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Comic Con Conversation – Mattel’s Frank Varela Part I

Frank Varela, first from the left

After wrapping up our conversation with Scott Neitlich and Bill Benecke, Samuron and I had the pleasure of getting to sit down (literally in the Matty Collector booth line for part of the time) with Mattel’s packaging ace Frank Varela. Now, it has been no secret that, for several years now, Mattel has been busting the curve in terms of packaging design, especially with their SDCC offerings. Now, for the first time in what we hope becomes an annual tradition, we have the chance to get inside of Frank’s head to find out the philosophy behind package design and how he keep’s one-upping himself each year.

Frank Varela, first from the left

Fwoosh: We have the pleasure of meeting with Frank Varela, Project Manager for Boys Packaging, Mattel. Thanks for sitting down with us today.

Frank Varela: Absolutely.

F: To get started, what are some of the primary things you are currently working on?

FV: I work primarily in the collector segment of our business, which would include DC Universe, a lot of the direct consumer stuff that we do for Matty Collector such as Ghostbusters and a lot of the specialty items for Comic Con.

SDCC 2010 Exclusive DCUC Plastic Man Packaging

F: How long have you been doing what you do so well?

FV: I am working on my sixth year with the company. Wow six comic cons! I had my five year anniversary last September.

F: Congratulations! So, do you have a typical day doing what you do? Is there a particular process that you have to go through for your creative process?

FV: Well, I get up and do some calesthenics [laughs]. No, basically when I get in I answer a lot of emails from Hong Kong. A lot of people don’t realize that with packaging, we create a lot of the visual assets for what represents a line across the board. So, I have a lot of requests for things like logos and things of that nature. The big thing regarding packaging is that it is our advertising on shelf and at a mass level it is something that people need to be able to access quickly and what have you. I always try approach everything as a brand new creative experience, you know? Even if it is something as seeminly minor as buying a blister at Target, you try to still evoke somethings that I personally as a fan would like to see, and also incorporating a little bit of the science behind packaging like branding and being consistant, owning a color on shelf. All of those things come into play and are always on my mind. I have gotten to a point with our lines and licensors that I have sort of proven myself with the years I have been with the company and they have allowed me a little bit of creative free range to try different things.

F: You mean DC/Warners?

FV: Yeah, yeah. I get to play with some things and I really appreiciate that I can get that kind of thing from them. I am very protective of the properties as well, as much as they are to a large extent so I want to represents everybody’s interests as best as I can. I can be a bit of a tightrope walk though, you know. Like Bill [Benecke], he creates the toys and he has a very similar caveat – does it feel like Batman? Does it look like Batman? Is it the coolest version of Batman? Those are the kinds of things that go through my mind as well. But my main thing is: how can I enhance the toy via packaging? You know, if I had it my way, every package could be reusable.

SDCC Infinite Heroes Starro Packaging

F: I know you have done some of our favorite promotional and packing for some of the Con exclusives, but what are some of your favorite pieces that you have done?

FV: Wow, well – Starro is actually already pretty high on my list!

F: Well, even with something like Plastic Man though, even though he keeps the similar feel and shape of the standard DCUC packaging, the packaging IS Plastic Man. That’s-

FV: Yeah, that was just kind of one of those “pop-in” ideas that jumped in my head. It is the kind of thing that Plastic Man would do, you know? HE would turn into his toy packaging. I was thinking like, plastic blist, PVC type of thing, Plastic Man is goofy enough to be his own package. He’s a lot of fun.

Starro was just kind of this idea that if I were in a museum of comics, I could see something like this as a representation in a museum because the cover is so iconic. It is like Fantastic Four number one, those are the types of covers that would be preserved. So, I was just trying to get my mind into it, and then we decided to attach the Infinite Heroes line to it – it’s the perfect scale, it fits. I wanted to do it justice. Just like you said, if you were walking through the comics museum, this would be a cover that would be on a pedistal and you push a button to learn about it.

F: 300 years in the future, this is what the kids of long ago were captivated with.

FV: I presented the pitch to Warner Brothers and DC Comics and they were totally on board. I said the voice of this piece would have to be someone like James Earl Jones, someone with a strong, iconic voice. I was thinking like, CNN or nightly new or something.

F: Right.

FV: And then someone on the DC side just said, “Why not get Kevin Conroy, THE voice of Batman?”. I laughed and just asked if we could do such a thing (laughs). Then it was just “Yeah! Let’s do it!” So of course, I am back at the office talking about Kevin Conroy, Kevin Conroy! I remember the day that we got it all approved and I am sitting in my cube and he is piping in from New York as that is where he lives now, and I just got chills, you know? It is hard not to get into fanboy mode at that point – “Hi, Kevin! Big Fan! Love your work!” (Imitating Conroy in deep tones): “Yeah, yeah, kid!” (laughs)

So then, it is funny, he is speaking the lines and I had to actually do a little voice directing – directing Kevin Conroy! Can we get a little rougher here? A little tilt here? It was so much fun. It is things like that, when you get the opportunity to meet guys like him and Geoff Johns or Marv Wolfman, it is just so cool, especially if you are also a fan.

F: So what about the DCUC packaging for this year? I have to say that, even though it is still similar in look and feel to the previous packaging, there is a lot more color and a lot more characters on the new one. Where you involved in the decision to switch it up a little for this year?

2010's "75 Years of Super Powers" DC Universe Classics Packaging

FV: Yes. Yeah, as a company, they wanted to make the 75th Anniversary of DC comics kind of a tentpole for us so the onus was on me to make that work with package. We wanted to do something that was very commemorative and sort of the “Alex Ross row of heroes” came to mind and I got the art from DC’s licensing group and put it together and created the “burst”. At this point I am kind of the king of bursts, they show up a lot. I can do them in my sleep at this point (laughs). I also did the design on the actual logo for the 75th too. Not a logo so much as a headline, I guess – it was the “75 Years of Super Powers” tag. I had to come up with the copy and font for that too. We didn’t want to just reuse the old Super Powers logo, as great as it is, we wanted something new and since a lot of the figures were going to actually be recreations of some of those old figures, I wanted to sort of harken to that.

F: So for something like DC Universe packaging, and I am sure it varies, but how long of a process is something like that for you creatively and physically? What is the approval process?

FV: Well, ideally to design a blistar card of this magnitude, it takes at least eight weeks solid. From beginning conception to the end, it’s a really intense and involved process because I do have to work with an engineer too. In this case Patrick Murray and I am very fortunate to have such a great support system at the office, guys like Patrick and Dave Lockner who actually worked on the Starro engineering. You know, I get to come up with all of these crazy ideas, but somebody has to actually do the science of it, you know? These are the guys that are the backbone of the packaging department.

F: So people are going to want to know – with the DC cardback, were there very specific choices made for the characters that appear on there because there are some on there… as soon as the new packaging debuted people started to speculate! There aren’t that many left on there that have not been shown now. Were there specific requests coming from anywhere for those?

FV: (laughs) Yeah, I will be honest, I did kind of look ahead and see that this guy and this guy and this will be coming soon so I will try to incorporate them. Most of them were from wave 13 though, I want to say, so yeah, a little. Obviously you have include Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman but for the others, I did go to the line sheets for a lot of them. Some of it was just contingent upon who I had art for. I did realize I was doing a bit of a preview and thought about going back and substituting some of them out at the year went on to preview some more, but I am just so busy, it didn’t work out. Plus, the way I build files, they are so layered and huge I kind of paint myself into a corner when I design something. I try to acheive and optimal effect and it takes a lot to build to that effect. My files tend to be sometimes upwards of 10 to 15 gigs.

F: Wow! So do you primarily use PhotoShop and Illustrator for your work?

FV: All the time, yep.

F: So with this year being specifically DC’s 75th, are you planning on making a change for next year?

FV: Um, right now I can definitely say it will be an evolution. It won’t be 75th, of course.

F: 76 years just doesn’t have the same ring to it.

FV: Right! So yeah, it will be different but, let me say that when you look from 2008 to 2011 you will certainly see a progression. I know a lot of MOC guys are going to want their line to never change and want the consistancy, but I think color scheme wise, the differences between this year and next will be subtle. Structually there will be some clear differences some things will get called out more, other things not so much. It is almost like a combining of elements from the 2008-2009 look and this year, and that is what 2011 will feel like I think.

*Thanks for reading Part I. Look for Part II coming soon where we continue with talk of Frank’s many lines and get into how to get into the MOC mindset.

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