Atlanta’s Dragon Con, an annual celebration of all things geeky, has been quite the draw for attendees for over 30 years now. Whether you’re into cosplay, science fiction, gaming, or celebrity guests, you have plenty to choose from. Each year, I’m not only shocked at the Hollywood star power that Dragon Con is able to attract, but recently I’ve begun to really appreciate top-tier industry professionals that attend the convention, especially in the puppetry track. This year, I was shocked to learn that the designer of some of my favorite toys growing up was also a puppet designer and operator and would be joining us for Labor Day weekend. I just knew I couldn’t miss this chance to connect with such an industry icon. Here’s my interview with Tim Clarke, the designer of the hit toys Boglins and Sectaurs. Enjoy!
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
GeekDad Preston: “I’m ashamed to say I didn’t know you as a designer of these toys, because unlike movies and music these things are put out into the ether and you don’t know who makes them.”
Tim Clarke: “Yes, it’s very unusual and in fact, after I produced these toys the toy companies became more restrictive about independent designers applying their name to their own work. So it’s even more unusual now that you ever find out who designed some of the toys that are produced.”
GD: “So walk me through this process. How did you get into this line of work, and what do you call yourself? A designer, an artist?”
TC: “When people ask me what I do for a living I say I’m a toy designer. I used to say that I was a puppet designer, but after working at Muppets I was pushing myself more towards doing toy design and product development. By a great deal of luck and with the help of Seven Towns, Maureen Trotto and myself who developed Sectaurs, sold it to Coleco.”
GD: “So how did that door open up for you to make that transition from puppet designer?”
TC: “Towards the end of production on Fraggle Rock, I approached Jim (Henson) about doing toy design and development at Henson because it seemed like a lot of the toy companies were not really honoring the characters or doing things like we were doing, which was very innovative with materials. So Jim said to me, ‘Tim, I think it’s a wonderful idea, I just don’t want to do it.’ And I always said that was the best kick in the pants I ever got because then later on, after Fraggle Rock, they put a lot of us on freelance staff and that’s when I started kicking around the idea of trying to sell toy concepts as an independent designer.
It was very difficult because most of the toy companies would not see you if they didn’t know you. because they were wary of you having taken somebody else’s idea and they didn’t want to get into a whole lawsuit issues. So that’s when I approached Seven Towns about representing me. Initially I called them and I was talking to them and I said, you know I’ve been designing all these different toy concepts and ‘blah blah blah,’ and they kinda put me off and I said, ‘You know, I used to work for the Muppets,’ and they said ‘Oh! You should come in!'”
GD: “That’s a good foot in the door!”
TC: “Larry Mass was the agent at Seven Towns in New York at the time. Seven Towns is an English company that produced Rubix Cube and I went in with Maureen (Trotto) and we started pitching different ideas and at one point, I pulled out a fly hand puppet that I had made when I worked for (famous puppet designer) Kermit Love and I would wear it when I went to Halloween parties because I didn’t like wearing a mask. I would walk around with it and set it on people’s shoulders and they would jump, or I would take his nose and stick it in somebody’s drink, and it always got a great reaction. So when I pulled that out, Larry said, ‘Oh, that’s brilliant! It’s so simple. We gotta put an action figure on the back of that.’ So that’s where Sectaurs came out of.”
GD: “You mentioned it’s even harder for names to be known about who designed it. Once you’re in that world of designers is there a network? Like do you know who does what?”
TC: “Believe it or not, the strangest thing is Hasbro, every year at Toy Fair, has an inventors party and its so strange because they have all these toy inventors come and they have dinner and stuff and nobody can talk about what they’re working on. So you end up talking about your kids and how your families are, but nobody talks about work.”
GD: “So Boglins are considered part of the ‘gross-out’ toy trend. It was really big in the ’80s with Garbage Pail Kids and all those things, and this hit at a perfect time for that. What was your inspiration for something like this? Was it because of the climate at the time?”
TC: “No, actually, Maureen and I had started development on Boglins before Gremlins came out and Coleco originally bought it to be a nemesis for the Sectuars. But what they produced was nothing like what the Boglins were. And I really didn’t like the direction they took it in. Then when Coleco was getting into financial problems because of Adam Computer they dropped doing Boglins. Then Seven Towns took it back and showed it to Mattel and then Mattel produced it. The Mattel pieces are very similar to the prototype.”
GD: “When you craft something like this what do you design it out of? Where do you start?”
TC: “I always sculpt in clay directly. I don’t usually even sketch out, I just start sculpting.”
GD: “Mattel produced Boglins, but I see you’re still able to use the Boglins name, how does that work?”
TC: “Because Seven Towns, myself, and Maureen have always maintained the rights for both Sectaurs and Boglins.”
GD: “You’ve mentioned you’re still currently designing new Boglins everyday, what are you working on?”
TC: “Well, I just finished doing the Halloween series, which is based on the original Halloween, but I did them as imps, so there’s a new Bog O Bones imp and a new Blobkin imp. So a kind of take off the original, but done in imp form. And I’m hoping that I will be doing a Bat Boglin that was supposed to come out the second year. So after I get finished with Dragon Con and I fulfill the orders that I’m getting online after the show because I promised everybody that I would start shipping these guys, the new ones, I’m hoping to do a Bat Boglin next.
The problem is I’m constantly doing a balancing act between making them and sculpting new things. But I have a lot of different ideas of where I want to take them from doing new ‘Soggy’ Boglins… I have a bunch of ideas for new finger puppets that I want to do with little trick mechanisms in them. So there’s a lot of things that I’ve been wanting to do for many years that I will hopefully be working on over the next year.”
GD: “People admire your toys so much and your designs, what are some toys out there maybe currently or in the past that you are really fond of? What do you like?”
TC: “Well, I have to say, when I was a kids, my mom would not let me buy any toys that were advertised on television because my mom thought was an undue influence on what I wanted. So I was limited to the Sears catalog, but I think in some ways that was a good thing for me because I was making and creating puppets for myself from a very young age. And I know that I got very positive feedback from adults from what I was making like whether it was an art teacher in grammar school or whatever. My brother and I were always making haunted houses and putting on puppet shows to make money in the neighborhood so in a way it gave us a creative outlet that I may not have had if I was buying a lot of toys that I would just be playing with myself.”
GD: “So for people who may have an interest in toy design what’s your advice to someone who wants to get started in this industry?”
TC: “Go to college and start working in three dimensional design on a computer because the whole world does that. There is very little-to-none hands-on (design) anymore. If you want to get into this business you have to go to a really good art school and learn computer graphics and 3-D modeling and Solid Works and Z-brush and all that stuff.
GD: “Well thank you so much for your time today, Tim. I appreciate it!”
TC: “Thank you!”