A painless 20-second procedure was all it took for Karl Meyer and his designers at Gentle Giant Studios in Burbank, Calif., to revolutionize the art of toymaking.
While children on Christmas morning may whine about their presents, one complaint you're unlikely to hear is, "But he doesn't even look like Harry Potter."
That's because Harry himself (aka 12-year-old actor Daniel Radcliffe) sat and posed for the Gentle Giant digital scanning equipment. Twenty seconds is all the time it takes for the scanner to digitally create a topographical map of the human face. Full-body scans and scans of props may cost a few beats extra. The result is a young wizard toy that looks less plastic and more real.
Others in the Harry Potter cast, including the actors who played Hermione (Emma Watson) and Ron Weasley (Rupert Grint), had the scan, too. And there have already been scans of actors from coming films like Lord of the Rings' Gandalf (Ian Mc-Kellen), Spider-Man (Tobey Maguire) and any character from Star Wars: Episode II -- Attack of the Clones who picked up a light saber. Past movie figures include General Thade (Tim Roth) from Planet of the Apes.
Even animated characters like Mike and Sulley of Monsters Inc. have been scanned, as well as the Rock from the World Wrestling Federation.
It's been a veritable parade of future film super-heroes, villains and monsters who come through the doors of Gentle Giant's unobtrusive offices near the Burbank Airport. And when the actors can't come to the Giant, the Giant comes to them.
Meyer and his technicians spent more than a month in Australia working on Star Wars: Episode II and a comparable amount of time in New Zealand with the company of The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring.
Employees barely had time to digest their Thanksgiving meals before hopping on a plane to London to get to work on the first Harry Potter sequel.
From the data collected by those digital photographs, the sky is the limit, creatively speaking.
"Basically you can make anything you could possibly imagine," said Meyer. "You could stick a sculpture on your eyeglasses, make lunch pails 2 / 3 cups and straw huggers and car parts. It's endless."
Artistry still needed
High-tech though their methods and machinery unquestionably are, this is not a case of mass-produced toys popping up in a separate room 15 minutes after a scan takes place. Nor are Meyer's employees a bunch of computer geeks tooling around on some pricey equipment. A scanned image reproduced in wax or clay as a prototype goes through the artistic wringer before it's ready for toy store shelves or, in some cases, Happy Meal containers. Sculptors ply the wax, detailing and working out imperfections. Hair, which doesn't scan well, is added by hand. Painters add their magic for decorative purposes.
Gandalf's plastic likeness was just named action figure of the month by Toy Fare magazine.
"That's an indicator of the popularity of the toy, and a recognition of how good the toy is," says David Imhoff, executive vice president of worldwide licensing and merchandising for New Line Cinema, producer of the film. "Gentle Giant certainly had a hand in that."
He's got great gizmos, but Meyer is essentially a 21st-century version of Gepetto. The former rock musician, who, before Gentle Giant, used to spend up to 16 hours a day designing and building sculptures for Disney out of his garage, says the medium has changed, but the need for artistic excellence hasn't.
"It's really the marriage of technology and traditional techniques that make the outcome that good," says Meyer. "The machines are great, and they help us out so much, but we do have 20 sculptors in-house who are extremely talented. If it weren't for their talents, we wouldn't be able to do what we do."
Out of a refrigerator at Giant, Meyer examines a tray where several replicated faces of Kirsten Dunst -- the future Mary Jane Watson of Spider-Man -- peer sightlessly upward. The scanner and rapid prototyping equipment makes them all possible.
Greater realism plus faster production means greater profits for all concerned, says Jim Silver, co-publisher of the trade publication Toy Wishes.
"Because the toy industry is a fad industry, timing is very important," said Silver, who is familiar with Gentle Giant's work through the JAKKS Pacific-produced WWF toys line. "You can save significant time getting the product to market. Without a doubt, it's just going to be a matter of time before everybody's going to be scanning."
The technology also helps Gentle Giant create data for film special effects. A character blowing his head off in Fight Club was accomplished with the help of Gentle Giant scanning and model building. Ditto Harry Potter's frenetic Quidditch match.
"Normally, you don't want to put a kid on a broomstick and sail him around the room," says Meyer. "If you have a computer-generated model, it's just much easier to deal with. So we're supplying digital geometry for the special-effects people to build the models they make their film with."
While he'll tell you that every Gentle Giant project is unique, Meyer was especially fired up about Lord of the Rings, since he has read the trilogy some 15 times.
"It's so much cooler when it's property that you grew up on or means something to you or your kids," he adds. "We do a lot of work with Disney, Pixar and Warner Bros. When I see my kid at a movie or watching a cartoon and he's just totally into it, it makes me feel good about working on those properties."