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Rick Van Velsor – Big Bang Toys

Welcome to another installment of Impartial Interrogations, the official Fwooshnet interviews of industry veterans by aspiring professionals. This issue, Jason_in_NC interviews Rick Van Velsor of Big Bang Toys. Rick has done work for such companies as Toy Biz, Hasbro, and McFarlane, to name a few.

Name: Rick Van Velsor
Company: Big Bang I.D Inc.
Location: New Jersey
Education: B.A Communications University of South Florida; M.A Industrial Design PRATT Institute

Jason: How did you first get into the toy industry? What was your first job?

Rick: Getting into the toy industry was a fluke. I was running the Special Events Department at Marvel Entertainment when the Marketing Department asked if I could help them devise an endcap for the Toys ‘R’ Us store displays. Fortunately I kept clay in my desk, because I can’t draw to save my life. I sculpted a clay rough of Spiderman hanging on a wall (about 5 inches tall), and 25 minutes later walked into the meeting with Toys ‘R’ Us, and sold them on an idea. After the T.R.U. rep left, our Marketing Director turned to me and said "You can make this?" My life-sized Spiderman figures-on-a-brick-wall went on to decorate the action figure aisle endcaps at the T.R.U. stores. Not so much a toy, but one of my favorite characters.

Jason: How many companies did you work for or start before Big Bang?

Rick: I have had many different jobs in various industries, but, the real creative stuff didn’t start till I started working in Special Events at Marvel Entertainment. Marvel was such a great place to work that it took them declaring bankruptcy before I gave my notice. To this day most of my toy business connections trace back to Marvel and its sister company, Toy Biz. My Special Events work put me in regular contact with the Toy Biz folks, so I left Marvel with the contacts to set up shop in Hoboken NJ, starting out with mostly prop work and Marquettes of comic book characters. This led to freelancing on a couple of projects with another Marvel contact, Digger at the Art Asylum. Art Asylum was a great place packed with talented people. Another Marvel contact, Jim Krueger, was writing the Earth X series and I had sculpted one of the characters (the Hulk) for him as a gift. Jim told me Toy Biz might be doing Earth X as a line. So I made a call over to Toy Biz and met with Joanne McLaughlin. Joanne, I am grateful to say, gave me my start in making toys full time. Even though we had known each other and worked together while I was at Marvel, the toy making enterprise didn’t click till I brought her the Hulk sculpt.

Things were picking up and I brought another sculptor, Eric Nocella, over to Hoboken from his freelance gig at Art Asylum. We started growing so fast that Eric and his wife moved to Hoboken and Fun Haus was born. Four years and countless toys later we closed Fun Haus, Eric to pursue other opportunities and I to create a more manageable design firm not just devoted to doing toys—thus Big Bang.

Jason: Of all the tasks you’ve performed, which would you say you enjoyed the most?

Rick: Making the Beatles Yellow Submarine collection for McFarlane Toys. The Beatles were a huge part of my childhood and it was a joy to be involved with that project for both series one and two.

Jason: How did you learn to sculpt, mold, and cast? Who are your greatest influences?

Rick: I didn’t study sculpting in school, it was just something I could do! I thought everyone could do it, probably why I had such a late start in the industry. I took Karl Palermo’s mask and mold making class at the Special Effects Workshop in Manhattan; this was key to learning about materials, casting and molding. Once I started working in wax I knew it would become my medium of choice. Wax gives the best details. Some shops use Castaline, a clay/wax hybrid, but I have no patience for that unless I am making something over 15 inches tall.

Jason: What are the major steps in getting a toy from concept to the pegs?

Rick: Great communication with the manager on the project
GREAT control art
Great sculptor
Great castings
Great painter
Finding somebody else to pay the FedEx bill

Jason: From concept to final product, what is a reasonable turnaround time?

Rick: Hoboken to Hong Kong? Six to eight months.

Jason: Do heavily articulated figures cost much more to produce than less articulated figures?

Rick: Yes, because they require more of everything: more time to sculpt and prepare, more parts, more molds, and more labor to assemble and paint.

: What is a normal minimum run required to produce a figure? Is there a production minimum for each figure? Thinking specifically of lines that may have short-packed or chase figures.

Rick: Breaking even on a project means paying back your investment for a minimum order. Of course it’s always nice to turn a profit. Depending on what you’re doing and your relationship with the factory (you have to make it worth their while), minimums could be as low as 5K pieces. You’re not in this to give it away so you usually add chase figures into the big picture equation for an entire line. Chase figures are more of a marketing scheme to get you to buy more toys – but you already knew that, right?

: What is the most difficult aspect of bringing a product to market?

Rick: Because I find tedium difficult to handle, I’d have to say the tedious process of getting everyone paid and keeping the line moving. This includes grinding attention to detail: making toys incurs a big overhead for everyone involved and you cannot take any piece of it for granted. It’s similarly important to be a great juggler and also a great tumbler in that you roll with whatever comes your way. It is fun, but it is definitely work.

: Many times, us armchair toy makers discuss how a figure may be re-used for a new character. Are the necessary changes to the sculpt made in the tool itself or is the original sculpt re-cast in a sculpting medium and re-worked from that point? Is there some combination or process that we’re not aware of?

Rick: Somebody is RE-USING old figures? Modifying them and selling them off as new figures? Who would do such a thing? Blasphemy!

: How essential are computers in the toy industry today?

Rick: Computers are the future of toys and just about every industry. Sculptors still give a toy its soul, but the computer has made incredible inroads in its ability to create as well as, and sometimes better than, the human hand.

: For techy types, are there specific programs or fields of study that they should consider when looking at a career in the industry?

Rick: I would suggest you have great skills on the computer. Take any and all 3D graphics classes you can. CAD, RHINO, Solid Works, Mya, Photoshop and Illustrator are a must. If you want to earn a degree, focus on Industrial Design at various schools across the country. I.D. provides many of the courses you would need to develop your talents as a creator, inventor, or product designer.

: What are some of your favorite lines out there today?

Rick: I don’t have a favorite toy line although I do like everything done over at SideShow, talented folks.

Jason: What toy line would you like the opportunity to work on (either one that has or hasn’t been made)?

Rick: I find enjoyment in every project I have ever done. The great thing about the industry is, at least in my world, that I work 2 or 3 weeks on a job then switch gear to a new one. It never gets boring because it is always changing. I do like to do the more animated types of toys, smooth surfaces, Warner Brothers, and Disney-type things.

Jason: What do you see on the horizon for the toy industry?

Rick: Crash and burn. It is getting harder for companies to manufacture and sell toys at a profit to the large box stores. The stores want to keep the prices super low, good for the buyer (short term) but if the manufacturer can’t turn a profit this will start to affect the look and quality of future product. Already you see many of the same toys year after year, especially action figures, because the costs for making new stuff is risky even for a large company. Everything is getting more expensive to make, even in China. PVC, the main element of action figures, is a petroleum-based product–need I say more? Necessity is the mother of invention, however, and the inventiveness of artists and creatives will always help get the industry back on track.

Jason: Mary Ann or Ginger?

Rick: Um, Mrs. Howell. She could bankroll many a toy project!

A big thanks to Rick for taking the time to help us out with the interview. He’s a man so dedicated to his work that he’d choose Mrs. Howell. *shudder* Wink

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