At some point when you were a child, you probably dreamed that one day you could get a job playing with toys. Before the hard boot of reality descended upon your neck you might have dared to dream that some day, just maybe, you’d earn a living through playing with dolls, blocks and action figures.
Dan Picard is very possibly the man who has gotten closest to that dream. Having spent many years both learning portrait photography and amassing a sizeable collection of statues and action figures from films, comics, books games and more, when one day he had the genius idea of combining the two, Figure Fantasy was born.
Absurd, dramatic, wry, at times hilarious, Dan’s series has exploded in popularity. It’s now a book, featuring contributions by filmmakers and geek culture luminaries Simon Pegg and Kevin Smith, and Dan will be making a trip to San Diego Comic-Con next month to meet the people who love his images. We sat down to chat with him and find out a little more about Figure Fantasy…
Amateur Photographer: How did the Figure Fantasy project start, what first inspired you to try it?
Dan Picard: While I was working on my photography portfolio using real human models, I came across a cool location that I really wanted to shoot. The problem was that construction was about to start in two days, making it impossible to access.
With no models to call on such short notice, I decided to go the next day and try it out with a little robot figure I had just bought to decorate my office.
I was quite surprised by the end result and knew I had something very interesting to explore. After a few of those robot photos, I found Sideshow’s website. They were making amazingly detailed figures of action figures I used to have as a kid. I knew right away that I came to the right store, and this photo series was about to get really fun.
You say in the project description that the project was inspired by your love of ‘figures and statues’, and it makes me wonder exactly how small or large these models are in real life? It’s honestly hard to tell! I guess there are tricks of perspective going on here?
Yes, my love of these figures and the characters they represent is the driving force behind this project. I could do this type of photography with anything small, like I don’t know, office supplies let’s say, but I would have gotten bored of it after 10 scenes. With these figures, I just want to tell more and more stories and jokes. I’m currently working on photo #146 and I can’t wait to be working on photo #300 in a few years!
I’d say 95% of my collection are 1:6 scale figures that are about twelve inches tall. The statues are a bit larger but I don’t have many of them right now. I will have more in the future as Sideshow starts to release their very interesting Court of the Dead series which will make me go to darker and more fantasy/supernatural places with my photos.
You could say it’s a trick of perspectives but you can think of it more like a camera with an infinite depth of field. To really sell the illusion, I have to have my characters as in focus as the background I’m shooting them in and that’s often quite complicated. There’s lots of tricks I’ve thought myself along the way to manage all those issues. Getting rid of the stands or wires that holds the figures in complicated poses is easy for viewers to not even think about but it’s another challenging issue that I have to deal with.
One aspect that really makes these scenes work is your wonderful eye for a good location. How does this work – do you think of an idea and then try to find a place to shoot it, or do you find a great location and then construct an image that works within it?
Thank you! I’ve done it both ways and they both work. If I find a cool location, I can go scout it first and shoot everything with the wide angle lens. Then, I can come back home, study every photo and sketch a ton of scenes.
It’s a great way to make the trips to these locations more productive, because I’m going in with a plan with my sketches on my phone. Things will probably change on location, but I’m not going in blind hoping to get at least one nice photo. Right now I have about forty sketches of photo ideas on my phone that need locations and I’m always looking out for them.
For far away places that I’ve never been, like San Diego next month for Comic-Con, I research locations online and do my scouting using whatever photos I can find. I start building scenes for my figures at home. It’s cool and it allows me to be a bit more prepared and less overwhelmed when I arrive in new locations.
Some of your images mix in real people with the figures. Does this provide an additional challenge?
I’ve taken a few photos with real people that are around my figures at their full (fake) size and it’s not really more complicated. I still have to make them look larger than they are no matter if it’s a real human, or a real car or anything that’s real. In fact, it kind of helps the illusion when something we are used to seeing is next to them because our eyes associate them as a group.
But the fact that the illusion works is more a compliment to the amazing talent at Sideshow and Hot Toys that make these incredible figures. I’m just the guy that takes cool photos of them and figured out a few magic tricks.
Naturally the project is heavily steeped in pop culture. Do you think it’s necessary for people to recognise the figures involved or understand the references you make to enjoy or appreciate your images? Does it matter?
I really don’t think it matters. I see my series and my book as a cool approach to storytelling. I came up with a story, I took a photo at an important moment, left many clues, and it’s up to the viewer to imagine what came before and what happens after. I talk about my scenes with my daughter all the time to see what she can come up with and since the book came out, I’ve heard other parents do the exact same thing. It’s a nice way to spend a good imaginative time with your kids.
The characters that I use are often quite known (especially the Star Wars ones, and the superheroes) but it’s not an absolute must to know their back story to enjoy any of my photos. It might get a bigger laugh if you know who’s involved in the scene because I often times flip that character around and make them do things they are not known for. There’s also more than 50 characters in my book and we mention all of them by name. It’s a good way to learn the name of any character you might find cool or interesting. It may even get people reading their comic books or watch the movies or tv shows they are associated with.
How much post-processing and compositing work is done with these images – I presume for instance that you don’t have enough battle droid statues to fill a truck? (Or do you?)
At the time of that picture [above], I had four battle droids. They come in pairs and I’ve bought two red ones since then. So yes, there is post-processing and compositing done on all of the scenes. The amount of work involved goes hand-in-hand with how prepared I am.
You brought up a great example: for getting the droids to all line up perfectly, I recreated my truck in 1:6 scale in cardboard so that I knew exactly how many could really fit and where to move them after each photo so that four became nine. I had to make sure to move the right ones so that whoever was hiding somebody behind, was kept there to still cast the shadows – basically it was a really long shoot!
How do you see the series developing – are there things you want to try that you haven’t yet?
Everything just works right now. It took many years to finally get it to my current point of being able to think of a scene, be able to shoot it once on location, and be done with it. I’m now able to get a lot more creative with the angles and lens choices so that will open up new and exciting ways to tell stories. I’m also much quicker now doing these photos and I can produce them more regularly. I went from doing a photo a month in the beginning, to my current rate of one to three a week.
I think I’ll try night shooting for the first time in San Diego during Comic-Con. The nightlife here in Ottawa isn’t that exciting to shoot. I’ll try it over there and see what happens! Other than that, I think the main thing for me will be finding and shooting new locations. Buying new figures/statues and thinking of stories will happen as well but finding locations is the hardest part. That’s what I’ll be looking out for in the future.
Are you working on any projects at the moment? And do tell us more about Comic Con San Diego next month, that must be incredible! Excited?
Since the book deadline is behind me I have a bit more room to breathe, and I’ve recently started a new feature on my Facebook page that lets me be creative with a new figure when it arrives at my house. It’s a great way for me to think about new scenes and get a feel for the figure and how it can be posed. It’s also a cool new way to share photos with people and let them be in my studio while I brainstorm. Everything in the studio is done with white boxes – it’s quite artistic the way I can take a few boxes and make them look like Captain America is spying on a few bad guys or Marty McFly is jumping down 15 flights of stairs on his skateboard. Most photos will probably never make it as real on-location photos but it’s a fun change of pace for me because these are 5-10-minute photos.
YES! Comic-Con! I still can’t believe it! Not only am I going as a tourist, I’m also going to be signing my book at the Sideshow Collectibles and Insight Editions booths! I’m not sure what to expect but from the photos, videos, and stories I’ve seen and heard, it’ll be one crazy-fun event to remember!
Figure Fantasy: The Pop Culture Photography of Daniel Picard is available now, published by Insight Editions. Visit www.danielpicard.com to see more of Dan’s images, and follow him on Twitter @DanPicardPhotos