When Ben Ang was a young man conducting airbrushing workshops at $50 for eight lessons in the 1990s, he never imagined he would one day become a pivotal part of Singapore’s new creative economy.

XM, the home-grown, award-winning design business he co-founded and leads as CEO, is famous around the world for its handcrafted figurines based on movie and comic icons such as Mickey Mouse, Captain America, Batman, Superman, Godzilla and the Transformers.

It all began when the 48-year-old decided to enter the licensing industry. After two years of courting the big boys, Disney finally called back with a Marvel licensing deal in 2013.

But XM Studios is no child’s play.

Ben Ang, the co-founder of XM Studios

These are not the $19.99 production-line toys you would give your 10-year-old nephew for Christmas. (Even his two young children are more interested in Lego toys than XM collectibles, Ang, whose wife is a homemaker, admits.) Considering his merchandise is made up of numbered limited editions, pieces can command anywhere between $600 and $6,000 — and that’s not including the kind of money that you would need to fork over for hard-to-find, discontinued designs in the second-hand market.

XM’s fans are predominantly male and aged between 18 and 64, with some hardcore collectors owning a whopping 600 pieces in total. “We have 300 designs, so to own 600 pieces, it means they might have bought duplicates of every piece!” he proudly says.

Usually made of polystone, each figurine is the culmination of more than 10 steps: from blueprint sketches to 3D modelling and printing, as well as casting and hand-sculpting. Some of the more complex pieces showcase engineering ingenuity and techniques, such as replicating the look of the ripped denim of the Red Hulk’s jeans or making Batman’s cape appear suspended in mid-air.

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Selling pieces of people’s childhood

There is also the post-production stage in which the finished pieces are subject to a meticulous quality-control check. XM hires about 30 staff in China just for this as well as final packaging scrutiny. QC is done three to four times instead of just once, and “we invest in premium packaging to provide a better experience,” Ang reveals. Manufacturers used to simply “tape the sides of the box” when shipping figurines, but Ang decided to revolutionise even this overlooked aspect by using Velcro straps for hassle- free, easy handling. “It’s easy to open the box, and you can reuse it.”

The self-declared “anime guy” who, for the record, does not collect figurines but manga comics, puts so much effort and capital into “the start to the end” process because he knows how important the littlest details are to the avid collector.

“It’s about the unboxing experience, the customer experience. Every day, you clean your figurines and look at them, so the interaction between the collector and the collection is very important. We bring joy and laughter to our customers, and we are selling a piece of their childhood. This has kept me creative for 26 years,” says Ang, whose company also collaborates with artists and figurine sculptors all over the world to infuse more diversity and creativity into the pieces.

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Up next: Bringing Van Gogh masterpieces to life

His upcoming collaboration will be with the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam. While he cannot disclose details, he hints that this will make the Dutch painter’s masterpieces more accessible to a wider audience, especially to a younger 20-something generation who may not be familiar with the Post-Impressionist master.

“Van Gogh paintings are too expensive. What if we made a 3D version of his Sunflowers, so you could actually arrange them as you like?” he teases.

While others may simply produce work inspired by famous art, Ang went directly to the museum and Van Gogh’s family to discuss a licensing deal. “We respect the artist and prefer to do things the right way, which means approaching them or their representatives directly.”

The creativity and meticulousness have not gone unnoticed. In a city-state where most funding and focus have gone to industries like F&B, healthcare, construction, blockchain technology, and education, Ang’s XM caught the eye of Temasek subsidiary Heliconia Capital, now an investor. Additionally, Ang told The Business Times recently that despite the pandemic, revenue doubled to $16.9 million for the year ended Dec 2020 and the profit after tax reached $4.2 million.

Building a community space for collectors

It is ironic that few people are aware of XM, except for avid figurine collectors. “In the beginning, we focused our attention more on the global market. Besides those in the collector community, most people here did not know about us,” says Ang at XM’s new 19,000 sq ft concept store and gallery in Kitchener Complex, which he hopes becomes a community space for collectors.

Visitors can make pre-orders or purchases, but many are merely for display purposes and not for sale. Various comic and movie universes are represented in themed pods, including an awe-inspiring Transformers Optimus Prime and Megatron bust that stands almost a metre tall.

He has even set up 99 Gelato Coffee Bar in the store, serving unusual ice cream flavours like Strawberry Tomato to those “who need to sit down for a rest after a long walk in our gallery”. At the back of the gleamingly new store-and-gallery is UNIC, which sells limited edition and vintage designer wear and streetwear brands from around the world.

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Starting out from airbrushing anime figurines

Ang has come a long way from his airbrushing workshop days when he and his elder brother Ang Kok Seng — whom he simply calls Seng — painted character figurines from the Sailor Moon and Evangelion anime series out of a cosy 500 sq ft hobby shop in Bras Basah.

Today, Ang, the youngest of three brothers, counts Seng and oldest brother Clair as XM’s co-founders. Seng is the creative director, while Clair is the logistics director. There are more than 90 employees at XM’s Kitchener Complex gallery and office, Yishun warehouse, and Guangzhou processing facility.

But don’t expect him to tell you dramatic stories about how he overcame evil forces to get to where he is today. It’s surprising how stoic, business-like and even sombre he is for someone in the creative field. His story, however, is a personal one that makes a great page-turner.

There is the now-famous, or rather infamous, backstory of how he and Seng rented their hobby store in Bras Basah Complex for one month using money meant for Seng’s polytechnic school semester. Ang himself dropped out of his mechanical engineering class at Ngee Ann Polytechnic after two years.

While neither brother is art-trained, they earned a huge following among their customers when they started airbrushing anime figurines to stand out from other hobby shops at that time. As a result of their high quality work, they had a year-long waiting list of fanboys who wanted them to paint their figurines. These customers then encouraged the duo to turn to licensing.

Storytelling through quality collectibles is his key to success

When asked how he was able to woo Disney successfully, Ang attributes this to his storytelling capability and the quality of his products. Captain America, his first figurine for Disney, he says, “changed the collectible scene by modernising superheroes”. That award-winning piece still stands proudly at the reception of XM’s concept store.

Even now, he doesn’t simply design and produce a figurine of, say, Batman. One of the more elaborate dioramas on display at XM shows Batman surrounded by all his arch enemies, from The Penguin to The Joker. It is a scene that could very well be a nightmare in which Bruce Wayne finds himself.

“The interaction between the collector and the collection is very important. We bring joy and laughter to our customers, and we are selling a piece of their childhood. This has kept me creative for 26 years.”

Ben Ang, CEO & Co-Founder of XM Studios

Following Disney, XM acquired its DC Comics statue collectibles licence under Warner Bros. Consumer Products (WBCP). In a rare move, XM was given creative license to co-create the Batman Samurai line with WBCP featuring Batman characters in a never-seen-before Japanese samurai setting and launching entirely new designs like Batman Shogun and Joker Orochi.

Ang has since collaborated with WBCP in more unusual, groundbreaking ways. As an example, XM recently launched The Great Gatsby Collection, a series of single cask selections of Scotch whisky and cognac in Art Deco film-inspired packaging designed by the XM team.

Collectibles can be an art form

He hopes to expand into the lifestyle space as this will open up opportunities for his team to be more creative.

“In the 90s, hobby shops were viewed as places for hobbies, rather than for art. Through XM Studio’s works, we’ve shown that statue collectibles are also an art form — one that tells a story creatively through craftsmanship and skills such as sketching, 3D sculpting, engineering and painting,” says Ang. “We hope to encourage youths to develop an appreciation for art and design.”

What is Ang’s favourite comic character? “Doraemon,” he says with a childlike grin.

While XM has coveted licences from Disney, Warner Bros. Hasbro, Godzilla, Ultraman and Sanrio, he hasn’t approached the Doraemon team yet. “I have a Doraemon poster in my office that I look at every day, but I never feel the urge to knock on the doors of the Doraemon offices. I love Doraemon so much that I want to keep my work and that separate. I mean, I like to eat, but that doesn’t mean I want to be a chef. I guess I don’t want to spoil the feeling of having a first love.”

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