Rob Roberts is sitting behind an exhibit hall table at the Pasadena Convention Center carefully painting a Transformer. At BotCon, the annual gathering of Transformers fans, people can take a class on how to customize their figures. Since the session filled, some have dropped off their toys with Roberts to do the job for them.
By Sunday, the final afternoon of the event, he had worked on four or five of those jobs for $50 a pop. Roberts makes his living by painting toys, turning inexpensive, mass-produced items into one-of-a-kind display pieces. Some of the work is displayed on the table. They shimmer in metallic colors.
An onlooker comments on the differences between figures, noting that one looked like he had just come from battle. Roberts says that was his intent. "I wanted to make these more battle-worn," he answers, "and these all nice and fresh."
Roberts has been painting toys since childhood. For years, this was his hobby. Then the Baltimore, Maryland resident lost his job. He put some of work up for sale on eBay and Transformers fans took notice. Officially, this is his second time exhibiting at BotCon, although he had brought his work to the convention prior to that.
For 20 years, BotCon has been hopping from city to city as it brings together Transformers fans from across the country. Its exhibit hall is heavy on collectibles - there is a lot of Transformers merchandise out in the world - reflecting the 30 years of the franchise. Still, despite all of the products that Hasbro and Japanese collaborator Takara have released over decades, there can feel like there's something missing. That's where fans like Roberts come into the picture. They know Transformers and they have the artistic skills to make what their fellow fans want.
Roberts spruces up the factory paint jobs on existing toys. Armed with acrylics, enamel and lacquers, he can make famed characters look closer to their big screen, or small screen, counterparts. He uses metallic paints to reference the recent Transformers movies and flat paints to make the toys resemble to cartoon characters.
Once in a while, he'll go beyond paint and modify the toys. He'll give Transformers a slightly altered look by adding or removing pieces. Sometimes, he'll combine parts from two different toys to reach a desired effect. He recently did that with Soundwave to build a figure that was similar to the character that appears in Transformers comic books. Sometimes, he'll give them a completely new look. The finished products will typically sell for $100-plus, although some of the smaller pieces can be had for a slightly lower price.
Demand follows trends within the Transformers fandom. With Transformers: Age of Extinction coming to theaters this week, Dinobots (dinosaur Transformers) and other movie-related characters are popular. He can work on pieces that are less cartoon-y. "As each new design aesthetic comes, it gives me something new to work with," says Roberts. "I'm thankful for that because it keeps me interested by making things different for me."
Where Roberts works with toys that are on the market, Trent Troop and Greg Sepelak make toys that can accompany fans' collections. Troop had wanted to be a toy designer from the time that he was eight-years-old. His life hadn't followed that path until the day he said, "I'm just going to do it."
Troop knew that making equipment for existing toys would be a tough sell. He also had a longtime fascination with small creatures that sometimes accompanied action figures. That gave him an idea - "What if that equipment comes together to make a creature or a character?"
The first design was a bear made of weapons. He's called Ursenal. "I also like puns a lot," says Troop. Along with Sepelak and a third partner who couldn't make it out to BotCon, he formed Bio-Mechanical Ordnance Gestalts (BMOG). They worked out the design. Central to it is the five-millimeter peg, something so common in the toy industry that these accessories could fit with a number of figures from Transformers to Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. They would sell the sets like model kits.
The toys also have what Troop calls a "Lego aesthetic." In other words, you can build them into bigger and bigger pieces. He points to a giant robot posed on their table. It's actually made from five different BMOG kits.
It took about a year for them to bring the ideas to reality. Troop and Sepelak collaborate on the designs and art work. They do this online, as Troop lives in Tulsa, Oklahoma and Sepelak is based outside of Raleigh, North Carolina. Thanks to 3-D printers, they're able to make prototypes at a fraction of the old costs. Last fall, they raised $20,000 on Kickstarter, enough money for them to acquire steel molds and fund a 2000 units. Troop received the last box of product from China two days before he had to drive to BotCon. This was their first convention appearance.
Troop and Sepelak have been going to BotCon for years and, in that time, they've worked on a lot of creative projects together, like writing some of the comics that were made for the event. They also created the web series The Isle of Rangoon. They are embedded within the fan community and that, in addition to new technology, is part of what has helped them get BMOG off the ground. Both agree that they're in a position where they don't need to be part of a big industry to make the toy that they wanted. Fans seem to be digging it too. Within a few hours of BotCon, they had sold enough to make the trip worth their while.
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