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You, the action figure

What price immortality? In 6 inches of plastic, it's $7,500. And the mini-you can get whatever cosmetic surgery the real you desires.

November 03, 2002|Renee Tawa | Times Staff Writer

Before you ponder the Very Deep Questions posed at Gentle Giant Studios in Burbank -- Who are you? How do you want to be remembered? That sort of thing -- you first teeter into an off-to-see-the-wizard fantasy land, a place where warehouse walls pop in shades of blueberry, burnt orange and lemon yellow, where a 23-year-old mohawked sculptor is making a mohawked doll of himself that is also sculpting a mohawked doll.

Then it's time for the soul-exposing talk with studio founder and President Karl Z. Meyer. Because Meyer wants to cut to the very core of who you are, the first step toward creating an action figure that is you -- or, maybe, a tightened-up or mythically heroic version of you.

This year, for the first time, through the Neiman Marcus Christmas Book, Gentle Giant is offering to make two copies of "an exact mini you." Gentle Giant is the world's leading maker of action-figure models for such high-profile film productions as "Spider-Man," the "Lord of the Rings" series and the "Harry Potter" films. The "adventure package" costs $7,500, not including any travel to, or accommodations in, Southern California.

Which is cool, suggests Meyer, 35, a former longhaired guitarist for a rock band named Manroot. But on another level, he acknowledges, the experience touches on issues of self-identity and immortality, giving consumers the chance to cast themselves as a 6-inch action figure -- an iconic status that usually is reserved for movie and comic-book heroes -- and weigh the temptation of requesting a Hollywood-ized version of themselves versus the warts-and-all reality.

"First off," Meyer says, "what do you want to be? Do you want to be some kind of a superhero? Do you want to be a monster? Do you want to be yourself? Do you want to be a golfer? We're open to anything and we'll make it happen."

A team of molders, sculptors and painters also will customize the action figure, right down to the themed accessories and abs of choice (say you want Gwen Stefani's stomach muscles, for instance). The studio's artists, Meyer points out, provide the same kind of touch-up work for movie stars, which plays right into the fantasy theme of Neiman Marcus' holiday catalog.

"We just thought it was a cool, very today kind of gift," says Karen Katz, president and chief executive of Neiman Marcus Direct. "We really try to find things that are difficult [for the public] to have access to."

So far, no one has ordered an action figure, but the item has drawn as many inquiries as any other fantasy gift in the 160-page catalog, Katz says. She and her 13-year-old son, Alex, recently flew to Burbank from Dallas to have action figures made of themselves. Neither opted to sub out any body parts.

Of course, the opportunity to order your own action figure can be fun, but it also points to the insidious influence of a mass media that flaunts impossibly perfect and beautiful people, says Harvard Medical School psychologist Roberto Olivardia, coauthor of "The Adonis Complex" (Free Press, 2000). Olivardia has studied the way some boys and young men idealize the physique of action figures such as G.I. Joe, even though, if the toy were the same size as a human, its physical dimensions would be unreal, he notes. In extreme cases, such preteen boys and adolescents can suffer from eating disorders or start using steroids.

Olivardia is not surprised at the Neiman Marcus offering, but says he suspects some people might take their made-to-order action figure too seriously. "If you make the request -- make it thinner, give it more muscle -- that's something you idealize. The more you're confronted with the visual display of your fantasy, and look ... in the mirror, and see a little body fat, or your biceps aren't as big, what does that do?"

But even with creative sculpting, the action figure still would capture the essence of the person based on unerring digital imagery, Meyer says.

From clay to digital

Gentle Giant, which was founded eight years ago, is the world's most prominent studio of its kind, using 3-D digital images to help create toys, games and visual effects for films and TV. The process is far more accurate in capturing a person or character's likeness than the traditional method, in which artists hand-sculpted clay prototypes of action figures by eyeing photographs, he says.

These days, young people expect the same kind of realism in action figures that they see in video games and movie special effects, says Meyer, who oversees a staff of 60. "With the exception of nostalgia, where you want something to look like that thing you had when you were a kid, or your dad had, there's no going back. No one is going to start making action figures of people that don't look like them because no one will buy them anymore."

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