Already a fan of both toy collecting and documentaries, I was floored when a documentary series named The Toys That Made Us appeared on Netflix one day (seemingly from Heaven) as something almost tailor-made for me. Well, that must have been the sentiment from numerous other geeks since the Netflix series has continually received positive critical praise after debuting in December 2017. I had the chance to interview the creator and producer of the series, Brian Volk-Weiss (who also directed an episode), about some behind-the-scenes aspects of making the show and what’s in store for viewers in the future. Here’s six things I learned about The Toys That Made Us:
1. The Toys That Made Us wouldn’t have been possible without the help of the creator of another toy documentary
GeekDad: “Even with Google now where everything is just a search away, it seems that for a lot of the toys that we grew up with, you may know the company that put them out, but you have no idea who actually designed these things. How hard was it to find the folks you were interviewing and was there someone who helped open doors for others?”
Brian Volk-Weiss: “What you just described was really the inspiration for the show. You’d be in a bookstore and see like 300 books for the War of 1812 and you’d have to google for three days to figure out where Optimus Prime or Snake Eyes came from. So that really was the initial inspiration. When the show was greenlit we basically started with three or four experts. One was a Star Wars expert, one was a G.I. Joe expert, and one was kind of a (general) toy expert. Brian Stillman made a great documentary about Star Wars toys called Plastic Galaxy, and just using him as an example, Brian introduced us to people in the Star Wars world that he had already interviewed, but he also gave us a list of people for a variety of reasons that he didn’t interview. So we went after all of those people and through them we found out about even other people that he hadn’t even known about because, you know, he made that movie by himself. It was literally him and an editor, and it was just the two of them. We had a whole crew and we had a very nice document that was Netflix vouching for us that we were a real Netflix show which he also didn’t have.”
2. Many people who designed your favorite toys left their mark on other pieces of pop culture
GD: “I’m a big gaming fan, so it was really nice to see Tom Kalinske pop up in the documentary who I was more familiar with his time as the head of SEGA during their defining years of the ‘console wars.’ Were there other people you met along the way you were surprised to find had their hand in other culture-defining properties?”
Brian: “We had to interview Marty Abrams from Mego three separate times because we kept hearing things and finding out things that we’d have to go back and get his take to confirm them or deny them. One day we suddenly noticed that he had a shelf full of Nintendo Power Gloves. We’re like ‘Marty, why the hell do you got these Power Gloves?’ and he’s like ‘I invented the Power Glove.’
There’s a tremendous overlap between the people at Marvel who worked on G.I. Joe and Transformers, so that was pretty cool. You’d hear these stories where like the guy who created Issue #34 of G.I. Joe was instrumental in issue #6 of Transformers.”
3. We’re probably not going to see a Dino-Riders episode anytime soon
GD: “How do you decide which properties you choose. Is it based on production numbers, the sales numbers, or the crossover cultural impact? What makes you determine what you cover?
Brian: “The official answer is ‘I use my gut.’ But if I’m to dive into my ‘gut,’ it’s a bunch of criteria. Number one, (has) the toy essentially been in production nonstop since the day it started production? Is this a toy that was big when it started and still big? Second thing: is it a good story? Is the story interesting? Is the story of how it got from A to B interesting? That was a big part. Number three, is there a rabid fan base? Do people dress up like the characters at conventions? Are there conventions? Do they dress up like the character for Halloween? And the fourth (thing) is, I had and idea in my head of like the Mount Rushmore of toys, and I wanted to make sure that every character we did could be on the Mount Rushmore of toys. My wife doesn’t know anything about Transformers, but if you show her a picture of Optimus Prime, she knows who that is. That’s what I call the Mount Rushmore factor.”
4. There are four more episode in the pipeline
Brian: “So basically we call it season 1A and season 1B. The episodes that are out now are season 1A. Coming out in about four months (June) is season 1B, which is Transformers, LEGO, Hello Kitty, and Star Trek.
5. The upcoming Star Trek episode was a pet project and highlights dysfunction
Brian: “On Star Trek, which is another episode people give me grief about in a very humorous way. People are like “Why didn’t you do (Teenage Mutant Ninja) Turtles. Why didn’t you do My Little Pony? Why didn’t you do wrestling or Hot Wheels? What the hell (are) Star Trek toys?’ So my answer to that is I love Star Trek and I created the show. I don’t know if there’s going to be any more episodes, so if I only got to make eight, I’m going to make a Star Trek episode. The second thing is while researching Star Trek toys we actually learned that it was a phenomenally interesting story because…Star Trek was a mess.
For Star Wars there was George Lucas, who had the political and financial and legal power to control everything about the toys. So if a vendor made an Ewok that he thought was like a little too tall, he could sit there and say ‘he’s too tall,’ and they had to listen. Same is true for Transformers. It’s been with Hasbro since day one. So there’s this quality control. Then you have Star Trek, which conservatively over a 51-year period has had 22 separate licensors. So you have the opposite of that Ewok story where you like some licensor would make a puzzle showing the Enterprise landing on a planet and Paramount would be like ‘Great! We love it!’ So it was just this ridiculous story. They made a lot of toys for Star Trek I (The Movie) which didn’t do very well and that bankrupted Mego. Then they didn’t make any toys for Star Trek II, which is considered to be the best Star Trek movie and there’s literally no toys for it. None! Then Star Trek III came out, which I like and did okay and was profitable, but it wasn’t Star Trek II…they made toys. Then they made Star Trek IV which was the most profitable of all of them until J.J. Abrams…no toys. And so on and so on. It was like a comedy.
6. Brian Volk-Weiss showed some serious restraint as a toy collector during production
GD: You’ve had access to a lot of cool things and met a lot of cool people. Have any cool prototypes or one-offs been added to your collection because of access from the show?
Brian: I was very mindful of even not having the appearance of a conflict of interest. We had a lot of people – we had Bod Budiansky, he’s the Marvel editor who created all the characters for Transformers and wrote every single Transformers comic book. I mean, he literally came in with a pile of paper on his lap that turned out to be his original legal pad descriptions of Optimus Prime and Star Scream and Ravage. I would conservatively estimate he had half a million dollars worth of history on his lap. He took a 3-hour train ride to our New York office just holding these things in his hand! They weren’t even in a folder or a bag! I honestly, and this was very early on in the shoot, I almost said to him ‘Hey, would you sell those?’ and right before I asked him I was like ‘You know what? That’s not appropriate.’ If the day ever comes where we officially will never make another episode, then I will reach back and possibly see if (he) would sell those.
I don’t want the word out there that as a producer, I’m trying to scoop these things up, but a couple people after the show had come out very generously sent me a couple prototypes. I do have a Star Wars coin prototype that somebody sent me – I didn’t ask him for it. The people at Art Asylum sent me a couple prototypes that are the pride of my collection now. So I do have some pretty cool stuff now, but I never asked and I won’t. All you’ve got is your reputation.