Last year, we spoke briefly with Todd McFarlane of the eponymous McFarlane Toys about his upcoming line of figures set in Halo 3's universe. Now that the figures are out, we wanted to drill a little bit deeper into how these figures are made and Todd graciously and loquaciously answered our questions.
Q: Once the legalities of a partnership have shaken out, what are the actual steps of creating an action figure from the concept stage to final product?
Todd McFarlane: All right, well, let’s go through it...
The first thing we do once have the contractual details sewn up is just kind of sit back and take inventory of what it is we have gotten ourselves into, so to speak. By the time the licensing agreements and all of that are finalized, we have already spent a good amount of time investigating and examining what it is we want to do in terms of building an action figure program – one that will not only provide some kick-ass toys for the hardcore fans, but also grab the attention of the casual fan, or consumer.
But all the research and theorizing is just the lead-up to bigger and better things. Once we’ve said, “This is something we want to do,” and the licensor reciprocates those feelings, the real fun begins, because now we don’t just get to sit back in our little corner and fantasize about all of the cool stuff we can do, we actually get to start doing it.
The first step is to go back over our initial plans and review and revise them in a fashion that will allow us to get out of the gate with a product we feel will have the largest appeal, while leaving plenty of room for expansion and variety as we move forward. And really, those two elements — expansion and variety — are the key, especially when talking about a property like HALO, which has so much depth in terms of not only the universe you have created, but also the ability to have so many uniquely appealing visuals in terms of the character design.
When I say, “uniquely appealing,” I’m thinking specifically of the Spartan and Elite armor permutations used in the matchmaking game-set. Those millions of armor variations (and that’s taking into account the different armor forms and all the colors a player can choose from), conceivably allow each individual player to have his or her own unique personal favorite character. That means aside from the big guys – Master Chief being the top dog, of course, followed by the Arbiter, the Brute Chieftains, Cortana, some fan-favorites like the ODST and the various Flood forms — there are quite possibly millions of main characters in this game.
The questions we had to begin with were: how do we address that, and how do we take advantage of it? We clearly can’t make every possible variation of Spartans and Elites, but what we can do is give the fans a wide enough variety, combined with the “swappable” armor pieces we have created for our Spartan and Elite action figures, so they can get as close as possible to creating their own, personalized Spartan.
And that’s just one side of the coin. Luckily for us, the character designs and personalities present in the games, books, etc., are all interesting enough that the personalization becomes a cool extra as opposed to the main focus. If you want to have an action figure of the Spartan you use in-game to put on display or play with, cool. But, if you just want a bad-ass army of cool toy soldiers and alien warriors? We not only have that covered, we will do our best to offer up as diverse a product as possible while still focusing on the key characters and color groups.
All of that above, in a nutshell, is “Step One” in the creation of an action figure program.
Let’s speed this up a bit, and kind of get down to the essential bullet points of it all...
Creating an Action Figure Program
STEP 1: Taking inventory of the visual and creative aspects of a given license (see above).
STEP 2: Building a program.
This is where we take what we know and put together a plan that will allow for the best possible introduction of the product to consumers, along with keeping an eye on maintaining interest among fans and casual consumers for the long haul, and allowing for the eventual expansion of the products offered to other action figure categories.
Usually this is were we put together a rough lineup of figures for the first few series, and then run it past the licensor for any comments or concerns they may have. This is also the time where we begin asking for any specific assets that will allow us to better re-create the characters in question: reference imagery (including concepts, full turnarounds, and in-game shots), digital assets, official character histories, etc.
Once the lineups are selected and solidified, and we have all relevant files and imagery in-hand, we get to work on the fun part — the art.
STEP 3: Concepts
This step was a little less involved than it would normally be, as we simply presented our list of figures, along with some rough digital imagery, to Microsoft/Bungie, and pointed out the places and ways we were going to include articulation, and then got to work on Step Four…
STEP 4: Sculpting
This is where we take the two-dimensional imagery seen on the television screen and bring it into the three-dimensional world. There is a lot of back-and-forth during this stage of production, both between our Design Group in New Jersey and between myself, and us (McFarlane Toys) and the licensor (Microsoft/Bungie).
At each point during the sculpting stage, each figure is reviewed and altered as needed to ensure the best end product...
4.1: Sculpting (Digital)
Being that we were working with digital assets, we started off by taking the 3-D files we were provided, and tweaking them in the computer. From there, we simply print out the rough starting point on a special printer that can take that digital info and translate it directly into clay. The “concept” image above is actually a pretty good indication of where we start.
4.2: Sculpting (The “Rough”)
Usually the “rough” sculpting stage is where we take a lump of clay and begin building the very basic anatomy of the figure. The main focus at this point is to perfect the pose and proportions.
With HALO, however, we had the luxury of working from digital models. This allowed us to go right into the computer to make the necessary adjustments, allowing for proper proportions in relation to the joints need for the level of articulation we were going for.
As you can see below, the rough “sculpt” is fairly close to the initial digital model shown earlier, with some additional detailing having been added, but still a ways away from the its final form…
Once the “rough” has taken shape it is sent to me for review. I then make any notes I deem necessary, before sending the images along to Microsoft/Bungie for their review. Again, all we are looking for here is to ensure that the proportions of the figure are correct. Usually, at this stage, we would also focus on the posing of the figure, but since these figures are articulated, that wasn’t as much of a concern.
After receiving the feedback from myself and the licensor, the Design Group goes back to work to make any adjustments before moving on to...
4.3: Sculpting (The “Detail”)
This is where the figures really begin to come together. Now that we have taken the time to ensure the basic body structure is there, it’s time to go in and add the detailing that makes each character unique — from the battle damage on Master Chief’s chest to the diamond patterns on the Brute Chieftain’s armor.
This is also the step in which the articulation is added, so there is a bit of a delicate balance that needs to be maintained between realism and playability.
As soon as we feel we are at a certain point in the process, both the licensor and I receive full photography of each figure, and changes are made where needed.
STEP 5: PAINT
The figure has taken form and we’re almost there, but not quite yet. The figures don’t actually come to life until the paint has been added. For the Spartans we attempted a number of different techniques before choosing one that seemed to best capture a balance between the in-game visuals and the real world grit of war. You’ll notice in our first few series of action figures that the Spartans actually seem a bit dirty. We tried not to overdo it, but wanted to give somewhat of a “been through hell” feeling – like these soldiers have been at it for a while and aren’t fresh out of training.
As always, the painted prototypes are snapped with a camera and all parties offer their notes, and changes are made if needed.
STEP 6: PACKAGING
Packaging maybe listed last, but, in reality, it is on somewhat of a parallel track to everything else, as it is being created and tweaked at the same time Steps 1-5 are being worked on. And, like the figures themselves, we are constantly looking for ways to improve upon our initial designs. You’ll actually notice a few interesting changes made to the packaging for Series 2 once it’s been released for public consumption.
Q: How are decisions like “what figures to include in Series X” made? Including an iconic character like the Master Chief makes sense, but for instance with the armor permutations, how do you decide “let’s do CQB, here and we’ll do E.V.A. here?”
TM: Clearly, the main heroes/villains are the obvious additions, but you’re right – the hard part is when and why to add in those secondary characters. Luckily, with characters like the Spartans, and even the Elites, they are just so cool and iconic within the framework of the HALO universe - and even at this point within the overall realm of sci-fi - that we could almost pull which Spartans went in which lines out of a hat. I’m not saying that’s what we did, but we could have.
For the first series, which includes the C.Q.B. and E.V.A., we simply went with the two armor variations that were the most readily available for the fans, along with the fact that I think the helmet on the E.V.A. is cool, making it an easy pick for me. From there, with the later lines, we kind of looked at what the rest of the armors were, and kind of started seeding them in based on visuals, while keeping in mind that we wanted to hold off on certain versions (Hayabusa being a prime example) because we wanted to make sure we still had plenty “A” Spartans available down the road.
Essentially, we start by breaking the characters down into groupings. You have your “A” characters, which are the main players in the storyline. You have your “B” characters, who represent a combination of secondary characters and that special handful that may not have been given all that much screen time, but have been embrace by the fans (the ODSTs are a prime example of this). And, you have your “C’s,” who may be cool as all hell, but are still simply the bullet-catchers (i.e – Grunts, Jackals, etc.).
Once we’ve put all of the characters into a category, we then do a bit of mixing and matching to create lineups that work as stand-alone points of interest, but also keep in mind the bigger picture.
Let’s take a look at our first series of HALO 3 action figures as reference...
- Master Chief (A)
- Cortana (A)
- Brute Chieftain (B)
- Grunts (C)
- Jackal Sniper (C)
- SPARTAN – Mark VI (A)
- SPARTAN – C.Q.B. (A)
- SPARTAN – E.V.A. (A)
That’s a pretty good mix. We have the hero and heroine of the series, we have a main villain along with some grunt-type soldiers (no pun intended), and we have an offering of army-builder hero-types with the SPARTANs. Not to mention, it also provides a nice breakdown between the Campaign mode of the game and the Matchmaking. If you like both, we’ve got both. If you prefer one to the other, you have a choice.
And, as mentioned above, in the bigger picture, we’ve left plenty of room for other “A” and “B” characters to be highlighted in future series, which helps to maintain fan interest and keeps the product fresh at the point of purchase - which keeps the retailers happy. It’s not a perfect science, by any means, but it is somewhat of a win/win for fans and retailers. As a matter of fact, as long as we keep doing our job on our end, and you keep expanding this wonderful universe called HALO that you’ve built up to be the worldwide phenomenon that it is, we could, conceivably, do this forever. After all, it would take forever to get all of the SPARTAN and Elite permutations on shelves.
Q: What kind of challenges do manufacturing these figures create? Are there design and functional tradeoffs to be made as a part of the manufacturing process?
TM: For the approach we chose for our initial offering — articulated “toys” over pre-posed statues — the biggest challenge was nailing down the movement/playability of the figures while maintaining as high a level of accuracy as possible. When creating figures from something like HALO, the hard part is that you not only have the actual detailing of the game model to contended with, but also the “reality” of what the players “see” when playing the game. With the speed at which the game moves and the intensity with which a large number of the players interact with this world you have created, it is important to build in some real-world dynamics, because when the game gets heated, these characters, in the players’ mind, are moving as realistically as any person out on the street.
So, yeah, that was probably the biggest challenge: To, as seamlessly as possible, integrate articulation and our attention to detail without compromising one or the other too heavily.
One of the things I would really like to do, and we have plans for this in the works right now, is a line of HALO figures that brings the HALO world out of your television and out of the imaginary world of action figures, and grounds it in as much reality as we can muster. Basically, a more traditional “McFarlane” take – larger scale, dynamically posed — to expand our offerings outside the 5-inch scale action figures we have started out with.
Q: What was the hardest detail to preserve and get right? Why was it so tricky?
TM: Not to be vague, but all of them. We are still working to make adjustments and tweak little things here and there to get these things as close to perfect as we can. Now, perfection is an impossible goal, but with some guidance and care, we think each line will be better than the last. And “hard” is a somewhat relative term, because Microsoft and Bungie have been extremely thorough in their notes and cooperation, so while we haven’t always nailed each piece on the first go-around, the fine folks on your end have been quick and concise in their feedback.
If I had to pick one item that seemed to be the trickiest of the bunch, it would probably be finding a way to attach the weapons to the figures in a way that would allow for maximum playability without compromising the authentic look of the figures. Do we place the peg on the figure? Do we place it on the weapon? In the end, we went with the separate peg because we felt the small holes in the figures and weapons would be a nominal distraction.
Q: Any plans to make a “Recon” armor Spartan in the future?
TM: I was told by some of my employees to let you know that “you can has Recon” when you give “us” Recon. I’m guessing then, that they would prefer if I didn’t tell you that we already have it in the works, but I’m going to anyway... We already have Recon in the works (but it may not be easy to get).
The real question is, do we have any plans to make a Mister Chief?
Q: How has it been working with Bungie on the Halo series? Are we difficult to work with?
TM: From day one, Bungie has been more than accommodating. As I mentioned above, any and all notes and feedback we have received have been extremely detailed and to the point. Here’s an example of some of the notes we received during the production of our Master Chief figure…
And, the few times I have made the trip up to Washington to visit the Bungie studio have been great. Nice group you’ve got there, and I have to say, I’m a little jealous of your set-up. The first time I walked into your inner sanctum with the low-wall work stations and the unholy shine of a hundred computer monitors, each displaying something cooler than the last — I just loved it.