Remember spending precious free time playing with your toys? Those little plastic figurines that were a gateway into your imagination. Well those heroes and creatures that you just couldn’t live without have an origin story of how they got into your hands. This December (12/22) Netflix and creator Brian Volk-Weiss have created an episodic documentary about your favorite toys in The Toys That Made Us.
Streaming only on Netflix ‘The Toys That Made Us’ documents the fantastic story of some of your favorite toylines and we were fortunate enough to speak with creator Brian Volk-Weiss.
TOY-LINES: What does the Toys that made us title mean to you?
Brian Volk- Weiss: It was actually during a conversation about when we were trying to figure out what the title of the show would be and we had a lot of ideas for what the title would be. One of them was, and I’m embarrassed to even admit this now, but one of them originally was like the “History of Toys,” or something ugly like that. And we were talking about it and at one point I was like, this is a show about the toys that made us — like we have to find a way to say the toys that made us in the title. And I was like — it might have even been my wife, to be honest with you — but somebody was like oh, why don’t we just call it the “Toys That Made Us”? And it was one of these funny things where we were like for now, let’s call it the “Toys That Made Us.” And then …
TL: It just stuck?
BVW: … you know, we’ll come up with something else later, and it just stuck. Everybody loved it.
TL: Yeah, we were talking about it in the office and we’re like that’s a really good title.
BVW: I can’t tell you how happy I am to hear that. That’s music to my ears. You really — you never know what people are going to think.
TL: So why did you want to make this documentary?
BVW: Starting back with me being a kid, like even three years old, with the toys that I played with and then saved and then started buying toys just because I like having them in my office and in my collection, which I now call a collection but it used to just be my room full of toys, basically I wanted to do a show about toys. But I’m also a huge history buff so I kept trying to learn about the history of all the toys that I loved over the course of my life and I realized that (a) there’s so much about these toys I didn’t know; (b) there’s been a lot of documentation about Star Wars and Barbie, but not a lot of documentation about He-Man and Transformers, and even Star Trek toys. There’s been a million documentaries about Star Trek; there’s never been a documentary about the toys. So I took my love of toys and I took my love of history, combined them, and then yeah — that pretty much was the beginning auspices of what became the show.
TL: What did you collect as a child?
BVW: My main toys as a kid was of course Star Wars, Transformers, and GI Joe. Those are my big three. And then in honorary fourth place would be Star Trek. I was not a huge He-Man collector. I really didn’t play with He-Man as a kid.
TL: What are some of the toys, besides your own favorites, what other toy lines are in the documentary?
BVW: We covered eight toys. Let’s see if I can do this. We got GI Joe, Star Wars, He-Man, Barbie, Lego, Hello Kitty, Star Trek, Transformers.
TL: Has there been any talk for a volume two?
BVW: There have been talks insomuch as we have, with Netflix, discussed if season one does well then there will probably be a season two, but that’s as far as it’s gotten. I know the toys I want to cover, but it has not gone that far with Netflix. They, understandably so, want to see how season one does.
TL: How was it working with Netflix? Were they supportive or were they nervous about it?
BVW: I’ve worked with Netflix a lot because we do a lot of comedy with them, stand-up comedy, so I’ve definitely been in business with them for a long time but I’d never done a series with them and I had never done — this is the most personal show of my entire career. So with that in mind, they were the greatest partners. I’ve never had a better experience in my entire career. It was absolutely wonderful.
TL: Now cartoons were a big part of ’80s toy collecting. Did you do/uncover anything about the connection between animation and the toys?
BVW: Well, animation, as I’m sure you know, plays a huge part in GI Joe and Transformers, so, I mean, we really covered those cartoons a lot in those episodes. And then a little bit in some of the others, but the main shows, especially Transformers, where the cartoon was super-relevant.
TL: Throughout your interviews, did you uncover any mysteries or stuff that has never been public before?
BVW: Absolutely and we tried really hard to do that. We tried to interview people that had never been interviewed before and we would find people that even if they had done an interview would be like you know, nobody’s ever talked to so-and-so, and you should really talk to that guy or that girl, because — and we worked really, really hard to find people that had relevant pieces of the story that had not given it before. A great example of that is we interviewed Marc Pevers.
BVW: He was the Lucasfilm guy and he was the guy who George Lucas said let’s get toys made, and he was the guy literally getting on the airplanes and going to Mego and Parker Brothers and Mattel and Hasbro and being turned down. And he’s the guy that went to Cincinnati and got them on board for Star Wars. So if he’s been interviewed before, I am not aware of it, and it was — I mean, he was great. His information was great, but he was also very honest and open about a lot of things and, in my opinion at least, was kind of funny about it.
TL: So who else have you interviewed?
BVW: I mean, we did over 300 interviews, so I’m allowed to say anything. It’s just a matter of remembering. We interviewed Marty Abrams from Mego. If we were blessed enough to get a third or fourth season, we should probably do a whole episode just on Mego. I mean, I don’t know how much you know about Marty or Mego but it really was the opposite of Hasbro and Mattel in that Hasbro and Mattel were these big public companies and its shareholders; Mego was this private company run by the son of the founder and, I mean, it was just — definitely had this anything goes mentality.
TL: Besides professionals, you also went out to toy stores and toy collectors?
BVW: Yeah. We really — we shot a lot of examples of toys, of the prototypes of toys. We built this light box, which was like this rig that was lit from below so we could put the toys on them and make them look beautiful and then we had this light rig from above. So we dragged that with us all over the world. We were in Denmark, Japan, Mexico. And we really sought out collectors, which I’m sure you know a lot of collectors have prototypes. A lot of collectors have first shots and whatever, and we really worked hard with the community to get access to that stuff but also this is the kind of show that is really made by a community and we really wanted to be plugged in with it. We didn’t want to make this show in an ivory tower and then throw it out to everybody; we wanted to make the show with the people that we hoped would be the fans of the show, and I think we succeeded in that regard. And if you look at the credits, it’s at least 10 to 15% of every episode, the credits are people in our community that helped us make the show.
(SPOILER ALERT) – We discuss a potential spoiler item in the show.
TL: So you have found toys that were supposed to be made but never released?
BVW: Absolutely. I mean, one of my favorites that we found was we found a prototype for a Transformer that was a VHS tape. It was literally a full-sized VHS tape when it was in VHS-tape mode and then would turn into a Transformer, very similar to Soundwave or to a certain extent Megatron except it was a VHS tape. So that’s one of my favorite things that we’ve seen, but oh my god, we saw — do you remember the Star Wars micro line, the little metal miniatures?
BVW: Yeah, we saw a bacta tank set that was never released with Luke Skywalker in his underwear. I mean, we literally — routinely, while making this show, I saw stuff that just made me either get goosebumps or my eyes even watered, I have to admit. I saw a first shot of C-3PO that was all black plastic. I saw a first shot of the TIE fighter that came out like in ’78 that was all white. Even the glass was white. It was like a first shot. So we saw crazy, crazy stuff.
TL: That’s incredible. That must have been quite a treat. And all that’s going to be in the documentary, or did some of it get cut?
BVW: Yeah. I should have announced at the beginning a spoiler alert, so I apologize for that, but yes, that’s all in the show.*
*Spoiler alert taken care of.—–End of Spoiler
TL: Awesome. How far back did you go? Did you do any modern interviews like with McFarlane Toys or the Four Horsemen?
BVW: Oh, yeah. Oh, absolutely. The show goes from the beginning up until like the week we had to lock the episode, so every episode has a different percentage of what decades it takes place in, but yeah, I mean, GI Joe, most of his time is spent in the ’80s and ’90s but we go up ’til 2017. Our Star Wars episode has “Last Jedi” toys in it [including] the New Millennium Falcon Lego toy. It has the Women of NASA, which just came out three weeks ago. So we get as much in as we can until we lock and then — so it should be within three or four months of locking before airing, so we got close. We got close.
TL: Awesome. And it’s funny you mention women — that’s my next question. Will you be covering any, dolls or female action figures like Barbies?
BVW: Yeah, in season one we cover Barbie and Hello Kitty, so those are in season one, and if we’re lucky enough to get more episodes we definitely want to do My Little Pony. I’d love to do a full episode just about She-Ra, Strawberry Shortcake — I mean, there are a lot more out there. Cabbage Patch Kids could be its own episode. That’s a crazy story that we learned about. So, yeah, we’ve definitely done Barbie, we’ve definitely done Hello Kitty. I don’t know anything about Barbie before the show started and it’s an amazing story, and I would say I — I don’t have like a PhD in Barbie, but I probably like a master’s degree now in Barbie. It’s a great story.
TL: Throughout the documentary, have you noticed how the toy industry has changed over the years? Is that something that the documentary also focuses on?
BVW: I’ll tell you something funny, man. There really — the only real change for the toys has been in a good way there’s a lot more detail in toys and in a bad way because the price of plastic has gone up exponentially over the last 50 years, the quality of the plastic that’s used is not, in general, as good as it was in the ’80s. So if you pick up a modern Rattler that was made five years ago, it weighs a lot less than the Rattler that was made in the ’80s. But the interesting thing is, if you take into account inflation, the Rattler you would buy today is about half of what the Rattler in the ’80s cost. So that’s an interesting thing. But one of the things that I read a lot on Facebook and blogs and stuff about toys is people are always saying it’s just about movies now, it’s just about brands, there’s no original brands. I’ve got to tell you something, man. It’s always been like that. One of the only exceptions to this is He-Man. He-Man was really the only toy that just started off as a toy but that is not even completely accurate. As you, of course, know, there was a comic book and a cartoon. Star Wars was based on a movie. Star Trek was based on a TV show. Barbie — you could certainly argue that Barbie has always existed on its own without a property, and that is true, but it really, if anything, you could argue now there are more toys that are popular without a property and a license today than there were back in the day. So it’s actually the opposite of what most people think. To be honest with you, this is one of these questions where if you had asked me it before we started making the show I would have agreed with everybody else; it’s only because I ate, slept, and breathed this for 14 months that I realize now that that is not accurate.
TL: Do you also talk about tooling and the creation of toys?
BVW: Yes. We don’t get into it too much but we definitely cover it, absolutely.
BVW: We really got into the molds and the tooling. We saw amazing molds in Billund, Denmark when we visited Lego HQ. We literally went into this warehouse that’s like the warehouse from the end of “Raiders” and we got them to open boxes and, I mean, it was crazy. We saw — we literally saw the molds, because in the ’80s there was really only one plant, so we saw the molds that made every single two-by-two and four-by-two brick. So if you grew up in the ’80s or if you were playing with Legos in the ’80s and you were in Peru or Chicago or China — not China, but Japan — we literally held the mold that made all of those bricks. So we saw a lot of that. We saw a fair amount of tooling for Transformers when we were in Japan. We saw some great Star Wars tooling. I don’t know how much He-Man we saw. He-Man was interesting — we saw a lot of [He-man] artwork. We saw a lot of the things that led to what would become Skeletor. Same thing for GI Joe. What would become the cover of GI Issue 34. So we did a lot of artwork as well.
Stream in on Friday December 22 only on Netflix and discover the history of the Toys that made us.
Special thank you to Brian Volk-Weiss for the interview.