Alana and Marko are interspecies lovers. They erupt onto comic book panels amid scenes of childbirth, intense battles, and robot sex. They quickly flee into an otherworldly sewer system. It’s an inauspicious opening that shouldn’t lead directly to the idea, “Hey, let’s make some collectible figurines based on this book.” But that’s exactly what happened, as Funko recently launched a line of Pop! figures based on “Saga,” the sci-fi fantasy series from Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples.
I was inspired to learn more about Funko by the throngs of people who wait at comic conventions to get their hands on exclusive releases, and by my own collection of Pop! figures. As with any good characters, there’s a backstory. I wanted to know how the company plans, analyzes, designs and manufactures a Pop! figure.
To get the story behind Funko’s figures, I visited with Funko President Andrew Perlmutter, VP of Creative Ben Butcher and Director of Marketing Mark Robben at the company’s Everett, Wash., headquarters, about a half-hour north of Seattle. The new facility is the nerve center for Funko, which became a publicly traded company with its IPO on the NASDAQ last fall.
Robben had gone to bat see his beloved Saga characters transformed into Funko figures. And so the Saga figures acted as my spirit guides through the process of learning Funko’s approach. You’ll see the Saga figures in various stages of development in the accompanying images.
This is what it takes to pop out a Pop!
Inspiration. New ideas can arrive from anywhere within the organization — or from the fandom.
“We can’t know everything about what’s going on, but we are all pop culture people,” Perlmutter said. “We eat and breathe and sleep pop culture, so everybody will have their favorite.”
Butcher added, “The unique thing about the process here is it can start from anywhere. People who have been here for as little as two weeks can have an idea and get it going. We take the time to listen to the passion of our people. Even if leadership hasn’t heard about it, we’ll take the time to look into it.”
To get fan input, and to stay connected to its fan base, Funko religiously engages fans via social media and at conventions. Their fans represent a wide swath of pop culture, which fuels the company’s market intelligence. They constantly receive reinforcement for products already in the mix, along with inspiration for new lines.
And of course, there is always the next blockbuster where Disney, Warner Bros. or another studio or publisher not only brings ideas but sees Funko and its figures as an extension of the brand and the franchise.
Ideation. For ideas not brought to them from licensors directly, the leadership team kicks around ideas and then decides on the ones they want to pursue. Every Funko figure that arrives on a shelf begins with positive market research and a good business case.
Conceptualization. Artists play with ideas digitally to give a sense of what one or more of the figures in a series might look like. Sometimes this is a rough sketch, sometimes a complete concept model. (While sitting with Butcher, a staff member walked in with a concept idea and said, “I like a lot of it, but I’m not sold on the eyes.” Butcher assured him they would get the eye issue resolved.)
Licensing. For in-house or fan-generated ideas, Funko reaches out to the intellectual property owner to start a conversation about using their characters for a Pop! (unless the character already belongs to Funko, like those from Funko’s own Wetmore Forest).
Concept approval. Once an idea meets a threshold for coolness and return-on-investment, it goes through concept approval. Funko and licensors collaborate to approve the look of the sculpt. Designers reflect feedback in the detailed sculpt.
Detailed sculpt. Experienced digital sculptors use Pixologic’s ZBrush app to create the final design for prototyping. Detailed sculpts can take a day to a day-and-a-half for an artist to execute.
Initial prototype. Funko sends a ZBrush file, usually a .ztl file, to their Chinese and Vietnamese manufacturing partners who print a prototype.
Figure approval. Final approval requires detailed digital images to ensure that the prototypes match the design. In some cases, like new form factors, manufacturers ship figures to Funko for review. The Funko team approves the final sculpts for production. The exception to this step is a partner, such as a major studio, where Funko may output the prototype locally and spend time going over the designs with the combined teams in a physical meeting. Otherwise, it’s all virtual, and it’s all fast.
Mold. The manufacturing partner turns the final design ZBrush output into a mold from a 3D print.
Prototype approval. A definitive version of the unpainted figure, output by the actual manufacturing process, gets approved.
Manufacturing. The manufacturing facility schedules and queues the figure run. The size of a production run depends on the market research. Products based on DC, Disney, Marvel or Star Wars franchises typically generate thousands of figures that end up on the shelves of Target and Walmart, and the virtual shelves of Amazon. Some ideas may lead to smaller lots distributed primarily through boutique distributors, or at conventions.
Packaging and paint design. While the figures are “in-mold,” Funko has about 30 to 45 days to collect all the branding elements required from the licensor for the packaging.
The figure designers also use this time to finish the paint schemes, known as “deco” (for “decoration”) and “paint ops” (paint options).
Another group of designers creates packaging art, which goes through a similar approval cycle to the figures themselves. The same factories that manufacture the figures also decorate and package them, though the packaging may be subcontracted.
While all of this is happening, the manufacturer takes this time to create the blister pack, or clear plastic enclosure, that holds the figure snug in its box.
Packaging and paint approval. The manufacturer sends a physical example of a painted figure along with the packaging to Funko for review. This ensures that both match artist intent, and that all the words on the package copy are spelled correctly.
Paint and packaging also represent the most common collector variants that end up as online, trade show or Comic-Con exclusives. The simplest form of exclusive is a decoration or paint variant.
“We try to come up with a reason for it nowadays, trying to dig deep into some storyline that was written in a comic. So that it is something that is as interesting as it can be for diehard fans,” Butcher said. “We try to find a balance between paint, variants on poses and all new sculpts.”
In some cases, Funko crafts a variant figure pose which goes through the entire cycle outlined above.
Final pre-production box. This includes a finished figure, in the box, so the Funko team can make a final check on color, packaging and overall presentation.
Final assembly and the slow boat home. The factories paint and package the final product, put them in cartons and load those cartons into containers on ships bound for Washington state.
Warehousing and distribution. The figures arrive at one of three Funko warehouses in Everett where the company coordinates distribution to specialty outlets, retailers, and conventions.
You buy a figure and enjoy it. Everything circles back to the customer. Enjoying the figure could range from keeping it “mint in box” on a shelf, protected by a specially made Pop! collectors case, to opening it up and putting it out for people to touch and look at. Other fans may want to flip a figure, which means reselling it to another fan — hopefully for a lot more than you paid.
Beyond the basics
A caveat to this process comes in ideas that lead to new form factors. Funko expanded their line of figures over the years to include pen toppers, plush toys, Pint Size Heroes, Rock Candy, Dorbz, Vynl and other new sub-brands. When they bought Underground Toys, Funko incorporated a home goods line. The Loungefly deal brought them into the fashion accessory market.
Manufacturing capacity and capability, packaging, distribution and go-to-market strategy must all be planned for regardless of existing distribution channels or licensing deals.
Waiting for Hudson Hawk
Robben’s ability to champion “Saga” ultimately led to Pop! figures for his favorite comic being released into the world at the end of February.
“There is always somebody, some salesperson or sculptor who plays the video game, who is a subject matter expert. No matter what it is,” Robben said. “If it’s ‘Overwatch,’ we are going to go talk to Tim. If it’s ‘Saga,’ we’ll talk to Poppy. Everyone has their something, which allows people to work on things they love. They help shape which characters we make and what they wear, and they can talk to the licensors in the same way. They know we know the characters. ”
Robben said there are passionate debates about what should get made, and that the Funko culture makes it a fun process to be involved with.
Other ideas have yet to come to life even in the expansive, cross-genre and cross-property pop-culture world of Funko. Butcher, for instance, is still hoping to get a Hudson Hawk figure made. “That’s my white whale,” he said of the 1991 Bruce Willis film. “I keep trying to find someone else who loves that movie.”
Some concepts, it turns out, are too nerdy even for one of the planet’s nerdiest companies. But for everything else, there’s a process to make the idea Pop!