Star Wars collector Pete R. -- who goes by the name "ratherchildish" on forums like Rebel Scum and The Imperial Gunnery -- had a problem. He lived with his wife in a one bedroom apartment that was so small, he could only display his growing collection of vintage action figures one or two at a time. His solution was to start photographing his toys so that, as he says, he could at least enjoy them on his computer monitor. "I wouldn't have to leave my desk or incite an interior design battle with my wife," he explained via email.
Eventually, the photos became the basis of what I consider to be one of the best toy porn web sites in the galaxy: Star Wars Action Figures Doing What They Do Best (http://ratherchildish.wordpress.com). A long title for a blog, but worth the effort to remember!
Pete, 40, photographs his Star Wars figures and vehicles against the kind of hand-made, bits-and-pieces sets that you might have built as a kid. Carefully lit and cropped, these mini vignettes beautifully showcase the toys, while at the same time conveying the playful spirit behind them.
After drooling over his photos, I decided to send Pete some questions about his art, his collecting, and the movie that started it all.
GALACTIC AWESOME: Talk to me a little about how you create your art. Where do your concepts begin?
PETE: The concept for a photo can come from so many scattered directions. Sometimes I'll just be rifling through my loose collection and see an old favorite I haven't focused on in a while. Sometimes I'll find some object that strikes me as a cool background or surface that I want to see in a shot. In the pass year, my loose vehicle collection has stepped up dramatically, so the role of those toys has really taken prominence in where hew setups are heading.
Once I know what I want to shoot, I spend some time putting together the staging area. This involves first figuring out what kind of camera angle I'm going for and how that dictates what I need in terms of background, risers, and lighting. Once I have solid staging down, I start to assemble the figures -- trying out different combinations of postures and head turns, maybe even peering into the camera lens to see how the composition is shaping up. Next I start to position lighting for the figures and the background.
From there comes some really important work. First, finding the right crop is critical. I typically want to crop as closely as I can so that the action figures can really be shown off as large as possible, but it's always important to balance subject with negative space and background.
Your lighting is excellent, and it helps breathe life into your scenes. It's one area that many collectors who want to photograph their toys run into trouble. Can you talk a bit about your technique?
Rest assured, I know nothing about photography or lighting. It really has been a process of trial and error to get good results. I try to have a supply of little clip-on LED lights from the 99-cents store on hand. Those are excellent for focused lighting and they tend to be very easily positioned. I also have a 99-cent flashlight, and a weird lamp from ikea that I use as more of a flood. Those incandescent bulbs are always aggressively orange while the LED's are blue. The combination of these colors in the same shot often work to my advantage, so long as the colors can be kept discrete. It's often handy to have ways to block off the lights so that their beams don't bleed onto areas I don't want them.
Also plastic toys don't always respond well to bright lights and can look too shiny. I find that lighting from the sides is frequently a quick road to remedy problems like that and help create dramatic moods.
Tell me a little bit about your history with these toys. I know from reading your blog that you received an X-Wing as a kid.
Yeah, I received the X-Wing at holiday time in late 1978. As an 8-year old boy and big Star Wars fanatic, that was a really potent event for me. That toy was and remains one of the all-time greatest.
The Star Wars action figures were in general a very explosive connection for me straight out of the gate. I'd been bowled over seeing the film on my birthday in 1977 and quickly began accumulating trading cards, posters, soundtrack album, etc. When the figures came out the following Spring it was just nails in the coffin! I also credit Fisher Price's Adventure People for priming me on the joys of 4" figures. That was the line I'd been playing with and loving up to the point that the SW toys came out.
What really comes to mind is playing outside with the toys in summer. I grew up in suburban Milwaukee, and I recall very lush hot summers just spending hours and hours outside having so much fun. I think my little pals in the neighborhood and I would float action figures down the nearby creek to our endless amusement. I can smell that humid summer Milwaukee air even now. When it was too hot we'd go in my parents basement, cooling off in the damp air and playing with the figures in near darkness. I can smell that musty basement even now!
And now you've got SW figures again. How long have you been collecting since getting back into these toys? And what brought you back to them in the first place?
I kicked the Star Wars collecting habit in 1982. I didn't begin re-collecting anything as an adult until I treated myself to a lot of "First 21" SW figures around my birthday in September, 2008. Just a nostalgic itch I'd been curious to scratch for quite some time. I had no idea it would lead as far as it has.
Really, what I like most about them now is just that very palpable feeling they give me of connecting back to my childhood. It's better than any drug or therapy that I can imagine.
I also find myself really energized by the engineering of the vintage vehicles. In the past year I've taken more than a few X-wings and Tie-Fighters apart. It's a joy to see how the engineers at Kenner thought to create the mechanics of the vehicles and even more of a joy to bring them back to life when they've been ravaged by time and neglect.
Seeing Star Wars in '77 was obviously a transformative experience for you. How do you feel about the movies today?
Love 'em. Star Wars is still hands down my favorite. I actually have a lot of issues with Empire Strikes Back. That film disappointed me as a kid in 1980 and to this day I find myself bewildered at a lot of choices that were made. Return of the Jedi I think is totally solid material… the poor Ewoks get a bad rap! On the other hand the prequel movies aren't on my radar. I saw each of them in the theatre and promptly forgot them all. Oh well.