DesignStar WarsSuper HeroesToysUnproduced

Note: I don’t want to have to watermark everything, I think it looks ugly. But if you’re going to repost any of these images or share them, please just give a link back to this page so people can see their original context. Thanks.

I think if you read a few of these articles you start to get a picture of the guy I used to be, specifically a toy designer. I haven’t been one now for nine years at this writing, but the industry still holds a great pull for me. Nothing else I’ve done has been as satisfying as thinking of something that doesn’t exist, and months later walking into any store in any town and holding that object in your hands (even if it didn’t always come out just quite like you thought it would). Don’t get me wrong, I love my current job and have had the opportunity to design many print ads and online videos. But working on a toy line is just a different animal. My one big regret is that I never went to work for any of the big companies like Kenner or Toy Biz or Hasbro, working on a signature line like X-Men or GI Joe.

One area I’ve dabbled in with a bit of freelance work, though, is package design. This is something I only really started doing at the end of my tenure in the toy industry, but the years that followed gave me a much larger education in design theory and composition in general. So now when I do find the time, it’s fun to create packaging and toys for products that never existed, especially trying to match a vintage aesthetic for well-known package designs. Creating custom toys has been around in the mainstream for about 25 years more or less. There are a lot fewer people worrying about custom packaging, probably because it is a different skill (and it is a skill that takes a lot of practice to be good)! There is A LOT of terrible toy packaging out there in the real world these days. Like advertising, the old ways of doing things before the ease of computers meant that you put in a lot of time thinking and reworking designs before they were final. And it showed! In recent times, you are seeing a bit of a reflection back to the nostalgia of the classic toy packaging, with Hasbro reviving it for both Star Wars and GI Joe toys line and Marvel even hiring artist John Tyler Christopher to recreate toys that never existed in that old style look (and he did a phenomenal job, by the way).

Star WarsUnproduced

Welcome to part three in my series of reminiscing about the old days of concepting for Star Wars items that never were made. Except some of these were actually made! Amazingly, this post is following the last one not even a year later, which is a lot better than the four year gap between part one and part two. Unfortunately, this installment isn’t quite as fascinating as those first two, from the stand point of seeing a lot of crazy concepts that may or may not blow your mind. But it might be fascinating from the standpoint of taking a look behind the curtain at the process these things go through on the way to store shelves. Go check out the first two installments here and here if your memory is hazy on the events that came before. And here’s a look at some rejected mini-figures that would have gone in bags of chips, and our abandoned Jabba beanbag.

Of course, I’m writing this in part because I have Star Wars on my mind with the news last week that Lucasfilm is being bought by the Walt Disney Company for 4 Billion dollars. Y’know, in normal conversation that sounds like some kind of hyperbole or crazy exaggeration. But no, they are paying $4 BILLION for all of George Lucas’ companies and legacies. I guess what I’m trying to say is: Disney, if you’re looking for ideas for merchandise to reclaim some of that investment… give me a call! But I digress. Ok, so when last we left our story, my team and I had just landed the job of making Life Size Star Wars characters to promote Episode One: The Phantom Menace in stores for Pepsi. While good news at the time, I would end up spending months living in China, staying in the factory every day overseeing many people as they made thousands of full size replica Jar Jars and Yodas in less time than an action figure normally takes to be manufactured and at the cost of a typical deluxe Hot Toys figure. And we did it! That’s a tale for part four of this series, though.

Star WarsUnproduced

…Or something like that.

So, with the big breaking news of Disney buying Lucasfilm, I’ve been in a Star Wars mood these past few days. I may just break down and write the next chapter of the “Unproduced Star Wars Concepts” saga. To be honest, it’s taken me so long to revisit it because this has been a very busy year at my day job. In fact, today is the first day I’ve had off in over two months! And of course, the concept of “not working” is alien to me now, so when a goofy mash-up idea popped into my head I immediately sat back down at the computer to flesh it out, instead of grabbing some much needed rest time.

Still, this was an enjoyable few hours creating what are more or less virtual customs. And no paint & sculpey mess that comes with the regular kind of customs! Anyway, it’s an odd idea, but a fairly self explanatory one. Hope everyone enjoys it.

Star WarsToysUnproduced

Well, that turned out to be a bit longer than I had planned on. It’s been four long years since my last look at the “rejected” concepts that my former co-workers and I came up with when we were working on promotions for the launch of Star Wars: Episode One, The Phantom Menace. And it has easily been the most read article we’ve had here at AFi, bouncing around everywhere from Boing Boing and Gizmodo to the official Star Wars blog and Wired, culminating in an interview with NPR about how it all went down.

But the concepts I showed were only a handful of the ideas that we developed. Admittedly, I cherry-picked the best concepts for that first blog; what I feature down below may cause you to roll your eyes a few times. But let me back up and recap the assignment: I was working for a promotional merchandise company when we got the chance to pitch ideas for a few items that would be made to tie-in to Pepsi’s big Episode One promotions. Until we actually won the job, we could only use things from the original trilogy to concept with. If they liked the idea, we could later try and make it fit with the new movie once they let us see a storyline and artwork. We didn’t have a budget, or even know what the items might be used for (part of the pitch was for us to tell them how to use the merchandise). So we could be making something that cost $.25 to manufacture (say, an on-pack for a Pepsi bottle of can) or we might make something for $300 (a “dealer loader”, that it, a display in store that the store owner would keep or raffle off after the promotion is over).

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thebagSo it’s taken quite a bit longer than I planned on to get back to another installment of my unproduced Star Wars gems. But here at last is the untold story of the promotion that you never got to see, and what a doozy it is! A couple of caveats right off the bat: I did not actually have anything to do with this promotion. It was developed and presented by another marketing agency in the wake of the Star Wars Trilogy re-release in 1997 as a possible idea to launch the Prequels, in specific Episode I.  So most of this is strictly going from my memory of how it was explained to me. And the bag illustration at right is just something I whipped up based on what it might have looked like. Cool?

In the wake of the big hits of the Lay’s Spirit of Obi-Wan offer in 1996 and the  Froot Loops Stormtrooper Han Solo in 1995, Lucasfilm wanted another big product tie-in to push Episode I on the masses. Unfortunately for the marketing gurus, pretty much every brand under the sun would be also launching Episode I promotions at the same time. Pepsi cans, Pizza Hut boxes, Taco Bell toys, and KFC cups were just the tip of the iceberg of what would probably be the largest promotional movie launch ever to be seen. Multiple companies pitched ideas to Frito-Lay as to what their big promotion would be, one that would stand out from all the other Star Wars items on grocery shelves and most importantly, what would sell more bags of chips. Keep in mind that Pepsi/TriCon/Frito-Lay paid up to $2 Billion for the license, so you better believe they needed to move product to make that worthwhile.

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Before I post about more unseen Star Wars stuff, I thought I’d do a bit of follow-up to some that I’ve already shown. One of our biggest heartbreaks in designing stuff for Phantom Menace promotions was getting all the way to prototype on a big Jabba the Hutt beanbag, but having it rejected for cost/size issues.

jabbagKeep in mind when looking at this that it was just the initial attempt. We would have had a few more rounds of refinement to get it as close as we could. The one that got made was created by a domestic beanbag maker in the traditional manner, with a sort of textured fabric for Jabba’s “skin” and very simplistic vector graphics (created by Steve Ross, shown next to Jabba) printed on it for the details. Originally we tried to have the fabric airbrushed for a more realistic effect, but this proved to be too problematic to reproduce, and we had concerns about the durability in the long term. This was not our first attempt though.

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0111_phantommenaceTen years to be exact. That’s when I left the oil fields (where I was shooting industrial video) and entered the world of product design. I got really lucky, having made some contacts through Raving Toy Maniac when I was running it with Eric G. Myers, to somehow stumble into a new career despite having zero experience and minimal skills at the time. What I did have was a crazy passion for the toy industry. And I think my boss saw that, and took a chance on me.  We were a small start-up agency at first, and chased every opportunity we could come across. Of course, I was happy to be designing crap for A Bug’s Life and Dairy Queen’s Arctic Extreme toys but if you had asked me what I really would like to be working on, super heroes or action figures would have topped my list.

Well, except for Star Wars, that is. In 1998 I was just about the biggest Star Wars nerd around. Not only was I writing about the toys for RTM and hitting Toy Fair and SDCC, but my new co-worker, Steve Ross, was just as big of a nerd as me. Every day at lunch we’d hit Target or TRU trying to find the latest and greatest that Kenner and Galoob had to offer. Our offices were decorated solid with Star Wars. It was always at the forefront of our minds. And then one day our CEO told us that Pepsi wanted us to pitch some ideas of what promotional merchandise they could do for Episode One.