TNI Interview: NECA Sculptor & Beasts of the Mesozoic Creator David Silva

by Jay Cochran
August 11, 2017
We recently had a chance to catch up with David Silva who has a long history working as a sculptor in the toy industry at companies such as McFarlane Toys, Hasbro and NECA and recently branched out on his own with a little side project called Beasts of the Mesozoic.

TNI - How did you come to work in the toy industry and was it something you always wanted to do?

David - Actually, this isn't what I'd set out to do. Drawing comics was my original aspiration when I began art school back in fall of '98. I would go on to graduate in 2003 with a BFA in Sequential Art and Illustration (and with a much bigger toy collection). During my time there, I'd decided to change my career direction and focused my portfolio on concept design which would help me earn work as a free-lance toy designer for McFarlane Toys not long after graduating. By 2005, I'd moved to New Jersey and began working for them in-house as a sculptor due to several sculptors departing around that time. When I began sculpting there, I wasn't sure if I'd ever be good enough to meet their high standards, so it was quite intimidating at first. However, such a great opportunity was too big to pass up, so I had to give it a shot. It was very much a 'sink or swim' situation at first, but I really enjoyed sculpting and several of the other sculptors there help me learn quick, so I stuck to it and now here we are twelve years later.

TNI - Tell us a little bit about your background in the industry. What companies have you worked for and what did you do for those companies?

David - Free-lancing as a designer for McFarlane Toys lasted for about a year and half, working mostly on the Dragons and Spawn lines. I believe I was the first person to submit design work on the Dragons line, back before the clans were even decided. That design job led to a sculpting position for them and during that time I would often get my hands on as many creature projects as I could; dragons and animal-like characters became my specialty. After about three and half years there, another opportunity came up to go sculpt at Hasbro. This was around the time that McFarlane was dropping all of their in-house lines so it made sense for me to make the switch to Hasbro as I was already a fan of several of their product lines. Then about a year and a half later in January of 2010, I took a sculpting job at NECA, a preferably smaller company which was also much closer to my home in Jersey. It's been a great experience working for all three companies acquiring so much valuable knowledge from each place. And now I'm still enjoying every day working with the talented crew at NECA.

TNI - Of all the different toy lines you have worked on, which was your favorite and why?

David - As much as I enjoyed working on Dragons for McFarlane, Star Wars for Hasbro, and Pacific Rim for NECA, I feel a particularly close connection to the NECA Predator line. Being such a big fan of the franchise ever since seeing the original movie a kid, it's been so much fun to work on the toys. Actually, my very first project for NECA was sculpting the armor for the Tracker Predator figure. Nowadays, not only do I get to work on the figure sculpts, but I've also been designing the Kenner-inspired renditions and writing the package bios for them. A couple of those designs even popped up in the Dark Horse comics. Although it's not on the scale of contributing to a film, it's an honor knowing that I'm helping to create some new canon and adding to the mythology in a small way. This line has even allowed me to sculpt my first human female action figure, the recently revealed Machiko, which has been a dream project of mine for some time now. Despite having only a hand-full of Predator films to create figures from, we're closing in on 100 NECA Predator action figures which just goes to show the potential for creativity that this IP has to offer.

TNI - Of all the specific toys you worked on, which one are you most proud of and why?

David - That's a tough one, but Beasts of the Mesozoic raptors aside, I suppose I'd have to go with the Pacific Rim Otachi figure. (More specifically the Land version because of that cool tail). That figure was something I had proposed to Randy (Falk) well before I ever began sculpting it and was one of those big projects that I originally thought we'd never get to do. It goes without saying that I'm a huge fan of the film and that kaiju design specifically, so I was very eager to make an action figure worthy of its source material. And luckily, the production turned out great on it as well, so I couldn't be happier with the result.

TNI - Of all the specific toys you worked on, which was the one you were least proud of and why?

David - Good question. Since I’ve been more focused on dinosaur action figures these days, I can't help but to feel that the Pachyrhinosaurus I sculpted for Hasbro's Jurassic Park line was quite underwhelming both in planning and execution. The story of how the final product was arrived at is one I won't go into here, but I will say that it represents my single worst experience in the toy industry for any particular project. As a fan of scientifically accurate dinosaurs, there isn't much that I like about that figure if I'm being honest, and it isn't just the art direction- I don't even like the way I sculpted it in terms of the scales or the anatomy. Now I keep one around for motivation as I look forward to making my own improved Pachyrhinosaurus as part of next year's Beasts of the Mesozoic Kickstarter campaign.

TNI - As a sculptor, what is the most challenging aspect of working the toy industry for you specifically?

David - The challenges of this job have fortunately been a mostly positive experience. I'd have to say that finding ways to improve the quality of each figure, while still keeping the production costs reasonable and not taking too long to sculpt it, have been the greatest overall challenges at any company. Especially now at NECA, we're always striving to make each figure just a little better than the last one, which requires a lot of time, passion and ingenuity. On the flip-side of that to give an example of a negative challenge, I have had experiences where feedback arrived well after the project was nearly finished requiring massive sculptural changes and no leeway on the deadline (case-in-point the JP Pachyrhinosaurus). Luckily, this doesn't happen too often.

TNI - Is there a toyline that you’ve never worked on but always wanted to?

David - For the longest time I wanted to design for the Transformers line. Being a huge Transformers fan since the age of five, and I've always loved designing transforming robots (I even did a few designs for McFarlane as my very first toy design project, but they were never made). I did submit a Transformers design portfolio while I was sculpting at Hasbro, but never received a response. However these days I'd be probably a less interested in doing that type of work now that I sculpt so much. As far as sculpting on a toy line goes, the bugs from Starship Troopers would be at the top of my list. Those bugs would be a blast to make into updated action figures, especially with what we can do detail and articulation-wise nowadays.

TNI - From your perspective, what would classify as the biggest changes in the toy industry over the last 10-20 years?

David - The level of sculpting and advancements in articulation have improved dramatically during that time, but I think the main factor is the difference in price. As I'm sure everyone reading this is aware, toy making costs have gone up dramatically in the past ten years or so. There was a period when this happened where action figures were being downsized and streamlined with less articulation to help soften the blow of the higher production costs and to still satisfy the price points of big name retailers. However within the past few years, the collector market has had more of an influence with many toy companies finding ways to raise the bar of what to expect from certain action figure lines, justifying the prices. (Star Wars Black Series, Marvel Legends, MOTU Classics, anything NECA, etc.) It appears that the action figure market has gradually been shifting to accommodate the collectors more than it ever had before, turning a problem into an opportunity. This is also not unlike trends in comic books, video games, and to a lesser degree, animation where a commercial art market initially intended for children, ends up catering just as much, if not more so, to adults. Ultimately, I'm not necessarily saying I like paying more for toys than I did ten years ago, but it seems to have helped drive the collector market forward by raising customer expectations and thus challenging companies to create a more sophisticated product for the price.

TNI - Are there other sculptor(s) in the industry you admire or gain inspiration from?

David - The Four Horsemen were the biggest inspiration for me back in art school in the early 2000's, which is when my interest in making toys really started. They worked on several of my favorite Spawn figures as well as the 200X Masters of the Universe line around that time. Those are the figures that literally changed my life and caused me to shift my career path from comics to toys. I had the pleasure of first meeting Eric Treadaway and Eric 'Cornboy' Mayse at a Wizard World Chicago convention in 2002. They were very motivating and it was an experience that really confirmed to me that the toy industry was were I needed to be. To this day, Eric,CB, Jim and the crew continue to inspire me with their achievements as independent toy makers and their trail-blazing Kickstarter campaigns.

TNI - Why did you decide to branch off on your own and create Creative Beast Studio, and why the focus on Dinosaurs?

David - Like many people, I had a fascination with dinosaurs at an early age, but this interest was gradually pushed aside as I grew into adulthood. When I began working in-house for McFarlane Toys, I decided to revisit that interest in an effort to demonstrate my creature sculpting skills in an effort to get more involved with sculpting their Dragons line. I decided to sculpt a dinosaur, Dilophosaurus, on my own time to show that I could sculpt creatures. My thinking was that learning theropod dinosaur anatomy would help inform my ability to create a more realistic-looking dragon. In retrospect, that first Dilophosaurus sculpt was nothing special with plenty of flaws and was never finished, but the effort did end up earning me more sculpting responsibilities on the McFarlane's Dragons. And even though the goal at the time was to sculpt dragons, my passion for dinosaurs had been effectively re-kindled in the process. In the Fall of 2009, I began selling an all new Dilophosaurus sculpt as a resin model kit which kicked-off my side business, Creative Beast Studio. From then on, I have continued creating new dinosaur kits while working in the toy industry. Over the years, I'd be involved with several failed dinosaur toy proposals and projects with other companies. After a certain point I decided that if I wanted realistic dinosaur action figures, I would have to do it on my own. Thus the Beasts of the Mesozoic line was born.

TNI - Why did you opt to take the Kickstarter route to launch the Beasts of the Mesozoic line?
David - This again goes back to the Four Horsemen. They changed independent toy-making with their first Kickstarter in 2013, Gothitropolis Ravens, raising funding well past their goal. All of sudden creators no longer had to rely on the big companies or huge investment loans to make new product lines. By the time I began my own Kickstarter campaign in 2016, there had already been several more successfully funded toy projects, so I felt it was my best option.

TNI - Beasts of the Mesozoic line is billed as being scientifically accurate. What steps do you take to ensure that claim is accurate and do you feel that puts your products more in the education toy category or the fantasy action figure category?

David - Approaching the topic of sculpting a scientifically accurate dinosaur was quite a daunting task back when I began with my first Dilophosaurus sculpt in 2005. The paleontological data changes all the time with each new discovery which in theory could cause a dinosaur figure to become obsolete before it even gets released. Plus, it can often be very difficult to decipher the information if you're not familiar with the common terminology, something I'm still learning myself. And even with the benefit of internet searches, it can be tricky finding the most reliable and accurate sources. At this point I've found comparing notes between multiple sources such as internet searches, current reference books, and feedback from others interested in the topic, has been the best way to go. Since beginning the Beasts of the Mesozoic project, I've received plenty of helpful feedback from informed fans that have helped make the product better than it would have been otherwise. For my current action figure sculpt of Xenoceratops, I've been in touch with the paleontologist who named the species, Mark Ryan. Mark's been very helpful with providing insight and information that I wouldn’t have found anywhere else. I always go into each project expecting that I'm going to miss something, and I often do. But I end up learning so much along the way and discover things that I wouldn't have noticed without just starting and really diving into the work. For these figures to be classified as educational toys is completely appropriate, but I also want them to be just as fun as any fantasy toy. The goal is to blur the line between education and imagination.

TNI - What's your favorite figure in the Beasts of the Mesozoic line and why?

David - I imagine this is similar to asking a parent to choose their favorite child, so it's a tough call to make. However if I had to choose one as my favorite, it would have to be the Velociraptor mongoliensis figure because that's where all of this started for me. I really love the look of it and it has a very high emotional value to me as well. Everything in the line has grown from that one figure.

TNI - From a career perspective where do you see yourself in the next 10 years, and what are the biggest challenges you expect to face in the industry?

David - Had I asked myself this ten years ago as a McFarlane Toys sculptor, I wouldn’t have guessed I'd be in the place I am now, so who knows what will happen. I do hope to see the Beasts of the Mesozoic line continue to grow each year, but I also don't feel like I'm done working with NECA on licensed product yet either. Right now I'm enjoying doing both. I suppose the ultimate goal though is to have my own toy company with a specialty for high-end animal action figures; prehistoric, modern, and mythical. The biggest challenges ahead whether I work for a company or for myself, will most likely have to do with the rising costs of production and continuing to innovate despite the ever-changing circumstances overseas. Change is always inevitable in any industry and it happens faster than ever these days, which can either work for you or against you. Maintaining the ability to adapt while continuing to create will be essential and I seek to do that no matter where I am.

TNI - If you could sum up in 1-2 sentences why someone should check out the Beasts of the Mesozoic line, what would you say?

David - Beasts of the Mesozoic is a toy line intended for dinosaur fans and toy fans in general and who appreciate high-end, well-designed collectable action figures. An action figure series long overdue, this is the next definitive evolution not just of dinosaur toys, but of all wildlife toys. 

We want to thank David for taking time out from his busy schedule to talk with us. If you want to check out his Beasts of the Mesozoic toy line, be sure to head over to their official website. You can also check out their Facebook, Twitter and Instagram accounts for more updates on the line.
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