When all else fails, there's always Plan B!
When any endeavor starts to go south people tend to fall back on other plans. One such endeavor was that of Resaurus and for many of the former employees their plan b was, well Plan B! The change in the winds for that company opened the doors for five people to gather a stone's throw from Columbus Ohio to form Plan-B Toys.
The nucleus of Plan-B is made up of Jay and Chris Borman and Tony Simione, who are all equal owners of the company. Tony met twins Chris and Jay in the 5th grade and theyíve been friends since, even going to college at the Columbus College of Art and Design together where they met the last two members of their troupe - Steve Hamaker and Jon Matthews. Chris and Jay majored in Industrial Design while Tony, Jon and Steve were in Illustration. Now all five are together creating their own toys while keep very busy freelancing for other companies such as Palisades Toys, Diamond Comics, Parent Banc, Cartoon Books and Wiz Kids Games.
(l to r) Jay Borman, Tony Simione, Chris Borman, Steve Hamaker
Jon Matthews (bottom row)
Plan-B Toys may not be instantly recognizable like some design houses, but their work clearly is. They've been too busy working to spend time cultivating public personas, which suits them perfectly. To Plan-B designing toys is what they want to do, and what they have been doing steadily since they all started working at Resaurus. Plan-B started as a design house in 2000 and now they've branched out into other freelance projects and their own manufacturing.
Jack: his only job is to make Tony sneeze
The pedigrees of the ensemble are impressive, and they all spent time working together at Resaurus. Jay was the Director of Product design, and he oversaw all creative decisions at Resaurus over the last four years. Chris was a Product Designer/Manager who worked on many of the most popular lines. Tony was a Senior Prototype Developer and had a close hand in much of the work Resaurus ever did. Steve was a product manager, who assisted with design and approvals. Jon was a sculptor.
There are two questions that they get asked more than any other, we'll cover one in due course, but the other is "whatever happened to Resaurus?" Resaurus is out of business and deep in debt to creditors due to some mismanagement. The Resaurus story will wait for another day, but everyone at Plan-B has fond memories of the good old days.
"One of the funny things about Resaurus is that we're still working with many of the same people we worked with there, they are all at different places now. We still work with Ken Lilly (who is at Palisades Toys now), and we keep in touch with Chris Dern (of Anjon and Sculpt this!) and Shawn Knapp (at Industrial Zoo)."
Chris and Jay's desks
Now that Resaurus is gone, Plan-B is moving forward to continue the Special Forces line under their own imprint after securing the rights from Resaurus. Going from working for a company to doing it all yourself seems like it would be a big change, but for Plan-B it isn't that different. There aren't any salesmen or publicists, which means they have to do double duty along with all the creative work.
"The five of us are all there is of Plan-B and at Resaurus we did everything we're doing now. We designed the toys, then had them sculpted and painted, molds made and then on to production. We've done it all before, but the biggest difference is that now it's our money that is on the line, and not someone else's. We're taking the risks, but we'll also be able to get more out of it by doing it ourselves. And we have control over the direction the company takes."
With a small staff that means the work get spread around, but everyone has their own specialty. While everyone helps where they can, Jon Matthews is the primary sculptor for Plan-B along with some work done by Derek Miller. Tony does a lot of work with resin and painting, and Steve helps out with some of the painting while working on Fish & Chips comics for Vigil Press. Chris and Jay work on much of the production and design for products, and Jay was recently in Hong Kong to check on the work at the factory.
In addition to managing their own line with Special Forces, they are working with several other companies on a variety of product lines. They were instrumental in helping Wiz Kids Games get the Mage Knight collectable miniature game off the ground.
"Jon and Derek Miller did some of the sculpting and we helped with paint and production throughout the line. We've continued working with Wiz Kids through some of the various Mage Knight sets and we're working on HeroClix and some future projects as well."
Plan-B has done a great deal of work for Palisades Toys, especially in paint as well as some sculpting. In the latest series of Resident Evil figures Jon sculpted Claire and the Zombie Cop, and Plan-B's paint was chosen for the unproduced Star Trek 35th Anniversary figures of Kirk and Gene Roddenberry. Plan-B is also working with Diamond Select on paint and other work for some of the Marvel busts and other products including the Spider-Man web shooters prop.
Special Forces prototypes
Now that they are moving into manufacture of their own products, they started with a line that was dear to their hearts - Special Forces. This line is a natural initiation since they developed it at Resaurus, and the line is very open-ended and allows for many possibilities in the future. The inspiration for Special Forces is GI Joe, and more recently HBO's outstanding Band of Brothers mini-series. It isn't simply homage but more a vision of what the line could be.
"We always loved GI Joe growing up, but more the ones who looked like real military like Flint or Shipwreck, and not the flashier gaudy characters. That authenticity is what attracts us to it, and what keeps us away from the Hasbro re-launch this year because the characters are too gimmicky. We see Special Forces as a way to make the authentic military characters that we want to see."
The second series of the line is due soon, though it was slightly delayed due to problems at the factory. They had prepared an exhaustive production guide, but some of the molds were made to the wrong scale and parts would have been out of scale. The problems have been worked out and production is continuing properly, but this is just an example of one of the pitfalls of manufacture.
There are plans to expand the line-up to include police and firemen to the mix. Firemen and police were very popular at Toy Fair this year, though their inclusion isn't part of the industry's views after September - Jay and Chris's father is a Fire Chief himself. They had been working the idea of the emergency services for years, even developing a line for ReSaurus called Code Red, but only now had they caught on as retailers had passed on these previously.
Gone are the accessory packs (whose extra heads bear striking similarities to the team at Plan-B) from the first series, though they will be packing the extras in among the various figures instead of trying to sell them independently. Extra interchangeable heads will also be included with some figures, though this was a point that kept these out of some stores.
"There are some retailers who found the floating extra heads in the package to be disconcerting, and they passed on the line. It's an example of some buyers concerns, and you really can't argue because once someone's mind is made up that's it. Arguing isn't going to help."
While some retailers drive them crazy, there are also some trends in the industry that are the same way.
"We'd like to see more new products, and especially more unlicensed products on the market. We understand that licenses have some proven sales power, and the industry works as a numbers game, and that makes it hard to prove to a buyer that your unlicensed line would sell. And it also seems like a lot of people in the industry don't even buy toys themselves, so they don't always have a good handle on the real toy market for consumers."
display of pieces they have worked on
One thing is certain - Plan B has a handle on the consumer market. Everyone is an avid toy collector, and their studio is covered with toys from many companies. One of the early topics of conversation during our visit was about what everyone is looking forward to this year from Toy Fair. One of their top picks in the re-launched He-Man line from Mattel and the Four Horsemen. After seeing a few of the upcoming figures they were suitably impressed and reverted into fanboys, but there was no hint of jealousy just the desire to have some of the new toys.
"We don't see the toy market as a competition - if there are two good toys then buy them both! You'll end up with two really cool toys! We just want to see people buying toys they like, and we love to see someone playing with one of our toys and just enjoying it."
Another topic was pricing and shopping. Like most collectors, these guys have to hit the pavement to get their toys, and they know which stores are best, when and where to go and also which things to wait for clearance on. While talking it was easy to forget they weren't just other collectors, but also part of the toy industry.
The yardstick that measures anything they make is whether or not they would buy that toy themselves. It's simple - if you can't make a toy you'd buy and be proud of, then why make it? These guys are very serious about making great toys, and they really want to make toys. It's been a constant in their lives.
The things that drive them are the many facets of pop and underground culture. They love video games, toys, movies and music. So much that in their last place they had to make a choice - two arcade games or a sofa. The sofa went, though now they need a replacement since they have a bigger place and room for both.
molding and casting area
All these facets that drive them have influence over the work they do, including I.L.M., Joe Johnston, Phil Tippett, Denis Muren, Kevin Eastman, David Fincher, Syd Mead, Ed Burns, Tsui Hark, Robert E. Howard, Brian Froud, Gregory Maguire, Bill Watterson, Ken Kelly, N.C. Wyeth... the list goes on. The rest of the toy industry is a constant influence as well, and theyíre always looking forward to seeing what other people are creating.
One of the biggest disappointments for them was the Magic: The Gathering line they worked on at Resaurus. Chris, Tony and Jay were all avid Magic players themselves, and they had very specific goals for the line. They wanted to make sure every accessory was totally appropriate for the figures, and that they wouldn't end up in the "accessory drawer." If someone had gauntlets they weren't just generic gauntlets, but the Gauntlets of Chaos, which comes right from another card.
storage area for molds
"At Toy Fair we just wanted to take our molds for these figures and just give them to Hasbro, just so these toys would get made."
The other question they are always asked is "how to get into the toy industry," and answering this is frustrating. Many people just want a simple way to do it, and it isn't easy and takes plenty of work and study. And you shouldn't limit your ambitions to simply being a sculptor because there is a lot more to the industry than that, including product design, turnaround drawings, painting and package design."
"If you want to be in the industry you basically have to put yourself in the industry. You need to study and learn about industrial design, even if it seems like a boring class. You need to learn about all the steps and parts of the design process and work at them. You need to go to the big industry shows and build a portfolio of original work. The big comics conventions (like Chicago and San Diego) are great places to meet people and learn."
"There are also plenty of resources where you can learn about the process. Look at magazines like ToyFare, or read sites like RTM where you can learn about the process. There is so much to the industry and the process of making toys that it isn't a simple or easy answer. And like any job there are always politics that you have to put up with."
Even with the difficulties of dealing with buyers and breaking into the industry, they all feel lucky to be a part of it.
"The industry has been good to us. There is so much support from other people in the industry and especially from the fans. It's always a special feeling when you meet someone who knows your work. That just makes us want to work harder to give people what they want."
The biggest goal that Plan-B has is to be able to continue making toys. They want to stay in business and to keep making the toys they want to buy themselves. At the rate they are going, they'll be around for a long time!
This article was written in April 2002, after a visit to Plan B Toys in March 2002.