Russell Tucker '97 turned a hobby into a one-man toymaking business.
by Erica Salamida '04
While shopping in a toy store as a college student, Russell Tucker became inspired by a Sea Quest action figure. "[The figure] looked just like my friend, only it was wearing an orange jacket," Tucker says. "I thought, 'You know what, I can repaint that.' " With a little ingenuity, he gave the generic toy a makeover. "I used my computer and my crappy paint program to try to make packaging for it, and it was a huge hit."
Up until June of last year, he continued making personalized action figures as gifts. Tucker's brother Phillip always believed that the toys were more than just thoughtful gestures, so he created an advertising campaign for a potential business. When Tucker saw the campaign all laid out, he realized his hobby could become his livelihood.
So began a one-man operation that Tucker runs out of his basement in Bay Ridge, New York, an entrepreneurial venture otherwise known as Highly Flammable Toys. "I tried to think of the worst, most problematic name a company could have," he says, "particularly a toy company."
His ambitious new project didn't veer too far from his education and previous work experience.
"I was a film major at Ithaca, but I had worked with puppets and was interested in stop motion animation," he says. Tucker spent a summer interning at Jim Henson's Creature Shop and later worked on ICTV's award-winning single season puppet show, The Day Room.
"Russ is, in many ways, inseparable from his hobbies," says his former roommate, Adam Goodwin '97. "He kept under his dorm room bed enough felt, fake fur, googly eyes, hot glue, and other various and sundry puppet-making materials to make the even [the late] Jim Henson blush."
Tucker's résumé and his formative years as a "spoiled child of the '80s,"as he puts it, made him more than qualified to make six-inch plastic people. After he cleaned out his dorm room and graduated, Tucker worked as a prop designer for Den Design. His creations included breakaway guitars and squirrel costumes for Saturday Night Live, and a giant bong costume for Late Night with Conan O'Brien.
Soon after its first ad campaign, Highly Flammable Toys went online. Tucker used some of his industry connections to promote his business, which eventually landed him a hefty but feasible workload. At first, people ordered single figures for their families and friends.
To make the figures as personalized as possible, Tucker concocted a questionnaire for his customers, asking about everything from a person's favorite book to a quirky habit. The customer provides front and side profile pictures for Tucker to work from (often difficult to get when the gift is meant to be a surprise). Using the tidbits he harvests from the surveys, Tucker creates whacky personalized packaging on his computer.
Buzz about Tucker's figures gradually drifted over to V2 Records, the label of popular bands like the White Stripes and Moby. V2 wanted Tucker to produce 50 limited-edition action figures of the front man of an upcoming band, pre)Thing. After requesting the help of some of his prop-building former coworkers, he accepted the offer. He remembers thinking, "This will either make me or it will kill me." It didn't exactly do that, but, he admits, "I was absolutely overwhelmed; neither [the customer] nor I understood the scope of the work."
More than 40 hours were devoted to each figure, since almost every feature and accessory is hand- crafted. Sculpting the face, not surprisingly, is the hardest part. In addition, only one part of the body can be worked on at a time, since the modeling clay he uses needs to dry overnight. Tucker and his prop-making team sculpted and painted 50 miniature guitars, 50 identical men, and 50 tiny accessories. By the end of this mass-production, Tucker and his friends were drained.
Things gradually calmed down and Highly Flammable Toys is back to its sole-employee status, but like many small business owners, Tucker has a hard time knowing when to call it quits for the night. "I'm the only person working for me right now, and it's difficult to not feel that you should always be working," he says. "I've established myself in this small niche -- there are people who want this product, there are people who want to pay for it. Now [I have] to figure out how to make it profitable."
Even superheroes need downtime, so he enjoys going to art-house films and coffee shops with his friends and girlfriend, but inevitably his drive to succeed brings him right back to his workbench. He hopes eventually to make action figures for TV series, including his favorite programs, HBO's Sopranos and Six Feet Under.
"Russ used to say in college that he'll know when he's 'made it' in life when they made an action figure out of him," says Goodwin. Although he's never had time to make an action figure of himself, Tucker's busy proving that you don't have to be bitten by a radioactive spider to have your face etched in polymer. You can just be someone's dad, or sister, or friend.
"You're glorifying a person in plastic and catering to their interests and egos, but I tend to think of it not so much as a toy, but a portrait," he says. "You could hire a painter to do a portrait of you and you would get a picture that may or may not capture your essence. Or you could have an action figure made, which is a lot more fun."