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.
For now, we’ll concern ourselves with what happened once I was back in the states, and The Phantom Menace was about to hit theaters. Pepsi was happy with our work, Lucasfilm was happy with our work (and we were now approved vendors!) and we had established good factory relationships. And even thought the movie was nearing release, there were still a lot of opportunities to extend the license with some of our current clients, along with others that already had part of the Star Wars license. And even though at this point we were nearing a year of being immersed in Star Wars every day, we still had enough enthusiasm to tackle a new challenge. The only obstacles now were being totally mentally drained when thinking about the movie (this only intensified after we actually SAW the movie; my thoughts on that experience also in a later blog) and that instead of having a blank canvas to work with, we would now be concepting for companies that made “home goods”. You know: Toothbrushes. Soap. Bandages. All things that scream, “we need Star Wars branding!” And, of course, they did!
You can tell at this point that we were stretching things. But when designing these types of functional products, you are faced with two things: one, that no matter what you design, they’re going to end up going with character toothbrushes because people in general are scared to try new things, and two, whatever you make needs to be functional, usable, and safe. So right off the bat you’re limited. But we had been working with these characters now for long enough to understand what we could and couldn’t get away with, and what made sense to propose. You’ll also notice that by now the great artists Kerry Gammill and Keith “Kez” Wilson were fully on the team and the quality of the art went up considerably. (Not that we had “bad” art before, but these guys are really good.) For whatever reason, we didn’t take anything to color for these concepts. Probably because we had established relationships with the companies, and they didn’t need to see the art as polished at the concept stage. I know there were at least one more batch of rough concepts that are not here (things like bath clings and Pod Racer soap-on-a-rope. If I ever find those pieces I’ll update this blog). And these are in no particular order. I know we didn’t pitch them all at once, but I can’t remember when we did what at this point. Just know they were pitched right before and/or right after the movie’s premiere in May 1999.
So with all of those ideas being presented, what did we end up making? Character toothbrushes! Yes, Colgate came back and asked for straightforward character sculpts. And we were happy to provide them! First, we did a series of character designs in color. Then, after some back and forth with both Colgate and Lucasfilm, we narrowed those down and refined the poses. R2D2 got dropped, Darth Vader was added, Anakin gained his helmet, and Yoda lost his vine cave. Interestingly, when it got down to the final mix we lost Amidala at the sculpting level, and Yoda got his vines back, as we ended up making the Empire Strikes Back version of Yoda, NOT the prequel one. Probably so that Darth Vader wasn’t the only original trilogy character. And while Darth Maul made it all the way to sculpt and paint master, he was dropped before they went into production. Looking back, I have absolutely no memory of why this happened. Maybe they thought he was too scary for kids to brush with? Or maybe with his bad teeth, he was a poor role model for good hygiene? The answer is lost to the ages. We ended up not making any of the bandage items, although Curad sure went all out with bandages.
Speaking of paint masters, here is a funny story of what happens during a normal production cycle (for you kids out there who wonder how your precious toys can have mistakes by the time they hit the store pegs). So the sculpts were being handled by a major design house who shall remain nameless (and let me state at the outset that they did wonderful work, and continue to do wonderful work to this day). Because of their relationship with Lucasfilm, they were able to handle all approvals as each piece was being made, which streamlines the process considerably. As long as we were kept in the loop (we were) then each item can be modified as it’s being worked on. So they four characters were completed, and painted, and approved. Everyone is happy. We send the masters off the China for the factory to start production. And then I get a call from the factory. They are puzzled, and somewhat agitated. Well, it turns out that the painter who painted our wonderful prototypes misread the specs. Instead of having 40 paint apps TOTAL, he thought we had a limit of 40 paint apps PER CHARACTER. And, of course, that is what they showed Lucasfilm for approvals. And now the factory is telling us that we do not have the budget to make these anywhere near so extravagant. So now I have to get on a call with our contact at Lucasfilm, with the painter, and explain as nicely as possible that those awesome toothbrushes they thought they were getting was more of an “April Fools!”
Luckily, this is where having good relationships really comes into play. Lucasfilm couldn’t have been nicer, considering the mishap. Looking at it from their point of view, it could have easily looked like we were trying to pull a “bait & switch”, and shown nicer product for approvals and then begged forgiveness once it was made and too later to fix (i.e., spend more money). And we all know, this happens more often that companies would care to admit. Still, looking at the original paint masters (on the left of each production sample below), it’s a shame we couldn’t get those extra paint apps. The other pictures are of carded samples, and one of the Darth Maul test shots along with durometer tests of Darth Vader and Yoda in translucent plastic. (Durometer measures the hardness of the plastic. You want it hard enough to be durable, but not brittle and easily shattered.)
So at this point, it’s nearing the end of the Summer 1999, Star Wars Episode One: The Phantom Menace has broken some records and left general confusion amongst fandom. We are tired, but now we get the word that it’s time to think about the video release! These days, end of Summer would be far too late to be starting the design process as the average video window in mere months following the general release. 12 years again, however, we were still in the dusk of the age of VHS, and The Phantom Menace didn’t hit on home video until April 3rd, 2000. (The dvd release was still some time away). Two clients wanted us to work toward designing items that would celebrate the video and incent consumers to buy one (Really? Star Wars fans need encouragement to spend money on Star Wars? A very interesting theory.) Blockbuster wanted to explore something that could be packaged with the video if bought in-store. After batting around a number of concepts, many recycled from our earlier pitches to Pepsi, we landed on collector coins with a planet display case. This idea was based on the old Power of the Force coins; there was much internal debate over how close we should make them to the 1980s coins made by Kenner. Ultimately, Blockbuster wanted a higher perceived value so we went with real gold plated coins with a metallic base and a hologram in the lid (Ha ha! The 1990s were goofy!). This got as far was a working prototype being made, but the idea died there for more reasons I can’t remember. I also don’t remember if all of the coin prototype was original, or kit-bashing from existing pieces. It obviously owes a lot to the Kenner Planet Balls that were just being made for the action figure line. Blockbuster ended up just ordering a lot of life size Yodas to be store displays, minus the base that the Pepsi one had.
Speaking of Pepsi, they were the other client who wanted some sort of store display to herald the video release (along with chips and soda). After the very involved production of the life size characters, we all wanted something easier and cheaper, so it was decided that this would be a more traditional paper display that could go in Walmart or similar vendors. We designed a fair number of concepts, and then made full size mock-ups to make sure that they would work and figure out how large to make each one, and how it would actually interact with stacks of Pepsi cases. They ended up picking the Pit Droids fooling around with a TV over any of the main characters. Sure, why not? It would have a base wrap made up of junk from Watto’s junkyard, and we even were able to put a tiny motor behind it, so that they’re arms and legs moved. I’m not sure that I ever actually saw this display in stores, but that’s nothing unusual. I’ve designed a lot of chip, soda, and candy displays over the years and I’ve probably only seen 10% in stores, if that.
In any case, at this point I was all Star Wars’d out. Two straight years of messing with Jabbas and Pit Droids and Jar Jars sorely tested my love for the brand. Today, I’m much more at peace with the prequels and the Star Wars phenomenon in general, and am actually looking forward to see what Disney does with it all (Seriously, Mr. Iger, call me.) That’s just about it! Look for part four (the final chapter)…um…sometime before the new movie in 2015. And as always, huge props go out to my former buddies in the trenches, who came up with all this stuff and fought to get it made: Steve Ross, Mike Hawkins, Kerry Gammill, Keith Wilson, Laurie Brownlow, Mark Mears, Mike Flecker, Amy Wagner, Keith DeWaters, Mike Dethloff and Brad Weston.