From concept art to your collection: How Funko Pops are made

Key Points
  • At Star Wars Celebration last week Funko sold a line of exclusive Pops that was only available to fans who attended the event.
  • Reis O'Brien, senior product designer at the company, shared a series of prototype images of one of the convention's exclusive "Star Wars" figures — Darth Maul.
  • From concept sketch to final product, here's what it took to turn the Sith Lord into a collectible.
Sarah Whitten

Fans of Funko know it's not your average toy company.

In fact, CEO Brian Mariotti balks at calling the brand one. Instead, he views his business as one that trades in pop culture, offering stylized figurines and apparel of famous characters from movies, television, music and more to passionate consumers.

One of its most popular items is the Funko Pop, a three-and-three-quarter inch plastic figure with a large head and big round eyes. With more than 1,000 licenses, Funko has created tens of thousands of different characters and collections from "Game of Thrones" and Fortnite to "The Golden Girls" and "Caddyshack."

With a full slate of blockbuster movies coming to theaters this year, Funko is in a good position to reap rewards from excited fans. Sales in fiscal 2019 are projected to grow more than 19 percent to a range of $810 million to $825 million. Its stock has grown more than 131% this year, boosting its market value to $985.9 million

Funko sells its products through a number of different retailers, often providing specific retailers with exclusive collectibles that can only be purchased with that company. Those exclusives help drive up demand and sales.

For example, Barnes & Noble is the only location that customers can purchase a Mr. Rogers Funko Pop that features the character holding a puppet. Similarly, Walmart is the only place fans can get a glittery version of Marvel's Black Panther. Even drugstore Walgreens carries exclusive collectibles from Funko; it is the only place that consumers can grab a young Obi-Wan Kenobi Pop wearing a hood. Funko also works with Hot Topic, GameStop, Target, Best Buy and national and local comic book shops.

Then there are the convention exclusives. At Star Wars Celebration, which was held in Chicago from April 11 to April 15, Funko sold a line of Pops that was only available to fans who attended the event.

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Reis O'Brien, senior product designer at Funko, shared a series of prototype images of one of the convention's exclusive "Star Wars" figures: fan favorite Darth Maul. Here's what it took to turn the evil Sith Lord into a Pop.

Concept art

"Maul is a no-brainer," O'Brien said. "He's a home run. He's a softball. You know people are going to love Maul. But, that doesn't mean we slack on it. We can't just bust out any old Maul. It's actually a greater responsibility when you know this guy is beloved."

At Funko, the collectible making process usually starts with a sketch. Some of its designers like to start with pen and paper, others go straight to crafting digitally.

For Maul, designer Jason Angelone started with a physical sketch.

"We've done Maul a couple of times," O'Brien said. "So, the first challenge is how do we do Maul differently? The first thing we did was talk about some of our favorite scenes with Darth Maul and we ended up with a very specific version of him from 'The Phantom Menace' when he fights Qui-Gon in the desert."

In Angelone's sketch, you can see Maul with his hood up, his double lightsaber lit on only one side and his cape flowing to the side, in a dynamic pose. It's a stylized recreation of the iconic scene from the film, which tries to capture the motion of his battle with the maverick Jedi Master.


3-D modeling

"Our motto is 'everybody is a fan of something' so our job is to take these characters that people are a fan of and make them even more lovable and available and affordable," O'Brien said.

The process from concept drawing to final product takes an average of six to nine months, he said. During the concept drawing phase, once the artist feels like they have captured the spirit of the character, they will move on to the sculpt phase. This is done digitally.

For the Maul figure, Funko worked with Lucasfilm extensively before creating the model, so there was little back and forth about the design and it was approved rather quickly. For all "Star Wars" Funko products, Lucasfilm must sign off on the design before it is able to go into production.


Perfecting the sculpt

O'Brien said that sometimes the approval process can take a bit longer. He noted that the Watto Pop, also a Celebration exclusive, was a bit trickier to capture because of his alien features.

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"Lucasfilm is very protective of the characters," he said. "And [they] want everything to be true to the character."

During the sculpting process, designers will start with a very basic shape and then add layers of texture. O'Brien provided photos of a Pop figure of Han Solo riding a tauntaun from "The Empire Strikes Back" as an example of this process.

The Pops that have two figures in them, particularly with one figure on top of another, can be tricky for the design team, especially when it comes to proportions.

Here, designer Amanda Brock started with a generic male Pop on top of the creature and then build up the fur and clothing to ensure the piece was balanced, but still authentic to the scene on ice planet Hoth.


Final details

Also part of the design is the paint job. For Darth Maul, Funko designers were tasked with capturing his unique tattoos and facial features in the small figure.

"If you want to stay true to Maul's character, the details are all there, that's the easy part," O'Brien said. "How many horns he has, the tattoos on his face, things like that. But, Maul is all attitude, he's frightening, he's constantly like a coiled snake. He's always ready to strike. So, people probably don't think that we think about that kind of stuff, but we do."

Angelone went in and warped the tattoos around the figure's eyes to make it look more furrowed and menacing. He also, twisted them around the nose to give him a bit of a snarl. O'Brien said that the tattoos are still accurate, but were given a bit more expression to really capture Maul's personality.

Once the design is approved, it is produced, boxed in specially designed packaging and ready for collectors.


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Correction: Funko's market capitalization is $985.9 million. A previous story misstated the value.