A Matter of Control
January 29, 2012

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.

But at 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.

But the factory stuff at least gives you the opportunity to fix things. If you catch it early, most times collectors never have any idea about the daily problems that crop up. And for large runs, you can always make running changes to try and fix it as early as possible. But some of the things that collectors complain about are simply out of your control. And nowhere in the process is that lack of control more frustrating than in dealing with Licensors (or clients).  These people are the ones with the ultimate control of their properties, and they are the ones who dictate what you can and cannot make. Even more frustrating is that most of the time the people in charge of licensing are not creators or artists, but simply account people working their way up the ladder and happen to have stopped there. They don’t know the property, they don’t watch the cartoons/movies/tv shows. No, what they have is a style guide, which to them is THE BIBLE.

No joke! That style guide went through a long, complicated process designed to take thinking out of the equation. The licensing rep can be very pleasant, and fun to work with, and very smart, but if you want to deviate from the style guide or the approved corporate branding, then you have huge problems. Because they do not want to “color outside the lines”, because they a.) have no power to make those decisions, and b.) don’t know what they can and can’t do since they didn’t create the property. This whole drawn out preface leads me to what are arguably two of the biggest complaints with some toy lines out there today: character choice, and color choices.

When I was designing toys for Wendy’s, we didn’t often get opportunities to reward the toy geeks within the design team; most of what we worked on was aimed at 5-8 year olds, with licensees such as Maya & Miguel or Pokémon. We did get to make a really cool Mario action figure (with resealable card!) but even that was a battle, from having a card in the first place to adding a peg hole for verisimilitude. It was a success, though, so we kept wanting to do an assortment of nothing but carded figures for one month. Unfortunately, when the right properties came along, most of them already had other companies making action figures and we were blocked from doing it. (Eventually, Wendy’s requested that we finally make a full figure assortment…for Charlotte’s Web. Yes, we made carded figures of ducks, sheep, and spiders. Get the picture why this job is so hard, yet?)

But occasionally, a fun geek property would drop in our laps. And the year after it debuted, we got Teen Titans (Short note: we lobbied for the TT license probably a year before it debuted, but the execs thought it wouldn’t be a big hit. When we finally made the the price had gone up, of course). Being very aware of the Bandai line, we looked at ways that collectors might be able to integrate what we make with that toy line. Keep in mind, whatever we made had to be fun for little kids first and foremost. So we churned out the usual 100 or so concepts, took about 25 to color, and proceed to weed down to the final 4-5 toys from there. Now, anyone who collected the Teen Titans Bandai toys are sure to remember one fact about the line: They didn’t make the line 3.5″ SCALE, they made all the figures 3.5″ period. I’m not sure why; sometimes this is a function of contracts in splitting the license. In any case, those that wanted a Cyborg figure to be in scale with the rest of the TT kids were out of luck. Instead of the relative sizes matching the picture up above, this is what they got:

So that was a problem. Wendy’s to the rescue! One of the concepts we pushed and pushed was a Cyborg figure that was perfectly in scale with the Bandai Titans. I knew that collectors would buy them up, Cyborg Figurine ConceptAFi could have publicized the scale unity, win win all around. Now, since Bandai had the license for action figures, we couldn’t make a perfect representation. We could make a “figurine”, though. And after a bit of back and forth, we came to the agreement that as long as it had a base it would be considered a figurine, and not a figure. We would just make the base removable. ;) Keep in mind that we only had less than $.50 to play with, so the only articulation would be in the arms, which would pump with the press of a button on his back. But standing on the shelf the idea was for him to fit in perfectly with the Teen Titans figures. The concept got pretty far down the chain, ending up in the near final mix, going all the way through costing and into engineering. But unfortunately, the licensor felt that Cyborg just wasn’t leading man material. It was decreed that we could use the whole group on toys, but any individual character could only be Robin, who parents would recognize. So adios, Cyborg.

That wasn’t the end of our problems, though. And it brings me to the second complaint fans make: color choices. Specifically, this was a huge problem throughout the life of the Justice League Unlimited line.  And it has a very simple answer. The WB style guides have color callouts, showing the Pantone number for each color used on every character and prop. It also has specified callouts for the paint chips and plastic used for merchandise. And here is where we get back to the licensing reps not wanting to deviate from the guide. The callouts for the plastics only use one color for each section of a character’s costume, since you don’t paint shadows and highlights on a toy like you would on a drawing. But the guide chose the shadow color as the base color for the plastic! So all of the colors are too dark. To make matters worse, one of the first steps you do is send the factory the Pantone numbers, they send back paint chips that match, and the studio approves those paint chip so the paint/plastic can be ordered. This process happens every month with many different licensors, so it’s just a well-oiled process. In general, why would you ever question the style guide or licensor that they might be wrong BEFORE you see any of the toys? The answer is, you don’t. You’re busy with all the other projects on your plate.

So when we couldn’t make Cyborg, we went ahead with a Robin spinner (that had a really neat 3D Teen Titans logo with a magnet inside!) You push the sculpted logo near the figure (which also has a magnet inside) and it’s pushed away as it spins wildly. Fun. Everything went according to plan until we received the final painted sample. At that point he ceased to be referred to internally as “Robin” and instead became “Sunburn Robin” to everyone involved.

All of his colors were way too dark. The yellow of his costume could barely be seen against the red. So we had a problem. To compound matters, the figure was 100% approved. You don’t mess with anything that is approved, as approvals are always a pain. And look at this from an exec’s point of view: the studio is happy, the client is happy, the toy will be gone in a month anyway. Why open a can of worms just to have to pay for more paint, delay production a bit, and possibly cause bad blood with the licensor by giving them more paperwork? To their credit, after we argued a bit and brought in the Bandai Robin to prove our point we were able to go back to the licensor to request a new color palette (props to lead creatives Greg Leibert & Brian Sandlin for really fighting that fight). And that’s when things got weird. For whatever reason, WB was convinced that the colors were too dark. But they said we could only change two of them. I have no idea why. Maybe that was the cost limit for new paint? Who knows. We ended up choosing the go bright with the yellow and skin colors as those were the ones that really stood out. But it still was not “right”. (And we couldn’t afford the paint apps to make the inside of the cape yellow or his grey boot tips, in case you were wondering).

And if it had been an action figure, no collector would have said “Well, they got some of the colors right, I’ll give them that”. They would have screamed bloody murder that the other colors were wrong. And I can’t argue that. But no one saw the fight to get it to that point. The rest was simply out of our control.

 

Jason "ToyOtter" Geyer
AFi Editor-In-Chief Jason Geyer has been part of the online pop culture world for nearly 20 years, having founded some of the very first toy sites on the web including Raving Toy Maniac, ToyOtter, and now Action Figure Insider. Along the way he helped pioneer online coverage of industry events such as San Diego Comic Con, E3, Toy Fair, and CES. He is also a former toy designer who is now a marketing genius. If he does say so himself. And he does.
Read other articles by Jason "ToyOtter" Geyer.

 

 

 

32 Comments »

  • Jason Geyer says:

    Carl, I started this article 5 years ago. I have a few more old, but never finished features coming up. This was actually in response to all the JLU color complaints at the time.

    But even if this was about anything current with Mattel, so what? If I want to apologize for Mattel (I don’t) then I’ll come right out and do it. This is my site and you’re free to read it or not, but I’m under no obligation to give you a forum to attack me or my motives. And for the record, I don’t get anything free from Mattel, I don’t collect any of their products outside of various DCUC, and I’m just as frustrated by some of their decisions as anyone. But that’s not what this article was about, and the comments aren’t going to turn into the usual flame war.

    Tribsaint, I tried to be clear in the beginning of the article, but maybe I need to be clearer (I’m not being snarky, I literally mean this): it’s not that you can’t fix things at the factory. We made MILLIONS of fast food toys every month, with no recalls, breakage, paint errors, etc. But Mattel obviously has a priority for the profit margin over quality and satisfaction. This is OBVIOUS. People act like Scott or any brand manager just aren’t doing their job, but the truth is that the corporate culture at Mattel is designed for cranking out Barbie and Hot Wheels (both comparatively easy to manufacture) and not complex boy’s toys.

    Without Scott we would have never had MOTUC, Ghostbusters, and much of the DC characters we did. You would have had Infinite Heroes x 10 across the board. And without the 4 Horsemen you would have had even that. People just don’t realize that Mattel is not, and never will be, Toy Biz, Hasbro, Neca. They are not set up that way, they don’t want to be that way. This period in Mattel’s recent history is an anomaly. Even the original MOTU and Secret Wars were built around repaints and universal bodies.

    Anyway, let this be the end of the Mattel comments, OK?

  • Mario says:

    I have to agree with you 100% Jason. Mattel’s current “incarnation” IS an anomaly, & I for one, amidst my own frustrations with Mattel, am glad to have Scott give us this atypical Mattel “incarnation”. I’ve said it before, & I’ll say it again; Once this whole “classics” era passes, those who bitched the most will be the ones crying at how good those times were.

  • Tribsaint says:

    Jason, thanks for the comment, I tho k you bring up a very interesting point about corporate cultures, I have seen them be the most uplifting currents in a work place and the undertow dragging a place down. And indeed If scott is swimming agianst the corporate culture it gives some creedance to carls claim of him being disliked. It’s a shame the way success and grow at a company become a cage that henders more than helps.

  • Tribsaint says:

    Sorry and think not tho k…and the comments were jroug not carls….Mattel is just the hot button issue of this period of collecting Todd got his and Jesse too….

  • Jason Geyer says:

    Subsonic,

    You’re totally right, it’s not fair.

    Fast food toys have internal mechanisms, a new assortment every month, millions of toy shipped to every city in America and most places internationally every month, on time, they have to deal with a new studio/license/property every month, they have far more stringent safety standards to match, higher oversight, and stricter engineering,and they have to do it all with a fraction of the costs of an action figure so you can get it free with your meal.

    It is completely not fair to hold action figures up to that high standard.

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