As artistic mediums go, a glowing green Yoda figurine is a bit unusual, but it was just the touch Ed Webb needed to complete his vision. Added to a tree stump sculpted out of epoxy putty and a background of the swamp on Dagobah, it was the crown jewel in Webb’s “Spirit of Yoda.” Though other artists might have been content to use any old toy Yoda, the glow was key to the success of Webb’s piece. Not only because it evoked the serenity and power of Master Yoda, but also because it would be nearly impossible to tell if the Xbox 360’s power was on without it. The Spirit of Yoda is a faceplate, you see.
Xbox 360 owners can personalize their consoles by swapping out the removable plate that snaps on to the front of the unit. You can find faceplates featuring art from games like Assassin’s Creed or a simulated wood grain finish quite easily online or in retails stores. Other, more exotic designs are available from Japanese sellers. True collectors lust after the limited edition faceplates that PR firms hand out at industry events such as E3 – they often go for big bucks on auction sites like eBay. But why settle for something ordinary or pay a fortune for a limited edition model when you pay a pittance for something that’s truly one of a kind?
To date, Webb has made more than 170 distinct plates and nearly 300 plates total. His work, which can be found in the faceplate database on XboxAddict.com, honors everything from the Dallas Cowboys to My Little Pony to Pokémon, and of course lots and lots of Halo 3. Although his efforts have earned him a certain amount of recognition in the Xbox community, Webb didn’t set out to become known as an artist. He was just trying to give some stuff away.
Microsoft bestowed Webb, who’s known as “SpaceGhost2K” online, with one of its MVP Awards as thanks for his positive contributions to the Xbox community, such as lending a helping hand to organizers at Microsoft events and taking pictures of the Xbox 360 “Zero Hour” launch for the Xbox forums. Besides bragging rights, MVPs also sometimes get free games from Microsoft, and Webb thought it might be fun to celebrate the launch of the 360 Elite by sharing the wealth.
“I offered to give away a few of the games to the best custom faceplate that would look good on the black console,” he explains, but nobody seemed up to the challenge. “There were lots of Photochopped submissions, but no one actually made a faceplate, so I did.” Webb took a few days to make a Heroes-themed plate, a simple design using the lettering and the eclipse featured in the show’s opening credits. The community’s response was immediate and overwhelmingly positive – everyone wanted Webb to make them their own custom plate.
Creating the Heroes plate took little more than a visit to “a local guy who cuts vinyl stickers for car windows” and creative use of a nickel and spray paint in lieu of an airbrush to create the eclipse, but not all of Webb’s designs are so simple. Another Star Wars-themed plate features a hand-carved Sarlaac monster crawling out of the plate, grasping a tiny Boba Fett in one huge tentacle. A clear faceplate crafted to look like a gumball machine is decorated with the crane arm and aliens from Toy Story. Webb’s “Indiana Johnny” plate is impressive enough by itself, but comes in a wooden box painted with a “burned” image of the Ark of the Covenant.
Be it complex or basic, the creation of each of Webb’s plates follows the same general path. “I take a plate and either mask off the Ring of Light or remove it. I sand down the plate and spray it with a plastic-friendly primer,” he explains. “Once that is dry, I spray one color, let it dry, apply the stencil and spray a second color. Then I’ll add details by hand, or use other stencils, or what have you. Finally, I spray it with a sealer and reapply the power button once it’s all dry.”
How long a plate takes to go from concept to completion, however, varies as wildly as the plates themselves. Webb has a number of projects in progress at any given time, but he can complete a relatively simple design in just a week or two. Not all plates go so smoothly, however. “I have plates that are hanging on my wall, half-finished, mocking me because of their difficulty or a creative block or simply dissatisfaction with my ability to ‘pull it off.’ I literally have plates that were initiated months ago, that have never progressed beyond the concept,” sighs Webb.
Given the quality of his work, Webb could undoubtedly charge handsomely for his particular pieces of console personalization, but he asks little more from his customers than to simply cover his costs. “The plates basically pay for themselves, and that’s it,” he says. Materials such as the girl on his Bathing Beauty plate or the gate on his tribute to Arkham Asylum are usually no further away than the local toy store, but occasionally he must obtain them from online import shops or conventions. Webb is quite resourceful and creative when it comes to getting the tools he needs to complete a project, but there is one resource in particular he has yet to successfully track down.
“I know that Microsoft uses white faceplates in a 200-count box, because I saw two boxes at Zero Hour for the airbrushed DOA customs, and they used three boxes at the UK launch for the 600 plates that were graffiti painted by the Gorillaz guys. I’m still trying to figure out how to get access to one or two of those boxes,” he says.
You might expect someone with a “full-time hobby” of creating custom Xbox 360 plates to have a different plate for every day of the week, but Webb’s personal collection is surprisingly small. “The only plates that I have created myself and then added to my own collection are autographed plates. Two people that meant a lot to me growing up were Radio DJ, MC and music historian Dr. Demento, and blues musician Taj Mahal. They were both at an event at UCLA a few months ago, so I made custom plates for each of them and they signed them for me,” he says.
Webb’s Iron Giant faceplate was signed by the movie’s director, Brad Bird, who went on to helm Ratatouille and The Incredibles. Epic’s CliffyB signed Webb’s custom Gears of War 2 plate, Peter Molyneux added his signature to a Fable 2 piece and members of Rare signed Webb’s homage to Banjo Kazooie.
Members of the gaming industry aren’t the only signatures on Webb’s “to get” list, however. “I just finished a plate with the logo from the Northwestern, the boat featured in the show and game Deadliest Catch.,” he explains. “I was given a tour of their boat and made one for the Elite they play during downtime. I’m hoping they’ll sign one and return it to me for my collection, too. I’m trying to work a deal to meet the people on the American Idols: Live! tour. I need to get a plate ready, just in case.”
Despite the impressive array of faceplates he’s created, Webb downplays his abilities (“I think my creativity and sense of humor blind people to my lack of artistic talent,” he jokes) and is swift to point out that there are a number of faceplate customizers within the Xbox community. “The hard part is tracking them down,” he says, which is why the denizens of XboxAddict created a forum specifically dedicated to the customizing crowd. The XboxAddict community also recently launched what Webb describes as “the quintessential faceplate database,” which lists more than one thousand manufactured and custom plates. Plans are in place to make the database searchable and to let visitors mark off their favorites or indicate that they have a plate to sell or trade. “There is no central location for this hobby, and we’re trying to rectify that,” says Webb.
Webb hopes the database will not only entice collectors, but also inspire budding artists to create their own custom plates. “I’ve had people ask me about making plates because they didn’t want to ‘steal my ideas.’ I want to make it clear that it is my desire that everybody try their hand at making their own custom plate, even if it’s only drawing a design on a plate with a permanent marker,” says Webb.
If your Sharpie skills are somewhat lacking, you can always ask Ed Webb to help give your Xbox 360 a bit of personality. But do him a favor – don’t ask for a glowing Yoda.
Susan Arendt thinks her Viva Piñata plate looks absolutely smashing on her 360 Elite.