Concept Artist WILLIAM STOUT Goes Inside His MASTERS OF THE UNIVERSE Film Work As Action Figures Are Finally Made

Masters of the Universe concept art
Credit: William Stout
Credit: Drew Struzan (Golan-Globus)

“People of Eternia, I stand before the Great Eye of the Galaxy…”

Frank Langella’s Skeletor in 1987’s live action Masters of the Universe movie cut an imposing figure for young fans raised on the venerable toy line, but those same fans were never able to get their hands on a physical representation of that iconic interpretation of He-Man’s arch-enemy – that is, until now.

Over thirty years after the film’s release, the visuals of Frank Langella’s Skeletor are finally captured in seven-inch scale thanks to deluxe retailer Super7, and of course, the artistic eye of William Stout, the original costume designer for the feature film.

Credit: Super7

After years of fans having only custom-made figures of the movie’s He-Man and Skeletor looks, Super7 is releasing a set of four figures designed to replicate Stout’s intricate costume designs from the 1987 cult classic featuring both standard as well as the “golden god” look for Skeletor - and for the first time ever, Dolph Lungdren’s He-Man. There is a Karg to complete the set, but it’s only a repaint of a previous release to represent a more movie-accurate look. The figures were available for pre-order earlier this year, and are scheduled to ship in June.

Newsarama spoke with Stout about the Masters of the Universe franchise, the process of working on the movie, and the impact of seeing his designs in this new medium.

Newsarama: William, Super7 is finally releasing figures based on your costume designs from the live-action Masters of the Universe movie.

William Stout: Isn’t that great?! It’s been a long time.

Nrama: When the movie came out, we had three figures from the movie in the original toyline: Blade, Gwildor, and from what I hear your personal favorite, Saurod.

Stout: It was fun to see those three as toy figures.

Credit: Golan-Globus

Nrama: What took so long for these to come out? Was it a matter of Mattel not wanting new Skeletor and He-Man designs in their own toyline, or something else? 

Credit: William Stout

Stout: Mattel was desperate to revive the MOTU toy line. They were still pretty lazy, though, when it came to the sculpting and production of their action figures. Our new designs demanded that the body parts could not be interchangeable in any way. We, the designers on the film, banded together to demand that we get royalties from the characters and other aspects of the film that we designed. That huge fight, we won, may have caused some delay.

Nrama: Do you know if Super7 is at least sending you a set of the figures?

Stout: I would hope so! I believe it's in my contract with them. We should do some public signings to promote the figures.

Credit: William Stout

Nrama: For those that have the Dark Horse MOTU art book, there's a lot of concept art by a multitude of artists, including Ralph McQuarrie and even Moebius, but...

Stout: Yes, but not by me. I still have nearly all of my MOTU art - over 100 pieces. I keep the art I produce on every film that I work on. I offered to let my art be used in the MOTU art book - but Mattel told me that if my work was to be in the book, I’d have to relinquish my copyrights to the work - for free!

That’s why my art is not in the book.

Nrama: When did you get involved with the movie?

Stout: Around 1985 or 1986. I was originally hired to storyboard the film. A few months after I was hired, Geoffrey Kirkland, our production designer, left the film. He recommended that I take over his job.

Nrama: Did they show any of the other's art to you at the time? 

Credit: Golan-Globus

Stout: A little bit. I knew Geoffrey’s work, of course - which wasn’t to Gary’s liking. I also saw a postage stamp-sized pencil drawing by Ralph McQuarrie, a large painting by John DeCuir and several Claudio Mazzoli pieces. That’s about it. Once I became the film’s production designer, I was mostly left to my own devices and visual direction.

Nrama: This is Karg's second figure as he was produced for the Masters of the Universe Classics line a few years back, getting a new movie-accurate paint job for this re-release. When designing Karg, what did you want to convey the most? 

Stout:I mostly just wanted Karg to look different from all the previous MOTU characters. So, I made him short instead of tall and gave him that bat-like face. I thought Michael Westmore did a good job on physically realizing him.

Credit: Golan-Globus

Nrama: Have you seen the figures in person?

Stout: Not yet…

Nrama: Director Gary Goddard once said that he was heavily influenced by Jack Kirby's New Gods for the movie.

Stout: That’s true.

Credit: William Stout

Nrama: Did you ever get a sense of that, or were you even ever advised, to try and emulate some Kirby-looking tech into the costumes?

Stout: That Kirby-esque look came naturally. Gary and I are huge Jack Kirby fans and were friends with Jack. We both spoke in a kind of cultural shorthand. If Gary said, “Could you Kirby this up a little bit?” I knew exactly what he was saying.

Nrama: Was there a design you still, to this day, wish you could go back and improve? 

Credit: William Stout

Stout: Absolutely. I hate the stormtroopers. To me, they’re no different from the Star Wars Stormtroopers - except that they’re black instead of white. Completely embarrassing. They were designed by Claudio Mazzoli. I should have fought harder to change their design. Everything else in the film, though, is pretty darn original.

Nrama: How would you have changed them?

Stout: I would have come up with something original - not a rip-off ofStar Wars. I actually came up with lots of alternate Shocktroop designs but I was overruled.

Nrama: A few years back, Star Wars had this Ralph McQuarrie-based toy line, a set made of McQuarrie-designed toys. If you could create a wave of four figures based on your concepts, who would you want in it? 

Credit: William Stout

Stout: I never saw it - but I wish I had. I love Ralph’s work. If you’re talking MOTU, it would be the Sorceress, my original Evil-Lyn design, my collaboration with Moebius on the re-design of He-man, and the gold Skeletor.

If you’re talking my own intellectual properties, it would be my Peace character from Wizards (coming out soon from Sideshow Collectibles), Mickey at 60, Art Dawg and a superhero I created as a teen: The Serpent.

Nrama: When you take a character like Skeletor from the Filmation series where he's not really a threat as much as he is just a nuisance, what was your primary concern with making him look sinister and horrifying? 

Stout: In film, and especially in superhero films, you always try to push to the extremes. These are bigger-than-life, operatic characters - so don’t hold back! If Skeletor personifies evil, he should look evil in every way.

Credit: William Stout

Nrama: How often were you on set? 

Stout: Every single day. I’m a hands-on production designer. I made sure the art department was on time or ahead of schedule for everything the film required.

Nrama: What was a regular day like while working on the production?

Stout: The production was often pretty hilariously chaotic. It was usually so screwed up that it was almost impossible for me and my art department to be late on anything. We burned through three different directors of photography. The line producer was fired, then rehired. My people came through like champs, though.

Nrama: Were you there when they almost shut down the production of the movie?

Stout: Which times? Actually, I was there from the very beginning to the very end. The other designers and I banded together, demanding that Mattel pay us a royalty on the new characters we had designed. They threatened to shut down the film eight times over this. We just kept on working. They finally capitulated.

Nrama: The film didn't exactly live up to expectations especially since it was at the tail-end of the popularity of the franchise, but has found a cult following in the subsequent decades. How do you personally feel about your work attached to it? It's still something people remember even 30 years later.

Stout: I'm very proud of my work on MOTU. People came from all over the industry to see our massive sets. I think the film looked great (and still does) and that it holds together. I attended a recent screening with Chelsea Field. The audience response was fantastic! They laughed and cheered at all the right places, and when He-man shouted "I have the power!" I thought the roof was going to come off the theater.

When the film was released, it did okay the first week...then better the second week...and even better the third week - which almost never happens. Usually, there's a huge drop-off in attendance with each passing week. Word of mouth on the film was building and building. I thought, "My God, we've got a huge hit on our hands!" Then, to my amazement, it was pulled from the theaters. What I didn't know at the time was that Cannon had gone bankrupt and couldn't afford to advertise the movie and keep the film in theaters.

Credit: William Stout

Nrama: Last September, there was this Netflix documentary about Masters of the Universe where you showed off a slew of the old concepts, but do you have anything you've yet to show to people? 

Stout: Sure…over 100 pieces of art. What you saw in the Netflix doc was just the tip of the iceberg.

Nrama: Was there something you yourself learned by watching the documentary? 

Stout: Not really. I pretty much knew the MOTU history. I’m friends with Don Glut, who wrote the MOTU comic books. This was my second Cannon film, so I knew their history as well. I knew about all of the conflicts and claims of ownership. But there are many great MOTU stories that I’m afraid can never be told!

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