It was the summer of 2002, and Mattel had just signed off on our Hot Wheels Universe Mythology. We were working with their in-house producers to develop a story that would serve as a CG-animated mini-series, around which we would have to build a meta-narrative of sorts to account for what happens to each of thirty-five cars in a race through an alternate dimension. It all had to be done with blinding speed, including the production of thirty-five comic books, which would house the aforementioned meta-narrative—all in time to ship to retailers for Thanksgiving!
Organization and clarity were key: My team created a system where the cars were broken into teams of seven (reflecting the theme of teamwork that I wanted to weave into the brand). Each of the teams specialized in a specific environment (mountains, deserts, oceans, etc.), and each of the episodes would take place in a realm that expanded said environ on an epic scale. The series would focus on the five team leaders with an emphasis on young spiky-haired Vert Wheeler, whose look and persona would reflect the aspirations of most young boys.
Interestingly, a few Mattel execs (who are no longer at the company) expressed hesitation about female characters. They didn’t know how young boys would respond to them, Hot Wheels being a very “boy world” and they thought perhaps we could do without them. This would be one of the few times I really spoke up. I really wasn’t interested in a major story world that didn’t include girls. Had Disney’s Fairies property not included boys I would have protested equally loud. Single gender worlds compound artifice and by definition are not resonant with the contemporary world in which we live. It’s one thing to market toys to boys, but it’s another altogether to create entertainment in which girls don’t exist.
Fortunately, the series animation house Mainframe and several others at Mattel did agree with me and female driver Lani Tam got some nice screen time. There would be several other heroic girl drivers who would star in their own comics as well. Bravo Mattel!
Speaking of comics, there were some creative bumps in that road, as well. No matter how we depicted the cars in the artwork, Mattel was not satisfied. The project would have been decimated were it not for the miracle of the Internet. After a ton of logistical wrangling, the comic book characters and backgrounds were drawn in Kew Gardens, Queens; the cars were drawn by talented Mattel designer David Lee in Los Angeles; the colors were done in Canada and the balloons were placed in New Jersey. The files were corrected, sealed and FTP’d to Mattel at Starlight Runner, and by the time it was over our sanity begged for some vacation time in the Caribbean.
Yet another challenge was the fact that the entire Hot Wheels: Highway 35 and Hot Wheels World Race campaign was being shoe-horned into Mattel’s release schedule, even as it bubbled up from their interactive division. This meant that we kept running into department heads, marketers, designers and secretaries who had no idea who we were or what we were doing!
Well, there was no time to complain about it. Instead, we took the initiative of developing a quick-reference introduction of the project and ourselves, which could be emailed to anyone. We took a very human, friendly and forthright New Yawk attitude that took the onus of the workload on ourselves, leaving individuals at the company only to provide approvals, guidance or get us the materials we needed to do our jobs. Did we meet resistance? Oh, yes! But then we named a character after the first or last name of the inconvenienced party, and voila! Instant cooperation!
Was I satisfied with the results of the project? Well, sure! The customer reviews for the final edit of the film on Amazon http://tinyurl.com/2d6895j left me glowing. We got reports of kids all over the world watching this thing dozens of times. At Toy Fair in 2003 we got to see our characters on billboards twenty feet high. Portions of our Mythology bible made it to the web site and as DVD extras. A fan club formed online and persists to this day.
I was initially curious about why Mattel altered my ending to the mini-series, which explained the motivations of the villains and filled in the audience on some backstory. Of course, both of these were addressed when eight additional hours of Hot Wheels animated movies, and tons of downloadable animated content were created for the Hot Wheels: Acceleracers campaign that came with its own toy line in 2005. Mattel, perhaps smartly, didn’t want to paint itself into a corner.
At a television conference in Banff last year I met a musician and actor named Mark Hildreth. He had blond spiky hair and a bright, intelligent disposition. We got along famously, and at one point he overheard me mention Hot Wheels and asked me if I had anything to do with the cartoon series. I told him that I’d created Vert Wheeler and the racing world that was going to appear in an upcoming third incarnation of the franchise, Hot Wheels: Battle Force 5. Hildreth smiled with shock and delight.
“Jeff,” he said. “I’m Vert Wheeler!” Hildreth was voicing my beloved character in the new series, an insane coincidence. Well, I could hardly speak. I just had to hug the guy. Mattel had no obligation to Starlight Runner. We were work for hire, and they’d moved onto Acceleracers and Battle Force without us. We would not see royalties or receive any further acknowledgement. There has been a good deal of turnover there, so I don’t imagine many people there even remember our contributions. To tell you the truth, it kind of hurt.
But hey, we were young and it was the opportunity we needed to strut our stuff as a new company. That sort of thing doesn’t happen to us any more, and if it threatens to, we’re simply able to walk away from the table. It’s a nice position to be in, and we’re grateful for it. And yeah, I still get a kick out of telling kids I created Vert Wheeler and the Hot Wheels Universe. I get to see that sparkle in their eyes, the same one I saw all those years ago, when that little boy first explained what a looping racetrack in the Hot Wheels world would look like. Nothing beats it!