“I really loved the end results, and a few figures became a pretty awesome collection, and the few early test photos became a very fun ongoing series,” continues Picard, whose works have been collected in the art book “Figure Fantasy” (Insight Editions).
Fast-forward to this week, with Picard lending his ideal style to “The Rise of the Black Superhero,” a Washington Post Magazine cover story and interactive graphic story by Comic Riffs that features his lifelike staged settings with such action figures as the Black Panther and Samuel L. Jackson’s Nick Fury.
Comic Riffs caught up with Picard to talk about how he creates such small, magical worlds with toys, a lens and an expert eye.
MICHAEL CAVNA: So anyone who can work with action figures as if they’re practically real actors — from blocking to posing — surely must be a collector. Do you collect action figures yourself?
DANIEL PICARD: For the past six years, I’ve been collecting 1:6 scale figures made from companies like Hot Toys and Sideshow Collectibles. They are about the size of Barbies but super-detailed and posable, and are the main “actors” in my ongoing photo series.
MC: Do you remember who your first action figure was — as a kid and as a “grownup”?
DP: I don’t remember my first action figure, but my all-time favorite that I received very early on — and that was always included in my stories — was my first-generation Optimus Prime from the Transformers series, which I’m happy to say is still with me 30 years later! I then stopped collecting during high school, but started back again six years ago with a 12-inch Star Wars Stormtrooper that I bought in order to start my life-size toys photos.
MC: You seem to have carved out a brilliant niche as a master of action-figure scenes that read like semi-lifelike dioramas with all the drama of a Hollywood set piece. How did you get into this aspect of illustration — I don’t imagine it was your major at art school, unless you studied animation modeling and rigging — and how did you grow a market for it?
DP: I never studied anything like animation and rigging. Even photography was self-taught about nine years ago, for the simple reason that I wanted to capture the pregnancy and the early years of our [arriving] daughter the best that I could. I really enjoyed photography as a hobby right away, and wanted to see what else I could shoot. I tried fashion and architecture for a while and although I quite liked it, something in me wanted to tell stories. … I’m currently working on photo No. 183 this week.
MC: So speaking of lifelike, your Nick Fury modeling is especially eerie for The Post Magazine’s splash page, as if a mini-Samuel L. Jackson himself posed for you. Can you tell us about what goes into creating a look and scene like that?
DP: Most of the realism in my photos comes from the camera angles, the poses and the lighting. For Nick, I made him big, imposing and looking down at us right into our eyes, which right there is not something you see and feel when you have that six-inch toy in your hand. Having him sit quite naturally is also something you wouldn’t expect from a little toy and that was my biggest challenge in that whole scene. Also the lighting in the room is quite flattering to the figures because the large broken windows were behind me, quite high up and to the left, so it gave the figures nice bright and dark areas for some added depth. The quality of the figures is important as well and that little Nick Fury was pretty well made!
MC: So this project was largely written and illustrated by pop-culture geeks. Would you consider yourself a pop geek, and what do you like to collect now? Any particularly prized toys or figures or other related items?
DP: I’m a pretty big pop-culture geek and I do read lots of comic books, watch cartoons, movies and TV shows, but I also love to research a subject that I don’t yet know about but I feel that I should. A great example would be the Black Panther character that I used for the The Washington Post Magazine’s running-in-the-tunnel photo. I didn’t know much about him until last month, but now that I’ve shot the toy and he’ll be in the next Captain America movie soon, I wanted to learn a lot about him so I’ve watched his animated cartoon series and read a bunch of his comics and online bios. I try to do that for every figure that I have or [am] interested in getting to see if there’s any character traits or powers or special scenes in their movies I could use or make fun of in my own photos.
Apart from my 12-inch figures, I also collect statues from Sideshow Collectibles that are now also being used as “actors” in my photos. I don’t have a favorite item in my collection, but I can say that those statues get the most reactions when people visit my office/studio/museum. But to be fair, it’s hard not to be in awe looking at those two massive 33-inch, shiny metallic works of art like my Marvel’s Galactus and X-Men’s Sentinel.
My favorite figure to shoot though is my Star Wars Battle Droid. I’ve featured droids many times in my photos, because they are just so cute, and they are so well-articulated that they make whatever pose I’m envisioning “doable.”
MC: Where did you study art, and when did you know you wanted to be an artist? Was there a “light bulb” epiphany, or perhaps a growing awareness?
DP: I studied graphic design in Ottawa, Canada. I’ve been a graphic designer for an advertising agency in Toronto for almost 20 years now, and that’s where I developed my photo retouching skills.
I’ve always loved drawing and painting and I wanted to be a comic-book artist when I was a kid, but I guess all those hundreds of stories in my head had to wait until I started photography to trigger that creative spark to let them come out. I remember in college being really turned off by the photography classes because we used film back then, and I didn’t care too much about the developing process and the waiting around to see what the photos looked like. Digital SLRs started being affordable when I was ready to really try photography, and capture my baby girl growing up. I was hooked instantly.
The “light bulb” went on after the first toy photo. I didn’t fully understand at first or guess what I could eventually be doing with these figures because the first photos were pretty basic, but I knew I had found my way to express myself and tell fun stories in a new, imaginative way.
MC: Were you influenced by any particular artists?
DP: I don’t really have any particular artists who influenced me, but I tend to be more impressed with comic-book and movie-storyboard artists than photographers. I love how they can tell a whole scene in one drawing using the perfect camera angles and their characters’ poses, because that’s exactly what I’m doing in my photos. Plus, all my photos start with sketches I draw on my iPad. So even though the end results are photos shot on locations using real toys, to me when it’s all done and I see the millions of pixels on my monitor of the finished scenes, all I see are just very realistic renditions of my original little drawings.
MC: What’s the coolest action figure project you’ve ever produced?
DP: My coolest project so far has to be the book Insight Editions published of my photos last summer, titled “Figure Fantasy.” I’m so proud of that book, and I smile every time I see it on its stand in my office. It’s a collection of 60 photos using my figures shot in locations around Ottawa — mostly at the Diefenbunker — in California and a few other places in Ontario and Quebec.
I am currently working hard on a lot of new photos that will hopefully make their way into a second book. NYC and the Sideshow Collectibles statues will be a big part of those new photos, and I can’t wait to see what people think!
MC: What’s the one collectible you’d most like to get your hands on and haven’t been able to, or can’t — and why is it so prized to you?
DP: I can’t imagine how cool it would be to own a real miniature model of a building or vehicle that was used in a movie I love. Something like a “Lord of the Rings” castle or the original “Star Wars” Millennium Falcon at whatever scale they built those real models to film their scenes. It would be so awesome to have — plus it would look so amazing in my photos!