Why grabbing attention isn’t enough: toy photographer and storyteller Mitchel Wu on his creative process

Mitchel Wu, Photographer
Capturing stunning photos of toys, Mitchel Wu tells incredible stories in a single shot.

We spoke with Mitch to find out what makes an engaging story, how he has ideas… And why grabbing attention isn’t enough.

Let’s talk about stories, Mitch! Common wisdom says stories need a beginning, a middle and an end… But your images don’t! So are they stories in a moment OR moments in a story?
Yes! Haha, how’d you like that answer? I like to think that most of my images ARE the story – with the beginning, middle and the end all wrapped into one visual narrative. Sometimes my images do all the heavy lifting for the viewer, and sometimes I’ll ask the viewer to chip in and make some connections on their own to fill in the gaps.

Yes; your work’s a bit like Gary Larson’s The Far Side, I think. Sometimes the story’s in the viewer’s head… You recently said you tend to start projects by asking what stories you can tell with products. But do you sometimes have ideas for stories, or visual gags, and then look for toys that fit that idea?
Absolutely, but I only have that luxury for my personal work, of course. A recent example is an image I created of C-3PO trying to lift Thor’s Hammer, and losing his arms in the process. That idea came well before my choosing a particular action figure for it.

C-3PO wasn’t the starting point? That surprises me!
No – only after much consideration did I end up going with C-3PO, because it’s entirely conceivable that his arms would detach under the stress of trying to lift an impossible weight like Thor’s Hammer, and it would be humorous as opposed to gruesome. But one can also easily imagine C-3PO actually finding himself in that ridiculous situation.

Mitchel Wu, Photographer
That’s fascinating! I don’t think I would’ve got close to that idea that way round. And can you give an example of the other way?

Sure… In contrast, I bought a General Grievous action figure over a year ago, because he’s such a great Star Wars villain, and Hasbro did an incredible job with him. It sat on my shelf for a year while I waited for inspiration and a story to tell with it. I knew I wanted to create a story around his unique feature; his four arms…

But not an obvious story?
Exactly. The four arms make him a formidable fighter, but I wanted – as I often do – to show him in an unexpected way. I eventually asked myself: what would I do with four arms? That’s how the idea of showing him in a moment of relaxed downtime came about, using those four arms for a far more important purpose than wielding lightsabers.

Mitchel Wu, Photographer
Look at that! So funny… See, this is what I love: you grab the viewer’s attention AND spark their imagination, just in a second. How do you do that?

Honestly, it’s not terribly difficult to grab a person’s attention. You create an image of a toy doing almost anything besides lying lifeless and still, like one expects a toy to do, and that will grab a viewer’s attention for a fraction of a second. But what happens when you have the viewer’s attention for that fraction of a second? Do you keep it or do you lose it?

The real challenge is getting a person to engage in that image longer, to enter the world you created for that toy, and be impacted by it. Will the image be remembered, or quickly forgotten? That’s where the story comes in. And that in a nutshell is what my goal is for all of my work, personal and professional.

Look at these images of Rafiki and Baby Simba using the exact same toy – which one makes you feel something? Which one will you remember?

Mitchel Wu, Photographer
Got it. That illustrates it perfectly… So given what you’ve just said, about grabbing attention being just the first stage, what lessons can other people learn? Does the way you think apply to toy design itself, or packaging?

I’d say it can apply, either directly or indirectly. Telling the viewer something once you have their attention is what the goal should really be. For me, story can often equate to emotion. Whether it’s making an individual feel happy, sad, or maybe simply just laugh.

Packaging may not be able to incorporate a story in the traditional sense, but it can certainly make one feel emotion or humour. Or maybe there’s a story on the packaging, literally, told visually or through copy. For toy design it often comes down to a character’s story or backstory. Going back to General Grievous – would he be nearly as interesting if he was just another random toy on the store shelf; if we didn’t know his character and backstory? No! It’s his character and story that makes him a truly memorable character, and it’s what allows me to then take him out of character and to present him in such an unexpected way.

Yes! If General Grievous was a happy-go-lucky sort on screen then there’s no gag. I’m curious, then: how many times do you create images? I mean, obviously, you create it once in your head: General Grievous chilling with the lads… Do you then jot it in a notebook? Or sketch it?
Sometimes all three of those, especially if it’s work for a client and they want to see and approve concepts before I go ahead with photography. I do write down new ideas as soon as I get them, although sometimes they’ll sit in my notes forever, never to be used.

I use a Wacom Intuos Pro graphic tablet for all of my sketching and concepting. It’s been a game changer from the old pencil and paper days. I can draw a character on my Wacom tablet, and then resize it, stretch it, flop it, and colour it, or just go back to an earlier version if I liked it better. This is a concept and final image I created for Moose Toys’ Shopkins Oh So Real Collection

Mitchel Wu, Photographer
That’s EXCELLENT! I mean, there’s no compromise there at all! So you’ve had the idea for an image and sketched it… Now you have a new set of creative challenges: you have to make Pringles drop, or Fred Flintstone’s car fly… So my question is this: is problem-solving creativity the same as artistic creativity? Does it have the same value?

I don’t believe they’re the same thing, but they can both be equally satisfying, and equally important to the look and success of an image. With that said, I’d much rather see an image with an engaging story and imperfect technique and execution than a perfectly-executed image with no story. Which do you think makes a more lasting impact?

Mitchel Wu, Photographer
And why go to the trouble of doing the effects in camera? Why not – say – just do a splash of milk digitally?

Because, for me, it’s waaaay more fun!

There we go! “Tick”!
No contest… Sit at a computer and create a meticulous, digital liquid splash, or create one with some milk and a blast of compressed air? I’ll go with the latter every time. For me, it’s difficult to achieve a stronger reality than creating an image that uses something real and actually exists, something that actually interacts with and affects the toys I’m shooting. With that said, every technique and method is as valid as the next. Practical effects, digital effects – it’s all just personal preference, and tools to making your way to the strongest image possible.

Mitchel Wu, Photographer
Well, I agree in terms of output – but where’s the fun? The look on your face when you’re doing your shots isn’t something I’ve ever seen in a graphic’s suite! So… You’ve said you find inspiration in everything you see and do. Is that a conscious search? Are you walking the streets of LA saying, “How could that lamppost help me? What toy would look good walking a dog?”

Absolutely! I tend to generate ideas in one of a few ways. One of my favourite methods is to show characters in unexpected ways. Another is using current events to help influence stories, as a recent image of Ant-Man stealing a roll of toilet paper did.

Mitchel Wu, Photographer
Oh, that’s brilliant!

Thank you! But then yes, as you say, observing my surroundings and life in general – often my own. A good example of this is the image of Woody sliding down a stair banister. I’d been shooting toys for a couple of years and was trying to come up with a new Toy Story idea when that banister idea hit me like a bag of bricks. I’ve lived in my current house for 24 years and have gone up and down my stairs a 100,000 times or more. I’m glad my brain finally made that connection. And the idea of Woody playfully sliding down a banister is something you could easily imagine seeing in one of the Toy Story movies.

Mitchel Wu, Photographer
And in terms of applying what you do to a wider context, then, is it something anyone can do? Would inventors benefit from looking at their ideas and asking what stories they see?

I think it could definitely be a worthwhile exercise. Inventions are largely driven by figuring out a way to fill an unfulfilled need, solve an unsolved problem, or improve something that may already exist. And although there may or may not be a story within the mechanics or design of the invention itself, there’s certainly a story that can be told about the path that led to that invention, the genesis of it…

And that same story is what should be passionately told when pitching the invention to a potential licensor or customer, as you want to get their engagement and emotional investment in it if at all possible. Just make sure your invention lives up to the story you tell. It’s one thing to pique one’s interest, but you then have to deliver on that.

And if I asked you to suggest three specific things that you think could make people more creative, what would they be?
One, I would say care less about what other people think, or what you think other people will think…

Big difference; worth emphasis! What you think other people will think…
Huge difference! So get out of your own head and create; try to create fearlessly! The only way you’re going to stand out from your peers and competition is if you approach whatever you do with your own vision and style.

Two, I’d say be aware of what’s happening in the world and ask yourself how that can be applied to what you do – whether it’s pop culture, art, music, whatever. Go to museums and galleries, movies, concerts, even the great outdoors. Change your surroundings and stimuli and you may just change your point of view.

And three… Three definitely relates to the first thing we discussed! There’s often an expected way of doing or showing things. What would doing the unexpected look like?

Where does doing the unexpected stop, though? I mean… Are there any ideas that are terrific to you that you won’t do because of taste?
I admit to having a – well, let’s say unique sense of humour! As a result the occasional warped image makes its way into the world – like the one of an Alien xenomorph chestburster that apparently got itself turned around in its host’s body – it’s not bursting from the chest…

Mitchel Wu, Photographer
I’d quite like to see that in a movie! So this goes back to caring less about what other people think…

Right! Because that’s me; that’s my humour and I won’t hide it. The whole point of this is to have fun. I can’t limit what I do based on what I think people will like. First and foremost what I do has to please me creatively. With all of that said, there’s always a line you shouldn’t cross. Social media is like the Wild West, but you still need to watch your behaviour, because I guarantee you there are people – and companies – watching.

I recently worked on a high-visibility documentary project with a major entertainment company, covering one of best-known pop-culture brands in the world. I asked the producer if they looked at any other toy photographers besides me for this project and she said yes. They vetted each potential photographer carefully; a thorough examination of their social-media accounts…

They found something on another photographer’s Instagram page which made them uncomfortable, so the opportunity went to me. Always remember that what you put into the world, especially on social media, becomes a large part of your brand. Always nurture that brand and be strategic in what it says.

Yes, I think that’s right; that makes sense… So, Mitch, you and I met at New York Toy Fair but it sounds like you’ve had quite an amazing year leading up to that. Tell us about it…
Yes, it’s been pretty incredible. During the past year I had the honor of working on image campaigns for Disney UK’s Toy Story 4, Kinder Surprise’s Animal Adventures, Schleich USA’s Power of Imagination, and Hasbro’s Power Rangers Lightning Collection…

Mitchel Wu, Photographer
I’m grinning like the Cheshire Cat because every time you mention an image I’m thinking: we can show that off! I’m so excited! Keep going, what else?!

Haha! What else? I was featured on 60secdocs, a popular platform for short-form documentaries, which ended up getting several million views across various social channels. If you have a minute – literally – you should maybe check it out.

We can post a link to that! I mean… You’ve got seven-million views now; after people see it in a Mojo interview that’ll rocket to, like, seven million and eight… And you were in the UK’s national press a couple of days ago?
Yes. That was great! Were they your big papers?

Oh, for sure… All the major tabloids: The Sun, Daily Mirror, Daily Record, Daily Star, Daily Mail… Almost everything with Daily in the name!

Mitchel Wu, Photographer
I’m also absolutely thrilled to share with you that I’ll be featured in a Marvel documentary series this summer. It was a lot of fun filming it, but I definitely prefer being behind the camera!

Disney’s Marvel, presumably? Not the powdered milk?
I don’t know what that is…

No, I know; it’s a British thing! But that’s awesome! And how do we see that? What’s it on?
It’s coming to Disney+; I don’t think there’s a date yet.

And New York Toy Fair? How did that happen; what was it like?
You know, that happened to be one of the most incredible experiences of my professional and personal life. I was invited in by Marian Bossard and The Toy Association; the American trade association for the US toy industry, to give a talk on my journey, as well as exhibit a large body of my work…

And that’s not common, right? They don’t do one every year?
No, I’m told it was their first-ever exhibition.

Really?! In 104 years, they never did that before?
No. It’s amazing to me; it was really an honor. I was also invited to cut the opening ribbon with Shaquille O’Neal, who is exactly 2’ taller than me! There’s a video of that too; summarises my experience in New York pretty nicely. An incredible experience.

Mitchel Wu, Photographer
Great partnership! Wonderful idea. I wasn’t going to ask this but now that it’s come up, do you collaborate with any other partners? Companies or products, I suppose, as an ambassador; as a partner?

Oh, for sure. I especially love collaborating with the very companies that help me create my stories and images. Currently this includes Atmosphere Aerosol, Litra Lights, Platypod Tripods, Spider Holster and Wacom – all leaders in their fields. I work alone, but it’s really a team effort when you think about it! But that’s one of the things I’ve enjoyed most about toy photography: the incredible connections, friendships and partnerships I’ve made during this journey – meeting you at Toy Fair is a great example!

Awwww, Mitch, you old charmer! Well, it was a pleasure meeting you and your wife there, it really was – and seeing you work… Eye-opening; mind-boggling! I should thank Playtime PR’s Lesley Singleton for coming to find me and introducing us… It’s the only thing she insisted Billy and I looked at!
Is that true?

Yes! She properly frogmarched us to the Schleich stand! So let’s think about wrapping this up… I guess the last two are my favourite questions. If you were going to write your autobiography, what would you call it?
Never Stop Playing

Perfect! And finally what, Mitch, is the most interesting thing in your office? Or on your desk?
Well, you can imagine my office is packed with all kinds of toys and interesting props… So on my desk there’s a little rubber foot with a brain eraser I placed on top of it. That little brain eraser has made it into a few of my images, and I imagine that foot will someday as well.

Mitchel Wu, Photographer
Great! Great… I really should run a book on these answers! “Who had brain on a foot?” Mitch, this has been such a pleasure, I can’t tell you; thank you! We’ll put links under my sign off so anything you want to link to just email it over. And thanks again!

Website
https://www.mitchelwutoyphotography.com

Instagram
https://www.instagram.com/mitchelwuphotography/

60secdocs
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=M50xRaEgMw4

NY Toy Fair
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dONggDruIkg

Atmosphere Aerosol – https://www.atmosphereaerosol.com
Litra Lights – https://litra.com
Platypod Tripods – https://platypod.com
Spider Holster – https://spiderholster.com
Wacom – https://www.wacom.com

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