Mel Birnkrant's
Mel Birnkrant's
All Original Toy Concepts, Written and Photographic content is Copyright MEL BIRNKRANT
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         Throughout my never-ending childhood, there was no hobby, known to mankind that I didn’t try.  I did everything, from collecting stamps to tying fishing flies, even though, I’d never been fishing in my life.  Of all the hobbies I became obsessed with, the most constant and long lasting was tropical fish.  I knew that if I could lure my father to the “fish store,” I’d walk out with an aquarium, and sure enough, I did.  The fifteen gallon fish tank sat atop the blond mahogany TV, and I cared for it diligently, throughout my high school years.  It was a complex tangle of florescent fixtures, water heaters, thermometers, electric pumps and stinky filters, all engineered to maintain a delicately balanced ecosystem that required the water temperature to remain at 75 to 80 degrees. 

My favorite fish were known as “Neons,” minute enchanting creatures that glowed as if they had tiny bright blue neon lights inside.  I also had other varieties, Guppies, Angel fish and Black Mollies.  True to form, as much as I loved the fish, I also adored the accessories.  I found these rather unimaginative novelties quite fascinating.  Over the years I had several variations; The first, and most basic, was a metal deep sea diver that stood knee-deep in the sand and blew bubbles incessantly.  Another variation was a pirate chest, that, like the diver, was connected to the air pump by a tube of transparent plastic.  When the lid of the chest filled with bubbles, it opened up to let them out, and then, it closed again. 

Years later, the memory of these simple but effective gadgets became the inspiration for the concept that came to be called, “It’s Alive.” The concept had some problems, in that it had to operate in water.  And it worked best when powered by an electric air pump, in which case, it would move continuously, as if it was alive.  But it could also be powered by a hand pump that could be included in every package. 
          There were no preliminary drawings. I just sat down with Super Sculpey, and made them up as I went along.  The first required a wire armature.  It was a sort of scary frog.  Three of the figures operated by filling them with enough air to lift the creature to the surface of the water.  There was a sort of valve on top that was held closed by a small float.  When the figure reached the surface, the float would open the valve and release the air.  Then, the figure would sink to the bottom, waiting to fill with air, and rise again.
          This scary monster got quite complicated. The head would hide inside his body.  When filled with air, it would appear, first raising in the tube, then lifting the entire creature to the surface, where it would release a bunch of bubbles, and sink back down again. 
          This character operated exactly like the pirate chest in my kidhood aquarium.  I also added a subtle feature that made the eyes open and close.  This figure rested on the bottom, and never rose.
          This crazy critter turned into a sort of Cthulhu.  That wasn’t intentional. It was, more or less, just a doodle.  Nonetheless, it became the model for a head I drew, years later, as a variation for the Outer Space Men. 
          Alas, the final colored drawing, which I rather liked, is lost.  The image that you see below was reconstructed from sections of several colored slides. 
         The variation below, demonstrates the possibility of including dramatic lighting.  Such trickery was ahead of its time a quarter century ago.  I thought it made the creature more exciting. Today, it would be much easier to do.
         Last of all, we come to the video tape. Because showing this item with water was so impractical, the video tape would be all important.  This was always one of my favorite tapes.  And  the original version was posted on You Tube for many years.  A year ago someone complained.  So, I removed it.  Originally, it included four minutes of the Bride of Frankenstein.  Now, only 20 seconds remain, cutting the video down to two and a half minutes, most of which is original new footage, filmed when I was making the Sculpey models, 27 years ago.  

The original video was shot “live,” in front of the TV.  I rented a video of the Bride of Frankenstein, and purchased a glass beaker that matched those in the movie, which I set on a small table in front of the 25 inch screen.  The monster music was a Halloween LP recording, played on a portable record player, placed in close proximity.  It must have been hilarious to see, as I had to lift the cover on the beaker, start the air pump to activate the creature, and simultaneously drop the needle into the correct groove on the LP, all in sync with the movie.  Such things could not be done electronically in 1990. 
          As you might imagine. It’s Alive, went nowhere.  It was difficult to demonstrate, needed a container to hold the water, and worked best with a motor.  Nonetheless, it was shown to everyone from Mattel to Hasbro, from 1991 to 1994. The last company to see it was Hartz Mountain, a company that actually made aquarium supplies.  In the end, the general consensus was that: “It needed a play pattern that boys could understand.”
          Speaking of doodles, after the fact, I was playing around with drawings and explored some possibilities to see if the animated creatures might become even more complex.  And here, with just a drawing and a video to go is where this web page originally came to an end.

Then, low and behold, the day before yesterday I came across a group of drawings. These were somewhat rough, intended for my eyes only.  I discovered the original pencil sketches and the Minolta copies.  I will add the original pencil drawings here.  Get ready for a ride into the deepest aquatic recesses of my mind. 

First of all I'll share my handwritten notes, as I’m too lazy tonight to type these.  So read them if you can, and you will see why I never attempted to write anything, until years later, when I got a computer.  My handwriting was difficult to read, even by me.  Then the drawings will follow. The notes on those are self-explanatory.
         The scribble above led to a more polished rendering.  I just found the original pencil drawing.