DesignProcessSuper HeroesToys

Or, to put it another way, when is green not the right green?

brainiacIf you’ve bought action figures from Mattel over the past few years, you know that they have had some issues in the manufacturing of your favorite DC Comics characters. But the one that really puzzles me is how often the colors of the final product do not match the paint masters or even the designs as seen in the comics.

Sure, they are the right color, per se. But they are not the right value of that color. And this should be a very simple process: you get a paint master, you match each base color to a Pantone guide, you figure out which parts are molded plastic and which are painted, you send these numbers off to the factory in China, and eventually you should get back some color chips that show the actual plastic that will be used, and what the base plastic looks like painted.  At this point you double check the samples against your original Pantone numbers AND the paint master. If they deviant, tweak them and send for new chips. This seems like a pain, but the manufacturing window is long enough that you should be able to handle at least 2-3 rounds of tweaks if necessary.But for some reason, what we see in the prototypes IS NOT what we get.

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Left: Production colors, Right: Colors manipulated in Photoshop
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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).

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So I was browsing through Netflix the other night, looking at their range of mediocre to abysmal choices of things I haven’t seen when I stumbled across the newish documentary “The People vs George Lucas”. With no better choices at hand I proceeded to watch it as I wrapped up some late night editing for a project I’m behind on at my “real job”. Let me rephrase that: I tried to watch it. I got about halfway through it before I had to turn it off and put on a Beatles album (FYI: A Hard Day’s Night) to wash away the taste it left in my brain. At its most basic, this was nothing more than what any Star Wars fan has seen thousands of times in every nerd/geek/fanboy forum online since the special editions were released in 1997 up through Revenge of the Sith in 2005. And honestly, I’m kind of tired of going over the same ground over and over and over (Han shot first, Jar Jar sucks, George doesn’t care about us, fans have equal ownership, ad infinitum).

To make it perfectly clear, I didn’t really care for the film. Decently made, but I didn’t see the point to it (even if you tell me at the end they defend George’s right to do whatever he wants with his films…who cares? That point was debated a decade ago). But it did really open my eyes to something I’ve never really thought about before: George absolutely did the right thing when he made the prequels. What did he do right, you ask? Well, going all the way back to Star Wars in 1977, George has continually said that these are kid’s movies. Made for kids. Now, most fans see that as a cop-out. An excuse, a shoddy justification for everything they don’t like about the prequels. And I’m not the first person to point out that he is right, these are kid’s movies. We fell in love with them as children. If you really go back and look at Star Wars today with a clear, cynical grown-up’s eye, you can see how juvenile the first movie was. How black and white. How simplistic.  And there is nothing wrong with that.

Somewhere down the line, “kid’s movie” became synonymous with “dumbed down crap”, but it wasn’t always that way. E.T. is a “kid’s movie”. Every Disney classic is a “kid’s movie”. You can say that The Wizard of Oz is a kid’s movie. But what we’re really saying is that these are family films- enjoyable for all ages. Now, the prequels are regrettably lacking in finesse. They definitely could have used a rewrite or two and a little better character motivations. But look around: kid’s today still love these movies. They like Jar Jar. They think the Battle Droids are funny. Go read Drew McWeeny’s great series on introducing his sons to the Saga: http://in-my-head.org/2011/11/07/recommended-reading-drew-mcweenys-film-nerd-2-0-star-wars-edition/

George made the right call here. He kept aiming that target in the same place he aimed it in 1977 and 1980 and 1983. And the kids that are enjoying the prequels today (and the Clone Wars, and the video games, and the toys) are going to grow up thinking just as fondly about all of this as we did 20-30 years ago.

I know what you’re thinking. I know, I know. You wanted to see something else. You want Jar Jar gone. You didn’t want silly Battle Droids and endless Jedi fighting. Or C-3PO’s antics. I get it, I really do. But let me point you in the direction of a comparable genre that didn’t take the path that Lucas did. No, this property at some point decided that instead of staying aimed at kids, it would grow up with them. It would evolve and start experimenting with just how far it could push the characters and the existing boundaries. It would get dark, it would get edgy. You know where I’m going with this: it’s comics.

At the same moment that Star Wars was capturing a generation of kids, comics was telling those kids that it was OK to never grown up and leave them behind like the previous generations did. No, once the 1980s hit continuity became king. If you weren’t on board from the beginning it became harder and harder to get on the ride. And every year less and less kids were reading comics. And comics responded by catering to that 80s generation’s every whim in a self-destructing feedback loop. So here we are. Comics exist almost solely as fodder for merchandise and movies and once the 40 and 50 year olds stop buying them the industry is pretty much going to die off (How’s that New 52 treating ya, fans?). Or move onto the web. And collectors alone can’t sustain all the toys or even movies when they are anything but a crowd pleasing, family friendly hit (looking at you, Green Lantern!) But Star Wars? Well, kids will be watching that just like they do the Disney films. Every seven years a new generation will pick it up, and the juggernaut starts up all over again.

Because George Lucas was right.

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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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So these days it seems like no one is totally happy with the companies that are making mainstream toys. If it’s not the price hikes, it’s the selection. Or the quality control. Or the shoulders are backward. Sure, sure, these problems are all annoying, especially in light of the price you pay for the toys these days.

Michael-Wolf-Toy-Story-1-650x436At the risk of sounding like every other “apologist jackass” out there, sometimes these things really are out of the control of the people in charge of shepherding the line from concept to manufacturing to store shelves. Things like parts missing from packages, or bad paint jobs, or bent legs are all factory related issues. And no matter how many samples you may check and sign off on at the end of the day you really have no idea how well the factory is going to follow your master samples or the checklists you devise to make sure all runs smoothly. Even having someone stationed in China doesn’t fix everything. When I was designing toys, I worked for small enough companies that I was often the one overseeing the process through the factory, even staying in China from time to time. Mistakes happen on every job, it’s just part of the process.

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As the years have gone by and I’ve gotten older (and wiser?) I’ve come to notice that every time one of our “distinguished men of AFi” have posted pictures of their past childhood holiday toy pictures that something has been missing from my life: namely, and similar pictures of MY childhood Christmases filled with toys. For that matter, I really never had any pictures of much of my childhood, period, outside of the typical family portraits. Or so I thought. Last year while home for the holidays I made an off-hand remark to that effect to my mother, who then asked why didn’t I look in all the boxes of slides we had stored upstairs. Turns out that my parents DID take a tremendous amount of pictures, only they were almost all slide film and then put away once we stopped gathering around the ol’ Kodak Carousel. Since I was curious as to what slides we had, I took it upon myself to scan them all and convert them into nice digital files.

fettlegWell, over 6000 slides, 12 months, and many hundreds of hours later, I now know what is on all of those slides (and might I add they date back into the 1950s, well before I was around). And I still have around 2000 more slides to scan…unless they find even more boxes, which is a very distinct possibility. But within all of those pictures, I did find a number of great shots of what I received for Christmases past. I haven’t gotten into the 1980s yet, and if you had asked me before I scanned them what toys I received, I would have told you that I mainly got cars & planes, model trains, and a toy drum set until 1978. At that point my life was overtaken by Star Wars, (I even made my own xmas stocking shaped like Boba Fett’s leg, seen at right!) and I can’t really remember owning any other toys until I started collecting in earnest in college (well after throwing away everything I had in childhood).

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rubenFive years ago, shortly before I left California for Texas, Julius Marx and I paid a visit to the studio of a truly fantastic artist, sculptor, and all-around great guy: Rubén Procopio. If you don’t recognize the name you surely will recognize his work (and if you don’t recognize the name, shame on you!).

First, Rubén has recently written an awesome book (with Tim Bruckner and Zach Oat), Pop Sculpture, that anyone who is interested in sculpture should read. If you want to be a sculptor, I would even say stop reading this blog right now and go buy a copy. It’s a really, really informative look at the whole process of creating action figures and statues based on popular media properties.

Second, Rubén has been involved in so many areas that are near and dear to my heart that I alternate being in awe of him and being bitterly jealous. 😉 Just kidding! But seriously, he started at the Disney Studios in the 1970s, following in the footsteps of his father, Adolfo Procopio (and if you’ve ever been to Disneyland or Disneyworld, you’ve seen a lot of Adolfo spectacular sculpts), and was mentored by the fabled Nine Old Men (Eric Larson in particular) as he rose through the ranks of Disney Animation.

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with James “Sallah” Sawyer.

So there was that thing back a few years ago where we found out all about the plans for the final years of the Super Powers Collection including concept art for many possible figures. And that other thing, where some extension plans for the original Kenner Star Wars line showed up in a found presentation. Or the ill-fated Mattel Wonder Woman and the Star Riders? And how about when it was revealed that there was another Raiders of the Lost Ark assortment to be made in Hasbro’s Indiana Jones line (OK, that one still hurts). You’d think we would have heard all about toys that never made it into production by now. You’d think that with so many collectors and so much time having passed, there are no surprises left any more from the golden days of action figures (1970s & 1980s).

Well, partner, you’d be wrong. What if we told you that there were more gems out there? Gems that might Dazzle and Annihilate your senses with their Fantastic concepts? Can you keep a secret?

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When I first started collecting toys back around 1990 I would run into other collectors sporadically (this being in the dark days before the internet collecting community at large had coalesced around USENET, for the most part). One way I would know that they were die-hard toy hunters was that they had had “The Dream”. Usually this centered around Star Wars, but every collector who I talked with had it at one point or another after they had become totally immersed in hunting down old toys.

Make no mistake, The Dream never involved new toys. It always started with you being in a store (most likely a store that no longer existed, frequently a department store that still had a toy section) and as you wander through the store you find all the toys you wish were still there brand new on the shelves. And tons of them: the first 12-back Star Wars figures, all MOC. The original run of Master of the Universe. The 3rd wave of Super Powers. Maybe a Bionic Bigfoot, or Micronauts vehicle peeking around the endcap. And even better, toys that were never made! A vintage Tie Bomber! A Bantha playset!  A whole rack of He-Ro figures!

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So I started this year vowing to cut back on the toy buying. In fact, I had quit buying almost all together, thanks in part to it being so hard to find Mattel’s latest offerings and the fact that Hasbro has delayed the next batch of Marvel Legends for so long. In any case I wasn’t planning on starting any new lines. And then I went to see this:
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And within a few days I had bought everything seen in the picture above!

Now, don’t get me wrong; I love Indiana Jones. It’s just that I hadn’t planned collecting any of these, really, especially after dropping the Star Wars line in 2001. I was narrowing the collection down to just the DCUC line and a few Marvel Legends that filled gaps in my nostalgia collection. Mainly because as I get older I care less about owning toys, and also the small fact of having 60+ boxes of action figures sealed away that i will probably never open or display every again.

indy2But once I saw the film and then saw all the toys on sale the next day something deep within me snapped and before I knew it I was carrying them to the register and buying a good chunk of what was out there. It didn’t help that I had ordered the “Making of” book and the soundtrack the morning before I saw the film (the book is good, but not anywhere near as good as the great Making of Star Wars book they put out last year. Much of the info here is from the documentaries that were on the DVDs!)

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Today’s toys have risen in quality in leaps and bounds over the toys of my youth. The sculpting is better, the molding is better, the packaging…can be better at times, and the articulation is in a whole other league. And for the most part, the painting is better. Well, sometimes, that is. For companies like McFarlane Toys and NECA, the paint applications is just wonderful most of the time. But for most of the mainstream majors, like Hasbro, Playmates, and Mattel (now that Toy Biz is out of the game) it seems like an afterthought.

wolvpaintIn the late 90s Toy Biz was really one of the first major players to step up to the plate and deliver very detailed paint applications on their figures and more sophisticated paint washes to bring out the heightened sculpting details. Sure, the smaller guys were also experimenting with paint, but nothing like the leap Toy Biz made (even with their smaller figures), thanks to guys like Eddie Wires doing the paint masters (and also doing them for Palisades and Diamond, among others). For companies like McFarlane and DC Direct you had the Four Horsemen and Tim Bruckner really raising the bar with their painting prowess.

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I haven’t done one of these posts in awhile, but I’ve been rediscovering stuff I’ve been sent over the years that never made it to shelves and thought that it was high time that some of it been seen.

This little piece was sent to me by an anonymous soul who has dropped a few other bombshells on me in the past. It looks like it was going to be sort of a prop of the 70s JLA Satellite Headquarters that would have sculpted details and cutaway sections that lit up from inside like a shadowbox. I have no idea when this was supposed to be made, or how far along it got in the pipeline. I only know that I’ve never heard about it actually being solicited, and neither has Julius Marx. So at this point, I’m guessing it’s dead (I was sent this a year or so ago).

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funkoboothI’ve been a collector for as long as I can remember. When I was around three years old, I collected sticks. Yes, ordinary branches that had fallen from trees, which came in all sorts of varieties and limited editions. After that I picked up stuffed animals whenever I could, the more unusual the critter (plush skunks, possums, hyraxes…) the better. Once 1977 hit, though, my entire collecting focus changed. I think we all know what happened in the summer of 1977. From that moment on, my life became Star Wars- Star Wars cookie jars, Star Wars bedsheets, and of course Kenner Star Wars toys. I even started collecting comics by picking up the adaptation of The Empire Strikes Back and discovering Spider-Man on my trips to the comic shop. Once I hit Jr High School my fascination with toys faded away to be replaced by a fascination with girls. But I never stopped collecting, moving on to books, music, sticks…well, maybe not sticks again. Still, I never ceased to find things that once acquired would somehow turn out to be a collection eventually.

Of course, once I was firmly settled in college the toy bug bit again and has led me down the path of both hobby and career, with a little web pioneering thrown in along the way. And so it has gone over the past 10 years; it doesn’t take me long after dropping one collection to gain another one just as quickly. Since entering the promotional premium field I have been acutely interested in Advertising Icons. These are the mascots and slogan bearers of major companies past and present, who have entered the pop culture zeitgeist throughout the decades since the concept first gained traction in the 1930s. Thanks to the wonder of eBay it has become much easier to track down various advertising merchandise made to promote specific businesses, which was great since I wanted a collection for my office only- a collection that others in my field could appreciate a bit more than the usual Spawn figures in every artist’s cubeicle. The problem with collecting these is that with the vast differences in scale, material and quality between pieces is that it never quite felt like a coherent collection. And anyone who knows me knows that I value consistency above nearly all other factors in my collections. One look at the picture on the left will show you the depth of this problem that I faced. (As always, click on each image for a larger view.)

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Like the previous entry on the BK Lord of the Rings figures, these were pitched to Burger King in 2001 as a tie-in to the then-airing X-Men Evolution cartoon.

The earlier idea of figure packs was such a hit internally, when the X-Men license rolled around it was thought that the perfect “never been done before” concept would be 14 two-packs(!), each containing hero and villain figures. This is the overall “beauty shot” of all the figures together – each figure would have it’s own unique action feature and the pairs would be somewhat appropriate to the characters, i.e. Professor X & Magneto, Wolverine & Sabretooth, etc.

Sadly, the powers that be at Burger King didn’t see the fun in making the “same old figure toys” and instead opted for a rival concept of static figurines that came with an interactive CD. This is something I would see over and over while designing toys; people who didn’t like toys making decisions regardless of kids or collectors or even sales. While Jack in the Box later made a nice set of Justice League figures, this would have been a nice chance to own a lot of the more obscure characters that never saw toy representation.

One note: some of the designs (Boom Boom, Wolfsbane, etc) were based off the comics and not the show due to only a list of names for the upcoming characters was provided to BK and not character art. These would have been corrected had the concept made it to production. Much of the art shown is the work of the great Jeff Parker, Michael Smith, and David Hudnut! For more unseen X-Men Evolution art, go check out designer Steve Gordon’s great website!

Click the picture for the full assortment. 

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Pictures cannot be used without express written permission. All images © 2001 Alcone Marketing, Kid’s WB!, and Burger King.