Cute, comical and highly collectable, vinyl figures are a consumer and merchandiser's dream. But what's the secret of a successful toy and how do new designers break into this exclusive market?
Blame the Japanese if you want: it was their love of 'cuteness' or Kawaii in the local parlance that gave birth to characters such as Astro Boy and Sanrio's Hello Kitty. Japan's obsession with comics (manga) and cartoons (anime) produced a dizzying array of superheroes, crime fighters, samurai sword wielding schoolgirls, robots and cute animals, and it didn't take long for many of these characters to be turned into bright, colourful plastic toys and other merchandise such as fabric toys and fridge magnets.
The popularity in the West of Japanese shows such as Transformers and Battle of the Planets (originally Kagaku ninja tai Gatchaman), which were required viewing for young kids in the 80s, brought anime into the collective consciousness of a new generation, a generation that was ultimately going to grow up holding on to a love of robots in disguise and Japanese kitsch.
The influence of Star Wars should also not be underestimated. George Lucas's uncanny knack of recognising a merchandising opportunity when it kicked him in the seat of the pants meant that every cool kid possessed miniature vinyl likenesses of Darth Vader and Chewbacca. As the years went by, the Star Wars figures became collectables, with huge sums being paid for pristine toys still in their original packaging. In short, the market for adult toys had arrived.
Today, adult vinyl toys are a massive industry, particularly popular among creatives, as any glance along their studio shelves will attest.
What's the appeal?
Kidrobot President Paul Budnitz, whose company makes some of the coolest vinyl figures around, such as the Dunny series, feels that the toys are popular because "they are amazing, beautiful works of art." Jon Burgerman, a recent entrant into the world of toys with his own new range of figures, takes a slightly more cynical view: "I guess the toys also speak the language of merchandise, product tie-ins, plastic giraffes in cereal boxes - things we are programmed to get excited by from a very early age." On a brighter note, he also suggests: "We want to peel certain characters off the page and play with them; see what they look like from different angles and try and get them to pose in suggestible positions." He adds - making the toy sellers' collective heart jump for joy - "The clever thing about little vinyl toys is that the more you have, the better they all start to look."
It's certainly not enough to own a single toy: there seems to be an urge to keep buying figures, occasionally turning an innocent hobby into something more akin to a crack habit. And as fast as we can buy them, the toy manufacturers are creating new figures, variations and limited editions to feed it.
This has led to accusations that the market is too saturated. Russell Waterman from Amos Toys, who produce James Jarvis's In Crowd figures, reckons: "Some of the platform toy stuff is a cynical attempt to extort as much cash as possible from the put-upon punter." Jon Burgerman agrees: "I think there is a slight whiff of cynicism when companies release the same figures too many times. It's like the episode of The Simpsons when there's a new Malibu Stacey doll released and someone says, 'It looks just the same as the old Malibu Stacey' and then someone else says 'but she's got a new hat!' and all the fans stampede to the shop to buy one. It's funny because it's true."
Ultimately, the punters themselves will decide. An expanding market, according to Hong Kong toy designer Eric So, has created more opportunities for newcomers to join in. "I guess it depends on why they want to join the market," he says. "If they're afraid of competition and worry about market saturation, they may not succeed. If they want to join in because they want to realise their dreams, there are opportunities everywhere."
That newcomer could be you, but the process of creating vinyl figures is shrouded in mystery. It goes without saying that the starting point should be a new and novel design, a character that will stand out from the crowd. Then you have to try and catch the eye of a toy manufacturer, such as Kidrobot or Flying Cat, and persuade online stores, shops and distributors such as Playlounge and Ningyoushi to stock your figures. It's a long and expensive process. "Research is the key," caution Mike and Katie from Sheffield-based design team TADO, adding that "a great resource for information on making toys and custom projects are the messageboards on sites like kidrobot.com and vinylabuse.com."
Having decided to manufacture a figure, there are several options available to you, the simplest of which is to draw your figure from as many angles as you can and let the factory work it out. This works well for Mike and Katie as well as Nathan Jurevicius from ScaryGirl, but sometimes, says Tado, "stuff which looked good on paper simply doesn't work in 3D."
Jon Burgerman sidesteps this problem by getting a friend to build 3D models in Maya to assist the visualisation process. But he concedes that the real stars are the people in the factory who took his drawings (front, sides and back) and created the sculpt.
Eric So goes one stage further and creates the sculpts himself, although that level of craft might be beyond most people. Eric emphasises the importance of a good relationship with the manufacturer which allows him to "keep pushing them to test new techniques and materials in order to keep up with demand and to keep our designs at a high quality."
Once the sculpts have been made and approved, the figures are painted and another round of approvals and corrections is conducted. Once the paint has been agreed, the paint masks and moulds are produced and the vinyl toys can start rolling off the production line. The process is rather slow, often quoted as six months from conception to the figures appearing in stores. This includes a month on a boat from China, which is where most of the figures are made. TADO has had toys turned around in a matter of weeks, but Eric So's 'hobby' projects can take up to ten years of refinement before he considers them finished!
If all this seems time consuming, expensive and laborious, there are alternatives. Product lines such as Qee and Kidrobot's Dunny are essentially blanks that can be painted any number of ways and regular competitions and exhibitions are held to showcase new talent. Some of the designs end up as actual toys, so it's always worthwhile seeing if there is an event you can contribute to.
It's possible to create small runs of figures by modelling them in polymer clay, casting them in resin rather than having them injection-moulded or rotocast in vinyl, and painting them with enamel paint. http://figurepunk.com has an excellent tutorial on creating toys in this fashion.
Plush toys - toys made out of fabric rather than plastic, such as those from FriendsWithYou, One Huge Eye and David Horvath, and Sun-Min Kim's Uglydolls - are quick, easy and cheap to produce. But perhaps the way of the future is harnessing the power of 3D printers, already used in product design for prototyping.
3D Printing (or 3DP) is set to become mainstream. It works like an inkjet printer using a travelling head to deposit a fine powder which is fixed with a water-based adhesive. Some machines use polymer resins (instead of powder) which harden in the air or are cured by UV light. Printers from the likes of Dimension 3D Printing and Z Corporation are getting cheaper by the day, while their colour capabilities and material strength are increasing.
Although not for everyone - as the results are tied to being output from CAD or 3D applications and the technology is currently cost-prohibitive for individuals - it's not difficult to imagine that in the not-too- distant future toys will be distributed as 3D files on the web to be downloaded and run off in small numbers. It might be as easy as printing a PDF, but don't hold your breath, because it won't be happening in the short-term. Until that time, perhaps it's time to break out the Plasticine.