Toy Photographer Mitchel Wu: "You need to create the emotion and motion"
"They’re not used to seeing toys or action figures presented in a way that can make them feel a certain way, or tell a story."
By Cailin Loesch
Based in Los Angeles, Mitchel Wu is a photographer who somehow manages to do the impossible—he gives motion to things that can’t move, and emotion to things that aren’t real. A pioneer in the growing niche of toy photography, Wu makes his living by gathering action figures of characters from iconic movies, and letting his imagination do the rest. His enchanting scenes include Scooby Doo and Shaggy kicking up dirt as they run from a big green T-Rex, Stormtroopers being scrambled in a frying pan like eggs, and two Little Green Men from Toy Story staring up at the moon. Through all the fantasy, perhaps what is most real about Wu’s work is its ability to captivate through the unexpected—and remind us that perhaps there is more to even the most iconic characters than meets the eye.
Cailin Loesch: I didn’t know this until I started reading about you and your photos, but there is a whole online community of toy photographers who share their work with other people who have similar interests. What is it that draws you and other enthusiasts to this very specific, unique niche?
Mitchel Wu: For most of the people that are doing toy photography, I believe it started off where they were really passionate about toys—they collected toys, even into adulthood—and basically what they did was they kept them in display cabinets, and once in awhile they would take a picture just to share with somebody. I think that’s how toy photography was born; people started sharing photos with each other on Instagram, like, “Oh, here, I have this Star Wars toy, I have this Marvel toy.” And it kind of grew from there—they started getting more creative with their shots and telling stories with it. Then it evolved to what it is today. My own experience wasn’t like that at all. I didn’t really collect toys as I grew older like a lot of people did. When I grew older, I went to art school and got a degree in illustration, so I had this whole career path that I went through. And then it was only later that I was introduced to toy photography, and I thought, “Wow, that’s really cool!’ So what drew me to toy photography was the opportunity to tell stories with characters that I’d grown up with and was familiar with. I had done a lot of photography before that, so I had all of the equipment, whereas a lot of the other toy photographers had the toys, but none of the equipment; they had to learn the whole photography process. So I had a really strong foundation in photography, but I didn’t have a single toy. My path was completely different than most people.
CL: I see your work, and my mind goes immediately into how your stories could also be told through short film and animation. Do you have any interest in those mediums, as well? What is the difference between the way your stories come across in photos, and the way they would in another form of storytelling?
MW: You know, it’s a good question. I have thought about learning how to do stop motion photography, so that I could actually bring the characters to life. I’ve just been so focused on the regular toy photography and the client work that I haven’t had a chance to do that. But, obviously, the difference that it would make is that, for one thing, it would be animated, so you could tell a broader story. And you could have music as well as dialogue, which would push the story just like an animated or live-action movie would do. So those would be the benefits to doing that, just being able to expand on storytelling.
CL: A lot of the photos you take are intricately choreographed and elaborate ,especially the ones involving splashes (of water, coffee, etc) and characters in mid-air. In what ways are inanimate objects more difficult to shoot than living subjects?
MW: Basically they’re just chunks of sculpted plastic that have been painted, so what you get is a very basic form to work with. The disadvantage, obviously, and the challenge, which appeals to me, is you need to create the emotion and the motion, or at least the illusion of motion. So, to do that, you can have different characters interacting with one another. You can create motion with, like you said, the dirt flying around or splashes of water. You create situations which can elicit an emotion out of the viewer. So that’s more challenging than shooting moving people, for sure. But again, that’s one of the things that really drew me to the medium; the challenge of bringing those things out of something that’s inanimate. And that’s one of the ways that you can really surprise people, because they’re not used to seeing toys or action figures presented in a way that can make them feel a certain way, or tell a story.
CL: You can’t speak to them and tell them what to do! It’s all on you!
MW: Exactly. But you can yell at them, because there are a lot of frustrating shoots. Like, I’ll be outside in the wind, and they’ll fall over—that’s when you start talking to them, but usually it’s not too nice. [laughs]
CL: They don’t really answer, though, do they? [both laugh]
MW: No, they don’t! They answer by falling down again.
CL: Is there a shoot that you can remember that was especially difficult?
MW: You know, they were all pretty difficult when I first started. Although I did have a good foundation in photography, I didn’t have a foundation in toy photography, which is very specialized with its own unique challenges and techniques. But one shoot does still stand in my mind; the Toy Story shot where Woody’s cracking an egg into a frying pan. That one was really tricky just because I try to do everything real and in-camera and happening as I’m shooting it, so I wanted to get that yolk coming out of the egg into the frying pan. And I never realized that when you’re cracking an egg, once it goes over the edge of the shell it moves almost at the speed of light. So it’s really hard to capture a good image of that yolk when it was just falling midair into the pan. And when you put those shells into Woody’s hands, and he has the yolk in it, the figures aren’t that stiff, so any kind of weight will usually swing their arms down. I had to use supports under his hands, and under the egg. I believe I could do it a lot quicker now, but it would still be very complex.
CL: You just mentioned how the effects in your photos—even smoke and fire—are not photoshopped, and are all pretty much done on-camera, which I think is amazing and so impressive. Why is it important for you to make these scenes real and live when the same effect can be achieved digitally?
MW: I think you can do a lot digitally, but I don’t think that, unless you’re really, really proficient in digital effects, you can really nail some of this stuff. I don’t think you can match the reality of something that’s actually real in the photo. So, for fire and splashes—I can’t even begin to imagine how I would create that digitally. So, for me, it’s the challenge of doing the practical effects that’s fun. The water splashes are the most unpredictable. You can only control it so much. I’ve gotten pretty good at it; I kind of know how water or something is going to react. So when you get something that’s going to really push the story and make it believable, it’s pretty gratifying.
CL: You sometimes put characters from two separate movies coming together in the same world, or characters in situations or scenes that we wouldn’t normally expect to find them in. What do you think this adds to people’s reactions to the photos?
MW: I love to present the characters in surprising ways, that people wouldn’t expect. Whether it’s a “mash-up” of two different films, or characters in unusual scenarios, I just like to present them in ways that are surprising, like, “Oh, I didn’t ever think this character would do that.” Today I reposted a photo for May the 4th, which is Star Wars day, of Darth Vader pushing a stormtrooper on a swing, which is just so out there and unexpected that people reacted really positively to it. Same with the mash-ups; there was one that I did with Rafiki holding up Simba, and normally, that’s on Pride Rock, right? I put the Rancor, the big, ugly monster from Star Wars there so it looked like Rafiki was handing him a snack, basically.
MW: I think that people really respond to that just because they have a preconception of what a character is and what their stories are, so when you put them in a different light, it’s eye-opening.
CL: You work with major company clients like Mattel and Warner Bros Entertainment, just to name a few. How does that relationship work with you as a photographer? Do they give you certain concepts to bring to life, or can you go to them with suggestions?
MW: It’s kind of in between. For example, for Mattel, sometimes they would just turn me loose and say, “Okay, this is how many designs we need for this month and using these toys, so let’s just see what you get.” Other times, they would come to me and say, “So this is fall, so we’re going to kind of theme things for back-to-school,” and they’d have a very specific image that they’d want. So it’s kind of a mix of everything. I have some where the whole campaign is kind of written out, so I’m following a storyline, and they tell me, “this is what they want to see.” Then I have some where it’s just basically, just, “go out, create 12 images, come back, and let’s do it.” And I’m totally cool with all of those scenarios. Obviously it’s fun to just create your own ideas, but I love the challenge of being given a concept and creating for it, as well.
CL: Through these photos, are you in any way advocating for traditional toys, in a world where kids are so into using technology for entertainment?
MW: It’s not something that I think about, but I know for a fact that it’s something that my clients have thought about and is one of the reasons they hired me. I know that they’re feeling that a lot of technology is occupying young minds now, and to reinforce real play, real fun, I think that’s always on top of their minds. If they feel like some of my images do that, then that’s great, but for me, I just want to create stories. I don’t have an agenda; it’s just fun.
CL: Lastly, what do you see in the future of toy photography? If, let’s say, action figures and the like become less commonly used as the years go on, how will this affect your niche?
MW: You know, right now I think that toy photography is more of a fringe art. I think in the future we’ll see it become a lot more mainstream and accepted as a commercial form as well as an art form. I create stories … what really drives me is storytelling. No matter what I’ve done throughout my career, it’s always been creative and it’s always been about storytelling. Like, for Mattel, I wasn’t just creative images for toys; I was creating images for other games like Scrabble and Uno too. And I always knew that I loved storytelling, and that was the main focus for me, but to actually step away from action figures and create stories—with letter tiles for Scrabble, or playing cards for Uno—and stepping back and being just as excited to have created a cool image and story with those types of objects as I would with an action figure, I knew that it was pretty wide open out there for me.
Keep up with Mitchel on social media:
Website - https://www.mitchelwutoyphotography.com
Instagram - https://www.instagram.com/mitchelwuphotography/