Interview by Andy B (kaijukorner.blogspot.com ).
There are a number of expat indie toy makers selling their wares at shows like Super Festival. The material of choice is soft vinyl (aka sofubi), though some designers prefer to work in resin, keshi gomu (rubber eraser), and other materials.
One truly in-demand sofubi maker is Dennis Hamman, who runs the indie outfit Shirahama. Dennis was born in California in 1968, and he also grew up in the Golden State. His interest in Japanese toys goes back to the late 1980s. In fact, Dennis was so passionate about the hobby that he even worked at a toy shop – Kimono My House – for more than a decade.
As we entered the new century, Dennis followed his plastic dreams and rode a chogokin rocket to Japan. Back then, he worked for a Tokyo toy shop that doubled as a metal/hardcore record label. Fast forward a few years and Dennis is currently working as a painter, doing color sample work for the automobile industry.
Besides his day job, Dennis runs Shirahama and even finds time to paint figures for other toy makers, all while raising a family.
Here is my conversation with Dennis, who kindly took time from his excellent airbrushing work to talk about life in the indie toy world.
MAT: Let’s start with Shirahama. How did you get started making toys?
Hamman: It started long before I actually made a toy. For a few years, I had wanted to make an original toy, and when the indie toy boom really got going about 10 years ago, I started to think about it seriously. Previously I had always thought it wasn’t possible that someone with zero knowledge of producing a toy would ever be able to get something done. Then I started seeing toys at events and figured I could do it too. But due to being so busy with work, and also because of money limitations, it took a few years to get to the point where I could make it happen. When it finally did, it started with a conversation with a close friend that led to a toy we both wanted to see made.
Your first toy is called Kumon. Can you say something about the influences and inspirations that went into the character?
Kumon came about from a love of spiders and monsters that my friend Yatsuashi and I have had since childhood. When talking about making the toy, it was first drawn as how we thought it would appear as a guy in a monster suit making a TV show or movie. So the proportions should be correct if someone ever wants to make a spider monster suit from Kumon.
I think there are a few talented people at Super Festival who could make that happen! Give us a crash course in Indie Toys 101. In terms of the time, cost, and skill sets required, what’s involved in putting out your own toy?
This varies widely from person to person. If you have a good idea and draw it out, two months is probably about the shortest time needed to go from having a design on paper to having a physical toy in hand. Usually, though, it takes three to four months.
Cost varies so much, but normally a standard size figure (about 8” tall) is in the thousands of dollars if you are having someone else sculpt the original figure and cast the wax. Then the wax cast needs to be sent to make the metal molds, which the factory uses to produce the toy. That price can vary a lot. If you have a figure with many details which is hard to produce articulation for, and which will require many molds, the cost will go up quickly. If you can sculpt professionally yourself and are familiar with the parameters of the sofubi toy process, that will help bring the costs down quite a bit.
Still, I would recommend leaving the wax process to the pros. It’s the most important part, and if that is done badly, the final product will probably not be something you’ll be happy with. And unless you know the metal plating process for creating the production mold, you will have to use a mold making company for that step.
I am not trying to discourage people from making a toy, but trying to do it yourself and not being acquainted with what is acceptable and what is not will run a high risk of your being unhappy with the final product.
How do people outside the indie toy scene react when they see your figures?
LOL, I dont know. I live in a bubble of toy people and like-minded friends that love it all. I can imagine that people who know nothing about it must think it’s crazy and a waste of money!
Have you ever thought of putting out a licensed toy based on a tokusatsu hero, villain, or kaiju?
I have thought about this many times, but it takes time and money which I don’t have at the moment. This year is Godzilla’s 60th anniversary, and I would love to finally make a toy! I’m still working on that, so I have to keep my fingers crossed.
Interesting – that would be really nice to see come together. So in general, what do shows like Super Festival mean to indie toy makers?
It’s a great way to show something you’ve created and see what people think, since you kind of have a captive audience. People are at the event to buy toys, and they will probably stop by your booth to check out what you’ve done – and most likely post about it online, too. On top of that, you can meet a lot of people that might be of help to you in the future, and you can make friends that want to talk toys!
Besides Super Festival, what other events or outlets do you use to sell your figures?
Super Festival is the main outlet these days. There’s Wonder Festival and Design Festa, too. Those events are both held twice a year, and it’s a different crowd from Super Festival. So they can be good places for people who otherwise would never know these types of toys exist to see your creations. It’s happened to me many times.
You’ve been displaying your toys at shows for years. How difficult is it for a new toy maker to gain a following and a fan base?
This really depends on what people think of the toy. The fan base can be almost instant, but some people have tried for years, releasing many different toys but never getting the kind of following they’re happy with. So they give up. For myself, I’ve never really advertised. I just put the toys out, and if people like them, I’m happy. I have never intended for this to be a business – it’s just something I like to do. But slowly over the last three years, word has seemed to spread, and I get a lot more requests than I can fill. Some people do make a living by making toys, but they worked their asses off to get to that point.
Would you say most of your fans are inside or outside of Japan?
Definitely outside, but I also have fans here. The indie toy scene in Japan has changed a lot in the last few years, and the shift has really gone to collectors outside of Japan. Here, when the economy took a dive, it hit hard, and many people stopped collecting or slowed way down. At the same time, many people in other countries were discovering Japanese toys for the first time, and toy makers that never sold their toys outside of Japan started doing so. That has continued to this day. I’d love it if more people here would start collecting again, but I will just have to wait and hope.
Any plans for new characters from Shirahama?
Yes, I have a few things planned, and a new business I’m working on with a friend. All of that is toy related, so hopefully there will be a few surprises for everyone this year!