Toy Talk: Varner Studios Vice President and Sculptor Michelle Varner
Nov 16, 2020
Toys, Statues and other collectibles don’t just magically appear on store shelves. A lot of work goes into the concept, design, sculpting and final production of these items, and many of the people who work behind-the-scenes with companies like Diamond Select, Gentle Giant, and others, remain mostly unknown to their appreciative audience: the final consumer.
With Toy Talk, we hope to introduce you to the artisans behind some of your favorite collectibles, and to let them enjoy their well-deserved moment in the spotlight!
This month, we talk with Varner Studios Vice President and Sculptor, Michelle Varner about how she got into the toys and collectibles industry, her time working on pieces for Diamond Select Toys, and more! See what she had to say below.
PREVIEWSworld: How did you get involved in the toy industry as a sculptor?
Michelle Varner: My father is Steve Varner — a well-known sculptor in the toy industry best known for producing the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles sculpts from the early ‘90s, hundreds of McDonalds Happy Meal toys, and countless fashion and baby dolls.
I grew up spending much of my time in the studio, constantly underfoot and bothering the sculptors as they worked. But more than anything, I loved watching their process as they would work. Back then was pre-digital sculpting age and they worked all in clay and wax and would sit at their desks with these thick magnifying glasses, painstakingly putting details on sculpts.
Growing up in this setting, I developed a love for artwork and would ask them for advice on my own projects. As soon as I got old enough, I joined my dad as a sculptor, and although I doubt he will ever retire, I have become his right-hand in running the company.
PREVIEWSworld: What are some of your favorite types of projects you get to work on for Varner Studios?
Michelle Varner: It’s a tough question to answer because the thing I love the most is the sheer variety of projects we have. I have worked on everything from a talking animatronic baby doll and fashion dolls, Diamond Select's animated series statues and busts, and weird things like a prosthetic foot and fixing a live casting of Beyoncé’s pregnant belly. Although we have our common projects, we never really know what we are going to be asked to do next!
PREVIEWSworld: Talk a bit about sculpting the Animated Wonder Woman Legends in 3D Bust. What were some of the challenges behind translating an iconic 2D design into a high-end 3D bust?
Michelle Varner: Personally, Wonder Woman is my favorite DC character, so whenever we are asked by Diamond Select to create a new Wonder Woman figure, I am the first to jump and claim the job. I have done so many of her at this point that is has become second nature — and yet, at the same time, I always feel like there is something I can improve on with each iteration.
This is especially true with this bust because it was going to be printed at a much larger scale, and each detail must be scrutinized more carefully because the details are more visible. What someone may not realize is that when an animation is drawn in 2D, the side views of the character and the front views rarely match up! Not just that, but Wonder Woman's face in the show has completely different proportions depending on the scene — so it really is an art to try to capture the "essence" of Wonder Woman in a more detailed sculpture.
PREVIEWSworld: Reflecting on your work with Diamond Select Toys over the years, what are some of your favorite DST pieces you have helped to create?
Michelle Varner: I have worked on dozens of The Animated Series figures over the last several years, and although I love being able to capture the character's personality and essence, my favorite DST projects so far have been the more detailed projects. For example, the Maleficent statue for the Kingdom Hearts line was one of my favorites to work on — it involved a smoky base that she stood on with her powerful, ominous attitude — with her evil minions sprouting up from the smoke and the raven on her shoulder. The whole statue itself was a composition that really spoke to who her character was.
PREVIEWSworld: With what’s possible given modern-day prototyping technology, what are you excited to see more of in the toys and collectibles industry going forward?
Michelle Varner: Growing up in the ’90s, I was able to witness the time just before the digital sculpting age — each of our sculptors painstakingly working on their clay figures. The process was long and tedious — there were no "symmetry" buttons you could push, no printing at a larger scale if the client wanted it “just 5% larger", no “undo” button if you rolled over your Tigger sculpture with your chair the night before it was due.
Now with digital sculpting, we can do in a week what previously would have taken months of hard work and back and forth communication. And although a high level of sculpting skills is required even with this modern-day prototyping technology, it is a tool that has completely changed the industry for the better. It allows for us to get the same excellent product with less time and effort invested — and thus without the same extremely high cost of labor. It has made making toys more accessible for smaller toy companies that may not have the budget required in the past.
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