TNI Interview: Mitchel Wu Talks About Bringing Toys To Life With Photography

by Jay Cochran
April 04, 2017
Taking pictures of oneís action figures has always been a favorite past time for many in the action figure collecting community, but recently one particular photographer started grabbing the attention of those in the mainstream media including the New Year Post and UK Daily Mail. Mitchel Wu is that photographer and believe it or not, heís only been doing it for a little over two years now. I had a chance to catch up with Mitchel and talk with him about his work and how he got into taking pictures of toys.

TNI - How did you get into photography and more specifically how did you get into action figure photography?

Mitchel Wu - I've always been creative and was a natural when it came to playing "make believe." As a kid I made up my own characters and stories and drew multi-panel cartoons of their adventures. I eventually went to an art school in Northern California, where I graduated with a degree in illustration. I learned a lot about composition, light and story-telling...all things I feel are important in toy photography. My journey led to my working at the Walt Disney Company for 6 years, as well as creative collaborations with other entertainment companies - Lucasfilm and Cirque Du Soleil to name a couple. I've always enjoyed creating, with story-telling being the constant in whatever I do. Photography was also a constant in my life, and this eventually led to photographing weddings, portraits and lifestyle. Weddings are weekend killers though, so after nearly 7 years I decided I wasn't going to miss any more weekends with my daughter and wife. I photographed my last wedding in Nov 2015, almost exactly the same time that my nephew introduced me to toy photography. I have to admit, it seemed bizarre to go out and photograph toys, but once I did I immediately saw the potential to tell amazing stories and never looked back. Another reason I love toy photography is that the community is incredibly vibrant, supportive and welcoming...I've made a lot of friends on Instagram and interact daily with toy photographers around the world. It's pretty cool!

TNI - Where do you find the inspiration for your photos and how do you decide which figures to use in your photos?

Mitchel Wu - I like to capture the comical, the ridiculous and the unexpected in my images. And I love trying to capture the illusion of motion and emotion where none exist. Ideas can come from anywhere at anytime. I often find that simply observing people and the absurdities of life - of my life mostly - can lead to a lot of fun ideas. And we're all bombarded by the media and pop culture on a daily basis, so it's hard not to have some of that influence seep into one's images.

TNI - Were you an action figure collector before you started doing photography of them?

Mitchel Wu - No, and I know that's how most toy photographers got started. I came to toy photography driven by a passion for story-telling and being able to create fun, jaw-dropping images. I already had all the camera gear I needed, but none of the toys! I spent a solid year learning and refining my techniques and developing a style that I feel is uniquely my own. This year I will create hundreds of images for various clients, one being one of the largest toy companies on the planet. I'm loving it!

TNI - Do you have a favorite action figure or toy line? If so why?

Mitchel Wu - No, I don't think that I do. If you look at my Instagram page you'll see a pretty wide range of characters and toys. One day I might photograph Toy Story. The next day I maybe TMNT. And then the next day I might photograph figures from the children's book, "Where the Wild Things Are." It's pretty eclectic, and I wouldn't want it any other way. A lot of photographers prefer to focus on one property, say Star Wars, and recreate scenes from those movies - I totally get and respect that, and there is some amazing work being done like that. But for me, I'm more interested in telling my own stories, and I think working with different properties and toys let's me do that while keeping things fresh.

TNI - I saw one of your photos that has Captain Americaís shield flying through the air and Ant-Man running off of it. Can you describe from a technical standpoint how you accomplished such a photo?

Mitchel Wu - Sure, I used wire to support the shield in the air to mimic its flight. The Ant-Man I used is really small (in other words, life size!) and I used a wax adhesive to hold him onto the shield. I positioned myself just off-camera and threw dirt into the scene, which I feel really added to the excitement and sense of motion. I'm pretty much an expert at throwing dirt at this point haha! The last stage is Photoshopping out the wire, and that's pretty much it!

TNI - What is your favorite photo and why?

Mitchel Wu - Well I'm not sure about favorites, but I do have a couple images I feel were milestone images for me. One is the image of Buzz Lightyear flying over a table and picking up various office supplies (paper clips, pushpins, scraps of paper, etc) in his rocket pack turbulence. I had just begun to experiment with making things appear to fly and float and really wanted to push that effect in this image. That image was created a while ago and it's become one of my signature images. Pixar featured it on their Instagram page recently, as did Disney Germany and Disney Italy, which was beyond cool! The other image which represented a breakthrough of sorts for me is another Toy Story image, this time of Bullseye the horse kicking a glass of splashing water onto Woody. I use practical effects (meaning real and not digitally created) in my images and this was the first time I'd created an image with a splashing liquid. To this day it remains one of my more popular images.

TNI - What is your least favorite photo?

Mitchel Wu - Thatís a tough one, because so many photos never even see the light of day. I guess I can tell you which is my most 'wrong' photo. There was a frenzy building in the toy photography community leading up to the theatrical release of "The Force Awakens." A lot of toys were released before the movie and they were being photographed on a daily basis. I'm a Star Wars fan, but not even close to being a super-fan. I bought three (three!!) Rey with Speeder Bike figures and used all three in one image, saying it was Rey and her two older brothers haha! So much for trying to guess the story line! I'd been shooting toys only a month or two at the time, which I guess is my excuse. By the way, that image is still in my Instagram feed, my daughter and I will look at it from time to time just to get a good laugh. It's pretty bad haha!

TNI - What kind of camera or equipment do you use?

Mitchel Wu - I use a Canon 5D Mark III, usually paired with a Canon 135L at f2. I use Lowepro bags, Manfrotto tripods, Spider Holster, SOG tools and MagMod lighting modifiers and diffusers. I really believe that a photographer should know how to use different types of lighting solutions. While natural light is great, it doesn't always provide the ideal light to shoot in. And often times a story requires a quality of light you'll never find with natural light.

TNI - Your photography has been getting a lot of main stream media attention lately. Are you surprised by it? Do you plan on trying to publish a book with your work or anything like that?

Mitchel Wu - Surprised and super appreciative. The readers' reactions and responses to the articles and my images have been absolutely amazing. It's been a lot of fun. I do have some long range goals for my studio, Mitchel Wu Toy Photography, but publishing a book isn't currently one of them. I guess never say never though, right?

TNI - Besides action figures, what other things do you enjoy photographing?

Mitchel Wu - My family and every day life with them. But professionally I've photographed weddings, portraits, headshots, real estate, I was even the still photographer on a feature length movie (and have the IMDB credit to prove it!). I pretty much shoot toys exclusively now though.

TNI - If you could give one piece of advice to aspiring photographers, what would it be?

Mitchel Wu - Donít get caught up in the gear game. You don't have to spend thousands of dollars on the newest camera gear and tech. Of course it's fun to do if you have the cash, just know that you don't have to. I can't tell you how many times I've been blown away by a particular photographer only to learn that their images were created and edited using only their smart phone.

Focus on story. Effects are great, but that should come second to story. How many times have you gone to a movie that was filled with great special effects and action, but had a really weak story? You leave the theater thinking "wow, that was a waste of money." And in a week you can't even remember what the movie was about. It's the same with toy photography, and most visual arts. An image with a great story and no effects will trump an effects-heavy image with no story any day.

A big thanks to Mitchel for taking the time to talk with us. You can follow Mitchel on his Instagram and Facebook pages if you want to keep up with his latest work. Also check out more of hims photos below in our GALLERY!
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