I feel very fortunate to present an interview with Rudy Obrero, a professional artist whose worked on Masters of the Universe packaging art over thirty years ago and is once again creating art for Masters of the Universe Classics. Mr. Obrero was kind enough to provide a quick look at this studio before diving into the interview.
1. How did you first get involved in doing artwork for Mattel, particularly Masters of the Universe?
My first job for Mattel was a Barbie product called Barbie Star ‘Vette. It was a pink Corvette that I had to do the outer package for. I worked through Mark Taylor for that job. And then at the beginning of Masters of the Universe ,I got a call from Mark to come in and discuss doing a package for this boy’s action figure, based on swords and superhero muscular guys like [Frank] Frazetta. He asked me if I could paint [like] Frazetta, and I said I could but I didn’t really want to paint a Frazetta piece because I didn’t want to have Frank Frazetta at my front door going, “Why are you doing this?” So I told him I’d give him something like a Frazetta without trying to step on anybody’s toes.
At the beginning it was just me and Mark on this stuff. I did the Battle Cat package, the one with Battle Cat without the mask; that was my first package [for MOTU]. The Wind Raider was next, the Battle Ram, Castle Grayskull, Screeech and Zoar, Attak Trak…I think I did ten boxes for them. Then it got a little crazy for me so I just moved on to other things. I started with Mark, and Mark left and I left right after he did.
2. In general, what sort of references did you have to work from when you were doing art for MOTU? Did they send you actual toys, or just photos?
I didn’t have many references, although back in the day they would give me the prototypes. I had the prototype Wind Raider – it was a clay model, I don’t know whatever happened to it, I wish I had it today. I also had the prototypes for Screeech and Zoar, and I think I had the prototype for the Attak Trak also. But I don’t have any of that today, I must have lost it in all the moves.
I didn’t have drawings, although now I know those drawings existed. When I started the job no one gave me any concept art or developmental art. I just started cold.
3. When painting for Masters of the Universe toys, how much leeway did you have to pose characters in a more lifelike way, rather than simply copying the look of the toys? Did this change at all over time?
When I started to paint the Battle Cat package, I was told it wasn’t going to have a cellophane window, so that I could have leeway in creating what I wanted for the box in terms of showing Battle Cat in some kind of heroic pose, and I wasn’t limited to doing a product rendering, but to make the character feel like it was real and vicious. So that’s what I did – I made it look like a cat that could do some damage if it attacked you. His name was Battle Cat, so it made sense to me.
At the time I was wondering why the cat was going to be green and orange – I thought that was kind of a weird color combination. But that’s pretty much the only thing I adhered to, the color on that cat.
4. There were a few other painters working on MOTU art in the 1980s, such as Earl Norem and William George. Did you ever meet them?
There were a few other paints working for Masters in the ‘80s. I never met anyone after me. I moved on to my own career. I was doing a lot of movie art, whether it was for posters or concept art. I was doing a ton of those so I didn’t really miss packaging for a while. I didn’t know the Masters toyline kept going. I just wasn’t aware of it anymore.
But I did meet William George last year, which was cool. We got to tell some stories, and he was a very nice and talented gentleman. I wish I had known him earlier. But I don’t know who Earl Norem is. If I didn’t work on it, I didn’t care what else was going on.
5. Your website says you have worked as the style guide artist for Universal Monsters and the Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers, among other properties. What does being a style guide artist entail?
I’m a style guide artist also, which means that I do all the image work for, say, Curious George, The Land Before Time, Universal Monsters, a whole bunch of them. A style guide artist creates the visual bible for any merchandising that’s going to come along. For example, if somebody wants to put Curious George on a lunch pail, they have to go and buy the license from Universal Studios and they have to follow whatever art I have in the style guide – or they just come to me to create new art, because I’m the guy who actually does the style guide.
I did some work for Harry Potter for Warner Bros. in the same capacity. It’s a good place to be – style guide art is pretty cool. I do everything for E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial – remember that guy? I did all of his style guide stuff.
6. You’re now doing artwork for Masters of the Universe once again, including the packaging art for the new Wind Raider, Granamyr and Castle Grayskull. How did that come about?
How did I start working for Mattel again? Interesting process… because back in the day, I really didn’t sign my art and they didn’t want me to put a big signature on the art, I would hide my signature in the art somewhere. Sometimes it’s painted in the rocks, sometimes it’s kind of dark-on-dark, but it’s kind of there, if you know where to look. So nobody knew who did those early boxes because it wasn’t that important to get my name on them.
But about three years ago, somebody did an interview with Mark Taylor, and he passed on that I had done the early boxes. From there people were calling for interviews or whatever, and all of a sudden…I was doing work for Mattel for other products, such as some Ghostbusters stuff, some Barbie stuff [laughs] – I still do Barbie, of all things. But anyway, I hadn’t worked on [the new] Masters of the Universe yet.
They started calling me [when] they wanted a new Wind Raider package. I did some other thing – I think I did Wun-Dar for them and some small Masters items. I just kept drawing for them, and I think partly because of fan demand. You guys out there said you wanted me to bring back that classic look, which I’m going to try to do. So thank all of you for shouting out for me!
7. What is it like to be working on MOTU again three decades later?
It’s fun. I actually like fantasy art – I love it. It’s probably why I do illustrating today. I like painting dreams or stuff that doesn’t exist, stuff that you want to see – you know, big guys with big swords [laughs], air battles and all those things.
I think Mark [Taylor] is the same way. I went over to his house last year and he’d painted a World War II air battle. So we’re kind of of the same mind, we like action pieces.
Anyway, it’s fun – it was fun then and it’s fun today.
8. What are some of your favorite pieces you’ve worked on? What’s your favorite MOTU piece?
Well, I like the Castle Grayskull and I think I’m going to do it again, so that’s going to be fun. I’ve got to figure out how to top the first one or any that have come subsequently.
One of my favorite pieces of art is the Wind Raider box, I like that one also.
9. What was it like working with Joe Amaro to design the Manta Raider? How did that come about?
Joe contacted me through email, asking if I had any art for sale – any old art or prints for sale. At that time I didn’t I told him most of that stuff was probably owned by Mattel, so I shouldn’t be selling prints. But I did the Manta Raider [art] on my own. And when I showed [Joe] and said this was available (but in print only, because it’s digitally done), he emailed me back and said “you know, I can make that three-dimensional.” So I said cool, you know what, I’ll trade you a print if you give me a Manta Raider in 3D (which is sitting on my desk right now). Thank you Joe!
I think it was a complicated piece to do for one person so I guess he’s done doing it. I don’t know how to sculpt and paint a model so, without Joe to do it it’s never going to be done again.
10. Do you have any advice for aspiring professional illustrators?
Draw, paint everything. Try to draw and paint what you want to do and stay that way. It’s more fun if you like what you’re doing; it doesn’t feel like work, it feels like you’re playing – and it’s good to get paid for playing. I been doing this for over thirty years and it’s still fun. Every time I come up with an image, I can’t believe it’s mine.
Anyway, it’s been a fun career and I’m still doing it. I’m not retired yet (although since I’m working from home, it sort of feels like retiring).
I thank the fans for being interested in what I do, and I hope MOTUC keeps going – because I want another chance at the Attak Trak, which I didn’t really like when I did it the first time and wish I could do it again – do a better one, with maybe less art direction.