheduled to sit on the Pinball Developers Panel that will be at the Northwest Pinball and Arcade Show later this year.  All of it very exciting!

CD: In talking with customers, have you found that they are primarily buying new displays to replace inoperable ones or buying to just give their pinball a fresh look?

BD: Most of my customers make the choice because of a failure or an obvious pending failure.  Very few seem to be replacing the existing functional boards with my products just because it’s new.

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Pinside user PappyBoyington’s Stargazer looking phenomenal with XPin on board!

CD: Can you give the readers a preview as to some of the products Xpin will be releasing in the near future?

BD: Let’s see…I have begun work on the Williams Sys3-6 7volution system.  There is a lot of excitement there.  I am also working on Gottlieb and Zacaria display sets.  I have a few more items coming out but I waiting to announce those at Texas Pinball Festival.

CD: What are some thoughts about this new pinball “resurgence” we are all a part of? Do Xpin sales reflect the increased interest in the hobby?

BD: I think this is AWESOME!  I love talking to these innovators.  XPin is standing behind them 100%.  Spooky Pinball currently uses a green XPin for its America’s Most Haunted and I will be there for their next title, too.  I have also done preliminary work with other boutique pinball groups and I can only wish them well.  I have a lot to offer to them with my ability and manufacturing contacts so in the long run I hope to become a partner in their success.

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An XPin DMD display in green, appearing in an America’s Most Haunted near you!

CD: What games are currently in Xpin’s pinball lineup? What are some of your all-time favourite games?

BD: At the moment I only have 3 games: Mars God of War, Cyclone, and Silverball Mania.  I under some space constraints at the moment, but I have my own list of wants.  I just have to convince my wife of the “business need” to purchase them.

CD: Do you have any closing comments for readers in the pinball community?

BD: You will not find a greater bunch than this group.  I see this on the forums and when I meet them at the shows.  I am very privileged to be part of such a great hobby and be able to provide something back to this hobby.  Let’s keep on flipping!

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Mr. Davis can be reached at tech@xpinpinball.com, or you can visit XPin on the web.  Products can be ordered directly from the XPin website, or through one of XPin’s fine partners, such as K’s Arcade or Bay Area Amusements.  Look for Mr. Davis and XPin at this year’s Texas Pinball Festival March 27-29, 2015 and at the Northwest Pinball and Arcade Show June 5-7, 2015.


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PEOPLE: Jess Askey of the Internet Pinball Serial Number Database

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I don’t consider myself a numbers guy, but there is something fascinating going on over at the Internet Pinball Serial Number Database (not to be confused by the equally useful Internet Pinball Database). IPSND webmaster Jess Askey has created a project that collects serial numbers from pinball machines and pinball parts, mostly through user submissions, and compiles them for public record. From the information collected, Mr. Askey presents his own analysis and identification of trends, and, since the data is open source, allows visitors to identify trends of their own. Personally, I have been a member of the IPSND for over two years and have recently volunteered my time to take care of some of the site’s administrative and moderation duties. Ever since I started doing interviews for Credit Dot, I’ve wanted to ask Mr. Askey a series of questions about the IPSND’s history and vision. In my opinion, the site is an underused resource in the community and deserves the attention. Please read on as Mr. Askey unravels the history behind the numbers.

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Credit Dot: How did you originally become interested in pinball serial numbers? It’s kind of a strange fascination…

Jess Askey: Well, I suppose it all started sometime in 1999 when I decided to buy a Jungle Lord from eBay. Back then, it was very rare for auctions to have photos but I found a good deal on one and decided to buy it. It shipped the old fashioned way: Forward Air, no palette required! When it arrived, I was very upset because the owner had clearly painted the cabinet blue (with red and yellow stripes) and not disclosed this information in the listing. I shot him off an email and he said that all Jungle Lord games were blue. He said I was crazy to think that it should be red. However, all the Jungle Lords I’d seen in my hometown were in red cabinets when I was a kid. A quick posting to rec.games.pinball revealed that the majority were blue, only a few were red. It seemed that the running knowledge amongst the RGP community suggested that the sample games were red and the production games were blue. The guess at the time was that Williams was making about 100 or so sample games for each title. I then did what everyone else did at the time for the games that they were interested in–I made a game owners list and rule sheet for Jungle Lord (archived here). People of course e-mailed me their serial number and I asked if the cabinet was Red or Blue and I updated the owners list until, just like every other owners list out there, I stopped updating it due to lack of interest and lack of time.

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The red Jungle Lord cabinet, taken from Mr. Askey’s Jungle Lord site that preceded the IPSND project.

 

CD: What renewed your interest?

JA: It sat for a few years until I decided that I would create the Internet Pinball Serial Number Database proper, and use it as a “practice site” for learning all the new programming technologies that interested me in my professional career. ASP.NET was the first challenge, Microsoft SQL Server was the second. I knew I didn’t want to conflict with the already established Internet Pinball Database, but I used their game identification numbers as my key for simplicity sake. I also had to get a listing of all the games on the IPDB along with pertinent info (number of players, manufacturer, release dates, etc). I wrote a little application that programmatically started at game number 1 and went all the way up to something like 4500 (which was the “newest” IPDB entry at the time) and screen scraped the data off the IPDB web server responses (Sorry Wolf!). Now I had a starting list of games. Next, I got the full listing of old pinball serial numbers from the deprecated and outdated Pinball Pasture/Internet Pinball Project, from Daina Petit (you can still find the original Internet Pinball Project on archive.org if you want to peek at it). From that, I had my first database of serial numbers.

CD: What was the original philosophy or goal of the serial number project?

JA: Circle back to the original Jungle Lord owner’s list project and its inherent problems–my goal was for the new IPSND to do three things:

1. Allow submissions of serial numbers to my database which was ‘in-sync’ with IPDB games.

2. Allow people with owners lists to easily incorporate my serial lists directly into their sites (using simple inline javascript and HTML) so they no longer had to maintain the “serial listing” portion of their sites.

3. Allow tracking of specific game traits (like cabinet color, or other minor changes that happen throughout the production run of a game) along with serial numbers, so collectors could see trends on those game traits and understand if they were specific to the production run. In the case of Jungle Lord, it also allowed us to know that there were more like 400 red cabinet Jungle Lords and not 100 as was originally suspected.

Points two and three were the big long term goals as it really allowed the IPSND to become a centralized storage mechanism for all these game serial registrations, but also allowed that centralized knowledge to be shared outwards to other sites and collectively freed the owners list community from needing to waste minutes a day to update their sites with submissions. Owner’s List site owners rejoice!

CD: How long has the IPSND been active?

JA: I first registered and put the site up in 2006 with about 7500 serial numbers from the Internet Pinball Project. As of February 2015, there are 32,917 serials registered by over 4900 different people.

CD: In what ways has the site changed from when you first started it?

JA: Well, it started simple. On launch day, it just allowed you to search games and look at serial numbers, plus submit a serial number of your own (without the option of submitting a photo). By 2008, we had added photo support, our “nudging” system, the SerialBot points rating system, an RSS feed, geolocation mapping using Google Maps, bulk uploading, mobile Android support and a host of other features. Late last year I added backglass images to help submitters get the correct game more often. To see a log of all the changes, updates and feature announcements over the years, readers can view them here.

CD: What are you attempting to achieve by collecting all this data?

JA: Well, outside of the 3 goals I started with, I just continue to enjoy seeing the data come in, and with the help of other members, come up with interesting questions and solutions to fixing them. My overarching goal is that eventually this whole thing will go into the cloud and will be improved and maintained by other collectors long past the time when I’m gone (maybe?) Since serial numbers get submitted multiple times throughout the course of a game’s existence (as a game is bought/sold, or shown at a pinball show), in like 50 years, not only should most circulating games be in the database, but you will be able to see how they have moved around the country, or even the world. Perhaps this becomes the main registry for finding a game you want to buy, or to sell?

CD: In what ways can this open-source information be used by collectors and pinball fans?

JA: That is a great question. I suppose I don’t have the answers for this but I definitely see that this should become something like the IPDB that is a public repository of all information. It makes sense for the IPSND and the IPDB to combine at some point, I would think, but I don’t think Wolf and I are up for that challenge yet. Maybe some awesome young pinball coder will come forth and take on that responsibility at some point…

CD: What is your day job? I’m guessing something to do with statistics?

JA: Ha, not so much, but I guess in a way. I currently am an I.T. Project manager for New Belgium Brewing in Fort Collins, Colorado. If you pinball collectors are ever in town for a Brewery tour, let me know, I will come have a beer with you and we can talk pinball. Beer + Pinball = Awesome!

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The grounds of New Belgium Brewing. Home of Mr. Askey’s day job and the delicious Fat Tire Amber Ale.

 

CD: Say someone new to the site wants to submit the serial numbers for their games. Can you outline the steps one would take to submit that serial number into the database and maximize its usefulness? Is there any other information other than the serial that needs to be collected for submission?

JA: Sure, that is the point of the IPSND and it is amazing because I think this kind of stuff actually happens. I get lots of non-pinball people who submit serial numbers just because they found a game in their basement and somehow found my site. In general, to submit a serial number, it is very straightforward.

1. Search for the game name and make sure you find the correct one (we have added backglass images for the more popular games to help identify them better since some are very similar: for example, Bally’s Capt Fantastic & the Brown Dirt Cowboy and the Captain Fantastic Home Edition)

2. Look at the serial numbers for that game already submitted to make sure that your number is actually similar to the submitted ones (there are lots of non-serial numbers printed on games). Alternatively, you can click on the ‘finding the serial number’ tab for game listing to find user hints on the best way to accurately find the correct number to submit.

3. Click on the ‘Submit Serial Number’ button and fill out the form. Adding a photo helps immensely, so try to add a photo of the actual serial number if you can. That’s it. Done!

If a game has ‘traits’ (color variations, feature variations, etc.) then on the serial submission form you can select if your game falls into those categories, otherwise, you can simply leave them at ‘Unknown’ which is the default value. The submission form has several other pieces of information that you can add if you have it: date stamps on the game, whether you are physically looking at the serial number or perhaps you are just looking at a picture. There are little ‘?’ icons on the form that describe what each field is for.

CD: The database is “peer reviewed” by a nudging system that was briefly mentioned above. Can you explain how that works?

I added this feature because the one fatal flaw in the original system was that these numbers could be totally fictitious and made up unless there was some sort of physical proof of the serial number’s existence. So, I figured that it would be great for a submitter to upload a photo of the actual serial number. However, one of the first issues was that users were submitting photos of their machine, and not of the serial number! So, I figured that leveraging the IPSND points feature (members get points for doing various things on the site, submissions mostly) might make sense to allow the members to have a vote on the quality of the photo. So, basically that is what happens! When a submission comes in with a photo, it is “Open for Nudging”–meaning that another member can look at the photo, compare it to the submitted serial number and give it a ‘Thumbs Up’ or ‘Thumbs Down’ vote on the accuracy and quality of the photo.

A serial number for Gorgar that had been positively "nudged" by five IPSND members.

A serial number for Gorgar that had been positively “nudged” by five IPSND members.

The nudging process is only open until the voting swings +3 or -3 nudges (and has a minimum of 5 total nudges) and then it closes with the result of being ‘Nudged Up’ or ‘Nudged Down’. On the submission page for the individual serial number, this nudge result affects the points that the submission gets, and ends up being +3 points or -3 points accordingly. So, if a person submits a serial number with a poor photo that doesn’t show the serial number clearly or accurately, the submission quality will get dinged points. Additionally, members get a point for each nudge they complete. As of now, our highest “nudger” has examined and voted on over 7500 photos. Some members submit rarely, but nudge regularly. If there is good consensus on the nudging, the submission will close quickly, sometimes within minutes, but some submissions generate a discussion-heavy nudge history and some submissions have taken over 25 nudges simply because the voting result never swayed more than +3 or -3 over the opposing vote. You can see the Most Contentious Nudges and read the comments on the IPSND Statistics Page. I think the best part of this is that everyone judges a photo differently.

CD: You mention a point system that is in place. Do we win anything if we collect enough points??

JA: Well, you know how we humans work! Unless there is a way to create competition, some things can get boring pretty quickly…especially serial numbers. I figure that the points were created simply to let people get credit for their work and effort they put into the site. Originally points were only awarded for submissions. Points are now awarded for nudging, too, but the original motive remains: to try and get a high quality score through quality submissions. Right now, IPSND member John Vorwek has over 13,000 points on 2,270 unique serial number submissions. John has been supporting the site for years and has become very good at scouring eBay for good serial number photos and scrutinizing them to make sure that the game assignment is accurate. Some members have very few submissions, but mostly concentrate on nudging to get their points. On the topic of winning something: right now you just get name recognition on the site. I definitely owe a small handful of people an IPSND t-shirt, so I figured that I would get a bunch silk-screened and pay off my debts to supporters of the site. However, there is no formal time frame for that.

CD: The software you use to run the site and gather information is very intuitive–for example, your “Serial Bot” recognizes and alerts the submitter when a serial number doesn’t match the known format used on a particular game’s run. Can you talk a little about the software/code used and how it was developed?

JA: The IPSND site was actually created by me sort as hobby for the reasons I spoke to in the very first question. I have done enough software in my life that I didn’t want to make something that was just a database. The things that give systems and organisms something special are ‘closed loops’ which means systems collect, recycle and re-feed data in such a way that the whole system or organism evolves. While I’m no rocket scientist, the premise of the site evolving and potentially ‘self-governing’ itself seemed pretty cool to me: make some basic rules and let the site and members go at it and see where it goes, then modify the rules to keep it balanced. The site actually attempts to dynamically calculate everything. For example, the points are not scored once and then saved, but the software calculates the points on each load of the page–that keeps the math out of the database and makes sure that everything is interpreted at the time of viewing in case the rules (for accruing points, as an example) change.

CD: References to “The Internet Pinball Project” have come up rather frequently on the site and in this interview. Can you give a bit of history about them and how you came to inherit their collected information?

JA: The Internet Pinball Project was an old part of the original Pinball Pasture which started back in 1997. The Pinball Pasture was created by Dave Byers and included information such as the original Internet Pinball Database (before Jay and Wolf took it over to ipdb.org), playing tips and strategies, a Pinball Glossary and the original Serial Numbers Database. (check out the wayback machine here to browse it from 1999.)

Even in 2004, the original database was getting stale and the process of e-mailing in serial numbers and logging them manually was difficult. Additionally, there was no mechanism for submitting photos at that time (remember, this is back when digital cameras were not very common, much less phones with high-res cameras in them). When I started the IPSND, I posted on RGP about the old Pinball Database, and luckily Daina Pettit (of Mr. Pinball Classifieds) had saved a copy. They serials were only organized by ‘Game Name’ and manufacturer, so I had to do some cleansing of the data and also determine which exact ‘Game Number’ that each serial was for (for example, if a serial was for Williams 1960 Black Jack or Bally 1976 Black Jack). So, the database was born using that data. Thanks to Daina and David for all their work, because it certainly helped start with 7500 serial numbers rather than the 13 I had in my personal collection! One final note is that in talking to Daina about this, he requested that I make the site have a feature that would let people download the entire database for whatever purpose they chose at any time. I thought that was both a good idea and also a fun technical challenge. To this day, you can download the entire core database in a single, flat CSV format (.zipped and e-mailed to you) if you want to do any external analysis…or otherwise.

CD: What are some of the more interesting statistics you have extrapolated from the submitted information?

JA: Well, I have a handful of cool things that I reference…

1. Williams 1981 Jungle Lord – It was always guessed by the RPG community that there were approximately 100 ‘Red Cabinet’ sample games made. It is pretty clear now by looking at the data, that there were actually about 425 of them made (see here). You can see the early serial numbers are grouped by the ‘cluster tool’ on the left side of the table. Although we clearly don’t have all 425 accounted for and we probably never will, due to the habit of route operators taking games to the dump, it at least shows us the upper and lower bounds of the range for those particular games. I don’t think that the data could present itself any better in this particular situation. Luckily, this was the original question I had for building the database, so I seem to have found the answer.

2. Williams 1991 Black Knight 2000 – If you visit the page for BK2K here, and click on the ‘Game Traits’ tab, you will see something interesting. Summarized in the top table is a listing of two ‘properties’ for the game: the style of plastics on the game and the color of some lettering on the backglass. It was postulated on RGP, that both of these variations might have been related to the “sample game run” or early test versions of games. By looking at the gathered data, you can see that both the plastics artwork and the color seem to actually be dispersed across the entire production run, not just early run examples. So, more than likely, these batches were not made sequentially, but the assembly line were just delivered “either/or” versions of the plastics and backglasses, perhaps coming from different printers. As we get more data, we may start to see the smaller patterns of the game plastics flipping between the two styles, which may tell us how many plastics sets came on a palette from the supplier. Keep in mind that Williams also had two production lines, so maybe one line had the ‘futuristic artwork’ and the other had the ‘Stone Castle’ plastics. If I had to guess, this second scenario was more likely.

3. Williams used a single number sequence when making games, but as I mentioned before, they also had two production lines running at the same time. Imagine how games are created: they are done in “runs” or “batches”. If you take a look at this page or the graphic below, (it looks rough, apologies), you will see a listing of all 1980s Williams games with the highest and lowest number in a clustered range. You can see how most games are listed in this sequence, sometimes two to four times, as they were being built in “runs”. Let’s use Black Knight as an example (RED Color Block). You can see it first appears in the list around the time of Firepower/Blackout/Algar, which were the last of the System 6 games. Having Black Knight appear in that run shows that Williams actually made 42 Black Knight games at the same time as the System 6 games (and most likely, that is the version of the game with the System 6 hardware). Now, jump down to the next Black Knight (about 15 rows down): they made exactly 100 games in this run. Those must have been the sample games. You can see that they were finishing up with the Blackout and Alien Poker runs at this time too. I think that this view is pretty interesting because it really shows you how often they flipped games on and off of production, and this was probably very tightly related to pending orders from distributors. If you continue to follow Black Knight, you will next see the big run of 10,000 games and then a couple “clean-up” runs which probably took care of remaining parts inventory.

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CD: Is there a socially acceptable way to collect the serial information when in a public setting like a show or a friend’s collection? Do some people view it as “stealing” their personal information?

JA: Yeah, that is a great question, too. I think it sorta depends on how you approach it. If you are at a show and are crawling inside of people’s games without permission then obviously, they might get a little miffed. The best approach is to always ask and take the opportunity to inform the owner about the serial’s value and how their data may help clarify some interesting things for the pinball collecting community.

Along those same lines, I certainly have received numerous e-mails from individuals saying that someone else had registered their serial number on the site and they would like it removed because they were not the owner of the game. I think in part that comes from the site allowing people to print out ‘Serial Number Certificates’ for any submission which look nice but really are meaningless. When this happens, I try to explain the bigger picture goal of the site and also the main point is that we don’t just want ONE submission for each serial number, but we want MULTIPLE submissions of a serial number over time. Because we also allow submitters to track the location of a game (in a general way, you probably don’t want to put your specific address in there), we can see how games have travelled around in their lifetime. This type of data is going to take lots of time to gather, but my best example right now is this particular serial number for Aquarius which seems to show up often at the Pacific Pinball Expo.

CD: Do you get the feeling there is a negative perception in the pinball community toward people who are focused on the collection numerical data? I’m reminded of the somewhat unflattering light that the filmmakers used when chronicling old-school data collector Sam Harvey in their Special When Lit documentary.

JA: Well, like I said above: if you approach people the right way, then I think that a lot of benefit can come from the conversation. The thing to understand about Sam is that back in the 80s and 90s when the pinball collecting community was much smaller, everyone knew Sam and they knew what he was about. They expected to see him coming up to their games, opening them up and digging around until he found every serial number in that game. As the community grew (and changed), Sam’s behaviour didn’t and maybe it rubbed people the wrong way. Some people could get really pissed if some dude with a big afro was digging around in a game that you just restored. I think that what Sam was doing was a remarkable undertaking and I wish that I could get access to his books upon books of serial numbers recorded numbers. However, I would also expect that there are a significant number of errors in his recording of serials just because they are so damn difficult to read sometimes.

Sam Harvey, still from the Special When Lit  documentary (2008).

Sam Harvey, still from the Special When Lit documentary (2008).

CD: In your estimation, what percentage of all existing pinball machines has the site gathered the serial numbers for?

JA: Well, it is pretty small… I think that with the games we know of what the production run was, we get more than 3,300,462 pinball machines that have been produced. Since we don’t know production numbers for many of the ‘games of olde’ when pinball was really booming, I’ll bet that number is only 75% of the actual number. Right now there are 32,191 submissions for about 30,000 unique serial numbers. Thus, we only have .9% of all games registered. Looking at specific games that have a decent production run (reference the site statistics page: http://www.ipsnd.net/stats.aspx?id=2), we have 15.2% of all The Addams Family Gold games, 36.7% of Spacelab games and 8.4% of the Safecrackers. So, once you start looking at specific games, the numbers are a bit more impressive!

CD: How can the pinball community help grow the IPSND?

JA: Well, I think that it is sort of happening naturally. First and foremost, we can grow the site by talking about it and sharing the benefits. I think that conversation can ignite the curiosity that all of us pinball collectors have. Obviously, making sure that all your games are registered on the site, with a photo and a geo-location, helps move the site to its long term goals. Making sure that the data is correct is also important.

I have received help from many leaders in the pinball community in both organizing the site, submitting serials, and submitting traits…

• ‘Pistol’ Pete Haduch has been helping me on the site for years as far as fixing submission errors, following up with questions, approving tips and traits, creating game serial masks and overall keeping things in line.

• Convention Gatherers like Basil Leblanc, Mark Gibson, Dan Gutchess, Seal Clubber, KoP and yourself submit serials from games at the various shows around the country and can give us a snapshot of what is being shown, bought or sold without actually attending these shows.

• Service Gatherers like Daina Pettit, Ray Johnson, Antti Peltonen submit serials for games they service (these are the games often buried in people’s houses)

• Jon Vorwerk patrols eBay and doesn’t let a serial get past him. Of particular note here is that Jon is continuing to submit valuable ‘Game Part’ serial numbers, which, while are not associated directly with a game, helps us determine if a serial number exists for the future when we start to analyse bigger data trends.

• Pinball Eric helped out by giving all the serial numbers from the Pinball Price Guide (very nice of him)

• Jay Stafford and Wolf at IPDB.org have been very supportive as well, allowing me to integrate with their data and make our sites work in harmony. I think that if our sites were on the same technology (IPDB is PHP and IPSND is ASP.NET) it would make sense for them to merge someday… that is probably for the next generation of pinball collector software guys though!

These folks and many others are the real winners of the site.

CD: Can we help with a monetary donation to keep things running?

JA: I definitely get Paypal donations for the hardware of the server and the internet connection. Everyone that donates gets a little dollar sign next to their name on the site. I get about $100 per year in donations which helps a bit with costs (cost averages about $750/year). If you like the site, I would love to move it to an Amazon cloud server or something so that it isn’t sitting in my basement at risk of being knocked over and destroyed. Anyone own a hosting company? Ping me!

CD: Are there any concepts on the horizon to make the submission process easier? An “on-the-go” app for smartphones?

JA: Yes, I currently have an Android app made with Phonegap in the download section of the site. It works, but is a bit clunky. It certainly makes submitting games very easy with a smartphone, though. Anyone have any Phonegap skillz that could help out? Geez, I’m really starting to beg here!

CD: What challenges lie ahead for the IPSND?

JA: I think that with any big project like this, the guarantee that the data is secure and lives on is the biggest long term challenge. I will continue to make the site better in small ways, but that is time reliant, and my children really suck my time away from coding on the site (as they should). Luckily as I mentioned above, many people in the community are actively helping on the site which keeps it moving in the right direction. The thing I want this site to transcend is the 20 year lifespan of many sites. I want to eventually get the code for the entire site checked into GIT and made public so it can be maintained by multiple people and put into the cloud. Then barring some sort of apocalypse, the site should run for a very long time and this information can stay growing and informing into the future. With companies like Jersey Jack and Stern Pinball, luckily we still have new pinball machines coming off the production lines and keeping our passion alive for future generations.

CD: Finally, what games are in your collection? What era of games tend to be your favourite? What is your favourite game?

JA: I have a smaller collection than I used to, but I’ve whittled it down to my core games. I started collecting when I was 13 when my dad bought me a Williams San Francisco. I still have that, plus some video games, which are also my passion. Other than the San Francisco, I have a Tales of the Arabian Nights, Hyperball, Time Fantasy, Cosmic Gunfight, Solar Fire, Jungle Lord, Warlock, Joust (the pinball machine), Centaur, Big Chief, and a 1934 Pacific Novelty Contact. On the video game side, I have Robotron 2084, Mystic Marathon, Xybots, Alpha One (Major Havoc Prototype) and a Williams Spellbinder which was never released and is currently being rebuilt. Obviously, I love those early 80’s Williams games. But, Centaur might be my favorite!

The Internet Pinball Serial Number database can be found at http://www.ipsnd.net, and relies heavily on the support and submissions of the pinball community.  If you have not submitted the serial numbers of the games and parts in your collection ,or the routed games on locations near you, I strongly urge you to do so.  A greater understanding of the pinball business and trends within the collecting community await discovery…using the information gathered by pinheads around the globe.


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PEOPLE: Greg Freres on his Early Bally Backglass Prints

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Greg Freres’ career in pinball has spanned many companies and job titles, and has seen many ebbs and flows in the popularity of the game.  Yet throughout, he has been able to solidify his place within the very top echelon of pinball’s artistic operatives by adopting a widely varying artistic style while at the same time providing underlying base elements that tie the package together within Mr. Freres’ wider oeuvre of work. Mr. Freres currently works on the artistic team at Stern Pinball and is co-founder of Whizbang Pinball (with his perpetual collaborator, pinball designer Dennis Nordman), with the company’s first title, Whoa Nellie! Big Juicy Melons, recently being tapped by Stern for production and worldwide distribution. On top of these commitments, Mr. Freres has recently released a line of 12’x12′ high quality art prints through retailer Pinball Life, which highlight his early work on four non-licenced Bally pinball backglasses. Each piece sells for $79.95USD, comes pre-framed, is signed by the artist and arrives with a note from Mr. Freres himself about the subject matter.  There is definitely a lack of high-quality pinball-related wall accoutrement to display in your gameroom these days, and I think Mr. Freres’ prints fill this void nicely. I was fortunate enough to have Mr. Freres agree to an interview, and I limited my questions, for the most part, to the line of art prints and the games they feature. (A wider account of Mr. Freres’ oeuvre can be found in Pinball Magazine #2’s feature length interview with Mr. Nordman and Mr. Freres.)

Credit Dot: To begin, why did you choose to commemorate these four particular titles in your series of collectable prints?

Greg Freres: I chose Hotdoggin’, Fathom, Strange Science, and Black Pyramid because all of these pieces are unlicensed titles. I have an agreement with WMS that allows me to reproduce art prints from the unlicensed art from my past. I also chose them because they represent a group of games from earlier in my career at Bally. I now realize that the games from the early eighties are very collectable.

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Greg Freres and his wife Andi. Courtesy of Whizbang Pinball, whizbangpinball.blogspot.com

CD: Are the prints limited in number?

GF: No, these prints are not limited.

CD: Is the art depicted in the prints culled from the original backglass paintings?  Do you own the originals?

GF: Yes – the art is scanned at a high resolution from my original paintings.

CD: How did the partnership with Pinball Life come about?

GF: I met Terry [DeZwarte, proprietor of Pinball Life] while Dennis Nordman and I were working on Whoa Nellie! Big Juicy Melons. Terry came out to Dennis’ shop to see what we were working on. He started selling ancillary products for Whizbang Pinball including WNBJM t-shirts, backglasses, and other branded merchandise. Once I started the art prints, it seemed a natural fit to work with Terry again.

CD: How have sales been so far?

GF: Sales are good. I know the album cover size prints are small but I thought that was a great idea for places where a pinball enthusiast might want to see some backglass art without taking up to much wall space. I’ve talked to buyers who end up taking them to work to hang in their office.

CD: The prints are a product of a high quality “giclee” reproduction of the original work.  Can you speak a bit about the term for those not familiar with the giclee process?

GF: Giclee art prints have become the standard for many fine artists. All fine art is scanned at high resolution from the originals and then printed on acid-free museum grade paper (various paper weights and finishes are available from the vendor.) It’s basically a digital process that creates the closest color reproduction to the original art. It’s a great process for the artist because you don’t need to commit to a “run” of lithographic produced pieces. You can run small numbers and not be affected by the pricing constraints of a run in the hundreds.

CD: Now that many of the best places to play pinball are in private gamerooms across the country, there seems to be an insatiable desire for pinball-related gameroom décor.  Was the decision to release these prints a response to that particular “need”?

GF: My wife has been planting this seed for a number of years after she witnessed the response from enthusiasts at various pinball collector shows around the world to my work. I always felt that most pinball people want to spend their money on pinball parts, after-market bling, and anything that will help keep their “investment” running and looking great. A piece of art to hang on the wall seemed like an expense that most collectors would not be interested in. I hope that the more I can get the word out, and actually get my website built and monetized, that I’ll be able to reach more people with the art that has been mostly seen in bars, arcades, bowling alleys, and basements.

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Hotdoggin’ (1980), photo courtesy of Pinball Life.

CD: The four prints serve as a good cross section of your work at Bally, and portray how you were called upon to create an art package in varying styles: from the morose, horror-like mood created by Fathom to the more lighthearted and flashy flair of Hotdoggin’.  How are you able to reconcile these wild shifts in style from game to game?

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Ed “Big Daddy” Roth model kit, circa 1963.

GF: My best and most honest answer to that is – I guess I’m still searching for my “style”. When I started working at Bally as a full-time illustrator for their art team, I was a kid: 23 years old with only 2 years of experience as an apprentice designer at a point-of-purchase advertising company. I have always been influenced by a wide variety of artists and illustrators. I guess I can be a chameleon when it comes to the subject matter I work on. I love the satire that Mad Magazine brought to my youth, I watched every monster movie that they showed on Creature Features, I built every Big Daddy Roth “Weirdo” model kit, and I played drums. So my interests have always been all over the map – I guess that helps tackle the variety of subjects.

CD: Speaking of Fathom, suggested titles for the game were Barracuda and Deep Threat, the latter being your suggestion (rejected by Bally I’m assuming because of connotations to the Linda Lovelace film Deep Throat?).  How integrated in the creation process were you in the early days at Bally?  Could an artist influence game design or other important elements such as game title?

GF: We always had a lot of creative freedom in the pinball business early on–actually for many years of my career. Game design was so much simpler when I started. Norm Clark would have a line-up of whitewoods in the test room and at some point he would tell marketing and sales which one was ready for production. Once it went to the art department the artists sometimes could make suggestions for themes, even adding lights to the playfield to spell a specific word. Bally was just bringing licenses to the table back then but for non-licensed games the art department could get really involved in theme selection and direction.

CD: How did you come about creating the female characters for Fathom? They seem to carry elements of fish, snake, mermaid and human.

GF: I’ve never been asked that – I guess they are mermaids with incredibly long tails. How else could they take down their prey? Paul Faris art directed me on this project in a big way – he kept pushing me to do better and better with a theme that was not easy to envision. I hope to someday do a prequel graphic novel that leads up to the moment on the backglass and playfield.

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Fathom (1981), photo courtesy of Pinball Life.

CD: There is a strong sense of helplessness in the Fathom backglass art, and I think that comes from the detail that the drowning man doesn’t look particularly panicked–as if he’s resigned himself to the fact that he’s going to die at the hands of the two sirens.  I often feel helpless myself when playing Fathom, because the game is deadly hard. Is this just a coincidence?

GF: It must be coincidence because we didn’t play it much before starting the theme and art. Fathom has garnered the most interest of any project I’ve been associated with and I believe it is because of the intensity required to do well. It’s a great playfield and can be pretty mean. The guy’s knife is floating downward; maybe the clue you caught in his resignation.

CD: The notion of the helpless male figure depicted in that Fathom backglass is a bit of a departure from the hyper-masculinized male figures normally depicted in pinball from this era.  Even examining your prior work for Bally, we see the larger-than-life shirtless image of Mick Jagger on the Rolling Stones and the uber-masculine bearded outdoorsman of Frontier (who is the furthest thing from helpless–he battles a bear with his bare hands).  Was this a consideration to add to the overall mood of the game?

GF: Not a conscious decision – we were experimenting with so many ideas and directions with the non-licensed themes. Heavy Metal Magazine was a major influence on all of us at that time and we followed that vibe of each story (and in our case each game) having a completely different visual direction and thematic choice.

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Doug Johnson’s “tubular” pop-art style on full display on the cover of Judas Priest’s 1984 album Defenders of the Faith.

CD: Is there a name for the particular bubble/balloon style of art used on Hotdoggin’?

GF: I had just seen the Art of Playboy exhibition in Chicago that year and some of my favorite illustrators of the day were in that show. Plus one of my favorite board games as a kid was Candyland. When I saw Doug Johnson’s work at that show I felt his bright color schemes and tubular architecture felt right for this ski theme.

CD: There seems to be a lot of actual hot dog imagery in the Hotdoggin’ art in both shape and colour.  Am I just seeing things?

GF: Well, I guess Chicago is known for its Hot Dogs! Influence can come in many forms.

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Greg Hildebrandt’s “Little Mermaid”

CD: Black Pyramid is some of the first pinball art you created under the Bally-Midway banner.  Was there any change in direction for the company after the merge, or was it business as usual?

GF: Pinball had waned a great deal at this point since video games took the front seat at Midway. I was doing more managerial work at this point so it was good to be back on the board. I wanted to attempt a color scheme more like the Hildebrandt brothers- cool shadows playing against ultra-warm and bright highlight areas. I like to joke that the state of the business for pinball was in such dire straits that the skeletal warriors represent the cost-cutting and blood-letting that was happening via layoffs and cost reduced games.

CD: While not as blatant as some of the Gottlieb games from the same era (Hollywood Heat and Deadly Weapon for example), Black Pyramid appears to harness the success of the Indiana Jones films without having an Indiana Jones licence.  Is it an art form in itself trying to hit all the genre elements without infringing on official copyrights?

GF: I’m not sure it’s an art form but it was definitely fun to try and touch the essence of the theme without infringing.

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Black Pyramid (1984), photo courtesy of Pinball Life.

CD: By the time Strange Science hit arcades, the displays had moved to the bottom of the backglass.  Did this make life easier for the artist, not having to design around score displays within the art piece itself?

GF: Absolutely! No doubt! Those 5 displays broke any continuity in an otherwise great layout because when you walked in a gameroom all you saw was a portion of the art because we used an opaque layer to make sure heavy shadows from the displays wouldn’t cut off any cool visual.

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Strange Science (1986), photo courtesy of Pinball Life.

CD: Strange Science has an overt comic book style with the backglass being the cover of the “comic” and the playfield being the inner pages, complete with boxed text.  We saw a comic influence before in the Fathom flyer, and we’d see it again, in spades, with Dr. Dude and his Excellent Ray.  How did your fascination with the comic style begin?

GF: This was me trying to be the Mad Magazine guy in pinball. I always loved their parodies on current movies and TV shows so I wanted to try and capture that spirit in my work.

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MAD Magazine art circa 1968. Mort Drucker was the artist on this MAD send-up of 2001: A Space Odyssey entitled “201 Mins. Of A Space Idiocy.

CD: The Strange Science era games were released in generic “Bally/Midway” cabinets devoid of game specific art.  Was this a cost-cutting measure?  Did this help or hinder the overall artistic presentation of the game?

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Strange Science in the generic Bally/Midway cabinet. Photo courtesy of Clay Harrell, http://www.pinrepair.com

GF: Cost cutting all the way. Pinball was hanging on for dear life at that point so the product suffered accordingly. To stay competitive someone thought the cabinet art should be the first to go since most games get lined up in rows. It did, however, allow the artist more time to focus on the backglass and playfield.

CD: With some lesser enjoyed games like Strange Science and Black Pyramid, is it satisfying to hear players and collectors attest that your art packages were often times much more memorable than the gameplay of the games they graced?

GF: Yes – quite a bit of my art has been on games that didn’t sell as well as the bigger games. Of course I would have liked to have been on the more successful games (in terms of sales and game play) but I’m fine with being the underdog of the group. Maybe as I got closer to game design in my career I was still influenced by that underground mindset.

CD: The four prints represent some of your earliest work in pinball, and you are coming up on forty years in the industry.  Besides the actual process of creating the art, how has the job changed for the artist from your time with Bally to your work today with Stern?

GF: The easiest difference to point out is the computer. When I started in the business it was all hand-drawn – a term that collectors have been clamoring for the return to since computer graphics have made everything so much more efficient, and somewhat generic. We did both line art and spot colors for playfields; inked line art and the colors all hand-cut from rubylith (a unique graphic arts film that could be cut into and peeled away to create a masking effect, then contact exposed onto litho film to create the film positives needed for silk-screen printing.) Our backglasses were paintings that got reproduced on glass via silk-screen, and then later we switched to translite technology (plastic instead of glass) for better resolution and consistency, and to save money as well.

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More of Mr. Freres’ beautiful “hand drawn” art on the Fathom playfield.

Even though we were traditional artists we needed to make the transition to digital art to continue to work. Once Stern started with a heavy percentage of licensed themes, it made sense to provide a more photo-composed package for easier approvals and efficiency in the production side of the art. Now that Stern is offering a tiered product structure with the Pro, Premium and Limited versions of each game, it’s tough for one artist to complete an entire games worth of art. Since starting at Stern two years we’ve been tag-teaming the design of the art packages while trying to keep a consistent look throughout all three tiers.

My goal as AD at Stern is to eventually return to some degree of a hand-drawn look to the games we produce. Pinball has a rich history of great art and I want to make sure we can recapture that spirit in future games.

CD: Citing a few specific examples from the series of four prints, can you give us some insight as to your artistic process when designing a backglass?

GF: With any illustration, the process begins with research, especially for games that are non-licensed. Before even thinking about the structure of the layout you have to familiarize yourself with the subject. So for Fathom, I borrowed a stack of scuba magazines from a college friend. With Hotdoggin’, ski magazines showed up from another friend upon request. Keep in mind this was way before computers and Google. So most research was done at book stores, libraries, comic book shops, and of course, my own photography once the rough layout was established and I started to refine character poses.

All of this research leads to idea generation. Certain pictures or other art can act as a spark for further ideas of your own, and then like any other design, build upon those ideas and see what might work, and learn what definitely doesn’t work. Small thumbnail sketches are key to getting ideas down quickly without wasting too much time.

Those thumbnails often, at least for me, are so doodley, that only I can see or understand what I’ve drawn. Sometimes, I leave written notes on sketches because the scrawling can be so frenetic and scribbley, that later when I go back to the sketch only the words can explain what is there.

Once I have a feel for what could be a good composition, I can then begin to spend some real time on getting the pieces in place, including character poses background and foreground elements, and other details to help complete the story or add to the theme.

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Legendary pinball artist and long-time Bally artistic director Paul Faris signs an Evel Knievel playfield at the Texas Pinball Festival.

For Fathom, there was a lot of time spent on creating the “dance” of the three characters. My art director Paul Faris was instrumental in helping achieve this composition and keeping the illuminated art focused in the center without having bad shadows from the display panel areas negatively affecting the overall visual quality.

On Strange Science my goal was to get away from the overtly detailed backglass style that I had learned from my mentors, and I wanted to try something different that had a more “in your face” attitude that could be viewed from a distance (across the arcade or bar) to help grab the first quarter, then the rest of the story could be told on the playfield.

On Hotdoggin’, it was more about the design feel and less about the characters. That was a mistake that I realized after I had invested too much time in all of the hotdoggy architecture, when I should have been focused on making the female lead character a better focal point. I still like the final outcome for the pure colorful and playful vibe that it evokes.

Once the preliminary skeleton is built, a tight pencil is created, then transferred to illustration board. I usually do a color sketch, either very rough, or very tight, depending on my confidence going into the final painting. I prefer to work out all of the color issues in the color sketch phase so once I start committing to paint, I have less to figure out since painting can be stressful as printing deadlines approach. The painting phase may be the only time I can enjoy listening to music since most all the problems are figured out and it’s all about doing the best I can with a brush or an airbrush.

The final detail phase is critical to pushing the piece to the best it can be. This is where I review the entire piece and sweat the small stuff. Small highlights on edges can create the illusion of reality and correct lighting. And adding glows or reflective edge or fill lighting can help create the drama needed to pop characters off the background.

Many things have changed since then but just like any kind of structure, be it a building, or a vehicle, or a sculpture, it’s all about the internal structure, or the skeleton. In illustration, the accuracy of the final drawing before adding the “flesh” (or paint) onto that skeletal structure is key: no amount of color or flair can help a bad layout.

CD: In recent years, a dichotomy has appeared: pitting pinball as low culture amusement against pinball as high culture pop art.  Does having your commercial art being reproduced as a museum quality print also serve to bring your commercial art into a new artistic light?

GF: I have always hoped that pinball art, in all of its lowbrow glory, could someday get recognized by a larger community of art collectors or aficionados. Our small fraternity of artists that have had the pleasure of making a living from the silverball have not only enjoyed the creative freedom and storytelling that pinball has allowed, but it has become our passion to create a unique artform that can provide entertainment as well.

CD: Are there any other titles you worked on that will be available in this art print series in the future?

GF: At some point in the near future I hope to introduce Frontier, Dr. Dude, Party Zone and a few others. CD: The prints appear to be a Pinball Life exclusive.

CD: Do you have any final thoughts or comments for fans of your work?

GF: I appreciate the legions of pinball fans worldwide and am humbled to know that my name has become synonymous with pinball art. Thanks to all who have ever played, purchased, or refurbished a pinball machine in the hopes that they could be mildly entertained by this unique piece of American history. Pinball has always had a certain “cool factor” and I hope that I can continue to help support a small part of that “cool”.

Further Reading:

Pinball Life – Greg Freres Classic Bally Framed Artwork
Wizbang Pinball – Official Blog
Whizbang Pinball – Official Facebook Page
Stern Pinball – Greg Freres Joins Stern Pinball
Internet Pinball Database – List of games on which Greg Freres was a contributor


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PEOPLE: Art from Comet Pinball

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If you are going to change your incandescent bulbs to the brighter, more versatile, and more efficient light emitting diode bulbs (LEDs), you’ve got lots of options out there–in both LED style and the vendors who offer them.  The choice can be absolutely overwhelming.  And there is pressure to get it done right the first time…to completely LED a pingame with a pre-made kit through most LED vendors, it is going to cost you upwards of $200USD.  In most cases, it is worth it, providing a fresh facelift to an otherwise tired-looking game.  I subscribe to the LED philosophy “LESS IS MORE”, choosing to dot my general illumination, controlled inserts and backbox sparingly with LED bulbs, holding back on the use of excessive colour and blinding brightness.  To date, all my LED needs have been filled by Arthur Haber at Comet Pinball.  I placed my first order with Mr. Haber shortly after he opened for business, and I immediately got that warm and fuzzy feeling that I had ordered from the right place.  Mr. Haber called (yes, on a telephone landline) to personally thank me for my order, which completely blew my mind…to think that kind of personal service still existed.  Days later the LEDs were at my door complete with a few free extras, which included a small sampler pack of Comet products to try out in different areas of my games.  Comet Pinball, in my opinion, is the leader in online LED sales, offering a quality product, a wide range of options to fit your modding needs and absolutely unbeatable pricing.  Comet Pinball does not offer $200 cookie-cutter kits.  Rather, the site promotes experimentation and lighting the game to your own personal tastes, and in doing so will hit a price point that is much less than the cost of a pre-made kit.  Mr. Haber is no stranger to me, we e-mail often, so it was only natural I ask him a few questions about his business and the state of the pinball LED union.

Credit Dot: How long has Comet LED been in operation?

Arthur Haber: The official website launch was September 2013, so we just celebrated our official “one year” anniversary.

CD: How did you get into the LED business?

AH: I had started experimenting with LEDs and Pinballs as far back as 1976.  I started tinkering with LEDs and adding lights to pachinko and pinball machines.  I was 16; they kept me entertained.  Much later, maybe six years ago, I became more involved with lighting up machines, but mostly for my own needs. I felt there was a need for certain bulbs and lighting that were not available in the market.

CD: Do you have a background in electronics?

AH: None whatsoever, but I am learning fast. My background is in manufacturing, product development, and inventory management.

CD: Putting lighting aside for a minute, how did you become interested in the pinball hobby?

AH: I spent my childhood by the Rockaway Boardwalk. There were pictures of me playing Bingo Pinball, at about the age of three.  I must have been eight years old, back in 1968, when I dropped my first nickel in a pinball machine.  I’ve been pretty much hooked for 46 years now.

CD: Does the “Comet” name derive from the colourful 80s Williams machine of the same name?

AH: In part, yes…but I also collect meteorites so a lot of the meaning derives from that.

CD: Where are your LEDs manufactured?

AH: The majority of the product line is assembled in China; many components are from Singapore, Taiwan, and a few pieces from Malaysia.

CD: What is communication like with a factory on the other side of the world?

AH: Communication can be difficult sometimes–it reminds me when I ordered “red” and received “orange”, they thought they nailed it, but it was an unacceptable error to pass it on to my customers…many emails ensued.  Mostly, it’s the time difference that is problematic…it means I am working until 4 AM.  However, it is rewarding to learn about other cultures.

CD: What factors do you take into consideration when developing new products?

AH: I suppose it starts with looking at specific games, and finding that a different lighting solution is needed than is currently offered in the marketplace.  In most cases, those solutions boil down to brightness and direction of throw.  Many ideas for new products spring from the minds of fellow pinheads, and I’m grateful for all their help and suggestions.

CD: So customer opinion and feedback greatly influence the development of new products?

AH: Quite significantly. It has taken me a while to realize that any product will ride the full bell curve of opinion, but finding compromise is what I shoot for in many circumstances.

CD: What is the development process like for you? Do you just dream it up and have the factory build it, or is there more to it on your end?

AH: There really isn’t any set way.  Sometimes, it starts with a sketch and then countless emails with the manufacturer to prototype the idea.  Other times it’s an adaption of an existing product. I have sampled anything and everything unique in the world of LEDs I could find to see if they would have a viable use in pinball.  From LEDs in sneakers, to military surplus–LEDs are now everywhere.  I have toyed with everything from bicycle motion LEDs to Chinese military flashlight bulbs.

CD: Competition is stiff in the LED world with lots of companies offering lighting solutions. What sets Comet apart?

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A Comet Pinball exclusive: the extremely versatile SMD light strips, available in both 3SMD and 7SMD versions in a variety of colours.

AH: First, I hope people see our website uses a more efficient way of ordering.  In entering a 3 page bulb order, there will be a massive amount of time saving compared to our competitors ordering systems.  Our choice of product also sets us apart.  Most vendors have offered three brightness levels, whereas we boast a dozen levels of brightness.  We have a vast selection of exclusive products found nowhere else: our Op-Max double patented bulb throwing over 300 degrees of light, our 6.3V Colored LED Strips, and our Superflux line just to name a few.  We also simply strive to have the lowest price we can and offer low shipping of $3.95, and free shipping with orders over $99.  Finally, we have a different approach to lighting.  The standard method has been the same size bulb everywhere in a game. By working with light brightness and throw, our philosophy is to control the lighting to one’s taste and work with different bulbs and brightness to create depth of field.

CD: How can you achieve true depth of field with LEDs?

AH: Put brighter bulbs in the back of a game, it is amazing what 2-4 Op-Max can do in the back of a playfield in newer games with plastic layers.

CD: You have a fierce commitment to keeping prices low.  How do you keep your prices so competitive?

AH: To toot my own horn a bit, it starts with being a good buyer. I already have factory production in four countries in the East; sourcing was done with the help of workers living in production centers. Business references were already tenured. Having a detailed Inventory Control system here keeps us efficient and prices low.

CD: A few hours after placing my first order, my telephone rang, and it was you, calling to say thank you for my order…and we then proceeded to shoot the breeze about pinball games for a half-an-hour!  Can you describe your unique approach to customer service?

AH: That is likely best described as “getting old”!  In my business and personal life, the Golden Rule (“Treat others how you’d like to be treated”) was what I was taught by my father, and taught to him by his father. I love pinball, and while this is a business, I still wish to keep it a hobby and a joy.  In that regard, I see every order that comes through, and will e-mail, or call, based on something I see.  We check each order to ensure customers received all possible discounts, and follow up if we see any anomalies.  Also, I’m hoping this to be a “retirement business”.  When I retire, I’ll be able to travel the country in an RV, and visit all my new pinhead friends I’ve gained through the business!

CD: You are an active member on Pinside.  Does this play a big part in promoting the business? Are there any challenges to being the owner of the company AND being a member of a public forum in such a small, tight-knit community?

AH: Pinside is a great community of pinheads!  Sharing my products with others like me makes me feel great, and indeed, is invaluable to the business side of things.  While I was advised not to do it this way, I had to go with my gut, which was to approach it honestly. With many other great vendors out there, only through mutual success can we best serve the hobby.  I describe my Pinside persona as “open”: my ears and eyes are open to the community to hear and observe their needs and respond to their feedback.  Certainly there are business bumps such as differences of opinion. 

CD: You said to me once that LED use (and degree of LED use) is a very personal preference and a highly customizable experience. Is this the reason why you do not offer stock kits of LEDs for popular games?

AH: That is one very good reason. Personal preferences start with the player…their age, their eyes, and their tastes are all factors.  Next, you have to consider ambient lighting: are you playing with the lights on or off?   A kit addresses only one view and that is fine in many cases.  It is not hard to learn what brightness and lighting effects please an individual. The joy of doing this, and the unique result, is as personal as decorating a Christmas tree.  I would like to think that most people would enjoy tweaking the look of their game immensely and having a completely unique result!  However, it is also about cost.  While you can save money purchasing a kit, if you purchase in bulk, you can save so much more–sometimes up to 50% less.

CD: Since you do not offer kits, what advice can you give or sampler packages can you recommend to potential customers who want to explore the LEDs you have to offer?

AH: We are working on some additional information for the site, which we hope will serve as a good guide.  Basically, it starts all with experimentation, and ends with having a few different types of each bulb handy to see what works best.

CD: The LED detractors’ biggest complaint about LED use is “ghosting”. I’m under the understanding that this is a general term that is used to describe multiple phenomena–ghost, strobe, flicker. Can you briefly describe the difference between them, and what products you have available to combat these annoyances.

AH: The technical difference for all these issues is pretty robust.  But ghosting specifically is low residual current, still in the “line” that causes a few insert lights to faintly light when using LEDs.  Bulbs deemed “non-ghosting” exist with several different methods of restricting this leftover voltage, keeping the bulb and insert truly “OFF” when they are supposed to be.  Games, on average, can have from 2-8 bulbs that ghost.  We carry two types of non-ghosting bulbs: Optix Super Flux, which is a no-ghost/no-flicker/reduced strobing bulb specifically for inserts, and a high quality non-ghosting product in three, and soon four, different types and brightness.

CD: What is your best-selling bulb?

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LED (light emitting diode) bulbs on the left which have the light source encapsulated in a plastic lens versus the SMD (surface mounted diode) on the right which have their light source mounted directly on the face.

AH: In single LEDs, it is the dome or bullet shape.  Despite this, my personal favorite is still the flat-top bulb.  In SMD, a standard 5050 frosted sells the best–it is the same bulb used in most “kits”.  However, this is quickly being replaced by the twin 2835 SMD, the bulb used in Star Trek and the Walking Dead which is much, much brighter than standard bulbs!  This allows inserts in yellow and orange to finally use yellow and orange bulbs and achieve a richer color rather than using 5050 Warm whites.  Our Sunlight color, an exclusive, is the Kelvin between warm and natural white has been flying off the shelves as it is the perfect color for every game–just soft enough to reduce harshness, but still provides plenty of pop.

CD: Can you offer any general tips or rules of thumb when experimenting with LEDs?

AH: Set your baseline brightness for your general illumination first.  Some pinball themes lend themselves to be bright, others to be naturally dark.  Do you wish to play in the dark?  Are your eyes sensitive to LEDs?  These answers will allow you to choose the best brightness for general illumination.  The inserts, as a general rule of thumb, should always be color matched, and we recommend brighter bulbs for larger inserts: a two SMD Faceted or 4 SMD to fill the whole insert with light.  Backboxes are fun. For some backglass art you can use just one brightness, others have certain graphics that you’ll want to create a 3-D depth of field lighting by mixing several brightness levels to control light and shadow.   LED and SMD lighting can really make the backbox art POP!

CD: Can you give us a sneak peak at what is on the horizon for Comet?

AH: We are always playing with new stuff. We have launched some twenty new products in one month!  We are currently trying to solve an issue with our 6.3V RGB strips.  We are also testing LEDs designed specifically for older Stern and Bally games that require a board addition.  And a few secret things I can’t tell you about, too.  As for promotions, stay tuned for a wild a crazy Black Friday Sale…

CD: Any closing words of advice for the pinball community?

AH: I think  following my personal motto goes a long way: “It’s Pinball! Have fun! Don’t take the hobby so seriously!”

Please visit Comet Pinball at http://www.cometpinball.com.  Mr. Haber can be reached at admin@cometpinball.com or can be found posting on Pinside under the handle “OLDPINGUY”.


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PEOPLE: Drop Target’s Jon Chad & Alec Longstreth

In late July I raved about Drop Target Zine, the homebrew pinball magazine, illustrated, written and self-piblished by Jon Chad and Alec Longstreth. To celebrate the release of DTZ #6 earlier this afternoon, available through this link for a mere $5USD plus shipping, I had the opportunity to ask Mr. Chad and Mr. Longstreth a series of questions about their publication, their interests, and the hobby in general. I must say that these guys are absolutely sincere and genuine in their appreciation for pinball–it shows in this interview, but also reaches out and grabs you on each and every fantastically illustrated page of Drop Target. Every pinball enthusiast owes it to themselves to read every issue of this part-comic/part-magazine hybrid. The duo took time out to participate in a Credit Dot interview while the ink was drying on Issue #6…hopefully it wasn’t too much of a distraction!

Credit Dot: Did your appreciation for pinball begin when you were younger, or is it more of a recent phenomenon?

Alec Longstreth (ABL): I would have told you it was a recent thing, but a few years ago we were at Funspot in New Hampshire and I was going down their line of games, playing them all, when I had this weird sensation. I was playing Close Encounters of the Third Kind (Gottlieb, 1978) and all of the sounds and the playfield art felt eerily familiar. Suddenly I remembered that my orthodontist’s office had this machine on free play in his waiting room and I spent many an hour as a kid playing that game while I was waiting for my older sisters to get their braces off.

Jon Chad (JON): I didn’t have much of a connection with pinball as a kid. I remember playing an Indiana Jones (Williams, 1993) machine in a hotel when I was young and a Elvis (Stern, 2004) machine in a college student center. Both times I had a blast, but my lack of skill made for short games. I just didn’t play long enough to catch the bug.

CD: How did you guys first meet? What were your first impressions of each other?

JON: We owe our friendship to The Center for Cartoon Studies in White River Junction, Vermont. In 2007, Alec was a summer workshop faculty member and I was an intern. A year later we both moved to White River Junction to work at CCS. Alec was a friendly, high energy guy who was really generous with his time.

ABL: Ha ha, yeah. I get pumped about stuff, and I could tell right off the bat that Jon was the same way. I remember a few months into our stint both living in White River Junction, we had to make a trip to IKEA to buy some new tables for CCS and we both just had a blast. Jon had never been to an IKEA before and it really felt like we were going on an adventure. He got pumped, and I fed off of that energy. And that mutual excitement is what I feel makes Drop Target really special. We try to infuse every article and illustration and comic with our positive enthusiasm for pinball.

CD: That enthusiasm really shines through in DTZ. Under what circumstances did you decide to self-publish a zine about pinball?

ABL: Jon and I were both teaching a summer workshop at CCS in 2010. At the end of the workshop, we had a picnic planned at the park, but it ended up raining that day. Thank goodness it did! On the fly, we decided to go hang out at a new pool hall that had recently opened up and in the back corner they had a Star Wars: Episode One (Pinball 2000) machine. We started playing it together and instantly got hooked. Jon and I have both been creating our own minicomics and zines for years. When we both got into pinball it was a natural impulse to take that enthusiasm and excitement and share it with everyone else through a zine.

Unassembled pages of DTZ#6, courtesy of Alex Longstreth.

CD: With pinball being a physical alternative to console and mobile gaming, and the zine being a tangible alternative to online storytelling and communication, it seems that both subject and medium usurp popular technology to some degree. Was this a consideration in creating DTZ?

JON: I played a lot of video games growing up, but the thing that makes pinball unique to me is the physicality of it. It’s a whole world under that glass! There are things that you can do with pinball that can’t be replicated in any kind of video game experience. Alec and I both share a passion for books in their physical form. When you’re holding an issue of a self-published book you’re touching something that the authors created, and there’s a connection there. Each pinball machine was actually touched by the workers on the factory line. They assembled it. It’s not the same thing with a video game.

CD: How hard is it to work with each other, being on opposite coasts?

ABL: Well, it’s a lot easier than it probably used to be! We take advantage of all that current cloud-based technology has to offer. We have a Google Docs spreadsheet for Drop Target with all seven issues laid out. We can both view and edit that document at the same time while we are on the phone. We also create a Dropbox folder with all of the current issue’s assets. When Jon uploads a new spot illustration or text document with his latest write-up out in Massachusetts, I get a little notification that it has been uploaded and I can check it out on my computer in California. It’s pretty amazing!

JON: That being said, we need to be together, and at the Center for Cartoon Studies to make the zines. The CCS lab has all kinds of screen printing equipment, photocopiers and industrial paper cutters that we use to produce Drop Target. Without access to that equipment Drop Target would not be financially feasible. Luckily, CCS asks us to come out once a year to teach a summer workshop or two, so our production schedule revolves around that. I know the fans wish issues came out faster, like when we were both in White River Junction, but we’d rather have one issue a year and know that it’s the best it could be!

CD: The comic style art is a big part of the zine. Are there any challenges to telling a story about pinball using the comic medium?

ABL: That’s really important to us. Our goal is to never have a two-page spread in any issue of DTZ that does not have some image on it. Jon and I are both image makers so we try to load every issue with as many comics and illustrations as possible. As for challenges…it’s hard drawing pinball machines! Jon is much better at technical drawing than I am – he makes it look easy – but I’m pretty sure it’s challenging for him as well.

JON: Definitely. A lot of the stories about pinball are really about the people playing pinball. We draw comics with people all the time, so that’s no problem. Drawing pinball machines – that’s the real monkey wrench!

ABL: Yeah, I specifically keep my DTZ drawings a little looser than my regular comics work, so that I’m not held fully accountable to the accuracy of something. If you get too tight than a single button out of place looks bad, but if you keep it loose you can be a little more willy-nilly.

CD: So what is the hardest part in illustrating a pinball machine?

JON: The proportions. Something’s always off. The height of the cabinet. The angle that the backbox tilts out, or the angle of the legs. You wouldn’t think it, but there’s almost no right angles in a pinball machine!

ABL: The backbox tilts out??? Wow, I guess you’re right, that never occurred to me! Ha ha, there you can see the difference between my drawings of pinball machines and Jon’s!

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Mr. Chad screen-printing DTZ#6 covers while the PAPA finals stream in the background, courtesy of Alec Longstreth.

CD: You mentioned earlier that you use the comic medium to tell the stories of personal pinball experiences, and in doing so, you end up illustrating yourselves a lot. How accurate is the portrayal of the cartoon “Jon” and “Alec” to the real Jon and Alec?

JON: Well, you do edit a bit in autobiographical comics, but I think our portrayals of ourselves and each other are pretty accurate. We do really get this excited about pinball!

ABL: For me it’s weird because I had this massive beard when we drew the first few issues and now I have a more “normal” beard. Sometimes when I meet DTZ readers in real life they are surprised that my big beard is gone.

JON: I have the opposite problem! I only draw hair on one side of my arms, but actually it goes all the way around. I am 50% harrier than I depict myself in my comics!

CD: Who are some of your artistic influences outside of the pinball world?

ABL: I think all of our artistic influences come from outside the world of pinball, because we only got into pinball later in life, as adults. We are both cartoonists, so mostly we were influenced by the comics we read while growing up. For me it was cartoonists like Carl Barks (Donald Duck, Scrooge McDuck), Bill Waterson (Calvin & Hobbes), and Hergé (The Adventures of Tintin).

JON: I agree. While I wouldn’t say that pinball art has influenced my drawings, I will say that the experience of playing pinball itself has definitely influenced some of our design decisions in putting together an issue of Drop Target. If you look at the cover images for Issues #1-6, they slowly take you through a game of pinball. Issue #1 has a plunger, issue #2 is the lanes at the top, issue #3 is the bumper pit, and so forth. I won’t tell you what’s going to be on the cover of our last issue, but let’s just say when you put all seven issues together, a full game of pinball will be represented. Also, each issue has an illustration on the back that is based on the “match” screen from whatever game is in our “Replay Review” article. Instead of the standard “20” score, we invert the numbers so that for issue #2 the match number is “02.” This is the last thing you see of the issue, the same way the match screen is the last thing you see when you play a game of pinball. KNOCK!

CD: In reading DTZ, you seem to capture the wonder, purity and idyllic nature of pinball: the thrill of chasing high scores, a night of playing with friends, the camaraderie of moving machines. How much does the medium you are using play into capturing this spirit of pinball?

ABL: Cartoonists have a term called “emenata” which are those sweat marks that fly off a character’s head when they are excited or stressed out or surprised. More generally, you can use aspects of drawing that don’t exist in the real world to help enhance a moment. So if I play a great game of pinball, in comics there will be little swirly lines coming out of my head. Or if Jon has to solder his first molex connector the background may fill up with a million wires to indicate how stressful that experience felt. Obviously, we feel like comics is the best storytelling medium out there, because we are both cartoonists. I think one of the big challenges of Drop Target for us has been to bring the same level of excitement and clarity to our writing. We both probably write about 10,000 words for each issue (that is a total guess, I don’t know the real number – it’s probably more!). Before we print an issue we have these long proofreading meetings where we argue about punctuation, capitalization and grammar. I think when we look back on DTZ as a project, that might be the area where we both grew the most, as writers.

CD: How good are you at playing the game itself? Who is the better player?

JON: Alec is the better player. 100% When I get to a game, I’m too taken with the spectacle to stop and read the rules. Going through and hitting shots and starting modes is just so exciting. Alec actually studies the rules on the card like a smart player before starting a game.

ABL: Okay, that might be the case, but I think if Jon is on fire, you can’t touch him. There is that zone and when Jon enters it, he’s going to be better than I am. He put up a 239 million score on that Star Wars: Episode One game that I could never touch (also, he was the Ramp Champ!) In DTZ we talk about Jon mastering his rage. He used to get really worked up, but now he has that totally under control and he can keep it cool during a game in a way that I can not. If I start doing well in a game, I get so nervous, I start shaking. I recently played in my first tournament in Oakland. It was double elimination (I think that’s what it was called?) you could only lose twice and then you were out of the tournament. I was a stressed out ball of nerves and I lost my first two games: one, two. I was out of there in fifteen minutes! But then at home, when I am on my lunch break I can play my Medieval Madness for an hour on one credit and get up into the hundreds of millions. That’s something I’ll have to work on if I want to continue to compete (which I don’t think I do!)

CD: Do you have a personal collection of machines? If so, what do you have?

JON: Alec has his Medieval Madness and I used to have a Jurassic Park (Data East, 1993) and a Arena (Premier, 1987). Both machines treated me well, but I had to downsize when I moved from White River Junction to Northhampton, MA. I loved Jurassic Park and I took good care of it, so it was an easy sell. The Arena was well loved, but I hadn’t put as much work into it. I secretly want one of those pinball cocktail tables. I figure it would be a good compromise between me having a pinball machine and my roommates not going ballistic.

CD: I’m no zine expert: how crowded is the pinball zine scene?

ABL: One of the most exciting things, when we started getting into pinball was finding out that there had been a pinball zine during the ’90s zine boom, called Multiball. It was a really successful zine; the print runs were up in the tens of thousands in its heyday. We were able to contact the original authors and interview them for our first issue, which felt like passing the “pinball zine torch” from them to us.

JON: Later, we found out that there are still a couple other pinball zines, like Skillshot in Seattle, which has more than twenty issues! Even more exciting, we sometimes get some new pinball zines that people send us, which they were inspired to create because they read Drop Target. That feels really good.

ABL: Yeah, Drop Target ends with issue seven, so we’re excited to see if some other pinball zines will pop up in our place. It’s cool to think we can pass that torch to someone else.

CD: How many copies are in a first pressing run of Drop Target?

JON: We’re shooting for 400, but because there is screen printing involved, we have to account for spoilage. I actually screen print 500 covers, but usually about 50 don’t make it, because they are off-center or they just don’t print right. So even though the official print run number is 400, it’s more like 450.

CD: Does DTZ have an international following? What are some of the places your zine has shipped?

ABL: All over the place! Australia! France! Germany! Lots of people in Canada! A few in South America. There are pinball fans all over the world. One of the great things about our collaboration, is that Jon is a master screen printer, and I hate screen printing. So Jon does all of that stuff – it’s important to him. To make an equal division of labor, I take on all of the shipping. I usually have a few issues of my minicomic Phase 7 in print at any given time, so I’m always making trips to the post office, and I have the necessary shipping materials on hand at all times (packing tape, envelopes, a Stamps.com account, etc.).

CD: Once a first pressing sell out, a second run is released without the colour gatefold or screen-printed cover. Are these limited in number as well?

ABL: No. I just get those made with a local printer in California in small batches of about fifty copies. When we run out, I print more.

CD: Who assembles the magazine? How many man hours go into the assembly process?

JON: It’s funny you should ask! We’ve been doing that all week! It probably takes about 40 hours of production work to lay out the zine, proofread it, screen-print the covers, print up all the assets, fold the color center spreads, collate all of the assets and then fold and staple 400+ copies of the zines. That number does not include all the time it takes for us to write and draw all of the articles.

00-dtint04CD: This month brings Issue #6 of DTZ…can we get a sneak peek at the contents and features?

ABL: Each issue has a theme, and this time around it’s the Design issue. Jon got to actually go to the Stern factory and interview some of the very talented designers who work there. Our buddy Ryan Claytor also contributed another great interview with a well-known pinball artist. Then we’ve got our usual bevy of articles reviewing various books and movies about pinball, and locations to play pinball. The dream machines for this issue are: Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, which I designed, a Giant-Robo machine that Jon made and our center spread artist this issue is by a cartoonist pal of ours named Gabby Schulz (AKA Ken Dahl). His is Big Mushroom Hunter and it looks amazing in full color.

CD: With Issue #6 available now, how many issues do you foresee in the entire DTZ run? You teased earlier that 7 issues would make the run complete.

ABL: Right from the beginning we envisioned that Drop Target would run for seven issues. It’s great that so many people are into our zine, but for us this is a side project. We see comics as our real work. As the number of issues of DTZ stacks up, it takes more and more of our time (reprinting old issues, sending out orders, etc.) so I think we are both looking forward to wrapping it up.

JON: Yeah, we’ve started talking about the eventual Drop Target Omnibus edition. We won’t be able to have all of the bells and whistles that we can with a handmade zine in the final collection, but we’re going to make sure it’ll be a special book. It’s going to be over 500 pages, and we’ll load it up with a bunch of extra pinball art and comics from various other projects we have worked on over the years, so that hopefully it’ll be its own thing.

CD: What is your favorite issue of Drop Target? To make the question a bit more heavy, if one issue had to go into a time capsule and represent the entire run, which issue would it be?

ABL: I feel like the Moves issue is our strongest issue. The theme really holds together with all the content and that Aaron Renier center spread of Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure is so killer. It’s our most popular issue, because I think it gives a lot of new players an entry point to learn how to play pinball better.

CD: My favorite feature of DTZ is “Dream Machines”. Can you outline the creative process as to how you come up with these fictional tables and their rules?

JON: For me, it starts with picking a property or a piece of media from my childhood that I really love. Then I superimpose that over a current pinball machine that I really like. By the time it goes from my brain to the paper it’s its own beast. I try to work in lots of details and then flesh out the ruleset. When I was a kid, I was super passionate about action figures and as a result, my playfields tend to have a lot of toys.

ABL: Yeah, sometimes I feel bad because I base all of my designs on other machines. I’ve used Scared Stiff, Fire!, The Tommy’s Who, and this issue I’m using the Williams Indiana Jones. I’m assuming that pinball people pick up on this immediately. I hope people see that mini-playfield in the upper left hand corner and go, “Oh cool – he based it off Indiana Jones!” I don’t mean any disrespect to the designers that created those machines, although I’ve also never specifically noted which game I’m referencing. I’m just not as good at drawing this stuff as Jon. He can pull all that perspective and stuff out of thin air – I have to base my drawing on something else, or I’ll never get anywhere.

CD: Of all the dream machines that have appeared in DTZ, which is the one table which you’d like to see produced by a pinball company?

JON: I feel like Ryan Claytor’s Groo the Wanderer dream machine was the real deal. The theme is tied to every toy and feature, the board is interesting, and the ruleset is great! The playfulness in that machine is so well matched to pinball. Also, I just love Groo!

CD: With Harry Potter making a recurring appearance in the Dream Machine feature each issue, are you as surprised as I am that the theme was never perused for a pinball machine?

ABL: I actually saw a George Gomez panel at the Pacific Pinball Expo and he said that they tried to get the rights for a Harry Potter machine, but J.K. Rowling wouldn’t have it. I guess she didn’t like the idea that she would have no control over where her characters would be seen, like a pinball machine in a bar. I’m kind of glad they never did it. It would have been photoshopped together with the actors from the movies, and the movies are a candle compared to brilliant sunlight of the books. It also means that I get to have a bunch of fun drawing a new one for every issue! I’m going to do Deathly Hallows as a pinball 2000 machine in issue seven. It’s going to be so much fun.

CD: For those not familiar with self-publishing, and drawing on your experiences with DTZ and other projects, what are some of the challenges that exist for the self-publisher?

JON: Distribution. Traditional publishing is tapped into a big system of promotion and and a network of shipping companies, where as we are just two dudes living in our respective apartments!

ABL: Yeah, that’s a huge topic. I think it’s okay though. Part of the fun of DTZ is that it’s a personal connection. It’s something made by two dudes, not some promoted piece of media being handed down by some huge corporation. You make a deeper personal connection with
your readers.

CD: What other non-pinball related projects do you have on the go?

JON: Alec and I have a plethora of comics projects on the burners. Right now, I started working on this really eclectic book that combines a lot of different pieces of media together to tell a single story. There’s newspaper, audio, magazine, and online components. I’m also working on a sci fi graphic novel that is essentially a love letter to anime and saturday morning cartoons. The story is told in a really amorphous, episodic way.

ABL: I just recently self-published my first graphic novel, Basewood. It’s a 216-page fantasy adventure story. Then, my buddy Andy Hentz and I made a rock opera reinterpretation of the story, called Songs From the Basewood. I’m also always working on the next issue of Phase 7. Right now I’m finishing up a three-issue arc all about my favorite band Weezer.

CD: The two of you have done work for the Professional and Amateur Pinball Association and for Stern Pinball. How did these affiliations come about?

ABL: Well, before Jon and I started blogging for Stern Pinball, we were sending them comp copies of every issue. We love what they do, and what they bring to pinball. They got in touch with us, and offered us a place on their website to post images/comics/etc. It was a lot of fun for, but between that, DTZ, teaching, and our other comics, we were burning the candle at ten ends.

JON: Ha ha, the PAPA thing is a funny story. I caught this bug that was going around the school a couple years ago, and was totally out of commission. That night, I was in fever dream mode; totally sick and out of my mind. In the middle of the night, I rolled over and composed this really enthusiastic email to Bowen Kerins telling him how much I love his tutorial videos, and that I would love to help out or participate with PAPA, if I could. The next morning I got up, seen that I had sent the email and freaked! I assumed that Bowen would think I was a huge nerd. Not the case! He got back to me later that day with an enthusiastic reply, and put me in touch with Mark Steinman. The art I’ve gotten to do with them has been some of my favorite.

CD: What pingames are currently holding your attention?

JON: There’s a Ripley’s Believe it or Not! in a bar a block or two from me, and I’ve been clocking a lot of games on that machine! But I’m really excited to see the new Hobbit game, because I love the Hobbit so gosh darn much.

ABL: I currently live about five blocks from the Pacific Pinball Museum in Alameda, CA. My wife and I bought a couples subscription so I can go in there as much as I want for a year. I’ve been playing a bunch of El Dorado (the old one with all the drop targets) and in the lead up to DTZ #6 I was playing a lot of Indiana Jones, to learn that playfield. Also, Free Gold Watch in San Francisco just got a Star Wars: Episode One pinball machine, so I make it over there when I can. That’s still my favorite game.

The authors/artists admiring their work hot of the press, courtesy of Alec Longstreth.

CD: Being artists yourselves, what are some of the pinball art packages that impress you the most?

JON: One of the other machines that I found in Northampton, MA is a Monster Bash. I’m really impressed at how the different aesthetics and colors associated with each monster are melded together into one design. Also, who doesn’t love that back glass!?

ABL: I have stared at my Medieval Madness playfield for untold countless hours but I am still always finding new things on there. I love it! Really, I feel like every hand-drawn machine is a beautiful work of art. From the side cabinet art, to the backboxes to the playfield – there is so much there to enjoy.

CD: Of the great pinball artists that have worked in the field over the years, who are your favourites?

JON: I would say I know more John Youssi games than any other artist. I’m getting to the point where I can tell if a machine is by him, without looking it up.

ABL: I gotta plead ignorance here. I know there are important pinball artists, like Python Anghelo, but I couldn’t tell you what one of his playfields looked like. I guess I gotta start doing more research on who made all the art on these great games.

CD: In the last fifteen years or so, there was a trend that moved pinball playfield art away from artistic renderings by an artist to a reliance on “photoshopped” artwork. However, the art on both Stern’s Metallica and Skit-B’s Predator appear to be a throwback to the days of “original art”: is this a trend you hope will continue in future pinball releases, or is it a non-issue?

JON: We both absolutely, 100% hope that hand-drawn art will make a comeback! It’s not like the skills and techniques have been lost, and I think that the recent, very positive reception of Metallica proves that the community has an interest in hand-drawn art.

CD: Have you been surprised at the reception of Drop Target Zine in the pinball community?

ABL: I wouldn’t say surprised. Zines often cater to niche interests and Drop Target is no different. I will say that we are both very grateful that the pinball community has gotten behind the project and supported it. For us, the more interesting aspect is that we mostly exhibit at comics shows, so we have actually turned a lot of cartoonists and comics fans on to pinball. It’s fun to be outside the usual audience and to bring more diversity to the pinball community.

CD: I think you are totally correct in saying that the pinball community has wholly embraced Drop Target Zine. Do you have any closing thoughts or comments to your readers?

JON: Thank you so much for these outstanding questions! And thanks to the pinball community for sharing in our love and enthusiasm for pinball. Even though we’re coming up on the seventh and final Drop Target issue, pinball will continue to be a part of our lives for the rest of our lives!

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Issue #6 of Drop Target and all other back issues are available through the official DTZ blog.  Other projects by Mr. Chad and Mr. Longstreth can be found by visiting their respective websites below and by following them on twitter at @jon_chad and @AlecLongstreth.

Further Reading:
Alec-Longstreth.com – Official Website
The Fizzmont Institute of Rad Science – Jon Chad’s Official Website