Day 388 January 23rd
10th Anniversary interviews – Digger part 2
Now a year later I wandered down the toy aisle to once again find Art Asylum products, namely Minimates, but this time they were in the now standard 2-pack and were 2 inches tall. Was the switch to the smaller scale a choice or was it to accommodate particular licenses?
Digger - I have no idea Jeff. LOL! That's a question for the current Art Asylum regime.
Can you shed some light as to how the character selection happened back in those early days?
Digger - The plan in the beginning was to go after all things pop culture or to expand on any of the properties that we had rights for. KISS, Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, Eminem, Rob Zombie, Ozzy etc- that whole first 2 years we had other products coming out from action figures to "N" the Box. It was just a matter of seeing what was going to sell and like I said before our first waves did OK but our sales team was used to selling girls products, and the cylindrical packaging we did was bitched about by every non specialty retailer. I would have kept doing the music related characters until the end of time but it wasn't blowing up the spot. If you mean Marvel then again - I'd have to say it was by character popularity first and then feeding in the more obscure characters as we went along. Spiderman and Wolverine were the two most popular characters so we led with Spidey and packaged variations of him with other characters. I'm a huge fan of the Marvel cosmic mythos that Lee and Kirby created and Jim Starlin expanded like no one else in the 70's. I never thought as a kid that Thanos and Adam Warlock would ever see the light of day as product and here we were running them as Minimates with tons of other B and C level characters. I think the balance back then was always quite good.
With Art Asylum there was much more than just Minimates going on, you guys had other action figures, along with statues and busts as well correct? How hands on were you with the designs for Minimates?
Digger - Once we were rolling and the essence of the style in the Marvel line was established, Nelson and the rest of the art department were rolling them out one after another. I left for China in 2001 to stay so unless there was a problem with a licensor I was making sure that the assembly line stayed true to the original designs. It wasn't all smooth sailing. MINIMATES are complex despite how simple they seem. Normal action figures were actually much less work. The paint operations were higher than anything I've ever worked on and the cost was always very high. The factories would do a run for us see how much work was involved and dump us. I was always begging some factory to take the work for whatever we could afford to pay. It was a nightmare.
The Lord of the Rings designs were amazing. Great characters, tons of detail, great style, but the cost was coming in way too high for us to manufacture. The work was getting overly complex for something that was designed to be simple. Not out of laziness but for the sake of the design aesthetic and the cost so after LOTR I was cutting back on things overseas to make sure we could continue to make them. A lot of it was frustrating because of all the things we were doing MINIMATES was my favorite and I wanted it to continue as long as it could. Our financial partners at the time wanted it gone from day one and there was a regular ritual to prove me wrong so the first thing that was always attacked was MINIMATES. They'd say "why are we doing this? This isn't making any money. The quantities are too low. The factories don't want to work on this. It's too much work, our HK office is understaffed." Dam man! Why don't we just sell spring water or pink marbles!? You know? Every year things got a little bit easier and by the time we separated from our investors MINIMATES was sticking with the collectors.
I personally thought when you guys got together with the folks over at the DAVE School and made some animated movies with the Minimates that was a stroke of genius! I remember how cool I thought it was when I found out you voiced my favorite character Wolverine in the X-Men one. How was it to have a hand in those?
Digger - That's an interesting story how that all came to be. Manny Jesus was among many other things dabbling in Lightwave animation and had gotten in touch with Ron Thornton's company, Foundation Imaging about an alien ( Species 8471) they had done for Star Trek Voyager. Playmates reference had always sucked so true to our passion at the time to be accurate we pursued the character reference directly from the source which was Foundation Imaging. This was while we were still doing Star Trek work for Playmates, a few years before we actually beat out Jakks and everyone else for the master rights for Star Trek ourselves. I became friendly with Ron who is the coolest most down to earth Englishman on the planet and Jeff Sheetz ( founder of DAVE School ) was working with Ron and knew I was in there cooking up potential ideas for us to launch an animated show with both our companies.
Years later we were doing a show down in Orlando Florida and Jeff walked up to our booth and told me he had moved out to Florida to start the DAVE School, an animation school that was originally intended to be a training camp for Foundation Imaging. He said that Ron always spoke highly of me and wanted to know if I would be interested in using our Intellectual Properties as projects to train his students. We did shorts with them. PSYCHO PUMP, SPECIDEMONS and then they started playing with MINIMATES and it became the perfect training vehicle for their animators to work with. They did amazing stuff with us. If you look at the animation for Batman New Times MINIMATES and think about the time we did it you'll see how far ahead of Lego we were with animation. Our intent to focus on our character style verses a building block system but in that first Batman we did you'll see we heavily incorporated the Lego compatible products we were creating as toys in the animation. The Batwing, Batcave, Batmobile etc were all in the animation. Voices were acted by Mark Hammil, Adam West and Dick Van Dyke. It had a decent story, great action and most importantly it was FREE on the net. Shortly after this DC was giving us heat about Batman Begins; they wanted us to make sure any and all signs of 60's bat campiness were erased from the planet Earth.
We did Batman New Times with DAVE School completely without permission. This was before the majority of the fan films you see on the net and we were trying to get them to sanction this killer DAVE School Batman animation. They told us NO. LOL.
Our C3 Batman line cost millions of dollars in development, it was our biggest deal alongside Star Trek and the development was brutal with the tiny staff Nelson and Manny had in NY and the 2 Hong Kong engineers overseas. We spent 100k on a TV commercial and with little resource tried to go head to head with one of the biggest toy manufactures on the planet, LEGO.
The XMEN DARK TIDE animation was done in full cooperation with Marvel. DAVE animated it and I brought in a voice team in Hong Kong. I just cast myself and submitted it for approval and Marvel loved it. Lots of fun!
Looking back at the start of it all, could you have imagined that Minimates would have lasted this long and cover so many different properties?
Digger - Yes, I did see it sticking around if we crossed a certain number of exposures. Once it crossed 5 years I knew it was going to stick around. Most of the other brands that we're popping up were gone long ago. Some projects just need time and the support to get there so they can sink in.
Are there any Minimates you are particularly attached to for any reason?
Digger - The all black one that just had our logo on the chest in a cheap polybag. That was my favorite.