How Meshbox’s Toon Santa became the NORAD Santa

Dec 11, 2019 at 10:00 am by 3DFineries

For the last 14 years, Meshbox Designs has surprised the 3d community with a new Toon Santa in December.

From the Classic Red Santa to Steampunk Santa, each Toon Santa has a family-friendly theme reminiscent of the Rankin/Bass class television shows we can still watch today such as Santa Claus is Coming to Town, Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer, and a Year without a Santa Claus. Toon Santa’s humble beginnings in 2002 led to a major revamp in 2006 when Meshbox Designs became a contributor to NORAD’s Santa Tracking program.

Since then, Toon Santa’s world has steadily grown into a village of Santa’s, supporting figures, and buildings. There are well over 100 Toon Santa related creations for use in both Poser and DAZ Studio.

This year’s Toon Santa, Hipster Santa, is truly one of a kind. Hipster Santa was released on Dec. 5 and is now available at Renderosity. He comes with 13 clothing props & accessories as well as 8 poses. You can pick up your copy of Hipster Santa here.

I had the pleasure of interviewing Mr. Lynn Fredricks, the founder of Proactive International, Meshbox Designs, and Mirye Software, about the amazing history of Toon Santa. 

How and when did Meshbox get started?

Fredricks: Meshbox Design is an offshoot of the business development company Proactive International, which I started in early 1997. We began working with some 3D industry companies shortly after that. For example, we'd launched the US subsidiary of e-on software (then makers of Vue) and also set up and managed the business in Japan. Incidentally, this led up to PoserFusion being added to Vue, and our relationship in Japan played a role in E Frontier acquiring Poser from Curious Labs.

Oddly enough, my first encounter with Poser was Poser 2.0 at Mac Expo Tokyo when it was still with Fractal Design. Several team members from Fractal were present. I had a good working relationship with a shared partner, their Japanese republisher. This was also in 1997 I believe. Fractal and the republisher had a fun party nearby (a common occurrence at shows like that, or SIGGRAPH) and I met a few Fractal staff at the time.

Our 3D industry clients needed content, Meshbox began initially as a 3D outsourcing company. It became clear right away that there was a market for content. Chikako, co-founder and Art Director of Meshbox Design, took the initiative in this. This is why our username on Renderosity was Chikako for so many years.

What originally inspired Toon Santa in 2002?

Fredricks: Like many Americans my age, I grew up watching the Rankin-Bass holiday specials at Christmas time. There really wasn't any good Santa at the time for Poser. The early 2000s were a time of great change in our market. Curious Labs acquired Poser in 1999 when MetaCreations destroyed itself by turning to web 3D. Dan Farr spun off DAZ Productions in 2000. I wanted a Santa that had a family friendly appeal in presentation and style.

How many Toon Santas are there?

Fredricks: We just launched the newest Santa on 12/5/19, making it 14.

Where do the ideas for each Toon Santa come from?

Fredricks: Every year we have a "Guess the Theme" contest, and we listen to what people want. A few popular guesses likely will never make it because of Toon Santa's image.

Is Toon Santa the work of one modeler or several?

Fredricks: Ultimately, many. Myself, Chikako and one of our early artists came up with the original design based on my specs. Since then, we've had three other designers work on him. The free character Chunk, one of our "toon people" was also a result of his revamping in 2006.

Who is Toon Santa’s lead modeler and what is their 3D background?

Fredricks: Olga Devyatka has worked for Meshbox Design for many years, and we trained her internally. She took over this role in 2017 with Raypunk Santa. She's a talented artist and a delightful person.

What has been the most challenging thing about designing Toon Santa?

Fredricks: Holiday products are challenging, especially when you have many worthy competitors. Coming up with something fun and different each year isn't that hard, but making it work in Poser is another challenge.

Which is your favorite Santa & why?

Fredricks: This changes a bit year to year, because sometimes we do updates and add a few new props or poses or the like along the way. For all the variety, my favorite is probably Gentleman Santa, though Chef Santa is a close second.

What inspired this year’s Toon Santa?

Fredricks: Since we’re located near Portland, Oregon, the veritable homeland of hipsters, it seemed a perfect theme. A lot of hipsters (and homeless people, sadly) in Portland look like Hipster Santa.

Toon Santa’s village of elves has grown exponentially over the years. How many supporting models are there? Are there more to come?

Fredricks: A total of 80 buildings are available in many formats. We produced annual sets each year for a decade but, when we started adding other product lines, it became a bit overwhelming. As a result, for example, one product line will probably be introduced in 2020 after a three-year delay.

What other character models are part of the Toon Santa’s world?

Fredricks: There are two elves, Teppo and Taiko, which are Toon Santa's helpers. We also have a Toon Reindeer, which is a great standalone character but also works with the Wild West Christmas Stage Coach and Christmas Phaeton Buggy Carriage - both should appear on Renderosity shortly.

Which is your favorite non-Santa model & why?

Fredricks: That's a hard one. Some I really like more for their concept rather than the end execution. Our Elven Village Volume 1 series (now at Renderosity) is lovely and really popular among Poser, Vue and Blender users. We've had movie studios license it. One of the artists who worked on the posters for The Lord of the Rings movies licensed many of our models to use for 3D conceptualizations.

If you have smaller kids, I’m sure you’ve seen Santa fly around the world every Christmas Eve. Yes, that’s right. The beloved Toon Santa plays a supporting role in NORAD’s yearly tracking of Santa! Please tell us when & how this happened and explain the role Meshbox’s Toon Santa plays in NORAD’s tracking?

Fredricks: We became a corporate contributor to the NORAD Tracks Santa program in 2006 at about the same time we did a massive upgrade to Toon Santa. Oddly enough, a customer working at Microsoft introduced Toon Santa to NORAD, and then NORAD contacted us. A few years later, we can up with a variant version of Toon Santa which gives him a more unique appearance just for NORAD. We call him "NORAD Santa" for obvious reasons.

Our biggest contribution is in fact, Toon Santa in full 3D flies around the world on Christmas Eve. Some years have had tens of millions of viewers at that time. The site in some years has had well over 100 million unique visitors. Some of the art on the site comes from us, while other art used in various promotions includes other corporate contributors. Last year Adobe provided some animation that included our character work, for example. In previous years, Toon Santa showed up on 'real world cross overs' such as advertisements at the Denver airport, commercials on airlines, an opening of the New York Stock Exchange and even on an episode of Hawaii 5-0.

One contribution people do not often realize is that several of the tunes played on the site also come from "Meshbox Music." We've been thinking about how we can make these available for license on Renderosity.

Who does the animations for NORAD?

Fredricks: The real-time animations are done by the satellite tracking company who is also a corporate contributor.

What has been the most challenging thing as a contributor to NORAD Tracks Santa?

Fredricks: The biggest challenge is being a part of a team of collaborators that can include very large partners, like Microsoft, as well as many disparate companies large and small. Because of our background in tech and business, we've also provided some additional value over the years.

What has been the best part of contributing to NORAD’s Santa tracking?

Fredricks: It is a wonderful program! Although many contributors are corporations, we set aside our business hats to do something for free which make people happy all over the world. Over the years, many volunteers spend Christmas Eve manning banks of phones to answer calls asking about Santa. It has also become a tradition for the First Lady to take part in that.

The folks at NORAD love the program and are wonderful people to work with. They are also a part of NORAD itself. I encourage anyone who loves “NORAD Tracks Santa” to understand the vital role NORAD plays in protecting us in North America by visiting their regular website.

Interviewing Mr. Fredricks, learning more about Meshbox Designs & the amazing history of Toon Santa was one of the most interesting interviews I’ve had the pleasure of writing. Meshbox Designs offers a plethora of models from the Elven Village Volume 1 series used in artist conceptions for Lord of the Rings posters to the beloved Toon Santa and his village of helpers. One thing is for sure, Toon Santa will continue to bring joy to millions of children around the world on Christmas Eve.

Sections: Artist Spotlight

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