After I interviewed retired Mattel designer David Wolfram a few weeks ago, he graciously agreed to answer some fan questions. Many thanks to David and to all the readers who submitted questions!
Blaine H.: I have a general question for Mr. Wolfram. If he can give us any details or secrets in the Eternia Playset. Like why did Mattel produce such a large playset at the end of the line when interest was waning. Also does he remember any parts or ideas that were scrapped during production? Why did they use such brittle plastic for the original tracks that break all the time? I have the repro tracks, but sometimes my support arms pop off the towers when the tram is traveling on them and it falls off. No toy is perfect I guess.
David Wolfram: Eternia was already well in the works, so I guess they decided to go ahead with it. It was actually produced in very low numbers, so I am pretty sure that Mattel lost a bundle on it; mostly because of the huge tooling bill, but also because of the extensive D&D (design and development) on it. One of the best engineers, Mike McKittrick, was the engineer on it. He was also the engineer that made Spydor work. Regarding the brittle plastic, all plastic will break down with age, which might account for some of your issues. I’m also guessing the vehicle ended up being heavier than originally planned for as well, after having to pass drop tests, etc.
John A: [David] mentioned that he worked on the movie toys. Could you ask him sometime if he worked on any movie toys beyond Blade, Saurod and Gwildor? I know they went and took photos of Karg in costume. Would be nice to know what else was planned with the movie.
DW: Thanks, the only other movie toy that I can recall was a child-size role play Cosmic Key. I can’t remember if it was actually produced, or not. Martin Arriola worked on it. My recollections are very vague, but I think it had some electronics in it.
Mark L: Awesome read. A great insight into the thought & design process. How proud you must feel to see your design on the shelves as a toy! I’d just like to thank David for his amazing creativity that led to awesome toys. I am truly inspired.
DW: Thanks, glad you enjoyed it. It’s a funny thing, but at least for me, there was so much time as a designer between when the toy is out of your hands, and when it finally hits the shelves, that it feels like ancient history. I do remember on the T-Rex and Bionatops that by the time they hit the shelves they were at Pick & Save (a discount store), priced at less than the original “A” price. I think I bought four T-Rex’s and gave three of them away to my family. The fourth I sold a few years ago on eBay in a slightly damaged package, when I was trying to make some room in my garage and storage areas, for over $900. Made me wish in retrospect that I had bought all that I could find!
When I left Mattel, I had a pile of toys in boxes that was at least six feet tall, six feet wide, and eight feet long. The need for space in my garage quickly overtook my sentimentality, except for a few rare exceptions.
Dejan D: What was inspiration for Clamp Champ?
DW: I think that there were calls for a little more diversity in Eternia. As I mentioned in the interview, the concepts on the four re-themed figures had already been sold in before I started working on them, but that would be a logical conclusion. On the girl’s side they had done black Barbies, and other dolls for years. I don’t remember the background story very well, but I seem to recall he was some kind of guard or soldier.
My interview with David Wolfram started off with some comments he made on my post about Battle Blade Skeletor. Our conversation continued from there by email, and turned into quite a fascinating interview.
David Wolfram: In the studio today, I took a break and stumbled on your blog. Nice to see that people are still interested in this stuff! Yes, I did design Battle Blade [Skeletor]. In fact I may have a copy of the original sketch. I don’t want to get too involved with this post, but the skull armor was something that came out of brainstorms for new MOTU segments. One one my proposals was mutant space pirates, with many of them wearing variants of skull armor. Once we started working on the new line, I adopted that for the Skeletors that I designed. The hair on BB was supposed to be a lot gnarlier, but we had to work with someone from the Barbie group, who couldn’t give me what I was looking for- they only did pretty. If you have any other burning questions, fire away!
Battle Ram: Thank you for clarifying some points. I’d love to hear more about the mutant space pirates, and I’d also love to see your original sketch for the character if you can find it. In fact, I’ve interviewed several other designers/artists from Mattel (Ted Mayer, Mark Taylor, Martin Arriola, Rudy Obrero) and it would be an honor to feature you on the blog as well. Also curious what you had in mind for [Battle Blade Skeletor’s] hair!
I’d be especially interested in background information on everything you worked on both for the 1989 He-Man line and your work on the original Masters line.
DW: By the way, I happened to stumble on your blog while taking a break from getting materials ready for a painting class that I am teaching beginning this Monday. Occasionally I google myself to see which images of my art come up, and I saw the Skeletor images, and got into reading your blog. Since I was mentioned specifically, and that it was pretty current, I thought that I would weigh in. I find it interesting after all these years that it is still being discussed.
Here is my concept drawing for Tyrantisaurus Rex. It originally started out as a heroic vehicle, but marketing begrudgingly made the decision that it would be better suited for Skeletor.
DW: Here is a concept sketch for [Laser Light] Skeletor. I also came across a color sketch of [Battle Blade] Skeletor, done from my original sketch, but computer colored much afterward. Sadly, a lot of the original art and prototypes, which we were encouraged to archive, were destroyed when we moved from the original Hawthorne location, to the new headquarters in El Segundo. So much great history was lost, along with much of my best work.
BR: What’s the story behind Laser Light Skeletor and Laser Power He-Man? Skeletor especially is radically different from previous versions, covered with wires and implants, with a very different and creepy face. What was inspiring that look?
DW: While MOTU was tanking domestically, it was still going strong internationally, which was a year behind in the product cycle. This was done to have something new for that market. LISA (the light transmitting plastic) was a fairly new “shiny toy” for the designers at the time, so that was the hook for that segment. I think Martin did the final He-Man design. I frankly don’t remember for what purpose I did that awful He-Man illustration for, but I’m sure that it was after the fact (and most likely rushed), and I’m sorry that it has survived.
I did the design for Skeletor. My working name was Bio-Mechazoid Skeletor, and it was inspired by influences like Giger, and the Gibson novel, Neuromancer. Sadly, like many of our products of the time, engineering dictated what we had to design around, and in this case it was a huge battery box. Try as we might to design around it, it made the torso oversized, so to compensate, we had to give the legs a little more bend, leading to our new working name: “Take a Dump Skeletor”.
DW: The skull armor [for Battle Blade Skeletor] was something that came out of brainstorms of new MOTU segments. One one my proposals was mutant space pirates, with many of them wearing variants of skull armor. Once we started working on the new line, I adopted that for the Skeletors that I designed. The hair on BB was supposed to be a lot gnarlier, but we had to work with someone from the Barbie group, who couldn’t give me what I was looking for- they only did pretty.
BR: How did you come to work on the original Masters of the Universe line at Mattel?
DW: I was in my last term at Art Center College of Design, and had a fairly light schedule, so I checked into freelance opportunities offered through the job placement department at AC (I can’t remember exactly what they were called), and saw an opportunity to work on a project for Mattel.
I went to Mattel, and met with Martin Arriola to discuss the project, which happened to be a dinosaur project for MOTU. Coincidentally, at my drawing board I had a small black and white TV, and as I was working on my school projects, I would always watch the afternoon MOTU cartoons, so I knew the property, plus I had a lifelong interest in dinosaurs, so I jumped at the opportunity. I worked on this project on a freelance basis until graduation, then I started working in-house at Mattel as a temp, which is the back door way that many people end up working there.
DW: Shortly thereafter, I was hired full time. I ended up staying for 22 years, and worked on four different He-Man lines while I was there. Martin and I were not the prototypical Mattel designers, coming from an illustration, not product design background, which ended up being a nice niche in dealing with characters, and storyline-driven products.
Early on, Martin told me all that I needed to know about product design is understanding how parts come out of a tool, which ended up being true for the most part.
BR: Correct me if I’m wrong. From the original MOTU line, you designed Laser Power He-Man, Laser Light Skeletor, Mosquitor and Tyrantisaurus Rex. Is that right? What am I leaving out?
DW: To set the record straight, I worked as the primary designer on Tyrantisaurus, Bionatops, Snake Face, Ninjor, King Randor, Scare Glow, Clamp Champ, and Laser Light Skeletor. I also was the designer on Gigantosaur, which actually went through three different iterations. Additionally, I worked on bits and pieces of other items, like designing the weapon for the heroic giant [Tytus], the revised drawing and weapon for Mosquitor (that you credited me for). I did a little bit on Eternia (but I can’t remember what), the movie characters, etc.
BR: I’ve been trying to put together a list of all the “New Adventures” toys that you designed or contributed to. Here’s what I’ve put together so far: 1989 Skeletor, Disks of Doom Skeletor, Battle Blade Skeletor, Doomcopter, Optikk, Hoove, Sagitar, Nordor. I’ve heard you did most of the other evil characters.
DW: I guess you can add Slushhead (my name Kalamarri), Quakke, The guy with the whip [Flogg], Lizorr, Butthead (from a Mark Taylor concept), Staghorn (From a Dave McElroy concept), and I’m sure a few more.The evil characters were always the most fun to design.
BR: Laser Light Skeletor seems to have been the predecessor to the 1989 “New Adventures” Skeletor design – many of the details are quite similar, albeit with a differently colored costume, plus a helmet. Can you talk about that evolution?
DW: Laser light Skeletor and the corresponding He-Man were both done for the international markets. The domestic MOTU line was essentially dead after the 1986 (or maybe 1987, it is hard to remember precisely). Pre-Toy Fair, which was a Mattel-only event held in August in Scottsdale for many years. I remember the marketing person saying that no domestic buyers even wanted to go in the gallery.
However, the international markets were a couple of years behind in their product cycle, so they wanted a few pieces of new news. It just so happens that one of the new MOTU segments we had been looking at was a “Power Crystal” segment with crystals “powering” vehicles, interacting with playsets, etc. The He-man and Skeletor were borrowed from that segment.
You will see a copy of one of my concept drawings, for Bio-Mechazoid Skeletor, where I started to use the mutated bio mechanical detail. I don’t know why, but it looks like the staff was drawn by Martin Arriola, and added.
The first Skeletor of the New Adventures was designed by Mark Dicamillo, who had just become the group manager, replacing Roger Sweet, after a particularly acrimonious meeting. Mark adopted the styling from Laser Light, since it really hadn’t been seen in the US, and everybody seemed to like it.
BR: Regarding the first version of New Adventures Skeletor, there was some concept art (drawn by you) included in the Dark Horse Art of He-Man book. I assume then that Mark DiCamillo put a slight redesign together based on your Laser Light design, and then you drew up a final version?
DW: Always interesting to see something I’ve done, and completely forgot about! I would say your thoughts are pretty much what happened. We probably needed to have a consistent look to the presentation boards.
BR: You mentioned that Battle Blade Skeletor’s armor came from your proposed sub-line of mutant space pirates, I assume that Disks of Doom Skeletor comes from the same pool of designs. Can you talk about that figure? I love the “glowing” eyes feature on that one.
DW: That was one of my favorite figures in that line. Mattel was very gun-shy (no pun intended) about using projectiles. By using the discs, we got around all the safety concerns. I also liked that a child could cock the figure, and then launch the disc using the trigger. It also gave me the opportunity to use the styling that I had been playing around with, and as a twofer I also got the LISA glowing eyes.
BR: Regarding Scare Glow, I’ve always thought that was a pretty ingenious concept, despite the fact that it reused mostly existing parts. Did any concept art survive for that? What inspired you there?
DW: Early on in my Mattel career , I was given the task to do four figures using minimal new tooling. They were Scareglow Skeletor, King Randor, Ninjor, and Clamp Champ. The four characters had already been conceived of and the the concepts sold in, so all I had to do was to make it happen.
Part of that was going through the tooling banks to find parts to add to the appearance of the figures. I did get new tooling for Clamp Champ’s weapon, and for four heads. Hal Faulkner, one of our good outside sculpting vendors, sculpted the heads.
Ninjor was a dead ringer for Lee Van Cleef, who had done some karate or kung fu based show around that time, so we had to change that.
DW: Scare Glow was the first Skeletor without a molded hood, and the paint scheme was pretty easy to figure out. It had a fair amount of luminescence, so I was pretty happy with it, and I got to learn how to work with soft goods for the first time. There is an adage in the toy industry, that “once you add glow-in-the dark, it’s a pretty good clue that the line is dead”, and it pretty much was.
BR: When you mentioned Scare Glow, you referred to him as Scare Glow Skeletor. Was he considered a Skeletor variant, then? There has been some debate among fans about that for many years.
DW: As I mentioned before, the concept was pre-sold, I just executed. In my mind, It was never actually Skeletor, but some ghostly construct that used his likeness, and as I recall on the back of the package or somewhere else, that was supported.
[Note: in the 1987 Style Guide it says: Skeletor conjured up this spirit in his own image to frighten travelers on the pathways of Eternia. Scare Glow is invisible during the daylight, but glows at night.]
DW: About Skeletor: As I previously stated, I was a student at Art Center (1982-85) before I started working at Mattel. Sometime early on, one of my fellow students brought in a Skeletor figure, and I thought it was brilliantly conceived. I had read at one point about Jungian symbology, and the skull motif is used commonly, as in warnings for poisons etc., to connote death or danger, something even a small child could imagine as the ultimate manifestation of evil. I think right about that time I started watching the show while at home working on my projects, which definitely helped me hit the ground running at Mattel.
DW: Here are a few sketches of some of my New Adventures characters. Unfortunately, as I may have mentioned before, all my finished presentation boards have been lost. As designers, we were encouraged to send all of our finished drawings and prototypes, etc off to our archives dept, with the provision that we could always retrieve art as needed. As we were getting ready to make the move over to El Segundo, we got word that all of the items in the Archives were going to be disposed of. Despite protests from all the designers , that is exactly what happened, and no one retrieved anything. What a treasure trove that was! I’m happy that I still have some things from that period to share, but it sadly it isn’t the fancy stuff.
BR: For Lizorr (a.k.a. Lizard Warrior), you wrote on the concept drawing that he would have color changing skin. I assume the idea was to use similar material that was used in some of the GI Joe figures like Zartan, that would change with exposure to light or heat? The actual figure didn’t have that. Was it cut for cost reasons?
DW: That was an early prelim sketch. Cost probably knocked that thought out real soon.
DW: Tharkus [Sagitar] was designed to be an equine homage to ERB’s Barsoomian Tharks, but unfortunately the sculptor assigned was primarily a preschool sculptor, and after some bad engineering moves it sort of moved down a different path than I envisioned.
DW: Even though I didn’t design it, here is a picture of a Darius figure. He was supposed to swing a big battle mace. It worked great in preliminary models, which used metal gears, but once the gears were molded in ABS plastic they would bind up and freeze. No amount of coaxing from engineering could change that, so even though it was fully tooled up, the toy was dropped.
DW: Oddly enough, one original that I did hang onto, probably since it wasn’t product-related, was the drawing I did defining the New Adventures world. Mark Dicamillo and I sat down for a few hours brainstorming, and then I drew this up, which was sent to the writers and animators for the show.
[Note: the above image was also referenced in several New Adventures minicomics, such as The New Adventure (below), illustrated by Errol McCarthy.]
DW: I also came across another Skeletor image that apparently never went anywhere.
DW: Also included: the only MOTU mutant space pirate sketch that I have, as well as a later one that showed the skull-themed pirate armor that ended up in Disks of Doom Skeletor.
BR: Doomcopter is a fascinating vehicle. I assume the Giger influence is at play there again? It seems like the line started off with some very typical “Star Trek” type vehicles (like the Shuttle Pod, Starship Eternia, etc), but then the next vehicles were much wilder (for example. Doomcopter and Battle Bird). Was there a conscious effort to shift the tone?
DW: Lots of Giger influence there. I have this one partial sketch. As you can see on both this product as well as Nordor, the skull motif is an an important design element. I really didn’t do a lot of vehicles. I did an early sketch of a walking tank like vehicle which ended up becoming Terrorclaw and the Shuttle Pod. The vehicles ended up being designed by three different people: Dave McElroy, Steve Fouke, and Miller Johnson. Oh, and the Starship was designed by Terry Choi.
BR: Optikk is, I think, probably most people’s favorite figure from the New Adventures of He-Man line. Can you talk a bit about your process with him? He’s a very sharp looking design, head to toe in dark metallic brass color, and that creepy giant eye peering out from the suit.
DW: It was always one of my favorites. He was originally something that I did for a MOTU theme testing board, and he made it into the first wave of evil New Adventures figures.
As designers, we had been asking for quite a while for some nice molded metallics, and we finally got them. I know I used a lot of that dark bronze and copper over the next few years. We actually had a fairly limited palette to work from based on the Muncell color system, and unfortunately many of the colors were too ‘pretty’ for my design ethic, so I ended up using the same colors over and over again. To get any new colors into the system took forever, and took an act of congress. Later, as we started working on more licensed properties where we had to used specific colors from a style guide, that system was abandoned.
DW: In the early sketch of Optikk, the thought was that his eye would be removable and go into the forks of the staff. We were looking at making the eye like the compasses that went on car dashboards at that time, but I imagine that approach ended up being too expensive, so we went with the simpler execution. The eye tampo design was the same one that I had designed and used on “Boglins”, another Mattel creature line from that time.
BR: I had no idea Optikk’s eye design came from Boglins! What other lines did you work on at Mattel, that weren’t He-Man related?
DW: Over my Mattel career I worked on most action figure and boys’ entertainment lines. I was a designer for 11 years, and then I managed the Boy’s entertainment design group for another eleven. One of my favorite early lines was “Skateboard Gang”, it was a cute skateboard themed line based on a Hot Wheels XV racer chassis. You could rev them up and the flywheel would let you do all kind of tricks. Often I was called in to give ‘personality’ to lines that needed a boost, like “Food Fighters”.
DW: Boglins, Captain Power, Computer Warriors, Mad Scientist, and “Hook” were all lines I worked on at the old Hawthorne Location. When we moved to El Segundo, I worked on Last Action Hero, The Flintstones, Street Sharks, and Judge Dredd among others. Sadly, upper management at Mattel at that time had our group chase lame ideas from the outside that ultimately didn’t go anywhere. We had a two year stretch where our group didn’t generate any product that went to market. … [And] how could I forget Max Steel? Not so big here, but HUGE in Latin America.
DW: We got some good licenses with Disney/Pixar, Nickelodeon, and Warner Brothers, which led to Toy Story, Hercules, Atlantis, Spongebob, Batman, Superman, Justice League Unlimited, and others. One of my all time favorite Mattel lines was the “Rockem Sockem Robots” Construction line. The name never fit but the toys and the construction system were great. Unfortunately, without any entertainment, the line only sold when it was highly advertised, and was eventually dropped. We also had great success with Yugioh. We set a Mattel record for getting toys to Market in five months. Our Duel Disc Launcher was Mattel’s Toy of the Year in 2005
By the way, we also worked on the 2002 He-Man reboot. It was great having the Horsemen on board for the project. For a number of years, I managed what they worked on for Mattel. I read your interview with Martin, and I also wasn’t a fan of that quasi-anime look that we had to go with, but in a big corporation we were only foot soldiers.
DW: I’m going to go on record that I think one of the main reasons the line failed was that Marketing ignored what made MOTU successful: it was having so many diverse characters, and keeping He-Man and Skeletor in relatively short supply, so kids would have to keep on going back to the store to get the “popular” figures. Their idea was to make He-Man “Batman” and have multiple variations of He-Man, and also to have the assortments heavily weighted with He-Man. That strategy did not work, and the retailer’s shelves quickly got clogged up with He-Man figures, and once retailers can’t move product, your line is in trouble. I had a number of not so pleasant conversations with the director of marketing, to no avail.
DW: In addition to a very busy and intense product cycle, we did some major pitches which were fun because we didn’t have to worry about cost or production issues, and we could be very creative. Among the more memorable were Star Wars (we did the presentation at Skywalker Ranch!), Cars, and Harry Potter (my big contribution was creating a five foot tall Hogwarts that was made of three separate playsets).
A lot of the best products I worked on over the years never made it to market, but that is just the nature of the business. Every product line conjures up a million anecdotal memories, which are fun to think about, but I have no interest in writing a book.
BR: You mentioned earlier that you worked on four different He-Man lines at Mattel. So that would be the original line, New Adventures, [200x], and then what else?
DW: You left out the 2000 MOTU retro relaunch. We had a big plexiglass showcase in our area that we brought over from the old Hawthorne offices full of most of the MOTU line. Unfortunately, we had a big skylight over our area, and many of the figures after being exposed to sunlight every day started to deteriorate, mostly due to the plasticizer leaching out of the PVC. All the original MOTU tools had long been destroyed, so I had to find mint figures on eBay that we could tear apart and cast to make new tools to recreate the original MOTU figures. The only change we made was to put a little ridge on the bottom of the feet so collectors would know that they were recreations. I was really pleased how well they came out, and the fact that they did well was the impetus to start working on a new line.
BR: The 2000 Commemorative line was great. I remember walking into Toys”R”Us and my jaw hitting the floor when I saw all the He-Man figures. I hadn’t really thought about He-Man since the 80s. Of course I walked out of there with a five-pack. Quite a few different figures were sold in that line, although noticeably missing some key characters like Ram Man, Man-E-Faces, Orko, etc. I assume Mattel wanted to focus on figures that had a lot of shared tooling? Were there Commemorative figures that were planned but never released?
DW: No. We carefully plotted out where we could maximize on the shared tooling. The production runs were low, and Mattel’s tooling was expensive, so we didn’t have the luxury of doing characters that didn’t share tooling like Ram Man or Orko. It wasn’t intended as a big moneymaker, but at the same time, it is hard to justify doing anything from a corporate standpoint that doesn’t contribute something to the bottom line. The whole line was designed as a one off, including the five and ten packs, with no thought of any subsequent waves. In retrospect, the only other figure that I wish we had, and could have done, was Battle Cat and Panthor. [Note: Battle Cat and Panthor were actually released in gift sets with He-Man and Skeletor, respectively.]
BR: There seem to have been several different artists who did the artwork on the front and back of the figure, vehicle and playset packaging for New Adventures. Do you happen to remember who they were?
DW: That is one area that I can’t help you with. I had my favorites, like Bill George, and I know a friend, Errol McCarthy did some of the backs, but for me, the package was what it was, and hopefully displayed the product as well as possible. I did have run-ins with packaging people from time to time, where I thought the overall look of the packaging didn’t represent what we were trying to do with the product, but not on any of the He-Man lines.
BR: After 22 years at Mattel, what came next for you? I see on your website that you currently do a lot of fine art, focusing on outdoor subjects. Who are your influences, artistically?
DW: After getting ‘whacked’ along with a number of other senior Mattel people in a major management change, I started doing fine art. I was only two years away from when I planned to retire, and really didn’t have the need or desire to go back to work. The very first time I went painting plein air (on location) was with Martin Arriola. I work mostly in oils and pastels. My website is mostly landscapes, by design for ‘branding’ reasons, however I do other more experimental art as well.
I am on the executive board of a number of art organizations, and have a studio in an art co-op in Old Torrance which I helped found, where I also teach. Art keeps me pretty busy, and it is a great excuse to travel. For this year and next I am leading painting workshops in France.
As far as my influences are concerned, I have many: Kim Lordier is probably my favorite pastellist, but I have taken workshops with, and become friends with many of the top artists in the country. This weekend I am doing an Advanced Mentoring workshop with Richard McKinley, another of my favorites. In fact, he was the one who suggested I do the France workshop.
BR: Hoove’s early concept art was included in the Dark Horse book. In this version he actually has metallic hooves, and a very different color scheme compared to the final toy, which was all in copper and bronze (and no hooves). What’s the story behind the changes? Did it have to do with the color limitations you mentioned earlier?
DW: Wow! you’ve got me there!!! I guess I have forgotten over the years. I can tell it is Hoove, because there is a gun mounted on the leg that would kick up, but other than that I can’t remember why the look changed. And yes, the molded copper and bronze were among my go-to evil colors.
BR: You mentioned you did the revised drawing for Mosquitor – did someone else take a first crack at designing it then? Also, who designed Laser Power He-Man?
DW: I think Pat Dunn did the first Mosquitor design, and I’m pretty sure that Martin Arriola would have done the [Laser Power] He-Man, maybe with some influence from Dave McElroy.
BR: How did Mattel decide on what themes to go for in a given year? For instance, in 1987 Mattel did the three dinosaur figures, of which you designed Tyrantisaurus Rex. Were dinosaurs particularly popular that year? How much of it was market research and how much of it was guess work, is I guess what I’m asking.
DW: I came to the party relatively late, so I don’t have a lot of insight into how the Pre-Eternia theme came about. I think that Marketing and the powers that be at Mattel were hoping for new entertainment to support that theme that didn’t happen. There were also a couple of characters that didn’t come out, which made the Grayskull theme even more of an outlier. They were He-ro and Eldor. John Hollis worked on both of those. Eldor had a book, based on a simple magic trick prop. I ended up working on real holographs of the dinosaurs and Pre-Eternia that went inside the book. FYI, I also designed Bionatops.
BR: I’ve heard that [Gigantisaur] has something of a storied history. Were you the main designer on that? That one showed up in the 1987 Mattel Catalog, but of course was never released. Could you share some of the background on that?
DW: Yes, I was the designer on the many iterations. When it was first shown to me, there was a beautiful, but totally unrealistic painting by Ed Watts, and a white prototype model that was submitted by a well known outside toy invention company.
DW: My first boards (especially the side view) show the reality of what I had to work with. One of the big visual issues is that the feet had to be huge to extend past the center of gravity. Ed’s (a great guy by the way, who went way too soon, and not in a way I would want to go) drawing hinted at this voluminous interior, when in fact, because of the cockpit, could only hold one figure.
DW: There was also a figure that was supposed to hide in the tail section, but in the model it looked like the dinosaur was taking a dump! There were lots of meetings when marketing and management were forced to confront the reality of this turkey-like bastardization rather than the seductive drawing. I was given the go ahead to take some of the elements of the old model, and another provision was that it had to swallow a figure.
I did a lot of work with foam and clay to work out a better proportioned creature, and the engineer that I worked with, Ben Guerrero (Tony the sculptor’s brother) came up with the idea of marrying the tail with the part of the body with the rear legs to create a tripod which eliminated the need for gigantic feet to let it stand up. It not only stood up, it shot up, because Ben used a very strong spring. Of course, after all that it went to pre-Toy fair, where the line was for all intents and purposes dead domestically.
DW: As I was thinking about Ed Watts, I flashed on a fundraiser idea my design group had to help raise money to help with his medical expenses. As you probably know, the Four Horsemen sculpted their figures very large – at least 12″ tall. I had them cast up six figures. I remember He-Man, Skeletor, Trap Jaw, for sure, and I’m pretty sure there was a Mer-Man, too. I’m pretty sure we had six all together. Each member of the group, including myself took a figure, created a base, and did a tricked-out version of that character. The figures were then auctioned off to fans (I’m not sure if it was through eBay, or if it was done some other way). Anyway, we ended up making something like $15,000 to give to Ed’s family. We also had a little internal competition, and my cadaverous Trap Jaw won. Stupidly, we didn’t take good pictures of them, but I think at the time we used he-man.org to promote them. If you ever come across any of those pics I’d love to see them.
BR: You talked before about figures like King Randor, Scare Glow, Clamp Champ and Ninjor, for which you were given very minimal new tooling to work with, for the most part just new heads. But, you also did Snake Face (great drawing, by the way), which is of course all new tooling except for the staff he came with. It seems like for some figures they would go all out on new tooling, and others they would provide very little new tooling – kind of feast or famine. Why was that?
DW: I guess they were still trying to make some money, partly by not spending as much on tooling, but still having new characters to launch to keep the trade happy. Outside of the movie figures, Snake Face (or Medusa man) was one of the last-newly tooled MOTU figures. Again, the preliminary concept sketch showed all these gnarly fully sculpted snakes coming out from everywhere, when the reality forced on me from engineering was they had to use nylon that couldn’t be detailed.
BR: David, thanks once again for the fascinating information and wonderful artwork. I really appreciate you taking so much time to share this with me!
DW: This has been fun, and has dredged up a lot of old memories.
Many thanks to David for taking so much of his time to answer my questions and share his art.
Martin Arriola was a designer on the original Masters of the Universe toyline. He went on to work on the 1989 New Adventures of He-Man reboot, the 2009 adult collector Masters of the Universe Classics toyline, and many other lines for Mattel. He graciously agreed to sit down and talk to me about his work.
Battle Ram: Thanks for agreeing to this interview! So, how did you get into the toy design business?
Martin Arriola: My dad was a carpenter, I always watched him work. He was good at what he did. I was always drawing – I was terrible at math, and I didn’t like hard work, so I wanted to see if I could make it in the field of commercial art.
Everyone keeps telling you it’s very competitive. But if you never try you never know. I went to trade school for two years. I went to UCLA, then I started attending Art Center College of Design. I started at Art Center at night, and one of my instructors told me to come full time.
I went from there in 1980 and freelanced for a couple of years. Then I got a call from head hunters. One was from Mattel, offering a job that paid $33,000, which was decent money in the ’80s. Another was a call for startup newspaper. These guys saw some of my illustrations (I graduated as an illustration major). They wanted to hire me as director, for same amount of money Mattel was offering. They were based in Washington DC, and Mattel was in California. In the end I wanted to stay in California, so I went with Mattel. It turned out that paper was USA Today. I stayed at Mattel for 32 years.
BR: What did you start working on when you were hired at Mattel?
MA: I started on Hot Wheels stuff. They didn’t have toy major designs back then. Seventy percent of their designers came from the Art Center. I didn’t know a label sheet from an overspray, but I could draw. There were no computers at the time, no Photoshop. Mark Taylor was great at markers. I was a marker freak – that’s what got me the job.
Ted Mayer was still there when I was there. I was hired to replace Mark Taylor, at least that’s what I had heard. That was back in 1982.
I remember rendering a bunch of vehicles. I did a bunch of renderings for Hot Wheels. I learned everything there at Mattel.
When I first got there the designers were over-worked, but it was also lax, it was so much more fun. Mark Taylor had just left to go to Playmates… I almost quit under Roger Sweet. I came close to quitting. The credit stealing was awful.
Anyway, there was a big paradigm shift. I know Ted and Taylor were part of visual design. I started as an art director in Visual Design. Shel Plat asked if I wanted to work on products or packaging. I thought products would be more fun. A lot more goes into it, although you have to deal with engineers.
BR: When was this?
MA: I think I started in 1983 on He-Man. One of the first things I worked on was the figure with the rotating drum, Battle Armor He-Man. We did same thing with Skeletor, same feature.
I may have done Screeech and Zoar. I don’t know what came first. I started out picking the colors. Zoar was the Big Jim Eagle, and Battle Cat was also from Big Jim. He-Man’s Battle Cat was already done. I worked on the other cat, Panthor. I picked the colors. There was a lot of refresh back then.
BR: Who were you working with?
MA: Colin Bailey was one. He could draw anything, this guy was awesome. I said to myself, I gotta draw like him. I watched him do Fisto, Buzz-Off. He did the original Stridor. I think I picked colors on Night Stalker. I got more familiar with the line, and I started doing a lot more as far as art directing and sculpting.
BR: Was it a challenge get a good design through engineering?
MA: It’s totally different now. Everything goes to Hong Kong. Design now has a big role, as opposed to what it used to be. In 1982, designers never went to Hong Kong. Engineering was the big division then. They traveled everywhere. It wasn’t vendors, it was captive plants. We did tooling inside, and there were all these divisions in Mattel that no longer exist. Design got bigger and bigger and more powerful.
Prelim, guys like Rogers Sweet would always over-promise to marketing, and sometimes add stuff that was unsafe or not practical.
BR: Oh, like what?
MA: There was Dragon Blaster Skeletor. Prelim design came up with breadboard model. It was unpainted, using old legs and arms and a body sculpted from square styrene blocks. Sweet was touting this one, Smoke and Chains Skeletor, it was called. It had a bellows on its back. You would load the bellows with talcum powder, and there was a pipe going from a cavity to the figure’s right hand. Talcum powder would come out like smoke. The figure was draped with chains, so the working name was Smoke and Chains Skeletor.
I was thinking about doing the final design. Around that same time there was a big grain factory in Texas that exploded. It killed a lot of people, so it made big news back then. Everyone smoked back then.
I said, wow, this has powder. I lit a match and squeezed the bellows. A four foot flame came out of Skeletor! Luckily I hadn’t pointed it at anybody. I remember going to the VP of Design, Gene Kilroy. I had Smoke and Chains Skeletor and a lighter. I just happened to come across the greatest TV moment. I lit the thing and a big old flame came out it.
BR: That’s insane!
MA: When safety got a hold of this, obviously it couldn’t be released. We tried diluting the powder with baking soda, but then it didn’t look like smoke anymore.
So we brainstormed, me and Tony Rhodes. We didn’t do much with water squirting at the time. We had a big brainstorm, and thought, what about squirting water? So we ended up sculpting the dragon on the back of Skeletor, and being able to load that up with water.
There was a lot of trial and error stuff like that. We had to change because prelim would promise that this was going to be the feature, and get it for this much. They would always say it was cheaper than it was going to be. They would say it can’t do this and can’t do that. We were always having to make sure it was safe, affordable and that it would actually work.
BR: Do you know who designed Clawful?
MA: Colin Bailey did Clawful, he was one of the first designers to work on the vintage He-Man line. By then Taylor had already left to do Ninja Turtles with Playmates.
BR: What were the figures you primarily worked on?
MA: Just about all of them, to be honest with you. I did all the Secret Wars figures as well. I actually became a manager of the (He-Man) line, but they didn’t give me the title. I managed the line from Screeech and the drum rotating guy, until the line got dropped. They over shipped the line to make the numbers, and that’s what killed it.
I hired Dave Wolfram and had some temps working for me too. Basically from Screeech until the end. The dinosaurs, I worked on those as well. I hired a couple of guys. I had to approve everything. I’m not taking credit for that, that’s not what I do. From then until New Adventures. I worked on all that stuff too.
It was not like it is now, I retired on my own time, the politics got so bad. I worked on Disney-Pixar cars stuff. I made a billion dollars for that company.
BR: Do you know who designed Stinkor and Moss Man?
MA: Those were refreshes like Scare Glow and Ninjor. I also worked on Land Shark and Laser Bolt, that was kind of a challenge. I worked on Stinkor, Moss Man, and Ninjor. Clamp Champ, too. If you look at those, its all existing parts. We tried to save as much money as we could. Whenever we could refresh, we’d do a refresh.
BR: Right, like Faker. Did you work on that figure?
MA: I did label sheets for Faker’s chest, it looked like a reel-to-reel tape deck. On [Sy-Klone], I came up with lenticular lens. We reused the idea for Secret Wars. Sometimes you get lucky.
BR: What about Snake Mountain?
MA: Snake Mountain, I wish I had one now. Eddy [Mosqueda] sculpted it*. Eddy was really really fast. The guy who sculpted [Eternia] was really, really slow.
On the boys’ side, [engineering] was all done inside, and you had to go through politics. Now everything goes to vendor. You had to get saddled with people who were not so talented. Like Bionotops. This guy, Hal Faulkner had a bitchin sculpt, but the engineer started smoothing out the mold and getting rid of musculature. Smoothing it all out. My manager said he was fixing it, but it looked like a piggy bank. He also worked on middle tower for Eternia. There was only so much you could do.
Now it’s different. You do a front three-quarters sketch, send it to Hong Kong, and you see a digital output.
BR: Do you know anything about a brown-haired He-Man variant? People seem to think that you could get it in a mail-away offer. What many people recall is that you would send in three proofs of purchase and you would get a free figure in the mail, but no one seems to know much about it or why it was made in the first place. It looked like this:
MA: The brown haired variant was either just done or in the works when I got there, but I think you’re right. Has it been referred to as The Wonder Bread mail-in offer? Again, I just got there and was just trying to keep my head above water, keeping up with great talents like Colin Bailey who drew like an angel with so much ease.
BR: Do you know who designed Jitsu?
MA: I watched Colin draw control art turn views of Jitsu as reference for sculpting.
BR: Besides Rudy Obrero and Bill George, there was another person who painted some of the box art. We don’t know his name, but he did the box art for Point Dread & Talon Fighter, Panthor, Skeletor/Panthor Gift Set, Teela/Zoar Gift Set, Night Stalker, and a few others. Any clues there? Here’s an example of his/her art:
MA: Unfortunately I can’t remember that guy’s name, but his stuff was pretty decent as a fill-in when Bill [George] was overbooked. His art was better than the guy who did the dino art, Warren Hile, who I went to Art Center with. He now makes furniture in Pasadena. I looked up his art in the SDCC He-Man book that I designed, which sold out in a day, but no names are listed. I’ll find out because now it’s bugging me, thanks to you.
BR: What about Tony Guerrero? Do you remember him?
MA: Tony Sculpted THE He-Man. He had a twin brother, Ben. He was on the engineering side and Tony was a sculptor. One of guards once asked Tony for a property pass and offended him. He said, “Do you know who I am, I sculpted He-Man!”
Tony didn’t do a lot of the later stuff. I don’t know if he got let go. I can’t tell you how many purgings I survived there. They didn’t care how good you were, or what you contributed. It was how much money you made. They would bring a new guy in that they could pay less and force you out.
Tony and Colin left shortly after I got there. Colin was there for a couple of years.
Bill George did the best art. He was at Power Con, the very first one. Bill’s paintings were the best. He did the best He-Man ever.
BR: By 1986, there seemed to be a lot more stylistic diversity in the line. Can you talk about that?
MA: Extendar was designed by John Hollis, he was a temp who reported to me. He did Extendar, and he also did Rattlor and Turbodactyl. Each one has own style. Pat Dunn worked on Mosquitor. They way they turned out depended on they designer’s style and the action feature and play feature. The hardest one I worked on was Sorceress. Her wings popped out on back pack. Roger Sweet promised all those things. It’s hard to pack a mechanism on a thin-looking body. There was no other way I could do it except to put hump on her back.
We did Turbosaurus [later, Gigantisaur] that never got made. Too impractical? Of course. Roger Sweet had a sketch done by Ed Watts. It showed He-Man on this dinosaur. He sold it with all these features at a price that was low. I said, do you know how big this is going to be?
I went to Dave Wolfram, and I said, “We gotta breadboard this stuff.” Sure enough, that dinosaur was probably three feet. I told marketing, if you want this to reflect what Sweet sold you in the B-sheet, this is how big it’s going to be. We hand painted it. One thing that Sweet sold to marketing is that it would swallow a He-Man figure. But you know how splayed out the he-man figures were. It would have been as big as Eternia.
Ed Watts was the best and he actually did some preliminary designing and B-sheets on many of the vintage Masters toys, including Land Shark, the dinos, and Skeletor’s Dragon Fly [Fright Fighter], just to name a few. He actually had talent and thus recognized others who had talent, and was not insecure or jealous of others, so that’s why we got along. He was my manager when I designed/developed all the Bug’s Life line. Unfortunately he died of brain cancer way too young.
BR: What else did you work on in your time at Mattel?
MA: Everything that failed, I didn’t do, like that 2002 series… I was already off the line at that time. I worked on Harry Potter. I remember it was the Four Horsemen that were sculpting it. They were going old school, with clay molds and final waxes. Those guys are awesome. We were going to do Spawn at that time, and then anime stuff came up. I think I was working on Killer Tomatoes and Hook when we left the old building. Anyway, the Four Horsemen went in and did a really great sculpt of He-Man and Skeletor, almost two feet high. But at that time anime was coming in. So when they approached the Four Horsemen they had them sculpt them anime style as well. On that version, He-Man’s neck is coming out of his chest. Mattel did a focus test (which I hate), and the kids picked the anime style.
Then I got put back on He-Man, and started working with the Horsemen on [Masters of the Universe Classics], with no features. So there was this weird roundabout way I came back and worked on He-Man with the Horsemen, which they then gave to Terry Higuchi, because I was pulled to work on Remi from Ratatouille. Terri did a great job.
BR: What figure or other toy are you most proud of in your time at Mattel?
MA: I did so many entire lines there in 32 years. It would seem like bragging if I listed them all, which were approximately 15 to 20. Several never made it to retail. In hindsight I guess my favorites were the vintage MOTU line; resurrecting the then-dead Disney-Pixar Cars Line and generating a billion dollars for the five years I had it before my jealous VP stole it from me; and the Disney-Pixar Ratatouille line, which I designed/developed single-handily with my Hong Kong counterparts.
I’m especially proud that all those toys I designed/brought to retail made kids happy and filled their lives with joy & imaginative play. I’m happily retired now, focusing on painting full time. You can check out my original art on my website, www.martinarriola.com.
To hear more from Martin, check out these Power Con panels:
Several pieces of cross sell art used in this article are courtesy of Axel Giménez.
*Note: Eric L. recently contacted Eddy Mosqueda, and confirmed that Eddy did not actually sculpt Snake Mountain.
Mark Taylor is the designer behind so many beloved icons in the He-Man universe: He-Man, Skeletor, Man-At-Arms, Teela, Stratos, Beast Man, Mer-Man, Zodac, Castle Grayskull, Battle Cat, Man-E-Faces, Ram Man, and even an early version of Prince Adam. Mark and his wife Rebecca were gracious enough to answer some of my questions about the origins of these characters, and the process of bringing them to life.
Battle Ram: Thank you both so much for agreeing to answer my questions. I recently interviewed Ted Mayer and Rudy Obrero. It’s a thrill and an honor to also be able to interview you now!
Mark: Adam, thank you for your interest, both Ted and Rudy are my friends as well as excellent designers. It was a pleasure to work with them on He-Man. I do not call the brand MOTU because that was just a Mattel marketing and management concept. “Masters of the Universe” also helped them separate it from a potential lawsuit with the Conan property owners. It also was part of their effort to remove the concept from the original creator and inventor, me.
BR: You were originally hired by Mattel to work on packaging. How did you come to be the designer for He-Man?
Mark: At the age of eleven I was a compulsive reader and drawer, I love story telling and adventure, influenced by Hal Foster’s beautiful strip and Burroughs and Howard’s books. I started telling my own heroic story.
I went to Art Center, Cal State and worked for the US Navy (Combat Illustrator). Then through a friend I found out there was an opening at Mattel in Visual Development group. They were a very talented “bullpen” who were responsible for the appearance of the product which included packaging but also the products’ labels, color, details and early engineering drawings. This was a perfect fit for me, and I was promptly assigned to work on Barbie product, which was a honor because Barbie has always been Mattel’s cash cow.
BR: He-Man and Skeletor seem very primordial and archetypal to me. He-Man is the embodiment of life and vitality; Skeletor is the embodiment of death and decay. When you were designing these characters, was any of that running through your head?
Mark: He-Man’s original name was Torak, Hero of Prehistory. He was the defender of the weak and righteous and foe of bullies and villains. This powerful hero needed a worthy adversary who embodied evil and sorcery on every level.
Skeletor was influenced by many literary sources but visually by a carnival scare ride with a skeleton like figure that dropped down and rattled (turned out to be a real mummified outlaw); also a lot of Mexican Day of the Dead art and sculpting. Skeletor had to be powerful in his own right and believe completely in his cause as much as Torak (He-Man).
The battle was set, a righteous hero mounted on a giant Battle Cat verses a nefarious villain imbued with mystical evil powers. The clash of arms could be heard to the ends of the earth.
BR: So He-Man originated with your Torak character, which I believe you had been working on since the 1950s. Did Skeletor originate from that same time?
Mark: Absolutely. Skeletor evolved simultaneously with Torak, it had to be this way. They were the yin and yang, the reason for being, opposites to battle forever.
BR: As far as I can tell, Stratos was originally supposed to be an evil warrior (correct me if I’m wrong!), but then he was released as a heroic warrior. Were there any other characters who ended up switching sides?
Mark: Yes many, the early figures that switched sides were, Beast Man, Teela, Stratos, Man-E-Faces and Ram Man. It was a money thing, we had to release the figures, vehicles, playsets and accessories in waves to pay for the tooling and advertising. Mattel did not really believe in the line until after Castle Grayskull was a big hit. Then it was just a matter of corporate greed as to how much we could jam down the public’s throat. I left to work on TMNT.
BR: Can you talk about your working relationship with Ted Mayer on the Masters of the Universe toy line?
Mark: Ted is an industrial designer, I am a designer/illustrator. I sketched out the line but needed help with the vehicles. I requested Ted and he did a great job. It was important that the figure controlling the vehicle be very visual, we didn’t have a movie to explain and promote our product like Star Wars did.
BR: How did you come to hire Rudy Obrero to do paintings for the packaging artwork? Can you speak a little bit about your experience working with him?
Mark: He was the only guy who could paint like Frank Frazetta, he was great to work with. Always came back with more and better than I expected. He would do great stuff from very little reference material. We were turning out stuff like crazy fast. It was like we were joined at the imagination.
BR: Mattel took quite a risk in producing your designs that were not based on any previous intellectual property. It was a risk that obviously paid off. Do you think toy companies today are more hesitant to take those kinds of risks?
Mark: Mattel took no chances at first. Ray Wagner, President of Mattel at that time, laid his reputation on the line and went against everyone else to give Masters a lift off. We were forced to do illegal child testing early on (another lame boys toy was supposed to be tested, but the Preliminary guys weren’t ready). We snuck in thanks to Angie DiMicco. I was there with He-Man, Teela, Beast Man, Battle Cat and Skeletor. The kids tried to steal the prototypes after the testing. We had a hit.
BR: A lot of characters went through color changes as they went through development (either to themselves or their costumes or both). Examples include Beast Man, Mer-Man, Teela and Ram Man. What was driving those changes?
Mark: Sorry to admit it, but cost. Later when the brand was making billions no one cared but in the beginning engineering pinched every penny, especially in paint masks. Also there was a conscious effort to avoid anything that resembled Star Wars or Conan in any way.
BR: Mer-Man went through quite a few changes from B-sheet to final toy. What was behind the changes to his design, particularly the changes to his face?
Mark: Mer-Man tested the lowest. Tony Guerrero the great sculptor and I chased the negative child test comments until we finally realized the marketeers were just messing with us and then we went with what we had. Mer-Man was the weakest but people who like him really like him (I based him on Bernie Wrightson’s Swamp Thing).
BR: There is a character you designed who fans refer to now as Demo-Man. Do you see him as an early incarnation of Skeletor or Beast Man?
Mark: No, he was a separate concept that I was too busy to exploit, I was working until the sun came up and the Mattel building was empty. I was pretty much running on fumes. I would have loved to take him further but like so many concepts corporate profit came first.
BR: You designed the armor and helmet for Battle Cat as a way to reuse the Big Jim tiger. Can you talk a little bit about that design? The helmet design is quite striking, like some mythical beast.
Mark: I had used the Cat on the Tarzan line, I liked the sculpt but the 5.30″ He Man figures wouldn’t ride on him and I wanted him to ride on a huge cat. Nobody messes with a guy riding a huge armored cat! I had seen a guy ride a regular tiger in the circus and wow!
The head armor came from my childhood sketches and had to be engineered for costs and molding ease or the marketeers would lose it (thanks Ted).
BR: The colors green and orange seem to be pretty prominent on those early toys (Battle Cat, Man-At-Arms, Wind Raider). Is there a story behind that color scheme?
Mark: Not just a story but a lot of work and fighting, those colors were not very common in action toys. They pop but looked somewhat alien. I definitely did not want Battle Cat to look like a real tiger, he was much more that but they sold out on him in the animation and later toys after I left. He or He-Man were NEVER supposed to be silly in my imagination.
BR: Did you have an origin story in mind when you designed Man-E-Faces? How about Ram Man?
Mark: Yes, but no one was interested, they wanted to ship it out immediately to animators and movie producers, you know “professionals”. I designed him to have a different and interesting feature besides a twist waist. All the answers to my original story are in clues in Castle Grayskull, where they should be like a puzzle.
BR: Teela and the Sorceress/Goddess (the one with the snake armor) were originally separate characters. Whose decision was it to combine them into a single action figure? How did you feel about that? Did you intend the sorceress character to be a hero or a villain?
Mark: She was actually supposed to be a changeling but the comic book guys had a hard time with that. Also, the head of girls toys wanted to rip her off for Princess of Power (because now the line was very hot!). She was intended to be like a spy and play both sides with some magic but the “professionals” felt that was too complex (I guess they don’t get Game of Thrones either).
BR: In the first couple of years of the toyline, all of the vehicles seem to be geared toward the good guys. Why was that?
Mark: Don’t forget Skeletor used MAGIC but He-Man never did. Skeletor could animate anything and go anywhere. In my mind that was one of the main differences between the main characters and their followers.
BR: The late Tony Guerrero sculpted a lot of the early He-Man figures. Can you talk a little bit about what it was like to work with him?
Mark: Tony was a great artist and a really nice man and it was my honor to work with him. I also worked on another project, TMNT with a nice and super talented guy named Scott Hensey. Working with both of these sculptors allowed me to break custom by adding a step to the development process. On the He-Man line we did a looks like beauty sculpt, non articulated from my “B” sheet (design sketch) for testing and sales and until we got the first shots from China. This was Tony’s idea and without this extra step, the confidence in this “weird” concept wouldn’t have happened. I repeated this process with the Turtles.
BR: These toys were a surprise, runaway success. What is it about He-Man that made it so successful, do you think?
Mark: Everybody pushes us little guys around, we secretly want to strike back at all the bullies. We need to feel like we can make things better and are willing to fight to do it. With He-Man we have the power! We have a chance. I feel that the basic concept of courage cannot be taught, it can only be shown.
BR: What did you envision for Zodac when you designed him? What were his abilities and where did he fit in to the MOTU universe?
Mark: Zodac was all about flying. He was the air wing. I was influenced by Flash Gordon and the flying Vikings.
BR: Castle Grayskull is probably the greatest playset ever made, and I understand that you sculpted most of it yourself? What was that process like? What does Castle Grayskull mean to you?
Mark: Yes I did because Tony was busy with the figures and the other sculptors kept making it too architectural. I wanted it to the castle to be organic, coming to life to tell its story. I made a wood armature and sculpted it in green clay. Ted helped with the plaster mold and vacuum forming, Rebecca did the labels. Marketing (now everyone wants in on the game) wanted it to retail for twenty nine dollars. The imaginative user applied labels themselves to offset the lack of interior walls. Toys R Us sold all they could get fifty dollars which was quite a mark up.
BR: Rebecca, I understand you worked on the stickers and cardboard inserts used in Castle Grayskull. The style ranges from regal to almost psychedelic. What did you have in mind when you were working on that project?
Rebecca: The only chance Mark had to tell the story was with the castle. He always said, “all the answers are in Castle Grayskull”, which is quite a different direction that it eventually went. Once the president of Mattel Ray Wagner chose to go with it, everything moved at such a high velocity because he wanted it and no one else understood it.
Mark asked me to combine classic icons along with futuristic ones because he was going against Star Wars and after all it was a ” warrior-type” premise that had to somehow be more than Conan, Tarzan etc.
Mark had sketches in ancient sketchbooks which I took and redesigned stickers from. I did the designing, drawing, inking and coloring, that includes labels for vehicles as well as directed by and revised by Mark. Just like every label job, I was given areas that I had to fit. Because everything was going so fast, sometimes those areas would change shape and would have to be redrawn on the fly in those cases Mark was redrawing my stuff because he was hands on with the castle. Because we’ve worked together for decades, we speak in brain waves.
I think the reason they are perceived as “psychedelic” is because Mark said, “We’re already going somewhere no one else has so don’t render the labels in the normal hard edged graphic way. I used Dr. Martin’s Dyes and let the colors run and wash into the line art. I think it went through because it was so fast and still no one really “got it”.
It wasn’t until after it looked like it might be “big” did people start making decisions to get connected to the project or shall I say get their “scent” on it if you know what I mean. The innovation on those labels happened because Mark was approving and controlling this project and I knew what he wanted. I’ve done many labels for other toy companies and no one has ever asked me for “something really different” and yet these were a big hit.
I was always disappointed that the Mylar printed moat that surrounded the castle was costed out.
BR: Was Errol McCarthy responsible for creating the cross sell artwork on the back of the packaging (below)?
Mark: In the beginning it was someone else and then Errol came in.
BR: MOTU differs a bit from traditional sword and sorcery in that it includes laser guns and flying vehicles. What was behind the inclusion of science fiction with barbarian elements?
Mark: I never wanted it to be a traditional. If I was still working on it I probably would have added zombies, aliens and time travel. Why not?
BR: Often in the process from b-sheet to prototype to finished toy, there are a lot design changes. Which finished toy were you most pleased with? Which one do you feel didn’t live up to its potential?
Mark: Castle Grayskull was the best and most innovative, Mer-Man left me a little unsatisfied.
BR: In a nutshell, what is your vision for Eternia? What kind of place is it?
Mark: Eternia is a stupid name to me (not my name). I imagined that world be like a nightmare that you can modify as you go. ALWAYS about hope.
BR: In public appearances you often talk about Joseph Campbell and the hero’s journey. What has been your personal hero’s journey?
Mark: My wife Rebecca epitomizes attaining a fulfilling goal, she is my Nirvana. My life is filled with beauty and love, I wish everyone could be as lucky as I.
BR: Are you both still actively involved in creating artwork? What kinds of projects are you passionate about now?
Mark: I am writing a the original prequel to He-Man based on the original Torak. Also an autobiography about my life in the toy biz. I am fascinated by computer 3D design but it is very non-intuitive for me. I still love to read and watch movies, I wish I had the resources to make one.
Rebecca: I work on digital art because it is so easy to create my style of graphic art which is strongly based on shapes and color. It is so exciting to me to be able to have such a magnificent palette and to be able to experiment with unlimited color combinations with a couple of keystrokes.
Many thanks to Mark and Rebecca for patiently answering all of my questions. Hopefully we can look forward to a book or two from Mark in the future!
Additional interviews and appearances by Mark and Rebecca: