Mel Birnkrant's
Mel Birnkrant's
All Original Toy Concepts, Written and Photographic content is Copyright MEL BIRNKRANT
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          “Natural Habitats,” as a concept, was honest, well intentioned, and straightforward.  Over the course of several years, it traveled far, to ultimately arrive at an unexpected place.  But it began as Natural Habitats.  Or, I might more accurately say, it began decades before, when, as a kid of thirteen, I traveled from my mundane home in the once great Motor City to visit Manhattan for a week.  One highlight of that vacation, which included everything, from the pinnacle of the Empire State Building to the awesome grandeur of Times Square, was the Museum of Natural History.  I was fascinated by the monumental sculptures, assembled from the bones of dinosaurs that soared dramatically into the lofty darkness of the enormous hall, in which they were displayed.
          The scenic background paintings were amazing, and the animals, the bears especially, looked alive and friendly.
          And so, it came to be that many more years later, in a miniaturized way, this experience was what my humble concept, “Natural Habitats” sought to replicate.  Each transparent oval shaped container became a diorama.  The front surface was a sweeping picture window.  The back half held a printed scene in place.  The reverse side of that was printed with information about the animals displayed.  Set into the bottom of each case was a sculpted area of terrain, with indentations that held the feet of several tiny animals in place.  Each creature was removable, and to some degree, poseable.  All would have, at least, one moving part, usually its neck and head.  The top of each oval case had a place to lock in a transparent sheet of colored acetate to supply dramatic lighting effects, when appropriate, and illuminated from above.
         Designing the display card for the line, I intuitively and unconsciously chose to evoke the look and feel of National Geographic Magazine. That impulse later proved to be a fateful and fortuitous move.  Then, I quickly conjured up some Super Sculpey animals, and fabricated some appropriate terrain, enough to complete three different scenes.  All the animals were moveable and removable.
          The elephants had posable heads, and the large one has a trunk that moved.
          The giraffes had moveable heads and necks.
          And the dolphins were held aloft on transparent rods.  The top of the case contained a sheet of blue green acetate to simulate underwater lighting.  As you can see, this was dramatically effective.
          Then I made a video.  Some of the images you see here were extracted from the video below.  The actual art and prototypes have long since disappeared.   Only this short tape remains.  I don’t know if the tape was ever used.  I do know that it was never finished.   I added the music, yesterday, which, by the way, is frommy kidhood favorite movie, "The Thief of Bagdad."
          Meanwhile, Andy and Adam’s youngest brother, Noah, who had joined them as a partner in KISCOM, came up with a brilliant idea.  He took the association with National Geographic Magazine that I had visually implied on the card design one step farther, and actually contacted National Geographic.  Somehow, he managed to bring them onboard as a third partner.

          Therefore, I changed the packaging to display their name predominately.  What a difference that made!   This is how the Natural Habitats appeared when mounted on the newly adapted card. 

          Several other items in the series were displayed on the back of the package.
          In the end, my lame attempt at replicating the magic of the phantasmagorical displays that so impressed me, as a kid, at the Museum of Natural History, was history.  Nonetheless, thanks to a curious twist of Fate, we actually made some money.  This, I guess, constituted success, or so I managed to persuade myself at the time, albeit unconvincingly.
          Around the perimeter of this amazing inner space, beneath a sort of balcony, was a continuous ring of impressively large display cases.  Like a circular chain of Christmas windows, one after another, they offered glimpses into strange worlds of unreality, an instant safari, through time and space.  Here one could see once living animals, frozen for eternity, posed and displayed, in a fascinating attempt to replicate the natural habitats, in which they once lived, when they once lived.  There was something mesmerizing about these unnatural habitats.  I eagerly allowed myself to pretend that they passed for reality, and willingly suspended disbelief.

Two years later, my parents and I visited NYC again.  This time I had a camera with me, and I pointed it at several of those wondrous displays.  Now, at fifteen, I was even more impressed.
          Now, KISCOM presented the concept to Gary Niles at Galoob.  We had a complex relationship with Gary.  Sometimes, he was KISCOM’s best friend, i.e. the Magic Diaper babies made us a lot of money.  At other times, he was our worst enemy, like when he terminated Baby Face.  Gary was now managing Galoob the big company, not just the small international division. 

The sustaining staple that always managed to keep Galoob successful was a series of miniature vehicles, called, Micro Machines. Through abundant times and lean, Micro Machines always managed to succeed.  Now that the name, National Geographic was attached, Gary was more interested in Natural Habitats.  I made up several packages, consistent with the Micro Machine format.  Flat cards with a vacuum formed blister that displayed a group of miniature animals.  The scenic display and habitat idea went out the window.  And Gary rose to the occasion.  He licensed Natural Habitats as a continuation of the Micro Machines line.
         Then, in a curious twist of fate, Gary dropped the animals, and the line became a collection of dinosaurs and artifacts, associated with National Geographic Magazine.  The dinosaurs were ironic, in that we had shown Gary a line of dinosaurs before, when he was killing Baby Face. Now, Galoob produced a whole series of these, including some large playsets.  This is what the products looked like. There were six individual cards in the dinosaur series.
          I never got a sample of the spectacular large playsets, but I managed to capture photographs of them today on the internet.  They were quite elaborate.  Both were in the form of a dinosaur scull that opened up to transform into a prehistoric terrain.
         Galoob also produced a second series, based on the Exploration of Space.  Beyond these, there was a series of historical airplanes and vehicles used in the exploration of the Earth and even below the seas.  A few of these can be glimpsed on the package backs. I will include one here.
         This series also included a Transforming Action Playset that featured a space helmet with a planetarium inside.