Gurney Journey | category: Toys


Gurney Journey

This daily weblog by Dinotopia creator James Gurney is for illustrators, plein-air painters, sketchers, comic artists, animators, art students, and writers. You'll find practical studio tips, insights into the making of the Dinotopia books, and first-hand reports from art schools and museums.

Sculpting a Bobble Head Dog

I made a little bobblehead sculpture of Smooth to give my son for his birthday. (Link to YouTube)


There are basically two types of bobble head designs: 

1) Head on a loose, bouncy spring, which works for upright human characters.
2) Head on a counterweight, which works best for animals.

With type 2, the trick is to make the head light enough to balance against the lead weight, so I used craft foam for the head. You also have to sculpt the hollow body with enough space for the counterweight to swing freely up and down and side to side. 

All the materials are linked in the description of the YouTube video. 

The Rise and Fall of Betty Boop

Let's wrap our five-part interview with toy collector Mel Birnkrant with this question: Did the sensibility behind the Hays Code for movies in 1934 filter down to children's toys or animation in that period? I'm thinking of Betty Boop. Didn't she become less sexy and more cutesy? What examples could you show for this?

Mel says: "The Hays Code literally led to Betty Boop's untimely death. They made her button up her mouth and her dress.  And in the end, even her proportions changed, as she travelled down the road that led to the Uncanny Valley. I just spent a miserable afternoon watching Betty Boops Final cartoons.  Betty’s image is very popular today, but few of those who wear her image on their clothes and fashion accessories actually know her story. 

"To put it in a 'mutt-shell,' she began life as a dog, and not a particularly attractive one. Here she is in making her first appearance in a cartoon called Dizzy Dishes. Bimbo too looked different then.

The Rise and Fall of Betty Boop

"Soon, Betty transformed into a human. Nonetheless, she still chose Bimbo as her boyfriend.  Here they are, Ahem, in bed. 

The Rise and Fall of Betty Boop

"Soon Betty got much better looking, This image below presents her at her most perfect,  Of all the images of betty Boop this one remains for me the most iconic. I used it on the box for a Betty Boop doll I designed half a century ago. At that moment in time, 1970, she had become virtually unknown. Thus, this was the first Betty Boop product to appear since 1939.  I stumbled across one of these in mint condition on eBay, just the other night. For Twenty dollars I couldn’t resist buying it. 

The Rise and Fall of Betty Boop

"Betty Boop’s career spanned a short nine years, from 1930 to 1939. Halfway through her journey, in 1934 the Hays Bureau clipped her wings. The comparative drawings below graphically demonstrate how they compelled Betty to change.


The Rise and Fall of Betty Boop

"Nonetheless, she carried on for a five more years with her attire and innocent sexuality toned down. In spite of this, her delightful voice and sparkling personality remained the same. In this latter part of her career, she stopped hanging out with animals and clowns. Bimbo and Koko both disappeared, and her world was suddenly populated with human beings of the same species as her own. She also got a puppy called Pudgy, who often stole the show.  Slowly, it was all downhill from there. 

The Rise and Fall of Betty Boop

"The official model sheet below conveys how Betty had changed by 1938. Her head became much smaller, she also became taller, and her proportions were more conventional.  Her original outrageously stylized proportions had been easier to accept than this newer version. Now with a body that was more anatomically correct, her slightly oversized head seemed uncomfortably out of place.. 


The Rise and Fall of Betty Boop

"Bettys final cartoons are hard to watch.  In this one from 1938, Betty, looking spanking clean, attempts to discipline a monkey. That was a high point compared to what was to follow in 1939.  

The Rise and Fall of Betty Boop

"In a short titled, “Musical Mountaineers,” Betty encountered hostile hillbillies who were definitely not of the Beverly Hills variety. Fortunately, she survived, Her career was not so lucky.

The Rise and Fall of Betty Boop

"Worse still, was a 1939 cartoon called, Rhythm On The Reservation. By any standard it would be considered outrageously racist. In it, Betty wins over a menacing tribe of Native Americans by teaching them how to play musical instruments.  This image reveals how dramatically Betty’s look had changed. 

The Rise and Fall of Betty Boop

"In what amounted to the final indignity, the studio forced Betty to introduce her own replacement, “Sally Swing.” It appears that the studio saw Sally as a big deal. 

The Rise and Fall of Betty Boop

"They even created a poster for her. They hoped that Sally would take Bettys place for the next decade. Sally’s voice was purported to be that of 15 year old Rose Marie.  

The Rise and Fall of Betty Boop

"Here we see the two of them together, along with Sally’s poster, upon which Betty appears in name only."


Thanks, Mel Birnkrant for sharing these fascinating guest posts about popular culture in the 1930s. For more stories of vintage character toys and the art of toy invention, visit his website.  

This series:

Part 1: Materials and Workmanship of 1930s Toys

Part 2: 1930s Toys, Comic Types and Characters

Part 3: Why Did Animation Flourish in the 1930s?

Part 4: What They Cut from King Kong

1930s Toys: Comic Types and Characters

I asked toy collector Mel BirnkrantAs you get into the 1930s, was there a difference in the imagery, the sorts of characters, and the "attitude" of the comic types? 

Today, it’s hard to visualize how small the toy industry really was for the first half of the 20th Century.  What in those days would be considered a bestselling toy would qualify as a flop today. Most toy designs tended to be generic. Then, starting in the 1920s, comic character toys began to appear. For the most part, these images were derived from the Funny Papers. Thanks to which whole families of popular personalities appeared on America’s doorsteps every day.  

1930s Toys: Comic Types and Characters

Here is the complete set of bisque figurines based on 1920s comic strip characters. They were referred to  as “nodders,” and were made in Germany, in 1928.  

1930s Toys: Comic Types and Characters

1920s Comic Characters also generated a growing repertoire of tin windup toys., colorful and always sculptural.

With the introduction of sound movies in the 1930s, a great explosion of creativity took place. With it, came the Great God Mickey. His image dominated the toy industry for the next 10 years.  Compared to him, the Funny Paper personalities of the 1920s seemed tame. They were politely whispering, while Mickey Mouse and a growing number of his animated friends were shouting at us from the silver screen.

1930s Toys: Comic Types and Characters

Throughout the 1930s, Mickey was the undisputed King of Toys. This 1937 cover of Playthings Magazine celebrates The Eighth Year Of His Reign.


Read more at Mel Birnkrant's website

This series

Part 1: Materials and Workmanship of 1930s Toys

Part 2: 1930s Toys, Comic Types and Characters

Part 3: Why Did Animation Flourish in the 1930s?

Part 4: What They Cut from King Kong

Part 5: How Betty Boop Changed in the 1930s

1930s Toys: Materials and Worksmanship

How did toys and comics change during the Great Depression? I interviewed toy collector and inventor Mel Birnkrant. Over the next few days, I'll share his answers. 

Question 1: If you compare toys from the 1920s to toys of the 1930s, was there a noticeable change in materials or workmanship? 

Mel Birnkrant says: "The materials and workmanship of toys changed dramatically during that period of time. There were several factors at play. The first was country of origin. Hand in hand with that was the changing materials from which the toys were made. 

"But most importantly, to understand toy history, one must see it as an ongoing quest for new materials, with which to render and manufacture objects in 3D.
1930s Toys: Materials and Worksmanship
"Throughout the first quarter of the 20th Century, most toys were made in Germany. German toys were often made of wood. Hand carving was commonplace and considered manufacturing. This early wooden Mickey brush holder was “Handufactured,” (a term I just made up,) in Germany.

"Cast iron was also used worldwide to render objects that could be duplicated in quantity. Although cast iron toys were durable, they were also extremely heavy. This cast iron Andy Gump car, made in the 1920s is considered a classic.
1930s Toys: Materials and Worksmanship
"Throughout several centuries, dolls were mostly cast in bisque, and most of these were made in Germany. Heavy and easily breakable, bisque was then the only means by which one could replicate a realistic face. Some doll collectors would maintain that this is still true today. This Rose O’Neil Kewpie is an exquisite example of the lifelike delicacy that German bisque achieved.

1930s Toys: Materials and Worksmanship
"Tin toys were another means by which one could render objects in 3D. Tin imposed a stylized look of its own. This Barney Google windup toy is a good example of that principal. The Image is transformed and enhanced by the limitations of the tin medium to, perhaps unintentionally, achieve a stylized elegance. To see this toy as a stunning sculpture, visualize it twelve feet tall.
1930s Toys: Materials and Worksmanship
"Throughout the first quarter of the 20th century, Germany was to the toy industry what Hong Kong is today. Then, in the early 1930s, Japan stepped onto the stage, and with them came a new material, celluloid. Suddenly, there was a cheaper, lighter means to render images in 3D. 

This skating Mickey is an excellent example of the beauty and perfection that celluloid could achieve.

1930s Toys: Materials and Worksmanship

"Although, this new material could render almost any image with newfound fidelity, it also developed a look and language of its own that was totally unique, and highly Geometric. Celluloid was also Depression friendly. Unlike toys made of wood, bisque and cast iron, toys made of celluloid were lightweight and cheap.
1930s Toys: Materials and Worksmanship "After the Second World War, celluloid which was extremely flammable was deemed illegal, and overnight replaced by the ever-growing list of modern plastics we know today.

"Throughout these years, toys were also made in the USA. Early in the 1930s, new materials were introduced here. Dolls might now be made of rubber and also of a paste like material, called composition. Each of these new materials enabled a unique look that altered the appearance of the original subject matter, in some instances for the better. 

"In my humble opinion, the entire series of composition and wood jointed dolls, created by doll maker, Joseph Callus were always exquisite sculptures. The restrictions of this medium lent a new dimension to the comic characters it portrayed.
1930s Toys: Materials and Worksmanship "Here is an exquisite pair of composition jointed dolls by Joseph Callus. They represent Betty Boop and her then boyfriend Bimbo, at the peak of their refinement. This particular Betty Boop doll was originally owned by Max Fleisher.

"The Second World War put an end to these visually exciting playthings. And after the war, toys were never quite the same, or quite as great. Wartime toys were often awful, mostly made of paper. And what few toys there were, were made entirely in the USA. 
1930s Toys: Materials and Worksmanship
Here we see a cardboard Lionel train. Much to my disappointment, Santa brought me one of these in 1943.
Tomorrow: Changes in Imagery

A Conversation with Mel Birnkrant

Timothy J. Fitzmaurice created this video portrait of Mel Birnkrant and his unrivaled collection of vintage Mickey Mouse and other comic character toys. (Link to YouTube)

In the interview by Timothy's wife, Kelly McMullen, Mel talks about how he got started toy collecting, how the toys "speak" to him, and how his own toy-inventing career fueled his life as a collector and connoisseur.

Although Mel's private collection is not open for visitors, his extensive website offers anybody a grand tour of his infinite universe of comic characters.
Mel Birnkrant website
View a playlist of my YouTube videos shot at Mel's "Mouse Heaven"

How to Make a YouTube End Screen Gizmo

In the last 20 seconds of a YouTube video, you can offer the viewer the chance to click on other videos, playlists, websites, or the Subscribe button, using their "end screen" options.

In this behind-the-scenes video I show how to make a reusable gizmo to make that end screen segment more interesting and to encourage viewers to click those links. (Link to video on YouTube).

The panels flip into position before being superimposed with the link options. The movement of the panels is powered by mousetrap springs. It's cheap and easy to build, and it's completely customizable to the style of your channel.

1 " X 3 " Pine boards
screw eyes
Magic Sculpt epoxy clay
Gorilla glue

My next Gumroad tutorial, "Flower Painting in the Wild," comes out this Friday, August 18.

Vintage Paper Toy "Fairy City"

Toy collector Mel Birnkrant has many rare treasures. But one of the most ephemeral is a paper construction set called the "Fairy City."

It presents a view of American city life 100 years ago. Mel carefully built it, and then we "unbuilt it" in time lapse and reversed the film, adding in a little stop-motion animation at the end just for fun. (Watch the video on YouTube)

Baker's Fairy City, 1916

James: Baker's Fairy City seems like a rare and fragile item that would not have survived with very many copies intact. A cat or a young sibling could have trashed it so easily. Do you have the only copies of it?

Mel: Yes, Jim, I believe that's true. I do! It’s not like I have asked my collector friends, as no one has ever seen this here but you. I have the bits and pieces of two and a half copies, maybe three, every one I ever saw, or I dare say, I will ever see.

James: What would have been involved in the manufacturing of all the parts? It seems even more complex than the ambitious pop-up books from 20 years ago.

Mel: Well, in some respects, that’s true. Its complexity borders on a miracle. First of all, the whole thing comes in a mailing envelope that didn’t make it to your video. On the cover is a dismal looking photograph of the whole city set up. Inside that is a full color box. The floor plan is much more immense in person than the video shows, and on the back is a rather complex cardboard stand that folds out to hold the background upright.

Jim: How do you build it?

Mel: Each building is die-cut and glued, with small die-cut pieces that need to be carefully removed. The tabs on the bottom of each building need to be cut off, as they contain additional figures, trees, and vehicles.

Speaking of complex die-cutting, every fold on every element that folds is scored. The characters are curious as tiny details are die cut, while all the rest are meant to be cut out with scissors. Perhaps the most remarkable element of all, is the fact that someone did just that 100 years ago. Could it have been a child? They are impeccably cut with incredible precision and skill. It boggles the mind to think that these were cut out with a pair of scissors, let alone by a child!. I could hardly do as well today with a #11 X-Acto blade, frequently replaced.

James: It would have taken patience, focus, and dexterity for a child to build such a paper city. What challenges did you face in putting it together now, and what does the set tell us about the child of 100 years ago?

Mel: Interesting question; perhaps I should have read it, before I answered the one above. The most difficult aspect of assembling this recently was the fact that the paper has become so brittle. To fold it vigorously is to break it. I set one city up, once, when I first got it, over 50 years ago. Back then, it was no problem, as the paper was still fresh and new, even though it was 50 years old then. But I used some of the buildings in the showcase with Little Nemo, Many of the characters there are standing atop of buildings from the village I assembled so many years ago. Therefore to film your video I had to fold and set up several more. That is how I discovered that the paper has become so fragile.

To reply to the second part of the question, I’d venture to say that there must be few children with the skill, patience, and appetite to undertake a project like this alive today.

James: Did the Baker Company make other sets in this series? Did other companies make similar paper town sets?

Mel: I have never seen or heard of another set quite like this, but I would like to think that such marvelous things were at one time commonplace. There were other toy paper villages, even older than this one. I have a few of them, one was called the Pretty Village. I have one of the only sets of that, in which some of the figures are intact. It too came with a floor plan, and was in a much larger scale than The Fairy City. It is quite pretty, well I guess that’s why it’s called the Pretty Village. I much prefer the nitty gritty reality of industrial USA that is portrayed by the city of your video.

James: The town seems to reflect a magical period in American history, when the city's streets were shared by cars, trolleys, pedestrians, bicycles, early automobiles, and even circus parades. Do you believe in the concept of a Golden Age of American city life, or do you think that we just romanticize the life of previous generations?

Mel: Jim, I like the way you summed that up, and I do believe I understand the answer to your question. You are seeing this as some sort of Magic Fantasy, and so it is to you and me. But I truly believe that when this plaything was created, with the sole exception of the elements of fairy tale fantasy, the Giants and the Lilliputanians, it is an accurate representation of Turn of the Last Century Reality.

In fact, it was an attempt to accurately represent an up-to-date reality. The copy on the mailing package says it far better than I can. It makes special mention of the fact that Wright brother’s plane is included in the set. The flight at Kitty Hawk had taken place just two years before this toy was made. What could be more up to date than that?

Little Nemo case with a few Fairy City buildings as props
Visit Mel Birnkrant's website for more about vintage toys
Book recommended by blog reader Pierre Fontaine: Paper Toys of the World

MAXx FX, The Greatest Action Figure that Never Was

Last week I had the privilege to visit my friend Mel Birnkrant, who showed me his original prototypes for MAXx FX, an action figure who dons movie-monster prosthetics to become the Werewolf, Mummy, Jason, Freddy, Swamp Creature, and Caveman. Link to my new YouTube video

Read the story of MAXx FX on Mel's website
(Link to 12-minute YouTube video)

Celluloid Mickey

Celluloid Mickey

Yesterday I painted this study of a celluloid Mickey Mouse toy from the 1930s. This toy was manufactured in Japan and distributed in Europe. It is made from celluloid, a lightweight, fragile, and flammable material that has also been used for ping pong balls, animation "cells," and for film stock itself. 

When the cellulose is unpainted (as with the green bucket above), there's a lot of subsurface scattering. But most of this Mickey is painted, which makes the light bounce off the surface.

Celluloid Mickey
Celluloid Mickey, gouache, 5x5 inches
As I was painting this, I was thinking about the variety of whites in this scene. I reserved the brightest white for the highlights. The lit sides of the nose and the shorts are just a little darker and warmer. The white surface that Mickey is standing on gradates back to a midrange cool gray in the top of the composition due to fall-off.

Getting all those soft edges and gradations is the challenge in gouache (it would be easy in oil). But the advantage of gouache over transparent watercolor is that you can get very precise control of value and chroma.
Video tutorial: Gouache in the Wild
Previously on GJ: Subsurface scattering and Fall-off

Designing the Wild Things Plushes

Toy designer Mel Birnkrant designed the only toy tie-ins based on "Where the Wild Things Are" that Maurice Sendak liked.

Designing the Wild Things Plushes

 In a new set of pages on his website, he tells the story of how he developed the prototypes, and how his 30-year friendship with Maurice Sendak grew out of that working relationship.
Creating the Wild Things Toys with Maurice Sendak, by Mel Birnkrant
Maurice Sendak (1928-2012)
Sculpting a Bobble Head DogThe Rise and Fall of Betty Boop1930s Toys: Comic Types and Characters1930s Toys: Materials and Worksmanship A Conversation with Mel BirnkrantHow to Make a YouTube End Screen GizmoVintage Paper Toy "Fairy City"MAXx FX, The Greatest Action Figure that Never WasCelluloid MickeyDesigning the Wild Things Plushes

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