By Mike Jacquart
When a new Manga Spawn action figure reaches a store shelf, who gets the credit? A sculptor? A model maker? Todd McFarlane? Actually, all of the above are true, according to a leading official with McFarlane Toys.
In addition, consumers probably aren’t aware of the numerous changes that are made from start to finish.
“There’s a lot of give and take,” Ed Frank, co-president of McFarlane Designs in Bloomingdale, N.J., said about the average of eight to nine months it takes from the time an action figure is first drawn to the day it finally arrives on store shelves.
McFarlane Toys’ Heap figure, for instance, was very different from the character, said Frank, who has been working at McFarlane Designs for five years.
“The original [the comic book character] does not have feet. He’s shown rising from a pile in the ground,” Frank said. “Todd [McFarlane] said, ‘No, it needs feet.’ So that’s obviously quite different from the original.”
Changes are the Rule, not the Exception
But no matter the figure, changes during the design process are the rule, not the exception, Frank said.
"When you go from a two-dimensional sketch to a three-dimensional figure, changes will occur, and the sculptor will often add quite a bit to the process, too.
“The way one person interprets something is going to differ from another person involved in the manufacturing process. This will vary from figure to figure, but there’s always give and take between the different people involved,” Frank added.
One thing that doesn’t vary is the teamwork it takes to produce an action figure. Amazingly, only 12 workers in McFarlane’s New Jersey office accomplish tasks as diverse as drawing figures, making molds and designing packages. All of these elements must be in place before even one figure is shipped.
“I love it, it’s great,” said Frank about his job, “but it’s not easy. I put in very long days, but it’s very satisfying to see the final product and how it evolves.”
Many People Can Take a Bow
When figures arrive in stores, it’s clear there are numerous McFarlane workers who can take a well-deserved bow.
“It can be frustrating when something is not done the way you wanted it,” said Frank about some of his experiences in the toy industry prior to his employment with McFarlane. “Fortunately, there is a lot of control here in the overall process. Todd is very hands on.”
Here’s an overview of the overall process. Frank, who works closely with Todd McFarlane throughout a given project, will discuss a specific line. McFarlane will tell Frank what he’s looking for in the line, what characters he wants to see and what he wants the characters to look like.
Sketches are drawn and copies are given to staff who also submit sketches of their own, adding and subtracting to the character as it evolves.
Once a final look is agreed upon - with McFarlane’s approval - sketches are then submitted to McFarlane’s four sculptors in New Jersey who turn the drawings into a toy. Frank said sculptors will experiment with areas like articulation and decoration. McFarlane is kept abreast of changes sculptors are making just like he is with sketches.
Once sculptors are satisfied with what the figure will look like, model makers create three different urethane molds. One is used as a painting master, another for catalogs and photography and a third is given to manufacturing facilities in Hong Kong, where McFarlane figures are produced.
As if those steps aren’t enough, keep in mind the same procedures must also be followed for the accessories that will eventually be packaged with the figure - plus the package must be as slick as the figure for the product to stand out in a toy aisle, Frank said.
“You want an overall look,” Frank said. “Nothing can be missing for it to be a successful toy.”
How Licensing Works
Licensing can be another obstacle that can delay a figure’s production.
“The guys with KISS were great to work with,” said Frank about McFarlane’s popular figures based on the rock band.
“They had certain things they wanted to see that they know their fans identify with,” he said, no doubt referring to KISS’s signature makeup and Gene Simmons’ wagging tongue, "but they gave us a lot of creative freedom. For instance, we changed their musical instruments into weapons, so they were very supportive about our creativity.
“They’re creative people themselves, which helps,” Frank added.
That isn’t to say the licensing process is entirely a bed of roses.
“Any time you’re involved with another property, it makes my job more difficult because it adds a level of approval,” he said.
“In the case of The X-Files [figures],” Frank noted, “we waited two to three weeks to hear back from Fox Licensing. That’s time you don’t have to worry about with a Spawn character. At the same time, Fox isn’t going to delay the movie for the toys.”
While delays might be stressful for McFarlane employees, it’s a part of the process they understand is necessary.
“They [Fox] have various people who have to check off [approve] on a design,” Frank explained. “It makes scheduling a problem, and sometimes it goes smoother than other times. In the case of KISS, it was easier because you’re dealing with four musicians, not a formal business structure,” he said.
And what did Frank think of dealing with X-Files creator and producer Chris Carter in order to make figures based on Carter’s hugely popular science fiction series? “He’s demanding, like Todd, but he’s also good to work with because he’s sure about the direction he wants to take,” Frank said. “Sometimes people are vague about what they want, and that’s hard.”
Does the person depicted - say for instance, Gene Simmons or David Duchovny, have to approve the figure? “Absolutely,” Frank said. “It’s another level of quality control.”
Rare Martin Sheen Figure
Whether musician or actor, imitation can be the sincerest form of flattery, and it’s clear that can be the case at McFarlane Toys. Actor Martin Sheen, who played the villain agent who eighty-sixed good guy Al Simmons in Spawn: The Movie, is an example.
“His [Sheen’s] grandson was a Spawn fan, and he thought it’d be cool for his grandson to have a Sheen figure,” Frank said. “He was genuinely interested in what we do here. He was a good guy to work with.”
OK, the figure has been drawn, molds have been made and packaging and accessories are in place. It’s time for the assembly lines to gear up, right?
“We always say, even when we’re done with it [the figure] we’re really not,” Frank said. “People who work with us have to be very tolerant because anywhere along the line, a change can happen.” For example, additional costs would probably keep most companies from making changes once assembly lines begin rolling. Not at McFarlane.
“[Paint] variations don’t exist for variation’s sake,” he said. “Todd will say, that’s OK but . . . So, we’ll make a change. That doesn’t happen with a lot of companies.”
While last-minute changes can be frustrating for the manufacturer, it’s undoubtedly one of the reasons McFarlane makes figures that collectors enjoy.
“Sometimes you’ll hear a designer say, ‘But you should have seen the original. It looked a lot different.’ We strive to avoid that. We work together closely so our figures don’t end up looking different than we planned, and if they do, we’ll make a change at any time.”
The preceding material was written by Mike Jacquart. These are the opinions of the author, not the opinions of eBay, and therefore eBay does not validate the accuracy of or endorse these opinions.