In celebration of the new ThunderTank pre-order for the ThunderCats ULTIMATES! line by Super7, ThunderCats.Org took the time to speak to the two artists behind this breathtaking beast: Joe Amaro and Nate Baertsch. Enjoy this in-depth discussion about how it came to be, as well as some exclusive photographs that haven’t been made public until now!
ThunderCats.org: Hey Joe and Nate! What an honor to be talking to you guys about a really hot topic at the moment: the new Super7 ULTIMATES! ThunderTank!! Are you excited that we can finally reveal that the two of you are both Panthro and Tygra, the real-life architect and tank-builder responsible for giving us this beast?
Nate Baertsch: Ha! Yes, it’s always exciting to finally reveal the things we work on behind the scenes. It’s even better when you see the fan reaction being largely positive. While I can’t speak for Joe, I’ll claim Tygra, only because my wife prefers tigers in the big cat family. *Laughs out loud* But if Tygra is the dreamer and Panthro did all the hard work to put the thing together, then Joe is for sure the Panthro level of muscle that got the job done. I just whipped out a few things and kind of disappeared!
Joe Amaro: I would be honored to be Panthro! It’s the nature of the toy industry, but I was super excited to see the fan reaction. Especially because none of us thought this would ever happen!
TC.org: You’re both known for having worked with Super7 and the Four Horsemen for many years already. How did you two get involved in this specific project?
NB: This came to us much in the same way all the previous work has. A text or an email or even at times a phonecall. The more official stuff comes from CB in an email, and he’ll have notes from Super7, as well as what they are initially thinking. That’s how this one came to me. It’s a given I’m onboard for the work when it’s with the Horsemen, and it’s ThunderCats.
JA: I have been working with the Four Horsemen for over 15 years now. It’s kinda like M.A.S.K.—depending on the project they activate the appropriate agents for the job. I got chosen to work on this, which is a true dream come true! As you know, I am a huge ThunderCats fan.
TC.org: Fellow orger Justin interviewed Joe in 2018, and we showcased your excellent customs at the time. That interview was set during the gap between the end of the Matty Collector Classics line and the start of Super7 ULTIMATES!. Of the many voices out there crying for its rebirth, you were one of the very few keeping the brand alive. Was it nostalgia and those glaring holes in your Classics collection that drove you to making your custom resin Snarf, Berbils and Snarfer? Not to mention the Sarcophagus!
JA: Like everyone else, I was devastated when MattyCollector closed, so I decided to fill in some gaps for myself. But then my fellow Thunderians wanted one, so I made some for them. Just keeping the spirit alive.
TC.org: Nate, by that time you had already created the reference art for the Mattel line. Had you started on the previously listed Jaga and Grune and then told to stop when the end was announced? Tell us about the general mood when the news broke. You must have been disheartened at the time.
NB: Exactly. When this was with Mattel—and it’s much the same with Super7—neither company owns the license, so we have to do quick drawings or design sheets to show the licensor the intent or vision we have of what the figure will be, what it will come with, etc. So, I draw these sheets up based on what directions I get from the Horsemen. They’re as much a part of the design process as I am—I just get to draw the thing, sometimes before sculpture starts, sometimes after; but those sheets let the licensor know what we’re thinking overall. So, yeah, I had done sheets for Mattel for Panthro, Pumyra, Jackalman, Mumm-Ra in mummy form, WilyKit, WilyKat, Grune and Jaga. When it was at Mattel, there were talks of Jaga also being a possible con exclusive in spirit form, so I drew these up. After I was told they weren’t going forward? I was crushed. Largely because we had only just gotten started on this line, and while the majority of the heavy hitters and core characters were done, there was still a whole half of the main team and main villains that needed to be done! It felt so incomplete. It was hard. Then came Super7 to save the day!
TC.org: We’re luckily past all of that now, and Super7 restarted ThunderCats in ULTIMATES! form. Now we have this massive thing to talk about. You’ve both been very secretive about what you’ve been up to this last year, and now the cat is literally out of the bag. It must have been both exhausting and exhilarating knowing you were creating a legacy item, but that you couldn’t put the daydreamers out of their misery—me included!
JA: Like I said, to work on the ThunderTank is a dream come true! It is still hard to believe that in a year or so, the full team of ThunderCats will be riding inside the ThunderTank in my toy room!
NB: With Super7 already delivering on wrapping the core teams up, both good and bad, the ThunderTank really pulls this collection together in an impressive way. An icon to the property that cannot be ignored for sure!
TC.org: Where did you get your inspiration? Apart from the obvious references to the cartoon, did you also utilize the vintage model sheets or other references when designing this beast of a vehicle? Take us through the process. Who was responsible for what?
JA: The direction from the beginning was to follow the cartoon. I gave Nate some ideas and he ran with it.
NB: I started out on the project with a bit of homework to do. I grew up loving the ThunderCats and have been a fan since the mid-80s. For me, ThunderCats was a natural progression from the last days of He-Man and the Masters of the Universe on TV. I was happy to continue to run home to catch the toons, from ThunderCats, through SilverHawks and TigerSharks! I love them all!
I poured over the toon images, online images of the tank, past iterations like the LJN toy and the Icon Heroes sculpture of the tank. But, really, the main inspiration for me came from the cartoon’s model sheets and early production artwork of the ThunderTank. I even threw that model sheet into the design sheet image to be sure I was as true to that as I could be.
JA: By the time it was my turn, all the research was done. My job was to take Nate’s drawings and make them real. I still did tons of research on my own, but I already knew the ThunderTank well from my years of watching the show.
TC.org: Did you have to go and rewatch ThunderCats to get under the skin of the ThunderTank, and were there specific episodes that stood out to you for referencing?
JA: At least once a week I watch the ThunderCats cartoon. It is just a part of my life.
NB: Being tasked with the job to create the design sheet and initial stab at what the ThunderTank should be, I needed to sit down and watch a healthy chunk of the old show, specifically those early episodes where they build the ThunderTank. Some of the accessories are pulled from those episodes, such as the crate of thundrillium or the clear dome for underwater travel!
TC.org: Brian showed off the intricate details of the interiors during a Pixel Dan video, and now the final prototype is available to view in high resolution on the pre-order site. Zooming in gives you close-ups of everything from the monitors to the pedals to the various buttons, and even the comfy toy chairs. That’s a lot of information to incorporate into one design! What was your starting point?
JA: Nate’s drawings were mainly focused on the overall look and shape of the Tank. He did a little work on the interior, but since there is not a lot reference on the interior, if any at all, we had to make that up. For the controls in the cockpit of the Tank, there does exist a nice detailed schematic from the cartoon, so I relied heavily on that. Luckily, years ago I redrew it. I tried to replicate that exactly. Next, I made a nice library of Thunderian tech. I took screen shots of screens, buttons—anything I could find. I used all that to build the inside tech of the tank. It actually came in very handy, because I was able to give it to Bill Mancuso as reference when he was doing the paint master.
NB: We did pack a ton of love into this Tank. My direction from the Horsemen and Super7 was to make it basically a playset. Make it special. Make it ULTIMATE! So I took that approach to put in as much as we could, and to be as faithful as we could to the soul of what the ThunderTank is. For me, the starting point was the Tank itself, of course, making sure its silhouette was right. Next was making sure the jaw opened, the claws could raise. The Tank treads had to work, and the body had to open up as a complete room for the cats. Then smaller minor accessories and show-specific functions of the tank filled in the rest, to help it really convey the importance of this vehicle to the overall line. Even the bottom of the tank design is pulled from the very few frames we could see of the underside of this monster.
TC.org: So, the Tank accommodates six figures in seated positions. Was that part of the brief, and was there ever a consideration to scale it like the LJN Tank?
JA: Never! In fact, when I got the initial control art from Nate and the size spec, I made a printout, full-size to scale, and put some figures next to it, just to make sure the scale was correct. The Four Horsemen sent it to Super7 to double confirm this is what they wanted. We got a YES!
NB: My initial description from the Horsemen was that we wanted it to house all of the core ThunderCats in the body—that two would ride up front, and the rest could sit in the back. So, when I say core team, you all know that’s Lion-O and Panthro in the front, with Tygra, Cheetara, WilyKit and WilyKat and Snarf in the back. Poor Snarf didn’t get a chair, necessarily, but the four chairs in the back indicate the scale I tried to keep the Tank to. So, no, the LJN Tank’s scale was never a thing I considered.
TC.org: When you take the gun out of the back, how many more figures can you fit in there, apart from the four that are already seated? It sure looks like a lot!
NB: Joe, you will likely have a better answer here.
JA: Indeed! The back half is about 13” long. If you take out the gun turret from the seat to the front, the empty space is about 7” long. The entire inside of the tank is about 12”. So you have plenty of space to fit a lot of figures.
TC.org: Talking about that gun, it has such fantastic details. I never noticed it as a kid, but its cat-like claws are really impressive. There are several details like that in the design. When you guys started designing it, were you impressed to discover that all that was there all along?
NB: Yes, the gun for sure, as well as the panels in the front and the cool sleek design of the controls for the tank. I didn’t get too deep into them in my drawings, but Joe did an amazing job taking my scribbled suggestions and making it a beautiful reality.
JA: There were a bunch things about the Tank that I discovered, and some that were never explained, so it was a mixture of exploring references and making stuff up. Again I made a nice library of Thunderian tech that I used to make sure the design was cohesive.
TC.org: You should keep that library of stuff for future use, Joe! Now, the vehicle is actually mobile, and the wheels and treads turn. That’s really a necessity, alongside the claws that can move up and down. How was the decision made on which material to use for the treads?
NB: I can’t speak a ton to that, other than, as I was thinking about materials myself, I really wanted the tank treads to be a durable, high quality rubber that wouldn’t degrade over time. Fairly thick substantial stuff that had a little grip to it.
JA: We do not decide that, but I think we all know the issues with the old toy. Brian already said that Super7 will improve on that, especially with technology and materials being so much better now.
TC.org: The moving claws hide the guns that sport wheels as well. Is there a locking mechanism of sorts to keep the claws in the air, and how far up can they go?
JA: I think it will have a way to hold it in place. They do go up fairly high. We have seen that in the pictures already.
TC.org: It doesn’t look like the Tank has that vintage feature where it can stand up on its treads like the LJN vehicle could. Was that ever a consideration?
JA: No, it does not. You have to remember that this Tank is huge. I even had to add extra support wheels on the bottom to make sure it can hold the weight. The vintage toy had a track on the bottom that was spring-loaded and would lift the entire Tank up. This monster would need a metal brace system with industrial springs for it to do that. Haha! Besides, it would take away from the cargo space, and it was very important to Super7 that we have plenty of room in the back for four figures minimum.
TC.org: In the days leading up to the interview between Pixel Dan and Brian Flynn, there were concerns about the cockpit not closing and the figures’ heads sticking out. Those were quickly put to rest when both a clear and shielded top were revealed. Was it planned to have either of them actually slide back over the back of the Tank like in the cartoon? Animation makes everything look so easy…
JA: No, that is cartoon magic. Kinda like the shields on the ’89 Batmobile. In real life it would not work without compromising the shape.
NB: As complicated as this vehicle was already going to be, I did opt for the more simple, plug-and-play route, versus the more complex action feature of it working like it did in the show. Because of its shape, that would’ve had to be quite the fabrication to get it to work like the show, considering where the cover would have to go, in relationship to the room in the back and such. That said, someone, somewhere, is going to figure it out.
TC.org: How did working on the ULTIMATES! ThunderTank compare to working on the MOTUC Snake Mountain. Was it a more demanding job when you consider all the tiny details?
JA: They were both equally difficult. Snake Mountain, the version Nate designed, had never been built, so we never had a working model of it. That and the sheer scale of it made it difficult. The ThunderTank is so mechanical that every part had to fit together perfectly. With Snake Mountain, since it was organic, you could make adjustments to one piece without it affecting other sections. That was not true on the ThunderTank. If I made something bigger, then I had to adjust a bunch of other sections as well.
NB: For me, it was just a different beast, but easily just as much work. Snake Mountain also had a ton of detail to throw into the design, and the accessories and such. At the end of the day, everything has to be drawn. Both are large items, both take a long time to wrap my head around, both are loaded with so much detail. Where they are different would be in the overall nature of the two items. Snake Mountain is an environment that is so menacing, amorphic and organic. The ThunderTank is so precisely built and has to be so functional. Neither project was simple in any way.
TC.org: Will the Tank be released as one solid piece or will some assembly be required?
NB: I’m imagining some assembly will be required. Joe?
JA: I am pretty sure due to its size some assembly will be required. But I do not know.
TC.org: Joe, on your Instagram you’ve shown off how Snake Mountain progressed. Did you guys keep a record of the progress of the Tank, and will either of you consider releasing a sneak peek now or in the future?
JA: I was more involved in Snake Mountain, so I was able to document more of the process. We had a tight deadline, so I hand-sculpted it and scanned it in to give us a head start. I was also involved in pretty much every step of making a physical model up until paint. With the ThunderTank, a lot more people were involved. Each of us handled a step and then passed it on to the next. Consequently—and I think I can answer for Nate, too—neither of us will have pics of the entire process.
TC.org: Another interesting thing that Brian mentioned is that, with the tooling, they’re basically having to tool for both the inside and outside of the Tank’s parts. It’s not as simple, doing something double-sided. Did you guys ever think along the way, “Hang on, does this part go here or there?” This is not your average 1000-piece puzzle. More like 10,000 pieces, right?
NB: My job in this is to just dream it up, and put that dream to paper. How it gets built after that rests in the capable minds and hands of the guys like Joe, Bill and others. I would imagine they curse my name on a regular basis.
JA: First of all, I only curse Nate when I envy his talent! But to answer your question, yes! 50% of my job is making it look pretty. The other half is making sure it works. I worked at Jazwares for eight years, and back then I had the opportunity to travel to China a lot, sometimes two or three times a year. I went there to work with our factories on production, so I learned a lot. The main thing I learned is that a factory’s main concern is being able to efficiently produce the toy within the time and budget agreed upon, so if you don’t think about these things, they will make adjustments for you. For example, if I make a handle square and they can’t tool it, they will make it round so that they can. Sometimes they tell you, and sometimes they don’t, so I have to try to think of all the issues ahead of time and balance that with the tooling costs. But you still need a real team of engineers to look it over to make sure it can be manufactured. They will determine what should be reinforced or fixed and what type of plastics to use.
TC.org: The final approved prototype looks to be digitally printed in resin. Some collectors think that to print the Tank at home would be a cheaper exercise than investing in a $450 finished, painted masterpiece. But it’s obviously not as simple as that. What all goes into producing an item like this beyond just printing its files.
NB: Again, Joe could speak to this more, but, yeah, as great as 3D-printing is right now, the materials aren’t nearly the same over time as the plastics that come out of factories. And we just don’t live in the Star Trek times where you can hit a few buttons and magically have a functioning toy sitting on your table. One could ask Bill Mancuso of Four Horsemen Studios just how “easy” it is to just print out this toy. Right now, there’s nothing “easy” about it.
JA: There is so much more that happens in manufacturing a toy. For starters 3D printers cannot print in the same materials we use in manufacturing. It is not just about how it looks: it’s also about how it’s built and how it works. It needs to be durable and safe. The factory utilizes all kinds of science to make these toys, from industrial engineers to chemists that determine the best type of plastic to use. It is actually a very involved process. My son and my nephew play with Snake Mountain all the time and I have no concerns.
TC.org: How much are two you involved in the production side of it, now that you’ve handed over the prototype? Will you be drawn back in to final approval, etc., or will you have to wait like the rest of us for the boxed beauty to show up on your doorsteps?
JA: My part is done. I am now waiting for it to show up on my doorstep. Of course, I will still be involved if they need anything fixed or if they need some reference. But I am pretty much done.
NB: There may be an occasional question from the Horsemen. They do remain involved throughout, and the team at Super7 reviews steps along the way. It’s in great hands once it leaves my drawing board. I’m rarely pulled in for any suggestions or clarifying information.
TC.org: Joe, you’ve told us before that as a kid your dad got you the Sword of Omens, and you would play with the rest of the neighborhood kids, pretending to be Lion-O. Did getting the call that you’ll be creating one of the most iconic vehicles in pop culture history evoke some of those same happy feelings?
JA: Absolutely! I remember when I got the email from CB, I just sat there in awe. My wife looked at me and said what’s wrong. I showed her the message, and she hugged me and said, “Congratulations.” She knew what this meant to me. I instantly messaged Nate and we were both excited. It was nice to be able to share the excitement with someone who understood the magnitude of the situation.
TC.org: Nate, how about you? Did this take you back to your childhood again?
NB: 100%. I get so excited about this line with every reveal, and to have the honor of working on such an iconic vehicle/character for this property that I care deeply about. I absolutely tap into my inner child, which I try to keep alive each day. Working on jobs like this makes that pretty easy to do. I also find that if I’m not having fun working on a project, it shows, so I make certain to find the joy in what I do with these jobs, and that often means revisiting old toys, watching old shows, and remembering the joy and magic of childhood. I also pull out all the ThunderCats we have so far for this line, and just sit with them, move them around a bit, play with them some and leave them on my desk as I draw up the plans for whatever is next for the line. I find that helps a lot too.
TC.org: How long did it take you guys from start to finish to complete the Tank?
NB: It was a few weeks for me. Working just in the evenings here and there. An occasional Saturday afternoon or two. I have a day job, and a busy family life, so finding the time for these projects is one of the biggest challenges for me, so it’s hard for me to nail down an exact time of how long it takes. I can look at the email date, and the date on the final jpeg I sent, and yeah, it’s a few weeks.
JA: I worked about 5-6 months on it. Not constantly—we had to get approval in between steps and as we progressed. So it was off and on.
TC.org: The Super7 ULTIMATES! gives us plenty of extra accessories we never would’ve gotten otherwise, including the Treasure of Thundera. Many collectors wondered whether Snarf would make an appearance with this ThunderTank, much like he did with 2011 reboot’s ThunderTank. We are getting a container filled with Thundrillium, though. Whose idea was that?
JA: That was Nate’s idea. I don’t know anything about Snarf.
NB: I am not at liberty to say when, where, or how Snarf might show up in this line.
TC.org: Talking about Snarf, he hid in the trunk of the Tank in the episode “The Crystal Queen”. It doesn’t seem as if the ULTIMATES! tank has a trunk that can open up. Was this deliberate to accommodate the four figures sitting inside?
JA: The trunk does not open up. The back “couch” is in there, I figured the cubs could sit there. Or Snarf or even Snarfer?
NB: I tried to design a trunk in the Talon Fighter for MOTU Classics. You can see the hint of it there in the back. For the Tank, I thought to try again, but the desire to maximize space in the body outweighed the idea of a trunk. It would’ve been cool to put it in, for sure. Even a shallow trunk would’ve been fun. But it’d have to be so shallow, I doubt you’d be able to fit a possible Snarf figure in there. Snarf snarf!
TC.org: Nate, does drawing and designing for a vehicle differ much from the work you do for the actual figures? Are there different things to consider when you work on a project like this?
NB: It’s great working with guys like Joe and the Four Horsemen. They’re all superstar artists and designers in their own right. So, yeah, for a figure, for the most part, I can get away with just drawing my ideas for the front of the figure and the accessories it could come with. For vehicles and playsets, there are way more complicated things to sort out, so I find I do a full set of views of each side of the vehicle or playset. There are usually a lot more play features to factor in as well, and they often need special call-out illustrations. The ThunderTank was more or less pretty straightforward once I had drafted up all the sides of it. But, yeah, overall, they’re much more intense than a figure.
TC.org: Joe, you previously sculpted a ThunderClaw for Icon Heroes that was never released. 11 years on and it actually looks as if it were made for the ULTIMATES! line. Would you be open to returning to this franchise to work on other vehicles or playsets? And would you bring your partner in crime along for the joyride?
JA: Of course, YES! Do you even have to ask?! Haha! That is awesome you remember! It is too small for ULTIMATES!, but I would love another crack at making it again.
TC.org: You guys make such a great team, and you are the obvious choice for doing the Cats’ Lair justice. Can we come over for tea when you’re almost done with it?
NB: Haha! Sure! That’s a project I would love to sink my claws into.
JA: Imagine! That thing would be huge, because the Tank would have to fit inside! And you are always welcome.
TC.org: Thank you, Joe. I’ll start saving for my airfare from this side of the world! Talking about another dream, last month I asked Brian what the possibilities were of including your gorgeous “Season 3” figures in potential future releases. I hope you didn’t mind, as those figures are gorgeous and have a fantastic story that ties in with the cartoon.
JA: I was honored that you did! That would be a dream come true for sure. Just to be clear I would want nothing for them. You can have them, Warner Bros and Super7.
TC.org: How generous of you, Joe! We need to make them canon. When I asked Brian about the possibility of making a Stinger figure, it came down to “proving” that certain lesser known characters are canon and part of the brand. Have you considered a comic book or some sort of media for your creation? Fans have supported these characters for years already. Nate, you seem like the guy to be pulled in here to help in this medium too.
JA: So, not that I have given it much thought, but in order for them to be made, they have to be canon. They would have to be featured in some type of “official” media. Anything official will do. Like you said, a comic book would work. But not fan fiction. So, next time there is a ThunderCats comic book in the works, I need to talk to the artists involved for them to stick my team in a panel somewhere. They don’t even have to do anything. As long as they show up, they become canon, and the figures can be made! Someone help me! Haha!
NB: If I were a full time freelance artist, then I’d be happy to jump into comic book duties. But, sadly, with my current schedule, it would take far too long for me to really do it justice. I honestly have way more fun drawing up toy designs and then seeing so many collectors get so much joy and satisfaction from these things. If a comic were to happen, I’d be right there reading it along with everyone else and enjoying the time to let our imaginations play.
TC.org: Let’s end this with a tease, if you may. Nate you’ve been revealing your TMNT art for that ULTIMATES! line for the last year, but now that we know you and Joe are responsible for the first vehicle in this line for Super7, can either of you confirm whether or not you’re currently working on something else for them? It doesn’t necessarily have to be for the ThunderCats license. Everybody’s asking for a Party Wagon, you know?
JA: All I can confirm is that I am currently working with the Four Horsemen and Super7.
NB: I am currently working on more sheets for both TMNT and ThunderCats. I’m so thankful I get to be a small part of this amazing team that makes some of the most exciting toys out there. My only tease to you would be that, if you like what we’ve been getting, you’re gonna love what is coming right around the corner! The character selection continues to be off-the-charts amazing. I’m so very excited for these lines, not just as a minor contributor, but also as a fan and collector. My inner child is very much alive and looks to continue down a healthy road for years to come.
ABOUT NATE BAERTSCH
Being a passionate, and lifelong fan of many of the properties of the ’80s, including Masters of the Universe, Star Wars and ThunderCats. Nate often works and collaborates with Four Horsemen Studios, as well as other toymakers from Mattel to Tweeterhead, taking thoughts and suggestions and turning them into design sheets and packaging for some of our modern favorite toy lines that have re-created our childhood heroes and villains. Nate also loves dreaming up new toy lines for children, ages 5 to 105.
ABOUT JOE AMARO
Joe has been a graphic designer for over 20 years and has been working in the toy industry just as long. He has worked with most major toy companies, like Mattel and Hasbro, and with many design studios, like Boss Fight Studios, Super7 and Four Horsemen Studios. He has also been involved in the entertainment industry making designs, sculptures and dioramas for magazines, TV shows and feature films with partners like Marvel, Sony Pictures and Comedy Central.