Interviews

Mark & Rebecca Taylor on the origins of He-Man

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.

Mark Taylor in his early Mattel days. Image courtesy of Ted Mayer
“Death of Mark Taylor From Night Visitation.” Artwork by Colin Bailey, January 23, 1981. Given to Mark when he was working on his “dark project” (He-Man). Image courtesy of Rebecca Salari Taylor.

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.

Torak, by Mark Taylor. Image source: The Power and the Honor Foundation, via the Toy Masters documentary sneak preview.

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.

The Sunbird Legacy cover art by Earl Norem

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.

Battle Ram concept by Ted Mayer

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.

Battle Cat box art, by Rudy Obrero

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).

Swamp Thing, by Bernie Wrightson

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.

Demo-Man, by Mark Taylor

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).

Battle Cat, by Mark Taylor

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.

He-Man and Battle Cat box art by Rudy Obrero


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.

Early He-Man sculpture by Tony Guerrero. Image source: The Power and the Honor Foundation

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.

Printed Mark Taylor moat reproduction from the Power & Honor Foundation

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:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mYYnq_NfQGM

10 Things We Learned From Mark Taylor, the Designer of He-Man – The Robot’s Voice

Q&A with Mark Taylor – Zetaboards

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Interviews

Rudy Obrero: Heroic master of illustration

Rudy Obrero was one of the first illustrators to work on the Masters of the Universe toyline. He created the iconic packaging artwork for many beloved MOTU toys, including Castle Grayskull, Battle Cat, Wind Raider, Battle Ram, and others. He has been a professional illustrator for 39 years. Many thanks to Rudy for taking the time to answer my questions!

Battle Ram: Growing up, were there any artists you admired and wanted to emulate?

Rudy Obrero: I grew up reading comic books by the tons. I liked them all. I kinda thought the DC and Marvel comics were well drawn. I thought the best drawn comics were the classics like Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Tarzan series. Funny coincidence, one of the illustrators for those was a guy named Rudy Obrero in the Philippines. No relation.

The other Rudy Obrero

BR: How did you become a professional illustrator?

RO: Long story short – I didn’t start drawing till I was 19 years old. At the time I was in the Air Force stationed on Guam in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. My job was loading bombs on B-52 Bombers flying missions over Vietnam. Trying to fight boredom from being on a tiny island I went to the base hobby store and bought some drawing pencils and a sketch pad. In my off time I started drawing things around me and that became a habit. Just before I got out of the Air Force I was stationed in Riverside, California, where by chance I ran into the art director of Capital Records.

I had no idea there was whole field of art that was not involved with gallery or fine art. I asked him, “How do I become an art director?” He told me to check out a couple of art schools in Los Angeles. So I go to speak with a counselor at the Art Center College of Design. Now another coincidence, the counselor is from, of all places, Guam. He was very helpful to me because we bonded talking over Guamanian good times. From there I chose illustration as major and the rest is history. This year makes 39 years an illustrator. Whew.

BR: What are some of the highlights of your career before you got involved with Masters of the Universe?

RO: I worked on movie posters for most of my career. I did the poster for James Bond – Never Say Never Again. It’s a milestone for me because I read and loved all of Ian Fleming’s bond books in High school. I can’t remember which ones I did. I have painted so many projects. Every once in a while someone sends me an image of an old poster that I did that my memory barely recognizes. Here’s my website: http://rudyobrero.com. I can’t even remember what’s on that – ha ha.


Source: Illustrated 007

BR: How did you get involved in the Masters of the Universe toy line?

RO: Would you believe my first job for Mattel was Barbie’s Star Corvette Package?

Prior to that I was painting a lot car races, crashes and explosions for action movies. So someone there wanted me to do the Corvette. Then soon after I got a call from Mark Taylor to do some “Frazetti” (his words) type of packaging. It was like, let’s not totally do Frazetta, but sorta like maybe “Frazetti”. That’s how it began.

To be clear, I love Mr. Frazetta’s work. If you look at my body of work you will notice that the only time I went “Frazetti” is on the MOTU stuff. And because it was a fitting style for it.

BR: Did you deal primarily with Mark Taylor? What were your impressions of his involvement with the line?

RO: I started with Mark then it became a string of other art directors I can’t recall their names. Seems there was a change after every box. Mark was the most enthusiastic and the most fun to work with as he gave me a ton of leeway creatively. People got more controlling as I went on.

BR: As far as I’ve been able to determine, your illustrations for the 1980s MOTU line include the following:

  • Battle Cat
  • He-Man/Battle Cat
  • Wind Raider
  • He-Man/Wind Raider
  • Castle Grayskull
  • Battle Ram
  • Zoar
  • Screech
  • Skeletor/Screech
  • Attak Trak

Did I leave anything out?

RO: Nope, I think that’s it.

BR: In an interview with Poe Ghostal a couple of years back, you mentioned that for reference you had prototypes of the Wind Raider, Attak Trak, Screech and Zoar. Did you have any other prototypes that you used for reference? Did you also use photos or concept drawings for reference?

RO: I don’t remember photographic reference. I still have some Polaroid pictures I took of the prototypes. I wish I still had all those prototypes. I moved studios 3 times so at some point they just vanished.

BR: Was the Battle Cat packaging illustration your first project for MOTU? What was your intention and inspiration behind that piece?

RO: Yes it was. I intended to create something I would love to have for myself! The kid in me came out on that one. I think I was growling while drawing it. Eamon O’Donoghue has my original pencil sketch of that package.

Battle Cat pencil sketch by Rudy Obrero. Image source and owner: Eamon O’Donoghue. Note that in this version, Castle Grayskull has the prototype “pawn” piece on top of the castle’s helmet.
Battle Cat illustration by Rudy Obrero

BR: For your He-Man/Battle Cat giftset packaging illustration, there is famously a scene depicting Skeletor and Beast Man riding Battle Cats. Was it the case that there was no established idea that Battle Cat was a unique character at the time? If there had been, I imagine they would have told you, yes?

RO: Ha ha, yeah, I didn’t get the memo or the story line. Not sure there was one. I thought that Battle Cat was what everybody would be riding. Like horses, right? I think Mark would’ve told me if he had known the story. My guess is there was no story yet.

He-Man and Battle Cat Illustration

BR: Your Battle Ram illustration is my personal favorite. What was your intention and inspiration behind that piece? I also notice there is a barbarian figure with a horned helmet in the background, near Skeletor – was that a nod to Frazetta?

RO: I could stretch the Battle Ram to make it look more rakish and powerful. Yeah it’s a cool looking vehicle. The guy with the horned helmet was just a made-up filler guy for that space. Again, “Frazetti”.

Battle Ram Illustration
Frazetta-like warrior to Skeletor’s right

BR: In both your Battle Ram and Castle Grayskull illustrations you included flying enemy vehicles that look a bit like the front end of the Battle Ram, but with downward curved wings. What’s the story behind those?

RO: My friends from high school all keep telling me that I was forever drawing air battles in the margins of my home work. To this day I don’t ever remember doing that. Even those on the packaging, unconsciously I just need to see air combat. Maybe this explains it – I was born shortly after WWII in Hawaii. I grew up just outside of Pearl Harbor. We still could find shell casings from the air war on the ground where I played. I kept imagining what it would’ve been like watching the attack on Pearl Harbor.

Evil Sky Sleds attack

BR: The original Castle Grayskull box illustration is probably your most beloved piece for MOTU. It’s got tons of atmosphere and energy. Can you talk about how you went about composing the scene?

RO: Well as an illustrator I have to work around layout constraints. IE, titles, subtitles, content, copy, bullets. What’s left is where I get to put things in. Again the fun aspect of this project is I got to do stuff the way I like it in this piece – including flying stuff that doesn’t exist. I really had fun doing this one. By the way, I did not know who belonged in the Castle until about four years ago. Ha ha, did not get that memo either.

The iconic Castle Grayskull illustration
Another view with more vibrant colors.

BR: You did two illustrations for the Wind Raider – one for the standalone vehicle and one for the gift set that came with He-Man. Which is your favorite and why? Did the plastic window on the gift set packaging present a challenge?

RO: The first one is my favorite, It’s more action packed. Funny there’s an air battle here too. And the second one has the castle cannon shooting at He-Man. Jesus, air battles really were an obsession. In fact I just took a peek at the new Wind Raider art and there’s an air battle with a Roton attacking He-Man in his Wind Raider. I need help. Sigh…

Original Wind Raider Illustration
He-Man and Wind Raider gift set illustration
Wind Raider packaging mockup by Mark Taylor (image courtesy of Ted Mayer)
Classics Wind Raider
Masters of the Universe Classics Wind Raider illustration

BR: You’ve mentioned in previous interviews that your Attak Trak illustration was the most challenging piece. Can you talk a bit about why that was?

RO: It’s the last piece I did for Mattel. I started to think the art direction came from a committee, seemed as though everyone in Mattel wanted in on package art because of its success as a toy line. These pieces were done in oil paint so changes were a pain to do.

Attak Trak illustration  

BR: Your Skeletor/Screech illustration features some of the same kinds of craggy fissure edges seen in the Castle Grayskull, Battle Ram and Zoar packaging illustrations, with a suggestion that there is lava flowing at the bottom in each of them. Was this your personal vision for the landscape of Eternia? What influenced you here?

RO: If you’ve ever seen the caldera in Kilauea Volcano in Hawaii, you will feel like you’re in a totally different planet. It just overwhelms you with sense of danger.

Source: History.com

BR: You’ve done a lot of illustration work for the modern Masters of the Universe Classics line. What’s your favorite piece that you’ve done for the Classics line? What was most challenging?

RO: I love the castle again. The challenge coming from all the characters that had to be in the image. I finally got the memo on who was battling who. And by the way they made me take out the Wind Raider that was about to shoot at Mer-Man and Trap Jaw. So no air battle…

Masters of the Universe Classics Castle Grayskull illustration

BR: What else are you working on now that you’re excited about?

RO: Got a call to work on Roton, but that died. Snake Mountain has been pushed back. I am currently working on key art for Filmation’s Ghostbusters. I have had a long career and it’s been fun, every project has it’s own set of challenges and rewards.

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Interviews

Ted Mayer: Virtuoso of vehicle design

Ted Mayer is one of the original creators of the Masters of the Universe toyline. He designed many beloved MOTU toys, including the Battle Ram, Wind Raider, Attak Trak, Eternia, Slime Pit, and others. He has also worked on the Star Wars and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles properties.

Ted was gracious enough to answer my questions about his work on He-Man. He also provided a number of photos and illustrations for this interview, some never published before now.

Battle Ram: How did you get into the design business?

Ted Mayer: I originally was trained as an aeronautical engineer in England. I did not like that, so I went on to study illustration. I came to the US and worked in the aircraft industry. I went back to school to study automotive design, but after graduation, I did not want to go to Detroit.

Eventually I got the job with Mattel. I loved working there. So many talented people of all kinds, painters, sculptors, etc. I could not wait to go to work each morning. That’s where I met Mark Taylor. We had cubicles next to each other. We found we had so many things in common. To this day he is my best friend. We see each other often. Mark was/is such a wonderful classic illustrator.

BR: Before He-Man, you worked on the set of the first Star Wars movie. Can you describe what that was like and what some of the projects you worked on were?

TM: I got the job there before Mattel. A friend of mine was working at ILM [Industrial Light & Magic], and got me a job as a set designer.

I was working under Joe Johnson. I was just laying out background scenes, then I started to do some illustrations of the vehicles for the model makers and for publications. At that time most sci-fi movies were low budget, and we all felt this was going to be just another one, even though we saw some of the new technology developing. It was not until we saw the final cut were we blown away!!

BR: How did you come to work on the Masters of the Universe toyline at Mattel? Can you talk a little bit about how it started and what your involvement was early on?

TM: The two design sections at Mattel were divided in two departments. There was Preliminary Design that was supposed to come up with ideas for toys, and Visual Design that actually did the design work (visualization). I was in Visual Design. We had about twenty designers, so each designer had many projects that we managed.

He Man came about because Mattel had turned down Star Wars, and was desperate to come out with an action figure line to rival [Kenner’s] Star Wars line.

Mark (who was a comic book maniac, and constantly sketching in his sketch book) was asked by a marketing person, who saw some of his sketches, to come up with something he could present. This was because prelim could not come up with anything. He presented the “Torac” drawing. It was accepted to go to the next stage. That’s when Roger Sweet came in, as he was the one who failed to come up with anything, he was selected to help Mark with the final presentation.

Mark did all the sketches of the various characters and Roger dressed up a GI Joe to look like Mark’s sketch for the big presentation. Meanwhile Mark and I had 5-6 other projects we were working on.

When the go ahead was given to go to production, Roger was out of it and it moved in to Visual Design. It was then that I was asked to come in and help Mark. We split the design chores up. Mark would do the figures, and I would do the vehicles, and we both would do the weapons and accessories that went with Castle Grayskull, including all the artwork for the decal sheets

BR: Tell me a bit about how you went about designing the Battle Ram. What influenced you at the time? Where there any challenges in designing it?

TM: Its been a long time to remember what I was thinking! As I mentioned, all the visual designers were grouped together in a big bullpen. All the guys were either into cars or planes. We used to go to air shows, car concourse and hot rod shows as a group — a lot of testosterone going round.

So the six big fat wheels, multiple exhaust pipes, Recaro-type seat, came out of that. Also recently coming out of working on Star Wars, I added all the surface detail that we put on all the vehicles. Added to that we wanted a shoot-out rocket. Mattel had just been sued over the missiles on the Battlestar Galactica vehicle, so they did not want a shooter. I had to design a missile that was big enough that would not choke a kid and would pass the safety department. And of course it had to be really, really bad ass!

Early Battle Ram concept by Ted Mayer
Close to final Battle Ram concept by Ted Mayer
Control Drawing – “Catapult Vehicle”
Prototype Battle Ram with prototype He-Man
Ted Mayer: “There were many concepts that I did for this. Here’s one that did not make the cut.”

Because the stuff Mark and I came up with was out of the realm of the engineering department (they were lazy and wanted everything to be simple, and a square box if possible!), we had to take them on and come up with our own solutions. I was assigned my own model maker (Jim Openshaw), and we worked to make my sketch come to life.

I think the two vehicles in one, was an idea both Mark and I came up with, while discussing the whole line. Mark and I worked closely together, we sat next to each other and had a lot of fun. Jim eventually did all the tooling models for production.

One other thing about working with the engineers. After the He-Man sculpt was done (by Tony Guerrero) Mark wanted the arms to swing across his chest, the engineers wanted them to just swing back and fourth, so I had the do all the engineering to prove it could be done.

Ted Mayer’s chest sketch for He-Man, showing how the angled arm joints would work

On the same subject, we wanted tons of detail molded in to the interior of Castle Grayskull, but because it would take so much work and creativity on their part, they would not do it. We lost that fight!

BR: What was your design process on the Wind Raider? What influenced you?

TM: Just a lot of sketching with input from Mark

BR: Was the Wind Raider meant to be something of a seaplane? It looks a bit like a flying boat.

TM: Yes, it was loosely based on a sea plane, but the dominant thing was the big engines so it could skim across the water and also take off and fly. We added the anchor later as we needed an action feature. The front monster was later changed to resemble a crocodile. Jim also did the models and tooling patterns on the Wind Raider.

Drawing by Mark Taylor demonstrating some interesting Wind Raider features, including wings that double as “photo sails”
Early Wind Raider prototype, with dragon head on the front
Mark Taylor’s layout for the Wind Raider packaging design

BR: Did you also create the stickers for the vehicles you designed? They featured some interesting creature designs.

TM: Mark did the stickers based on the shapes I gave him. His wife Rebecca, who is a graphic designer, did the final art.

BR: Can you talk about how you went about designing the Attak Trak? What influenced you at the time? I notice it originally had a canopy that was dropped from the final toy (but was included in a Monogram model kit version of the vehicle).

TM: It started out as a mechanical toy submission that Mattel bought from an outside inventor. It was given to me, to make in to a He-Man vehicle. I did about four different design directions , of which they picked one.

The canopy was dropped because it costed out quite high, so they looked at dropping as many extras as possible. By this time I was also doing all the control drawings, so when they went to the engineers, things were final.

Attak Trak early drawing by Ted Mayer (with canopy)
Attak Trak control drawing by Ted Mayer. Canopy has been removed and nose has been modified

BR: Can you tell me a little about some of the other concept vehicles for Masters of the Universe that you have on your website? I see there is a green vehicle with a yellow bird head that drops down to reveal a disc shooting mechanism. What’s the story behind that?

Zap ‘n’ Go concept vehicle by Ted Mayer

TM: Marketing was always trying to resurrect old Mattel toys and put them in current lines. I was asked to design a He-Man vehicle with this feature. That’s the vehicle I presented. I remember that I was always trying to come up with different types of illustrations. On this one I did the line drawing and had a cell made of it, then colored a background. The cell line drawing was then an overlay, just like animation.

The pencil sketch [below] was based on a swamp buggy.

Concept “Swamp Buggy” vehicle by Ted Mayer

BR: It looks like you also designed the Jet Sled vehicle, which got released in 1986. Can you talk a bit about that one?

TM: Mark left after the first year of He-Man. The line was such a success, but he/we got nothing, maybe a 2% raise! Mark was pissed, and left to go to Playmates where he developed the TMNT toy line. Mattel decided to reorganize, and combine Prelim and Visual Design.

At that time the Intellivision video game started to take off. I was promoted to design director and selected to be in charge of that division. That was when Roger was chosen to head up the He-Man group.

For that year Intellivision hit the roof. The next year, because of marketing and bad direction, it failed. They closed that division, and I was out of a job!  Because I knew so many people there, Mattel offered me a job – in the He-Man group, under Roger! It was at that time I designed the other vehicles.

By this time there were about five other designers in this group. We would have group concept meetings, and out of those came the ideas for new figures and vehicles. That’s when I also started to do the figures.  All the sketches we did belonged to Mattel and we were not allowed to take them. However some of us managed to get copies.

Here are some prototypes I did:

BR: Did you also design the Talon Fighter vehicle (a yellow/blue/red bird-shaped vehicle that perched on top of Point Dread)?

TM: Yes, That was just something that came out when I was doing the Eternia Sketch.

BR: Can you talk a bit about how Castle Grayskull came into existence?

TM: Mark did the original sketch. That was then be sent to the sculpting department. When we saw their rendition, it was awful. It was a square castle, just like you would find in the English countryside! We made a fuss and it was sent back for revision. The second go round was almost as bad. As I remember, it was square with turrets on the corners, very symmetrical.

Somehow Mark persuaded the powers in charge to let him sculpt it. The sculpting department was pissed! Mark set up a board in his office and with a bunch of Chevaler sculpting clay, set about modeling it. I took turns helping him, even my nine year old son had a go. When that was finished it went back to sculpting for molding and engineering.

Mark Taylor’s Castle Grayskull prototype

BR: It looks like you came up with or at least worked on quite a few figure designs, some of which became toys (Snout Spout, King Hiss, Hordak, Leech, etc.). What was your favorite figure design?

TM: I worked on a lot of figures after I came back. I guess my favorite was Brainiac, but I don’t know if that was ever made. [Editor’s note: it was never produced]

Brainiac, by Ted Mayer

BR: Can you talk a bit about your work on the Eternia playset?

TM: I was given the project to design a playset that would dwarf Grayskull. I just stood at my drawing board and started sketching. I remember for some reason that I wanted to do a big drawing. It came out at 40″ x 40″.

Eternia sketch, by Ted Mayer

Everyone liked the design, and it was decided, by someone, to do a size mock-up. We started hacking foam and the result was the photo you can see on my website.

Foam mock-up of Eternia

I left Mattel around that time so I never knew until recently, that that actually produced it.

BR: What is your fondest memory of working on the Masters of the Universe toy line?

TM: Just a lot of fun. It was a great learning experience because there were so many talented people to learn stuff from

BR: If you could design a new vehicle or figure or playset for He-Man, what would it be?

TM: That I would have to think about. Its been a long time since I was involved in that area. The things that I see being done by some of the up and coming generation are terrific, and I think they could do a better job than I!

BR: What are some highlights of your career after you left Mattel?

TM: I left Mattel to work for LJN Toys in New York. I ended up being VP in charge of design for the whole product line. We moved the design department back to California, and I hired Mark back to work for me. That was a great experience.

After that, Universal pictures bought out LJN. Later Mark again got hired as VP of Design for Playmates Toys. He then asked me to come work for him on the TMNT line where I designed a bunch of stuff, as you can see just a bit on my website. That was fun too!

I am still designing for other toy companies, and still enjoy it.

BR: Can you talk a bit about your jazz guitar playing? Is there any way for interested people to listen to your music?

TM: I have been playing jazz guitar since I was 13 years old. I practice two hours every day. I am now 75, so that’s a lot of hours!!! I have become good enough to play with some of the top jazz musicians in LA, I am very lucky.

Just like music, drawing and illustrating,  practice makes perfect. I am still practicing and improving in both areas. You can hear some of my stuff on my website and there is some on Youtube I think.

Many thanks to Ted Mayer for taking the time to answer these questions, and for providing the wonderful illustrations and photos of these classic Masters of the Universe designs.

You can learn more about Ted by visiting his website at http://ted-mayer.com

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