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Home Manufacturers Tonner Doll Co. Transforming Harry Potter
Transforming Harry Potter
Written by Louise Fletcher   
Wednesday, 01 February 2006 00:00

In the magical world created by author J.K. Rowling, wizards and witches have several ways to change their appearance. There’s Polyjuice Potion for one; it takes a month to brew, but with it you can transform into someone else. Extremely skilled wizards and witches can learn to become an Animagus, and transfigure at will into an animal form. Alas, we Muggles (that’s nonmagical folk) have no such abilities. To transform, we usually have to rely on the “magic” provided by the local Halloween costume shop. But there is one other way: Follow the yellow brick road up to Hurley, New York, and the Tonner Doll Company. A wizard in his own right, Robert Tonner has the power to turn humans into dolls. Late last year, he unveiled his latest magical transformation— an amazingly lifelike doll of Harry Potter.

“This is the coolest doll we’ve ever done!” Tonner says of “Harry Potter at Hogwarts,” which depicts the youngster in his school uniform. Debuting at the end of 2005, the Harry doll is rich in detail. Constructed of vinyl and hard plastic, the doll is fully articulated, allowing for a variety of action poses. In his clenched right hand, he holds his wand at the ready. Harry’s trademark round spectacles have been miniaturized perfectly, as has his Hogwarts uniform (as depicted in the Warner Bros. film Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire).

Limited to an edition of 5000, “Harry Potter at Hogwarts” sells for about $125.  A special edition of “Harry Potter at Hogwarts,” limited to 300, was offered through the FAO Schwarz 2005 holiday catalog. Priced at $150, it includes a bonus ac­cessory: Hedwig, Harry’s snowy owl.

“Harry Potter at the Yule Ball” depicts Harry in his formal ensemble for an important Hogwarts gala. Limited to 2,500, the doll sells for $150. (Hedwig the Owl is not included.)Another beautifully costumed doll, “Harry Potter at the Yule Ball,” will debut early in 2006. This doll depicts Harry on one of his most dangerous missions in The Goblet of Fire: as a school champion in the upcoming Triwizard Tournament, he must—horrors!—take part in the opening dance at the Yule Ball held at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. For this event, he wears an elegant black suit with matching dress robes.

Dolls depicting Harry’s devoted pals, Ronald Weasley and Hermione Granger, will be released this spring. Like Harry, they will be available as two costumed dolls each: one in school uniform and the other in Yule Ball formal attire. (Ron in a wool brocade coat, wool and silk vest, and black pants; Hermione in a gown of rosy pink silk satin and chiffon.)

The Yule Ball outfits are beautiful—especially Ron’s—but my favorite was their school uniforms. As soon as we dressed the dolls in these outfits, they really came to life,” Tonner says.

Like millions of other adults, the dollmaker is a huge fan of the Harry Potter series. “I originally bought the first book in the series for my son, Larry, but the more I heard about the book the more interested I was to read it,” he says. “Once I read the first book, I was hooked! I’ve read every book since. And as far as the movies go, I’ve seen each and every one, at least once!”

Tonner first approached Warner Bros. about Harry some five years ago, before the first film in the series, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, was released. “I asked if we could do a Harry doll then, but they already had other plans. So I just kept asking, and finally they were receptive,” Tonner recalls. “Believe me, I was thrilled when they finally said yes!”

Not every best-selling book, no matter how wonderful, lends itself to a project like this one, but Harry Potter was a perfect subject for a doll. “I love the whole story line—how this orphaned kid ends up having amazing talents that he didn’t know he had, and also how difficult it can be just trying to grow up,” Tonner says. “In addition to the story line, the characters are so well developed that, to me, they just screamed to be made into dolls. Harry is so easy, because the description is so clear. He has dark hair, a ‘lightning bolt’ scar and glasses. I think that’s what makes a great doll character—a very defined character. It’s like Alice; you know immediately who she is because of the blonde hair and the blue dress.”

The license that Tonner acquired from Warner Bros. was not for a generic Harry Potter doll, but rather Harry as portrayed by 16-year-old actor Daniel Radcliffe in the film Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, which was released last November. “The great thing about this license is that we also have likeness rights to the actors,” Tonner says.

Hence, the Ronald Weasley doll is a portrait of 18-year-old actor Rupert Grint, and the Hermione Granger doll is a likeness of 15-year-old actress Emma Watson. All clothing and accessories are miniature versions of those created for the film. (So don’t complain to Tonner that Hermione’s Yule Ball attire is a rose-colored chiffon gown, as in the film, and not “robes made of a floaty periwinkle-blue material,” as described in Rowling’s prose.)

Even after Tonner received the go-ahead from Warner Bros. on the Potter project there were—and still are—many hurdles. “The approval process is very strict,” he notes. “I had to present a line plan: how many and what kinds of dolls we wanted to do. And the sculpts, clothing and packaging have to be approved every step of the way.”

To ensure the dolls would be true portraits of the film’s young stars, Warner Bros. provided movie stills and other images. The dolls were sculpted in modeling clay over armatures by Ralph Bienert, a veteran sculptor who has handled a number of special projects for the Tonner Doll Company.

“I gave Ralph direction,” says Tonner. “I wanted to capture determination in Harry, Ron’s crooked smile and Hermione’s intelligence.”

An expert in creating celebrity likenesses (for years he sculpted celebrity portrait dolls, such as Marilyn Monroe and Princess Diana, for The Franklin Mint), Bienert admits he was not familiar with the Harry Potter books or movies before taking on this project. “My kids are long out of the house and I’m not into fantasy-type books,” he says matter-of-factly. His lack of familiarity with the characters, however, certainly was not a hindrance. His sculptures of the three youngsters are magically true to life.

Not only did Bienert study the images provided by Warner Bros., but he also scoured the Internet to find photos of the actors with a variety of facial expressions. “I also immediately went out and got the Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban [the third film in the series] and popped it into the VCR,” he says, noting that seeing the actors in motion provided insights into their expressions that two-dimensional images could not provide.

“Daniel Radcliffe has a naturally but distinctively handsome face, so that part was easy,” Bienert recalls. “Trying to get the quintessential expression that would best represent his character was another matter! I decided on a fairly serious expression. The mouth was by far the most difficult feature to sculpt. His mouth fooled me at first, until I got the shape of his upper lip. For me, that carries the whole thing.”

h: Dolls depicting Harry’s loyal friends, Ronald Weasley (as portrayed on film by Rupert Grint) and Hermione Granger (as portrayed by Emma Watson) are expected to debut in the spring. (The prototypes are shown here.) Tonner Doll Company plans to produce Ron and Hermione in their school uniforms and their Yule Ball formalwear. Bienert was also responsible for sculpt­ing bodies for the three characters. “I tried to sculpt each body with its own individual characteristics,” he says. In the books and films, Ron is tall and lanky, while Harry is of small to average height. Consequently, the Ron doll is 17 inches, while Harry is 16 ¾ inches. Hermione, the smallest of the threesome, stands 16 ½ inches.

All the preparation and hard work by Tonner and his team have paid off. As soon as photos of the prototype of “Harry Potter at Hogwarts” were released on the Internet last October, Tonner Doll Company was flooded with feedback from doll collectors and Harry Potter fans alike.

“We are getting inquiries from lots of people who are not doll collectors. And, like any fans of any characters, they want to make sure we do it right!” Tonner says with a laugh.

Lynn Fenstermacher, owner of Cherished Friends in Laureldale, Pennsylvania, reports that orders for “Harry Potter at Hogwarts” are streaming steadily into her shop by phone, fax and Owl post. “I am known for selling fashion model dolls and Harry doesn’t exactly fit into that type of collection, yet many of these same collectors are ordering Harry! They are either Harry Potter fans themselves, or have big fans in their household,” she says.

“The doll looks just like Daniel Radcliffe,” says artist Nancy Wiley of Hudson, New York. A longtime fan of J.K. Rowling’s books as well as the film adaptations, Wiley enjoys sharing her enthusiasm with six-year-old son Henry. “To me, Dan Radcliffe has a down-to-earth, everyman quality that has made the films work. He is watchful, sort of taking everything in, as the viewer does. I think the doll captures that aspect of the actor.”

“Tonner has done an amazing job of capturing Dan Radcliffe’s characterization of Harry Potter,” says Deb West of Moncks Corner, South Carolina, a collector and designer of clothing for fashion dolls. “I especially like the doll’s ability to hold a wand. It looks like the wand hand will be able to grasp a broom while the other hand is reaching for the Snitch!” she adds. (As every Harry Potter enthusiast knows, Harry plays the position of Seeker on Gryffindor’s Quidditch team, and it’s the Seeker’s job to catch the elusive Snitch, a tiny winged ball.)

When this article went to press, photographs of the prototype Ron and Hermione dolls had not been released. Deb West was hoping “to see Ron’s red hair and freckles, but also loyalty and bravery written all over his face.” And for Hermione, Deb wanted to see “intelligence and total lack of recognition of her own attractiveness.”

Perhaps Deb is a Seer (a witch or wizard who can predict the future), because the dolls of loyal Ron and clever Hermione fully capture their distinctive personalities. Sculptor Beinert recalls: “The easy part of sculpting Emma Watson as Hermione is that I had a beautiful face to start with. Her slightly upturned nose lends itself well to making a pretty female doll. The hardest part was deciding how much of a smile I could make, since I didn’t see her laugh much in The Prisoner of Azkaban!”

Rupert Grint, it turns out, was the simplest to portray. “He was the easiest to work with because his face has the greatest range of expression,” Beinert observes. “So he is smiling a bit more than the other two. The only difficulty was that because his face is so animated, it was hard to come up with a single expression!”

Not only can collectors look forward to the debut of the Ron and Hermione dolls, but also Tonner’s full Harry Potter line, the bulk of which was still in development as this article went to press. Definitely on the way—possibly for release this spring—are casual, off-campus clothing for all three characters, as well as Harry’s Quidditch uniform and prized Firebolt broom (a gift from his godfather, Sirius Black).

“We received—on loan, of course— copies of the original blueprints of the broom that was made for Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. I handed them over to our accessory sculptor, so Harry’s broom is dead on to the one in the film,” Tonner explains.

Of course, the next question on every Harry Potter fan’s mind is: What character is Tonner going to make next? In truth, even Tonner himself doesn’t know the answer—or if he does, he’s not telling. “I’d love to do all the characters, but the development cost for just the three dolls has been tremendous,” he admits. “Plus, we only have the license for this movie and not for very long! So if I did add more characters, they would probably be students—Draco and Fleur, perhaps.”

For the moment, however, Tonner is unabashedly pleased with the results of the Potter project to date. “I think these dolls will appeal to not only doll collectors, but also to kids and to Harry Potter fans who have never collected a doll before,” he says. “Also, I think the likenesses are the best my company has ever produced!”

What’s more, Tonner’s Harry has succeeded in pleasing Tonner’s most important critic—his 16-year-old son, Larry. “Everything about the doll of Harry Potter seems so real,” Larry says.  “I mean, I’ve seen the movies and read the books, but now I can make the book and movies my own, by playing with dolls. My dad has taken ‘believe in the power of play’ to the next level. I love it!”    In this regard, Robert Tonner is a bit like author J.K. Rowling. Both have used their talent in ways that enrich our imaginations and our innate love for fantasy and play. As a result, our troubled world is just a bit more magical.

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