Iconic Toy Photographer Mitchel Wu discusses playing with ideas and displaying his work

Mitchel Wu

Great to see you, Mitch. I guess, because we stay in touch, it’s a surprise to see we haven’t spoken on the record since 2020. Are you well?
I am, I am, and so pleased to be doing this! 2020 though? I can’t believe that! And are you good?

I ammmm, thank you, but weirdly – all day today – I’ve been feeling nauseated and dizzy! So if I suddenly have to disappear…
Nauseated and dizzy? Is that because you knew you were going to be talking to me?

Ha! “Oh my God. I gotta talk to Mitch… I don’t feel so good!” No… But if it WAS that, it would only be because I’m nervous in the presence of greatness.
Ha! Where’s my wife? Ha! She needs to hear this stuff…

Ha! I’ll leave that in; she can read it! So! In our last interview, you told me how you sometimes have a toy for ages while ideas percolate. People can read that chat here. It happened with a C-3PO image, and one of General Grievous… Have you got another example of that creative approach?
Oh, for sure – that definitely happened with Mike Wazowski using the Visine. I don’t remember what those figures were, but they were very stiff. Maybe they were cake toppers… But I had them sitting on my desk for months certainly; probably a year… Just trying to figure out what I would do with it. And so the thought process exactly was: for me, the interest is Mike Wazowski. Okay. Why? What makes Mike Wazowski interesting? He’s got one big eye. But that never really clicked with anything until it was springtime and I had allergies.

Mitchel Wu

No?!
Yes! I was rubbing my eyes all the time. And that’s where that image was born. That’s where it came from. And I have another eye idea for Mike… I haven’t got to it yet, but when I was a kid, probably in elementary school, I ended up getting glasses. And you wear glasses, Deej, so you might know the big insult at school was, “Hey, four eyes!” Did you ever get that?

Sadly, yes. Teachers can be so cruel…
Ha! Well, I haven’t done this idea yet, but I I need to find or build glasses with just one lens… So Mike Wazowski is being called two eyes! Ha!

Ha! That’s GREAT!
I have one more similar story on how I came up with an idea. And it had to do with an image for Disney UK. They wanted me to create some images for Toy Story 4. And the image that came out of that, that’s still one of my favourites, is Duke Caboom kicking over a glass of milk onto Forky’s cookie. That’s actually in the show in Oklahoma City. But I wanted to do something else with Forky; just for myself, although I had no idea what it’d be.

For that reason, I dragged Forky along wherever I went around the house, just to see if it could spark some ideas. Then, one morning, I was having breakfast with my wife Rachel, and I had Forky sitting there on the table. I was thinking to myself, open single ‘Okay: Forky is a spork – a spoon and a fork combined…’ And the idea just hit me like a sledgehammer! I said, “Oh, I got it!” and ran to a little storage closet and grabbed a plastic picnic fork and spoon. Then I brought them to the table and began laughing uncontrollably! That’s where the image came from; Forky realising where he came from. It’s like, “Mum! Dad!” – and that was it.

Brilliant. I love the way your brain works. It’s different for client work, presumably?
Oh yes… With the client work, you don’t often have the luxury of unfettered wackiness, and months of waiting for inspiration to strike. So yes – only with my own personal work can I wait for inspiration.

And let’s talk a little about your professional work, Mitch. What’s been keeping you busy recently?
There are a couple of things you might appreciate! My most recent project was actually for the BBC, for their smash animated series Bluey… They contacted me a few months ago with this project, which is a wedding photo…

Mitchel Wu

Oh, wow!
This is a project I love for a couple of reasons. First, because I’ve always wanted to work on Bluey ever since I became aware of it… It’s such a perfect fit for my brand and style of toy photography. Second is the really ironic part, because before I started photographing toys, I photographed weddings – hundreds of them – over seven years or so. But when my daughter was swimming competitively, and about to go into high school in 2015, I realised I was likely to miss out on a lot of stuff because I was always shooting weddings on the weekends.

So… I knew 2015 was gonna be my last year shooting weddings, but I didn’t know what I was going to do. The irony is that when I found toy photography, I was relieved for two reasons… One, because I could spend more time with my daughter at the weekend; and two, that I would never have to shoot another wedding! I shot my last one in November 2015. Flash forward to 2024, I’m getting contacted by the BBC for a specific episode of Bluey – where two of their beloved characters, Uncle Rad and Frisky, were getting married!

Ha! Well, that’s a real feather in the cap, Mitch. That show is off the scale.
Thank you. And it was a huge episode for them, too… The fan speculation and excitement around it were mind blowing. So yes, I got to shoot the wedding of these two characters, and it was just great. I loved that there was so much excitement around this – and I loved the irony of shooting a wedding again.

I’m curious about that… Is there no romance in wedding photography? I mean, did you used to look at the bride and groom and think, “Awww! They’re so in love! I must capture every cherishable moment!” Or is it like, “Just stand under the damn tree and wait for the cloud to move!”
Ha! Well, I’m not cynical about weddings at all. Mostly, I thought they were pretty amazing. And in all the weddings I shot, I never, ever saw a Bridezilla… But I have come across Mumzillas!

Oh! Really? Mothers of the bride? Mothers of the groom?
Mothers of the bride were really the ones to watch out for. They were often quite demanding. But I get it! They have a specific vision and they really do think they know what’s got to happen… So they’d actually tell me, “Go over there and get that angle!” But no, some of the weddings were actually quite emotional.

Mitchel Wu

Well, as long as you didn’t have any trouble with Frisky’s mum on the Bluey shoot… And as well as Bluey, you were telling me about The Science Museum of Oklahoma?
Well, you know, I hate to be ‘that guy’ but they’re actually very specific about their name: there’s no ‘the’ – and there’s no ‘of’! It’s Science Museum Oklahoma. I just call it SMO; that’s the easiest.

Oh, okay! Science Museum Oklahoma… Were they saving money on the sign?! And how did that come about, Mitch?
That came about thanks to Azhelle Wade, The Toy Coach. In 2021, she reached out and said she was curating a BIPOC group show at SMO called Designing for Play. She was getting some toy designers together, and she wanted one toy photographer.

So the creator of Little Rebels, Marjorie Spitalnik, was part of it. She had some of the Little Rebels dolls on display; they’re based on amazing, trailblazing women throughout history. I did something similar; I chose several of my images to display – the primary one being Eve trying to blast Wall-E with a ray gun. And then – next to it – there was a pedestal with my actual setup.

So it’s not just the image? It’s how you made it; a behind the scenes re-creation?
Yes. I sent over the Wall-E and Eve toys and instructed them on how to set it up. And with a couple of revisions on my part from photos, they nailed it. And it just so happened that this display was situated next to the office of Alyson Atchison; curator for the museums ‘smART Space’ galleries. Alyson kept hearing kids and parents showing a lot of excitement about this setup.

Long story short, that eventually led to Alyson and I talking about the show that’s currently at Science Museum Oklahoma. It’s called Out of the Toy Box.

Out of the Toy Box – perfect name. What’s the concept of the show? How are they framing it as science?
That’s a very good question and it’s something we addressed from the very beginning. It goes back to the overall concept which is the importance of play – in children and adults. But the way the prints were positioned was that these are some of my favourite images from my career. And I did choose to feature the very first toy photo I ever took…

Mitchel Wu

Remind me, what was your first one?
Well, it was my nephew, actually, that introduced me to toy photography. He took me to a park and leant me a couple of Star Wars stormtroopers; Samurai stormtroopers. I just placed them in the crook of a tree and took the photo… I see some issues with it in hindsight, particularly in terms of scale of the leaves, but it was a pivotal moment… I knew I wasn’t going to shoot anymore weddings; I was going to shoot toys. Anyway! What’s cool about this exhibit is that it really builds on the recreation idea in the earlier one.

Because it features more re-creations?
Right. 55 images in total, and 12 re-creations showing how I set things up behind the scenes… As you know, Deej, I have the toys set up on wires and I’ll usually have some practical effects with dirt, water – or whatever. So the museum set up all the prints and put the pedestals in position. Then Rachel and I went, almost a week prior, so we could set up the toys and environmental elements for the behind the scenes.

Amazing!
So that’s what I think is really cool and unique about the show: we’re giving the audience a glimpse into how I created these images. Then there are plaques that give my thought process and what inspired me to do it… Just some little insight into the way I think. But when you look at setups like that right next to the finished image, and see where it came from, it’s a different experience… Because it’s easier to imagine how this set up on the pedestal could end up being this image on the wall, and some people find it astonishing…

Mitchel Wu

I think MOST people would find it astonishing! Including me, because – when we first met at New York Toy Fair – I was absolutely blown away…
On the Schleich stand or at the exhibit?

Well, both – but we met on the Schleich stand; you were demonstrating how you did the shots… Showing your process with a dragon, a can of air and some water. I just loved it! And I didn’t tell you this before, but I had an awful headache when I arrived and, really, I was in no mood for it!
I didn’t know this!

No! But I arrived on the stand and Lana West explained what Schleich was doing… As an aside, Mitch, what a shame she left the toy industry…
Oh, I completely agree with you!

Right?! What an amazing ambassador for that brand…
Absolutely, one of the best. 100 percent, 100 percent.

Mitchel Wu

Anyway, what I was going to say was that – having seen you at work on that stand – my headache had completely gone. It’s like I got a hit of serotonin and cured the headache! But seeing behind the scenes is like watching a magician reveal his tricks – without the disappointment! Do you have any plans to do that again?
Well, I’m glad you asked! In July, the plan is for me to go back to Science Museum Oklahoma and give a workshop. But yes, what I did with Schleich I’d love to do again. I’m always open to that. I always love giving a glimpse behind the curtain, like The Wizard of Oz… The difference being that I want to tell all my secrets! I love showing people how I do what I do because I’m up there playing and trying to encourage other people to play. And I love to make it look like it’s not really difficult.

Isn’t it difficult, though?!
Not to try! You can get your cell phone, you could get some toys, go out into your kitchen or your backyard, just start shooting. That’s how it starts – just with your cell phone and a toy in the backyard; no lights, no fancy camera… Not necessarily any crazy practical effects – just going out there and shooting a toy and maybe telling a story. And if I can get more people to do that just by showing some simple techniques, that’s fantastic.

Well, every so often I think of an idea that might make me smile as a photo so next time that happens, I’ll do it.
You should! Like I always say, don’t worry about the technical stuff – that’ll come when you shoot more. But what really resonates with me is seeing a story being told. To me, that’s way better than seeing amazing explosions and flawless technique that ultimately says nothing to me. You know, it’s like watching a summer blockbuster at the cinema… I’ve gone to so many where I can’t even remember what I saw a week later. Whereas there are movies like Joker… That one blew me away. Very few effects when compared to other open single ’superhero movies’, but really memorable. That shows you can create stories in that kind of universe that will be remembered forever.

You’ve made me think about the epic scale of Steven Spielberg’s movies… He tells these incredible stories with an emotion a minute! But almost every film has some tiny little detail that’s just as memorable than the biggest stunt. It’s the small moments that resonate…
Like the water in the glass in Jurassic Park…

Mitchel Wu

Exactly, and the glowing finger in ET, the hand gesture in Close Encounters of the Third Kind…
Right!

…the little girl in the red coat from Schindler’s List. Heartbreaking. These smaller moments really resonate – and I think that’s comparable to your work; it might be what separates you from other toy photographers… They can be small ideas that are hugely relatable.
I would just like to clarify… You’re saying I’m the Steven Spielberg of toy photography?

Ha! Yes. I’m…Ha! I don’t know if it’s useful to you, but you can quote me on that; that’s exactly what I’m saying! How about that?!
Or are you more correctly saying that Steven Spielberg is the Mitchel Wu of moviemaking? Ha!

Ha! Why not?! All I know is I wouldn’t feel nauseated and dizzy talking to him! I meant to ask you earlier: were you always ‘indoors’ as a child, Mitch? Tinkering with cameras? Playing on computers?
No, actually; quite the opposite. This is one of the reasons I talk about the importance of play for kids. Because when I grew up, we didn’t have iPhones or iPads… I barely had the computer game Pong! For the most part, I was outside playing in the dirt, playing with sticks, racing Hot Wheels – and climbing trees. My dad still lives in the house where I grew up. It’s surrounded by the most amazing trees – I just loved climbing them! In fact – at the time – my best friend lived down the street and round the corner – almost half a block away… But I could climb trees all the way to his house without touching the ground!

Oh, that’s the coolest thing!
I know! It was so cool! So yes, when we weren’t playing in the dirt, we were climbing in the trees. I also think climbing trees explains why I can do as many pull-ups as I can! Anyway, I feel like there’s huge value in real, active play over sitting there on a screen or a phone… Because I feel like when kids and adults play on phones or watch movies or TV, they’re just being told stories. You’re being told who these characters are, and what they do and what their personalities are… And that’s fine, but you are just being given a narrative.

But not when you’re playing?
Right. When kids play, they do all those things for themselves. They make up games as they go, create their own characters and stories, and come up with the challenges of the play. Watching kids play always blows my mind because they’ll be totally immersed, almost imagining it’s real. And all of a sudden, a mum could say, “Hey, Johnny! Come here and do this…” And the kid’ll snap right out of it. He’ll be back in the real world. And then as soon as mum lets him go, he’ll immediately go back to that world of imagination. As adults, we obviously get away from it. But I think those are the things that you miss out on when you’re looking at a screen.

Mitchel Wu

This is so interesting to me, Mitch, I can’t tell you! We need to start wrapping things up, but tell me: until when does Out of the Toy Box run?
It’s open now and it should run until around August 2025. It’s a long show so you have plenty of time to make your way to Oklahoma City and check it out… And not be in the middle of tornado season!

Oh yes! You said about that; you narrowly dodged some didn’t you, when you were there?
We did, yes, we just missed three that hit the day we left. The thing is I’ve had a phobia of tornadoes since I was a kid. When I was very small, I watched The Wizard of Oz, and from that I used to have nightmares about them. I mean, they REALLY nailed the effects in that movie… Even to this day, it still looks great.

I’d have to look up how they did that effect; it would have to be in camera. And The Wizard of Oz was quite dangerous to work on! One of the theatrical flashes set fire to the actress playing the witch; Margaret Hamilton. She got quite bad burns. The first actor to play the Tin Man got poisoned by the aluminium powder they were putting on his skin… It was all pretty brutal.
I didn’t know that!

People were ready to suffer for their art in those days, Mitch! Of which – and witch – what’s next for you?
I’m going to keep doing the client work. I’m going to keep doing the personal work. But having this experience with Science Museum Oklahoma has been a revelation. I’d love to dig into displaying my work a little deeper. There’s something about being in front of a large print, especially if there’s the behind the scenes on the pedestal, and having people interact with the image in that way… As opposed to quickly thumbing by on social media on a tiny screen.

Right. With your work, there’s a world of difference between people scrolling through it and saying, “I saw an image” and someone seeing it in a gallery and saying “I appreciate the art.” And actually, Mitch, I think that’s the perfect place to sign off because I’ve seen the images, I appreciate the art; I’ve seen the behind-the-scenes and I revere the work… So anybody else that hasn’t seen the images should hurry along too – let me get this right! Science Museum Oklahoma!

Mitchel Wu

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