Up until now I’ve only shown artwork here at A Real American Book — pencil drawings, ink designs, offset printed four color paperboard, and such. But no photography. I’d have to get a few clearances to show some of the vintage G.I. Joe-related photos I’ve cataloged while researching, but what is free to show are the original photographs we’ve taken specifically for the book. Or at least, a few that haven’t made the cut. And so here, debuting in public for the first time ever, a couple pictures posed, lit, and shot at Glad Works’ studio in Pawtucket, RI.
The ink on the contract for graphic design services was still drying in March 2008 when we had our first photoshoot. I posed a batch of 1983 Swivel-Arm G.I. Joe figures and photographer Wes Rollend shot for three hours, racking up 250 pictures. At the time I wrote “I’m sure when all is said and done, only nine or ten will make the cut.” With almost half the book laid out, that number has declined, mostly for space reasons, but also because a few shots have replaced those early ones. All I knew then was that a) I had an entire chapter devoted to people at Hasbro making decisions — not product — and no firsthand photos or memos to go with it, and b) sooner or later amidst all the pre-production materials I’d have to show some actual production, mass-produced action figures and vehicles. So I started with some 1982 toys, guessing at what photos we might need later on in Chapters 2 and/or 3.
The photo studio at Glad Works, a room next to the main one where designers click away on Macs, has what you’d expect: a tall ceiling, a makeshift cyc, lights and diffusion, bricks and cinder blocks for making flat surfaces taller or shorter (like a tabletop), fabric for backdrops, and more. Wes played around with lighting (from the side, above, below), and camera angles (low, eye-level), and backdrops. Plus we had two Cobra Commanders to choose from.
This first one above has a great composition, depth, and a bit of menace from the foreground soldier. The backdrop maroon nicely echoes the Cobra sigil. But we’re cropped in too closely, so we lose the sense that the Soldier is holding a rifle. But this does manage to be both about product — you can tell they’re plastic toys — as well as fantasy — this is a story moment during some kind of speech. So I still like it very much.
This second one tries the other end of the rack focus from the previous shot. But it doesn’t work much better — there’s a clearer sense of the Cobra Soldier holding his rifle, but he’s too out of focus, and therefore too ambiguous. The background isn’t distracting, but it’s also not adding anything. Maybe if I’d built a little throne?
This third one introduces the second soldier, and in a way I’m channeling the bit from 1987’s G.I. Joe: The Movie where two Crimson Guards stand in front of Serpentor. But the composition flattens out — the distance between the two guards and the Commander is uninteresting — they’re about the same size, and they’re all in about the same pose. And the added gap between CC and the second guard doesn’t do anything.
Now we’re getting somewhere. The two guards are cropped too much, as is CC’s hand, but I like this one as a balance between the dynamism of the first two and the concept of the third.
Again, none of these above made the cut, and this does not take away anything from Wes’ fine skills. He took 35 photos of this trio, knowing I would file down the selection to one, so of course there would be some duds. In this first attempt we were figuring out what was possible, and getting a sense of what I wanted. Ultimately the book has little need for a toy photo of Cobra Commander and two Cobra Soldiers, as nice as these are and as majestic as that background is.
The book project seemed to suffer a setback when just after this shoot, Wes moved on to another company. But things worked out, as photographer Andre Blais joined Glad Works soon after and has handled photoshoots 2 through 9. More outtakes from both Wes and Andre here soon!