Mitchel Wu - Creating Stories with Toy Photography
What do you do in the industry?
I create and craft stories through toy photography - capturing the illusion of motion and emotion where none exists. I provide an unparalleled experience for my clients while creating images that build brand awareness in a fun, engaging manner. I’ve worked on campaigns for Warner Bros, Mattel, Moose Toys, IAmElemental Toys and Virgin Media UK. I’ve created images for Harry Potter, Shopkins, Fortnite, Hot Wheels 50th Anniversary, UNO, Scrabble, Kellogg’s and Welch’s. Not all my clients are toy companies, I also do work for advertising and PR agencies when creative toy photography is needed.
Why and how did you get into the Toy and Game industry?
My career has been pretty varied, but the one consistent thread through it all is creativity. I have a degree in illustration and worked as a product design and development professional in the consumer products industry for much of my career. I spent 6 amazing years at Disney doing this, and then went on to collaborate with Sony Pictures, Lucasfilm, Warner Bros and Cirque Du Soleil. I went through some major life changes after that and left that career to focus on photography, something I’d always had a passion for. I photographed hundreds of weddings over the course of eight years (and never met a single bridezilla!). During those eight years my daughter went through elementary school and junior high, and by 2015 was in high school. She’s a competitive swimmer and all of her swim meets are on the weekends. The unfortunate thing about wedding photography is that 99% of weddings take place on weekends, so I was missing out on a lot with my kid and wife. It was toward the end of 2015 that I decided to stop shooting weddings, as I knew I only had a limited amount of time left with my daughter before she graduated and left for college. I had no plan on what to do after wedding photography, but fortunately it was around the exact same time that I discovered toy photography. There was already a community of toy photographers on Instagram, but everyone was doing it as a hobby. I immediately saw an opportunity to make it a career, and I never looked back.
What exciting projects do you have coming up?
Toy photography has been interesting in that there is a demand for it on a professional level, but also from kind of a human interest level as well. There is something about toy photography that really resonates with people on a couple of levels. One is that it’s just fun to see toys come to life like they do in my images. There’s also the nostalgia - we all played with toys as kids, and I think seeing a lot of the toys I use (like the Flintstones, Where The Wild Things Are, Scooby Doo) brings a lot of people back to their childhood. So it’s because of this that I get quite a bit of media coverage, like being part of this amazing newsletter (thank you!). Last month I was interviewed live on Chicago’s WGN Morning News, which was incredibly fun! And next month I will be featured in a popular PBS series on SoCal artists, which I’m excited about. Then in June I have a potential opportunity to shoot some toys and hold a workshop in London as part of a movie release PR campaign (for which movie I can’t yet reveal).
What trends do you see in toys or games that excite or worry you?
As a creative person who photographs and loves toys, I have only excitement for the amazing action figures, toys and games that are continually being introduced. We are living in the golden age of toys.
What is the most rewarding part of your job?
It’s definitely being creative on a daily basis, and being able to bring that creativity to my audience and clients. I tell stories for a living, I can’t think of anything better really. Okay, maybe rock star, but that ship has sailed!
Where do you get inspiration and ideas for your photos?
Ideas can come from anywhere, but a lot of them come from pop culture and movies that are out or have been out, children’s stories, observing life, and things that happen in my own life. It comes from so many different places, but generally pop culture and nostalgia are areas where a lot of ideas can come from.
Do you use a lot of digital effects in your images?
I use mostly practical effects, which means they are real and are captured realtime in the camera. So any liquid splashes you see, fire, smoke, flying dirt and debris - it’s all real. I’ve become a professional dirt thrower and water splasher haha! I like to say that Photoshop is used primarily to remove items from an image, not add things in. Of course there are exceptions, like glowing light sabers.
What was your favorite toy or game as a child?
I had several - Hot Wheels, GI Joes and my old Tip It board game. I also had an action figure of an astronaut named Major Matt Matson. Anyone remember those (they’re ancient, like me!)? Instead of today’s amazing action figure articulation they had a wire inside of a rubber body (like the original Gumby) so you could bend his arms and legs in any position you wanted. The problem was that you would bend them so much that the wire would eventually break and poke out of the rubber. I can’t tell you how many times that figure drew blood with those pointy little wires sticking out!
What was your life like growing up?
I grew up just outside of San Francisco. There weren’t any computers or cell phones, an no video games (until we got “Pong!”), so I was always playing outside with my friends. I had a really good friend who lived around the corner from me, like half a block away. All the houses on our block had large pine trees in the backyards so I was able to get to his house by climbing from tree top to tree top, not once touching the ground! I think in those days I spent as much time in trees as I did on the ground.
Do you have any kiddos?
My wife and I have a daughter, Angie. She graduates high school this year and we are deep in the college process as I type this. She’s applied to a lot of out of state schools, but selfishly I hope she stays somewhere in California.
Anything else you’d like to add?
Yes - if what you see here looks interesting to you, try it! It’s just pure and simple fun! You can start with your cell phone - toy photography doesn’t require a lot of fancy equipment. Ultimately it’s just a way to have some fun, get creative and play with toys. The main thing is to not try to do too much too soon. Start with a story. A good story trumps all. Don’t worry about special effects or techniques because that comes with time and practice. An image with a great story that isn’t executed perfectly will always make a more lasting impact than an image with great technique and effects but no story. Try to achieve some kind of emotion in your images.
Mitchel Wu is a Los-Angeles based professional photographer. For more of his awesome work, check out his website and give him a follow on Instagram and like his Facebook page.