Nicholas Merz (or Ni, as he is known), is the craftsman and entrepreneur behind NiStuff, one of a handful of emerging toy companies loosely affiliated with Onell Design. Ni is living out the dream of many of us collectors, so I thought it would be fun to find out more about his life, work, and process.
[Editor’s Note: in addition to creating his own figures, Ni is also a gifted and prolific customizer. I’ve interspersed the interview with selections from his body of work.]
CDX: Where and how did you grow up?
Ni: I grew up and have lived my entire life in the suburbs of New York City--the Long Island area to be more specific. I'm an only child from a middle-class family. My father has always been a very hands-on kind of guy when it comes to tools and machinery, so my basement was always full of drill presses, Dremels, saws, etc. I've always had a fondness for working with my hands. As a child it began with Play-Doh creations and drawings, naturally progressing to where I am today.
What were your favorite toys as a kid? Which had the most impact on you?
There were so many to choose from growing up, but I'd have to say some of my favorite toys as a kid included Kenner's Batman, Alien, Predator and Jurassic Park dinos; those big electronic Godzilla figures from the 90's, Beast Wars figures and PVC Mobile Suit in Action Gundam figures. I also had hand-me-down figures from cousins and neighbors of Battle Beasts, Barnyard Commandos, Killer Tomatoes, old Star Wars figures and some G2 Transformers. Like I said, there's an unusual amount to choose from but I'd have to say those were the ones I enjoyed the most as a child.
The most impactful figures that I owned when I was small would probably have to be the MSIA Gundam and Beast Wars figures. They allowed me to swap limbs and heads, things my others figures couldn't do. All the MSIA Gundam figures were soft, almost rubbery PVC with hard ABS, ball-jointed limbs--which were about the same size throughout the entirety of the figure line (give or take). My best friend and I would mix-and-match Gundam parts from G Gundam, Mobile Suit Gundam, Gundam Wing figures, and so on, and we'd come up with some really freaky combinations!
The Beast Wars figures, coupled with the show, fueled my creativity to match the show models when it came to Protoforms and battle-damaged characters. I took screwdrivers to a lot of those poor figures, removing animal parts here and there, revealing the inner working of the Transformer within! As long as I'm on the topic of Beast Wars I'll add that the show--along with Reboot--were some of the best shows on TV. Much Mainframe love!
What was your best Christmas morning?
My best Christmas morning would have to be when I got my PowerRangers White Ranger Tiger Zord. It's actually the only Christmas I remember vividly. I just remember tearing that box open and being blown away by the white hunk of plastic in my hands. I remember putting those red orbs in each of their shoulder and leg spots, jamming the batteries in and going to town on those sound effects! For some reason that was both the most exciting Power Ranger Zord I ever got and my last entry into the Power Rangers toy line. They went to space after that series ended, or became more ninja like or something and I lost interest. I'm not hating on the direction they took however, it just wasn't aligned with my interests after that.
Tell us about your life now.
I am 26, engaged to a beautiful illustrator, graduated with a degree in graphic design, and am self-employed making toys.
Are you a collector?
I'm not a super completion-ist collector when it comes to toys. I sort of pick and choose what I want from each line. Besides toys I don't really collect anything. I buy the occasional trading card pack, Lego mini figure blind bag, etc.
What are your favorite pieces?
Oh man, my favorites? That’s a tough one. I literally cannot get enough of Glyos, it’s actually quite sickening. I have entire drawers devoted to my PVC masses. I literally have a Glyos figure (be it an Outlander or some form of Onell design's Traveler) wherever I go. But that’s not fair to regular toys. Of course I'm going to be interested most in something I've got a creative stake in.
My favorite non-Glyos pieces would have to be the 3rd party Shockwave Transformer figure. I've got both grey and purple but I'd have to say the grey is vastly superior to the purple. I've got them right above my computer next to Soundwave MP and Optimus (which aren’t as good as shockwave).
I really like the comic-style Governor from the Walking Dead—he's also standing right next to my keyboard. I've currently got him displayed with Michonne's sword and no arm. The legs suck on him and his head was rolling around in the package when I bought him, but who cares? He looks good. I also have David from Prometheus next to Governor. He's a pretty good figure. He looks enough like the actor. The space suit is awesome, and he's got this big goofy clear space helmet. Sadly I don't play with them or bring them with me anywhere, though, they're too flimsy for travel. They sure look good just standing there, though.
How did you get into your current work in association with Glyos?
In High School and College I fell back into artistic pursuits thanks to the help of my now fiancé. She really encouraged my artistic endeavors. She eventually went off to RISD for illustration and I went to a local Long Island College for a degree in Graphic Design/Visual Communications. On one of my many visits to RISD I visited a comic book shop that had these crazy artist-created toys. They were by some guy named Joe Ledbetter. They were like nothing I’d ever seen. After doing some Google research I found that there was a whole community surrounding artist-based toys. I quickly discovered Kid Robot and Dunnies. From there I discovered Toy Break and through them I discovered Onell Design. A few orders, a couple of emails, and a visit or two to the Onell Design home base, and soon I too was making figures with Matt Doughty, the creator of the Glyos toy line.
Lots of people have fond memories of their childhood toys. What do you think flipped a switch in you to begin taking toys seriously as an adult?
Toys have always been really important to me. Being an only child, aside from playing with friends, I had to entertain myself, and toys have always been there for me. I decided to start zeroing in on making a career path out of toys after seeing how miserable everyone was at their jobs in my life and not wanting that for myself.
I wanted to matter to someone and I wanted to do something that people recognized me for, and that could inspire them to try and make things as well. Again it goes back to discovering that Joe Ledbetter had his art made into figures and now all the sudden I know his name and his style. I wanted that for me. I got in contact with Matt of Onell Design and he made that dream come true. He invited me into his home, he set me up with the tools, he supported me every step of the way, allowed me to use his peg system--and it happened. I matter to people now, on a small level but I matter. Thanks to Matt my creative voice can be heard.
Individual creators now have such unprecedented access to the tools of mass production. I can't imagine trying this kind of thing ten, twenty years ago.
Well the whole world is so open nowadays, not just toy makers or creators. When I was growing up companies seemed like gigantic Godlike figures that pumped out toys, food, and TV shows but I literally have my own company now. It took about 5 minutes at town hall. You guys at CollectionDX have a voice that thousands of people can hear whenever they want, all they have to do is go to your site and read the latest toy reviews or interviews. People on YouTube have an amazing reach—videos with millions of views—more than most crappy TV shows. Kickstarters that literally get franchises kick-started. Things that would have never otherwise had a chance are now possible because people said, "Yes, I want that too, here’s some money.” We live in an amazingly revolutionary time. None of it would be possible 10 years ago. I can't imagine where we'll be in another 5 years.
There’s a whole spectrum of fan/collector activity, from Passive to active. What made you an active fan?
- When it came to Glyos I was very passive until I had enough figures to paint. My first few figures I kept as is, but once I started accumulating enough that I had a surplus I went to town customizing them. I cut up figures, painted them, and built up new figures out of existing parts. My real creativity started to flourish once I started talking to Matt directly through emails and phone calls. He gave me 100% blanket freedom to sculpt, cast, and paint anything I wanted when it came to Glyos figures. To know that the maker of this toy line both liked what I was doing and gave me his blessing to go to town, was amazing. I started making resin castings, silicone molds, sculpting up tons of new heads and parts, painting every figure that I'd order. It was open season for me. If it weren’t for the openness of Matt and the Glyos community, none of what I've now achieved would have been a possibility.
What feels special to me about the Glyos family is that inclusivity. The "Designer Toy" scene has a reputation for hipster elitism. I don't know if that's fair or not (I’ve only had positive experiences with the few vinyl guys I’ve met), but there's a very winning absence of pretense in the Glyos Community (Onell, NiStuff, Toyfinity, Godbeast, et al). From a collector perspective, It's satisfying to feel like you’re helping in some small way to support talented guys who are going for it in a pure, sincere way.
I'm glad it’s satisfying to be part of the community! Literally every new fan/customer/community member helps us live off these great little guys. We live by the community and we die by the community, it’s as simple as that!
The designer toy scene does have its share of elitism but then again so does everything else. Look at die-hard He-Man collectors, or Transformers collectors. If you don't know everything about those characters/toys and want to be included in their respective communities, good luck. They will call you out so quick that this character would never do this because so-and-so.
People love being part of a group—its the community/herd mentality. Unfortunately, another thing people love is exclusivity and sometimes they want to have both at the same time, which creates very hostile, toxic fan bases. Sure you're welcome in our community but only if our views, opinions, and interests are 100% aligned.
Tell us about the evolution of your projects. What do you think of as your work, whether it be art, graphics, objects, etc.
I'm really happy where I am right now as far as projects are concerned.
Let’s take right now for an example: I've got the Outlander available and new parts coming out for him very soon, but behind the scenes I've got two other whole figures and a number of parts that are logical next steps. If you don't have something in the works that you're excited for and hoping to some day make, I don't think you'll be motivated enough to continue. It's a soul-crushing balancing act between money and making what you want.
When it comes to what I think of my own work, I think calling yourself an “artist” can sound a little pretentious. I make things with my hands, I make them work aesthetically with everything in the Glyos universe, and I try to make it the best I possibly can. If I have to be labeled as anything I'd prefer Craftsman. My figures don't have a deep hidden emotional meaning, they're meant to be fun little guys you can carry around in your pockets without fear of them permanently breaking.
Any teasers you're willing to share about those in-progress projects?
Any teasers? How about a blurry picture!
These are some of the upcoming additions. An exclusive first sneak peek!
How do you approach your painting, customization, re-mixing of materials?
My hand-painting style is all based on color blocking. It's heavily determined by the figure’s sculpted details. Very rarely will I add paint apps to areas that aren't already picked out by the figure’s sculpting. In a lot of ways I'm working within the creator’s parameters, the sculpted areas that didn't get paint apps in production for whatever reason I'll pick out in my customs. The success of my hand painted custom figures hinges on the figure being a decent toy in the first place. No matter how much you try and polish a turd it's still going to be a poop deep down.
My airbrushing painted figures are heavily based on gradients, flowing two or more colors together in a visually pleasing way. If you're not careful you'll make a barf colored mess, so you've got to be very delicate with airbrushing and spray paint. Gently mist, don't drown the toy in paint. In most cases, after I'm finished with an airbrushed figure I'll go back in and pull out some details with hand painting. Silver and metallic paints are my favorites to couple with airbrushed ombre figures. It brings a little something extra to the figure, and gives it a bit more believability in some cases.
What was the genesis of the Outlander figures?
The genesis of the Outlander figure came about through trial-and-error, honestly. I knew I wanted to make a Traveler figure like Onell Design’s Pheyden or Exellis but I wanted to add my own style to it. I sculpted up a bunch of pieces and hand cast them in resin. I then utilized them with a variety of existing figures. I found which parts were the most successful and had the most uses and then tweaked the pieces to give them a more solid identity as a unified figure and just went with it.
There's a humanoid flavor to the Outlander which distinguishes it from the Onell sculpts. There's that kind of serene, blank facial sculpt.
Given all of my hand-cast resin head sculpts I've done in the past, the logical and expected thing to see from me would have been a very alien sculpt. I wanted to bring something very humanoid: eyebrows, lips, nose, and ear covers. It was an experiment in sculpting and something I've always wanted to have. Aliens are great, but for my first fully-articulated figure I wanted to have something everyone can look at and on a weird internal level say, "Oh! It’s a little man!" Instead of, "Oh...it’s...uh, some kind of alien creature? I dunno what I'm looking at." That's not ideal.
One major thing that I wanted to include in the figure was outward-swinging arms. Pheyden and Exellis have fused arm pieces and can only swing forward and back in their basic figure forms. I wanted to bring a new angle to the table. I also wanted an ankle swivel which when used in tandem with outward moving legs to allow a wide variety of stances.
And the helmet. I'm very fond of that helmet. Was that tricky to get right? It has very satisfying fit.
The helmet is something I've always wanted to do but never attempted because I wasn't sure it would be successful. To make the helmet I pretty much removed the human head from the sculpt and sculpted the helmet in the head’s absence by eye. After it dried I Dremmeled out a hole fitting it to the head as I went along. The satisfying pop is achieved by the helmet catching his ear-flaps and the back of the humanoid head. The big success was handled on the factory’s end. It’s amazing the replicating skills they have.
What's your workflow like? (ie do you sketch designs first, then move to physical media? How does the design get refined?)
Man, I've been a sketching fiend for many, many, years. They're not amazing but they get me where I need to be. Sketching sort of psyches me up for sculpting. Once I've figured out the piece’s dimensions and 360, then I'll go to work much more confidently than I would if I hadn't had sketched it out.
Can you provide some insight into the process of creating an action figure? What are the challenges you encountered? What are your thoughts on the business aspects?
The strange thing about the whole situation is that without Matt this wouldn't be a possibility. Over the years he has paved the way for people like me to come in and send a figure over to the Glyos factory and have it produced. Without luck and someone who's done it before it would have been nearly impossible.
Honestly though, the biggest challenge on my end has been money. The whole experience is not cheap, especially if there are tweaks and fixes--which is likely. This isn't something you can just jump into and make a million dollars. It's really a life choice made by only a few crazy individuals, done for the love of what were making and not for the faint of heart.
Aside from the monetary costs it takes quite a big chunk of manpower to keep this type of business running--all of which is supplied by me. In this line of work you literally have to do everything when it comes to these little guys. I design them, sculpt them, come up with the color schemes, keep in constant contact with the factory, code the website, take and edit the photography, advertise for them, manage the inventory, pack the orders, and ship the orders, etc.
I imagine there was some heartburn when considering the initial production run? Has it gotten easier to dial in the balance of supply and demand?
Supply and demand will never be 100% easy. It gets easier over time but there's always that little voice in your head that says, "What if this is the one they don't like? What if no one buys them?" And then I adjust the site code and people go for them. It’s always a very stressful and adrenaline-filled experience.
Small business toy practices are worlds different from big toy corporations. When it comes to making what my customers want it’s much easier to nail down because I'm able to have a direct conversation with them. On another note, being someone who started out as an avid fan of Glyos I'd like to believe that I've got this strange insight into what the fan base wants to see. I'm the Outlanders #1 fan and I'm going to continue to create unique and interesting color ways and builds that both play towards OG Glyos fans and the average collector who just stumbles upon my stuff.
What are fans telling you they want?
The most recent thing I've learned that the vocal majority of fans don't want their GITD PVC mixed with anything else if they can help it. So that’s been noted for future releases!
How does the design process work with the Chinese manufacturer? Do you have English-speaking contacts who can communicate your intent effectively?
Matt paved the way for guys like me with all the contacts he's developed over the years in the factories. The contact I email the most frequently speaks perfect English and makes placing orders very hassle-free. The relationships between the factory and the Glyos family are fantastic and something I'm really privileged to be a part of.
I doubt there's a 'typical day' exactly, but what does a typical day look like for you?
There's not really a legit typical day for me but if I simplify my day to a few bullets it would look like this:
-roll out of bed
-sand some sculpts
-check more email
-mail some orders
-sculpt a bit
-check the forum
-edit some site code
Who is doing work right now that you respect?
There's no end to the respect that I have for Matt and the world that he's created and above all, that he's allowing me to play within his universe.
The Glyos peg system is one of those things that makes you question "why isn't this a thing that's been around forever?" Just think of a world where Star Wars parts can be mixed and matched with your GI Joe parts or Marvel Universe parts, etc. That's a world I want to be a part of.
Takara was very close to getting to something like this in the late 70's/early 80's. You had Microman/Micronauts, Inchman, Blockman, Diaclone, Henshin Cyborg, Microchange etc, all detailed with 5mm parts, which were in turn sort of conversant with G.I. Joe.
What do you find exciting about the current toy landscape? Where do you see the industry, or fan efforts headed in the future?
In my opinion, most things produced today for the mass market seem to be soulless cash grabs. The more interesting things come from small companies or Japan who actually target the collector market. That being said, a lot of the collector-targeted figures from Japan like Figma, Revoltech, SH Figuarts and Monster Arts are so detailed and so articulated that it’s almost to their detriment. Every single SH Monster Arts figure I own falls apart way too easily. The more intricate parts you put in your toy, the easier it will be to crumble.
If it’s one thing I've learned through this whole Glyos journey it's that I never want to make a figure like those. I want to make things you can travel with, take with you on the train or the bus with no fear of it breaking beyond repair in travel. In fact, I dare you to try and break anything Glyos beyond repair. It's damn near impossible.
The next step of the industry should really be to find a way to make a sturdy stable toy that can move nicely. I'm sick of these flimsy, leprosy-riddled toys as of late. They're beautiful but very fragile, which to me should never be a quality of a good toy.
The Imaginext toys seem like a positive development. A little too kiddie for my tastes, but fun and durable and imaginative.
I've been watching Imaginext's progress through the forums posts. It does seem a little kiddie to me too but the heart is there at least. That’s more than you can say about most things out there.
Since you've so successfully avoided a soul-crushing job, I feel obliged to close with a classic soul-crushing job interview question: Where do you want to be in a year? In five?.
Successfully avoided for now but one day I suspect my soul will be crushed again by work. In 5 years I hope I still have my hands-deep into the world of toys. I hope to have at least 2 figures available with multiple heads, multiple helmets. Things change so rapidly now that who knows for sure what we'll be doing in 2, let alone 5, years.
3D printers can come along and obliterate everything we know now. Maybe I'll be selling 3D templates of my figures or exclusive heads of the week. Only time will tell.