Santa Clarita photographer uses real effects to make toys come to life

Toy Story characters make a splash into a coffee cup. Photo by Mitchel Wu Photography.
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With a few wires, some lighting tools and lots of real-life effects, Valencia-based toy photographer Mitchel Wu creates lifelike scenes using some of the world’s favorite characters.

His photos are captured in real time and include characters like Woody from “Toy Story” and Kermit the Frog from “The Muppets” splashing coffee, balancing on wires, flying over tables, kicking up dirt and floating in mid-air.

“I really try to push the story aspects and come up with different ideas and hopefully have the techniques or effects to support it,” Wu said.  “If I can capture emotion and some sense of motion, which is like an illusion, and a good idea, then I feel like I’m going to like it a lot.”

The Hulk blows a dandelion into the air. Photo by Mitchel Wu Photography.

A little more than a year ago, Wu opted to leave his seven-year career in wedding photography and portrait photography to spend the weekends with his wife and daughter, a sophomore at Valencia High School.  Around the same time, his nephew introduced him to the world of toy photography.

“He lent me a couple toys and that was it and the start of it,” Wu said.  “I definitely enjoyed storytelling and photography, so when I was introduced to toy photography I thought this was the perfect medium to tell stories.”

With a degree in illustration, a background in wedding photography and a career in Disney’s product design and development department, Wu had the background and tools needed to jump into toy photography right away.

“For most people that do toy photography it started with the love of toys and collecting toys and that was the way of sharing their collection with the toy community,” Wu said.  “I came at it from a slightly different angle where I had all the camera gear, but I had none of the toys.”

Toy photographer Mitchel Wu poses with two stormtroopers. Photo by Mitchel Wu Photography.

After dedicating a year to honing his craft and developing his own style, Wu began to build up his following on Instagram and tapped into the international community of toy photography.

“That’s where toy photography really lives is on Instagram and there is a whole community and everyone shares photos,” he said.  “It’s all over the world, but for people who don’t know about it, they rarely see it.”

His Instagram photos drew attention from companies like The Walt Disney Co., Pixar, Mattel and The LEGO Group who have all featured his photos as well.  He has also gained notoriety in the press, with features in newspapers, magazines, blogs and websites around the world.

Creating the Scene

To create the lifelike scenes, Wu draws inspiration from the characters’ own adventures and uses their original appearances in movies and books as a “jumping off point” for his photos.

“When I was with Disney I worked with Pixar.  I have a deep respect for the storytellers and the animators so I’ll always try to keep them in character,” Wu said.  “So whatever you see that I’m doing, it’s not hard to imagine them doing that in their world.”

The alien from “Alien” floats in mid-air at Vasquez Rocks. Photo by Mitchel Wu Photography.

He also likes to put the characters is unexpected poses, like an alien from “Alien” floating peacefully in a meditation pose near Vasquez Rocks.

“It’s one of my favorites, it’s totally unexpected,” he said.

In order to capture the photos, Wu sometimes shoots more than 100 frames while tossing dirt, cracking eggs, blowing bubbles, splashing water and lighting fire into the scenes.

“I like to have a lot of choices,” he said.  “You learn tricks, like the wireless shutter is key to doing this because I have to be closer to the scene.”

Kermit the Frog splashes water with his friend. Photo by Mitchel Wu Photography.

Wu uses the toys’ natural movements to place them in scenes.  His only manipulation is a few small holes he drills into the toys’ backs in order to make them fly or float.

“I don’t do anything to the toys.  I’ll use them to what their limits are,” he said.  “I just work with what they give me and with the expressions on the face.”

Wu said some of his favorite shots are ones that tell a compelling story and represent a professional milestone.

“The one of Bullseye kicking the water over on Woody was a milestone for me because I had never done that type of effect before and it was huge,” he said.  “Buzz Lightyear flying over the table with the stuff coming up was the one that Pixar featured… that was a milestone with pushing it to make it fly.”

“Toy Story” character Bullseye kicks a glass of water over Woody’s head. Photo by Mitchel Wu Photography.

Unexpectedly, he also created a trend of characters punching or kicking hot dogs after he featured a photo of Rocky punching raw hot dogs, as an ode to the “Rocky” meat locker movie scene, on his Instagram account.

“I had never seen anyone doing a ‘Rocky’ scene or punching hotdogs, but after I did that there were several different images of characters kicking hotdogs or punching hotdogs,” he said.

From his online success, Wu has gained sponsorships with companies like Manfrotto, Lowepro, Spider Pro, Atmosphere Aerosol, MagMod and SOG Knives, and clients like Mattel and IAmElemental.

In the future, Wu hopes to find additional toy photography clients and start workshops and tutorials for other photographers to learn how to capture similar scenes.

However, the most important element for Wu is “bridging the gap between sculpted pieces of plastic and the stories in one’s head,” according to his website.

“Out of all the photography I’ve done this is the most satisfying,” Wu said.

To see more of Wu’s toy photography visit his website at or his Instagram @mitchelwuphotography.

[email protected]
On Twitter as @_ChristinaCox_

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