Our author, Fernando Bueno, got the chance of lifetime, to sit down and interview Todd McFarlane:
Not everyone gets to live their dream and make a living of all things leisure-time like sports, comics, movies, and so on. One person has, however. Todd McFarlane, Spawn creator, founder of Image Comics and McFarlane toys, was kind enough to grant me an interview recently. We talked about his involvement in creating the Halo collectible action figures, his approach to work, and his view on video games.
Fernando Bueno: Thanks for taking time out of your busy schedule to speak with me, Todd.
Todd McFarlane: No problem.
FB: So tell us, how did you end up here?
TM: Well, I broke into the comic book industry out of college and sort of hit the ground running there. I worked my way up the ladder, working on some big characters like Batman, Spider-Man, and Hulk. From there I started my own comic company, Image Comics, at which point I pulled this comic character named Spawn out of my portfolio that I had since high school and made him sorta the flagship title of my studio. From there, I started to push Spawn up the mountain, if you will.
I decided that I needed to get into other things like TV, movies, toys, and video games. Sometimes I used other companies, and in the case of the toys, I couldn’t find any that would understand what I was trying to do artistically, so I started my own toy company. As time went by with the toy company, I decided that I couldn’t have all my eggs in one basket so I decided to make toys of other stuff. I mean, what happens if people don’t like Spawn after a while? So from there I was able to dive into doing all the sports figures, because, well, I’m a big sports geek. I went to college on a baseball scholarship, y’know. Anyhow, as we began growing the toy company, we started doing sports and comic book [characters], and [taking on] movie licenses, music licenses, and TV licenses. In fact, I think our first video game license might have been Metal Gear Solid 2 a few years ago. That did pretty well for us.
FB: McFarlane Toys has covered a lot of ground!
TM: To me it’s all pop culture. It’s moving the radar across the nation and trying to tap into that.
FB: It’s funny that you mention “pop culture” specifically, because you’ve been successful in nearly all fields of pop culture, from directing videos for major recording artists like Korn to the world of sports!
TM: We refer to it as “jack of all trades, master of none.” [chuckle] I’ve been able to dabble in a lot of different arenas and take a whack at art in the confines of those mediums given that they all have their different sets of rules.
FB: Music, TV, comics-how do you find time for everything?
TM: Yeah, a bunch of cool stuff! I’ve been fortunate enough to [try my hand at] those areas that people usually do after they’re done with work. Everybody has leisure time, right? I’ve just been fortunate enough to do those things during the working hours and not have to do them at the end of the day.
FB: So you’ve essentially made a living out of leisure time?
TM: That’s it! It’s not bad. I recommend it. [chuckles]
FB: You probably don’t have much time for games, do you?
TM: If I do, it’s usually with my kids. I admire [the games]. I [look] over the shoulders of all my [employees] who [play] here at the office after hours. I’m amazed at [their] dexterity. My eight-year-old boy plays them all-Call of Duty, Halo, and Guitar Hero. I grew up in that Pong and Ms. Pac-man era. You didn’t have to be quick with those sort of games, so I was never trained to be quick enough to play today where you can get killed nine times in one second. I’d play and say “Ah, look at that, one of the goblins is going to get me here eventually.”
I did play, [but] I got busy with my career. When I came back to [games] I thought, “Wow!” Things got fast and I haven’t figured out how to catch up. I’m good at Donkey Kong, though. I’m pretty good at getting bananas for my kids; other than that I’m not too good.
FB: As someone who got to see games grow, what are your thoughts on the industry?
TM: I come from a different vantage point. I don’t know if that’s a good thing or a bad thing. Sometimes I get a sense that people who hang around and know [the industry] are products of their environment, and I think that at times (and I’ve seen it), they get a little bit blind to the process. They have a tendency to repeat what they already know or has already been in front of them so many times. For a guy like me who doesn’t really know everything or have the understanding, I [approach things] a lot of times asking “How come you guys don’t do this?”
And the answer may be that it’s a deadline issue, which is valid; it’s a budgetary issue, which is valid; it’s a technological issue, which is valid. But every now and then you get a moment that is a pregnant pause and none of those is the answer. And it’s just that nobody does it differently. Those are the moments that I’m asking questions. And for every 25 I ask, there may be one where everybody is sitting there silent and there is no comeback other than “We just don’t do it that way. There’s no reason why we can’t do it that way. We just don’t do it that way.” And so I go, “Yeah!” Those are the moments for me, that I think, “Why don’t we do something a little bit different? Why do we do something the same way in every aspect the way previous games have been done?” I don’t get that. You don’t have to reinvent the wheel, but surely you want to polish it up a little bit, right? It’s like putting the flames and the mags on a car. All right, everybody is now driving the same car, but how do we just “dude-man” it up a little?
FB: Is that your approach for all of the things you do? From a new artistic vantage point?
TM: Well, it’s interesting because with the Halo figures there is a little bit less of that. I’m not saying I didn’t put my efforts in. There are times when you have more artistic freedom and there are times when you just say “We’ve got something that is already firing on all cylinders here.” I was less concerned, if you will, with reinventing anything for Halo than I was with being as true as possible to it. Which is why we asked them for the computer data. We [began] from there and literally output their own data. So that way there wasn’t any real interpretation about what the armor looked like, or the weapons, the vehicles… We cleaned up their [assets] and put them into toy form. We have to make some concessions when we’re [making] things into a toy.
Compared not necessarily with Halo but with almost everything I’ve done at McFarlane, I think the biggest thing we did was to make the first series of Halo [figures] heavily articulated and to make them more “toy-centric,” if you will? Instead of just [making] statues-though we do have a few of those coming out, I’ve got a few of those on my desk and they’re cool as heck-[making] these toys so that if you’re sitting at your desk and you’re on the telephone, you could manipulate them as you’re on the phone and put them in some really cool poses. It may not look like it in the package, but there’s something like 32 moving parts on them. They allow you to put them in some pretty neat-looking poses, with the guns up, and they look dynamic.
FB: What’s this about statuesque Halo figures?
TM: When we first met with Bungie, part of the comments they made was that they were enamored with the military figures we’ve done. They liked the authenticity of that and the poses they were in that were more like frozen moments. I told them that I’d eventually come out with that “army” version [of the figures] that asked “What if these guys were real? What would they look like?” With that, you have to do some interpretation because in the game, they’re just polygons and they’re built a certain way and they move a certain way. But it’s kind of like cheating the costume, because you don’t always see it as something practical, in terms of having to make that as real armor. So we now have a version coming out-our Legendary line, as we’re calling it-that will be out at the end of 2008, beginning of 2009. Some of the first will be Master Chief fighting the Flood, and one of the Arbiters, and a big, fat, cool Brute with a hammer. He’s the most plastic for your dollar; he’s going to be a heavy guy.
FB: So where the first Halo figures were more closely related to 3-D art renders from Bungie, this new Legendary series is more like adapted concept art?
TM: Yeah. Like if there was actually a movie out and you were to catch a frame of the movie, what would these guys look like? You know. We’re trying to make them truly alive, if you will. And again, there are limitations to that when you’re making articulated toys and when you’re doing video games. With this one we’re just trying to have fun and pretend they’re real guys.
FB: What about Halo Wars? Can we expect to see anything for the next game in the Halo franchise?
TM: Oh yeah. I went down to take a look at it and was really impressed with what I saw and the effort they’re putting into it. And not only that, but the visuals! I was expecting to see more of the same with some slight variation, but they’ve done some really cool stuff there. Even with the look of the Master Chief, who is their icon-they’ve messed with that a bit, too. We’re going to have some fun with that. To me, though, you could take Halo, Halo 2 and 3, or Halo Wars and strip away all those extra words. In the end it’s just Halo. Just like Star Wars, you have a brand name. I don’t want retail to get all caught up on what version it is.
FB: Have you been surprised at the reception that the McFarlane toys have gotten? A lot of them sell really well on the secondary market.
TM: Well, there’s always a supply and demand quotient. It’s sort of interesting from my end. We weigh the figures, we don’t [manufacture] them [in equal amounts]. With Halo, we sit there and think, “OK, which figures are people most likely to buy?” What ends up happening is that whoever we put third on the list instantly becomes one of those secondary market sellers. It doesn’t matter who it is. As popular as someone like Cortana is, she would’ve still been somebody we would have made less of because I’ve got my toys in a boys’ action figure aisle. So the female figures in boys’ aisles don’t necessarily sell well to the laymen even though they may be popular with Halo fans.
There is a balancing act of trying to put out enough for the collectors or the people who know about the game but not doing so much that you’ve got a lot left over. I’d always err on the side of having too little of that product, because I’ve been on the other side of that equation. Once you get past the people who want [Cortana] then you’ve got to ask who is left? The laymen. Not many kids are going to be walking by saying, “Hey, I can either get Iron Man, that cool robot Transformer, or…that girl.” [chuckle] And I know Dad isn’t saying “No, no, no. I don’t want G.I. Joe and the military guys. And I sure as heck don’t want those robots. And I don’t want those superheroes. I think my eight-year-old boy needs himself a girl doll.” [chuckle] They’re not going to take the girl doll home! Like I said, we’ve got a formula that says “Here’s the percentage we need of those kinds of figures.”
FB: As a prominent figure in the comic industry, what are your thoughts on the Halo comics?
TM: I know both of the guys that were producing it. They’ve gotten some good guys on it. In fact, the first series, the guys who worked on it used to do a book for me, then they moved over to Marvel, where they did a good run on Daredevil and now they’re working on the Halo series.
FB: What are your thoughts on the current comic book industry? I remember being able to walk down the street and find multiple comic shops. Now I’m lucky if I find one!
TM: Yeah. Unfortunately that is a by-product of the community sort of collapsing on itself a little bit in its heyday in the early ’90s. My personal opinion is that we took advantage of the consumer so the consumer eventually woke up to that and moved on. And so we lost a tremendous amount of our readership and with that we lost a tremendous amount of stores. It’s been probably 12-14 years since the heyday. People say that everything comes in cycles, but I don’t believe it. The sports card market did the same thing. They burned bright and [many collectors] walked away feeling like they had been burnt a little bit.
Because of that, and because I saw what was happening with the comic book market, I knew I had to take all of my eggs and take them out of comics and [diversify] into those other mediums that we talked about. Though I still work with comics today. In fact, I just finished inking a cover today.
FB: Well, as someone whose cubicle was once decorated solely with McFarlane toys and on behalf of the millions of cubicles around the world, I’d like to thank you.
TM: [laughs] Ah, God bless you! You know what, that’s cool. Because a lot of the time when I do interviews, I try to explain that just because you buy my products it doesn’t make you a toy-collecting geek. It may just mean that you like that brand, right? So if you play a lot of Halo and all of a sudden you’re walking down the aisles and you see something that catches your eye and say, “Hey, there’s the Master Chief!” And you buy it and put it next to your computer, well, it’s the equivalent of T-shirts and hats with logos on them. Somebody walks in with a Yankee hat, you say he either likes baseball or the Yankees because he has the hat on. If someone has Aerosmith across their shirt, it’s the same thing. It’s just branding! The clutter and stuff we have next to our computers and in our cubicles says a lot about a person.
FB: Agreed! Is there anything else you’d like to say before we go?
TM: Let me just say that working with Microsoft and Bungie has been tremendous. And I’m not just saying that. We’ve dealt with dozens and dozens of licenses and I’ve got some nightmare stories! But, [Microsoft and Bungie] have been attentive, detail oriented, and they really care. And that always helps. When the people care about the product as much as we do, it makes our job easy.
We’ve got more Spartans coming! Don’t you worry, young lad! We’re going to have your whole desk littered with Spartans!