Growing up, I’m sure many of us lived and breathed Legos, building blocks and the various dream houses in the Barbie line-up. Sure, they’re toys, but they probably were a catalyst (subconscious, maybe) to get us into the industry we’re in now. So while we deal with actual buildings/materials, there are creatives out there who have never grown up. John Lasseter, and Jorge R. Gutierrez come to mind, but I recently spoke with an individual who is still pretty much a kid playing with toys.
Brock Otterbacher is one of the Creative Directors at Mondo (the collectible art boutique arm of Alamo Drafthouse Cinema). A professional child, he is in the business of making collectibles, statues, and various scale figures. While a statue is a completely different product from a hotel, the creative hurdles that Brock and those of us at Wilson Associate [in the design field] face are more similar than you realize. Diehard, or casually geeky designers may have tiny versions of Wright’s “Falling Water” or Bauhaus furniture on their desks, and if you like that kind of thing, Brock is one of the people who deals with similarly designed replicas and high-end collectibles for pop-culture properties.
He puts his energy (months, sometimes years) into any one product, or other particular project and the effort more than shows for it when a customer unboxes anything with the Mondo label. I’ve gotten to know him over the years, and while he remains a man of mystery on purpose, Brock did let us into his laboratory to talk about his day-to-day. As you’d expect, like interior design, there is no typical day, and his profession is anything but 9-to-5.
Q. Brock, tell us about your background and what you did prior to Mondo?
I used to work for a company called Sideshow Collectibles for about 10 years. Their product runs the gamut of everything you could want as far as high end pop-culture collectibles. The figures they and Mondo develop deal with vinyl, plastics, cloth, etc. Before that, I dealt a lot with licensing, and had an aptitude for it. I would be the liaison between the studio or rights holder and my company, and I would get rights to certain characters, be it Star Wars, Marvel, cartoons, etc. and manage those relationships.
I originally came on as a production assistant and did some of the busy work, but I also worked on the photography of the products. From there, I began to work on special projects which helped cut my teeth in terms of production and give me some experience for what I do today. I was always interested in that from a young age, and you could say I’ve stayed interested beyond that age. [laughs]
When I joined, I was the 25th employee, and now I think they have more than quadrupled their size. That’s pretty good for a toy company that doesn’t mass market their products. In the growing stages, I learned a lot, and there’s no better education than just doing stuff – adapt, learn and move on to the next assignment.
Q. What happened after you left?
Well, I’m in L.A. and you try to do what everyone else does which is make movies. I did that for a couple years, and we were spending more on our productions than we were actually making. These were short films, so we weren’t losing lots of money. But it’s something I still do and it’s become a hobby. But during that time, around 2013, I got a call from the former creative director Justin Ismael at Mondo. At Sideshow, we had partnered with them to release some posters, because we had some licenses they couldn’t get at the time. But they called me and wanted to start a toy line, so it was a pretty seamless transition. At first, however, it was just a consulting position, so I could keep to what I was already doing. But then consulting turned into doing, and it became a full-time gig. When Justin left, I stepped in and I have to say it was all a matter of coincidences.
Q. Mondo is a small outfit, and you’re used to wearing a lot of hats. What skills did you bring with you and what new ones did you acquire afterwards?
At this point I am more focused on the creative side of things, and we have someone who focuses on licensing. So my focus has been on crafting and perfecting the products we are developing. Part of that comes from us having an understanding of what’s happening in the industry based on what I was seeing and what I wasn’t seeing. Part of product design is determining what the best, or right product is before you even get started. Sideshow was a great training ground for me because it taught me a lot about business in general. We did some really cool things, and for me it was like a college where I learned so much of what’s helping me today.
Q. As “creative director”, what are your roles, who do you interact with, and how do you direct design?
My role is establishing what creative direction we want to go and what I would like to see our company pursue, toy-wise. That could be categories/properties that haven’t been done, or those that have, we try to find new ways of presenting them. That’s the role in a macro sense. When we look at the micro portion of it, I’m the one that hires the artist(s) and works with them, I deal with China, and you see things from A to Z from a product perspective.
I also write all the marketing materials, I block out production and shipping after talking with the factories, I handle customer outreach – news updates and progress videos – and deal with the more “business” side of it which is managing the sales expectations, and excel spreadsheets. Fun, I know, [laughs] but for me I get a good balance of the creative and the analytical responsibilities. I actually love the numbers side of it and seeing how we can tweak things to offer more features for the asking price, etc.
I can honestly say I’m never bored because every email I open is something new or different to do. I’ll look at projections for our properties for the current year or the next, or I could make sure that a character’s gun doesn’t look too much like a banana. It’s a wide range of responsibilities.
Q. What’s the process dealing with the studios, and rights holders, and who has final say in the approval process?
It’s creative, and as such, it’s all subjective. So you try to make your case with respect to the property or brand you’re working on, like “this is what we’re trying to do with it and how we’re trying to honor it as much as possible.” If they don’t agree with you, it’s not like they’re not wrong. Sometimes, you get in this position where you’re so close to it that you don’t see the obvious thing and you find yourself going, “wow they’re right, it does look like a banana.”
It’s a dance you have to do, but it’s not negative. It’s very collaborative to get things looking the best they can. And it comes back to the rights holder, and if you can have a candid conversation about your intent and what the goal is, it can make things so much easier in the long run.
Now internally, when you’re working with product, you’re working with several different kinds of artists. In the development of a product, you have the conceptual artist, a sculptor, mold and cast artist, a painter, etc. It’s funneling a lot of great talent and ideas into a single cohesive one. And that’s not even including the factory process, which is a whole other set of fun ideas and challenges.
Q. When we need to take money out of a project, or scale the scope back, we call it “value engineering”, or VE for short. Do you have anything like that, where you might have wanted to cast two characters in a piece, but have to downscale it to just one?
Yes, we have done that when dealing with a figure that has a bunch of accessories that come with it. We could have the idea that we want 20 accessories, but when we lay it all out, we’ll make the call and go, “you know, the extra effort to add more value to this piece is not going to be worth it because it’s not something any one is going to miss.” But sometimes we do the opposite and add things because it does add to the overall composition, like, “how did we forget that character’s pet cat? we totally need to put that in there!” I’m always chewing a project in my head.
We’re working on some Batman figures right now, and over the course of a year, we’ve really changed what we’re doing with them, in terms of marketing. We decided that by changing how we do this one thing, we think we could get it out to more people and appeal to them while still offering something special to those that want it, even if it’s at a higher than normal cost. It’s the difference between calling something the standard version, and the deluxe one. So, for us, the scaling goes both ways. Of course, we’re not dealing with floors in a building, so the change isn’t as significant as your line of work.
Q. Sometimes we can have a client who falls in love with the concept rendering from three years earlier. But when they walk through the property, they go, “why isn’t this like the rendering?” We have to remind them that, we were instructed to VE something, or the structure didn’t let us do exactly what we thought, or whatever the reason.
Yeah, it’s all malleable. And that’s always the case when you are working with a two-dimensional image, and then trying to develop it into this three-dimensional object. Adding that extra dimension can be absolute insanity at times. Sure you deal with it on a much, much larger scale, but I totally get it. People just can’t be married to a single design because something always changes when it’s translated. Ad-libbing, interpretation, and outright deviation come from working with so many people just to make the best product possible. And you always have to be sensitive to timeframes and costs in the life of a project.
Q. You offer many products that range from niche to mainstream, so how is the business decision made to pick one versus the other and hit everything in between?
You’re right, some things are super niche. Now as much as I would like to go that route, it’s not the market that we want to put all of our effort towards, simply because if it’s too niche or esoteric, it’s not going to sell. And if we keep doing it over and over again, you become a black hole of profit loss [laughs].
Our approach is this: If we’re going to do a popular character, what’s the way we can approach it so it’s both recognizable and unique? Our 1/6 scale Turtles figures are a good example of this because they are in a popular scale, but they are based on the original comic book characters – they have never been done in that scale, and in that style. That’s something I always wanted when I was younger and that was my motivation, marketing and sales opportunities aside.
Q. There are some companies who seem to have the cornered the market when it comes to particular products or properties. Take for instance NECA who have almost done every conceivable version of Alien and Predator characters. I know Mondo loves those characters as well, so what if you wanted a piece of that market share? How would you approach it?
It’s based on price point, and what kind of thing we want to produce. NECA does figures, awesome action figures at various scales. So if myself, or Mondo in general, or Sideshow Collectibles (who produce statues) want to compete, it will be in a different market. For me, if I want to do something with Alien or Predator, I go about it differently like what we teased at Comic-Con which is a line called “Mondoids” (which are kind of a mix of various gross-out toys from the ‘80s), or we do our Tiki mugs which we launched last year, etc. So it’s just a way to do it in a different format or is stylized so it takes on more uniqueness from other stuff out there.
Q. What is the coolest thing about your job, and what excites you? And if they can be separated, tell me a little about each.
On a really macro level, it’s thinking about the stuff I had when I was a kid, that I never thought I’d see, but I now get to have a hand in putting out there. To have been obsessed with something – having played with the toys on various trips, in various backyards, pools, you name it – and now making these things? That gives me immense pride. If that’s my legacy, I’ll take it. [laughs]
The other thing, and this may sound very cheeseball, but since I’ve spent so much time on these projects – from design development to production to marketing – you often loose sight of the character and get sick of working on something after looking at it for two years. But as soon as it lands, and I see product in people’s hands and they take pictures and post about it, it reminds me that, “yea, this is pretty cool!” And it’s why we do this in the first place.
Like with anything, you can get too close to something and get bored, but it just takes someone else’s perspective to get you out of it. It’s so much fun to live the product through them. They’ll pose it with their kids, their cat, whatever. They can be very praise happy, or very critical but I love it all; it’s because they have so much love for that particular character.
Q. Anything you wouldn’t do? Like a stylized political or religious figure already seen in something like Team America: World Police or Dogma?
We used to have a phrase at an old job – “high-end for low brow.” Something could be a funny movie, but can you take that laughter and translate that into a product for $200? That’s what’d I’d ask myself right off the bat, and the usual answer would be, “No, probably not.”
Back in the day, before I started at Sideshow, they were doing Spinal Tap and Monty Python and the Holy Grail figures, and those did well at the time, but could we do that same thing today? I don’t know. I just don’t think so. I would love to see someone do some smaller figures for something like Team America. I think it could be really fun. My gut tells me, however, that there isn’t any market appeal for large scale figures or marionettes.
Q. I read an interesting article which posited that the Star Wars prequels are now cool. It was based on how the audience who grew up with them is now looking for products like Mondo has offered catering to kids of the ‘80s. Does that factor into your process when deciding on a product to produce?
Back in the ‘90s, when I had toys, I never thought I’d see toys of the things I watched, like Aliens or Predator. Then Kenner did it, and while they weren’t always the best translations from screen to figure, they still gave you something tangible to have that related to something you watched religiously. You and I are in that place now where we are getting spoiled by “grown up” versions of all the cool things from when we were kids. We never expected to hold a Big Trouble in Little China figure in our hands, but here we are. It just didn’t seem possible, and that extends to posters, or vinyl records, etc.
I think that there’s always a new way to do something, but it’s interesting to see that the generation you’re referring to is starting to come to place where they want new product based on things they grew up with. And who are we to decide what that is or isn’t? If there’s demand, someone, whether it’s Mondo or another company, will fill that void.
Q. Any properties specifically come to mind?
It’s interesting to think about what those things could be. Let’s look at The Matrix, for instance. That’s an immensely popular film and property that, almost 20 years later, still holds up. That was such a huge phenomenon that it influenced everything like movies, TV, commercials, and special effects. So where’s the product? We haven’t seen much new product. Where’s Buffy? We haven’t seen that come back that much. Maybe neither will ever come back, but what will?
It’s fun to think about what will be influential to younger generations, pop culture-wise, just as stuff like Gremlins, Ghostbusters, whatever, was to us. And that’s the fun thing about culture, pop or otherwise – it’s always evolving. And it’s fun to evolve in tandem. You’ll not only stay relevant, but you’ll probably learn a thing or two. Not to mention it’s good for business. Ultimately, one can only be a tastemaker as long as people are excited about eating at your spot. At some point, you may need to mix up the menu…or stop serving food.