My conversations with inventor, toy designer, and illustrator Justine Dantzer continues with a look at her work involving Happy Meal toys for McDonald's. Click the link below to read her accounts with Barbie, Cabbage Patch Kids, and Animaniacs. More toy history is covered so let's get started!
Happy Meal toys have been beloved by collectors of all ages for decades. They may be small but girl are they mighty. Happy Meal toys have appeal that rivals that of major toy lines found in toy stores. The frenzy at which collectors scoop up their favorite Happy Meal campaign can be insanity. One of my favorite lines of Happy Meal toys were always the Barbie series. I was around 9 when Barbie made her debut in a McDonald's Happy Meal and I had to have them all. The set was just magical. With all my love for Happy Meal toys I have often wondered what goes into the process of those magical little toys and how they end up in a box of yummy food. Luckily I got to speak with Justine Dantzer about this topic, of which she knows plenty.
This process of talking with Justine has been very eye opening. As I have said before, this woman has been responsible for either creating or having a hand in the creation of many beloved toy lines. She is an inventor as well as an illustrator. It is these skills that she would use in formulating ideas for Happy Meal toys.
Before we get into the items she worked on, I thought it best to share the process of how Happy Meal toys come to be. I had no real clue what goes into a Happy Meal toy campaign coming to life, but Justine walked me through everything. Essentially what happens is a main toy company like Mattel, will have a specific department that handles the marketing and licensing of their properties. A second company most likely a toy invention firm will want to create a two party royalty wherein they would make a licensing deal with (for example) Mattel and McDonald's. This second company may be a LC business (Letter of Credit), which are known to produce less expensive toys for example at fast food restaurants. This way of working would also apply to other toy companies like Hasbro and Mattel.
I have mentioned that Justine had worked for Mattel, but during her experiences drawing boards for Happy Meal toys, she was actually hired by the middle man, the business that would connect the major toy brand licensing with the fast food restaurant. "I was paid by the hour and there were no royalties if the images were sold. I was not involved in meetings between the marketing teams from both companies." The only way Justine would have royalties for her work was if the toys had been her ideas.
Justine then proceeded to share with me her various steps for designing a Happy Meal toy campaign. First up was going through toy catalogs, like a Hong Kong toy catalog. "I'd flip through the pages looking to see what I could find and what could be affordable in making cheap toys."
The second part of her creative process was to walk through stores, most notably 99 Cent stores, pharmacies, and other cheap toy stores looking for low price points of certain types of toys that would be cost effective in a Happy Meal campaign. The third thing Justine discussed she would do would be to look at what was currently trending in the world of toys. For instance, were light up toys a big deal or were spring loaded features currently a big hit? Justine had to keep up with the world of toys in a way that was always fresh and current. It reminded me of the world of fashion in some ways.
Fourth on her list would involve Justine thinking about items done in the past. Were toys that wound up a big hit before? Justine also added, "I didn't want to do anything that would interfere with the company in question. I wouldn't have a McDonald's Barbie Happy Meal wherein Barbie was cooking pizza for example." The fifth and final part of Justine's Happy Meal creative process was to also ask the company what they were looking for too. My understanding of the creation of Happy Meal toys was that there was room for Justine to create her own ideas but to also follow along with the direction of the company. She would receive input and she would do whatever needed to get the design made up, ready to be made into a reality.
During the course of this Happy Meal discussion, Justine discussed a variety of images and illustrations that were used in the creative process when designing Happy Meal toys. Before we dive into all of these images I want to share that the artwork and items that Justine is now willing to let go of are from her personal portfolio. These rare sketches are done in pencil and are all signed and dated. How unique and exciting to not only be able to share this art with the world, but to also offer these vintage pieces for sale. This is truly something special. Let's take a look!
These illustrations are similar to those first few series of Barbie Happy Meal toys, the ones which were solid pvc with a base and design in the back. Drawing boards are $45.00 each. Justine explained to me that she never knew which designs were eventually made into actual Happy Meal toys, though a few were made.
These McDonald's Happy Meal sketches were not shown to toy people, but were instead shown to marketing people as well as clients that might not be in the toy industry at all. In this case people from McDonald’s with no background in toys would be looking at these illustrations. What would end up happening would be McDonald's asking Mattel which of their Barbie dolls were selling well. This would then lead to McDonald's picking which themed Barbie’s would end up getting produced. Even though these images did not always make it into our Happy Meals, the designs that Justine had clearly influenced what would eventually be made.
Those original Barbie Happy Meal toys were so much fun with their simple embellishments. Since there wasn't a great deal of resources that could financially go into making elaborate toys for Happy Meals, Justine utilized her own talents to make designs that were whimsical and special. The Beach Patrol Barbie above was one that did make it into a Happy Meal toy. The final product would end up with rooted hair, which was a change that would be created by Mattel for the licensing requirements.
This Sun Sensation Barbie was another sketch that would become a Happy Meal toy, though not exactly how the final product was. There are certain similarities between the two. The basic sculpt is the same though, the Sun Sensation toy does not have a sarong, but more like an open robe.
Star Ballerina Barbie was another sketch that may not have been made exactly in this likeness, however there were a few Ballerina Barbie Happy Meal toys that had a very similar design and style. I really enjoy this illustration, especially for its vibrancy.
This sketch was an example of something I wrote about earlier, if Justine was going to incorporate food with the Barbie designs, it had to relate to the restaurant at hand.
Barbie Charm Bangles was a proposed series of Barbie Happy Meal toys completely created and designed by Justine. The details of these toys were spread out across three boards.
The accessory component to the dolls was that each toy had a charm bangle bracelet as a part of the base.
The dolls would have had rooted hair and each bracelet would have had a distinct shape and a fun collectible factor. This series of Barbie toys never made it into Happy Meal boxes, but I wish it would have. Also, any Happy Meal collector worth their weight in French Fries knows that this concept has been used with other toys. I am recalling a time when there was once a Hello Kitty Happy Meal toy where the base of Hello Kitty housed some fun bangles. I would have loved for this line to have made it in a Happy Meal.
For those who have been following these articles about Justine, there was a proposed line she had designed for Kenner's Glamour Gals. It was to be an American Beauties themed line of dolls, you can read about that right here. Since that proposed line was never fully realized, Justine altered it for a proposed Barbie Happy Meal line. "Working with a licensed line was interesting, there was certain directives we would receive but then there were other instances where we could create our own ideas." This was one of them.
The difference with this version of American Beauties was that each Barbie doll featured a different type of Rose and regional theme of the United States. One thing that Justine mentioned about these boards she has for sale was that technically she was not supposed to have them, "I was able to have these drawings because I was dealing with people who were often just content to see Xeroxes of the original sketches, or sometimes faxes. Often a packet of Xeroxes would suffice for my client in his presentation meeting."
Justine would come across people in the business who maybe did not understand what the goals were for girl toys. Some marketing folks would say, "I don't like horses, I don't understand the double hair play." Justine did know though. She has known the important elements to include into a toy line, much like the board above. Barbie and Her Horses was meant to be a whimsical Happy Meal campaign wherein Barbie and her horse both had rooted hair to play with.
Other instances that Justine knew would be a hit with kids was movement. This Barbie Walks toy was used with a bowden cable in an older classic way to create movement. Barbie and the dog would both be able to walk.
Movement was also used in this board for a Fairy Barbie in which a bowden cable would be used to make the Barbie fly. "Movement with toys is always good, which warrants more than one drawing so the marketing people can understand why this toy would be better than just a stiff figure." Also, this Fairy Barbie touches upon the concept of toy trends that Justine discussed before. There have been numerous instances where Barbie dolls really shine with a fantasy based approach with fairies or other whimsical type characters. Justine knew this and incorporated elements for a perfect Happy Meal toy. This version may have not made it to the final stage, however, the popularity of fairy styled Barbie’s would be used in the future.
The use of scent was a huge part of this particular Barbie toy. A watering can doubling as a perfume spray incorporated the use of something more than just a "stiff" toy but also free from excessive cost. I asked Justine though what it was like to create such fantastic toy ideas and to not always have them become a finalized product, she replied simply, "You find a way to move on, don't take it personally about if the toys make it or not. You have to be really creative and open minded to the process, you have to be a therapist in some ways to get the information you need for directives on what to do. You become adaptable to what the client's want and be prepared for the directive to be changed numerous times or even dropped."
Barbie Belles was of course a play on words of the dolls being southern belles with literal bells underneath their dresses. Justine expressed that the Belles would be a theme that was immediately recognizable, with no unnecessary explanation. She would need to have different sizes of her designs as well as trying with few words to describe the line and how simplistic yet far reaching this particular theme could be, "It would have to be a simple theme that could adapt to a number of different Barbie fashions and not just a single item." There needed to be emphasis on things like viability, cost, and of course the overall theme. With viability of the toy, it needed to depend on if the theme would impact the display of the store. For example how much space would impact the size of the counter display in a McDonald’s restaurant where the restaurant needs as much counter space as possible for taking food orders?
Cost was another big area that Justine was always having to navigate. "Making toys is not cheap. The process of cutting steel for the molds would yield a certain amount of toys from said mold. The definitive factor of a toy getting fully made would be if the company said they would be cutting steel." The board above featured a lit Birthday Barbie feature, but it proved to cost too much.
Here was another board featuring a light-up feature and fashion stage with led lights, "You have to get the marketing people excited, so you start with really big ideas like the fashion stage and then see what can be cost reduced. The ultimate goal is to get some good ideas. The integrity of the designer was to make a toy for kids that would be their priority. In terms of a kid wanting the toy, it would not be the number one priority from the marketing perspective."
Barbie wasn’t the only Happy Meal item, Justine also had the opportunity to design Cabbage Patch Kids for McDonald's as well. These boards were turn-a-round drawings for sculpting. "These drawings help the sculptor sculpt the toy quicker. The company might want to see a clay version of the design in a week. Usually the sculptor would already have an idea of what the toy would look like from all angles, but if the line needed to roll out faster, a turn-a-round drawing would be needed."
While listening to Justine talk about the quickness with putting a turn-a-round drawing together, I asked her how much time would the designers need to have about the particular Happy Meal campaign? "The process could be fast paced with results needing to be complete within weeks to a month. Other times the planning could be more involved with more time to plan, like with a new Star Wars film. It would all depend on the plans for the license. It would also be a joint agreement and a lot of planning involved as well as pleasing the customer (i.e. the toy company.)"
Above is a first cast epoxy clay sculpt of a Cabbage Patch Kid Happy Meal toy. This is part of the process for a toy coming alive off of paper. The first steps as described by Justine would be for the design to be sculpted with regular molding clay. Then a silicon mold would be created. Next up an epoxy or wax from the silicon mold would be cast. The wax casting would then be smoothed and polished by hand and another silicone mold would be generated. From this new mold further epoxy castings would be made and some of these would accompany the wax for final production. Other “hard copies” would be painted in order to create final presentational prototypes that would be shown to the clients and to the toy company for final “sign-off.”
Here is the backing of the CPK epoxy sculpt. This item is a part of a very early stage of the toy making process. If anyone is interested in acquiring this item it can be yours for $45.00. This is a very interesting piece, especially for CPK fans because it shows an earlier part of the toy making process that I found so fascinating from Justine. There are so many layers to bringing a toy to life that I know I at least am quick to forget or not know much about.
The final toy and item Justine has for sale is one that came along a little further in the toy development process and was eventually made. Fans of the Animaniacs will fondly recognize the Hip Hippos and the design that Justine had for this toy was just beyond cute. The Hip Hippos are in a canoe that can snap together or be taken apart.
The details on the bottom of the toy show that this toy was further along in the process than the CPK from above. "Sculpted in clay first and later manufactured into a first shot from the factory in Asia to review in the U.S. for a decision to be made on the color of the plastic, most noticeable on the canoe, half is a different color from the other half side.” While this design would become a real life Happy Meal toy, this early item in the toy process is a rare and fun look into the history of Happy Meal toys, “A first shot as far as a collector is concerned is the next best thing to a prototype.”
This early manufactured sample is for sale at $30.00. Everything I have listed here for sale from Justine's private collection will include a letter of authenticity. These are lovely items with a rich history that have been designed and created by Justine herself.
Some final thoughts and questions I had about this topic with Justine included asking about the concept of creating an all new and original Happy Meal toy campaign that was not a part of an already established license, "With Happy Meal toys, it's best to stick with licensed characters. For instance in our current times, everything needs a movie or television show in order for toys to be made. We are basically taking toys that are static and we are animating them. It's a way for the show or product to live on. It'd be great to create your own license, but that is rare and usually the license gets sold to the larger toy company."
Another question I had for Justine involved any changes from her experiences with the toy licensing compared to how it is now, "We used to have art directors. We need to go back to using art directors in toy companies who are directing the designers. Now it seems like the marketing people are in charge of the designers and feel they can control what is being created. Marketing people aren't innovators like the designers. Marketing people need to stick with what they know. There are some people who make a living talking while also looking down at those who make a living with their hands."
The topic of women in the toy industry was also discussed as we both feel it is important for the stories of female toy designers to have their stories and successes heard, "It's already hard for women to come by and get female oriented films made and this is even true for the licensing area. Very few licenses have been allowed to grow and be made by female centered lines. Meeting with men has not always been easy when discussing these projects. I don't think it has gotten easier."
As an example, Justine expressed her knowledge and experience with Julz Chavez, daughter of Cesar Chavez, and how with a group of other women they created a doll line called the Get Real Girl dolls. The line boosted an all-female set of dolls each with their own looks. "I drew the turn-a-round drawings for these dolls and oversaw the sculpting. The line was going to be an interactive online experience." The Get Real Girl dolls could stand on their own and had more active looks. One doll I saw on eBay featured a snow board outfit ready to hit the slopes. So what happened? "Mattel bought the company and they never did bring out more of the dolls or promote this line in any way. A little bit of a mystery here!”
Justine did want to stress though that the internet was still a great place to give people a chance with their toy lines. We discussed the growing important role of Kickstarter with helping people to make their toy line dreams come true as we also discussed the presence of independent toy companies selling their products through an online brick and mortar style.
Finally I had to know what Justine's overall views were regarding her licensing work, "My feelings about the LC business is a very fond experience of working in that area. I enjoyed putting a lot of detail in these first pencil drawings knowing full well that some of that look would be scaled down or simplified. I was able to give more in my drawings because they could always “take away.” The details could be stripped away to something more simplified, but it was overall a very creative chance to work with designing and creating toys."
This was an eye opening conversation for me. I knew a few things about licensing brands and such, but I truly learned some fascinating details from Justine. She is such a wealth of information and being able to share this with you all is an incredible experience. I want to thank her again for continuing to talk with me and share in her stories and experiences. This latest article took a little longer to get together, so her patience in my writing process means a great deal. I hope you all have enjoyed this entry. If anyone is interested in owning the drawing boards and items found in the images above please contact Justine at firstname.lastname@example.org or you could also contact me at email@example.com.
One final reminder for those reading, I want to stress again the work she is doing with her business You As Art. You As Art is her exciting way to put you right into the action of your favorite character. Her designs for this new venture not only consist of hand drawn and colored illustrations, but she can also add materials to the item to provide a 3D effect. For example the man below is a dear friend of Justine's (Randy.) Randy wanted her to draw him as one of his favorite characters: the Jolly Green Giant.
Here is the finished product showing Randy as the Jolly Green Giant holding one of his favorite characters a Reddy Kilowatt figure. Very inventive and I feel like she has something special on her hands. Who wouldn't want one of the greatest toy designers and creators to draw something like this? Please email her with any interest or questions.
That’s about it for now folks. The next article in this series will feature Justine's stories of the beloved Swans Crossing toy line, look for that to be completed sometime in the new year. For now I will be posting some new toy stories soon. Take care!