Custom 'Whoa Nellie' pinball machine by Greg Freres and Dennis Nordman

Another interesting custom pinball machine project has started, this time by two veteran pinball designers: Dennis Nordman and artist Greg Freres.
They've started working on a conversion of an electro-mechanical pinball machine. The game is called Whoa Nellie. More information about their progress can be found on the official Whizbang pinball blog.
When I first started following their blog I thought (and probably many others) it was a hobby-project, just a one-off to keep them entertained. But I was wrong, it seems they want to start this into a commercial venture ?
I've interview Greg Freres about their project:

Whoa Nellie preliminary artwork
Preliminary backglass artwork. Work in progress..

Can you give a short introduction who you are and what you did/do ?
Dennis and I met in the pinball industry at Bally. I worked at Bally starting in '78 and Dennis in '81.
I worked as a pinball artist and art manager for 21 years and Dennis as a game designer. We worked together on several pinball projects including Elvira and the Party Monsters, Dr. Dude, Party Zone, and Scared Stiff. I also helped with early conceptual work for both Party Animal and Whitewater.
Dennis also designed pinball at Stern for a few years including Pirates of the Caribbean.

Currently I'm a freelance artist working mostly on redemption arcade games but I've also started designing beer labels for a local microbrewery and a Colorado micro-distillery. And of course Dennis and I started Whizbang Pinball last year. Dennis is also starting another business designing custom dollhouses and related products for that market.

So basically we're a couple of design oriented guys that just can't stop designing.

Do you have other pinball machines ? How did you get interested into pinball ?
If you mean do we own pinball machines then yes, I still have both Elvira games in my possession along with a Party Zone. Williams allowed team members to purchase games that we worked on for a nominal fee so I've owned quite of few of the games. But over the years we have both sold a number of games for various reasons.

I became interested in pinball during my college days. I wasn't an avid player but definitely dropped a number of quarters over the 4 years in school. Before college I was not familiar with pinball because the Chicago area had banned pinball for many years. My only other experience with coin-operated equipment was when I'd be on vacation with my family out-of-state.

When Dennis was in industrial design school he had a new cabinet design for pinball that he did for a final project. He was able to contact Bally and make arrangements for the company to view his cabinet design. He was then contracted to do the cabinet for Rapid Fire.

What are your favorite pinball machines ?
As a design team member I am most proud of both Elvira games, ST:TNG, Medieval Madness and Revenge from Mars. Of course I like most of the games that I worked on for different reasons but that group is important to me.
And again, as an artist, I like Dr. Dude and Party Zone because we took some chances with thematic direction and art. I especially liked the challenge of telling a comic style story on the backglass supported by the features on the playfield.

As a player I was most influenced by the Bally games of the late '70s because that's when I was playing the most pinball before I entered the business. Wizard, Eval Knieval, and Captain Fantastic are some of my favorites. I also liked playing a few games from Williams including Space Mission, Flash, and High Speed.

How did you get the idea of making a custom pinball machine ?
Last June, Dennis and I were asked to speak at the Northwest Pinball and Gameroom Show in Seattle, Washington about our days in pinball design. Before this weekend, Dennis and I had only seen each other a few times throughout the years at Pinball Expo and a special pinball art show in downstate Illinois. We hadn't worked together since Scared Stiff in 1996.

After spending the first day at the show we began to learn about hobbyists and pinball collectors doing custom games. I learned more about the fine artist, William Wiley, who had used a pinball machine as a vehicle (almost an interactive canvas) for his work. I found this idea of doing custom work for pinball intriguing as a former pinball artist.
Pinball was such a huge part of my life at one point that I really felt that I was missing something. And all of the collector shows that I was attending just made me miss it even more. I wanted to find a way to get my art back on pinball machines.

After losing some sleep that Saturday night excited about how to go about getting back into pinball through custom games, I presented the idea to Dennis at breakfast before we left for the airport and we both found the same energy immediately thinking about the potential for this idea.
Of course we weren't sure if there was a business model for this idea but we felt that our experience in the pinball industry could bring a new perspective to the idea of custom games.
On the plane trip back to Chicago Dennis and I brainstormed about 150 thematic directions we could take - kind of like a 'blue-sky' design brainstorm flying above the clouds. We had new energy at the thought of working on another pinball game. We thought we could become the Orange County Choppers of pinball (if you know who they are?)

Do you two do all work on the game by yourselves or do you get help ?
Our first project, Whoa Nellie Big Juicy Melons, is based on an electromechanical game - a Gottlieb Continental Cafe.
Dennis just happened to have purchased one back in 2006 (with no intention of doing anything with it except that he liked the 'retro' quality of the EM style games) and thought this would be the fastest way for us to get into custom games... no programming, no music or sound, just a cool retro theme on an authentically retro game.

We researched the EM community and found a local expert, Ken Walker, who we contacted for his experience with EM games. We also went back to our colleague from Williams, Mark Weyna, for his expertise. Mark has always collected EM games and other antique coin-operated equipment and he also work with us on Scared Stiff and with Dennis on Indy 500, among other games.

Between these two guys and a network of EM experts that Ken is connected to, we have the help we need to bring this first game to fruition. They are providing most of the mechanical work getting the wiring transferred from the original game to the new playfield layout by Dennis. They are also providing the brain power to understand what the limits are when changing the original game into a slightly different play experience.
Without these guys we would have kept the same playfield layout and probably just given it a cosmetic make-over. Their expertise has allowed us to give Whoa Nellie a more unique approach.

whizbang pinball prototype
Dennis Nordman presenting a whitewood prototype at the Midwest Gaming Classic show in Milwaukee.

Who is Nellie ?
When Dennis first presented the idea of combining the vintage Fruit Crate label design with a pinball theme, his first pass for a name was Sweet Juicy Melons. After laughing my ass off over the idea of a game with this theme, we brainstormed ideas for the art package.
I had written down the idea of a guy in the melon field riding a horse and even the horse is affected by the amazing beauty of our fruity pin-up girl showing off her fresh picked, vine-ripened melons. With a horse bucking the rider, I immediately gave the melons a Brand name...Whoa Nellie!

I always referred to the girl on the backglass art as Nellie but Dennis thought her name should be Melonie. When we presented the idea at Pinball Expo last fall, i asked the audience what the girl's name might be and immediately an audience member shouted out 'Melonie'. So to answer your question I guess the horses name is Nellie!

How did you get the idea to put the game on a crate instead of pinball legs ?
We're glad you asked that question and especially glad you noticed. When Dennis pitched the idea for the theme to me he drew a sketch with the idea of stacked crates which sold the whole concept instantly. Our approach for custom games is to bring both of our complementary skills to the party.
Dennis has always had an interest in unique cabinets to get pinball away from the mundane box, the profile that we've all known for how many decades? And we want to be able to bring a sense of art to these custom projects... we want to be able to market our projects as 'Art You Can Play' - like playable sculpture that still has a real pinball theme attached. These projects are as much for the fine art collector as they will be for the pinball collector that has to have everything.

With that said, the stack of crates concept fit perfectly with the idea of taking pinball to the world of art. But the funny part of it is when we showed the two cabinet components to the audience at Expo, many people didn't understand that the bottom cabinet was part of the plan. After explaining our concept to interested attendees, more than half wondered why we hadn't attached the legs yet...they thought the bottom cabinet was just brought to the show to support the playfield cabinet. Once we further explained the concept of why it was designed this way, we could see the 'light bulbs' go on in their face and they immediately understood and 'got it'. We have now showed the presentation at other pinball shows and we still get a few questions about the legs. I guess pinball just has to have legs!

Whoa Nellie pinball machine

Do you draw the artwork still on paper or all on computer ?
I've made the transition from paper to computer. I finally bought a Wacom Cintiq tablet last year and it definitely is the final tool that combines computer art with traditional skills.
However, I really wanted to do a painting for the final art for the backglass so that I'd have the physical original art in my portfolio. That is my only regret by doing all the art on a computer - there is no trophy at the end of the project.

prototype pinball
Greg Freres with a very early prototype (look at the changed cabinet artwork).

How will you get the artwork on the playfield ? Paint it by hand or make a decal ?
Our plan for Whoa Nellie is to build 3 identical games as long as there are buyers for them. We currently own 3 Continental Cafe games for this reason. Based on that, our plan is to print the playfields with traditional silk-screen methods. We want these games to be quality throughout and a silk-screened playfield is the only way to go for this type of project. We will probably screen an overage of playfields, maybe 15 total, to have as back-up or for anyone interested in buying just a playfield.

We will also be screening backglasses and will be offering those for sale as soon as we get them to the printer - hopefully later this summer. We will probably be looking for people interested in purchasing signed backglasses to get a sense of how many to print - we will use Facebook as a way to communicate this interest.

We have been getting inquiries regarding one-off custom projects for individuals and corporate clients, and for these types of projects we would probably use methods different, more cost effective, from our own custom games. We are also beginning to talk with different sources regarding the potential to build small run production games (50-100) of our custom themes. We are only just beginning to talk about the logistics of such a venture but we are more than excited to be entertaining the concept. This would complete my vision to be once again - back in pinball!

Thanks for your interest in Whizbang Pinball!

All photos and artwork copyright G. Freres and D. Nordman - Whizbang pinball - published with permission.