DINOSAURS DO NOT HAVE FEATHERS!
That was my totally mature/reasonable response to learning that the creatures I’d been obsessed with since childhood didn’t match my firmly established mental image of them. Everything I’d ever known, from my pre-school picture books to Jurassic Park, was apparently wrong. According to a flurry of scientific studies and discoveries, virtually all species of dinosaurs were feathered.
It didn’t make sense. How could the ancient lizard monsters of my imagination–the ones science and pop culture repeatedly told me existed on this same earth–have been big, flightless birds? Did they actually share a stronger genetic connection with the pigeon that crapped on my car this morning than the leopard gecko living in my garage?
True or not, I couldn’t accept it. I wouldn’t accept it. If large portions of our elected government can pretend that global warming is a myth, then I could deny this science as well–at least in my own mind. I would remember dinosaurs the way I wanted to, scientific accuracy be damned. At least I’d always have my Dino Rider toys.
While I threw this little anti-intellectual temper tantrum, toy designer David Silva was hard at work on a dinosaur project of his own. Although I didn’t know Silva at the time, his handiwork for NECA and Hasbro has been proudly displayed throughout my home and office for years.
This time, however, he was working independently through his own studio, Creative Beasts. On April 28, the campaign for Beasts of the Mesozoic–a line of highly detailed, scientifically accurate, and affordable velociraptor action figures–launched on Kickstarter. The response was incredible. $34,000 was raised in the first twelve hours. When the campaign concluded a month later, over $350,000 had been spent by rapid dinosaur fans, all of them eager and excited to FINALLY have a line of dino toys they could be excited about…
…except for me, of course. Oh, I’d heard the rave reviews, but my continued stubbornness over feathered dinosaurs (and a severe lack of shelf space) would not permit me to even consider purchasing them.
Later that summer, after I finished a major space creating renovation in my office, I forced myself to gaze upon Silva’s finished creations. It quickly became apparent that I had made a horrible, horrible mistake.
These toys weren’t just awesome. They were a revelation. The sculpting, detail, and painting were unlike anything I’d ever seen on a dinosaur toy before.
And then there were the feathers, the one feature that I had doggedly refused to accept as anything other than a deal breaker. Not only had I completely misjudged how badass dinosaurs could look with them, but they were absolutely stunning.
I now had a whole shelf reserved for cool dinosaur toys, which Silva had dutifully created and I had stupidly ignored.
Me (left), reality (right)
Thankfully, Silva decided to extend the Kickstarter via BackerKit until October 7. After repeatedly throwing my credit card against my laptop’s screen, I eventually calmed down enough to place an order for my very own set of ferocious feathery creatures.
Still basking in the glow of my new enlightened mind (and soon-to-be significantly more awesome toy collection), I reached out to David Silva to pick his brain a bit about making some of the best action figures in the business–and how the dino toy line that blew my mind came to be.
These amazing toys can still be ordered until November 7. If you don’t have any yet, go to Beasts of the Mesozoic’s pre-order page and get yourself one or ten…after you finish reading our interview with the toys’ creator, of course.
AiPT: I read that you started out wanting to do sequential art. What inspired you to shift your focus more toward concept and design?
Silva: About three years into the Sequential Art program at Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD)-around 2002–I had the fortunate opportunity to take a class called ‘Conceptual Illustration’. Its focus was on creating worlds, characters, and stories. With that class, I realized that creating the actual concept designs was much more appealing to me than telling a full story through images.
By this point, I had also become a big fan of McFarlane Toys and the Transformers of that time, so the toy influence was there, as well. Between those two influences, I decided to gear my portfolio towards conceptual design for toys even though there were no actual classes for it.
AiPT: Do you ever feel the urge to do sequential work again, maybe on an Alien or Godzilla miniseries? (please say yes).
Silva: The only way I would ever be tempted to put down the sculpting tools for a comic project would be if it were of my own creation, so I’m afraid I wouldn’t have much interest in working on anything licensed (sorry). I actually do have several stories that I would still like to flesh out and possibly draw at some point.
AiPT: Do you enjoy drawing and designing humanoid characters as much as creatures?
Silva: I would say I enjoy designing strong fantasy/sci-fi female characters about as much as I enjoy designing creatures. But I mainly end up designing and sculpting the creatures.
AiPT: What is your typical workday like?
Silva: A lot of sitting around and talking about movies and toys while we work. We have a small group at NECA, so it’s very laid back. The conversations and antics keep things interesting while I push the clay around. And if it gets too quiet, there’s always YouTube and Netflix.
AiPT: Along those same lines, how is your time divided between design, sculpting, painting, and tooling?
Silva: At NECA, since much of our product is based on established materials, there’s often no need for me to design. But in the past few years I have had more and more opportunities as we do more conceptual projects–such as the ‘Kenner’ Predators.
In some cases, I’ll do control drawings for 3D modeled figures–like the Pacific Rim Jaegers— where I’ll need to design the articulation. I’d say about 95% of the time though, I am sculpting. I’ve only painted a couple of figures in a pinch (Lava Planet Predator and Pacific Rim Hardship), and the tooling is all done in China at the factories.
AiPT: When you begin designing a figure, is it completely based off a concept in your head, or does the engineering/articulation side inform your work, as well?
Silva: If it’s an original concept such as a Kenner-style Predator, then it’s more about the overall look and what existing parts can be reused. If it’s something that is already designed, such as a Jaeger, then my job is to illustrate where the articulation goes and show a parts diagram of what’s needed for that figure.
AiPT: Creating highly articulated and detailed toys seems like an activity that taxes both the left and right sides of the brain. I might not be asking this as well as I could, but are their points in the process where you need to “switch” from looking at things artistically to more of a math/engineering point of view?
Silva: Not consciously. I find that switching between artistic designing and functional designing is usually intuitive. I think this a key aspect of creating action figures in general.
AiPT: Do you start figures with specific articulation goals in mind, or do they happen as the figure takes shape?
Silva: Each figure is unique in its own way. Many times, the level of articulation will depend on the design of the character. We try to improve upon the previous figure with each new sculpt.
AiPT: How much do figures usually vary from what you envision to what gets created?
Silva: Since the most of the character designs are set before we begin, there isn’t much deviation in that case. But with the more conceptual figures, the final prototype always far exceeds the original design art in my opinion.
AiPT: When you work on a licensed property (like your kick ass figures for Pacific Rim, Aliens, Predator, etc.), does having an established visual template help or hamper your process?
Silva: Neither actually. We can create great figures from established designs, or we can create great figures from designs of our own. Both offer interesting challenges and are full of potential.
AiPT: Do unfilmed ‘concept figures’ allow you more creative freedom, or are they also tightly controlled by the studios that own the franchise?
Axehead from the Pacific Rim line. Tresspasser’s unfilmed, slightly cooler-looking brother.
Silva: Well, concept or not, the studios aren’t usually a problem as far as accuracy goes. But we are very hard on ourselves to be as accurate to the source material as possible, which is often times more than enough to satisfy the studios (and hopefully the fans.)
AiPT: Recently, Hasbro has begun to drastically cut the articulation in their 4″ scale figures across multiple lines. Do you see this as a general (and unfortunate) trend in the toy industry?
Silva: Not really. It seems to be targeted at children and for collectors, serving as an ‘homage’ to the old vintage days (a.k.a. it’s cheaper). However, if you look at the vast majority of collector orientated toy lines these days–Star Wars Black series, Marvel Legends, Figurarts, Play Arts Kai, and of course NECA–the trend is very strong towards MORE articulation, not less.
AiPT: I’ve seen some folks argue that toy collecting doesn’t have much of a future due to all the other ways for kids to interact with franchises now (video games in particular). Do you think the generations coming up behind us will prove them wrong?
Silva: I can see the reasoning behind that, but I think kids will always want something tangible, even if it’s a character from one of their favorite video games or cartoons. They may have smaller collections than my generation had, but I’d be surprised to see toys become completely irrelevant with children (and us adult collectors will be there to pick up the slack).
AiPT: What is one franchise you’ve never gotten to create figures for that you desperately want to some day?
Silva: ‘Desperately’ may be a strong word. Predator and Pacific Rim are top-tier for me and that’s been more than satisfied. But a few lines that I would love to do some work on would be Transformers (original designs or 3rd party), Starship Troopers (bugs only), Gladiator (I need at least two versions of Maximus), and I’m not really a western guy, but I’d love to get some good Tombstone figures.
I also would love to see the Dino Riders make a come back, and now that Mattel will also have rights to that and Jurassic Park, I think there’s a good chance we’ll see that happen. Personally though, after having worked a bit on the Jurassic Park line for Hasbro, the idea of being a part of Mattel’s Dino Riders holds very little appeal to me. I would only be interested if I could have creative control. If you think about it though, no one really owns a copyright on ‘sci-fi dinosaurs with lasers’. Anyone capable could put something like that out there if they wanted to.
AiPT: Speaking of dinosaurs, lets delve into what inspired you to make Beasts of the Mesozoic.
Growing up, were you one of those kid dinosaur fanatics (like me) who could name every sub species and what era they came from?
Silva: I wish I could say yes, but I pretty much knew the main ones and that’s it. I was more interested in their appearance than their history when I was kid. I would draw them all the time and had plenty of the toys. I especially miss my Dino Riders…
AiPT: What was your initial reaction to the revelation that dinosaurs had feathers?
Silva: ‘WHA!!’ Like many, it took me a while to wrap my brain around that one thanks to Jurassic Park. I guess I gradually came to terms with it by assuming the scales just morphed into feathers somehow (which I no longer believe). We all cope in different ways, but I’m okay now.
AiPT: Why did you decide to do this line on your own via Kickstarter?
Silva: The idea of highly detailed, accurate, and articulated dinosaur toys has come up on several occasions during my time in the toy industry and I was involved each time at different stages of development. At some point, the idea or project would be abandoned with little explanation in each instance. It became apparent that if it was going to be done, I’d have to find a way to do it myself. I’m glad it turned out this way though because now I can make it exactly what I want it to be unhindered by the preferences and limitations of others.
AiPT: Why do you think we’ve gone so long without a high quality line of dinosaur toys? Seems like a no-brainer, especially with the lack of a licensing fee.
Silva: I can’t say for sure, but my guess is that the dinosaur toy sales remained steady enough that the companies didn’t see the need to change the formula much. The rest of the action figure industry is much more competitive which forces companies to innovate to survive. Dinosaur toys have had a safe little niche that is rarely challenged. Kenner did it with Jurassic Park in the 90’s. About ten years later you had Resaurus putting out some great dinosaur figures, as well. But the ambitious ones have been very few and far between. I’m hoping that what I’m doing now will somehow inspire other companies to push to come up with better dinosaur toys.
AiPT: How much research was involved in creating Beasts of the Mesozoic compared to one of your usual projects?
Silva: With any project based on prehistoric subject matter, there is a fair amount of research and great attention to detail with recreating these beasts. While other projects are usually based on photos of an actual subject (like a movie prop or a person), dinosaurs require much more research and creative problem solving since we really don’t know what they looked like. Using current reference from books and on-line resources is a necessity. Skeletal reference is the foundation and a good understanding of comparative anatomy is essential to building up from that skeleton.
For the parts we don’t know about such as color and surface details, the creative process takes over, however there are usually some clues for that as well. It’s like designing a fantasy creature, except you have an outline to work with.
AiPT: Besides their inherent awesomeness, what made you go with velociraptors for Beasts of the Mesozoic’s first wave?
Silva: For some reason, even before Beasts of the Mesozoic, I’d sculpted dromaeosaurs–or raptors– more often than any other dinosaur. I seem to be drawn to them; combined with the fact that everyone has at least heard of a Velociraptor thanks to Jurassic Park. Because of this, the concept becomes very intriguing and accessible even for your most casual dinosaur fan. Plus, once I learned of how many species I could do for a series, there was no debate. It had to be raptors.
AiPT: Did the massive response to the project surprise you?
Silva: Yes it did. I thought I had a good shot at getting three figures funded, but never would I have guessed that it would get as big as it did. It’s insane–and this is only the first series! I’m still playing catch-up sculpting new products. The success of this project is a statement to other toy companies that the fans are ready for a higher standard of dinosaur toys.
AiPT: Did the first wave of sell well enough to warrant a Ceratopsian Wave 2? (Please say yes).
Silva: Absolutely. I will begin developing Ceratopsians once all of the raptor work is completed. I expect to spend pretty much all of next year planning and making product for that series. I’ll have a lot more prototypes ready for the Ceratopsian series Kickstarter. I will be much better prepared next time.
AiPT: How long does it take you to complete and package one figure from the line?
Silva: Well that will all be done in China- not sure what the general turnaround is on something like that but they can usually work pretty quick once everything gets approved.
AiPT: Have other companies (including NECA) taken notice of the response to Beasts of the Mesozoic? Any chance they’d pitch in for production/distribution next time around?
Silva: Not that I’m aware of. Most toy companies that don’t typically make dinosaur toys won’t be very open to the idea in my experience. They have their specialties and core audience– an addition like that would mean changing their market strategy. And I love NECA, but I’m happy to raise the money to fit the bill on my own expenses. They have enough to deal with.
AiPT: Which of the velociraptors was your favorite to create?
Silva: Technically there are only two Velociraptors- Velociraptor mongoliensis and Velociraptor osmolskae. But if you mean all of the ‘raptors’ in general, it would be still be the first one, Velociraptor mongoliensis, because that what kicked all of this off.
“That’s me! WHAT WHAT!”
AiPT: Last question…and maybe the most important one: How many velociraptors would it take to defeat one xenomorph warrior?
Silva: Hmm. They weren’t very big and also not immune to acid (as far as we know), so I would say…a lot. They’d probably go for the knees though.
Bring it on, you slimy two-mouthed punks!
Thank you to David Silva for taking a break from making our dreams come true to give us an inside look at how the toy making magic happens.
If you were like me missed out on the initial Kickstarter, you’ve still got time to make amends. Go to the Beasts of the Mesozoic preorder page and order up your our own raptor army. The cutoff date for all sales is November 7, so run like your feathers are on fire and make it happen.
Plenty of amazing options…or just save yourself the trouble of choosing and buy them all.