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To Infinity and Beyond… Well, to $4K, anyway, for this Buzz Lightyear Prototype

Ron Ruelle hobbyDB

One of the great lessons of the “Toy Story” movies was that toys need to be taken out of their packages and played with in order to  become loved through such interaction.

One of the great lessons of “Toy Story” collectibles is that some of those toys are, well, pretty darn valuable and must be treasured.

Take this 9-inch tall Buzz Lightyear figure. If he looks a little colorless, that’s because he is a very limited production model. Sorry, he’s a pre-production prototype of that very limited model. A very nice one to boot. And Rob Romash is selling it right now on hobbyDB..

mattel Buzz Lightyearmattel Buzz Lightyear

This Buzz Lightyear Prototype comes from the collection of Romash, who if you’ve been reading our blog lately, was a designer for Matchbox and other companies in the early 2000s. While with Matchbox, he actually worked for the overall Mattel brand as well, occasionally sculpting action figures and other non-diecast toys. The production Buzz figure was released shortly after “Toy Story 2” hit theaters. “It is a one-of-one for a high value licensed item,” said Romash. “It’s worth the price especially for the collector who wants something not anybody else can get.” He estimated about 250 man hours went into this project.

The model for sale here is not a solid figure, but is actually made up of resin molds of each individual part that eventually went into the final product. As such, not only did it need to look perfect, but it had to function and hold together like the real thing. “The final model had lights and sound,” said Romash. “I wasn’t the electronics guy, but many of the buttons and other features in Buzz had to do with electronics. These would be added later… It was my job just to make sure they could be incorporated in the next step.”

“This model was scanned for 3D and then that scan is put into PRO-ENGINEER software. It would be in the computer that the final additions for electronics would be added,” he said. “Each part would be scanned and then they could do any other final tweaks in the computer.”

“After the 3D is in the computer, the model gets translated to steel molds for mass production. Its a lot like a full size clay model car manufacturers do. They still depend on the human hand for that full size clay model to make sure the car is as the designers want, those clay models (full size) also are then scanned and put into 3D and from there tooling plans are done and production starts, pretty much just like Buzz here.”

What you’re looking at here is the one and only master from which, if not all, final molds were made from, including a few minor adjustments made with putty (you can see the different colored material in a few places.) Also, the facial expression is slightly different, suggesting another last minor change. Mattel’s final model included new features that Buzz “discovered” during the highly-rated, universally-beloved sequel. Here’s a nice video showing what the production model could do.

mattel Buzz Lightyear“I worked on several “Cars” models and was privy to all PIXAR movies years in advance,” he said of his days at Mattel. “I remember seeing very early drawings and storyboards for “Monsters University” years before release, among other PIXAR and Disney stuff.”

“Now I’m out of the cool loop,” he sighed. At least he got to play with this stuff for a few years, right?

mattel Buzz Lightyear

From Super Soakers to Redneck Roadkill: Rob Romash Outside of Mattel

super soaker prototypes

The handmade prototypes for Super Soakers had to look correct and be pretty much fully functioning.

We’ve recently brought you some stories of the designers who helped create many Matchbox vehicles from the early 2000s – Steve Moye, Product Designer; Glenn Hubing, Model Painter; and Rob Romash, Master Modelmaker.
romash super soakers

Romash at work/play in his Super Soaker days.

There’s a lot more to their stories, so here’s a look at Romash’s work before and after his days at Mattel. After his second year at design school, he was likely to be scooping ice cream in White House, New Jersey, when he spotted an ad in the local paper. “They were looking for a model maker to build prototypes of toys,” he said. “I had been building models since I was a kid, and figured I’d give it a shot.” To say it was a life-changing moment is an understatement. 

The job was for a local company called Professional Prototypes in White House New Jersey, whose client was Johnson Research & Development Co. who were introducing their Super Soakers squirt gun line. “We had to translate the drawings to life size models,” he said. But these weren’t just for looks. “These were basically fully-functioning models, complete with hollow tanks, tubes connecting everything… we were creating just about the finished pre-production designs.” Not only were these used as the basis for production, but they sometimes were painted and used in commercials, which had to be shot before the final product was available.

romash super soaker tv commercial

Chances are, if you saw an early commercial for Super Soakers, Romash’s working, painted prototypes were used as stand-ins.

The job went well enough that he postponed going back to school. Permanently, as it turns out. And thus began Romash’s career as a toy designer and prototype modeler. 

In 1996, Romash eventually Tyco to produce prototypes for radio control models. (In fact, one of his former co-workers at the New Jersey ice cream shop was working there… small world!) One of the interesting challenges of designing for slot cars or remote control cars is the pre-set design parameters. “Tyco had one chassis setup, so every single car had to be designed to fit those proportions,”Romash said. 

For an original fantasy creation, it’s not too hard to tweak the proportions. But for an R/C car based on a real production car, there’s a lot to consider. Consider this 1965-66 Mustang fastback R/C car (below). It’s instantly recognizable as such, even though the proportions are squeezed a bit from front to back, and the body is wider than the real car. Not only do the wheelbase and the width need to be honored, but the body needs to fit over the motor (which can be a real problem with convertibles).

RC Mustang

Even though the proportions have been modified, this model could only be a first generation Ford Mustang.

The trick was to get the folks at Ford Motor Company to sign off on the design, even though he had to take some liberties. When Tyco was bought out by Mattel in 1997, the electric train line disappeared quickly, but the slot cars and R/C cars became part of Mattel Racing. (You can read the complete history of his days with Mattel here.)

After Mattel closed the Mt. Laurel shop in 2005, Romash found a gig at Estes Rockets, based in Penrose, Colorado. Having worked with radio control cars, Romash had a good sense of how to create a model that looked great, functioned well, and could withstand some hard play time. He worked mostly on R/C airplanes there, developing unlicensed original designs that still had the aerodynamic chops to fly.

romash prototypes

Not all toys make it past the the prototype stage. For whatever reasons, Tyco did not produce this R/C rollover vehicle or this “Star Wars” landspeeder.

His work there also required him to travel to China to oversee various aspects of final productioin. While the Estes job ended when the company was bought out, the experience with Chinese plants proved to be a useful new asset for Romash. Having grown fond of Colorado, he decided to start his own company, Eclipse Toys, continuing his tenure in the world of R/C cars and planes. But instead of taking orders from an established company and hoping his designs would translate properly to production, he now made his own decisions and brought the prototypes to China himself.

There’s a noble purpose to Eclipse Toys as well. “I’m working with the Acadmey of Model Aeronautics to bring our models into STEM programs at schools,” he said. The idea is to inspire kids to think about areo engineering not just as toys and hobbies, but as a career.

On the other end of the spectrum, he has also designed modle aircraft for magicplanes.com. These are very high end, expensive RC planes for “exectuive playtime.” Besides precision performance, they are also limited edition works of art.

 

redneck roadkill

Romash now has his own company, with Redneck Roadkill R/C models as their latest success.

The latest new product is a series of RC trucks called Redneck Roadkill R/C. “I called my good friend Glenn Hubing and asked him if he would work on this with me,” he said. The Redneck Roadkill trucks have a seriously weatherbeaten, dirty patina, the kind of detail only a master model painter could create. “Seriously, there is nothing else like them on the market right now.”

 When he looks back on his career, he knows his success comes from hard work, natural talent, and great teamwork. But also a little luck. “I pinch myself sometimes,” he said of his good fortune. “ If I didn’t see that ad for that first job at Laramie, who knows how things would have turned out?”