Toy Box Tales – Behind the Scenes

Last year, I began a project called Toy Box Tales.

Friends had gotten me very curious and interested in posable figures, like action figures or dolls, called BJD’s, ball jointed dolls. Fans often create photo stories on their blogs, show off their artwork and craftsmanship on YouTube or Vimeo, and generally have a fun time with this hobby. Some artists make money creating for these BJD characters, the dolls themselves, their costuming and props, all sorts of things. I was surprised that there are guys in the hobby / fandom too. Oh good, I wasn’t the only one who thought it looked cool.

I began thinking about telling stories using these guys and girls and critters. How far could I stretch that? Would it work, beyond what I was seeing in brief photo stories?

So I got a BJD. Hmm. These guys don’t arrive all dressed up. The idea is, you customize them yourself. I started and discovered it takes skill and hobby money to make this look good. I didn’t know a darned thing, and I can’t really sew because of my eyesight, and I’m a guy who’s never really done theatrical or science fiction and fantasy makeup, so…wow, I was tackling a lot. But it was really interesting and it takes time and skill and money.

As I began to get into it, I realized I’d need to get better at a lot. Taking photos of small things close up and with good lighting. Getting the figures posed just so, to show what was going on. Puppetry, theater, sets, costuming, in some ways.

There were also frustrations: I quickly found I really wanted to show more emotion and movement. There were a few limitations I saw. But I thought that I could get either an illustration for each chapter in a story, or I could get something like a manga or comic book design or photo novel.

Writing photo story scripts or audio dramas is not at all like writing regular fiction. How it works is a different angle.

There was also the Attack of the Budget, when I overspent, and had other expenses on top of that. Ouch. Then it looked like I wasn’t getting much response to early efforts. I got very discouraged.

However, friends continued to show interest and support, and one friend offered to do doll clothes for the smaller characters. Oh, wow, she outdid herself.

I began to get enthusiastic again and I’ve restarted. There’s still a lot to do to get things ready.

In the meantime, I had been getting ideas on how the backstory might work, and that has kept growing. I’m still a beginning fiction writer. But I think this is shaping up, both for the Toy Box Tales, and how it could be a fun hook into my other writing.

Early on, I had the idea of including characters who were very different from usual. In some ways, they don’t quite fit in. In others, they do, but it takes extra work. I wanted to include a character in a wheelchair, for instance. I wanted to include a gay character. I wanted to include minority characters. But these needed to be realistic, not stereotypes, and these aspects of their characters, such as being physically challenged, needed to be things they couldn’t fix or undo with the touch of a Reset button. (Though they might wish or dream or run into an alternate reality now and then.) In other words, they had to change and grow and live with things, like real people do.

The original concept had been something rather different, involving imagination of being inside the stories of favorite books, TV shows, movies, and so on. I still really like that.

But then as I began planning and writing, I saw I needed to tell stories about the characters themselves, and I saw what I thought was a neat way to get them into each story. That kept growing, and soon I saw a hook to connect several things I had in mind and….

It was starting to become the Blob, the story idea that ate the planet. Because the ideas kept getting bigger, morphing, and getting into other things. Ack! It needed to be manageable.

I’m not sure where I am with that. – I like both approaches. It might split into two things.

There was also the issue of the name itself, the Toy Box Tales. Would that sound too childish, too silly, for teens and adults, the audience I was aiming for? I wanted to tell stories that teens and adults could relate to, with sometimes teen-level and adult-level content suitable for that audience. So how was I going to handle that? Also, how was I going to handle that, because my name goes on it; would I be embarrassed somehow for others to read or watch or listen, if I put anything out there? Would it be good enough, would the stories be suitable, would anybody…like it?

So, here I am, still working toward the Toy Box Tales and how they may grow into their eventually public form.


Sci-Fi Critters, Makeup, Muppets, and BJD’s

2013-11-11: This article was first posted on my first blog, then republished on my web site.

So I’ll admit it. When I first saw BJD’s, ball jointed dolls, I wasn’t sure what to make of them. And…me? What would an adult guy want with one of those? Wasn’t that for girls or kids?

Never mind that other guys have similar hobbies, or that I’m a science fiction fan and wannabe writer and so forth, and so I have a few science fiction collectibles, or other things I like, hobby-wise or keepsakes. Never mind that lots of boys grow up playing with “action figures,” because girls play with “dolls,” right? Now how does that little semantic rationalization make sense? And what does it have to do with being manly, masculine? It’s mental, a gender or sexual role we are trained into from early on, and folly, when you think about it.

Somehow, I was resistant to the idea. But friends were having a great deal of fun with their BJD dolls, posing them, doing photos and stories, costuming, and it was getting more interesting to me. I could see possibilities there. It was firing up my imagination.

I succumbed and in a fit of something or other, I ordered a BJD. (Notice I didn’t say doll? Hmm….) It arrived. Or he arrived. It’s a bit disconcerting, when you get a package with an action figure / BJD doll, not wearing anything, a sculpted figure that may or may not be “anatomically correct,” because we’re also trained that male parts are too…something…to be shown except as an indefinite “bulge” or a fig leaf. (Real fig leaves itch when your hands brush them. Wearing them there would not be a good idea!) The BJD also arrives with its head separate. Disconcerting. Not how a boy buys an action figure of some hero. But that’s soon remedied.

You put on the head, the wig (yes, a separate item) and eyes. And if the head isn’t already painted, you paint a “faceup,” like “putting on a face” or “putting on makeup,” but more permanent. This is a challenge, for most guys, who aren’t used to makeup. (Unless they’ve had on stage experience or maybe the goth or club scene, or that science fiction thing again.) Painting on a three dimensional object, doing a realistic head’s looks, is a challenge.

Well, that somehow grew, for me, into the idea to use these to tell stories in a photo story or a format like that. These? Yes, because then I ordered another. And it had sparked my creativity. Getting to play, to pretend, with a silly little action figure was something new, not really done since my teens. (I did keep a few things from childhood, stored away, though.)

And…how was this different than being a writer, who dreams up stories in his head, pretends, with imaginary friends, characters? How was this different from a bunch of people dressing up and pretending a story with other people watching, which is acting, theater, movies, TV? Stars get paid to do this. Authors get paid to do this.

How was it different from having fun at a con (science fiction convention) with costumes and gaming, even if you’re just watching? How was it different from laser tag or a LARP (live action role playing) or paint ball enthusiasts?

Uh…it isn’t really, is it? So why was I resistant? — I like reading and writing. My “professional life” (translation: paid jobs) have used words and images, writing and editing. I went to college, wanting to be a writer. I like science fiction. So why did I resist getting a BJD and letting my imagination go and pretending, playing with…dolls…action figures? Was it a “guy thing?” Was it because I’m gay but have had trouble throughout my life accepting that? Aha, could be. Or it could be because, as a boy, a kid and teen, I wanted to be accepted as a grownup, an adult, mature, instead of just a geeky smart kid, the kid with the weird glasses? Might be all those things.

But it had started my creativity going and had started getting me out of a long slump, active again. Much needed. It started getting me excited, enthusiastic again, about writing, drawing, arts and crafts, even to try things I hadn’t done in years, or never had. That was needed and very good and welcome and it’s been fun. I went over-budget. My wallet isn’t speaking to me still. (I’d be worried if my wallet ever actually spoke to me. Much more than this thing about playing with dolls or action figures or BJD’s.)

Then something else happened. I’m a Farscape fan. It’s a science fiction show from the late 1990’s and early 2000’s, four seasons plus a miniseries movie. I was asked to host a fanfic challenge, mostly because I hadn’t before, and I’m active on the forum, and people knew I’ve written and edited, but not much within the fandom. (Other fan writers have gone on to be professionally published with original stories, something to be proud of.)

I agreed, thought up a challenge story prompt, and in doing so, realized I needed to rewatch to get my facts straight. Story research. Hey, that’s good stuff! I hadn’t rewatched in a while.

Also for those who may not know, Farscape was produced by the Jim Henson Company and the Henson Creature Shop did the creatures, aliens, robots, and others in the series, other than the live actors. The Henson Creature Shop, Jim Henson Productions? But weren’t those…muppets? Uh-huh, that’s right. And Yoda from Star Wars. And Labyrinth and Dark Crystal movies, and the Storyteller TV show. Among others. In other words, they do more than the muppets, which were themselves a big advance in puppetry presentation and design. So I was rewatching Farscape episodes with Rygel and Pilot and other creatures, and these were animatronics and muppets, very realistic, in some of my favorite science fiction. There’s also the long history of the Muppet Show and movies and the Sesame Street I grew up with. Who wouldn’t like Kermit and Miss Piggy and the gang? Or Snuffleupagus? Or Grover?

There they were, Rygel and Pilot and other Creature Shop creations, alongside live actors in real time, live on set. There they were, these characters, operated by super-skilled craftsmen and puppeteers and robotics engineers. Adults playing with puppets and dolls in a big way, along with other adults pretending a story. These people get paid and have a lot of fun and hard work doing this, and they do it so other adults can relax and enjoy a story, get lost in a pretend world, for a little while each week, and they pay in some way for the privilege of watching and listening.

Kinda blows that reluctance out of the water, doesn’t it? — I grew up as a teen, an avid science fiction fan, keeping up with movie and TV science fiction and fantasy, including effects, actors, music, muppets, creatures, makeup and prosthetics, through Starlog, for instance. Because, for one thing, I wanted to write stuff like that. Because, for another, those shows and books were wonderful, a chance to live in another world for a little while, a world where I might be who I wanted to be, a hero, not that geeky boy with the weird glasses and all.

These people I’ve admited all my life, they write shows and books. They do voice acting and live acting in front of the camera for TV and movies. They use makeup and masks and prosthetics. They come up with creatures, combinations of puppetry and robotics, radio control, muppets, animatronics, grownups playing with puppets and dolls. All to produce art forms that thrill people’s imaginations. They do this for the joy of making art, and they get paid, sometimes a lot, to do so, by a worldwide audience who follow these things as fans.

And I’m someone who went to college for one of those impractical daydreamer degrees in the liberal arts. I’m someone who’s spent his working, paid, professional life, such as it is, dealing with words and images, not usually in the fiction and poetry areas, but more mundane ones. But on the side, for enjoyment (and occasional non-profits) I’ve done projects, volunteered, and done things on my own, for fiction and poetry and those other very impractical things. My mother was an artist, a painter. My father was an engineer. I grew up with the idea that arts and letters and music were a fine way to make a living, but hardly ever a way to be rich; you needed a day job until you could make enough from art to do that full time.

So it seems my reluctance about the BJD’s was again just some nonsense in my head, when once examined, not something to let limit me.

Oh yeah, and the people who design and make and sell those BJD’s? They are artists and artisans, and they sell their art to an audience of eager collectors who go out and do incredibly creative things with the dolls.

Those people who make dolls, or model kits, or things like that? They are adults who haven’t lost that love for playing, for using their imaginations, who want to bring a little art and happiness to others, both adults and kids. Adults are usually the ones who make kids’ toys, after all, to bring a little enjoyment and stretch a little imagination and creativity and learning for them…and just for the fun and art of it.

(If that sounds like the Santa Claus story or Pinocchio, it’s no accident. That’s one of the points of those stories.)

So, hmm, it seems my reluctance, as an adult male, to getting a BJD (a doll, an action figure) and to let myself play and pretend, to fool around with them…my objection was just smoke and mirrors, a false construct based on several preconceived notions by other people, who weren’t right.

My budget’s getting back in line gradually, but for the boost, the restart, for my creativity and the enjoyment from it all, the price has been more than worth it.

And if you’re a guy, either a kid or adult, who’s not sure if he wants to get caught playing and pretending with some silly dolls or action figures — don’t let that stop you. If people will watch the latest blockbuster movie or hit TV show with alien creatures, either actors in makeup or animatronic puppets, dolls too, then it’s OK for you to play and pretend too. Just maybe, you might be the next guy making hit stories, creating those great effects, or the star actor, and oh yeah, getting paid to have fun doing it.

Not so geeky or uncool after all. Plenty manly enough.



A Special Item

2013-09-16: This article was first published on my first blog, then republished on my web site.

Don’t dis the ability. It’s the person, not the chair.

Aha! A special item arrived today for a BJD character. (Hmm, the male ego is still insisting on that instead of, y’know, calling him a doll. Ahem.)

This arrived in great condition, and turned out to be a better bargain than I would’ve thought: It came with a Ken doll and a Barbie doll. Well, how would I know if they’re actually Ken and Barbie. I suspect they are friends of theirs. The guy, though, for some reason doesn’t have movable knees. Odd.

I got this on eBay for a good price, better than expected. Still a good deal. — Didn’t think at the time to check new at Amazon. It turns out I still got a big bargain. Though I wound up putting something in the cart for later. I found one option that was too cheap and too cheaply made, per the reviews. Another was very…pink…which wouldn’t suit this character unless he had to. (I might play with that notion, though, story-wise.) What I did find was good, but pricey. Still, might be worth it.

What is this item, you ask?

A character is going to be in a wheelchair. It was the most obvious way I could think of to get a message across that the character was permanently handicapped, that he has to live with it, and that, no matter what the situation our heroes are in, they all have to cooperate to get him out too, and that he can contribute, he’s capable.

The other limit is, no, he doesn’t get a miracle cure. Even with other assistance, which will enter into the plot, I don’t anticipate a reset where he’s cured somehow. But dream or fantasy sequences where he can still walk, etc., will happen.

I considered a cane and sunglasses, a blind character. I still might do that with another character. But I wanted something immediately identifiable.

I didn’t set out to do this. I started out thinking it would be a few characters, fairly regular. But when the idea popped up, it was too important not to pass up.

The idea that, whatever happens, real or imagined, to our crew, we have to deal with this very real physical issue, and that he is valuable, equal, among the group, seemed too good, story-wise, to pass up.

I think, currently, that each “scene” will not feature all the regular characters, but each “episode” will. I won’t know until I’ve tried it how much I can do per session, and therefore how quickly I can get a full “episode” done. But I’m going to try for every 15 days, twice a month.

A little research turned up that the girl (young woman) is Becky, a light red haired friend of Barbie, who uses a wheelchair.

A friend clarified that some Barbie and Ken dolls, especially the older models, didn’t have joints at the knees and elbows, and this was a big thing when they were movable.


Hello, World!

Welcome to the Blog. Here, you will find news and discussion.

  1. Original Writing: Poetry, Fiction, Non-Fiction.
  2. Artwork: Handmade and Digital Drawings, Paintings, and Photographs.
  3. Font Design: Text and Display Fonts. Coming Soon.
  4. Web, Print, and Media Design: Form and Function.
  5. Voice and Audio Work: Voice Acting on Fan-Made Podcasts.
  6. Fan-Based Media: About Other Authors and Artists I Like.
  7. Toy Box Tales: A Story Writing and Art Project.
  8. Opinions: On a Variety of Subjects.
  9. Miscellaneous: Hobbies and Stuff I’m Doing.