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O.C. ENTERPRISE / JAMES M. GOMEZ

Model Maker Turns Illusion Into Slices of Life : The Costa Mesa firm transforms flat drawings into three-dimensional miniatures or prototypes.

March 07, 1994|JAMES M. GOMEZ

COSTA MESA — Douglas Yates performs a special kind of legerdemain.

In a shop hidden away in a corner of Costa Mesa's industrial district, Yates makes fireworks displays that illuminate picturesque harbors, submarines that dive into coral reefs teeming with marine life, and rockets that fly to futuristic space stations.

Yates does not work for Disneyland--though he once did. And he does not work for a movie studio--though Universal Studios is one of his clients.

Yates is one of a handful of local industrial model makers, artists whose job it is to transform two-dimensional architectural and engineering drawings into miniature slices of life--or at least a believable facsimile.

"Our business is illusion," said Yates, who is president and owner of Model Technics Inc., an 18-year-old, privately held model-making firm. "We have to create reality out of illusion."

When it came to building his $450,000-a-year business, Yates created reality out of hard work, attention to detail and miles of pavement pounding. Yates had once aspired to be an architect, but he quit his studies 32 years ago when he realized that the only part of the profession that really inspired him was the model making.

He hasn't looked back since.

When he was still in his early 20s, Yates began knocking on the doors of building contractors, promising to build models for the same price that architectural firms were charging for their conceptual drawings.

He worked for several model-making firms, including one in Europe, finally landing a position at Disneyland, where he helped develop the Anaheim amusement park's master plan in 1975.

Within a year, Yates struck out on his own, driven by a desire to take full control of the creative process and be flexible enough to adapt to the evolution of the industry. He began honing his skills as an architectural model maker as well as branching out to other areas of the field, such as creating full-size prototypes ranging from missile and computer components to portable radio housings and auto parts.

He once turned out a model for Irvine-based Allergan Inc., a maker of eye and skin-care products, designing a new version of a contact lens holder.

One of his most recent models is a battery for a camcorder being designed by a division of Irvine-based Western Digital Corp.

Western Digital spokesman Bill Frank said the company needed the model to help engineers conceptualize how the battery pack would fit into the new product and if it would impede its operation. "The quality of the samples we received back far exceeded what we expected," Frank said. "Models are very important to us," he said. "His were very beautiful."

For the 18 years that Model Technics has been around, the art of industrial model making has evolved into a complicated science.

In the past, Yates said, static models and prototypes were enough to satisfy most customers. Today, adding special effects to models, especially architectural ones, is much in demand. Customers eager to woo prospective buyers and investors want to create a mood with the models they display, Yates said.

Doing just that is the key to Yates' latest project: a model of a resort proposed on the shore of the Persian Gulf. Last week, Yates and his crew of eight employees went to work on a tabletop model of what will eventually be a massive salt-water aquarium several stories high.

To make the project as appealing as possible, Yates' group decided to "push the envelope," equipping the model with lights and motors that will send replicas of sharks and whales swimming through a mini-reef in a giant aquarium that will be a resort attraction; make a submarine dive and surface; and even take tiny tourists for strolls along a promenade.

On a shop table, workers studied undersea photographs from books before sculpting plastic rocks and coral reefs and hand-painting the hundreds of tiny fish that will be added to the model.

"We had never built an aquarium before," Yates said as workers sawed and honed to make the hundreds of pieces fit snugly together. "But that is the nature of the business. You learn as you go along."

But whatever the job, Yates said, he feels that the talent he has recruited--artists and sculptors, mechanical engineers, architects, computers specialists--is sufficient to fill any job order or satisfy any imagination.

"My job is to take the vision of the clients and make it work for them," he said. "I have a lot of good people to make that possible. I guess you can call me the ringmaster."

If your Orange County company has annual sales of less than $10 million, we would like to consider it for a future column. Call O.C. Enterprise at (714) 966-7871.

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