Building a better dinosaur

A Q+A with Ed Duncan, Mattel’s VP of Boys Design

Hollywood blockbusters are known for their colossal action and larger-than-life stories, but inspired-by toys make that grandeur accessible for kids and fans. The action figures for Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom are no exception. Based on the fifth film in the box office-crushing Jurassic World franchise, the toy line is set to be just as immense as its source material. The roster caters to fans of all ages and features over 70 dinosaur figures in addition to vehicles, STEM toys, plush and more.

But it’s not just the breadth of offerings that’s awe-inspiring. Most of the toys are scaled to one another, so just like in the movie, a T.rex figure will tower over its human counterpart. It’s an uncommon approach to authenticity in toymaking, and to understand why, we spoke to Ed Duncan, VP of Boys Design at ToyBox Mattel. He told us about the importance of scale in crafting an accurate play experience, as well as his first encounter with legendary Jurassic Park director Steven Spielberg.


When was the first time you saw a Jurassic film, and what was your experience with it?

Jurassic Park came out 25 years ago, and I think that was my first year as a toy designer. Everybody was excited about it because this was the first time you saw photorealistic CG animation in a film, and it was jaw-dropping.

It was a very formative experience seeing Jurassic, and subsequently, I actually worked at [another toy company] on a preschool Jurassic line in the late ‘90s. In fact, I remember the first time I ever came to L.A. was for a meeting with Universal about [the line], and a couple of funny things happened. The first thing was that I was carrying a box of toys in my hands, and I couldn’t open the door. Somebody holds the door open for me, and I glanced over, and it was Steven Spielberg. And then the other thing was I remember thinking, “I wonder if I’ll ever come back to L.A. for anything?” And here I am, 25 years later—I live here, and I’m the head of design for Jurassic World toys.


What do you want kids to experience when they play with this new line?

One of the things that makes dinosaurs cool is their size, and size is displayed relative to other things. If you just make a dinosaur by itself and aren’t paying attention to how big it is compared to anything else in the line, you don’t get the credit for how big or small anything in the story is. So we wanted to make sure that we had a good, compelling action figure representing a six-foot human to scale everything off of, because the size of your T.rex is only impressive if it’s in comparison to something that is recognizable. So being able to make figures and Jeeps, and then show how much bigger your T.rex and your Mosasaurus are to those is what makes those things seem much cooler.


Describe the design process for this line. What steps did you take to ensure the toys would provide the desired experience?

We established some ground rules. We did it with two scales: There was the action figure scale, which is that a six-foot human is almost four inches tall, and then the second scale that we noticed was Matchbox car scale, so a Jeep is the size of a Matchbox car. So we created these two scales, and I put out the edict that everything needed to be at least examined to see if it could be nudged into one of these two scales. What we found was that roughly 90 percent of the line made sense in one of the two scales.


How does the line help kids engage with the characters and content of Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom?

Dinosaurs are a core play pattern for young kids, and I think as a general, broad, pop-culture awareness notion, even the youngest children get that Jurassic World is a theme park filled with dinosaurs, and that’s kind of all you need to understand. It gives you a reason for dinosaurs to interact with humans and trucks, and [the understanding] that a park filled with dinosaurs has kind of gone awry. People have made dinosaur toys before we did for this particular movie, unrelated to any intellectual property.

If you were to put all these toys in a room full of five-year-old kids that didn’t know anything about Jurassic, they would still know exactly how to play with them.


What was the most memorable part of designing this line?

The last product we showed in our conversations with Universal was a mock-up of a toy that later became known as the Pterano-Drone. It’s a quad-propeller drone that has a Pteranodon on it that is actually flapping its wings as it flies around. The movement of the Pteranodon makes you totally forget about the drone underneath him; it just feels like there’s a dinosaur-bird flying around in the room. And it’s another toy that was nudged to be the right scale for the action figures. The last last thing we did was fly this drone around the room with the Universal team, with its wings flapping and everybody applauding. So to answer the question, I think one of the more memorable things was that conclusion, and today that exact toy is sold at retailers around the world.


What’s your favorite toy in the line, and which one interests you most as a designer?

[Laughs] I’m responsible for thousands of toys at this moment in my life, and I have the attention span of someone who’s responsible for thousands of toys. Every few days, someone brings a new production Jurassic World toy in my office, and that’s my favorite toy that day. There’s a toy on my desk right now that’s a version of the Indoraptor, the villain dinosaur from the movie, and today, that is my favorite.

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