Friday, July 3, 2009

The rise and fall of Art Asylum...


In 2001 the Brooklyn based toy design firm Art Asylum announced they would be taking over the master toy license for Star Trek 3 years after Playmates folded their succesful line. Unbeknownst to many, the team at Art Asylum had already worked on Trek in the past when Playmates hired them to design their Star Trek Alien Combat line. They also created a Klingon Warrior Worf statue which became Michael Dorn's favorite representation of the character. Unfortunately the statue was never released. Art Asylum was founded in 1996 by Digger T. Mesch and Donna Soldano as a development and design house. The company quickly became the home to some of the most talented designers and sculptures in the toy industry. Their work was manufactured by some of the top companies in the industry, including Toy Biz (Marvel Toys), Playmates, and even Hasbro.


Scott Bakula shows off the Captain Archer Away Team figure prototype.


Anthony Montgomery inspects the Mayweather figure prototype.

Taking over the Star Trek toy lincense had been a dream for many of the artists at Art Asylum. They even kept a drawer full of potential Trek toy designs for years hoping to have the opportunity to create more toys from the Star Trek universe, but not just as hired hands by a major toy company. After many years of work as designers the team at Art Asylum decided to branch out and begin production on their own lines of action figures by partnering with Play Along Toys. Soon Art Asylum began producing highly detailed figures under their own banner for such films as Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, and even a line of figures based on controversial rap artist Eminem.


AFD's Enteprise line preview.

When it came time to approach Paramount regarding their desires to take over the Trek line the inmates at the Asylum knew they had to put together the most creative proposal the studio had ever seen in order to convince them of entrusting a small company with one of the studios crown jewels. The team put together a full blown video presentation with computer generated animations, interviews, and some of their incredible toy design concepts for the Star Trek universe. The meeting was perfect timing since Paramount had been looking for licensing partners for the new series Enterprise as well as the soon to be released feature Star Trek Nemesis. It was soon decided Art Asylum would start off with a line based on the latest series followed by a line to coincide with the release of the 10th film in the franchise.


Prototype sculpt for AA's Away Team Phlox figure.

For the 2002 New York International Toy Fare the team at Art Asylum pulled out all the stops in order to introduce their Enterprise toy line to toy buyers from all over the world. They built a one of a kind display for the line recreating a section of the Enterprise NX-01's bridge. A few months prior to the event some of the artists from the company took a trip to the stages were the show was filmed at Paramount Pictures in Los Angeles in order to take detailed pictures and measurements of the bridge set. The team returned to their Brooklyn studio to begin work on their replica. At the event the display was populated with extras dressed in NX-01 starfleet jumpsuits manning some of the light up consoles.


Art Asylum's Enterprise display at N.Y. Toy Fare 2002.

The toy line grabbed the attention of everyone at the event as well as the attention of multiple toy collecting publications including Lee's Toy Review which revealed multiple images of all the prototypes and Toyfare magazine, which devoted their May cover to the new toy line.


May 2002 edition of Toyfare magazine.


Lee's Toy review previews the Enterprise Away Team line.

Art Asylum started of their Trek line with the launch of the "Broken Bow" in June 2002. These figures were all based on characters from the Enteprise two-hour pilot tele-film. This initial wave was followed by their Away Team wave in August. The wave consisted of multiple NX-01 officers in their E.V.A suits as well as an assortment of aliens including the Nausican, and Shran the Andorian. All theses figures where some of the best sculpted and detailed toys available in the market at the time. I'll go as far as saying that the level of quality and the attention to detail in these two waves has not been matched by any other line to this day. The figures took advantage of Gentle Giant's scanning technology to perfectly capture each actor's likeness as well as the use of a rubber-like material known as Kreaton which perfectly covered all the joints and gave the figure's jumpsuits a more realistic space age feel.


Print ad for the NX-01 Mirror Universe variant.

The toys were widely available online and at major retailers such as Toys 'R Us and Kay Bee Toys. Some exclusives were produced for such online ventures as figures.com, New Force Comics, and Diamond's Previews. Art Asylum also expanded their horizons by releasing their first ever line of role play toys and vehicles starting with the amazing Trek Tech Enterprise accessory 2-pack, which included highly detailed electronic replicas of the Starfleet issue Phase pistol and communicator utilized by the crew of the NX-01. These two accessories were created utilizing laser scans of the actual props from the show. This set was soon followed by one of the coolest ships ever released as part of a Star Trek toy line with the NX-01 electronic spaceship.


Print ad for the figures.com exclusive Kirk MiniMate figure.

Since working on the Borg figure for Playmates' Alien Combat line designers at Art Asylum had been interested in producing more Borg figures with the level of hyper detail these artists had become known for. It was very evident that one of the first things they would create after fulfilling their initial commitment with Paramount to start off with a line based on the most current show was to turn their attention to starfleet's most dangerous adversaries -- The Borg.
This species was perfect for the team at Art Asylum to show off their sculpting abilities and fans soon got one of the most intricately sculpted figures ever produced based on characters from the Trek universe. Those of us who had already been blown away by their Enterprise Away Team line were quite surprised when these figures came out since Art Asylum had managed to top the quality of their work in just a matter of months.


Conceptual art for AA's Borg Assimiliation Line.


Print ad for AA's Borg Assmiliation Line.


Blueprint for AA's cancelled Ferengi Borg assimilation figure.

For the release of Star Trek Nemesis Art Asylum had to rush a wave of figures in order to have them ready to ship on October 2002. The company wanted to make sure the toys would be available in plenty of time for the film's early December release. Although Art Asylum utilized Gentle Giant's scanning techinque in order to scan the actors as well as costumes and accesories. The figures themselves didn't quite hold up to the level of quality seen on the Enterprise and Borg assimilation lines. The wave included Captain Picard, Data, Shinzon, and the Reman Viceroy. The company had plans for a second line to coincide with the film's DVD release but plans were scrapped due to the fans cold reception to the film and the figures. Years later Art Asylum released figures of Worf, Riker, and Troi as seen in the film as subsets and exclusives to their TNG line.


Patrick Stewart gets scanned by Gentle Giant for AA's Nemesis line.


Ron Perlman during scanning session by Gentle Giant for AA's Nemesis line.



2002 closed out with the release of Art Asylum's Classic Trek mini-mates figures which paved the way for a full line of action figures based on the crew of the NCC-1701.
The initial wave launched with a Comic Con exclusive Captain Kirk figure during the summer of 2003. The figure featured Kirk in his traditional Gold tunic. The first wave of figures from TOS featured Kirk in his green tunic, so many fans were forced to get their hands on the Comic Con exclusive by paying higher prices in the secondary market.


Lee's Toy review Classic Trek cover.


Lee's Toy Review previews AA's Classic Trek line.

The Classic Trek line also included an electronic Enterprise NCC 1701 and a role play phaser hand pistol. The figures themselves were just as great as the Enterprise line, if a bit simpler due to the simplicity of the original series costumes and accesories. The material utilized for the costumes made them seem as realistic and detailed as those of the Enterprise figures. Something that was lacking in the Nemesis assortment. Soon more waves of TOS figures followed with some great releases including The Gorn, The Orion Slave Girl, and even a Mirror Universe assortment of figures.


Print ad for AA's classic Trek line.

With the launch of the Star Trek The Next Generation line in things began to take a turn for the worse. In May of 2007 Diamond Select Toys and Collectibles (DST) announced its acquisition of select assets of Art Asylum. The acquisition, which had been predicted by many, was the result of a long and prosperous relationship between the two companies. The effects of the acquisition were felt immediately in the toy industry, as the fast growing DST, one of the leading toy and collectible manufactures for the specialty market, gained the added value of an industry leading design house. DST was consistently putting out many new products a month from licenses including Marvel, 24, and Star Trek. With the added depth that the Art Asylum name and experience brings, DST power in the toy industry soon grew drastically.



Print ad for AA's TNG line.

DST also announced that many of the same artists involved in the process of making Trek over the years would remain with the company. However Digger, who had not been involved in the day to day operations of Trek or AA for years, would only remain as a consultant during the transition period. Digger had been known for bringing the work of the sculptors and toy design artists to the spotlight for many years. Art Asylum even listed the names of all the artists involved in the making of each figure on a credit box in the back of the packaging. One of the first changes to occur after the purchase was the dissapearance of artist credits on each figure's packaging. Fans soon questioned this move and DST informed them that it was not their policy to allow a credit box. According to them DST is comprised of way too many people in various cities including Baltimore, New York, and Hong Kong so a credit box listing every one it takes to make a toy would fill up the whole back, and since no one part is more important then any other part, according to them they choose to not list any “Staff”.


Art Asylum's electronic Enterprise-E.

More changes were soon felt with each subsequent wave of TNG figures, especially drastic changes in the quality of the material utilized to produce the figures which were soon plagued with multiple problems such as their inability to stand up straight due to their having one leg longer than another and the use of a heavier material which added an unnecessary amount of weight to the figures. The figures lost their detailed uniforms which instead of being made of a different material than the figure and placed over the figures body was now just painted over the figure. Fortunately the highly detailed and beautifully painted weapons and accessories were still a part of the line. The Enterprise-E released as part of these assortments also suffered from poor paint jobs and not enough detailing as the NX-01 or the NCC-1701-A which had been released prior to DST's takeover.


Print ad for AA's wrath of Khan line.

One of the latest nails on the line's coffin has been the low number of retailer orders and pre-sales on many future releases which have led to the cancellation of such offerings as the highly anticipated new Borg line, the Search for Spock Klingons two-pack, and the DS9 Sisko and Dukat two pack. I'm pretty sure these two packs have been low in presales because they are just idiotic. No one wants to be forced to buy another Sisko figure in order to get the Dukat figure, just as no one wants to pay for two klingon figures in order to get the one they really want -- Kruge. Instead of announcing these releases as two packs DST should focus on releasing individual figures of the characters fans really want rather than constantly trying to shove another repaint or variant of an old figure down our throats.


Print ad for AA's trek ships from DST.


Print ad for AA's Classic Trek tricorder from DST.

I really believe the DST line is on its way out and after seeing what Playmates was able to do with their new movie assortments I think they should be given the opportunity to take over the entire Star Trek toy license in the near future. They did a good job of releasing toys geared for kids as well as the adult collectors with their multiple movie assortments. Plus its great to find Trek toys at all the major retailers and not have to pay an arm and a leg from online retailers or the secondary market, which nowadays seems like the only way to get the stuff from DST.
Art Asylum had their chance and they did a wonderful job, but DST ruined it. I hope I'm proven wrong with the upcoming releases such as the Star Trek 4 Kirk and Spock two-pack, but I have a feeling this too might get cancelled.

7 comments:

  1. Nice article. I enjoyed it. You don't feel that Playmates and DST can both produce Star Trek items? Something like Mattel and DC Direct for the DC Comics license?

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  2. I have only bought three DST releases and have had quality problems with two of them. My First Contact Picard has red paint on his throat and wrists, and was clearly supposed to have included a separate pair of hands to hold some of his accessories. I was told that, despite there being a place in the package bubble to hold these hands, he was not released with any.

    My First Contact Data was even worse. The very first time I tried to switch out his right arm, the plastic joint snapped in two! Now I have half of a joint stuck in his shoulder, preventing me from even substituting the other arm. My complaint went unanswered by DST.

    I would welcome a return of the license to Playmates, with the caveat that I would like to see a comprehensive, franchise-wide scale. I don't think the 12" scale would be supported without a current movie or TV series, and if I had any say in it, they would focus on the 3 3/4" scale. It'd be great to have the main characters from all the series in not just the same scale as one another, but the same scale as several other great lines. Who doesn't want to stage a Klingons vs. Stormtroopers vs. Cobra throwdown?

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  3. This comment has been removed by the author.

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  4. Yes, the quality of these figures has come down since DST took over. My figures keep falling from my display shelves since they can barely stand right. They break easily once they hit the ground. One of my ship bases also broke and I contacted the company numerous times in order to purchase a replacement base. They never got back to me.
    The big problem is that the price on these is pretty high when you think about it. I mean paying between 12 to 15 dollars for an action figure that is made of cheap materials and breaks easily is just wrong. Plus they keep getting harder and harder to find, forcing us to buy on the secondary market and pay even more.
    I would've loved for Art Asylum to stay in business as an independent company since the stuff they did on their own was simply amazing. Both AA and Playmates could've been putting stuff out at the same time, but now I feel like only Playmates deserves the license. Hopefully they will expand into all the other shows and films. Their 12 inch figures from the new movie are just gorgeous.
    Hopefully we'll see more stuff in that scale.

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  5. Great post!

    In my opinion the problem with this figures is their way of being comercialized.

    I believe I've never seen any action figure collection so tough to keep track of and with so many exclusives!

    I think that if they were sold at regular, off-line retailers with the right amount of advertising, affordable prices and good distribution channels, issues like quality would eventually disappear... and we'd probably have the chance to get new characters, wich is what I guess most of us really want and are not getting.

    Diamond is being quite Ferengi, if you mind my saying, by using once and again the same molds.

    They are overexploiting the same charachters in order to avoid making new sculpts, and it pains me to say that this is going to kill the collection.

    It's like Star Trek wasn't a rich enough series to offer aliens... They keep using Starfleet uniforms of all kinds and fashions, and I would'nt be amazed if they started up with Voyager figures just to be able to get another buck out of having to sculpt new heads only.

    Just my opinion, I insist.

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  6. What a great work in the details of the toys, the look extremely a like their real life counterparts... I wonder if they can make a toy line of Viagra inspired characters...

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  7. I think the DST and AA action figures are geared toward a different audience. The Playmates line was geared towards kids. Why else would they make 10 different versions of Captain Picard. I'm not saying Playmates was great or anything,they had quality control issues too. I must have bought six of the 5" DS9 Worf in red uniform before I got one that his head didn't pop off as I opened the package. Still, in the early 90s (92-95) they were mostly concerned with making the toys for kids. Pretty soon everything started getting a special collectors number and that's when I noticed things started going down hill for playmates. I can make 4 different versions of Data, because I already have a mold for him so all I need to do is paint him differently.

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