Revenge of the Star Wars Concepts

Jason & Chinese Engineers at the factory in Dongguan, China, 1998

Have you ever spent your life wishing for something to happen, but it seems so fanciful and out of reach that you never really believe it has a chance to come true? That was what it was like for me and Star Wars. I was one of those kids who grew up obsessed with the original trilogy, the first film having been released when I was 7, the perfect age to become immersed in this amazing new world that was like nothing I had ever seen. Since they announced there would be a new trilogy of prequels I had wanted to do something to work on these movies. But after taking a very long, circuitous route through college and emerging with few jobs prospects, I had very little hope of doing anything for a career, let alone one that would let me be involved in any way with Star Wars.

So take it on faith, dear reader, that sometimes if you wish hard enough good things will happen. Within a year of having no job and being forced to move back in with my parents at the age of 27 I was gainfully employed designing toys, something I honestly had no business being hired to do (hat tip here to my old boss, Michael Hawkins, who was amazing at spotting talent. He put together the most creative group I have ever worked with, none of us having prior experience). Within a year of starting that job I was designing promotional merchandise for Star Wars: Episode One, as it was known then.

I remember telling my CEO there were only two things I wanted to do: go to Skywalker Ranch and see the manufacturing process in person in China. And this is the part about being careful what you wish for… I not only went to Skywalker Ranch multiple times, and was able to present my work to Lucasfilm in person, but I ended up embedded at the factory in China for many months, teaching the craftsmen at the factory how to paint thousands of Yodas and Jar Jars.

Anyway, this long preamble is just to give context to my latest article in a series highlighting all the wonderful concepts that were never made that my co-workers and I designed for The Phantom Menace, back in 1998. Go check it out on Action Figure Insider. There’s a link to part one in that article, too. The images below are just a sample of everything we did.

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I wonder what they think about this in North Korea?

Mad props to whomever came up with the cover headline for this week’s issue of Time magazine, nicknaming new NK leader Kim Jong Un “L’il Kim”. I wonder if this makes Kim Jong Il “Biggie”?

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Mars Needs Marketers

Move your mouse over me

“You take out ‘of Mars,’ you don’t tell where he came from? That’s what makes it unique!” a former Disney executive said. “They choose to ignore that, and the whole campaign ends up meaning nothing. It’s boiled down to something no one wants to see. - ‘John Carter’: Disney’s Quarter-Billion-Dollar Movie Fiasco”

So in a couple of weeks we’re going to see the long awaited (and I mean long awaited!) debut of both the first big-screen adaptation of Edgar Rice Burroughs “John Carter of Mars” books, and the first live-action film from noted Pixar director Andrew Stanton. Sadly, most of the people who might be the target audience for this film probably have zero awareness of either of those two facts. And that is unfortunately only a very small part of the utter failure of Disney to market this movie.

But before I talk about the marketing muddle, first I need to address a few issues with the movie itself that did the marketing team no favors in my eyes. Let me preface all of this by saying that I haven’t seen any of the film past the trailers and featurettes released, and that I’m assuming that it is a good solid film based on Stanton’s track record. Word trickling out so far has been good to great, from the journalists who have seen it so far. I’m not really a fan of the character, having never read any of the books. However, it has permeated pop culture enough that I am fairly aware of the popular image of John Carter & co. And although Taylor Kitsch may be a great actor, he just doesn’t seem right for the part of a Civil War veteran described as being a 6’2″, steel-eyed, clean shaven, man in his 30s. Kitsch is just too “current”, he seems every bit a boyish young man of the 21st century. This part needs a Sean Connery, a Harrison Ford, a Gregory Peck. A “man”. And a man who not only has a steely resolve, but a sense of humor. A swashbuckler. That is not Kitsch.

Star crossed lovers, or soap stars?

His female counterpart, Dejah Thoris, needs to be the opposite. Tough, but sensuous. Voluptuous. Striking. I’ve heard good things about Lynn Collins’ performance, but like Kitsch she seems eminently forgettable. Good casting for Dejah would have been Angelina Jolie, circa 2003. Not because Jolie is necessarily perfect for the role, but that combination of allure and otherworldlyness that she exuded is what the role needs. Both parts should be an alpha male and an alpha female. But we didn’t get that, regrettably. How Disney bankrolled such a huge budget with no stars is puzzling, but maybe they expected the same luck they had with Pirates of the Caribbean to strike again.

The other thing that really bugs me are the design choices for nearly everything. Stanton seems to have fallen into that very modern trap of needed to make everything in the film “real” and grounded in some sort of explainable reality. So the Tharks (four-armed green men) are equated to the think, sinewy Masai warriors, both being desert cultures. And the Martian landscape itself is a slightly modified version of Utah’s Monument Valley, with no red vistas to be found. Since Burroughs described Dejah’s people as “red-skinned”, and they found that actually coloring the skin looked problematic, Stanton chose to cover them in red tattoos to explain away the reference (which is odd that he picked that to be so literal about, but ignore the descriptions of Tharks or John Carter himself).

The creature design falls prey to nearly all creature design cliches that we’ve seen since the advent of CGI; either animals that are made to look as if they could actually exist, or ones so fantastic that they couldn’t be made without CGI (see nearly everything ever designed by Neville Page). Hey, even the Star Wars prequels fell into this trap. As a kid I was fascinated by the Tauntauns and dewbacks, and Wampas and Rancors of the original trilogy. I don’t think there is a single creature in the prequels that inspires any love (much less countless toys). I look at the banner on top of this article and at first glance it looks like a guy riding an elephant, with a giant frog next to him. You can barely tell the middle figure is an alien, and almost assuredly can’t tell it has four arms. And the “hot chick” is so far back she may as well be just another guy. With the uninspired costumes, creatures, and landscapes, this may as well be Prince of Persia 2 instead of a timeless space fantasy.

And that right there nails what this movie is not being promoted as, but should be: space fantasy. It is NOT science fiction…but the marketing team seems to think it is. The books that the film is based on were written 100 years ago, literally! Countless movies have stolen generously from them, and audiences have seen these concepts many times before. So even though the stories may be somewhat well known to a small readership, the general public has no idea who these characters are, what they should look like, and the context of what was “fantastic” in 1912. Why on Earth would anyone try and make this thing “realistic”?!? Why wouldn’t you reimagine those parts that were stolen and give us a version we aren’t expecting? Tarzan has never been faithful to those (outdated) stories, so why does this need to be? Before I go into the terrible promotion of John Carter, just move your mouse over that top banner. That’s the difference of how the publisher sold the books (with seminal art by Frank Frazetta) vs how Disney is selling the movie.

The biggest marketing sin is right up front: nothing about the marketing materials (posters, trailers, title) tells you ANYTHING about this movie, other than it’s some kind of science fiction film. It doesn’t tell you it’s from the visionary directory of Finding Nemo and Wall-E, it doesn’t tell you it’s based on the groundbreaking, influential books by the creator of Tarzan. It doesn’t scream Romance! Action! Adventure! No, instead they dropped all mention of Mars from the title in favor of the lead character’s boring name. I can’t imagine being excited as an eight year old wanted to see a movie called “Luke Skywalker”. But the name thing has been hashed over enough. I’ll just say that when everybody’s first reaction to hearing the new title is some form of rebellion, it should be evident that you’ve made a mistake. As I pointed out above, the posters leave much to be desired: no custom logo for the movie, just an average looking typeface (but one that would be dead on for a cerebral sci-fi film). Horribly desaturated color palette. The lead character is tiny (this is almost worse on another big piece where Carter is upstaged by two uninspired ape/mole creatures on the set of Attack of the Clones) and bored looking. It’s sad when the two best pieces of promotion are a poster made by a niche company for a midnight giveaway and a fan made trailer that is 50 times better than any “official” one put together by Disney.

It’s funny that every film like this aspires to be Star Wars (especially in the eyes of the studio execs and accountants) but no one looks to the lessons of Star Wars when they are making these films. Star Wars (and I’m talking Episode 4: A New Hope, here, not the prequels) was a fantasy film through and through. There was no explaining how so many aliens could exist, or how they knew English, or how the space ships worked…they all just did. And the designs were iconic, with attention paid more for impact and “cool factor” than how “real” they might seem. The casting was either mainly unknowns who totally embodied the roles, or gifted veterans to lend gravitas. And every set piece was fantastic in the truest sense of the word. Nothing about Star Wars felt pedestrian. It felt earnest, and exciting, but every where you looked was something you had never seen before. Hey, Disney: I’ve seen Utah.

No, the lesson filmmakers take away is that George made everything worn and rusty as if it existed in a “found universe”. Which was a brilliant conceit on his part to ground the fantasy. It was not the ends in itself. George also understood how to sell his movie to the public, as a space serial. As wonder. As “fun”. Look at the original Star Wars posters, and you can see where George understood the power in those Frazetta illustrations. And why is this movie rated PG-13? It has DISNEY on the title! From on of the founders of Pixar! People tend to overlook something else that made Star Wars a massive hit. It was a movie for kids. Kids who turned out in droves, and brought the family along. Kids who grew up spending money on Star Wars and buying, buying, buying Star Wars toys. And boy, George knew how to sell toys. Lots and lots of toys. And I keep seeing reference to Disney making John Carter in the first place to be a licensing powerhouse tentpole for the studio. Except…where are the toys?

In fact, where is any John Carter merchandise? See, the movie opens in a few weeks and the industry rule of thumb is that most movie-based toy lines will have made 60% of their sales before the movie opens. Heck, Avengers doesn’t open until the Summer and those toys are currently on shelves everywhere. But nothing for John Carter. At all. This, I just can’t understand. Sure, sure, I get that Disney may be gun shy after the debacle of Prince of Persia, a movie that sold few tickets and almost no toys. And that was followed by an even bigger failure in their eyes, Tron:Legacy. It bombed with most audiences, and the toys were lackluster peg warmers that didn’t even make it to the planned second series. Why would Disney take another chance on these toys just sitting around?

Well, maybe because this movie is supposed to be Disney’s “Star Wars”! The stories that set the mold. And it has no toys. How are kids going to get excited about a movie that gives them no ownership after they leave the theater? What plants the idea of John Carter and his amazing world in their heads to drag Mom & Dad to opening day? How are they going to beg to go back for a second showing without having spent their afternoons playing “John Carter” with their action figures with little Ricky down the street? Well, they’re not. You know why? Because thanks to Star Wars, every license is a blockbuster waiting to happen in the eyes of the studio. George Lucas famously gave up an increase in his fee in exchange for the merchandising rights to Star Wars. No studio exec will ever let the possibility of giving away the golden goose happen again, for fear of their job.

So the licensing fees for a potential tentpole film are astronomical. If the budget is huge then it goes up even more. And when toy manufacturers, themselves burned by all the Trons and Prince of Persias and Terminator:Salvations don’t want to risk that much money on what may seem to be an iffy prospect, the studio opts for no toys to be made rather than lower their price. You know what? To sell this movie they should have given away the rights for next to nothing. They should have held back Pixar toys as a package deal with John Carter. They should have paid their existing partners to crank out John Carter toys to stand as free advertising in every toy store, Walmart, and Target months before the movie came out. But now it’s too late. I truly hope in spite of all of this that John Carter is a big hit. That Andrew Stanton hits it out of the park. That it becomes something more than a one-off, destined to be a cult favorite one day. But I remember another film based on a pulp hero that Disney mismarketed and had no toys. And I know the Rocketeer had no sequels, either.

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Best Action Sequence Ever?

So I know folks have been watching this blog daily, asking themselves “Where is Jason, and when will he blog again?” Well, folks, the answer is simple: I’ve been scouring the Earth for you, looking for quality Bollywood clips to post.

And brother, do I have a clip for you! Featuring the International star Chiru (known around these parts for his “Indian Thriller”) this scene contains the craziest, most jeep-flipping, horse-skidding*, glass-shattering action you’ve ever seen. They just don’t make them like they used to. Enjoy!

*Animals were most definitely harmed during the filming of this movie. Sweet Jesus, the horse sequences just make me cringe.
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Harry Steele. I always knew some day you’d come walking through my door…

secret-of-the-incas-smSo Hot Toys unveiled its new Indiana Jones figure at their 10th Anniversary showcase last year and it got me thinking: who would have thought 10 years ago that we would have so many Indiana Jones toys to choose from? Back then all you could find were the old Kenner figures and the extremely hard to find Toys McCoy versions. Now we have an embarrassment of riches, with figures and accessories in all scales, the ability to recreate Jones’ actual wardrobe, and more paraphernalia than you could crack a whip at. But one piece of Indiana Jones lore has remained relatively hard to find: The Secret of the Incas!

What exactly *is* The Secret of the Incas, you ask? Well, while Raiders of the Lost Ark had many influences in its development, the one most often cited as the key film is this 1954 movie starring Charleton Heston as Harry Steele, a rogue Soldier of Fortune searching for a lost artifact that will bring him “fortune and glory”. While can detail all the similarities far better than I can, suffice it to say that Steele dresses and acts more than a bit like our favorite archaeologist.

incas08_f_improf_252x1711In recent years this lost gem has become easier to view with poor copies on youtube and ebay, but for some reason Paramount has kept it pretty well hidden from tv showings or any home video/dvd releases. So imagine my surprise to stumble across it ready for instant viewing on Netflix’s streaming service in pretty good quality! Now, is this a great film? No. Not even close. But it is fairly interesting, if only for two reasons: one, it introduced the world to the Peruvian Soprano, Yma Sumac (whose voice should be familiar to fans of the Big Lebowski), and it was surprisingly filmed almost entirely on location! If you’ve ever been interested in Cuzco, Peru or the fabled Machu Picchu ruins, you get to see them in lingering detail in this movie. And it sure feels a lot more exotic than the sets in Kingdom of the Crystal Skull…

So go check it out if you’ve got Netflix, because they shift what’s available in their Instant Viewing section frequently, so there’s no telling how long before this curiosity will be put back into its crate in that endless warehouse.

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Goodbye, Atlantis.

The Space Shuttle Columbia Lands at Kelly Air Force Base, San Antonio, Texas, March 1979

Or, what the Space Shuttle means to me. On Thursday, July 21 2011,  US Space Shuttle Atlantis touched down for the final time, returning from the last mission that the shuttle program will fly for the United States.  The program and the shuttles themselves have been retired, cast aside due to a national lack of enthusiasm and a casualty of the ludicrous economic battles that pass for governance these days. But none of that matters to me when I think of the Space Shuttle.

First and foremost, to me it remains the last exciting moment of the US Space program that really touched people when I was growing up. Sure, the Mars rover and the various interstellar missions of the past 20 years have been interesting, but the Space Shuttle program was a continuance of that bright, shining age when it really looked as if science fiction was becoming science reality. It was totally conceivable that by the year 2000 we might have (small) colonies on the moon, or a floating city in space to replace Skylab.

In 1979 my dad was still in the Air Force and working at Kelly AFB in San Antonio when it was announced that the newly christened Shuttle Columbia, the first shuttle to go into space, would be stopping at Kelly overnight to refuel on it’s way to the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. I was already excited about the shuttle, having seen the promos for the new James Bond movie, Moonraker, that was coming out that summer. So when dad woke me at 6am so we could drive across town to Kelly Field and watch it take off the news morning (on the back of a 747) I was beyond excited. I, of course loved Star Wars, and Buck Rogers, but this was REAL. I remember there were a lot of people who showed up to watch what was basically a big plane sit on a runaway, in an event that was closed to the public.

Afterwards, we went to a hobby shop where he bought me a small toy Space Shuttle. I remember keeping it sitting on my desk for quite some time, enamored by it’s unique shape and markings. Unlike previous spacecraft, the shuttle was a sleek, cool looking vehicle. I think it’s no coincidence that so many movies worked in the actual shuttle design instead of aping Star Wars when dealing with “non-fighter” craft. Unfortunately, we know how the rest of the story goes: I saw the Challenger disaster happen live on tv in my 11th grade art class. I remember how horrified and distraught my teachers were that one of their own was on that ship. And the Columbia herself came to rest back in Texas in 2003 in another horrific accident, although I was living in California by then.

But with all that, when I think of the Space Shuttle my mind always goes back to that little toy one my dad bought me, and the long gone hobby shop where it was purchased. You can still find hobby shops, where you can buy model planes and trains, but they are becoming few and far between. Like Borders bookstores that are closing for good this month, and Circuit City, And Linen’s & Things, and all the mom & pop bookstores and variety stores before them, we are left with just one or two big box stores for each category now. The era of stores that catered to specialty items exist online, but it’s not the same. There is something to be said for riding your bike to the hobby shop for a model, then to the variety store (Winns? TG&Y?) for some action figures, then on to the drugstore for trading cards and a soda, ending up at the neighborhood used bookstore where the owner has a little side room filled with old comics and pulp paperbacks to leaf through. But those days are gone, and they’re not coming back. And now I fear the days of excitement over space exploration are joining them on the shelf marked “nostalgia”.

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Rejected! May The Mini-Force Be With You

So it took quite a bit longer than I planned on to get back to another installment of my unproduced Star Wars gems. But here at last is the untold story of the promotion that you never got to see, and what a doozy it is! A couple of caveats right off the bat: I did not actually have anything to do with this promotion. It was developed and presented by another marketing agency in the wake of the Star Wars Trilogy re-release in 1997 as a possible idea to launch the Prequels, in specific Episode I.  So most of this is strictly going from my memory of how it was explained to me. And the bag illustration at right is just something I whipped up based on what it might have looked like. Cool?

Read More at Action Figure Insider…

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OK, so I’ve been pretty lax on introducing my millions of readers to much needed Bollywood glory. But maybe the long wait for a new clip has been worth it.

I’m not exactly sure how they did it, but I think Bollywood (Russia? Azerbaijan) somehow was able to film Michael Bay’s actual dreams. This is everything he wishes he could do in real life, but just can’t muster that much awesome in one container. Be prepared for your mind to explode! (And they even throw in a Wilhelm Scream!)

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The Best Kept Secret.

So there was that thing back a few years ago where we found out all about the plans for the final years of the Super Powers Collection including concept art for many possible figures. And that other thing, where some extension plans for the original Kenner Star Wars line showed up in a found presentation. Or the ill-fated Mattel Wonder Woman and the Star Riders? And how about when it was revealed that there was another Raiders of the Lost Ark assortment to be made in Hasbro’s Indiana Jones line (OK, that one still hurts).

You’d think we would have heard all about toys that never made it into production by now. You’d think that with so many collectors and so much time having passed, there are no surprises left any more from the golden days of action figures (1970s & 1980s).

Well, partner, you’d be wrong. That’s right, true believer! Mattel’s toy line of Marvel Super Heroes Secret Wars lives again!

Read the Rest at Action Figure  Insider…

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The Biggest News of Comic Con 2010

Here’s the thing: San Diego Comic Con is no longer about comics. Yes, I know this is not news. Many, many, many people have pointed out what a shame it is that movie, tv, and toys have taken over the con in the past decade. I am not necessarily one of those people: I enjoy the con more for the broader scope and the inclusion of hollywood. I especially like that SDCC has replaced Toy Fair as the place to celebrate collectors and unveil new toys for the year (although I really wish companies could figure out how to keep a lid on news better so there were more genuine surprises).

But at its core, SDCC was and is about comics and comic culture. That’s what drives the train. So when huge news breaks, it is a tad disappointing that the major outlets like USA Today, Entertainment Weekly,  and CNN that are covering the con do not highlight it in an appropriate manner (kudos to TIME for recognizing the significance of the news, though). What news is this, you ask? Well the biggest news of the con is this: Fantagraphics will be publishing the Complete Floyd Gottfredson run of Mickey Mouse comic strips, starting in May 2011. This is huge.

Fantagraphics has spent over two years negotiating with Disney over these reprints. And while Carl Barks’ and his Ducks comics are well-known and revered, a much smaller group of people is aware of the seminal work done by Gottfredson on Mickey Mouse. These strips are pretty much the last of the “greats” to be reprinted, in what is now the Golden Age for classic comic strip reprints. What is big about this news is that these strips have NEVER been reprinted uncut before, and many of them not at all. Think about that: for 70 years, Disney has let some of the best work featuring their flagship character go unseen. Can you imagine if Marvel had never reprinted the Ditko Spider-Man issues, except in compilations? Sure, many individual stories have been chopped up into comics over the years, but these stories were heavily edited, rewritten, and relettered.

While it remains to be seen if Disney can bring themselves to go through with a hands-off policy, Fantagraphics has the best shot ever to not only show these strips as they were originally seen (and from all accounts, Disney keeps excellent copies of everything in their morgue, so they’ll look better than anyone has seen them) but do so in a great presentation, judging by their treatment of Peanuts and Popeye among others. I’m just hoping that Disney sees that these are of historical value and let’s Fantagraphics reprint EVERYTHING, warts and all.

Now where are those Gottfredson Mouse & Friends toys?!?

Posted in Collecting, Comic Strips, Nostalgia, Retro | 2 Comments

Fat or Foul?

So the news hit today that a county in California has banned fast food toys in some fashion. As someone who designed these toys for many years I’m of two minds on the subject.

3721569730_55835967ba.jpgFirst and foremost, it’s not really the government’s job to police what you are allowed to purchase if it is not harmful. Yes, childhood obesity is a pretty bad thing, and is even worse for our future than it is today (see: Wall-E). But I’d much rather see them crack down on the way things are cooked, the ingredients in them, and the choices being offered first. I do applaud that they at least try to make this make sense, and only take away toys from kids’ meals that exceed a certain calorie/fat level. But the sad fact is that pretty much all of them exceed that level.

What makes me not hate this altogether is that I think by leaning so heavily on licenses you are de facto bribing the kids to eat at your restaurant. Fast food places learned in the 1980s that kids are the one who make the decision where to eat in the family, and they saw that by dangling the best toy property in front of those kids they’ll win the battle. Dave Thomas never liked that Wendy’s had toys, because he wanted the food to stand on its own feet. But he was realistic enough to know that he couldn’t compete with McDonald’s and Burger King without them.

I think it you went back to having non-licensed toys that are once again just something to keep kids quiet and not used as a traffic builder/profit center it might make the licenses last a bit longer in the retail toy world instead of burning out so quick, and let creativity and craftsmanship rise in the fast food toys without having the license as a crutch. And maybe then parents and kids would pick the place to eat at that had the best food and not the coolest superhero of the month.

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