Behind the Scenes with Toy Photographer, Matthew Cohen
Q: What was it that got you interested in action figure photography?
A: I really enjoyed the First Order Stormtrooper design for the sequels, to the point that my fiancé surprised me with a 6 inch Black Series figure of it one day. I hadn't collected toys in quite a while, but that re-ignited that fire. After buying a few more I was left wondering what I was going to do with them. Let them collect dust on a shelf? Put them away in storage? Around that same time I had also started reading collecting news on various fan sites. And through that I discovered the toy photography community on Instagram. I immediately thought to myself "Wow that's cool! I can do that!" And from there I grabbed an old point and shoot camera and plastic tripod I had laying around and began teaching myself photography.
Q: You recently photographed the Arc Troopers action figure 3-pack from Star Wars: The Vintage Collection. Can you give our readers some details about your approach to that project?
A: Before I shoot, I like to pick up the toys and just play with them. I'll pose the figure, work the articulation and have it interact with its accessories. "What can this figure do?" or "What do I want to show off?". A lot of times I'll just stumble into a pose as I work the figure like a rubix cube and then try to come up with a scenario around that pose. For the Arc Troopers I knew I wanted to show off how their range of articulation allows for a feeling of natural movement as well as features like the removable helmets and their great head sculpts and likenesses underneath them.
I also try to tell a story. Sometimes it's fun to just shoot a figure in a cool pose with no context. But having context around that figure always elevates the picture. So I storyboarded the shoot in my head. What's something they could be doing that could show off these elements that I'm focusing on? And I came up with the idea that they just landed in a hangar and were walking away from their ship discussing the mission they just completed. It gives them a reason to have their helmets off. And it's a more dynamic story than just having them standing in a room, in a circle, with their helmets off.
Q: As an artist, what are some of the things you draw inspiration from?
A: Everything! When I'm out on a walk I always keep an eye out for interesting environments that I could come back to later to build a photograph around. Or maybe a sequence from a film or tv show inspired me to try and recreate it in small form with action figures. Sometimes just holding a new figure and playing with it gives me ideas. And as much as the imagination of George Lucas has inspired so many elements of my life (including toy photography), I like to look towards Christopher Nolan and Steven Spielberg a lot for the way they blend practical and computer generated effects alongside the story they're telling. That's definitely the approach I take with my photography.
Q: In your opinion, what is the most important element of a great action figure photograph?
A: That's easily the pose of the figure. Although lighting is one of the most important aspects of photography as a whole (including toy photography), posing is uniquely important to toy photography. You can put an actual model in an awkward pose for a photo shoot and, although it WILL look awkward, it won't make the model look any less like a real person. Because the model will still naturally shift their weight around to balance in the position you asked of them. A toy can't do that. A good, solid pose can make a figure feel like it has WEIGHT. Something as simple as planting a figure's feet firmly on the ground can be the difference between your photo looking like a person standing still for their portrait or a toy haphazardly placed on your table.
Q: Any advice for aspiring action figure photographers? What’s the one thing you wish someone had told you when you started out?
A: What’s the one thing you wish someone had told you when you started out? Practice, practice practice and have fun. Four years ago I had never touched Photoshop, Lightroom or any serious photography equipment in my life, and here I am now as I continue my journey as an artist. Don't just be a toy photographer either, be a photographer. Learn the fundamentals of photography. Photograph everything and anything as it will often put you in positions where you will have to learn why something isn't working out the way you expected it to. And that will allow you to learn something new that you can apply elsewhere in the future. YouTube and the internet are your best friends. If you have a question about photography, even something specific to toy photography, you'll find it there. When I started out I wish someone told me to seek constructive criticism. Don't be offended by it. It's how you grow.