AUSTIN, Texas—Making action figures—even those with only a vague, 80s-style resemblance—is hard. So as you might expect, making the intricate, high art collectibles offered by Mondo is quite a bit harder.
At last month’s MondoCon 2016, the company held a panel to give attendees a peek at its process. Like everything at Mondo, it starts with the posters. The company strives to put as much energy and vision into their collectibles as they do with their trademark prints. For his Harley Quinn poster, for instance, artist Matt Taylor was involved with initial sketching and modeling. However, working toward a collectible instead of a print soon presented Taylor with a much different challenge: limitations via the physical world. “When you draw, you don’t think about accurate perspective,” he says. “You don’t worry if a foot is bent the wrong way or that an arm would be six feet long.”
Taylor eventually worked with a friend comfortable in digital modeling to adapt a rough of his illustration. With a digital sketch created, work moved to the sculptor. Mondo’s collectibles are intricate, so the company calls upon folks like Phil Ramirez, an industry veteran who’s worked for juggernauts like Marvel and Toyviz (he helped create the original late ’80s, early ’90s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles figures, for instance). Ramirez says today everything is largely done digitally, even for vets like him. Though he only learned digital sculpting and modeling within the last three years, the process’s overall benefits make up for hand sculpting’s precision advantage.
“We’ve progressed with tech and sculptors so that you can print it out and it looks physically sculpted,” Ramirez admits. “I still prefer physical sculpts, but digital is fine and a lot quicker.”
With this particular project, time saved became crucial. Whenever a sculptor creates a digital model, it goes through a round of quality control (something that essentially happens at all stages of the process at Mondo, from sketch through final coloring). This step allowed the team to catch a possible pitfall—Quinn’s chest. Her outfit initially hugged the character’s body to the point of being unnatural.
“I might have wrote an e-mail that was too strongly worded at first about the boobs,” Taylor admits. “I was kind of a jerk.”
But Taylor was right. Everyone on the project agreed that Quinn is too often portrayed as male gazey, and Mondo wants its products to be for more than a stereotypical, older male collector crowd. “He-Man may be more of a guys’ collectible, but characters like Marceline [from Adventure Time] and Harley get a 50-50 split [of fans],” says Brock Otterbacher, Mondo’s creative director of toys/collectibles. The team wanted its final product to ultimately appeal to any comic enthusiast, 13-year-old young women or 35-year-old completist dudes alike.
This level of detail is crucial at Mondo. Ramirez paid attention to even the tiniest aspects Taylor included in his poster, like the grooves in the record Harley Quinn is listening to and the wood detail on her phonograph. Ramirez ultimately printed the digital model to rubber and then casted it in clay. With the physical print, Taylor’s Harley Quinn portrayal offered up another detailing challenge—the rug she’s sitting on.
Standard printing and casting techniques couldn’t quite capture the unique textures of Harley’s shaggy, animal-hide rug, which meant Ramirez had to go old school. He printed a less detailed base, then carved it by hand to make things shaggier.
Once a final prototype has been made, the team molds and casts the design so work at scale begins. Mondo next calls upon more partners to handle manufacturing, handpainting, packaging, and shipping its collectibles. “It takes many people to do that,” Otterbacher says, referring to a final toy. “Whether it’s Marceline, He-Man, or Batman, it takes a lot of people.”
Ramirez says sculpting alone can take two to five weeks of physical work, and Otterbacher says a statue can take anywhere from 12 to 24 months overall. The process involves many steps: coming up with the concept, getting the necessary licensing approvals, moving to real sketches, creating a digital model with a sculptor, printing physical models, molding and casting a blueprint for scale, handling factory production, painting final products, completing packaging and shipping. And since not every poster (how would you stage Taylor’s Thor?) or character (Spiderman webbing can often be a bit too fine for a strong collectible) translates to collectibles well, Mondo simultaneously maintains multiple projects at various stages of the process.
Among the collectibles to look out for next year, the team teased an art deco-inspired Spider-Woman, the title character of The Rocketeer, Merman from He-Man, more from Batman: The Animated Series, and TMNT‘s Shredder. As with seemingly everything from Mondo, demand is likely to outpace supply, so keeping up with its release newsletter is recommended.
Listing image by Nathan Mattise