Tag Archives: G.I. Joe toy photography

Remembering Andre Blais

I’ve gotten a little used to posting remembrances of G.I. Joe alums from the worlds of animation, comics, and toys, where the departed were born in the 1940s or ’50s. It’s sad, although it makes sense. But I was caught off guard this summer to learn that Andre Blais had died. He didn’t work on G.I. Joe, but for me, he worked around it. Longtime readers of this blog have “met” him, as Andre was my photographer from 2008 to 2017.

That’s a funny term, “my photographer.” We only worked together 15 times, so that’s just one or two sessions per year. But every time I retrieve printouts of the early sample chapters or a PDF on my laptop to show someone what my book looks like, there are Andre’s images. I would spend many hours in the days before a photo shoot gathering toys, thinking about textures and props (or not thinking about textures and props), and emailing Andre and book designer Liz with questions and ideas. They worked at the same studio. That’s how I “found” Andre. He was already there. And after each session I would await a PDF contact sheet, and then the big, uncompressed tiffs, the fruits of our labor. Andre would have spent a week or three turning his RAW files into something that looked good for the client, painting out dead pixels and adjusting color. In a few cases, I would pick a particular shot and ask for a bit of touch up. (Can you take the glare off Stalker’s thigh?)

And months or years later (oh boy, have I been taking forever to get through this book!) when it was time to link a photo from a particular photo shoot, I would pour over that contact sheet and decide which take, which select, would go into the text. For each chapter I make a big, complicated list with notes for designer Liz — what images go roughly with what paragraphs, what images should be after a page turn, or if three images could be smaller and grouped together. By this point, I wasn’t emailing Andre, but I was staring at his work and filled with the satisfaction of having hired a professional. A talented professional. (For a moment in 2005 I considered taking all the photos myself, but just a moment. You can tell a good or lucky amateur shot from a pro’s one. That makes all the difference, even for something basic like a small plastic man standing in front of a sheet of construction paper.)

Some of Andre’s effort was “copy work,” merely photographing a toy in its packaging in a neutral way. We’d spend time deciding on a background color, and any curve or ding in the package was an opportunity for distracting light reflections, so simple shoots were never simple. And some of that copy work was Andre photographing oversize original artwork that wouldn’t fit on my scanner. And that was straightforward enough that on one occasion I left a bunch of art with him and picked it up some months later.

Part of what made our collaboration feel like a bigger deal is that it wasn’t always just me driving to Pawtucket. Twice Andre and I met elsewhere at someone’s home, me having driven from my part of Massachusetts, and him from Rhode Island, to shoot a toy or prototype in their living room. That’s because that nice person was willing to let us in for a morning, but not interested in letting me schlep their valuable artifact to Andre’s studio. (But two times former Hasbro guys did let me schlep their artifacts over, which I returned the next day.)

And once, in 2015, Andre and I met in Texas to photograph a collector’s wares. We flew in separately on Saturday and started shooting, all three of us went to dinner, and Andre and I crashed at a hotel. The next day we shot more, and then headed to their airport to take our separate flights back to MA and RI.

Andre had two jobs. One was full-time photographer and videographer for Gladworks, that firm that’s designing my book. The other was his own wedding photography business. Wedding photography is hard. It’s a kind of photojournalism. When people think of this business, they imagine the staged images of the wedding party standing and looking at the camera. What interests me are the candids, those moments of someone talking to someone else, or someone telling a joke and someone else laughing, or a young kid fidgeting with their fancy clothes. My own wedding took place near my wife’s family, far from our home. We hired a pretty good wedding photographer. I remember sitting in her studio, trying to explain how I wanted the candids to resemble movie publicity photos, sort of effortlessly casual, and yet somehow brilliantly lit and staged. She nodded. Our photos turned out well enough, but I remember thinking of Andre’s photography website and all the gorgeously composed wedding photographs there. And sort of wondering if we should have hired him instead. (And flown him out to California? Yikes, that’s prohibitively expensive. Was he even available?) You have to be invisible to cover someone’s wedding, somehow capturing all the obvious moments without getting in the way or blocking the view. Or during the reception, you have to see everything, and somehow capture all the best moments — the best friend talking with the other best friend, a bit of foreground greenery stepping in from the left and out of focus; the friends from back home standing around and talking in a mini reunion; three older family members sitting and not quite looking at each other but sharing the same warm expression. Looking over his online portfolio in prepping for this blog post, I am very slightly jealous of those lucky couples around New England who had Andre Blais shoot their weddings in the last decade-plus.

One time, maybe around 2016, Andre and I were on a lunch break. We’d been shooting G.I. Joe toys on a cyc in the Gladwords studio room. I was probably eating a tuna sandwich. He pulled out his phone and showed me his new side business. Weddings are tiring, and being a successful wedding photographer means you have no weekends from April through October. Here was a way for Andre to make money while sitting at home! He was starting to upload his images to a few stock photography websites. He had an account. Whenever he went somewhere interesting, he’d be on the lookout for a striking image. Certainly a professional photographer is going to do that anyway, but Andre was looking for images that people or companies might license. You’ve probably landed on those stock image websites when Googling for something specific, stumbling onto a gymnast with a watermark, or a close up of jewels with a watermark. Now imagine you’re putting together a brochure and you need three people smiling in front of a tree, or a kid playing in a sun-dappled sprinkler. Or you’re producing a film and you need a neat sunset as a background plate. Then you’d head to one of these stock sites.

But with the spread of high definition both as a standard, and as something that people casually shoot with that device in their pocket, amateurs and indie filmmakers might need underwater imagery of fish, or that neat sunset not as a still, but as a continuous 30-second clip. Andre knew that common categories were crowded — puppies, smiling kids, athletes in action, flower close-ups — so he was trying to bank quirky and unusual clips. He showed me how many downloads he’d had, and where geographically the downloads were happening. He told me this was starting to ramp up, and rattled off a dollar amount that I can’t recall, but a nice little chunk of change he’d made for uploading and letting-a-stock-company-do-all-the-work with a dozen or three clips. One was, I think, a ’50s wind-up toy robot teetering in place in front of… a glass bowl of… fruit? The robot’s shadow or its reflection on the table was dramatic. Andre explained he took that robot or a few other interesting props wherever he went, because you never knew where you’d see something striking, and he could turn it into a quirky, unusual image or clip — not a kid running through a sprinkler in the grass on a bright summer day, but maybe a low-angle close-up of that toy robot with the sprinkler and the suburban house out of focus behind it. It was incredible to hear about this. I knew Andre had a great eye (my Joe toy pics), and was a crafty problem solver (color and BG choices for those pics), but he was a great businessman, too. And here he was solving a creative problem people didn’t know they had. And a pleasant kind of double-dipping, as Andre might already be on a paying job and could step aside for a minute and shoot something to make him more money, no one offended or the wiser. Did he then aim his camera and videotape some old Americana signage on the wall or a close-up of the pat of butter on his pancakes, while on this very lunch break? I don’t recall, but let’s say “sure.”

Now and then when I’m out and about, or traveling, and I see some overlap of weird but amazing elements — a hotel swimming pool populated by frolicking kids and relaxing adults, one set of legs straight up from the water as a teenager handstands and a few pool toy animals inadvertently migrate toward him or her — I vaguely think of Andre catching such an image, and naming and tagging it (“underwater walk”?), and profiting from it. And I smile.

My main memory of working with Andre is a composite of all of our “regular” shoots (the ones where we didn’t travel), looking for ideas in the junk at Gladworks. The above photo is after some office clean-up, and you’ll note the background is just office stuff. At times it was much more cluttered. But in those shelves and boxes were samples of tile, and paper, and sometimes baskets (Gladworks put together a grocery store wholesaler’s catalog, I think, so Andre one time had just shot a bunch of canned food and plastic fruit with fake grass and baskets on checkered tablecloths). I never prepared fully for our photo shoots. I’d have an idea of which figures would be in front of what kind of background. Sometimes I brought props, but mostly we used Andre’s collection of colored paper or dug around the studio for glass tile, or those baskets, never wanting to quite repeat ourselves. One time he said we should drive to Lorraine Fabrics, a discount shop nearby out of the 1950s. We bought some small samples, a textured yellow-sand piece bigger than a napkin, a pale blue sheet with an almost metallic shimmer, and it felt like art school again. Adventure. New places. Problem solving.

Some time in 2017, Liz told me that Andre had moved to Florida. I didn’t get to say goodbye, but I sent a text after the fact. (My book has survived without him — Gladworks hired a wonderful photographer and we had a shoot in late ’17.) I’m not sure what Andre was up to down south, but I think it was a good move.

Designer Liz tells me that more recently he moved back and was shooting for Hasbro. Ha! I don’t have any specifics, so I can’t speak to this brand or that brand, but the full circle is striking. He had avoided the big H previously. We would chat about product photography — here was Andre taking pictures of toys for me, and he knew people who did that for Hasbro locally, but he didn’t want that. Maybe it was having regular hours, or maybe the money was better combining the full-time photography/videographer Gladworks job with the fulltime-weekend-freelance-owning his own wedding photography business, but Hasbro was lucky to have him. And I wonder if, unknowingly, some toy I see online or in a Hasbro catalog this past year or in the coming months is his.

To Andre’s family, I’m thinking of you. Besides that great eye of his — the wedding couple kissing, leaning a bit forward toward each other, but on a curvature, reflected in the side window and door of the limo that will whisk them away, all in crisp black and white — I’ll miss his willingness to lie on his stomach (not precisely depicted here, but close enough), outside, to capture a dramatic low angle.

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Photoshoot #17

Two weeks back I spent a day and a half at Glad Works so A Real American Book! photographer Tim Marshall could shoot new images for Chapters 12, 18, and 19.

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Photoshoot #16

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Cobra Commander’s lost gun!

G.I. Joe photography by Wes Rollend

1982 Cobra Commander photo by Wes Rollend

I’m pretty sure this hasn’t surfaced previously.  Commonplace is Cobra Commander’s weird blow dryer/flashlight/laser pistol-thing.

G.I. Joe photography by Wes Rollend

1982 Cobra Commander photo by Wes Rollend

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.)

G.I. Joe photography by Wes Rollend

1982 Cobra Commander photo by Wes Rollend

From 1981, here’s Greg Berndtson’s control art for the weapon in question.  This was drawn concurrently with Ron Rudat’s figure turnaround.

Cobra Commander 1982 laser pistol by Greg Berndtson 1

Cobra Commander 1982 laser pistol by Greg Berndtson view 2

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!

Cobra Commander 1982 unproduced grenade gun by Greg Berndtson

Know of any other designed-but-scrapped weapons?

 

 

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G.I. Joe Book Photography – Duke and Spirit

G.I. Joe Duke and Spirit action figures MG0581

G.I. Joe toy photography by Andre Blais for Gladworks

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.

G.I. Joe Duke and Spirit action figures, photo by Andre Blais - MG0590

G.I. Joe toy photography by Andre Blais for Gladworks

G.I. Joe Duke and Spirit action figure photo by Andre Blais - MG0590

G.I. Joe toy photography by Andre Blais for Gladworks

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:

G.I. Joe Duke and Spirit action figure photo by Andre Blais - MG0590

G.I. Joe toy photography by Andre Blais for Gladworks

A few weeks later we tried this shoot again, this time with the belt, but the magic was too difficult to recapture.

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G.I. Joe Book Photography – More Cobra Command

Last time we looked at hooded Cobra Commander.  Today continuing with more outtakes from photoshoot #1 in March 2008 by then-Glad Works photographer Wes Rollend, we’ll look at CC in his battle mask.

G.I. Joe Cobra Commander photo by Wes Rollend

Photo by Wes Rollend

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?

G.I. Joe Cobra Commander photo by Wes Rollend

Photo by Wes Rollend

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.

G.I. Joe Cobra Commander photo by Wes Rollend

Photo by Wes Rollend

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.

G.I. Joe Cobra Commander photo by Wes Rollend

Photo by Wes Rollend

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!

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G.I. Joe Book Photography – Cobra Command

G.I. Joe book Tim Finn photo by Wes Rollend

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.

Tim Finn G.I. Joe book Cobra photo by Wes Rollend

Photo by Wes Rollend

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.

Tim Finn G.I. Joe book Cobra photo by Wes Rollend

Photo by Wes Rollend

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?

Tim Finn G.I. Joe book Cobra photo by Wes Rollend

Photo by Wes Rollend

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.

G.I. Joe book Tim Finn photo by Wes Rollend

Photo by Wes Rollend

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!

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