It’s that time of year again, when I list what I did for this book in the last 12 months and apologize that it’s taking so long! Last year in such a blog post I mused on what it’s like to research and write.
Category Archives: Photography
It felt good, a year ago, to put into words all that went into writing this G.I. Joe book, so I’m doing it again. Many things repeat from last year, and a few things are new. And there is — good news — some progress.
I’m pretty sure this hasn’t surfaced previously. Commonplace is Cobra Commander’s weird blow dryer/flashlight/laser pistol-thing.
It came with his 1982 straight-arm figure, and the 1983 swivel-arm retool, and the 1984 mail-in hooded version of the character. (Embarrassing trivia: My brother and I never knew the gun fit into CC’s back! I figured this out in 2008, meaning I should probably call off this whole book thing.)
From 1981, here’s Greg Berndtson’s control art for the weapon in question. This was drawn concurrently with Ron Rudat’s figure turnaround.
And here’s Cobra Commander’s other weapon, the one that wasn’t ever produced and did not come packed with the Cobra Commander action figures!
Know of any other designed-but-scrapped weapons?
Ace lensman Andre Blais came on board just a few weeks after I signed the contract for Gladworks to design my book, and part of the appeal was that he was (and is) in-house there. So in one room there’s designer Liz Sousa at a Mac, and in another is Andre, with a cyc, pro lights and diffusion, tripods, and more. (And a Mac.) I’ll interview him soon for a future blog post.
The general idea for these photos came from the toy photography of Brian Malloy and Erik Hildebrandt in John Michlig‘s G.I. Joe: The Complete Story of America’s Favorite Man of Action. (Regular readers will recognize that book as one of the two main inspirations for A Real American Book.) There are only four “fantasy” shots in Michlig, where the reader point of view is in scale with the 12-inch Joes, but the toys themselves are set against the scale of the man-made world. Rather than product shots, like a catalog displaying toys on a table top (even if the table top is a dressed set), I wanted story moments, like movie stills.
This was also practical. I don’t want to reproduce too many visuals that are commonly available. My book aims to continually show and tell unrevealed facts, anecdotes, and imagery. But whole sections tell the history of people talking and making decisions, but people weren’t taking candid photos of co-workers at the office in 1982. (Which may seem odd compared to today when every cell phone and music player is also a high resolution camera.) If an interviewee recalls making the Snake-Eyes figure, an obvious pairing would be a photo of that figure, or a scan of a concept sketch. But what if there’s no obvious pairing? To break up stretches of history that have no clearly analogous visuals, the solution was to sprinkle in dramatic diorama-style toy photos.
For this photoshoot, I had only a vague idea of where (or why) an image of Duke and Spirit would go. Maybe Chapter 4, when the narrative gets to the second and third waves of toys? Sadly, nothing from this shoot made the final cut. There are two reasons for that: First, I had forgotten to bring Spirit’s belt. I was worried that hardcore fans would dismiss the photo for not being fully accessorized, so I asked Andre to crop above Spirit’s waist, which really limited the composition. Second, the chapter where this photo would go ultimately didn’t need a photo of two action figures in a “fantasy” setting, even if it’s a great photo.
Note the difference in these two — how the golden light from the left adds dimension and warmth to Spirit’s hair, gun-holding arm, and torso. It’s not in the first shot. Here they are together for comparison:
A few weeks later we tried this shoot again, this time with the belt, but the magic was too difficult to recapture.
Dramatic lighting separates Cobra Commander from his two guards. But CC’s pose doesn’t work — he’s too casually holding his pistol. If this is HQ, it doesn’t make sense, if it’s going into battle, why the fancy backdrop?
Change in angle adds drama, and more space between CC and his guards, but now his sigil is in shadow and the right guard’s helmet is clipped.
The vertical here accentuates the proportions of the figures, and by cropping out one guard we’ve honed in. There’s movement, like the two are walking toward us, so CC’s weapon now makes sense. But in general I don’t want vertical shots in my book — just a personal preference — so a choice horizontal one is beat out by this one.
Here we’re trying underlighting, but since we don’t have a proper set-up, with the figures on a grid or a transparent floor, the underlighting is more frontal low-angle. This, combined with the down angle POV, makes the figures look like toys rather than living characters in a fantasy story moment, the kind of photo I’m avoiding.
But to repeat from last week, none of these shots — even the best ones (and these four are just a sample) — made the cut since the slot for a photo of Cobra Commander and two Cobra Soldiers never materialized. But that’s fine, since the writing process is really rewriting, so I along with my editor and designer and photographer Wes and Andre are collectively keeping what works, trimming what doesn’t, and then trimming some of what does for considerations of space.
More photos from both Wes and Andre here soon!