Artist continues to do "what's right for the toy"...
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With Toy Fair only a few days away, we caught up with Mattelís very own Frank Varela regarding his career as a packaging designer for some of the most sought-after toys in the market today. Most popular for his amazing and one-of-a-kind SDCC exclusive package designs, there is a lot more to the man than you would expect. If you think you know Frank, you are sorely mistaken.
FIGURES.COM: First of all, we would like to thank you for taking the time out of your busy schedule to participate in this interview. We are all huge Mattel fans and always look forward to your one-of-a-kind and innovative Comic-Con Exclusive designs.
FRANK VARELA: Your welcome, and thank you for giving me an opportunity to talk about my work at Mattel.
Tell us a little bit about yourself and how you got involved in the toy industry?
I'm a first generation Cuban American, and I was born and raised in Los Angeles. I was a design major and graduated from UCLA. Prior to working at Mattel, my design career was primarily designing collateral for home entertainment (VHS boxes, brochures, posters, point of purchase standees and some DVD) at several design studios around the Los Angeles area. At that time, one of the projects I was most proud of was when I designed and art directed the very first home video campaign for the X-Files. Later, when I started working for studios like Warner Bros. and Disney, I designed a lot of marketing press kits, ads, and other collateral that was distributed within the respective companies. However, throughout my entire career, I always designed and created logos for small companies and friends, and many of those designs were published in magazines such as PRINT or books such as the LogoLounge.
By the time I applied for a job at Mattel, I was in the entertainment design industry for 15 years. At that time, I was freelancing, and I was tired of the constant hustle for paying projects. I remember that I was definitely ready to work for a company again, and I saw the job position Mattel was offering for a packaging designer via HOW Magazines' help wanted section online. To be honest, at first, I was a little intimidated by the job description. I wasn't sure if I had all the right experience to do the job, but despite my feelings of intimidation, I was equally inspired and willing to take a chance. Until that point, I had not done anything like toy packaging, and I couldn't think of anything cooler than designing something for toys. So, I applied, but I didn't hear anything for almost month. When I did get the call from Human Resources asking me to send examples of my work, I was very excited if not a little shocked. Soon after my submitting PDFs of my portfolios, I was asked to come in and give an interview.
Initially, my interview was divided up into four separate interviews: one with the VP of boys packaging and then individually with department directors for Hot Wheels, Matchbox, and the Boys Entertainment Packaging Group. The VP made it clear to me to let him know which department felt like the best fit for me. So, when I interviewed with the director for the Boys Entertainment Packaging Group, she said if interested in her department I would be designing packaging for Batman. Like many of you, I'm a HUGE fan of Batman, and I spent most of my life reading and collecting comics in general. So, my decision was easy: I went with Batman.
I made that decision six years ago, and I've been designing packaging for Batman and his friends ever since. However, initially, since I really didn't have any packaging experience - despite the fact that my portfolio and experience was varied and extensive, many people were not entirely convinced I could do the job. Yet, in the time I've been at Mattel, I believe that I've not only proven I can design a package for a toy, but I can come up with concepts for toy packaging that no one has ever even seen before. That's a great source of pride for me, and I'm very grateful to Mattel for giving me the opportunity to prove myself and to grow and expand as a creative professional.
Where do you draw inspiration from when you're in the planning stages of designing the package for a particular toy?
Is most of your work done on a computer or do you prefer the more traditional free-hand approach?
It depends on the property I'm working on. If I'm working on a DCU project, I rely a lot on my comic book knowledge and what feels right conceptually for the character's) and brand. If it's a property like Ghostbusters or Masters of The Universe, I think of things that for me resonate as the most iconic aspect or theme of that property. For Ghostbusters, the devil dogs, Stay Puft Marshmallow Man, and the Gozer building stand out the most. For MOTU, Castle Grayskull is the most iconic aspect of that property. So, I guess you can say that a lot of my inspiration comes from distilling a property down to it's most iconic form and then elaborating on top of that. Also, since I'm a bit of a fanboy myself, I try to tap into a sort of "fanboy collective unconscious" and ask myself what fans might like to see in a package. In addition, I'm very concerned with creating packaging that enhances the fan's buying experience. So, with that being said, my criteria and additional inspiration is to always create something that is visually very compelling, looks cool, and is meshed with as many nuances that can fit onto one package that a fan could find and appreciate.
When I was very young, I did a lot of work in black pen, acrylic, and pastels. However, after the advent of the Macintosh, I do pretty much everything on the computer. Occasionally, I sketch out a really quick and rough thumbnail to show co-workers approximately what's on my mind, but usually, I prefer to work from head to screen.
The work you did for the Wonder Twins SDCC packaging is one of my all time favorites. Do you have a personal favorite design?
Aside from DC Universe Classics, what other Mattel toy brands have you worked on?
I'm glad you like the Wonder Twins. A lot of hard work went into that package. Well, a lot of hard work goes into all the packages, but to say which is my favorite? I don't know. Your question reminds me of a time when I was eight or nine. Through contacts of my mom, I was very lucky to be able to attend a celebrity tennis benefit. One of the celebrities attending was none other than Jack "The King" Kirby. I wasn't much into tennis, but I was definitely into Jack Kirby's work - even at that age. I remember nervously approaching him to ask for an autograph.
His back was towards me, and I tapped his elbow. Mr. Kirby turned around, and with an arched hairy eyebrow, he look down at me and my dog-eared copy of "The Silver Surfer." "Hello." He said, and I just sort of smiled sheepishly as I raised my comic with pen in hand. With a smile of his own, he grabbed my copy and started signing it. After a couple of beats, I summoned enough courage to speak, "so... Mr. Kirby, of all the characters you created, which one is your favorite?" He finished his signature, looked at me with that same hairy eyebrow, and said, "All of them, my boy, all of them." I remember tilting my head kind of like a dog does when it doesn't understand a command.
At that time, I just couldn't understand how he couldn't have a favorite. I certainly had mine. But now, as an adult, I understand. I look at each one of my SDCC packages as if they're my children. I know that sounds corny, but like children, I love them all for the great things they offer as well as their imperfections. Each SDCC package is a combination of challenges, memories, and a marker for setting the bar higher each time. However, just because Wonder Twins is technically a more involved package than let's say Catwoman - that fact doesn't make me love Catwoman any less. There are some things about the Catwoman package that will always make me smile. Yet, I do have to say that working with Kevin Conroy on Starro The Conqueror does make that package slightly stand out amongst the rest. Again, I'm a Batman fan, and to have had an opportunity to work with the man who has been "the voice of Batman" for the last 20 years or so is something really special to me.
In chronological order: Batman Begins, The Batman Animated Series, Justice League Unlimited, DC Super Heroes, DC Super Friends, Kung Fu Panda, DCU JLU, Infinite Heroes, Masters Of The Universe, Superman Batman Public Enemies, Ghostbusters, Green Lantern Movie Masters, and DCU Young Justice. Most of the properties mentioned, I initiated the original design and look. Also, I worked on many of these brands at the same time. For example, I worked on all of DCU (Classics, JLU, and Infinite Heroes), and Ghostbusters, and Public Enemies on and off within a 4 to 5 month time frame.
The new 2011 DC 6" package design looks great as it offers a fresh new look to the line. What strategy led to this significant change and were you influential in that decision?
A frustrating reality for artists in the toy industry is in regard to creative liberties and all the modifications the final product goes through for licensing approvals and costing purposes. Have you ever had a design that was drastically changed to a point where the final result looked nothing like you had originally envisioned it?
Well, to talk about the most recent DCU look, Iíll have to talk a little about 2010. The 2011 line look was originally an early design round created for 2010 - which as you already know was DCís 75th Anniversary. However, despite the fact that both DC and Warner Bros. liked the design a lot, DCís licensing creative director felt it was not commemorative enough for an anniversary year. Hence, from that presentation came the idea for the Alex Ross stacking of heroes for 2010. So, when I wrapped up everything for 2010, it came time to create a look for 2011, and I was faced with the problem of creating a packaging line look in a non-anniversary year. So, instead of reinventing the wheel, I went back to that one well received design and presented it to the licensor once again. They thought it was a great idea, and thatís how the look for 2011 came to be.
However, In order to keep certain cues and not create a total departure from 2010, the color palette remained the same, and the triangular area of the front insert incorporated a characterís symbol rather than the ď75 YEARS OF SUPER POWER.Ē For all of you who have been wondering why the CLASSIC packaging became taller, the reason is we were asked to adhere to specific package sizes by our retail buyers. So, I apologize to the hard core collectors that this yearís package is a bit of a departure from our previous packages in terms of size, but I actually prefer it. Also, the rays emanating from the blister is my attempt to have the characters break free from being confined to a comic book panel as was the case for 2008 and Ď09 or in rows for 2010. On the current blister card, our A-list of DC heroes (Green Lantern, Superman, Aquaman, Batman, and The Flash) are in full color, alive, and coming at you. Consequently, this yearís line look is definitely an evolution of what we did in years past with a bit of a bang, and Iím pretty happy with that.
No, not really. I would say for almost every package concept Iíve come up with - the core idea for that package has always remained pretty much intact. I think the reason for that is that Iíve been successful at building a level of trust with the licensors and coworkers. For the most part, everyone trusts that Iím not going to come up with something thatís totally off base, and I think that trust comes from people knowing over time that Iím intimately familiar and have a lot of knowledge regarding the properties I work on.
Also, everyone understands that Iím always very concerned about doing whatís right for the toy. There are always going to be changes that come from the licensor, upper management, my own team or all of the above. But, thatís ok. Sometimes the best design does not always come from a ďYESĒ but rather a ďNO.Ē At times, resistance towards an idea forces more creativity to be placed upon that concept, and with all that extra attention, the best idea or design comes from the push and pull of keeping the core of the idea intact - but at the same time evolving the idea to fit the needs of the toy.
At the end of the day, the very nature of design is not art. The creative process can be the same, but unfortunately, much to even my chagrin at times. Iím not here to express myself but to express the needs of my client. In this case, the client is the toy. At Mattel, we always have to ask ourselves, ďWhat is best for the toy?Ē ďWhat is the best way to communicate what the toy does,Ē or ďWhat is the best way to grab the consumerís attention?Ē But, Iíve been fortunate to be designing packages for collectors, who when it comes to action figures, are much more in tune with the property than mom casually strolling down the action figure aisle.
Have you ever been involved in any other aspect of toy design in the past?
Can you tell us about what new projects you are currently working on for 2011-2012?
Directly? No. My primary responsibility is packaging. However, in team meetings, Iíll express my opinions or concerns in regards to a particular toy, and that my team members do the same in regards to packaging. Sometimes, Iíll have what I think is a great idea for a toy or action figure, and Iíll go to Bill Benecke or Scott Neitlich to relay my idea to them. Sometimes, the idea is well received, other times, I find out that we came up with the same idea independently of each other, and then, there are times when my idea is good but the timing is off. Thatís about as far as I go into product design. However, I have had a few forays into the product side of things. The skull pull tab for the Solomon Grundy SDCC package was my design, and packaging for both Wonder Twins and Starro were so technical, someone could definitely argue that those designs reside more on the product side of development than just on packaging.
Unfortunately, no. However, I will say that Iím personally overseeing the design and creation of at least two of the exclusives for SDCC 2011. I canít ruin the surprise, but maybe, when theyíre released to the public, I hope youíll see my personal stamp on them and guess which ones they are.
Special thanks to Mattel for allowing us the opportunity to interview Frank Varela. Keep up the awesome work!
Interview by: Jorge Pelaez and Jeff Saylor