Interviews

Martin Arriola: Guardian of Grayskull

Martin Arriola was a designer on the original Masters of the Universe toyline. He went on to work on the  1989 New Adventures of He-Man reboot, the 2009 adult collector Masters of the Universe Classics toyline, and many other lines for Mattel. He graciously agreed to sit down and talk to me about his work.

Battle Ram: Thanks for agreeing to this interview! So, how did you get into the toy design business?

Martin Arriola: My dad was a carpenter, I always watched him work. He was good at what he did.  I was always drawing – I was terrible at math, and I didn’t like hard work, so I wanted to see if I could make it in the field of commercial art.

Everyone keeps telling you it’s very competitive. But if you never try you never know. I went to trade school for two years. I went to UCLA, then I started attending Art Center College of Design.  I started at Art Center at night, and one of my instructors told me to come full time.

I went from there in 1980 and freelanced for a couple of years. Then I got a call from head hunters. One was from Mattel, offering a job that paid $33,000, which was decent money in the ’80s. Another was a call for startup newspaper. These guys saw some of my illustrations (I graduated as an illustration major). They wanted to hire me as director, for same amount of money Mattel was offering. They were based in Washington DC, and Mattel was in California. In the end I wanted to stay in California, so I went with Mattel. It turned out that paper was USA Today.  I stayed at Mattel for 32 years.

BR: What did you start working on when you were hired at Mattel?

MA: I started on Hot Wheels stuff. They didn’t have toy major designs back then. Seventy percent of their designers came from the Art Center. I didn’t know a label sheet from an overspray, but I could draw. There were no computers at the time, no Photoshop. Mark Taylor was great at markers. I was a marker freak – that’s what got me the job.

Ted Mayer was still there when I was there. I was hired to replace Mark Taylor, at least that’s what I had heard. That was back in 1982.

I remember rendering a bunch of vehicles. I did a bunch of renderings for Hot Wheels. I learned everything there at Mattel.

When I first got there the designers were over-worked, but it was also lax, it was so much more fun. Mark Taylor had just left to go to Playmates… I almost quit under Roger Sweet. I came close to quitting. The credit stealing was awful.

Anyway, there was a big paradigm shift. I know Ted and Taylor were part of visual design. I started as an art director in Visual Design. Shel Plat asked if I wanted to work on products or packaging. I thought products would be more fun. A lot more goes into it, although you have to deal with engineers.

BR: When was this?

MA: I think I started in 1983 on He-Man. One of the first things I worked on was the figure with the rotating drum, Battle Armor He-Man. We did same thing with Skeletor, same feature.

I may have done Screeech and Zoar. I don’t know what came first. I started out picking the colors. Zoar was the Big Jim Eagle, and Battle Cat was also from Big Jim. He-Man’s Battle Cat was already done. I worked on the other cat, Panthor. I picked the colors. There was a lot of refresh back then.

Zoar & Screeech
Panthor & Battle Cat

BR: Who were you working with?

MA: Colin Bailey was one. He could draw anything, this guy was awesome. I said to myself, I gotta draw like him. I watched him do Fisto, Buzz-Off. He did the original Stridor. I think I picked colors on Night Stalker. I got more familiar with the line,  and I started doing a lot more as far as art directing and sculpting.

BR: Was  it a challenge get a good design through engineering?

MA: It’s totally different now. Everything goes to Hong Kong. Design now has a big role, as opposed to what it used to be. In 1982, designers never went to Hong Kong. Engineering was the big division then. They traveled everywhere. It wasn’t vendors, it was captive plants. We did tooling inside, and there were all these divisions in Mattel that no longer exist. Design got bigger and bigger and more powerful.

Prelim, guys like Rogers Sweet would always over-promise to marketing, and sometimes add stuff that was unsafe or not practical.

BR: Oh, like what?

MA: There was Dragon Blaster Skeletor. Prelim design came up with breadboard model. It was unpainted, using old legs and arms and a body sculpted from square styrene blocks. Sweet was touting this one, Smoke and Chains Skeletor, it was called. It had a bellows on its back. You would load the bellows with talcum powder, and there was a pipe going from a cavity to the figure’s right hand. Talcum powder would come out like smoke. The figure was draped with chains, so the working name was Smoke and Chains Skeletor.

Image via Tomart’s Action Figure Digest, issue 202

I was thinking about doing the final design. Around that same time there was a big grain factory in Texas that exploded. It killed a lot of people, so it made big news back then. Everyone smoked back then.

I said, wow, this has powder. I lit a match and squeezed the bellows. A four foot flame came out of Skeletor! Luckily I hadn’t pointed it at anybody. I remember going to the VP of Design, Gene Kilroy. I had Smoke and Chains Skeletor and a lighter. I just happened to come across the greatest TV moment. I lit the thing and a big old flame came out it.

BR: That’s insane!

MA: When safety got a hold of this, obviously it couldn’t be released. We tried diluting the powder with baking soda, but then it didn’t look like smoke anymore.

So we brainstormed, me and Tony Rhodes. We didn’t do much with water squirting at the time. We had a big brainstorm, and thought, what about squirting water? So we ended up sculpting the dragon on the back of Skeletor, and being able to load that up with water.

Image source: 1985 Mattel Dealer Catalog, scanned by Orange Slime

There was a lot of trial and error stuff like that. We had to change because prelim would promise that this was going to be the feature, and get it for this much. They would always say it was cheaper than it was going to be. They would say it can’t do this and can’t do that. We were always having to make sure it was safe, affordable and that it would actually work.

BR: Do you know who designed Clawful?

MA: Colin Bailey did Clawful, he was one of the first designers to work on the vintage He-Man line. By then Taylor had already left to do Ninja Turtles with Playmates.

BR: What were the figures you primarily worked on?

MA: Just about all of them, to be honest with you.  I did all the Secret Wars figures as well. I actually became a manager of the (He-Man) line, but they didn’t give me the title. I managed the line from Screeech and the drum rotating guy, until the line got dropped. They over shipped the line to make the numbers, and that’s what killed it.

I hired Dave Wolfram and had some temps working for me too. Basically from Screeech until the end. The dinosaurs, I worked on those as well. I hired a couple of guys. I had to approve everything. I’m not taking credit for that, that’s not what I do. From then until New Adventures. I worked on all that stuff too.

New Adventures He-Man concept, by Martin Arriola (image via The Art of He-Man)

It was not like it is now, I retired on my own time, the politics got so bad. I worked on Disney-Pixar cars stuff. I made a billion dollars for that company.

BR: Do you know who designed Stinkor and Moss Man?

MA: Those were refreshes like Scare Glow and Ninjor. I also worked on Land Shark and Laser Bolt, that was kind of a challenge. I worked on Stinkor, Moss Man, and Ninjor.  Clamp Champ, too. If you look at those, its all existing parts. We tried to save as much money as we could. Whenever we could refresh, we’d do a refresh.

BR: Right, like Faker. Did you work on that figure?

MA: I did label sheets for Faker’s chest, it looked like a reel-to-reel tape deck. On [Sy-Klone], I came up with lenticular lens. We reused the idea for Secret Wars. Sometimes you get lucky.

BR: What about Snake Mountain?

MA: Snake Mountain, I wish I had one now. Eddy [Mosqueda] sculpted it*. Eddy was really really fast. The guy who sculpted [Eternia] was really, really slow.

Snake Mountain. Image via Orange Slime

On the boys’ side, [engineering] was all done inside, and you had to go through politics. Now everything goes to vendor. You had to get saddled with people who were not so talented. Like Bionotops. This guy, Hal Faulkner had a bitchin sculpt, but the engineer started smoothing out the mold and getting rid of musculature. Smoothing it all out. My manager said he was fixing it, but it looked like a piggy bank. He also worked on middle tower for Eternia. There was only so much you could do.

Now it’s different. You do a front three-quarters sketch, send it to Hong Kong, and you see a digital output.

BR: Do you know anything about a brown-haired He-Man variant? People seem to think that you could get it in a mail-away offer. What many people recall is that you would send  in three proofs of purchase and you would get a free figure in the mail, but no one seems to know much about it or why it was made in the first place. It looked like this:

Image courtesy of Arkangel

MA: The brown haired variant was either just done or in the works when I got there, but I think you’re right. Has it been referred to as The Wonder Bread mail-in offer? Again, I just got there and was just trying to keep my head above water, keeping up with great talents like Colin Bailey who drew like an angel with so much ease.

BR: Do you know who designed Jitsu?

MA: I watched Colin draw control art turn views of Jitsu as reference for sculpting.

BR: Besides Rudy Obrero and Bill George, there was another person who painted some of the box art. We don’t know his name, but he did the box art for Point Dread & Talon Fighter, Panthor, Skeletor/Panthor Gift Set, Teela/Zoar Gift Set, Night Stalker, and a few others. Any clues there? Here’s an example of his/her art:

MA: Unfortunately I can’t remember that guy’s name, but his stuff was pretty decent as a fill-in when Bill [George] was overbooked. His art was better than the guy who did the dino art, Warren Hile, who I went to Art Center with. He now makes furniture in Pasadena. I looked up his art in the SDCC He-Man book that I designed, which sold out in a day, but no names are listed. I’ll find out because now it’s bugging me, thanks to you.

BR: What about Tony Guerrero? Do you remember him?

MA: Tony Sculpted THE He-Man. He had a twin brother, Ben. He was on the engineering side and Tony was a sculptor. One of guards once asked Tony for a property pass and offended him. He said, “Do you know who I am, I sculpted He-Man!”

Tony Guerrero’s He-Man prototype. Image source: The Art of He-Man/The Power and the Honor Foundation

Tony didn’t do a lot of the later stuff. I don’t know if he got let go. I can’t tell you how many purgings I survived there. They didn’t care how good you were, or what you contributed. It was how much money you made. They would bring a new guy in that they could pay less and force you out.

Tony and Colin left shortly after I got there. Colin was there for a couple of years.

Bill George did the best art. He was at Power Con, the very first one. Bill’s paintings were the best. He did the best He-Man ever.

Road Ripper, by William George

BR: By 1986, there seemed to be a lot more stylistic diversity in the line. Can you talk about that?

MA: Extendar was designed by John Hollis, he was a temp who reported to me. He did Extendar, and he also did Rattlor and Turbodactyl. Each one has own style. Pat Dunn worked on Mosquitor. They way they turned out depended on they designer’s style and the action feature and play feature. The hardest one I worked on was Sorceress. Her wings popped out on back pack. Roger Sweet promised all those things. It’s hard to pack a mechanism on a thin-looking body. There was no other way I could do it except to put hump on her back.

We did Turbosaurus [later, Gigantisaur] that never got made. Too impractical? Of course. Roger Sweet had a sketch done by Ed Watts. It showed He-Man on this dinosaur. He sold it with all these features at a price that was low. I said, do you know how big this is going to be?

I went to Dave Wolfram, and I said, “We gotta breadboard this stuff.” Sure enough, that dinosaur was probably three feet. I told marketing, if you want this to reflect what Sweet sold you in the B-sheet, this is how big it’s going to be. We hand painted it. One thing that Sweet sold to marketing is that it would swallow a He-Man figure. But you know how splayed out the he-man figures were. It would have been as big as Eternia.


Ed Watts was the best and he actually did some preliminary designing and B-sheets on many of the vintage Masters toys, including Land Shark, the dinos, and Skeletor’s Dragon Fly [Fright Fighter], just to name a few. He actually had talent and thus recognized others who had talent, and was not insecure or jealous of others, so that’s why we got along. He was my manager when I designed/developed all the Bug’s Life line. Unfortunately he died of brain cancer way too young.

BR: What else did you work on in your time at Mattel?

MA: Everything that failed, I didn’t do, like that 2002 series… I was already off the line at that time. I worked on Harry Potter. I remember it was the Four Horsemen that were sculpting it. They were going old school, with clay molds and final waxes. Those guys are awesome. We were going to do Spawn at that time, and then anime stuff came up. I think I was working on Killer Tomatoes and Hook when we left the old building. Anyway, the Four Horsemen went in and did a really great sculpt of He-Man and Skeletor, almost two feet high. But at that time anime was coming in. So when they approached the Four Horsemen they had them sculpt them anime style as well. On that version, He-Man’s neck is coming out of his chest. Mattel did a focus test (which I hate), and the kids picked the anime style.

Then I got put back on He-Man, and started working with the Horsemen on [Masters of the Universe Classics], with no features. So there was this weird roundabout way I came back and worked on He-Man with the Horsemen, which they then gave to Terry Higuchi, because I was pulled to work on Remi from Ratatouille. Terri did a great job.

Masters of the Universe Classics

BR: What figure or other toy are you most proud of in your time at Mattel?

MA: I did so many entire lines there in 32 years. It would seem like bragging if I listed them all, which were approximately 15 to 20. Several never made it to retail. In hindsight I guess my favorites were the vintage MOTU line; resurrecting the then-dead Disney-Pixar Cars Line and generating a billion dollars for the five years I had it before my jealous VP stole it from me; and the Disney-Pixar Ratatouille line, which I designed/developed single-handily with my Hong Kong counterparts.

I’m especially proud that all those toys I designed/brought to retail made kids happy and filled their lives with joy & imaginative play. I’m happily retired now, focusing on painting full time. You can check out my original art on my website, www.martinarriola.com.

To hear more from Martin, check out these Power Con panels:

Several pieces of cross sell art used in this article are courtesy of Axel Giménez.

*Note: Eric L. recently contacted Eddy Mosqueda, and confirmed that Eddy did not actually sculpt Snake Mountain.

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Commercials

1984 US He-Man commercials

Masters of the Universe commercials had settled into a comfortable rhythm by 1984. All of them had more or less the same pacing and background music. They often ended with the tag line, “may the mightiest power prevail”, or sometimes just”yaaargh!”

I’ve been able to locate commercials for almost every item released in 1984, including Battle Armor He-Man, Battle Armor Skeletor, Orko, Prince Adam, Fisto, Clawful, Buzz-Off, Whiplash, Kobra Khan, Webstor, Roton, Dragon Walker and Snake Mountain.

I could not locate 1984 US commercials for Road Ripper, Stridor, Jitsu, Mekaneck (he appears in a 1985 commercial with Land Shark), or the Weapons Pack. I’m not sure if they exist, although if I had to guess I would think Mattel would have at least produced a commercial for Road Ripper.

One interesting note – Battle Armor He-Man appears to be an early production sample. The one featured in several of these commercial looks identical to the early version from the 1984 Mattel Dealer Catalog. This sample is a bit different from the final toy in that the “H” symbol has a darker outline and is filled in red rather than orange.He also has relatively dark-colored boots and loincloth.

ba-he-man
Production version (Taiwan)

Clawful is also an early production sample, with brown Skeletor boots. You can read more about the evolution of his design in the feature I wrote on Clawful several weeks back.

One nice thing about some of these commercials is that characters that didn’t feature prominently in commercials from previous years get a little more spotlight here, including Mer-Man, Zoar and Stratos.

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Heroic Warriors

Moss Man: Heroic spy & master of camouflage (1985)

Moss Man is another figure that I have very clear memories of. I remember getting him for Christmas, probably in 1985. Unlike Stinkor, I didn’t remember him based on his smell. His pine scent wasn’t immediately obvious because I ripped him off of his card right next to the Christmas tree, which had an even stronger pine scent. I remember my parents had allowed us to open one present on the night before Christmas. All the lights were out in the room except for the blinking colored lights on the tree. I remember the way that Moss Man’s green and brown flock glistened in the colored lights, and the prickly texture of the figure. It wasn’t until I had got him back to my room that I realized he also had a pine scent.

Like Mekaneck and Buzz-Off, Moss Man was characterized as a spy, with the ability to blend into his surroundings. I remember being a little frustrated that I could still pick him out deep in my mother’s potted plants. His bright yellow belt gave him away every time.

It’s possible that Moss Man was based on the legendary Florida Moss Man – a creature said to roam Florida’s Withlacoochee State Forest.

Moss Man is very simple action figure. He’s a green Beast Man covered with green and yellow flock (small nylon particles), with a brown version of the mace weapon that came with Castle Grayskull. In fact, the only known prototype for Moss Man is just what you’d expect – he’s literally a Beast Man figure that someone at Mattel painted in green, brown and yellow, with some flock added over top top.

Moss Man prototype. Images via Grayskullmuseum.com
Moss Man prototype. Images via Grayskullmuseum.com

There are a few differences from the prototype to the production Moss Man. The prototype has forward-looking eyes and painted fangs. On the production Moss Man, the eyes are looking off to the side, and the fangs are painted over to give the impression of more human-like teeth. It seems to have been an effort to make the Beast Man face seem a little less angry. It was somewhat successful, although Moss Man still seems pretty intense:

Brothers from another mother.

The cross sell art seems to be derived from the vintage toy given his fangless teeth, however his eyes do look forward:

Cross sell artwork. Image courtesy of Axel Giménez.
Black and white version used in ad sheets.

The illustrated scene on the back of his packaging was done by Dave Stevens, who also illustrated Stinkor and Spikor:

Image source: KMKA

An injured Moss Man also appeared on the illustration on the back of Terror Claws Skeletor’s card:

Illustrated by Errol McCarthy. Image courtesy of Jukka Issakainen.

Moss Man was also sold in the following gift sets (second image via Grayskull Museum):

I think it’s likely that both Moss Man and Stinkor were among the first new figures to be released in 1985. Their cross sell artwork shows up first on the back of vehicle packaging, along with the figures released from 1982-1984:

Moss Man is the second and final flocked toy in the vintage MOTU toyline. The first was Panthor. Panthor’s “fur” was much shorter and smoother, however.

The Argentinian Top Toys release of of Moss Man had painted fangs, like the prototype, and his mossy “fur” was quite long and luxurious.

Picture courtesy of Axel Giménez
Picture courtesy of Axel Giménez

Although Errol McCarthy didn’t illustrate Moss Man’s cardback, he did produce this artwork intended for licensees. It features a very friendly-looking Moss Man with a more human-like face:

Moss Man and Stinkor were sold with the same mini comic – The Stench of Evil! In the story, Stinkor threatens Eternia’s wildlife with his rancid smell. Only Moss Man is able to overpower Stinkor with his pine fresh scent:

In the Filmation cartoon, Moss Man had the ability to talk to plants and transform his body:

Filmation model sheet. Image courtesy of Jukka Issakainen.

Moss Man appears in a couple of great Earl Norem illustrations that were printed as posters for the US Masters of the Universe magazine:

Image Courtesy of Jukka Issakainen

In the UK Masters of the Universe Magazine, Moss Man was colored brown and gave lessons on manners to kids:

I’m not sure why, but it seems to me that the “cheap repaints” of the Masters of the Universe toyline are among the most memorable action figures. Faker, Stinkor and Moss Man were all entirely made from recycled molds, and yet they seem to be among the most memorable figures in the toyline. Maybe it’s because Mattel tried to make up for that fact by giving them audacious colors (Faker), a powerful and funky smell (Stinkor) or prickly “fur” (Moss Man).

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Heroic Warriors

Mekaneck: Heroic human periscope! (1984)

Mekaneck is one of those figures that I never owned as a kid and had limited exposure to in general. I remember seeing him only once in the wild – when visiting some distant relatives for the first time. I remember their son showing me his He-Man collection, which included Mekaneck and Buzz-Off (the first time I had seen either figure in person).

My exposure to him as a character otherwise was mostly punctuated by his appearance in the Filmation cartoon episode, “Disappearing Dragons”, and his inclusion in the He-Man and the Insect People mini comic that came with my Prince Adam figure. More on those later.

In online interactions I see a lot of people claiming that Mekaneck is a second wave figure, released in 1983 along with Tri-Klops, Man-E-Faces, etc. I don’t think that’s true, for several reasons:

  • Mekaneck is stamped 1983 on his back. The year on the back of MOTU figures is almost always the year before the figure was released, when it was in development. 1982 figures are stamped 1981, 1983 figures are stamped 1982, and 1984 figures are stamped 1983:
  • Mekaneck features snap-together clamshell armor. No other 1983 figure has that kind of armor, but many of the 1984 figures have it
  • Mekaneck does not show up in the 1983 Mattel Dealer Catalog. He does show up in the 1984 Mattel Dealer Catalog.
  • Mattel filed a trademark on Mekaneck’s name on August 22, 1983. They filed trademarks on the same day for other 1984 figures and toys like Clawful, Buzz-Off, Fisto, Jitsu, and Roton.
  • Mekaneck’s cross sell art does not appear on the back of 1983 packaging
  • Mekaneck does not appear in the mini comics until 1984 (not conclusive evidence, as the same is true of Evil-Lyn).

There are a couple of evidences that indicate that Mekaneck may have come very early in 1984 – one is that he appears in the 1983 Mattel Licensing Kit, along with Orko, Sorceress and Dragon Walker. This seems to indicate that Mattel was ready to promote him as a figure before many others in the 1984 line. Additionally, while Mekaneck first appears in the 1984 Mattel Dealer Catalog, he is not marked as “New for ’84” as all the other figures were (thanks to Matthew Martin for first pointing that out to me).

Update: Apparently Mekaneck was released as early as Christmas 1983, so again, on the vanguard of the third wave figures:

Mekaneck’s early working name was Spy Man. The late 1982 Michael Halperin Bible describes him this way:

“SPY MAN – an able fighter, he has the ability to literally periscope his neck above obstacles in order to survey the landscape. This trait comes in handy when he’s with He-Man and they have to know the enemy’s location.”

In this concept illustration by Roger Sweet, Mekaneck has a red shirt, yellow boots and armor, a relatively simple armor design (like the final design, it covers the figure’s mouth when his neck is not extended), and a helmet design that looks a bit like it was cobbled together from a traffic cone and some ski goggles:

Image from The Power and the Honor Foundation Catalog. Concept art by Roger Sweet.

Mekaneck’s periscoping neck worked by twisting his waist. The mechanism was designed by Tony Rhodes for Mattel, and a patent was filed for it on December 29, 1983:

The cross sell art used for Mekaneck shows a more or less finalized version of the figure:

Image courtesy of Axel Giménez

He features a quite angular, almost Devo-esque helmet and goggles and  fairly bulky and angular armor that obscures the character’s mouth when his head is in its lowest position. As in Roger Sweet’s concept art, Mekaneck reuses He-Man body, but has a unique head, armor and weapon.

The final club design is quite ornate and, again, angular. It’s a strange weapon choice for such a futuristic-looking character, although one could imagine that some of the geometric shapes on the sides of the club are actually buttons that activate hidden functions.

You can see the hand-painted final prototype in this image from the German Mattel 1984 catalog (image courtesy of Olmo):

He has a superhero-esque color scheme, which represented something of a departure for the MOTU toy line, stylistically. In the cross sell art, Mekaneck’s mechanical neck is red, but it was colored silver in the final toy.

The exposed area on Mekaneck’s face, in my opinion, very much resembles He-Man’s face. I suspect that whoever sculpted the head used a He-Man head as a base, and added the mechanical elements over top.

The illustration on the back of the card, as with many others, was done by Errol McCarthy:

Errol produced several illustrations featuring or including Mekaneck:

Mekaneck was also available in several gift sets, including a three-pack with Moss Man and Buzz-Off, a two-pack with Roboto, and another two-pack with Ram Man:

On the instructions on the back of the three-pack, Mekaneck is depicted with quite a different color scheme (Beedo Sookcool in the comments pointed out that the color scheme corresponds pretty closely to Roger Sweet’s original concept artwork):

In the Filmation episode, “Search for a Son,” Mekaneck’s neck is badly injured in a storm, and Man-At-Arms finds him and gives him a bionic neck. I suppose that’s as good an origin story as any for a character with such an unusual super power, although if I were Mekaneck I’d be questioning whether Man-At-Arms had ever heard of a simple neck brace.

In various stories over the years, Mekaneck was frequently paired up with Buzz-Off. That’s true of the Filmation “Disappearing Dragons” episode (one of my all time favorites), and it’s also true of Mekaneck’s appearances in the mini comic He-Man and the Insect People.

In He-Man and the Insect People, Mekaneck uses his neck to propel his head into enemies rather than as a means to spy on them:

Mekaneck uses his head as intended in The Obelisk:

Mekaneck also appears alongside Man-E-Faces and Ram Man in the 1985 mini comic, Skeletor’s Dragon.

In at least one German comic book and catalog, Mekaneck is described as an astronaut, which seems to track with his general appearance:

Mekaneck makes an appearance in the Golden Books story, Maze of Doom. Strangely, he seems to have his helmet on backwards in this panel:

In box art, Mekaneck appears most notably in the illustration for Night Stalker (1985):

He also appears as one of many characters in posters by William George:

He appears in the following line art used for black and white newspaper and flier advertisements:

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