Figurines and dolls have always offered anthropologists a glimpse into the more playful side of the human species’ openness to storytelling and myth making. Daniel Picard’s new book Figure Fantasy offers us that even rarer glimpse into the imaginative surplus value of such preadolescent personifications à Toy Story where the totems themselves begin to break out of their hermetic fantasy worlds to invade the quotidian everyday world of Mundania. Having amassed a small army of 12″ tall, 1:6 scale figures from Sideshow Collectibles, Dan Picard has quickly won the admiration of discriminating fanboys and fangirls alike with his surreal, often comedic, real world photographs of characters from our favorite childhood franchises.
Before he makes his debut appearance at San Diego Comic Con next month, Picard kindly agreed to answer several of Entropy’s questions concerning his work and his relationship with fandom in general. His answers are earnest & straightforward, and may just rekindle your childhood obsession with action figures.
Entropy: In the foreword to your new book of photography Figure Fantasy, you describe how your fascination with action figures began one Christmas when you were ‘ten years old and received a few G.I. Joe 3-3/4″ figures and vehicles.’ You’d eventually use Sideshow Collectible’s G.I. Joe figures in your photography. I’m curious about your personal history with toys & comics and what they mean to you, especially now that you’re an adult. With the rise of geek culture and comic book fandom in general, how has your relationship with childhood ephemera and pop culture developed over the years?
Daniel Picard: Yes, that was a wonderful Christmas! Those action figures and comics were a very big part of my childhood. The comics would show me what the characters could do “for real” and then I would do my own stories or copy the same while changing elements to fit my collection. Those were great years that I used to push my imagination to another level and then came drawing! I used to pose my figures and draw little 1-2 page comic books of whatever short story I wanted to see. Everything stopped when I went to high school / college and then it picked up again a few years ago when I wanted to decorate my new office.
Prompted by your photos, I recently sat down and rewatched the 1980’s animated television series, G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero. I was struck by how much of my childhood nostalgia for these cartoons is wrapped up with early preadolescent attitudes and half-formed notions concerning patriotism, nationalism, and masculinity. Obviously, the Sideshow Collectibles aren’t really marketed towards younger kids, but do you ever think about how the action figures we grew up with reinforced a certain immaturity or normative ideology? I’m thinking of how certain parents don’t allow their daughters to play with Barbie dolls, because of the potential sexism and antifeminism promoted in such toys.
Well I’m Canadian, so the USA patriotism was something I never noticed at 10-14 years old. To me they were just an awesome army fighting some cool-looking bad guys. What mattered to me most were the characters and how varied they were. They had cool ninjas, cool soldiers, cool vehicles (who were pretty much characters as well) that I could see on tv, and in comics and then play with in my room creating my own stories.
My daughter has a nice collection of Barbies and Disney princesses and she’s having a great time with them. Her imagination around that doll house or in the bath when she has those dolls goes into high-gear and it’s wonderful to hear and see. A parent’s job is to put boundaries on things that could have a negative influence on their child and to us, and especially our daughter, Barbies are just fun toys. She has great real women in her life to look up to and copy instead.
Apart from the strictly irreverent and humorous photographs, I particularly admire the photos where you create, in true fandom fashion, authentically tension wracked imaginative scenes that feel like film stills. Specifically, I’m thinking of the photo entitled OBI-WAN KENOBI WAITS FOR THE PERFECT MOMENT TO STRIKE [BOBA FETT]. For those of us who are interested in the technical aspects of photography and visual arts, can you walk us through how you constructed such scenes?
Thank you! I approach all my photos the same way I would with a human model because the end result should look human. The fact that I use little figures doesn’t affect how I shoot the scenes on location at all. For that specific photo you mention, I had a flash with a blue gel on it in the Obi-Wan corner and another behind Boba because that real ceiling light wasn’t strong enough to cast that long shadow. My friend was my stand-in so that I could frame my scene and see how a human was affected by those lights. I had to work with the tripod because it was a very dark environment and I like to shoot at a high F-Stop so that everything is sharp. That made shooting my friend standing in both places quite easy as well. I had perfect references of both areas for the figures later.
Certain of your most novel and whimsical photos are, not surprisingly, the ones where you stage Star Wars figures (e.g., Stormtroopers, Snowtroopers, etc) performing everyday, quotidian tasks (e.g., clearing snow, taking a stroll, etc). How big was Star Wars in your household? Was Star Wars of particular childhood importance? I ask because recently on AMC’s Jedi Council there was much talk about how certain millennials and babyboomers alike are nonplussed by the fanfare surrounding Star Wars. Afterwards they had quite an involved conversation about why Star Wars as a franchise is so different from all other sources of pop culture entertainment. Answers ran the gamut: from the mythic themes inscribed in the fictional galaxy to the unprecedented special effects achieved by Lucas & Company. Worldwide fandom is so invested in the Star Wars universe. What is it, in your opinion, that conjures such passion for the franchise?
Star Wars was not that big in my household. I loved my action figures but no more than my Transformers or GI Joes and certainly not as much as my Legos. I think the characters are what’s more special in Star Wars then the rest. Yes, the special effects were cooler than everybody else’s at the time, and the story was interesting, but those characters really brought that franchise on top. I heard that people cried when they saw Han Solo and Chewbacca in the Force Awakens trailer. I doubt they cried when they saw a ship fly by because the special effects looked great. Those characters were amazing. They still are and I’m having a lot of fun putting them in my scenes doing things they are not known for.
I couldn’t help but notice that you didn’t shy away from using battledroids in your photos. Were you a fan at all of the critically maligned prequels? How high are your expectations for J.J. Abrams’ The Force Awakens?
I’m a big fan of the characters these prequels introduced to us but the actual movies were a letdown. On the other hand, the Clone Wars animated tv series that shared most of those characters was truly amazing. I really love watching those with my daughter. The reason I use my battledroids a lot has nothing to do with either of those though – it’s simply because they are amazing figures. They are by far my most articulated, balanced and most fun to pose figures in my collection. I also try to avoid humans fighting humans in my photos. There’s enough of that in the real world, on tv and in movies. If I have shooting or fighting scenes, I prefer to use robots. It does the same job without making it feel too “real”.
The Force Awakens will probably be my favorite movie of the year and hopefully Sideshow Collectibles or Hot Toys will be making some cool 1:6 characters of that movie for me to use in a few years!
I’m curious about your private toy collection: How big is it? I’m imagining action figures covering every inch of shelf space in your living room and bedroom, special display cases, etc. Does your family/partner share your level of enthusiasm?
Oh, the collection is not that large! I have a group shot on my website and my social media sites of the characters used in the book. It was about 60 figures from Sideshow. I also have about 20 Hot Toys. So no, the collection isn’t everywhere in the house – everybody is neatly placed in 9 Ikea Besta cabinets in my office/photo studio. Yes, my family loves the collection as well. They don’t follow each new figure’s shipping history online to see when it’ll arrive like I do, but my wife loves the craftsmanship in the head sculpts and my daughter really likes the clothes and accessories that each figure comes with. And of course, they love what I do with them in my photos.
What yet-to-be-made Sideshow figure would complete your collection?
DEADPOOL!!!! Hahahaha, I just love Deadpool! He’s already on pre-order and should be in my house before Christmas. At last count, I had 16 photos for him already sketched out waiting to go, which is a lot for a character I’ve yet to hold. I have no idea if I’ll ever produce all of them but I’ll do my best. I’ve got something special planned for him. Something different that fits into my Figure Fantasy style but can’t do with other characters that I think people will enjoy.
A number of your moodier photos feature zombies and Friday the 13th’s Jason. Are you a genuine horror fan and/or did you purchase these figures for the potential photographic compositions?
Oh I like my horror films! Those movies have some of the most interesting characters of all the genres out there and that’s always what gets me more involved. The story is important to move the film forward but it’s the characters that stays with me. When I have the option to get a horror character in figure size to create my scenes, it’s quite exciting for me! There’s a pretty big process on my part before ordering or pre-ordering any figure because there’s basically too many out there to get them all. I take each candidate and try to come up with the most scenes or roles. When those ideas and sketches reach to about 5-6, then I probably have a winner. I’m lucky to have such a great range of actors in my collection that I can think of any scene and I probably have somebody that can be used… minus Deadpool. He’s special and coming soon!
Your Superman and Batman photos nicely capture what I think will be a significant plot point in the new Batman v Superman movie. With Suicide Squad and all the buzz surrounding a Justice League movie, how optimistic are you about the possibility of a shared DC cinematic universe?
First, I have to say that my Batman Graffiti photo was just an homage to the great Mad Magazine cartoonist Sergio Aragones who did that drawing in the 80s. I just wanted to make my version because I still loved and remembered it 30 years later when my Batman figure arrived. I never expected it to explode online like it did a couple of years ago. It was very cool and welcomed!
I’m a pretty optimistic person by nature, so I’m excited by default with a ton of stuff coming up in the next few years, with the DC movies being high on my list. They have great characters to work with. Some of the best comic characters ever! I really hope they create an amazing universe for them. Then, I can get the figures and have them deal with my other universes like Marvel and Star Wars…yay!
What’s next for you? Are there any plans to use those exquisite Kotobukiya Bishoujo statues or perhaps even non-photo realistic vintage figures in your photography?
I’m having a blast continuing to shoot my 1:6 figures and I have hundreds of sketches for them already, so I’ll keep shooting those for a while that’s for sure. Statues look amazing but most are only good for one to three photos depending on the pose. It’s not something I go out and buy. If I had a friend who collected statues or vintage figures, I would probably do scenes with them but right now, my priority is continuing my 1:6 scale series. The exception to this will be the statues from Sideshow’s Court of the Dead lineup. Those will start arriving later this year. That’ll be interesting to shoot because they’re more in the horror/supernatural genre that I haven’t really visited yet.
Other than that, I’ll be attending my very first Comic-Con in San Diego soon for book signings, which still feels unreal to me. I have no idea what to expect but I’m very excited! If people want to follow me on Facebook and Twitter, I’m more active now that my book deadline is over. I can take things more slowly and come up with new ways to present my photography to anybody interested. Thank you!
Daniel Picard is a graphic designer and a renowned photographer that loves everything related to pop culture. You can learn more about his work at danielpicard.com and follow him on Facebook or Twitter @DanPicardPhotos.