Big Fat Yellow Frog
June 9, 2008

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.

Keep 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.

I’m going to digress a bit here to explain why I am showing this "prototype". A lot of times collectors complain about how paint jobs are off on toys, or they are off-model compared to the source, or the articulation has been put in wrong, or any number of things that they can’t understand how someone missed it. What they don’t realize is that many times these "mistakes" were not there in the original sculpts or paint masters supplied to the factories, but showed up during production itself. Due to the high costs involved and the strict timetables, if it was caught early enough there might be a running change. But most of the time these things are just let alone if it does not greatly impact the licensor or safety. 

The reason for this is that the Chinese engineers and artisans do not see the source material as we see it, at least in my experience. This is the reason I had to actually go live in China and show them exactly what I wanted. I found that they were great at copying a 3D object to another 3D object, but couldn’t seem to make the connection between 2D art and a 3D object. They have fantastically talented sculptors and painters, but they need very detailed engineering blueprints, exploded views, and everything to be perfect in terms of measurements to create what you want. And even then the process needs to be refined a few times to correct for problems in translation. This is why you need line designers who really know what they’re doing, especially when the sculpting is being done at the factory level and not domestically.

So back to the Jabba Beanbag. While I was staying in China working on the Star Wars life-size characters I was also overseeing our other promo items that were in production, like the Star Wars bomber jacket, Lightsaber Flashlight, and assorted trinkets like watches, magnets, and puzzles. Once the Jabba Beanbag got the greenlight to go further, I sent our concept art to the factory to make an initial sample for costing. Their only instruction was to come as close to the concept art as possible (for these types of "never been done before" projects, it’s always good to see what they can do first, before trying to reinvent the wheel). We also included a lot of shots of Jabba from the movie for reference. When I went over to their offices the next week, this is what they showed me:

Yeah, that was my reaction, too. They seriously thought this matched the concept art very well. After a few more discussions, we realized that for this specific project it would probably be better to find a beanbag manufacturer and go from there. Even so, there were a lot of discussions and experiments to get us where we were at the picture at top. But hopefully this helps explain why you really need someone who knows what they are doing to daily communicate with the factories to make sure that they are on the right track. It’s not that the skill isn’t there, but the common viewpoint is sometimes lacking.

I have a few more really crazy examples that I’ll try to dig up, to further illustrate the point, this time with actual sculpts. As an added bonus, here is a picture I took when I was goofing around of our life-size Yoda sporting a pair of Jar Jar eyes. Makes him look kind of a like a Gremlin!

A couple of things about this Yoda; one of the cooler moments of my life was standing around Lucas Licensing at Skywalker Ranch with Karl Myers of Gentle Giant, right after we were given the surprise go-ahead to make Yoda based on the positive feedback from the Darth Maul and Jar Jar prototypes. We asked if they had any reference of his new Phantom Menace look and they walked into George’s office there, picked up the bronze casting of the new Gary Pollard sculpt that was made for George Lucas and Stuart Freeborn and handed it to us and said "why don’t you just cast this?"  So our Yoda was basically an identical duplicate of the actual sculpt used for the puppet. Unfortunately, the puppet didn’t look too much like the classic Yoda (I always thought it looked kind of like Anthony Hopkins) and for the next two films they went back to a look closer to that of his first appearance. Our Yoda was also not really life-size: Pepsi thought that his real height (28") didn’t have enough presence for an in-store display so we scaled it up to 36", which created some headaches in trying to figure out new dimensions for his feet, cane, hands, clothes, etc. But it still came out neat enough for a mass produced item! And Lucas Licensing was awesome throughout the whole process (got to give props!).

So that’s the story More tomorrow! 

Pictures cannot be used without express written permission.

Jason "ToyOtter" Geyer
Jason Geyer has been part of the online toy 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. 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.

 

 

 

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