Last modified: Saturday, January 6, 2001 6:20 PM
Yes, I whine, bitch & moan about the woes of the pitiful customizer now that Dragon and 21st Century Toys are stomping the hell outa Customizerville. Maybe it's more correct to say that they're leaving the imprint of their soles in a big way, because it depends on what type of customizing you do. If you solely kit/outfit bash figures, their imprint is a fully positive thing. If you compete with them for dollars, it's not such a great thing. For the Sunday customizer, it's a mixed bag-- love their cool stuff, but it's kind of annoying to sweat blood over a figure and have them turn around and do a better version of it. Sigh. You can't fight it. But it is possible live in the shadow of the Dragon, feeding off the little scraps that fall by the wayside. And you can learn lots by looking at what they do and why they do it that way.
This could very easily have turned into a long essay about all the different players and their styles and contributions. However, Dragon and 21st Century Toys are distinct in their impact because they're relatively news to the scene, and they've taken the hobby in a more modelling-oriented direction. In this, their goals coincide with the goals of customizing.
In their figure line, 21st Century Toys seem to be a direct offshoot of customizing. It's customizing at mass-market prices. This isn't surprising since many of the company's prototypes come from the legendary customizer, Mike Maceda. It's interesting to note that these customizing roots are visible in the way a lot of their products are presented to the customer. To put it bluntly, many of the outfits are rough-edged and a bitch to put together (and it doesn't help that they don't provide instructions). Like modelling, most of the effort goes into creating the realistic outward appearance. The products aren't optimized to "snap together", like many toys are, and there are a lot of rough edges left in, but hidden. The payoff for being patient and struggling through the assembly is a complex & good-looking figure, loaded with detail.
Dragon Model's approach is slightly different-- it's slicker and the assembly isn't as tortuous. They design a more accessible product from the ground up, which benefits from their willingness to innovate and look long and hard for solutions. Dragon seems to be more concerned with a totally finished product, with a more "snap together" quality. It would seem that they tend to simplify design to make the product more user-friendly and feature-laden. This sometimes results in less authenticity.
These are gross generalizations based on a few items in their product line. There are a lot of similarities in their products, but you can see these "signatures" in the way they approach some designs. For example, Dragon puts an actual liner & strap on a helmet-- 21st Century Toys is more apt to sculpt the strap on and create the appearance of a liner. Dragon seems more likely to figure out a way to make an opening pouch, whereas 21st Century Toys seems satisfied to create the appearance of an opening pouch.
This relates back to the old debate between the toy-like qualities of some vintage gear versus the realistic appearance of custom resin work. Some people prefer the less realistic cloth covered canteen instead of the sculpted-with-folds version simply because it's "neater", and offers a depth of interaction beyond the surface appearance. Getting stuff to look realistic and be functional is difficult and both companies seem to have come to the conclusion that in a mass production setting, you do it through rubber.
The Big Boys have some major advantages when it comes to production. In the design phase, their deep pockets give them access to the best reference materials possible (in theory). They're capable of hiring the best sculptors & designers. They have access to CAD/CAM and 3D pantography. They're able to use mass production processes and materials which are unavailable to most individuals. In addition, by hiring overseas factories and labor, they're able to do it much more economically than an individual can. Talk about a juggernaut!
Still, there are some opportunities for the little guy. Mass production is optimized to produce lots of uniform stuff, quickly and cheaply. They may have an extremely detailed prototype and develop very high-quality, efficient processes, but they don't have the time to lavish on each individual unit that's produced. Dollars and cents are the bottom line. So where are some of the chinks in the armor? I've listed some areas of opportunity below, in order of declining feasibility. (This means that the stuff at the end are areas where you would be hard pressed to compete with the mass-market producers.)
Consolidating Detail: One way the Big Boys save money is by consolidating detail, as mentioned above. Consider a helmet with netting: It's much cheaper to produce a detailed master and cast it whole instead of doing it as separate processes with different materials. Everything that removes a production step saves money in time and materials. Using multi-purpose castable materials like plastic means that you don't need to procure, store and handle a variety of material at the factory (Those materials can be simulated through paint & surface texture). Companies don't necessarily do this because they think it looks best or provides the best functionality (although it may be the best solution in some situations)-- they balance the cost versus the result.
Limits of Detail: Even the mighty Dragon is only going to go so far to capture authentic detail. They omit stuff (The liner buckle on Dave's helmet), and simplify it elsewhere in favor of functionality (the helmet's chinstrap buckle). Sometimes they make it up (The Panzerfaust's lettering- Sidebar: How come 21st Century's Panzerfaust lettering is identical? Hmmmmm...). Your own research and powers of observation are invaluable for adding subtle detail which only a fellow anal-retentahol would appreciate. Tom Barkmeijer has done some great projects which involve superdetailing the Dragon stuff with leather & metal clips (he's the one who pointed out Dragon's weird Panzerfaust lettering). The guiding principle behind this is "How are the 1:1 scale items made?"
Painting & Weathering: This is the easiest way to take their stuff one step further. While companies have gotten better at this-- using washes, highlighting, airbrushing and stencils-- they still can't do as good a job as a skillful hobbyist who's willing to spend a lot of time on it. An example of this is Dragon's Gerhard figure's 5 o'clock shadow-- sometimes it looks good and sometimes it doesn't. Do they care? Not enough to pay artists instead of production line workers.
Cloth Goods: Here's where skill really pays off. Factories can produce good, consistent results quickly, but there's nothing they can do that you can't do better, if you've got the skill and time. If you want their pattern, disassemble one of their uniforms. All it takes is an adequate sewing machine-- you don't need a factory laser-tracking machine to get good results. Fancy embroidery requires a specialized and expensive type of sewing machine however. It's available as a consumer-grade item, and is for those who are seriously into that sort of thing.
Masters & Castings: (This is a semi-sleazy tactic, but since I'm now a self-proclaimed hypocrite, I can talk freely about it.) If you decide that casting is the best solution to a problem, why reinvent the wheel? The companies spend the time & money researching authentic equipment and hiring sculptors to render it, so why not save yourself the trouble? They save money and time by producing cast accessories, and you can do the same with your own low tech production processes, even bypassing the entire prototype creation phase. (Hopefully, we can assume that the general size and shape of their items is correct.) You can always make modifications and distortions, if that makes you feel better. Seems that I recall some Big Boys doing this to each other? Or you can use theirs as a reference for sculpting your own if you want to go the more honorable route. After you've painted these, they can potentially look better than the manufacturers' versions. Let your conscience be your guide...
Exotic Materials: Unfortunately there are some goods that are naturally more difficult to home-brew produce and reproduce; in particular flexible materials used in boots, belts, hands and heads. Big companies often resort to using these because they have the flexible qualities of cloth in a castable form, which allows fine detail and is production-friendly. Besides the difficulty of finding just the right formulation, specialized rotation & pressure casting equipment may be necessary to get good & consistent results. Finding a durable paint for these is another challenge.
One solution is to redo their efforts in a different material. Hard-cast resin heads are a popular and adequate substitute for the flexible cast ones. Most straps, holsters and belts are actually improved when reproduced in thin leather with detailed working buckles and rings. The miniature eyelets are a nice touch if you can find them. Although they're slightly oversized for most applications (like the grommetted belts), their functionality may outweigh the importance of in-scale fidelity. In addition, specialized techniques like metal casting and photoetching allow you to make really nice detailed parts with a high-quality "feel".
It boils down to an analysis of why the manufacturer used the material or made the part the way they did. Almost without exception, a multi-part construction has a higher quality feel than a single molded unit. If they did it because it was an economical and production friendly solution, chances are good that you can do better. If they used the material because it was the only way to get a realistic scale appearance with practical functionality, you may have difficulty reproducing their efforts.
Examples: These are a few specific things that you can reproduce and improve upon (taking the lazy man's approach):
Durability: There's a pretty direct correlation between detail and durability when it comes to thin cast parts, but this is almost a null issue for the customizer. Consumers expect store-bought products to be durable, and mass-market producers catch hell when they don't measure up. Customizers can get away with a lot more because it's generally understood that customizer's productions are not meant to be toys. This is a good thing because some basic home-brew processes like painting aren't as durable as a factory paintjob. (This also lets you be much more artistic with the painting.) This applies to castings as well. Most general purpose resins aren't very strong when thin cast. That's why it's a good idea to take advantage of the luxury of being able to use a wide variety of materials.
Decals & Transfers: Printing is a way to get the precision detail look which you can't produce by hand. It looks similar to what the factories can produce, but consumer grade equipment (printers) doesn't output the same quality. You probably didn't pay tens of thousands of dollars for your home equipment, so what do you expect?
The Figure: In my opinion, it's not really feasible to produce your own figure. Regular casting resin isn't an ideal material to withstand the friction of rubbing parts, or for pressure fitting rivets. Besides, it would be a complicated and time-consuming casting job. Since figures are relatively cheap, it's more feasible to use them as a basis for modifications.
The Untouchables: These are some things that I wouldn't even try reproducing (but that doesn't mean that you shouldn't give it a try!)
So... you've got a great idea for a unique historical or licenseable figure, eh? Not that you shouldn't do it if you enjoy the challenge, but as more stuff gets produced from the shrinking pool of historical material, it may be only a matter of time before a company with big jangles is gonna produce your beloved "Joe-- The Spud Shucker" (With an accessory set to turn him into "Joe-- The Latrine Scrubber". If you think your idea is unique and cool, chances are very good that thousands of others have already had the same thought. The safest ideas are those that nobody wants (and are therefore not profitable for companies to produce). Woo Hoo!
There's plenty of room for your own imaginative creations. Sci-fi and fantasy are obvious choices since companies don't have a monopoly (or any innate advantage) in matters of creativity. Quasi-historical or interpretive figures are another area that is relatively safe. Instead of relying on a backstory created by someone else, make up your own and populate it with your own characters. (Just be sure to legally protect it so you can sue the pants off of anyone who steals your idea.)
The third area relies on the constraints that public opinion puts on the mass market. There are certain areas that are considered too controversial to be offered for public consumption. Most large businesses don't like the attention that controversy attracts. This is shifting sand though. Things that were once considered taboo are now being produced for mass markets and specialized markets (like McFarlane's stuff). Sometimes producers misjudge the acceptability of their offerings in the mass market (21C's Villain). It's unlikely that we will ever see a Walmart "Bible-bashing Jesse Ventura", a Target exclusive Hitler, or a Hasbro Silicone Beach Babes series, but that doesn't rule out the possibility of these things being produced by someone, somewhere. Dragon's SS figures are potentially controversial, but they avoid this by not distributing them at retail chains.
The arrival of these big producers has a big impact on the commercial customizing scene: If you're competing in the same niche and your work isn't as good as theirs, you're going to have a hard time selling at the price it takes you to produce. Small producers who don't have a "safe" unique product might consider targeting the well-monied collector with "artist-quality" work. That's not a novel idea, since original artwork is expensive, and is not marketed to the beer & pretzels crowd. This would probably be a relief to some customizers. It might be wise to concentrate on a few high quality pieces instead of being a mini production line working at near or below minimum wage. It's the "Art Joe" concept; originals sold for +$1000 to serious patrons of the art. I suppose the big question is, are there any of these fabled patrons out there?
For the kit/outfit bashers, Dragon and 21st Century are a wet dream. At the rate these guys are producing, you may never have to consider taking up sewing. Customizing techniques can be used to make up for the fact that they rarely package their components in the quantities that you may require.
For the rest of us, they're a great benchmark to show us what we can do to hone our own skills and to motivate us to try harder. Despite the frustration of their making previous areas of opportunity seem less inviting, it just means that we have to look harder. It's all part of that grand existentialist modelling tradition thang.