The Four Horsemen
Nestled in the urban sprawl of the most unlikely place imaginable, the universe is being mastered by a quartet of toy sculptors. They are the Four Horsemen (to be confused with the same four of the apocalypse), and at their studio in New Jersey they have been quietly and respectfully trying to re-imagine a toy classic to make it contemporary, yet also pay homage to the spirit of the line that made it so great.
Raving Toy Maniac and Action-figure.com have teamed up to bring you a look at the people who are behind the re-vamping of Mattel's venerable Masters of the Universe line. This article (and its companion on action-figure.com) will give you a glimpse inside the studio, and a glimpse at the four men who are leading the charge.
While they consider their studio modest, you almost feel as if you are entering hallowed ground since not only is it where the new version of He-Man and company were re-born, but the building itself has an interesting history. As Eric Mayse (hereafter referred to as Cornboy) tells it, the building that they occupy was once a Civil War munitions building, and under it are secret tunnels that connect the complex together as well as some nearby areas. Chris Dahlberg, the only bachelor among the horsemen and a self-professed lover of beer, adds with a smile that there is a micro-brewery nearby. But it wasn't the secret tunnels or easy access to beer that made it the right place, but cheap rent! "We had to come here to look over some equipment we wanted to purchase, and once we saw the place and found out how inexpensive it would be to rent it just fell into place," explains Cornboy.
The outside door is unremarkable with a small 'Masters of the Universe' sticker on it, but once opened a wonderous world awaits. When we arrived, the smell of Taco Bell filled the studio as we ogled the fully painted prototypes in the foyer. It is 'Taco Bell Friday' and the men that punished ToyFare magazine in taco eating, are at it again. This time, there is no contest (which saves us all embarrassment) as we sit down to get acquainted.
Chris Dahlberg, Eric "Cornboy" Mayse, Jim Preziosi, Eric Treadaway
The most easily recognizable of the four is Eric Mayse (aka Cornboy), as he has the longest hair and is the largest of the four by far. Cornboy has his nickname from his Hoosier origins (since anyone who's been to Indiana knows they have plenty of corn). Since there are two Erics in the group, it's just easier to use Cornboy to avoid confusion.
Next up is the other Eric, Eric Treadaway. Eric started his career working for McFarlane Toys and was the first sculptor they employed. Eric is the youngest and the Master of the Horsemen's Universe when it comes to knowing the characters and every detail about them and their universe.
Chris Dahlberg is the resident bachelor and along with Eric does a lot of the sculpting work. Chris was very proud of the honor his home town bestowed upon him to sculpt a bust of President James Madison. As he puts it "the toys we make will be well known and be around for years, but this is almost like making history in being able to make something that will stand for decades or longer."
Jim Preziosi is the oldest of the bunch, and had a birthday coming up (though we won't say which one). Jim is renowned for his ability to basically inhale food at an amazing rate, and it was no surprise that he was done with his Taco Bell before we even got there. Jim also hates jury duty, so just hope you don’t have to go to court in northern New Jersey!
While the studio isn't much (their words, not ours) they all agree it's theirs and it's very much like home. So much like home that they've actually put in a few nights there when work was heavy and they were swamped. "The atmosphere got a little tense for while during our 18 hour days," they add. "So much so that some times we didn't even want to look at each other but just sit their and do our work alone since we were seeing far too much of each other."
Each member of the team has their own work area within the studio even though they all are all capable of any task needed save one – carpentry. When they moved in the studio was just a large empty room, but Jim quickly got the place into shape as the resident carpenter. "We helped where we could," the other three added. "Like if Jim needed a hammer or something held up, we were there!"
The studio is very functional, and as you step inside you are greeted with a large display of many of the new MOTU figures done as paint masters (but not the official paint masters used by Mattel, just the Four Horsemen's take on the characters). From there you move into a common area with a table, fridge and computer (a Mac for those curious) that is surrounded by legions of original MOTU figures as well as a collection of the Mattel re-issues that are mounted on shelves throughout the room. The walls are decorated with imagery from MOTU, including a large poster showing almost all the original characters from the original animated series. From there it leads into two joined offices for Eric and Chris and the Horsemen's mascot – Junior.
Junior - the Fifth Horseman
Across from the offices is a larger open area where most of the fabrication is done on prototypes after the initial sculpting is done. Jim and Cornboy work mostly in this area, which has a storage room that adjoins it and doubles as a place to paint the prototypes. Jim has the neatest work area of any of the group, while Cornboy's seems the most cluttered with statues (including a Mr. Fantastic that recently took a fall), plenty of toys and even a set of Mego Fantastic Four figures. On a shelf above Jim's desk are small plastic versions of the Four Horsemen as they were all made at McFarlane Toys when they worked there.
The quartet had previously worked at McFarlane Toys, but decided to strike out on their own. They ended up working for Mattel on a secret project – a re-launch of Mattel's venerable 'Masters of the Universe' (MOTU). As for how they got the project, it was serendipity. It seems that they were interested in doing a MOTU re-vamp and so was Mattel, and as if the planets were aligned perfectly they hammered out a deal and started working on the line. The project was so secret at first that they couldn't tell anyone what they were working on, and whenever anyone visited the studio they had to hide any of the figures they were working on, as well as any artwork to ensure no one was on to it until the official announcement at the San Diego Comic-Con in 2001.
They weren't just resting on their laurels while waiting to reveal the new line. They were very involved in working up designs and sculptures that were used to help win the 'Harry Potter' license for Mattel, and they also sculpted the deluxe figures (Fluffy, Hagrid and the troll) for the 'Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone' toy line. They didn't do the sculpting on the other figures from the line, just the deluxe figures.
Another view from inside the studio
Approaching a well-established (and well-known) line like MOTU was a little daunting at first. "We were very respectful of the original line," explains Cornboy, "and our first concern was trying to make sure we could re-design the line without changing everything." Their studio is filled with nearly every figure from the original line for inspiration and reference, and this was the blueprint for what was to come.
Working for Mattel gave them more creative freedom in many ways that they had previously, and their bosses in California turned out to be very laid back and agreeable. In initial meeting with Mattel you would have easily figured the Horsemen for the 'suits' because they were dressed formally compared with the casual wear donned by Mattel, and a great working relationship was forged.
After seeing the production pieces, they were satisfied that their vision was maintained through the production process. "The pantography on these figures is the best I've ever seen," says Cornboy. "They got every line of hair on Beast Man and did a fantastic job!"
|Prototypes are usually much bigger than the actual production pieces, and often twice the size, hence the term 2UP. The MOTU figures are actually around 14" tall and are translated via computer to the smaller size, in this case about 6", so molds can be made for mass production. This process is called pantography. While computer scanning can be used for this, it's usually cheaper to have it done by hand with a person running a stylus over the entire figure to get the coordinates into the computer.|
One thing they were unsure about was the application of purple flocking on the Panthor toy. "We sculpted detail into the body so we weren't sure if it was going to be covered up by the flocking, but it wasn't as we feared and the details came out pretty well even with the flocking." (Take a look at the unpainted prototype in our gallery that is linked from this article to get an idea of how he looks unflocked.)
Mattel has let them work independently for the most part, only offering up a few suggestions here and there based on testing. "He-Man's head made some changes along the way, mostly his hair. Teela got a little older and enhanced her bust a bit at Mattel's request, even though we tend to prefer the initial version we sculpted. It's been minor changes mostly, and nothing major at all."
The Four Horsemen wanted to keep as much articulation from the initial work as possible, but concerns over durability and play value drove a change to lesser articulation for many of the figures from their initial designs. "These are designed for collectors, but the primary audience will be kids and so they have to be able to last under heavy play. If the line is popular there is always the chance that there could be collector versions of these with the articulation restored, but it will depend on how well the line is received."
They also want to try and make as many characters as possible from the original line, even though new characters will be mixed in as the line progresses. "There will be some variants of He-Man and Skeletor since they are the major characters of the show, but we are really committed to making as many characters as we possibly can. If the line does well, we should have a chance to keep working on more and more characters."
Another view from inside the studio
It almost sounds like they are worried that the line won't succeed, but it does pick at the back of their minds. "We really want to do right by the fans and also by Mattel who gave us this opportunity to work on this line, and to justify their faith in us. We would love to have just half the success that the original line had, but the better the line does the longer it will be able to continue and grow."
When initial fan response to some of the early work came in and was negative, it hit the foursome hard – especially Chris who did some of the sculpting. "I just wanted to curl up and die. I went out for a run and I think I ended up running about 5 miles before I was done. I don't think I can do that again!" They knew they were okay after the San Diego Comicon. Seeing the lines for the He-Man statue and watching it sell it, they knew that things were okay and Chris wouldn’t have to do any more running!
One big change going from McFarlane to Mattel was that now the Horsemen were designing toys primarily for children, rather than collectors. This was a very welcome change for all four men. "It is so nice to be working on toys for kids. It's great being able to know that these will be played with and that they can be friendlier and less scary. It's nice to not have to worry about having nightmares about the stuff you are sculpting and how bloody it is or doing any more decapitated heads!"
Other people designed the Castle Greyskull and the various vehicles in the line, though the Four Horsemen would have liked to work on them. The reason they couldn't was that there just wasn't time to do that work in addition to the various figures they were making, so outside help was brought in. They had a variety of prototypes in various stages, and fans should find some favorites among their number when they are publicly revealed.
After over two years of working on MOTU you might think they were getting tired of it, but that isn't the case. Their enthusiasm is high and they are all still excited to be working on the line and looking forward to what they'll be doing in the future. You can see their dedication and care in figures like Mer-Man, where they made a conscious effort to make the figure look like the original was supposed to appear on the back of the old cardbacks.
If you haven't realized it yet, these guys love toys – not just making them but having them. The first thing they asked us when we arrived was to tell us about the cool stuff shown at Toy Fair, and as we made our rounds during the show we saw them laden with freebies they had collected from Plan B Toys and Mage Knight. They saw Plan B because they really liked the Street Fighter figures and wanted to meet the sculptors, and tried to get a set of the Four Horsemen from Mage Knight (to no avail). They were also very hyped about both the Muppets from Palisades and the Lord of the Rings figures from Toy Biz.
As they slowly filtered out as the day drew on, we were eventually left alone in the studio with Cornboy. Thoughts of jumping him and grabbing all the prototypes filled our heads, but we were able to hold back. As he shows us the wall of prototypes for picture taking, he was messing with the Battle Cat and part of the prototype came apart as we watched in horror. He just shrugged and said "I'll fix it later" without a second thought. Later as he checked the RTM Buzz, he spilled some water on himself, which made it seem as though his fix-it skills were more a necessity than something he picked up otherwise!
We headed out to take Adrian and Pob to JFK in New York as we said our goodbyes and followed Cornboy out to the interstate. Our trip inside the inner sanctum of the Four Horsemen was a great experience and all four were very giving of their time and we appreciate it very much. They are all fans at heart and it is very clear that they are doing what they want, and what they do best. It would be hard to imagine the future of MOTU being in any better hands. Our sincere thanks to Jim, Eric, Chris and Cornboy and we'll all be looking forward to the great toys you four are designing.
This article was written in March 2002, after a visit to the Four Horsemen in their studio in February 2002. The photograph of the Four Horsemen is courtesy of and copyright the Four Horsemen. Used with permission.