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Forbidden Plastic: Part 2

Illustrator Chris White and Polar Lights president Tom Lowe on the C-57D model from FORBIDDEN PLANET and the future of the hobby

By Jeff Bond     September 09, 2001


Illustrator Chris White's original C-57D box art for Polar Lights' model kit
© 2001 Polar Lights/Playing Mantis
Having released perhaps the largest styrene model kit of a science fiction subject ever, the crew at Polar Lights turned to illustrator Chris White for a magnificent box cover painting of the spacecraft landed on the surface of Altair IV. White, who has also provided paintings for Polar's Wolfman, Three Stooges and repackaged Jupiter 2 model kits, came to the company in much the same way that president Tom Lowe did. An illustrator and computer animator for the U.S. Army, White had done cover art for strategy games as well as wildlife paintings before he heard the siren call of Baby Boomer plastic modeling. "I built the Aurora models and I found my old collection years later in my dad's basement," White says. "I tried cleaning them up and replacing parts and that's when I found out how hard they were to come by and how expensive they'd become."

White was traveling down the primrose path of adult toy collecting. "I started buying the mint-in-box kits because I'd always loved the artwork; that's what attracted me as a little kid," he says. "Going to hobby stores and toy shows, I saw the Mummy's Chariot kit Polar Lights had put out. I flipped and of course the first thing you think is 'Oh my god, this must have been hidden in someone's attic for thirty years.' So I got that and I thought that was neat, and I found the Addams' Family House, and when I got the Bride of Frankenstein I opened it up and thought 'Man, this is even better than the original.' I mean, the glass parts were clear and the Bride was glowing and the box was something you could drive a tank over. I thought this was a real good company and I started wondering if they were intending to expand into any new kits."


Turns out they were: Polar Lights

Illustrator Chris White's original C-57D box art for Polar Lights' model kit

was developing the Wolfman, their first newly-sculpted figure model kit to be produced after the highly successful repops of the old Aurora models. White submitted some samples including wildlife paintings that showed he could handle a fur-covered figure. The result was his striking Wolfman illustration. White followed that up with a new version of Polar's highly popular Lost in Space Jupiter 2 box art.


"I built one and took a bunch of photographs of it," he recalls. "What I did different was that when I spoke to Dave and Tom Lowe about it, I started digging out some of the kits I had and it seemed like everybody painted spaceships with the obligatory dark background, the nebula, the half a planet, the planet surfaceeveryone looked the same. I didn't want to do that, so I thought what if it's going through the gaseous clouds of a giant planet and you could play with the colors and have the bottom heated up by the reflecting planet, and they liked that."


For the Forbidden Planet ship White took the same approach of trying to come up with a striking and unusual color scheme for the box art. "I had a lot of time to think about it and I watched the movie a bunch of times and took notes," he says. "I've always thought you can do a more romantic approach to thingsthe stuff I do for the government has to be realistic. They want to see exactly what something is going to look like, but with the Polar Lights kits I wanted to have more fun and play with the lighting. With the C-57D they kept talking about the green sky and I had given Polar Lights a lot of sketches but the most recognizable view of the C-57D is the silhouette from the side. But I wanted to give it a late afternoon, early evening glow with the light coming from across, bathing it in this glow and having the sky getting into this even darker green, and the long shadows and the bright orange-yellow peaks... it all really pushed the color palette on it. I submitted that idea and a color sketch and they agreed to do it that way."


While there were some color differences in the final printed image, White says he can [IMG3L]live with them. "I can be particular about how things turn out," he admits. "It did come out dark; there's more green and dark in it than in the original. But what happened was with the color combination that they used it ended up being this secondary color wheel with orange, green and purple, and I was delighted when I saw that. For a romantic 1950s spaceship you could not ask for a more otherworldly color combination, and it's a traditional one that's secondary on the color wheel."


For Playing Mantis/Polar Lights president Tom Lowe, the release of the C-57D model does present a risk, but it's a calculated one given that Polar Lights is currently the only mainstream American manufacturer of injection-molded science fiction model kit subjects. "The Jupiter 2 is one of our top five selling kits," Lowe says. "We'll see how the C-57D does." Lowe maintains interest and research in releasing additional Aurora repops, although one obvious project for this year won't be happening. Two of Aurora's most famous sci-fi subjects are the Orion Space Clipper and the Moonbus from Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey. While demand for these models is high, Lowe says obtaining the rights to reissue the kits is currently impossible. "The problem is the Kubrick estate," Lowe explains. "We just wanted to do a couple of kits but right now we just can't get the license."


Polar Lights has also looked into other major sci-fi franchises, but at least in the short term he says the outlook is doubtful. Part of the problem is the industry as a whole. "The whole market is really hurting right now," Lowe says. "The guys who build models are kind of dying off and the younger kids don't have the time or patience to fiddle with a model kit they have to glue together and paint. You see a lot of companies going toward pre-painted and pre-decorated kits so there's less you have to do. The problem with that is there's added cost. If you do that it hurts the other market because a lot of the real modelers don't want thatthey want to build and paint them themselves. By doing that you're kind of going after a market that doesn't give a hoot anyways."


Lowe says the backslide has affected his own company's output. "Back in '98 and 99 we were cranking out an incredible amount of kits and since then we've really had to scale back," he says. "We're still going to be producing new kits every year, but the market isn't there to warrant making eight or twelve new kits a year. If we make four new kits a year our sales are about the same. There aren't very many new people going into the market."


One of Lowe's biggest problems is finding retailers that will stock the company's wide line of model kits. "There are only two mass-merchandisers that carry any model kits, which is Wal-Mart and Toys R Us," Lowe says. "Wal-Mart is thinking about dropping the whole category altogether. The hobby market is all mom and pops and god bless 'em, but it's very difficult to make any money if you're just selling to five distributors that are selling to the thousand mom and pops that want to have one kit in stock and are scared to make any major buys. By the time you end up taking your tool costs, sculpts, your employees and what modelers want to pay for a kit, it's very difficult to make money. That's where you see ERTL and Revell/Monogram backing off and the market collapsing."


Nevertheless, Lowe insists Polar Lights is in it for the long haul and will keep producing several new kits per year as long as the public is buying. "We're still going to support the hobby," he says. "We just have to be selective in what we do. It makes a lot of sense for us to do re-pops like the Aurora kits because that takes out box art and sculpting which can cost you ten to twenty thousand bucks. We have to be careful and keep our staff to a minimum. We plan to do four to six new kits a year and we can make money doing that. Beyond that the market just won't support it."

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