The New York Times story

From: Steve Garrison (
Date: Fri Nov 07 2003 - 15:13:56 EET

November 6, 2003
Short, but the Very Image of a Star
HE may have become a political giant this year. But Arnold Schwarzenegger
has also shrunk. There is no mistaking his identity, of course, with the
spiky, combed-back hair, the battle-scarred high forehead, the knitted
brows, the molten-steel stare and the rock of a jaw atop a body of bulging
brawn, leather and mayhem-in-waiting. This Terminator, however, is merely
seven and a half inches tall - unless it's the deluxe foot-tall version you
prefer. Such action figures are becoming more a product of science than
art. A 360-degree laser scanner captured precise three-dimensional
measurements of the real Mr. Schwarzenegger and then translated the data
into a model of the character made by a rapid prototyping machine, a sort
of printer that cranks out 3-D physical objects rather than simply
documents. Human hands join the process only later, refining the model into
a mold to cast the scaled-down Terminators. Selling products spun from the
screen is a practice as old as film itself: Charlie Chaplin paper dolls,
John Wayne toy pistols, James Bond spy kits. But with the increasingly
common application of laser scanning and rapid prototyping technologies -
once so expensive that only industries like aerospace and military
contractors could afford them - longstanding methods of toy making are
being reconceived. The result is more lifelike action figures, collectible
figurines and dolls - and, some retailers say, more such products on their
shelves. The effects, say Jim Silver, co-publisher of the trade magazine
Toy Wishes, are likely to be widespread in the $1 billion-a-year market for
action figures and collectibles, a segment of the $22 billion toy industry.
"It provides a more accurate look," Mr. Silver said of the toys, which are
themselves decidedly low-tech and usually cost $8 to $30. Perhaps more
important, he said, "it shortens the production time and ultimately lowers
costs," when compared with traditional sculpturing based on reference
photographs of the subject. Consequently, retail shelves in places like
GameStop and Toys "R" Us are beginning to brim with plastic dead ringers of
popular characters from movies, television, sports, music and, more
recently, video games.The generic faces of action figures typified by G.I.
Joe are now flanked by armies of faces drawn from "The Matrix,"
"Spider-Man," "Charlie's Angels," "Star Wars," "Star Trek," the film
version of "The Cat in the Hat" and characters usually found lurking only
in PC's and video-game consoles. Specialty stores and Web sites are selling
likenesses of Nascar drivers and other professional sports figures, and
even rock stars like the members of Metallica, with realistic faces and
poses."Laser scan technology has, without a doubt, enabled us to bring each
actor to life as the character he's playing in a movie," said Joanne
McLaughlin, senior vice president for product development at Toy Biz, a
major toy maker that is using scanning and rapid prototyping to produce an
extensive line of movie action figures.Next month, in another example, 90
action figures from the "Lord of the Rings" movie trilogy alone will be
available, said Jay Foreman, chief executive of Play Along, a maker of the
films' action figures. Such a rollout would not be possible without the new
technologies, he said.Rapid prototyping works equally well in bringing to
life characters and objects that never existed in three-dimensional space,
said Karl Meyer, founder and president of Gentle Giant Studios of Burbank,
Calif., the leading scanning company for Hollywood special effects and
toys. Take for instance a popular video game character whose shape cannot
be easily approximated by someone in a rubber suit. Mr. Meyer, who started
his company in a North Hollywood garage nine years ago, said the digital
data that creates and animates virtual characters like the aquatic
creatures from "Finding Nemo" can easily be translated and fed into a rapid
prototyping machine just like the data obtained from laser-scanning a
person or a thing.For years the technology was prohibitively expensive for
most toy makers. Mr. Meyer said significant improvements in computing power
and reduced costs had helped usher in scanning and rapid prototyping."You
used to have to spend $30,000 to $80,000 or more and use a Silicon Graphics
workstation," he said. "Now you can get a PC off the shelf and soup it up
for under $10,000 to run all the 3-D modeling software."The actual rapid
prototyping machines are still expensive, Mr. Meyer said, adding that his
company had six ranging in cost from $50,000 to $200,000.Adam Unger, vice
president of business development for Art Asylum, a toy and action-figure
maker in Brooklyn that uses Gentle Giant for its scanning and rapid
prototyping, said that his company was now producing toys based on the
spaceship from the current UPN television series "Star Trek Enterprise."
"The ship was built entirely in the computer," he said of the vessel, which
is little more than a digital special effect when seen on the television
screen.The same data that gives the ship believable girth, texture and
weight guided a rapid prototyping machine to produce the base model that
Art Asylum artists refined and turned into a scale model complete with
authentic sounds from an embedded chip. The digital technology has also
streamlined the production of action figures and the like in unanticipated
ways, toy makers agree. Fewer and fewer figure makers bother with the
laborious clay sculptures that were often done and redone until the actors
and studios were pleased with the results, Mr. Meyer said."When we scan
someone we say, 'That's you,' " he said. "And it is." Some figure makers
estimate that scanning has helped reduce the approval time from months to
weeks, which helps account for the proliferation of action figures and
figurines just before or after related movies are released.In the old days
of sculpturing the figures from scratch, Mr. Unger said, "if someone didn't
like what they saw, we had to start all over."Mr. Unger said that his shop,
which does finishing work like cutting the action figures and building in
the joints so their bodies can be articulated, nevertheless still
sculptures some figures, especially expensive limited-line collectibles
like a $200 rampaging Hulk figure or a lizard-headed alien.Art Asylum does
about half of its work with conventional modeling and the rest with
scanning and rapid prototyping. In time, many action figure and model
makers said, the higher-tech approach will be the standard. "There is no
way laser scanning isn't going to become standard equipment," added Tim
Rothwell, president of worldwide consumer products for Marvel Enterprises.
"A 360-degree laser capture is an exact likeness of that character that you
are trying to reproduce. It's scary how accurate an action figure can come
to the person you are producing. It is that incredible."But Todd McFarlane,
the creator of Spawn, the darkly cool hero of comic books, movies and an
HBO series, said the technologies were just another budding tool. "It can
be very useful or be sort of a knee-jerk by people," he said. "A lot of
people use it in its simplest form."In 1994, two years after he created
Spawn, he started McFarlane Toys in Tempe, Ariz., to ensure the quality of
toys based on the character. Today his company produces action figures and
collectibles from movies like the "Matrix" franchise, "Shrek," "Austin
Powers," television's "X-Files" and multiple lines of professional athletes
and musicians, including Kiss and AC/DC.Initially, he said, he tried to
resist using scanning and rapid prototyping. He said he was still convinced
that the technologies, which he describes as being in "their infancy," do
not lend themselves to capturing trademark gestures or peaks of action like
Barry Bonds's soaring to rob a batter of a home run. Nor does scanning seem
well suited to creating creatures and forms drawn directly from the
imagination, he said. "What alien are you going to put into that tube?" Mr.
McFarlane asked referring to the scanning booth. What, he added, if it
looks like "some kind of mutilated elephant?"When he began making a line of
collectible full-body likenesses of Nascar drivers in casual poses this
year, he decided that scanning was useful. But after he found it difficult
to get the drivers to pose expressively, he had only their heads and faces
scanned."I took their body measurements and thought, 'You know what? By the
time I put on the jump suit they're about the same size as me,' " said Mr.
McFarlane, a Canadian who once played semiprofessional baseball. Soon, his
Nascar line sported striking likenesses of the drivers and the expressive
body language of Mr. McFarlane, who had himself scanned."To get someone
into the tube," he recalled, "it was easier for me to go in there
myself."Copyright 2003 The New York Times Company |

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