Interview With Joe DeVito

One of the things that makes a great designer is ingenuity. Be it planes, electronics or toys, everything has to start with an idea, and a simple idea, such as a strategic placed magnet, can turn a good toy into a great toy. When you were a kid, toys were magical. They were pathways into a world of imagination and adventure. Many of us turned their backyard into an imaginary Isla Sorna, making Ian Malcolm and his companions return to the dino-infested island. But while we all had the action figures, we never wondered who the people were that came up with them. Joe DeVito is one of those people. We were lucky enough to get some of Joe’s time (he’s a busy man) to talk about 1997’s favorite toy line: The Lost World, and it proved to the quite the interesting conversation.

First of all, we would like to thank you for the opportunity for this interview. And while most people reading this interview have had at least one of your designs in their possession at some point in their lives, they probably do not know what your involvement in the Jurassic Park toy line was. Could you tell us?

I did the original turn around and/or detailed design drawings for several of the toys, both small and large.

Do you know why several of the human characters, like Nick van Owen and Roland Tembo were originally released with different heads, that were later replaced with different versions?

No, I do not know that. It's amazing how insular an artist's life can be - there is often not much different between an artist and a hermit!

Which particular figures did you work on for this toy line?

It's been several years, but off the top I remember working on the "Horn-head" Parasaurolophus, “Thrasher” T-Rex, "Spike - Tail" Stegosaurus, "Ram - Head" Pachycephalosaurus, the corresponding Triceratops (forget the name), the Velociraptor called "Cyclops", a Carnotaurus, and a Euoplocephalus. I also turn-around and detailed design drawings for the small plastic baby versions of Triceratops, Stegosaurus, Pachycephalosaurus, T-Rex, Velociraptor and the Compsognathus that has the magnet in its mouth that allows it to 'bite' and hang on to various figures; I came up with that idea in the design stage. There may have been more, but it’s been quite some time.

Do you know how it is decided which non-movie dinosaurs are chosen for the line?

I have no idea. Generically speaking, I do know that product designs are contingent on the shape and size of the box the toy would come in, which can be predetermined according to store shelf size etc. Nothing happens arbitrarily.

How early does work on a movie toy line start? What resources do you use to get started?

From what I know, the first things that have to happen in the process are that the movie has to be developed, packaged and sold (screenplay/director/actors/funding) etc. Work on a toy line probably wouldn't start until after the film is in full production with the working version of the screenplay and the look of the creatures established and the like. Depending on the property, all kinds of deals are made and put in motion as soon as the correct pieces are in place to start the machine rolling.

When doing drawings (as I did for these toys), the resources are as simple as paper and pencil. Computers were not ubiquitous back then, and although things have changed in that regard, I still work by hand whenever possible. When it comes to reference, I have a virtual library of books and magazines to augment constant research on everything dinosaur to draw from, along with some well-placed friends in the paleo field and museums. With the internet these days, the scope of information available is virtually limitless.

Is scientific accuracy important in designing dinosaur toys, especially those not featured in the film?

Absolutely! The creatures have to be as accurate as possible when creating straight dino-based toys, and as plausible as possible when creating variations of those creatures. I spent a good deal of time studying biped and quadruped anatomy over the years. The uninitiated would be amazed at how similar higher vertebrate anatomy is: all the same bones are there in everything, they are just varied in shape according to function; as an example the bones in the hand of a human, the foot of a lizard or the flippers of a whale or a mosasaur are all essentially the same.

One of the longest-running mysteries amongst JP fans is the large Triceratops figure from The Lost World. Do you know why it was never released?

No, I don't. I'm not sure how big you mean by 'large', but if you refer to the one with the bite out of its side (like "Spike - Tail" the Stegosaurus), I remember doing some turn-around drawings for that very well.

Is there anything you would have changed about your work on the toys when you realize how much the views of science on certain dinosaurs have changed?

That's a good question. Off the top, I guess the biggest change that is commonly accepted now is the addition of feathers to the raptors and possibly even the young T-Rex. Also, I always regretted not being able to show the accurate hip structure in the Tyrannosaur. In the movie (and hence the toys) the pronounced elongated foot at the end of the pubis was virtually eliminated. It may have been a cosmetic thing. On the other hand, I still like it just as much because it harkens back to how T. rex was portrayed in most of the books I grew up with. Nostalgia is high on my list when it comes to dinosaurs.

Do you know of any figures that remained unreleased?

I had so much going on at the time from super hero and SF/Fantasy painting and sculpture, I completely lost track of what came out when. Add to that two young daughters and I'm surprised I had time to remember my own name!

How does it feel to walk into a toy store and see your work?

I've got to say, that was one of the coolest parts of working on these toys. As I've stated on other occasions, there are times when the line between being an artist and a fan becomes utterly blurred. As an example, when I work on 'The All New Wild Adventures of Doc Savage" (written by Will Murray) I wouldn't dream of changing Jim Bama's visual interpretation of Doc that incorporated a widow's peak, torn shirt and jodphurs, because that is the character I grew up with. To me, it wouldn't be Doc any other way.

I can't think of a more powerful such example than being part of the creation of dinosaur toys. My memories of the Marx plastic dinosaur playset I had in the very early 60's are indelibly etched into my brain. I remember the day my aunt Ann brought it to me, what the weather was like (raining) and what movie was on TV (Ingrid Bergman in 'Joan of Arc'). I was only 3 or 4 and the box was as big as I was. It was one of the most magical moments of my life.

Fast forward 30+ years and my 5 year old nephew told me how he loved playing with the JP2 Compsognathus with the magnet that allowed it to hang on the action figure like it was biting him and how they would hang them all over the refrigerator. That was a toy I designed and the magnet was an idea I came up with. To help create dinosaur toys that create the same kind of memories for another kid that I had as a boy is as special as it gets.

Have you worked on other Jurassic Park toy lines apart from The Lost World?

I did a lot of concept work for at least 2 spin off TV show concepts that were pretty cool, though I'm not sure if they ever made it onto the screen.

Do you have any souvenirs (concept art, prototypes) from Jurassic Park?

Yes I do. A few of the toys, some of my original art, reproductions of several other sketches. It was in the days before home computer set ups were anywhere near as advanced as they are now, so all I have left of some are thermal paper copies from fax machines.

Would you work on another Jurassic Park line given the chance? If so, what would you like to include in it?

Certainly. When it comes to dinosaurs I can NEVER get enough. As for what I would include in it, I've found the best way to realize my dinosaur concepts is to conceive my own stories and properties. I first conceived a prequel/sequel to the original King Kong story in the early '90's even before the first Jurassic Park movie came out. It took a while to finish the book, 'KONG: King of Skull Island', which was published a few years back, is being completely transformed into a really cool 3 part interactive app (Part 1 just came out for iPad, Android to follow very shortly) and there is a movie in development as well. I've also written full drafts of a screenplay for my next dino-infested action adventure story tentatively titled 'The Primordials'. I'm developing the visuals to go with it. The main problem is there are never enough minutes in a day to get things done.

Thanks so much for the interview. It was a pleasure and brought back many fond memories!

Thank you. The pleasure was all mine.

To see more of Mr. DeVito's work, make sure to check out his website. It’s well worth checking it out, as it has some amazing paleo-art, alongside other beautiful designs. Still can’t get enough? Mr. DeVito was kind enough to provide us with scans of his designs for the Lost World line, and all of them have been added to our prototype galleries of The Lost World series 1 and the unreleased TLW Triceratops! And if you liked the article, why not join the discussion on our forums?

DISCLAIMER: While we understand the enthusiasm of our readers for this interview, please refrain from contacting the interviewees on behalf of JPToys. The people interviewed do this as a favor to JPToys and are generally taking time off of their busy schedules. They do not have the time to answer dozens of e-mails. If you have any questions regarding the interview, please contact staff. They will be happy to answer your questions, or centralize them and then contact the interviewee. This interview is © 2012 and Joe DeVito. The pictures are © Joe DeVito.

Designer Joe DeVito

Concept art of the Stegosaurus

Concept art of the unreleased Triceratops

Concept art of the unreleased Euoplocephalus

Concept art of the Compsognathus and Ludlow's Velociraptor hatchling

Concept art of the Carnotaurus

Concept art of the Thrasher T-Rex