Mark DiCamillo was formerly Director of Marketing at Mattel. Mark started out as an engineer, working on lines such as Intellivision, Hot Wheels and BraveStarr. From there Mark was promoted to Male Action Design Manager, where he worked on the “New Adventures” He-Man line, among many others in his career at Mattel. One of Mark’s most successful designs was the role play Power Sword for the New Adventures line. The sword was an instant commercial hit.
Danielle Gelehrter initially contacted Mark about an interesting project he worked on that never saw the light of day – a live-action He-Man TV series, similar in concept to the eventual Captain Power TV series. Unfortunately the live-action He-Man series was never produced, but it’s a fascinating piece of He-Man lore that hasn’t received much attention.
From there Danielle looped me in, and we brainstormed on some additional questions for Mark, which he was gracious enough to answer:
Q: Many fans don’t know that a live-action He-Man TV series was in the works at one time. Can you talk about that?
A: Based on the success (sort of) of the live-action He-Man movie in 1987, Mattel immediately began to discuss the possibility of developing a weekly live-action TV show based on He-Man and the Masters of the Universe. Obviously, the more fanciful animated characters had to be adapted to be done with live actors. In addition, to keep the production budget for a weekly TV series in check, the costuming had to be relatively simple. At the time there was also a move to update the look to be a bit more futuristic vs. the original barbarian look that He-Man launched with. We did numerous design studies on everything from character looks to vehicles and weapons. Sadly the TV series was never green-lighted, but some of the design concepts were adapted to the New Adventures of He-Man in 1989.
Here is… one of the sketches for a live-action TV Man-At-Arms for your reference:
Q: I can’t help but notice the resemblance to Captain Power. Did Captain Power start as this live-action He-Man show?
Mark: Captain Power was its own concept. Certainly born out of the rise of male action toy play (which began with G.I. Joe, moved on to Star Wars and then Masters). One of the keys to Captain Power was some new technology that allowed the shows to be encoded with information that could be picked up by a receiver in the toys. Basically there were flashes of light that were interwoven between the scan lines of the TV signal. Similar to the old concept of subliminal advertising. The toys could detect the flashes, but the human eye could not. The flashes allowed the toys to know if characters or ships on the screen were firing toward the viewer. If they were, then the toys would react (for example, a handheld weapon buzzing, or a pilot ejecting).
This same technology was also used for BraveStarr (western-themed male action). and even Wheel of Fortune. Mattel made a Wheel of Fortune game that let you play along at home. You could guess your own letters and try to solve the puzzle at home. When Vanna turned over a letter on TV, it would actually reveal itself on your home game as well.
Q: Can you remember what existing characters from the original Masters of the Universe line would have been redesigned for the live action TV show?
Mostly the original core characters, He-Man, Man-at-Arms, and Skeletor.
Q: What was your specific involvement in the project? How did you feel about the direction it was going?
I was running one of the male-action design groups. The story and project direction came mostly from outside producers and marketing. Our design team was focused on ideation, churning out ideas and design styles.
Q: Can you recall what new characters would have been introduced for the show?
We had a number of character concepts, many without specific names, but with more human look and higher tech weapons. For example we had a bulked up evil character with a shaved head that carried a laser battle ax.
Q: You mentioned “the more fanciful animated characters had to be adapted to be done with live actors.” Does this mean characters like Orko and such were going to be in the show as performed by live actors?
A: Orko did not make it into any of the character concepts my team did for the live action show.
Q: What kinds of vehicles were planned for the show?
A: As I mentioned earlier, we tried to create vehicles that you could actually build and operate in live video shoots. We had motorcycles and off-road vehicles. We did have a hover sled, but that could be shot by holding the sled up off camera like was done with Luke’s scooter in the original Star Wars.
Q: Who worked on the character and vehicle designs for the show?
A: Our team was comprised of myself, Martin Arriola, Dave Wolfram, Dave McElroy, Terry Choy, Michael Collins and others. I had spent some time on Hot Wheels, so the vehicles fell mostly to myself, Michael Collins and Dave McElroy. Terry Choy pitched in as well.
Q: Were any scripts or story treatments written? What was the premise of the show?
A: We only had some basic story premises to work from. The main thing the design team had to work with was that the show would be set on Earth
Q: Was Castle Grayskull going to be in it? Or if not, were there new locations designed for the show?
A: We did not do any sketches of Grayskull for the live action show.
Q: Was this going to be a prime-time show or a daytime kids’ show?
A: It was designed to be a prime time show. It is the only way that a show of this type and budget would make economic sense.
Q: Which designs for the TV show ended up as New Adventures figures?
A: Really the only live action concepts that made it into New Adventures was the style for Skeletor. The New Adventures was a bit more futuristic than the look we were working on for the live action TV series
A: As you know, Mattel had some success with Captain Power and Bravestarr. At the time, we were adding lasers to just about everything.
Q: An early prototype of Laser Power He-Man featured a green crystal in his backpack, and we’ve heard that the crystals would have been kind of a McGuffin for the show, something each side was trying to get to power their vehicles and weapons. Is that accurate, and can you tell us anything more about it?
A: I really don’t recall that as a story premise, but I would not refute it either.
Q: Do you remember a 1988 story bible for a He-Ro: Son of He-Man cartoon that combined animation and live-action? Was that related to this at all? There was a “son of Skeletor” character named Skeleteen in it, and a lot of the other elements from this bible ended up in New Adventures of He-Man.
A: Mattel Entertainment was always working on new story treatments for toy-based entertainment. The main story concept and setting for the New Adventures was conceived by Dave Wolfram and myself. (I’ve attached a sketch that Dave did of our New Adventures universe.)
Q: What’s the relationship between the abandoned live action He-Man show and Captain Power?
A: None really. Captain Power was all about technology, include the interactive TV technology, which Mattel used in the Wheel of Fortune game as well.
Q: Why do you think the show never happened?
A: Like most things in entertainment and toys for that matter, very little that is created actually sees the light of day. I’m sure it was hard to make the economics work. When you add a lot of costumes, effects and makeup to a show, the costs rise rapidly.
Q: New Adventures of He-Man had some really well-produced live action TV commercials. Would the live action He-Man show have had a similar look?
A: It is hard to say. The live action TV show concept came before the New Adventures toy line and commercials, so there is very little relation between the two.
Q: Were any specific actors considered for the live action TV show?
A: None really. It never got that far, but many of us at the office had a soft spot for Deron McBee who did numerous toy fairs and mall tours and was Malibu on the American Gladiators.
While the live-action He-Man TV series never saw the light of day, it’s fascinating to imagine what might have been. The few glimpses we have into the show seem to reveal a very different take on Masters of the Universe, particularly given the apparent lack of Castle Grayskull in the series. Perhaps some of the story premises for the show will turn up someday to help paint a more complete picture of this mysterious, unproduced version of He-Man.
Special thanks to Mark DiCamillo for his willingness to answer our questions, and also to Danielle Gelehrter for including me on the interview.
To learn more about Mark’s design, management, engineering and product management experience, please check out his website.
Danielle Gelehrter has been a contributor to a number of Dark Horse books about He-Man and She-Ra, and she is also a co-writer of the Masters of the Universe Classics Collector’s Choice Bios. You can read more about her work here.
I recently got the chance to interview Errol McCarthy, one of the most prolific artists ever to work on Masters of the Universe. Errol started out providing illustrations for Mattel’s first licensing kit in 1982, and moved on to illustrate the majority of the cardback artwork scenes for vintage MOTU figures. He worked on other license kit and style guide illustration projects, and he illustrated a number of scenes for apparel for Bates Nightwear
To begin with, Errol sent me the following bio detailing some of his life history:
Errol McCarthy was born in Los Angeles long long ago, but grew up in Billings, Montana. As a teen, he developed an interest in anything with an engine. This included airplanes, sports cars and motorcycles. His high school buddies had real hot rods and many, many evenings were spent cruising and occasionally actually picking up girls. “American Graffiti” was right on!
The closest thing to a real rod that he had was a bored out ’48 Chevy coupe with a split manifold. While writing a ticket, a cop said:”It was the loudest thing I’ve ever heard”! Plans to install a ’50 Olds V-8 with a Lincoln Zephyr tranny remained just plans. Drawing was a different thing,since, if you can draw, he reasoned, you can create anything. Errol became the school cartoonist and study hall was all about drawing cars and airplanes.
A short stint in the Air Force as an Aviation Cadet convinced Errol that he was not the military type; art school would be a better fit. He went back to Los Angeles to attend Art Center school and to meet his future wife, Mitzi, who was also an artist. Their first date was a hot rod show and a trip to a comic book stand; she passed the “test” and they were married. They both found that it was possible to make a living in art.
Errol’s first freelance comic book job came from answering a want ad in the paper. It was a one shot entitled “CarNuts” published by Quentin Miller. That job,plus an Underground comic story led to Petersen Publishing which had 3 comic books at the time: CAR Toons, Hot Rod Cartoons and Cycletoons. He soon had work in all 3, plus a full time job as an illustrator at McDonnell-Douglas. There were a few jobs for underground comics, Road and Track and Hustler magazines. A Master’s degree followed with a thesis on the influence of underground “comix” on art. Teaching art followed and then a stay at Mattel doing action figures like He-Man and Big Jim. There was also Hot Wheels work, where, he says, the high point of his art career was the design of the “Toilet Mobile”. There was other free lance toy work including Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.
To pay the bills, both he and Mitzi have done tech drawings for Clymer Publications motorcycle magazines for over 30 years, continue to this day and love it.
And now on to the interview!
Battle Ram: How did you come to be involved in Masters of the Universe?
Errol McCarthy: I started to do free lance work for Mattel about ’79. [My] old Art Center pal Mark Taylor hired me.
BR: Would your first project for MOTU have been the 1982 Licensing Kit? What can you remember about it?
EM: That was sooo long ago, I have no idea what the first MOTU work was about. I do remember doing lots figure and playset concepts, but I don’t remember if they were all produced.
BR: You went on to illustrate the action scenes on the cardbacks for most of the figures. Can you talk about how that started and what you were trying to achieve with your illustrations?
EM: I think it was just to illustrate what the figure was about & what it did like Mekaneck with his telescoping neck.
BR: Were the landscapes and scenery of the cardback illustrations created totally from your imagination, or did Mattel give you some direction for the look of Eternia (for example, the sinister-looking swamp for Evil-Lyn, the sweeping plains for He-Man)?
EM: All of that stuff was pretty much from my imagination. It’s fun to draw creepy creatures and landscapes.
EM: I liked all of them but particularly the main ones like Teela, Stratos and Mekaneck. I think there were about 100 or so characters in the line. It was great fun to draw all of them.
BR: It looks like your License Kit Castle Grayskull shows up in the background of your Skeletor illustration, and other illustrations as well. Did you commonly reuse your art where you could?
EM: Drawings of things as complex as Castle Grayskull and other things like that are used over and over again and why not? The trick is to try to make it look fresh.
BR: You continued to do additional license kit artwork, as well as artwork for a MOTU style guide. Any stories or memories about either project?
EM: Not really-I think the Style Guide was meant to indicate what colors were to be used for each of the parts of characters or machines.
BR: You did some work for Bates Nightwear to create licensed MOTU artwork for T-shirts or pajama shirts, correct? Can you talk about that project?
EM: I think I did about 100 drawings for Bates Nightwear.It was great fun!
BR: Sometimes you signed your art EM, and other times you signed your full name. Was that based on your own preference, or did Mattel sometimes dictate how you were to sign your art?
EM: The signing sort of depended on the space available. Mattel or Petersen Pub. didn’t care about signing.
BR: Are there any other projects you worked on for the original Masters of the Universe toyline?
EM: I really can’t think of any other than the ones done recently for Super 7 which was for the collector’s market; they were done as card back art, the same as the original line back in the ’80’s. I think that Mattel has taken back the rights now.* We’ll see if they continue the line.
BR: You illustrated two comic books for the “New Adventures” He-Man reboot. Can you talk about how you got involved in that project? What did you think of the new futuristic He-Man concept?
EM: I wish that I could’ve done more with the comic books, but was too busy at the time with other free lance work, but they had a pool of great talent to do the books. A few years ago, Dark Horse reprinted the comics in a hard cover single volume and doubled the size of the art. They did an excellent job of it!
BR: You also illustrated some “New Adventures” futuristic He-Man concept art as well. Can you talk about how that came about? Do you remember anything about the idea behind the concepts you drew? Were these your character designs?
EM: These were all someone else’s concepts. I don’t know who was involved in it, but it was well done.
BR: Did you work on any other non-MOTU projects at Mattel?
EM: Yes, I contributed occasionally to Hot Wheels. My proudest project was doing the art for the Toiletmobile on the Real Monsters line and doing a lot of art on Big Jim packaging. There were others as well like Mighty Max.
BR: Were you always a contractor at Mattel, or did you ever join as a permanent employee?
EM: I freelanced for Mattel from about 1978 to ’89. I was a Mattel employee from ’89 to 1995, then back to freelancing again for Mattel and other toy companies. I think Mark [Taylor] did bring me in specifically to work in house on MOTU in 1989. Mark left after I did in 1995 and went on to work at other toy companies. We collaborated occasionally on projects.
BR: Recently you’ve done some new cardback illustrations for some of the vintage style Super7 MOTU figures. How did that come about? How did it feel to work on Masters of the Universe again?
EM: I guess they knew I was still alive and drawing stuff so I got to do the card backs. One of the biggest perks for me was to be able to work with Emiliano Santalucia over the internet. He lives in Sicily and I live in Long Beach, but the internet makes it possible to work together.
BR: As I understand it, you’ve done illustration work for a number of different toy lines, including Star Wars and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Can you summarize some of the major work you’ve done outside of MOTU?
EM: Yes, I worked on both of those lines doing mostly concept art which may or may not become a toy. My biggest accomplishment was doing the TMNT blimp!
BR: What do you think made MOTU such a success?
EM: I understand that Mattel wanted to do a Conan the Barbarian line but couldn’t get the rights, so did their own version.Little boys love that sort of thing, plus there was no limit to the imagination when it came to weird characters and odd scenarios; it was also the time of Star Wars, etc.
BR: Are you working on anything exciting at the moment?
EM: The most exciting thing for me now is to be able to still work on He-Man and that it still exists!
Many thanks to Errol McCarthy for taking the time to answer my questions!
*Note: according to a recent Roast Gooble Dinner interview with Brian Flynn, the status of future 5.5″ figures is somewhat uncertain because of the upcoming Masters of the Universe Movie. The strategy for how Super7 and Mattel release MOTU figures ahead of that film is still to be determined.
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 Munsell 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.