How did your career as an artist begin? What has influenced your artwork? Did you always want to be an artist?
I come from a family of artists. I was basically always encouraged to create artwork. My mom was a big fan of sci-fi and horror films and the paranormal. She was the type of person that would take me to the drive-in every weekend to see new horror and sci-fi movies — Planet of the Apes, 2001, A Clockwork Orange, and The Omega Man were my favorites. On the weekends, she’d sit me down to watch creature features — King Kong, The Creature From The Black Lagoon and all of those great black-and-white films.
She was really involved in ESP and all of the weird stuff. I was a born skeptic but was always around it. It sparked a very early interest in me for the weird stuff. Anyway, being an artist with that in mind, that’s all I drew — and she encouraged me to do so.
How did you get into doing artwork for bands?
After becoming a musician in high school, my interest in rock and roll grew. When I gave up being a musician (because I was so bad at it), I turned around and started doing artwork for bands. After doing some stuff for some local bands in San Diego, I started working for Motley Crue when I was 18. To encapsulate a long period of time — about 18 years — after working with Motley, I started working with a number of other bands. Mainly, it was a lot of the “hair bands” — Guns n’ Roses, Aerosmith… I always kind of hated doing the “hair band” stuff because I didn’t really like the music. I was having a lot of fun hanging out with these bands, but I was always listening to weirder music.
Eventually, I started working with grunge bands like Soundgarden and Alice In Chains, then a lot of punk bands like the Ramones. I worked for years with the Black Crowes, and really dug it. They gave me a lot of freedom, and Chris [?, lead singer] was always a good friend to me. He is one of my favorite people in the world. I worked a lot with Skinny Puppy. They are my favorite band and we have like minds, so they would just turn me loose.
What was it like being on the road with some of these bands?
Bands would take me on the road with them, but it really wasn’t that fun. It sounds like it’s fun, but it’s not — especially when they are taking you out there and locking you up in a hotel room for a few days and having you just draw. It just wasn’t that fun. There were always some weird stories that came out of it and weird stuff to deal with. I had more fun with it when bands came into town and I got to go meet with them, show them artwork and have a good time.
How does working for a corporation differ from past experiences working as a freelance artist? Do you like the corporate side of the industry? Is working for a corporation more rewarding than freelancing?
Being in the corporate situation at Mattel, I think I’m lucky because I get to be the way I want to be. I didn’t have to conform to come here. My peers and the people above me accepted me right away. I’m still considered a loose cannon and a goof ball, but that is fine with me — that means I’m in control of what I want to do, and I’m not really conforming to any form of art direction.
I like the corporate thing, but it’s different [than working for other companies] because I’m working with creative people. Every day is a different day. You design artwork and you get accolades for it. When you’re working by yourself and you’re doing some big painting or something, it’s a different situation. When you turn over a painting or album cover, two years later they’ll send you a t-shirt or a poster or something and that’s it.
How did you actually end up working for Mattel? Your background is in painting. Was it tough to make the transition to computer artwork?
It’s actually kind of a fluke because I had no interest in working anywhere (other than freelancing). Probably about a year before I came to Mattel, I was experimenting with what you can do with a computer. I had always been a painter. I got very quick at doing paintings on the computer, and I had heard that you could do very well if you knew what you were doing. So I sent out a few resumes to some companies just to see what I could get. A couple of months later, I was contacted by Mattel, and they told me that someone from Hot Wheels wanted to meet with me. It was Michael Heralda. I met with him, and we hit it off really well. I had always loved Hot Wheels cars, so it was — and has been — a perfect fit.
So you are happy with where you are? What is your current position in Design?
I love it. I plan on retiring here. We don’t have a position called art director, but that is sort of what I am. Basically, I’m the manager of Hot Wheels graphics. I’m still a key designer, but I’m also the scheduler. I handle all of the corporate stuff and try to keep all of the designers’ lives as creative as possible by absorbing all of the corporate stuff.
As an art director, you must get to guide the direction of Hot Wheels graphics? Where is this side of Hot Wheels headed?
I’ve tried to bring a new theory to Hot Wheels graphics. My interest is mainly with the kid-oriented stuff. We are always going to have that collector following that wants the serious decorations, serious pinstripes and serious flame jobs. There is always a market for that. That is easy. They are fun to do, and they always come out great. But my interest is to make kids go crazy over not just the car but also the graphic designs.
My philosophy with it is that each car is a canvas. So every time you get a car to do, it’s a challenge. I want to make sure that we are working with the design of the car but, at the same time, it needs to be something that you’ll never see on a real-life car.
I kind of look at it like skateboards. The younger kids pick out a board because of the graphics. The older kids pick out a board because they like the design of the deck, the rider, or the sponsor. I’m gearing toward making kids walk down the aisle and say, “I want that one!”
Coming from a background that could be described as a little more edgy than children’s products, do you ever feel that you have to hold back or be more “mom-friendly” than before?
I think “mom-friendly” is a corporate word. I think that people who think that way don’t give moms enough credit. The majority of mothers that are buying toys for their kids these days are way more hip than they are given credit for. Moms are, in my opinion, more aware of trends that are going on in youth culture — therefore, I don’t think they are as offended as one is led to believe. Most kids are blowing the skulls of aliens and innocent bystanders inside-out with nuclear sniper cannons on their video screens these days. The days of June Cleaver are over. I think we would have to go out of our way to really offend anybody, and if we did, it would smack of trying to offend.
I like things to be edgy based on the quality of the artwork and not necessarily the content. I think that is a true challenge, and it makes for a better Hot Wheels design. You can take the simplest thing and make it edgy; it just relies on how you approach the design.
When we come up with ideas for themes for segments and 5-packs, it is a huge group effort. We have an open invitation to all Mattel employees every year to submit ideas for these, and always come out of it with a vast list of possible themes. A lot of them we have to shelve because the timing might be off — they might be just a tad too edgy for the time. I personally can hardly wait to unleash these things on the public! In the meantime, we are going to push it as far as we can.
I’ve currently completed a sci-fi 5-pack, a sideshow 5-pack, and four Halloween 2-packs — so I’m having a fun year! I am really proud of these, because I really have pushed limits with the tampo and have gotten back great results from the plant. The Halloween 2-packs are really going to be something — vampire, werewolf, mummy and zombie themes. Each has one car that is black with black, white, and grey tampo. The other car is colored with full-color tampo. I’m going to buy a trunk full of these things to give out to all the little hellions that live in my neighborhood for Halloween this year — and keep a stockpile for myself as well.
The Hot Wheels Convention last October was the first convention you had attended. What was that experience like for you?
Overwhelming to say the least. The collectors are so passionate about the brand, and so generous. I have sat and signed art before for groups of people back in my rock and roll days, but this was way different. I am involved in something that means so much to people, something that has been a part of their life since they were children. It is strange to feel that appreciation and, at the same time, know that I am riding a fine line of possibly not meeting the approval of the global Hot Wheels community. But the real highlight for me is meeting the kids. They’re what it’s all about to me. I’m really looking forward to the Nationals in Virginia this year — it will be a hoot.
Explain how the graphic design process works…
The graphics team divides up the themes, then we pick our “wish list” vehicles for the themes. With us being involved in this process, it allows us to be more involved from the beginning, and gives us more time to think out the deco. It also helps avoid inappropriate “hot potato” cars to show up in weird places… like the Ice Cream Truck going into the “Wild West” segment. Once I get a guarantee that I’m going to get the cars that I picked for that series, I start with thumbnail sketches or overlays over the shape of the car.
Are these hand-drawn sketches?
Right. That is what I feel comfortable with. Michael Heralda, for example, has been doing this for a long time. He is a mad scientist at this [designing graphics on the computer]. He can do three to four cars a day without having to sketch something out. He is brilliant that way. I’m more meticulous, because I’m always trying to re-invent the wheel, trying to find the artwork move within the body working with wheel wells and the shape of the body. I just haven’t had enough time working on the computer. I always do a sketch first and then, once I get that to where I like it, I scan it and build it on the computer.
So you feel that you are getting a lot more out of tampo printing then you used to be able to?
Yes. We’ve been getting away with a lot lately with tampo printing. When I first came here, I was told that you can’t do a line this way, that you can’t use gradients because they get too dotty, etc. The plants have not only gotten better, but I think we were limited in what we were able to do because we simply weren’t trying to do certain things.
On a fluke, I just started trying things and on each thing I did I was getting stuff back that looked like fusion graphics. Of course I’ve seen things come back that we expected to work better, but more times then not we are getting very nice things back. As a group we have talked about spending time trying to push the envelope with the printing process. So, hopefully, you’re going to see the graphics take a wild transition.
With tampo printing, are you limited to four colors?
Right, you are limited to four colors. But, if you are using gradients and stuff like that, it really works more like a four-color process. The eye perceives colors that aren’t really there. If you use gradients, you might end up with three or four colors — rather than just the two colors that are really there. To me, we need to one-up it every year and push it as far as we can.
Last year you visited several of our production facilities overseas. What did you gain from that experience?
The most important thing was that I learned how the tampo process works. After being involved in the rock business, primarily what I was doing was t-shirts. Tampo is basically the same thing. It’s like silk screening. Seeing the ink actually being put on the cars blew my mind and, when I came back from there, I started to push the limits of what we could do.
There has always been this talk about fusion graphics becoming the future when it becomes more cost effective. But, in all honesty, I think fusion graphics should stay their own separate entity. The thing that is cool about tampo is that it’s like a painting on the car, a piece of artwork. I like the idea that you can feel the deco on your fingertips. It gives it soul. A decal doesn’t have that.
The trip just gave me a whole new appreciation for Hot Wheels cars. It blew me away. These things are handcrafted! To me, every time you buy a Hot Wheels car, you are buying a limited edition print. I take pride in making sure every piece of artwork reeks of that.
DESIGNER PROFILE All Designs by Miq Willmott