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Great Figures versus Poor Ones

We have never really hashed out a way to define what separates figures quality, insofar as design and sculpting. We all know that figures vary in their realism.  Some figures look great, some look awful, and most are in the middle.  What contributes to a great figure is a combination of factors:

Proportion: a good figure has the proper physical proportion in body and equipment.  His head, hands, feet, torso and limbs are proportionate to the real human form.  You cannot fool people about this one.  We see all our lives the natural proportion of the body, regardless of physical type.  Slim or fat, tall or short, we know what real-life proportions should be. The same goes for clothing and equipment.  A rifle too short or helmet too large diminishes a figure's realism and appeal.  A good figure replicates proportion accurately.  Poor figures are disproportionate, having limbs too short or long, head too narrow or too large, etc.

Detail: good figures have good detail.  The detail is neither too thick nor too thin.  It will include realistic physical features such as faces and hands, as well as realistic costume and equipment.  Good detail expresses every element of a figure without being too subtle or too blatant.  It looks natural.

Animation: animation is the movement of a figure.  A good figure is like a photograph, with a human figure frozen in time. Even a figure standing at attention has a degree of animation.  The best animation is a balance of fluid motion and solidity.  Poor animation is either too fluid, making the figure look like a rubber-man, or too solid, where he looks stiff and robotic.  

Accuracy: a good figure accurately replicated the accouterments, attire and physical features of the real thing.  That means the uniform is the correct type, with the proper weapons and field gear.  These must be replicated accurately.  The same goes for the person.  He should look like an individual from the tribe, nation and culture he represents.  Facial features and hair styles are part of it.  A bearded World War II Marine just does not happen, nor does one find a Chinese Boxer with a Steve Canyon buzz cut.  Accuracy counts.

Character: good figures look real, great figures have character.  CHaracter is that indefinable quality which makes a figure an individual rather than a mindless reproduction.  It is a blend of detail, animation and personality imparted by only the best sculptors.  this is where the hobby becomes art.

The story: A good figure is more than a stationary figure.  Looking at it, you should know what the figure is supposed to be doing.  Is he charging, standing fast, falling or waving to his comrades?  There are figures where the character's action is uncertain.  With good figures, there will be no doubt as to what the figure is doing.  It tells its part in the story.

You can look at a great figure and know: what type of soldier he is and what he us doing.

Let us consider some excellent figures.  The Imex Civil war artillery sets are prime examples of great figures.  Each is distinct, not only in his pose but in facial features and facial expression.  The detail is exquisite, and a look at any figure tells you his activity.  Compare this with the Marx US Marines, Japanese Infantry, German Infantry or Soviet troops.  Every figure has detail, proportion, animation and gives a clear message as to what it is doing.  Though the facial detail is not as great on a few pieces, the rest of the figure is detailed and animated realistically.  You know which Marines are running forward, trying to reach cover.  You know which Japanese troops are charging and which are static.  The running Germans are obviously headed for cover.  Each of the six Russian troops is distinct in his activity, whether hurling a grenade or charging.

Compare the Imex with MPC's Cavalry / Civil War figures.  The MPC figures are disproportionately flat, their design and animation is stiff, and they hold their weapons unnaturally when firing.  MPC's figures look stilted and unreal compared to Imex.

Contrast the Marx Marines with figures by Lido, BMC or Airfix.  The Airfix infantry has good detail and animation, but not as good as Marx.  That is the difference between a very good figure and a great figure.  Lido is flat, less detailed and certainly not as realistic, yet its detail is adequate and it has good animation.  though nowhere near the realism of marx or Airfix, they have that element of character which makes them good figures despite their shortcomings.  BMC's d-Day troops pale in comparison.  Along with disproportionate bodies and equipment and unnatural poses is a stiffness that defies verbal description.  

Now let us compare Marx's Japanese infantry with Airfix and BMC.  BMC lacks detail and looks thick.  Airfix has good poses and detail, but is somewhat less animated than Marx.  Both sets are equally good, yet each has different assets.

German infantry makes for interesting comparisons.  Marx, Airfix, BMC and MPC are very different.  The Marx figures look a bit slim, but they have great animation and character.  Airfix is more realistic, in having the pack suspenders and fuller helmets.  they lack the facial detail and some of the character, yet are excellent figures nonetheless.  BMC is disproportionate, awkward, unnaturally posed and altogether inferior.  MPC is less disproportionate, yet has thick details which stand out too much and animation that is artificially posed and stiff.  

As Medieval figures go, compare Marx 60mm knights with the 54mm figures included in the reissue Marx castle, Airfix men-at-arms and the Black Knight Britains clones.  Marx's 60mm figures lack detail of later figures, yet make up for it with superb animation and realistic poses.  The 54mm knights are awful, liquiferous-looking lumps stiffly wielding their weapons.  The Airfix figures have good detail and animation, but not as much character as the 60mm Marx figures.  The Britains clones have great detail and very energetic animation.  Though their type of detail differs from the Marx 60mm figures and the Airfix troops, it works well with them thanks to their highly-animated poses.  

Let us look at firing riflemen for a moment.  Those by Marx and Airfix have the hands properly placed on the weapon.  BMC and MPC do not.  The hand looks as if it is resting against the stock rather than holding it.

A common flaw in toy soldiers: the figure's firing hand lies against the stock of the rifle.  If it were a real rifle, the recoil might kick the stock right into his face.  Also note that his hat is too small.  The hat's crown is narrower than his head.

The second mistake: he looks over the rifle rather than pressing his cheek to the stock and aiming.  

Head too big, hands too small, limbs too thin, torso too thick...and not much detail..  This gangly figure is in the T pose with both arms outstretched.  Cheaper figure sets tend to use this pose on as many figures as they can.

The figure has the shooting hand with proper grip on the rifle stock. His face is pressed against the stock, in a proper aiming position.  Observe photos of real troops shooting and you will see something similar to this.

Crude molding, these figures are too fluid and lacking detail.  Note blue figure with snub-nosed revolver, a weapon that was not used in the Wild West.

A pair of better figures, even though they are clones!  Good sculpting on the original figure carried over, as did realistic and well-animated poses.

A less-than-great photo of great figures.  Marx grenade thrower has detail, animation and character. The marching soldier is detailed and individualistic.  You can even see the expression on the faces of the better Marx figures.  It is like a 3D photo of the real thing.

Here is nice animation in figures.  You do not have to ask what any figure is supposed to be doing.  

Old figure is flat and undetailed.  This is the best animated of figures in the set.  The heads tend to be small and flat.

Poses look staged, without a feeling of real movement.  These figures are notable for poor proportions and detail.  Three of them are in the silly T pose.

Classic poses, but they look a bit stiff and unrealistic  Rifle figures look over the weapons rather than aiming.

Though crude, these figures have that essence of "character".  Detail is rather plain, but the action and pose make them interesting.

Click here for more photo examples

Click here for other photo examples and explanations

Click here to see real soldiers for comparison


Suggestions to manufacturers

Like many other hobbyists, I was hopeful when BMC announced their entry into the playset industry.  I looked forward to fresh, new Alamo, Revolutionary War and Civil War figures.  The Alamo was my first BMC purchase, and it was disappointing.  Though the wagons, artillery and small accessories were excellent, the human figures and the Alamo facade fell short.  The Texans were disproportionate and awkward, much like some MPC and in some cases, worse.  When D-Day was announced, I was exciting.  These figures were even worse.  I would rank them as one of the worst sets of 20th century troops ever designed.  The Rough Rider set saw some improvement, with figures looking like the better MPC miniatures.  An improvement, but still short of the mark.  The Iwo Jima set was about the same - better, but still too little.  

For modern figures, I use Tim Mee's Vietnam-era troops as the barometer.  A figure must at least equal them to be good.  A figure equal to the old Johillco or Herald infantry is acceptable.  Anything less is not good.  Lido figures are nice and I like them, but they are a product of an earlier time.  We expect modern toy soldier makers to have gotten better.  

A toymaker should ask himself: are my figures good enough to paint and put in dioramas, without altering their poses or details?  

I think BMC should consider a few options.  Of course, they could hire a great sculptor and have the mold to their Alamo and WW2 figures remade.  They might also consider improving their other troops.  This would be expensive, yet it would give the hobbyists the kind of soldiers they want to buy.  

Another option would be to clone or copy better figures.  that might not be the most original way to go, but they would look better than the current assortment.

Finally, BMC could stock their sets with figures by someone else.  Marx, Airfix or Matchbox recasts would be much, much better.  

Another thing I would like to see is a commitment to accuracy.  Packing 1898 Spanish infantry with Alamo Texans does not work.  It may fool the kids, but anyone who knows toy soldiers knows the difference between an 1836 Mexican infantryman and a soldier dressed for combat with bolt action rifles.  The bandoliers are a sure give-away, not to mention foot gear and the cut of clothing.

BMC's claim to fame is making great accessories.  The artillery, wagons and other gear from the Alamo set are first-rate.  The artillery from their Civil War sets is nice, and I love the revetments and artillery from their revolutionary war sets.  The Spanish hacienda, D-Day bunkers and farmhouse, higgins boats and vehicles are super.  As for the soldiers themselves: poop!  

I would make a similar recommendation to Marx concerning the figures they pack in their reissued Castle and Fort Apache.  The MPC cavalry are among the worst ever made.  The knights are even worse than that!  Either get molds to make good cavalry, or buy it from another manufacturer.  We expect a genuine Marx set to have the Marx quality figures we know from the original Alamo, Knights & Vikings, Fort Apache and Battleground.  MPC doesn't cut it.  

Battleground is nowhere near the original.  It does not have the small accessories or vehicles.  The current Battleground playset is not much different from the old BMC Task Force set: MPC tanks, vehicles and bunkers.  The only Marx items are small towed field pieces and a howitzer.  For those lucky enough to get the special sets, there were Marx Marines, Russians and Frenchmen.  Everything else was MPC.  Why not just market it as a Task Force set, and get Marx items together before calling a set Battleground?

We expect cheap clones and lumps from the Chinese clone-copy manufacturers,  We expect something more from makers who claim to be setting the standard.  Add that the Marx name implies a lot to folks in this hobby, and we know the original Marx standard.  When something sold as marx is not close to that standard, we feel disappointed.

I'll put it like this: come up with the goods, and we will buy.  If you can't come up with the goods, don't try to placate us with second-rate, because we won't buy.  We will go to the recasters and the new makers like Conte and CTS.  All the fanfare over the new playsets is only because of the dearth of new playsets in this hobby.  

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