The Toys Are Coming to Life

Adam Sidwell

Adam Sidwell is Head of Studio at Future House Studios. Future House Studios is composed of a team of artists and technical directors from top film, game, and VR studios including: Lucasfilm, Pixar, Weta, Disney, Digital Domain, Within, and more.They have vast experience in creating blockbuster movies, AAA games, and premiere VR and AR experiences, television series, and commercials. They are experts at developing content.Partnered with their sibling company Future House Publishing, their studio develops stories for television and film.

In 1995 when Pixar-Disney introduced Toy Story, as the first computer generated feature film, little did they know they would also change the face of animation as well as marketing in the toy industry. Bringing the toys to life late at night, when no one was watching, became the impetus to bring the toys to life with everyone watching.

Over the past couple of decades, computer generated imagery, animation, and a wealth of tech tools have grown by leaps and bounds and have allowed film studios to expand their creative horizons while visually telling terrific tales. I’m grateful to have been part of this evolution, creating tools for more efficient animation on I, Robot for Digital Domain, working on character creation for Pirates of the Caribbean at Industrial Light & Magic and writing code for rapid character creation on Tron: Legacy.

Marketing Themselves

Sure, kids have always played with a friend’s toys and then wanted one for themself.  Today, however, popular toys are literally marketing their own brands.  For example, the immortal Barbie, has become a darling of social media. Looking amazing for 62 years old, she now heads a Mattel franchise worth 1.3 billion dollars. How did this happen? Barbie made a splash on social media where she now boasts more than 1.8 million followers on Instagram, and on her Barbie Style page which has 2.1 million followers! Meanwhile, American Girl Dolls have over half a million followers. 

However, it’s not just dolls that can generate a significant following. Hot Wheels’ Instagram page has almost 900,000 followers. And one of our favorite new toy brands, Play Monster’s Snap Ships, has built an incredible following on YouTube.

Then there’s Lego, which began as nothing more than interlocking plastic bricks for building. Over the past decade, the Lego franchise has built a following of nearly 7 million fans, due in part to five Lego animated feature films and a significant presence across Instagram with countless pages for kids as well as adults. 


Today, the world of “spokespeople” has morphed into influencers, who are designed to engage an audience on social media by serving as brand advocates. It’s organic marketing, and it works.

            Influencers are big business. According to USA Today, an influencer with up to 1 million followers can see $10,000 per post. Those with over a million followers can charge much, much more. According to Influencer Marketing Hub, Soccer icon Christiano Ronaldo headed the 2020 list of successful influencers with an estimated average price per post ranging between $466,100 and $776,833. American pop star Ariana Grande was second.

Such real-life influencers, however, can cause concerns for many companies, primarily about costs, availability and the duration of their fame. After all, iconic toys can command attention for decades. These concerns, coupled with the ever-expanding growth of CGI, AI and virtual technology has spawned the rapid rise of virtual influencers.

In a July 2020 interview, Harry Hugo, co-founder of the Goat (influencer marketing) Agency, said of virtual influencers; “They can be available 24/7 and have a personality molded to be exactly what you want. These things are massive plus points for brands because they make the perfect ambassador.” In fact, according to HypeAuditor, “Virtual Influencers have almost three times more engagement than real influencers.” 

Film companies have developed efficiencies over the years that have trickled down to commercial houses, tiny studios and even freelance artists. Some of the same code and tools that my team members wrote at Industrial Light + Magic, or Weta Digital now have free equivalents available on the web for the savvy animator. In other words, what was once reserved for our elite animation teams to make Tron and Pirates of the Caribbean is now available for every artist smart enough to use it.

Virtual influencers range from the above-mentioned Barbie to more recent, human-esque virutal sensations like Lil Miquela, a 19-year-old Brazilian-American model, musical artist, and influencer with over a million Instagram followers, who just happens to be an almost lifelike CGI virtual creation. A host of other virtual influencers, in a variety of shapes and forms, have followed in recent years, with many still on the virtual drawing board. Our team at Future House Studios is constantly developing rapid characters for Virtual Reality, Augmented Reality and more.

So, What Does all This Mean?   

         It means that toy manufacturers have created their own sales department, led by the toys themselves. It means that the future of toy marketing will continue expanding rapidly led by visual platforms like Instagram and YouTube. It also means that the use of animation, CGI, and virtual technology should be part of the marketing plan for any toy company.

        With all that in mind, Mattel Films was formed in 2018, and in 2020, Hasbro acquired a Canadian entertainment company to create and distribute content based on Hasbro Toys. Yet, smaller and mid-sized toy companies should not feel left out. In recent years, film companies have developed efficiencies that have trickled down to commercial houses, tiny studios and even freelance artists. What that means is that the tools and technology once reserved for the elite animation teams of Pirates of the Caribbean or Tron, are now available for every artist smart enough to use them. It means that near cinematic quality can be found on places like Instagram.  In essence, it means that you only need to think creatively and find such a team that will help you bring your toys to life.

Leave a Reply