Thursday, August 7, 2014

Digital toy sculpting - the future is now

One of the pluses about SDCC is it lasts 4.5 days (including preview night), allowing attendees to take in quite a lot of the show. After checking out the big booths, attending panels, buying toys, and lining up for all of the above, you can still build in slack time for wandering the aisles. And this is where some of the best SDCC experiences can be had, especially if you take off your toy or art or comic or whatever "focus blinders" and take a chance to soak in something new.

One of my unexpected pleasures of SDCC 2014 was the Varner Studios booth, where I learned a lot about new trends in action figure sculpting. I even had a chance to try my hand at cutting edge toy design software.

The booth was populated by a knowledgeable and friendly crew who brought along an excellent assortment of their design work.
Most of the figures in the two cases were crafted the old-fashioned way - by hand. Varner clearly has a great relationship with Playmates, as the shelves were chock full of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles prototypes from yesteryear and today.

Also on hand were figures based on other properties including Disney characters, Star Trek, Austin Powers, The Simpsons, and so on. We'll continue after the jump with a gallery scroll through a number of these figures:

It's really something how far they've taken some toy lines. I guess once the standard figures have been made with all their vehicles and accessories, you have to start thinking outside the box to come up with new variants!

Some good looking Pixar characters


I really dug the Austin Powers figures. Anyone remember the talking line?
Most of the above figures were sculpted by hand - a process that worked well for many decades. But a shift is on in the toy world. According to the folks at Varner, the great majority of toys are now sculpted using computer software, not clay or super sculpey.

Here's a shelf full of toys that were designed and sculpted digitally:
There are a number of advantages to sculpting this way, When dealing with a 3D object, you can know immediately how the parts will look and fit together. I would think this is a key plus, especially when figuring out how joints will rotate, how accessories will fit into hands, etc. In a sense, the designer assumes the role of the joint maker and yet does so at the conceptual stage before costly  labor or tooling is involved.
Other pluses to this way of working involve collaborative efforts and streamlining the feedback/approval process. Essentially what you're dealing with is a lossless 3D computer file, not a physical object, so team members everywhere can be sent the file for review and feedback. This must save a huge amount of time while avoiding loss and damage of the prototypes during transport.

I'd also think it has the potential of leading to even better toys, since a production manager can say "Make the weapon 5% bigger" instead of worrying about potentially missing a deadline by going back and forth with the physical sculpt.

Let's go back to our first image:
Varner uses two main types of software to digitally sculpt toys. The first involves a pen and digital pad. It looks a lot like the type of device used by digital artists.
Here we see that another advantage of sculpting this way is the artist assumes yet another hat - as the colorist. You can immediately get a sense of texture, lighting, and depth before the figure goes into further development or production. This removes elements of guesswork from the production process.

Finally, here is the designer using another tool, which is really fascinating.
Check out the pen-like tool in his right hand. Connected to the software, it lets him "air sculpt" as the image is updated on screen. The really cool part is the tool provides a sense of force feedback as you work on the figure. I was able to try this out, and it is really something. There's nothing beneath the pen as you work on the figure, and yet because of the feedback provided, it's as if you can feel the shape and curves of an invisible toy beneath the pen. Extraordinary invention.
I like this idea of holistic toy production, with the design studio involved in the sculpting, joint planning, and coloring. Of course, it's likely that the project's brief involves guidelines or instructions touching on all these areas, but at the very least the designer is able to gauge how these elements will interact - once again taking out guesswork while enabling the designer to conceptualize the finished toy before it moves to the production stage.

I'd like to thank Varner Studios for taking a few minutes to talk with me and introduce their studio. I understand they offer a range of services, from 3D scanning to printing, and of course toy design and sculpting. My initial impression of their crew was very positive.

When it comes to toy production it looks like the future is now. Who knows what exciting innovations lie ahead!

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