Interview with Zack Buchman


Zack Buchman is a New York-based designer and the Creative Director at Uncute, the company behind those adorable Sam & Max plushies that every fan clutches close at night.

A long-time fan of the series, which began with playing Hit the Road at an early age, Zack graciously gave up his time to talk about his inspirations, love of puppetry, and how our dog and rabbity-thing came to be plushed.

Hey, Zack! You’re a New York-based designer and, alongside Uncute, run your own puppet company called Furry Puppet Studio. Did your passion for the creative arts start at an early age?

Yeah, it did. I think most people's childhood experiences inform what they pursue to a surprising degree. I played Sam & Max Hit the Road and other adventure games at an early age. I especially love how those designs had to be very simplistic due to the constraints of the medium. All the animation was low res, some characters don't even have eyes, and the animators had to in some cases pick if a certain pixel was going to be an eye or an ear. I think that taught me to focus on the essence of characters rather than the detail.

Oh, and I love Jim Henson!

When you sit down to start work on a new project, where does your inspiration come from?

Sometimes it starts with a design that sparks joy and other times it starts with a loose concept.

For example, with Blobby and our Water Bears, the design came first. And things can change! Water Bear was originally a space cow and evolved over the years into what it is now. With Purritos, I had a goal of making foil-wrapped kitten plushies and I had to overcome a lot of design challenges to make it work. Obviously, they had to be cute, but also we had to make sure the essence of them could survive the production chain, and I wanted them to work as a series as well.

So it can be a concept or specific design that inspires — either way, we have to love the character first.

Do you have people you look up to, either personally or professionally, that help guide the choices you make?

Steve Purcell is a person I obviously have to bring up here. He’s an inspiration and we’ve kept in touch over the years. I admire his design sensibility and sense of humor.

In general, working with people you like and appreciate is one of the things that keeps me going. I’m super fortunate to go to work every day with people that I admire and appreciate as human beings. And I feel that this personal connection is what makes our work different. Hopefully it shows in the final output.

What makes puppetry special? What can you achieve with it that you can’t in other mediums?

Interesting question. I think the physical element of puppets is what makes them so special and helps the art form survive. You can touch and feel a puppet without any delay or buffer, and any decision can be made intuitively on the spot.

If you haven’t seen a puppet show, I strongly recommend seeing Puppet Up! by the Jim Henson Company. It’s an improvised stage show and is a good proof of concept.

It never ceases to surprise me when I see serious adults intuitively suspending their disbelief and just interacting with a puppet as if it were a real being, even when the puppeteer is fully visible.

What are some of your favourite puppet projects that you’ve worked on?

One of my favorite custom puppet projects was a Missy Elliott and Pharrell Williams music video called “WTF”. It was something that was out of my comfort zone, where we had to create elaborate marionettes in the likeness of the musicians and also be responsible for costumes. We also worked with artists chosen by production that were not puppeteers with TV experience, and I just really love the final result.

Another one was working with Apple in Japan. I’m not allowed to say much about that one due to a strict NDA, but the team, uncharacteristically, gave us almost complete creative freedom. It was just really, really, fun and we ended up working together for two years.

Are you a Sam & Max fan? What’s your history with the series and what do you like about it?

Yes! I am absolutely a fan. My first exposure to it was Sam & Max Hit the Road when I was a kid, after my father actually bought it for me at a store. When I was a child, most of the humor went over my head, but there was so much richness to it and a lot has stuck with me — the character animation was nothing like I’ve ever seen before in a computer game.

The Max plushie launched in 2017. What made the Sam & Max series and our favourite rabbity-thing a good candidate for plushing?

I think I always wanted to do it, I just didn't realize there were so many fans out there that wanted to buy it. I also felt like Max was always begging to become a plushie. There's just something about him that feels so… cuddly.

Six years after the Max plushie debuted, he now has a glorious Sam plushie to keep him company. What took so long, Zack?! And why was now the right time?

It’s a bit embarrassing to answer this. But I think I was intimidated by how complex and dimensional Sam’s design was. I always found it difficult to draw Sam on a model, and unlike Max, there were a lot of structural decisions to be made. Sam also has a full suit, hat, and a tie, and I was concerned that it would be too expensive to make. But it simply had to be done and it ended up not being as bad as I feared. I hope people appreciate the journey it took to make it happen!

What’s the process for creating an existing character as a plushie? Sam & Max have appeared in comics, games, and on TV, and always look a bit different in each outing — did any of these inform your designs?

Because of my personal connection to the characters, I had a pretty good idea of where I wanted to start. In both cases, my first point of reference was the variation of the characters from Sam & Max Hit the Road.

Obviously, it was a very collaborative process with Steve, and he created illustrations and provided feedback throughout. He’s a great person to work with — possibly because of his experience as a director at Pixar. He has a good idea of what he wants and a great idea of what he doesn’t want. He also lets you add your own take on things, which I think is the key to collaborating with someone you appreciate.

For example, Steve swayed me away from doing a giveaway of a Sam plushie that would wear only a loin cloth so people could dress him up. It was simply going to be too challenging. But maybe someday!

Uncute is “working toward a future where being Uncute is safe, fun, and celebrated” and donates a portion of proceeds to helping homeless and runaway youth. Why is this social aspect of business important to you?

After working in advertising for years, I realized no one really cares what commercials you’ve done, and even when you’re good at it, all you really do is help big companies make more money. Shifting to designing our own toys and creating original content has been surprisingly liberating for me and for the artists I work with. We get to make our own art and stories and help make a bigger impact by working with organizations that actually do something tangible. It’s been a game-changer for me on a personal level and I feel proud of our work.

Thanks so much for your time, Zack! What’s next for you?

Thank you. We’re about to release a few new toys in the upcoming weeks, which I’m extremely excited about. My personal favorite is Butt Dumplings, which have been in the works for what seems like an eternity. They’re basically squishy, cute dumplings and they have butts. They all come in little custom take-out boxes and they’re one of the most ridiculous things I’ve ever done. I’m honestly curious to see the response.