Making action-figure art with a camera, some toys, and lots of flour.
Most Impressive Fans is a feature highlighting the amazing creativity of Star Wars devotees, from cosplay to props. If there’s a fearless and inventive fan out there, we’ll highlight them here.
While some collectors labor over whether or not to remove an action figure from its pristine packaging, the approach of Johnny Wu -- a.k.a. @sgtbananas on Instagram -- is decidedly more Tarkin-esque.
His collection hierarchy is broken down by which figures he doesn’t mind melting as he sets off small explosives and fireworks nearby. This is part of the rigorous practical effects that have accidentally customized some figures by fire or resulted in other lost limbs as the toy photographer manically snapped away with his digital camera. The battle scars are all for the love of art, as Wu captures hyper-realistic Star Wars scenes for his Instagram followers or promotional images for the likes of Hasbro and Sideshow.
“The realness, the rawness of that actual explosion. It would be very, very hard to recreate that in Photoshop,” Wu says.
With ingenious hacks — like subbing in flour for freshly fallen snow — and utilizing the natural elements near his northern California home, like a young Jyn Erso sending Stormy on adventures through Lah’mu, Wu crafts creative storylines, battle sequences, and epic quests for his menagerie of plastic soldiers.
He recognizes not every collector would be comfortable with his approach. “A lot of toy collectors...once they read that that’s not Photoshop and that those figures are actually getting water on them? And flour? And now they’re going to hear about the fireworks? They’re going to cringe...'oh no, I could never do that with my figure!'”
But in the style of the model makers who first brought Star Wars to the screen, Wu prefers practical effects over CGI with minimal touch-ups to add the glow of a lightsaber to his images or omit a wire that needed to be in place to keep a figure in mid-air during the hours-long photo shoot. “Everything else that you see in the photo is actually happening through the camera,” he says.
That tangibility adds to the feeling that the toys are real people in real situations. “Even as nerdy and dorky as it might sound to some people...I wish I could go to Tatooine,” Wu says. “I wish I could go to Mos Eisley. I wish those worlds were real. I want to go to space and I want to hang out with these people.”
Call to action
Wu, 31, has had a lifelong love of action figures, although he admits there was a point in his young adult years that he thought he’d outgrown the children’s toys. “Growing up, I’ve always been fascinated by toys, action figures. And that never stopped.”
Just three years ago, after rediscovering collecting characters from his favorite films and TV shows, Wu had an idea. He set up a cardboard box as a mini-studio space, then propped a few Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles figures inside — haphazardly taping a Mondo Gecko figure into place doing a skateboarding move while other characters cheered — and took a few shots with his iPhone. “It was so bad…” he says now.
It wasn’t long before Wu’s girlfriend, Crystal Nuccio, handed him a higher-powered Canon camera and taught him how to use it, spurring his new hobby. “It’s like a loophole to playing with toys even though you’re an adult,” he says. “I’d go everyday. It’s all I think about. It was like the two things clicked like a perfect storm.”
Although he has a collection including vintage figures from the Power of the Force era, Wu primarily shoots the multi-jointed six-inch-tall figures from the newer Black Series line or the incredibly detailed sixth scale versions from Hot Toys. The former are best for battle sequences, their poseable limbs giving them flexibility akin to a real soldier in combat, although he prefers the latter, immaculately painted with precision down to the tiniest freckle, for quieter moments and the end of a zoom lens.
“I’ll do a lot of closeups of their faces,” Wu says. “One thing is those are easy to make look like they’re really people. I had one photo with a Hot Toys shoretrooper on a beach and I’m not tooting my own horn but it looks real. The weathering on the suit...it does look like a real person.” (See above -- it's hard to argue.)
Their craftsmanship and $200+ price tag doesn’t always keep them out of the line of fire. “I’ve used fireworks with some of them,” Wu says. “When I do I try to be very careful.”
Like a legion of disposable clones, Wu typically leaves the dirtier work to his Black Series figures and, as many a Star Wars hero has learned the hard way, sometimes that means losing a hand. “I’m more lenient with what I’ll put them through,” he says. “I have like a drawer full of troopers from the Black Series.”
Don’t panic and at all times carry a suitcase full of action figures
Any photographer will tell you, getting the perfect shot isn’t always as effortless as the final piece suggests. “People just don’t know how long this stuff takes,” Wu says. “Sometimes it literally took a minute and it comes out cool, but other times I really have a hard time. I’ll take as many photos as it takes to get the shot.”
Just to get the right angle and lighting on a close-up of a stormtrooper carrying Jyn’s Stormy doll required 100 different takes, he says.
About 95 percent of his shoots are outdoors, leaving his craft and his collection to the mercy of the elements, which he recognizes makes some collectors wince. “And I don’t blame you in that,” Wu says. “Hot Toys are works of art. That’s their grail. The highlight of their collection. Why would they ever take it outside and spray water on it?”
On a trip to Hawaii, a Black Series sandtrooper lost an arm when the plastic snapped in the sweltering heat. “I had two other sandtroopers with me so that was okay. I brought far more toys than was necessary.”
But the mistake also allowed Wu some creative license, spawning the #SadTrooper series with several decidedly non-canonical shots of the soldier trudging around head down, carrying his own appendage. “Since I’m doing a battle scene, I’ll just make it so his arm broke off,” Wu figured.
Another series with Chewbacca showing off his karate moves? Also not sanctioned by the Lucasfilm Story Group.
Wu's quest for the perfect backdrop has also complicated his travels. “When I’m going somewhere far, like a vacation or something...I try to bring as much as I can because I never know if I'll see an environment that’s perfect for whatever character I want to be able to capitalize. I bring so many toys.”
Trial and error
Closer to home, the introverted Wu tries to time his shoots for days when the beaches are less crowded, since a man painstakingly posing action figures in the sand is bound to attract some attention. “Usually they’ll walk up, put their head down, squint a little bit like they’re trying to figure out what exactly I’m doing. They look...they look and they look and then they just keep going.”
Occasionally a fellow fan will stop to chat. “It’s cool but I’m pretty shy in real life,” he says.
And like a Jedi Master, Wu won’t disclose all of his techniques or camera settings even to other aspiring toy photographers. “You’ll appreciate it way more when you have to sit there and figure it out. If I give you the answers to the test, you don’t learn anything. What’s that saying? It’s about the journey, not the destination.”
So much of Wu’s success has come from trial and error, he stresses.
He travels with a spray bottle to make it rain, and has learned to use a dusting of flour to make it appear like his figures are trekking through snowy Hoth.
“I usually take different perspectives. I’ll move around the figure like 360...the light comes from a different direction and it hits the figure.” His initial concept isn’t always what turns out best in execution. “Sometimes I end up finding that a different angle is way more interesting.”
Wu used to conscript a team of friends to help with the shoots, but with the assistance of a wireless remote shutter and a tripod, he can take the picture while also alighting the special effects. It’s better than trying to explain his vision to a friend, he says. “Okay, can you kick sand over here or can you sprinkle some flour...or can you light this firework? When it’s my idea, I know exactly what I want. When I have full control over the photo, that’s the best for me.”
And Wu is constantly challenging himself to top his best work.
“I’m very competitive with myself. I’m always searching my next favorite photo. So if I take a photo today and I like it, if you were to ask me a week later if I like that photo, I’d probably say no. I feel like a lot of artists can relate to that. They’re their worst critic.”
The Most Impressive Fans Q&A
Who is your favorite Star Wars character?
Which Star Wars film ranks highest on your list?
The Empire Strikes Back.
What's your first Star Wars memory?
My first memory is just sitting at home watching it on TV with my dad. I didn’t know what it was. But I think all Star Wars fans can agree there was something captivating about it right away.
Do you have a favorite scene?
The famous Tatooine sunset with Luke.
If you had to choose: join the rebels or live the Imperial life?
Definitely the rebels!
For more on @sgtbananas, check out StarWars.com's previous interview with Johnny Wu!
Kristin Baver is a writer and all-around sci-fi nerd who always has just one more question in an inexhaustible list of curiosities. Sometimes she blurts out “It’s a trap!” even when it’s not. Follow her on Twitter @KristinBaver.