Billy Langsworthy talks to Hot Wheels designer Bryan Benedict about working with major licences, how he started out in the industry and of course, what car he drives.
How far is your reach across the Hot Wheels brand?
I’m a designer in the Hot Wheels die-cast team. I am the lead designer for all the Hot Wheels entertainment character cars. I lead design on all of the DC Comics, Marvel and Star Wars cars, as well as other licences as they come and go.
Ah, so you know all the Star Wars: The Force Awakens secrets?
I do, but you can’t break me. Actually they keep a lot of stuff from us. They only tell us as much as we absolutely need to know to do the product.
You’ve showcased the Darth Vader character car, as well as its life-sized working counterparts, at shows all around the world. How did that come about and how much freedom do you have when it comes to creating a car based on an iconic character like that?
We had done character cars for other entertainment brands like DC, and it actually all started back with Toy Story. Just before Toy Story 3 came out, I lead the initiative to come up with a line of character cars around Toy Story. That ended up being hugely successful; it was one of the most successful items in our whole Toy Story Line. It was an unexpected success.
It was always a thing of mine to design cars based on attributes of characters, creatures and animals. And in Hot Wheels history, we’ve always done things like the Shark Cruiser and Dragon cars. Those, even as a kid, always fascinated me. When I joined the Hot Wheels team, that was my speciality. I was doing that in the basic car line and I thought why not expand this into the world of popular characters that everyone knows and loves.
So it proved to be successful for us and as a result of that we got the attention of Marvel. We pitched for that business and got that, and then that led into getting the Star Wars business.
When we got Star Wars, obviously we knew we were going to do Darth Vader. We had a lot of discussions about what characters we would do, as we can only do so many. We very quickly narrowed down that list to the key characters that we wanted to launch with, with Darth Vader being the most important character to do.
At Comic-Con, we wanted to make a big statement, as this was huge news. What better way to do that than to take one of these character cars and bring it to life in real, fully functioning, automotive form. Of course, it was an easy decision to make Darth be that car.
What was the design process like for the Darth Vader character Hot Wheels car?
We went through a lot of versions as we were ideating on it. Myself and three other designers all sketched around it. There were a lot of opinions on the vehicle type and things like that. When we’re doing these cars, it’s not a case of how do I redecorate a car to make it look like Darth. It's much more than that. It's about thinking about these characters holistically. What is the character’s personality? Where do they come from? What kind of car would they be if they were a car?
Some were pushing for a Hot Rod but I thought that was too old school and didn’t match Darth’s personality. Some were pushing for a super-futuristic supercar but that didn’t feel quite right. So I decided to go in a timeless direction. It could be a car from the past, the future or now. That is a big element in Star Wars in general. We think Star Wars is in the future but it’s in the past. ‘A galaxy far, far away’. I wanted to get at that with the vehicle design.
We did a few early sketches but very quickly chose the direction that the car ended up going in. What’s interesting is that the actual final product ended up being near identical to that first sketch.
When we’re designing the Hot Wheels cars, we always think of them as real cars. We don’t see ourselves as toy designers per se; we’re like car designers. So when designing the car, I envisioned how it would work and function as a real car and when we made the decision to build a full size Darth car, it was easy to make that a reality.
When you look at the Darth car, you wouldn't say that looks like a car from the 40s, 50s, 60s or even now. It looks like a car that exists outside of space and time, but yet it's authentic to cars and car culture.
I tried to capture the elements of the character in an automotive way. So his chest plate in his costume is integrated as a shaker hood that you'd find in a lot of muscle cars. The shaker component is often connected to the motor, so the car rumbles when it's turned on which adds to his ominous, menacing persona.
The lightsaber on the side of the car is integrated as a side pipe, like a Dodge Viper. The hilt of the lightsaber functions as a necessary shield for the pipe. A side pipe gets hot so the idea is that the hilt is there as the shield as you step into the car.
The screw tips on his mask function as head lights. I wanted to do the mask in a way that didn't look like a helmet on wheels. Nothing we do in Hot Wheels is gimmacky so it had to be done in a sleek, automotive way.
How do you negotiate creative control when working with huge names like Mattel and Disney?
That can definitely be a challenge at a big company. There are a lot of opinions and a lot of people in charge that want to take things a certain way and sometimes the designer’s original vision gets lost in that. But I think we do a good job of balancing that at Mattel. We have an exceptional leadership team that is really open to new ideas and thinking out of the box.
As a creative person myself, I have been satisfied and fulfilled working on Hot Wheels and feeling like I’m getting to achieve my vision. With character cars and play sets, I feel we’ve created an exciting world for kids to play with.
How conscious are you that with the licensed lines of cars, you have a spotlight on you from some of the most passionate fanbases around?
It's interesting because even when we're dealing with Marvel and Disney, those guys themselves are hardcore fans. The guys at Star Wars are Star Wars nerds and the guys at Marvel are Marvel nerds. They are so passionate about their brands and we're the same way, we're Hot Wheels nerds. Together, the passion shows in the product.
We're all so conscious of appealing to the fans, both the kids excited about Iron Man and the adult collector fan. Traditionally, adult Hot Wheels collectors are not fans of Hot Wheels Originals (fantasy cars designed internally by Hot Wheels designers), they prefer licensed cars like Ford or Ferrari replicas. But we've seen huge buzz on the forums where they are really excited about the character cars. They have connected with them.
What has been the most challenging character to give the Hot Wheels treatment to?
Within the Star Wars licence, one of the challenges we had was how to bring a character to life in automotive form that is just a regular guy in a costume. Like Jedi Luke is just a guy with a black suit. From a visual perspective, there’s no real iconic element to clearly identify, other than the lightsaber. So how do you keep that from being just another black Hot Wheels car?
So those characters, like Han Solo with his vest, are challenging. But we were able to execute them in a way that’s easy to read. When you see Han in the two-pack with Chewbacca, you immediately get that its Han and Chewie. With Luke, we really played up on the white flap that comes down on his black costume, so that’s dominant on the hood.
How did you become a Hot Wheels designer?
I actually designed real cars for ten years. I was in the car industry. I studied automotive design and I set out to design cars. After ten years in the car industry I got contacted out of the blue by Hot Wheels and it sounded like a really good opportunity.
Being a designer in the car industry, Hot Wheels is the ultimate expression of car design. You can go crazy and have fun with it. When I first started at Hot Wheels I wasn’t focused on die-cast cars, I was doing innovation stuff with traps and play sets. Now, in the last few years, I’ve been focused on die-cast and it’s the perfect way to express my creativity. And we make more cars than anyone.
What advice would you give to budding toy designers?
You need to be able to set yourself apart because there is a lot of competition. We get tonnes of inventor concepts in, and a lot of them are great, but even a lot of the great ones won’t get selected because we can’t do everything.
You need to do something unique and creative, and put a stamp on it. My stamp at Hot Wheels is that I’m able to bridge the world between cool and edgy, and quirky and crazy. I’ve been able to see something silly and ridiculous and twist it into something cool. For Hot Wheels, it’s all about being cool and authentic about cars.
Anyone that wants to make a name for themselves needs to set themselves apart and not just have the great idea, but also have a hook that’s going to sell it.
And, I have to ask, what car do you drive?
That’s a horrible question and I don’t have a good answer. In the past I have always had my daily driver, and then a cool car. But as I have a lot of kids, in recent years I’ve had to get rid of my cool car, but I’m in the process of looking for something right now. But my daily driver is a Chrysler Pacifica, which was my wife’s car. When we had more kids, she had to get a mini-van and the Pacifica got passed down to me.
So what was your last ‘cool’ car?
Well I’ve had a lot of cool/quirky cars. I had a Triumph Spitfire, at one point I had a 62 Cadillac convertible and I’ve had VW Bug. I had an International Scout that was all jacked up. But my most recent one was a huge boat; it was a 79 Lincoln that I got on purpose because it was the longest mass-produced car ever made. I just wanted something that was very extreme.