Period: Painted Head
Cat No: Various
Action Man Vacuum-Formed Landscapes Description:
The range of 4 vacuum-formed Action Man Landscape scenes are a particular rarity. A range of four separate scale play scenes were created as one of the first projects to be tackled by product genius Bob Brechin, Chief designer at Palitoy from 1967. The artwork had to be specially designed to deform with the plastic and keep its context - such as the wooden rowing boat and the groyne (breakwater) textures ending up wrapping around the 3D shapes. Three solid colours were used to decorate three of the scenes (the moon-scape was actually spray painted after formation).
The resulting Action Man dioramas were fantastic feats of imagination, prediction and accuracy - using just one piece of flat plastic. The Lunar Landscape could be adjoined to another to form a full crater for the Action Man Astronaut or Space Explorer. The Pill Box Landscape had three pieces - the middle largest piece balanced on top of the largest piece and was ideal for the Combat Soldier with a browning machine gun or the later German Stormtrooper. The Jungle Fox Hole Landscape also followed this method and was a fitting hideout for the Beachhead Assault (or US Marine) figure.
For transportation they were covered with a soft white tissue paper between stacks of displays (presumably to stop ink transfer and marking off) and stacked into a hand folded corrugated card two spot colour shop display counter-top box.
35101 Pill Box
35102 Jungle Fox Hole
35104 Lunar Landscape
Story of the Action Man Landscapes by ©Bob Brechin (5-9-17):
"I joined Palitoy as a young designer on July 1st 1967. I had been working as a design/draftsman for a door/window fittings company in Birmingham since leaving design school at Aston University the year before. Toys seemed much more fun! And it turned out to be so.
I started off working on the designs of some pull-along wheeled animals for pre-school children – Action Man was in its second year, and the company was still trying to decide in which direction the concept should go. It was still following the Hasbro military route and only taking G I Joe product from the States with the introduction of the Soldiers of the Century (Hasbro’s Soldiers of the World); although the Hasbro’s Astronaut Space Suit and the Mercury Capsule was also in the range. My first introduction to the brand was when I was asked to reconfigure the wheels on the Personnel Carrier so that it would fit inside the corrugated cardboard box, without a corrugated insert to protect the wheels that protruded at the front of the vehicle. This was achieved, and it resulted in my first factory visit, with the Purchasing Manager, to brief the moulders at Popular Playthings in South Wales.
Sometime during the following year my boss, Design and Development Director Bill Pugh, presented me with four clay models - what was to be the landscapes. After some modifications to the clay models (we integrated the tops of the Pill Box and the Jungle Dug Out with the main component so that they would vacuum form as one piece leaving the customer to cut them off), I took them to a company in Leicester called Consort Display, run by the owner Bob Kenyon, and briefed him on the project. From the models they produced four vacuum forming moulds (sometimes called a pattern), in resin.
The diagrams (fig 1.) below explains the vacuum forming process. Inside the vacuum chamber the mould sits on a platen which has very small holes drilled through it. Some other small holes are drilled through the mould and platen, especially in the low-lying areas, so that the softened plastic sheet will be “pulled” completely over and on completion will be touching the whole surface of the mould. (If you look carefully in the lower parts of the landscapes you may see little indentations which would be where the air holes were.) A sheet of thermoplastic material, such as high density polystyrene (HDPS), is held firmly by toggle clamps above the mould as shown. A heater is lowered and positioned above and close to the sheet. The heater softens the plastic sheet and at a predicted time air is withdrawn from the chamber by a vacuum pump and at the same time the platen will move up towards the plastic sheet to reduce excessive stretching of the plastic. The resulting vacuum will draw air from the upper part of the chamber through the small holes and the plastic sheet has no option but to be “sucked” over the mould. After forming, the “formed” plastic sheet is removed and die-cut to the required shape. The whole process can be manually operated, but with more sophisticated operations it can be partly or fully automatic.
So that explains the process of vacuum forming, but it only provides a one-colour landscape, the colour of the plastic sheet. This was ok for the Moonscape because I specified to Consort Display a particular grey colour. When I received the pre-production formings in grey from Consort Displays I experimented in the spraying department in the Coalville factory by spraying them in different colours from low angles to simulate the sunlight shining across the crater, and the resultant shadow effect. When we were happy with the right result I briefed Consort on the colours and how to spray for the production run.
The other three landscapes were more tricky. These had to have silk-screened designs showing undergrowth, sand and rocks, and in the case of the beach scene an upturned boat and wall. It would have been possible to spray these designs post vacuum forming, but it would have meant making different sets of expensive spray masks. The simplest way was to silk screen the designs on to the flat plastic sheet prior to vacuum forming. But how do you ensure that the printed design matches the shapes on the vacuum formings, especially the white stripe around the upturned boat? This was achieved by a process known as “back-printing”.
First of all, Consort produced some white sheets of plastic with a black grid of one inch squares all over (Fig 2 below). These would have been printed by silk-screening. These were vacuum formed over the moulds to produce landscapes resulting in a lot of distortion of the black grid – the squares were no longer squares. The distortion would have been quite dramatic over almost vertical sections such as inside walls of the Pill Box. With a transparent paint, I then proceeded to decorate the landscapes – the vacuum formed plastic sheets with the distorted grid - with the undergrowth and other natural and man-made features. The next step was to transfer, as best as I could from each distorted square on the forming, the design into the corresponding square on a flat sheet. And then vacuum form that sheet to see the result. It took a few of these operations before we got the ideal result. This was especially so with the boat on the Beachhead scene – getting that white strip perfect. It wasn’t so important if a blade of grass didn’t quite line up on the Jungle Dug Out or the Pill Box, or the print didn’t line up with a pebble on the beach, but having the white strip perfectly printed around the upturned boat was critical. When Consort came to the production run, if somebody opened a door and let in a draught of cold air the result often affected the heating and the white stripe may have moved on the boat. Doors were kept closed when that mould was in the vacuum chamber!
For cost purposes, I was restricted to three printed colours on each landscape (except the Moonscape which was sprayed). One colour was the colour of the plastic sheet, so that made it four colours in total. The other three colours had to be silk screened separately on to the flat sheets, one on top of the other, before vacuum forming. I felt that the Beachhead needed five colours in total. Not printing the Moonscape saved a few pence, so I was able to use four printed colours on the Beachhead – so, the sand colour of the plastic sheet, plus printed blue and white to represent the sea, with waves lapping on to the beach, and a light and dark brown to represent the pebbles, with some shadow effect. The brown and blue was used for the boat, and with the white I could put that awkward stripe around the boat. I was pleased that we eventually got that. So, the Pill Box which was formed in grey plastic got green and yellow, for the undergrowth, with a grey/blue to add speckles in the grey concrete along with some yellow speckles.
The Jungle Dug Out was vacuum formed in light brown plastic with printed dark brown, light and dark green.
The landscapes were sold separately, I believe, 24 nested on top of each other in a printed cardboard counter dispenser. They were not displayed or offered for sale at the 1978 Toy Fair, and were not featured in any catalogues. We started the development later in the year but managed to get them produced and in the shops for Christmas that year (1968) - and that was the only time they were marketed. They couldn’t have been very popular otherwise they would have continued production in 1969 and beyond – however, I think they were a nice item for the child to display his Action Man. Perhaps they were too costly to manufacture. Vacuum forming has advantages in simple design, lower tool costs than say injection moulding, and suitable for low production runs. The process was useful and used a lot in prototype development for those reasons. Injection moulding is a much cheaper process per component, but requires big production runs because of the expensive tooling that is involved. If we had injection moulded the landscapes we would still have had to spray-paint the decorations (impossible to screen print) which would have made the final product very expensive.
I am pleased that collectors have managed find some of these rare and interesting items. I hope that they are well cared for and displayed. It is pleasing that Rob Wisdom has been able to find images of a set still in the counter display pack (images courtesy of Stu).
1968 was the year we started to broaden the scope of Action Man by first bringing out our own conceived Red Devil outfit - and the entry into sport with the Footballer and Cricketer outfits. In 1970, we broadened the world of Action Man with the introduction of adventure as a theme - with the Sledge and Dog Team and the Jungle Rivercraft and accompanying outfits and accessories. But these had a short life because, as collectors all know, it was the military outfits that prevailed and saw out the demise of Action Man in the end. I feel that if we could have relooked at the landscapes in the latter years, we may have been able to produce them at a more acceptable price point, considering the advances in tooling, moulding and printing techniques since those early days."