Category Archives: 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 imaging 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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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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