All photos © Mitchel Wu Toy Photography
Wanting to spend more time with his wife and daughter, Mitchel Wu ended his wedding photography career in favor of a new take on photo subjects: toys. Today, this Californian is internationally known on social media for his creative and playful shots of beloved pop culture characters.
Have you always been creative? Has photography always been your profession?
When I was a kid, we didn’t have all the high-tech games and smart devices that kids have today. I climbed trees, played in the dirt with my toys, and made up a million different stories with my friends as we played. I was drawing from the moment I could hold a crayon, making up my own characters and stories and creating multipaneled cartoons of their adventures. I excelled at art in school (unlike other subjects), which led to me attending the California College of the Arts in Oakland, where I graduated with a degree in illustration.
What I learned in art school was invaluable because everything applied to creating images, regardless of the medium. It taught me about lighting, composition, storytelling, and so much more. However, I never shot professionally until I began doing weddings in 2008. My entire adult life has revolved around creativity, including six amazing years with the Walt Disney Company and creative collaborations with Lucasfilm, Sony Pictures, Warner Bros., and Cirque du Soleil.
How did you get started photographing toys? Was it challenging?
I photographed my last wedding in November of 2015. My daughter was in high school, and I was really starting to feel the sting of missing so many weekends with her and my wife because of weddings. I knew that my daughter would be off to college in the blink of an eye, which was a big determining factor in my decision.
Coincidentally, I saw some toy photos on social media around the same
time that I was transitioning out of weddings. The idea struck me as really odd but also really cool. Once I took my first toy photo, I was hooked and never looked back. With toy photography, you’re limited only by your own creativity, and I immediately saw the potential to make it into a career.
My journey to toy photography was the complete opposite of most toy photographers: I came into it with absolutely no toys but with a strong foundation in photography, so I was able to jump right in and start creating. In fact, many of the techniques I learned while photographing weddings are applicable to this field, especially lighting and photographing details (like wedding rings, table decor, etc.) in a beautiful, artful manner.
You also do client work. What does this entail?
I’ve created hundreds of images for Mattel for their toy and game brands, including UNO and Scrabble. I was also commissioned to create images for Hot Wheels’s 50th anniversary, one of my most creative and high-profile projects to date. And I’m thrilled to have recently picked up Warner Bros. Entertainment as a client. Regardless of the product and brand, one constant always remains—creating images with emotion that bridges the gap between the toy and the stories in one’s head.
Who are your creative influences?
It’s not really who so much as what. I like to stay open to all types of influences, as I never know where ideas or inspiration will come from. I enjoy capturing the comical, the ridiculous, and the unexpected in my images and often find that simply observing people and the absurdities of life (in my life, mostly) can lead to a lot of fun ideas. My wife and I also enjoy hitting galleries and museums as much as possible, something that’s not difficult to do living in Los Angeles. And, being constantly bombarded by the media and pop culture on a daily basis, it’s hard not to have some of that influence seep into one’s images.
What are some of your favorite toys to shoot, and why?
I tend to work with toys that I have an emotional connection with, and that connection is often created by memories and nostalgia. One of my most photographed properties is Pixar’s Toy Story, and that’s because it was one of my daughter’s favorite movies as she was growing up. I’ve watched that movie dozens of times with her. I know the story and the characters extremely well, and it always brings me back to a different chapter of my family’s life. I also photograph toys based on the Maurice Sendak children’s book Where the Wild Things Are for the same reason. Besides nostalgia, another reason I buy and photograph certain toys is for their storytelling.
Do you enjoy storytelling as much as the photography and scene creating?
I love the storytelling aspect. It’s been the one constant throughout my creative career, and it helped draw me to toy photography; it’s integral to my images. There are three primary components that I try to focus on with my toy photography: story, emotion, and practical effects—in that order.
What’s your process for creating movement in your photos?
Most of the effects seen in my images are real, often captured in real time after I’ve staged the scene; so, for the most part, my visual effects have actual movement when I take the shot. Real milk is splashing around Ant-Man, real smoke and fire are emanating from Woody’s and Jessie’s matches, and real dirt is flying around Scooby-Doo. I find that the best way to infuse reality into my images is to capture something real. I use Photoshop, but it’s rarely to add anything to my imagery—usually only to remove things.
What has social media meant to you during this venture? Do you like connecting with people?
Social media has been a game changer for me and for others who understand how to utilize it. There’s a vibrant worldwide community of passionate toy photographers and collectors on Instagram, and it’s been incredible connecting with others and building friendships there. At the same time, most companies, including toy companies, have a strong presence on social media and understand the value of being able to market and build brands that way. Instagram has become a place where corporations, photographers, designers, and artists can comingle and connect.
What have been your favorite toy photography projects so far?
I don’t normally work on personal projects as much as individual images. However, it’s a timely question since I recently finished my first photo project, titled 28 Days of Toy Stories, through which I challenged myself to create a new Toy Story image every day in February. During the second half of 2017, I was so busy with client work that creating personal work really nosedived. I came to realize that personal work is what really drives everything else: creativity, growth, and future client work. One of my goals for 2018 was to keep creating personal work regardless of how busy I got with client work, so I was excited to do that four-week project.
I also really enjoyed working on the Hot Wheels image campaign. Having grown up playing with Hot Wheels, it was a project that was very near and dear to my heart. And it was some of my most fun, creative work to date. Another client project I’ve really enjoyed working on is for an amazing little toy company called IAmElemental, which creates lines of female action figures. They were actually the first toy company to commission me for images, so it’s been quite amazing taking this journey with them.
If you could live as one of the characters from your works for twenty-four hours, who would it be and why?
I’d probably go with Mr. Incredible from The Incredibles, which also happens to be my favorite movie from Pixar. I like that he’s a superhero with “normal” flaws: nothing too overblown or dramatic. I think I also identify with Mr. Incredible because he’s such a family man!
What’s one surprising item you cannot do without on a toy
My Bluetooth speaker for streaming music from my iPhone. Just the other day, I was photographing a Toy Story scene while listening to the song “You’ve Got a Friend in Me,” which really helped set the mood! I just love to have music playing during shoots.
I plan to continue creating images and telling stories for toy companies and also to begin creating imagery for editorial and advertising clients. I’m also planning a workshop series on toy photography, as there has been an incredible amount of interest from people who want to learn how I create my images. A long-term goal is to travel to different countries to hold these workshops, meet fellow creatives, and share ideas and techniques. Lastly, I’m in the process of connecting with local, national, and international galleries to exhibit my work. I have a lot of exciting things on the table right now and am really just enjoying the journey.
For more info, visit mitchelwutoyphotography.com.