“This is crazy,” says George Gaspar, holding a cartoonish green rubber figure in his hands as he looks into a video camera and addresses his YouTube audience.
“Crazy good?” asks his wife Ayleen Gaspar, playing with the arms and tongue of another figurine.
“Crazy amazing,” says her husband. “So much work goes into this. How do you even do this?”
“This” is the Walking Duds — the first independent toy produced by Kansas City’s True Cast Studio, the West Bottoms casting shop founded by Adam Smith that features sculptures from his sister Adrienne Smith and brother-in-law Jason Frailey.
True Cast’s bendable green figurines are cartoonish zombies, a playful take on the popular AMC Series, “The Walking Dead.” And for a moment on YouTube, they are the stars of the 279th episode of the video podcast “Toy Break.”
The Gaspars own October Toys in Los Angeles, are critiquing the figures in advance of New York Comic Con, the four-day pop culture convention this fall that drew more than 130,000 people.
It was where the Walking Duds made their debut on the toy scene.
“It makes you want to play with it,” says Ayleen Gaspar, walking a 4-inch zombie across the table.
“I had no idea what a Walking Dud was going to be, and I’m so blown away,” replies George.
Action figures aren’t just destined to be left behind in car seats or become unintentional dog toys on the floors of playrooms as children grow out of them. Many are crafted and priced to appeal to adults.
These days, figures adorn desks in cubicles and mantels in living rooms, or they’re carefully stored in their original plastic packaging in temperature- and light-controlled rooms in an effort to preserve their value.
The NPD Group, a market research company, estimates that action figure sales were $1.39 billion in 2012. That’s actually a 3.5 percentdecrease
from the previous year, when sales were an estimated $1.44 billion.
“The kids who played with toys are now in their 20s and 30s, and they have jobs and disposable income,” said Randy Falk, the director of product development for the National Entertainment Collectibles Association. “Toys have been embraced by collectors and toy historians, and there are a lot of them. Toys have become a part of our pop culture.”
The culture’s appetite for handheld re-creations of their favorite characters has created a vibrant and growing community of toy designers in Kansas City.
The best known is Jeremy Madl, who designs and sells vinyl toys under the brand Mad Toy Design and has created pieces for Cartoon Network and Kidrobot. But toy enthusiasts can rattle off other Kansas City designers — Nick Koster, Rudy Garcia and Donald Ross (better known by his artist handle “Scribe”) — whose names have adorned packages of everything from action figures to finger puppets.
“There’s a small cluster of people producing,” said Ross, the art director for Children’s Mercy Hospital. “I don’t know if it means if we’re like a little hub. But it means we really care about craftsmanship.”
Many of the most popular and collectible toys from huge franchises like “Twilight” and “The Hunger Games” have passed through True Cast Studio in the West Bottoms and the hands of the Smith siblings and Frailey. This family of Kansas City artists has been shaping the toy industry one Napoleon Dynamite or Robocop figure at a time, and now they’re ready to unleash their own creations on the world of toys.
This toy story begins in the tiny town of Lamoni, Iowa. It’s the home of Graceland University and a few thousand people, but no stoplights.
“Adam and I grew up with two artists for parents,” said Adrienne Smith, “and artists weren’t common in town.”
Art was their escape from a house on a dead-end road. Adam made clay sculptures and taught himself molding, while Adrienne made terra cotta masks and art dolls with legs that ended in curlicues. Both traveled with their mother, who painted landscapes, on the art show circuit across the Midwest.
“That’s probably why he and I thought we’d do art shows for a living. We’d seen our mom raise our family on that money,” said Adrienne Smith.
Adam Smith moved to Kansas City 15 years ago to begin casting sculptures for Markus Pierson, a local artist known for his Coyote Series paintings. After a year, Smith left to pursue his own art. He financed that dream through stints at a frame shop, carpentry workshop and on the back of a trash truck. The quirky, cartoonish figures Smith displayed at the Plaza Art Fair caught the eye of Kansas City sculptor Rudy Garcia.
At the time, Garcia was working with the National Entertainment Collectibles Association and introduced Smith to Falk. The association had recently made the decision to look at casting its models off-site of its offices in central New Jersey, and Smith was looking to make a change as the art show world free-fell along with the general economy in the wake of 9/11.
“I wasn’t looking to get into it. It fell into my lap,” said Smith. “I had read about people prototyping toys, but I never thought that was a job I would have.”
In 2003, he set up a casting studio in the basement of his home in the Volker neighborhood in midtown Kansas City. The FedEx packages of clay toy sculptures began arriving daily.
It was there that he could pour plastic or resin into molds to create a prototype (or casting) of that clay sculpture toy once the poured material cooled. With an exhaust fan pulling in fresh air, he was at the mercy of the elements in winter and summer. But the payoff was a stroll down the toy aisle.
“I went into the toy store, and I’d say about 80 percent of the toys had come through my little studio,” said Smith.
When a pressure pot (a metal pot that uses air pressure to force bubbles out of molded plastic) exploded and the resulting blast destroyed an unlucky mannequin in an office chair, Smith knew he needed a new space.
“I remember that basement,” Frailey said. “It was a little mad scientist lab.”
Adam’s sister Adrienne was working for a design shop in the Livestock Exchange Building in the West Bottoms, and she knew a space was available on the second floor. Smith set up his new studio — where he works today with business partner Joshua Edwards — in 2007.
Frailey, who dabbled in action figures himself, came to Smith to have him cast a mold of a clay sculpture of Juggernaut (a character from the X-Men franchise). Over the past decade, a number of artists, including Ross, have commissioned Smith to create plastic or rubber versions of their sculpted pieces. Smith suggested to the National Entertainment Collectibles Association that Frailey’s style could be a good fit.
Adam had also found Adrienne’s future husband. They met at a party shortly after Smith moved his shop.
“Jason walked in, and Adrienne was like, ‘Who is this?’ and he just totally ignored her because he saw a Ghostbusters figure on the wall,” Smith said.
Frailey eventually took his eyes off the Bill Murray likeness long enough to acknowledge Adrienne. The two were married this July. They sculpt pieces at their home in Independence or at Adam’s studio in the West Bottoms.
“It’s something you like before it becomes your job,” said Frailey. “That’s what makes me realize how cool this job is based on how often that happens.”
Shelves with shrunken clay heads of Harry Potter and Storm Troopers line the wall by the door at True Cast. A series of elevated white tables, with vampires and aliens and video game villains in various stages of construction, ring the studio. The thick white columns are covered with toys in their original packages — Predators and Gremlins and grinning horror baddies.
“It doesn’t matter where you are in the world,” said Frailey. “You could be in Kansas and they’re in New Jersey. You just have to make things that people want.”
The first step in the creation of an action figure is securing an intellectual property license. Action figures and head-knockers (what the National Entertainment Collectibles Association calls bobble-heads) are closely tied in with movies, video games and comic books. Once the association has won a license, it turns the project over to an in-house team of sculptors, painters, model-makers and fabricators, or contract sculptors like Frailey and Adrienne Smith.
“Adrienne’s work is really refined and polished and crisp,” said Falk. “She’s one of the cleanest, if not the cleanest sculptor we work with.”
She’s sculpted everything from Gears of Wars figures to zombies, but Falk believes her eye has been most valuable when it comes to characters like Bella from “Twilight” or Katniss from “The Hunger Games.”
“Adrienne has a better touch when rendering female sensibilities. It’s tougher to achieve a facial likeness on a female character because their features are so much softer,” Falk said.
The sculptors work on designing a prototype in clay and wax, taking four to six weeks to create characters with bendable limbs. The necessary accessories or weapons are simultaneously built out of plastic. The details have become more important.
“Jason (Frailey) is a bit of a savant,” said Falk. “He doesn’t just come up with a likeness, but he can get a signature look from a character in a moment onscreen.”
Falk points to a recent figure — Bill Paxton’s Hudson from “Aliens” — where Frailey managed to convey terror in tiny plastic form, a reference to the famous scene where Paxton’s character breaks down in the face of an oncoming alien attack.
“You’ll never get that out of a computer. That’s something that has to be done by hand,” Falk said.
The sculpted characters are known as “two up” in the toy industry — about twice the size of the finished figure. By building a prototype at 13 inches, instead of its final height of 6 or 7 inches, the sculptors can more easily achieve a character’s likeness or a higher level of detail.
Once a given game or movie studio approves the initial clay likeness, it’s carefully packaged and shipped overnight from New Jersey to True Cast Studio.
“We really couldn’t do it without these guys,” said Falk. “They’re an important part of what we do. They’re like extended family and part of our crew.”
The clay sculptures arrive in pieces, broken down into as many as 50 body parts, joints and clothing. Adam Smith and his team then create the individual mold of each piece and pour the resin to create the cast of a figure. The molds are put in the pressure pots, before the is taken out of the molds and sanded to remove imperfections.
“It’s like auto body work. You have to understand the form to recreate the part of the sculpt that was destroyed by the seam,” Adam Smith said.
A few days later, three copies are typically shipped back to New Jersey. One of those copies will be sent to a tooling master in China, responsible for creating the steel molds that will be used during the injection molding process.
A second copy is sent to the paint master in China, who is in charge of making sure the coloring on the plastic figure matches the National Entertainment Collectibles Association’s specifications.
The third copy, which is assembled and painted, will be showcased at trade shows, photographed for catalogs and product packaging, and kept on display at the company’s headquarters. The entire process from sketch to finished toy will take three to four months.
Recently at the West Bottoms shop, the tables are lined with figurines in vibrant hues of blue and green. While the collectibles association is True Cast’s largest client, the company often works on limited runs with independent toy producers. Ross commissioned Smith and True Cast to create 3-D figures of Rumpus, a rhinoceros character often featured in his paintings, to sell at a design convention.
“It’s weird to call them a toy,” Ross said. “Even though they look like a toy, they’re made like small sculptures. (True Cast) quietly puts out excellent work.”
The FedEx driver comes by the shop every day, whisking monsters and vampires out of the former slaughterhouse district of Kansas City. The packages are destined for toy makers, fan boys, geek girls and sellers like the Gaspars.
“We’re in an industry that’s fluidly evolving,” said Smith. “It started with kids and Star Wars toys. But now, those kids that grew up with Star Wars are looking for the next thing.”
And Smith thinks he’s got a lovely toy in just the right shade of undead green.Birth of an action figure or bobblehead
Obtain the proper licensing, if needed, to produce the figure.
Design a sculpted prototype, about twice the size the figure will be, in clay and wax. Fashion weapons or other accessories separately.
Ship the sculptures, in pieces, to casters like Adam Smith in Kansas City, who create actual-size molds for each piece and pour resin to create a cast of the figure.
Place molds into pressure pots to force air bubbles out of the plastic.
Remove plastic figure from mold and sand it.
Ship one copy to a paint master in China, who makes sure the coloring is right.
7. Ship a second copy to tooling master in China, where steel molds are created for mass production.