I’ve been trying to write an introduction for this article for about 20 minutes, but truth be told the fantastic work of Steve Berry aka Robotwig really needs no introduction. Witness his incredible work for yourself. Fascinated by the talent and vision behind Steve’s toy photography I decided to ask him some questions about his process. Including some of his ingenious techniques to create real world elements like clouds, fire and atmosphere that we’re used to seeing on high production movie sets!
What encouraged you to start creating your own movie scenes using toys?
Well, I call myself an unintentional toy photographer, it was something I’d never thought of doing. If you’d have shown me the work I’m currently making back in 2019 I wouldn’t have believed you. I’m a freelance graphic designer by trade but when the pandemic hit all my work dried up as all the businesses I dealt with closed down. I was sent home from a new contract on 18th March 2020 with pretty much no clue what was going to happen. I didn’t know how long I’d be without work I certainly didn’t think it would be up to this current point but, I needed something to do to keep me occupied and I was always interested in doing some studio photography as I’d never done it before and thought it’d be a great way to up skill.
I took a few photos of shampoo bottles, drink cans and about after an hour I’d run out of things to do. So I went into the cupboard and found some bits of Lego I’d got a few Christmas’ back and started to take some photos. Then I thought What if I created movie scenes using these figures (Anyone who follows me on social media or knows me personally knows I have an obsession with the motion pictures so it was going to happen at some point.) and then I created a very poor (by my standards today) rendition of Bishop in Aliens.
I’d not been on social media for a few years since my alternate movie poster illustration days so posted the photo up for a laugh and got a lot of response from it. It was from this response I carried on and developed my “brick” photos by creating famous movie scenes that you’ve probably not seen in Lego before. What really spurred me to carry on was some of the personal messages I was getting from people saying that my work was really cheering them up during this hard time, so my page kind of became a place for people to forget about the external world and have a bit of a giggle. I think it became a sort of comic strip that people looked forward to every day because I always tried to do something different.
I even had one person say I helped them through when they lost one of their parents which was really nice to hear. So I ended up creating an image every single day to cheer up the lockdown masses and it felt good to make others feel happy. I did that for almost a year but my passion was to use more realistic looking figures and try to recreate that atmosphere and energy from some of my own personal favourites.
We love how you create such atmospheric lighting, tell us a bit about this process!
It’s a bit of a difficult question to answer, I’m not sure I approach this type of work in the same way others do. Because I’m from an illustration background I think about a shot that I want to do like I would if I was going to make a painting, my lighting is technically my paintbrush. So there is no particular formation to my lighting its not the same setup each time.
Atmosphere has always been an essential thing for me to create, with my alternate movie posters It was imperative that I caught that feeling of the movie and that would be down to the colour scheme which is exactly the way I work now but instead of paint I use coloured filters over my lights. It’s important that my lighting is telling a story as well as the photo of the character.
I created a version of this famous Alien Scene. One thing that has to be there is the light above from the ventilation system. Then there are probably a few lower level lights coming from the bottom left and maybe another room to the right that’s giving off a warmer light that shows it’s probably safer over there. So I’m really thinking about the light as its own story after I’ve set up the initial scene with the characters.
Gollum is in the mines there’s an ethereal light coming from bottom left I thought it’ll feel a bit unnerving and it nods to the Mordor colour scheme then there’s a cold light coming from above which could be a small opening in the rock that leads to the outside. then there’s a light on Gollums face which suggests ambient light from what’s in front of him.
My story is Chucky has just been purchased left downstairs in the kitchen, It’s around 2am when everyone is asleep so there is moonlight coming through the window which I made using black card and cutting squares out of it. I also shot it at an uncomfortable angle to make him look more sinister.
You have a technique for creating ghost effects, how does that work?
Haha I’m not claiming I made this one up it’s a really old school technique. When I started making these creations I always said I was going to shoot them practically. Digital is a great thing but if you watch an old movie there’s nothing more fun to watch than something that’s actually there, the puppet Raptors in Jurassic park look a million times better than the CGI versions to todays standards. So yes I could have done these digitally and they probably would look better but I’m a sucker for a challenge and you can’t beat an old school technique. So what I do is I set up my ghost and my character and stick a piece of glass in the middle of them so it fills the frame, then light both characters and shazam you have a ghost effect. It’s very simple and a lot of fun to do.
For your recreations, matching the lighting and backgrounds to original scenes can’t be easy, how do you typically achieve this?
That is probably one of the toughest tasks to do. My T2 work was certainly a challenge but I look at the original scene then I break it down, where is the light coming from? What is in the scene?. Not every shot is achievable but I’ll give it a go.
I try to find items around the house to work with because buying anything at the moment is out of the question. So it might be foil for fire, cling film for water, cotton wool for explosions or an illustration for inside any building. I recreated the Trex scene a while back using matchbox cars and a tiny Trex and I had no fence so I used some router antenna with white cotton attached for wire.
Don’t ask me how I come up with these ideas I think I spent too much time watching Art Attack when I was a kid.
Here’s a trick I tried using cotton wool as an explosion, I just popped it in my light put an orange filter on it and that’s it.
I illustrated the houses printed them on a separate sheet then printed the Delta city billboard out and cut it up so it kinda looks 3D.
For many of your scenes, you illustrate the sets and print them. How long does a typical scene usually take you?
It can take quite a long time especially if something needs to be in force perspective which takes a lot of figuring out. Some scenes like the Todd and Janelle scene in T2 took about 3 hours I had to illustrate the whole kitchen then the other room behind it all at force perspective. It’s worth it in the end but it’s very time consuming. My preference is using real items but that’s not always possible especially if you are recreating scenes.
If someone wanted to get into creating movie scenes with toys, what cameras/equipment would you recommend to start?
You don’t need any fancy equipment, there’s a lot of amazing artists out there using their phones to do it. You don’t need a lot of expensive equipment. Luckily I already had my DSLR but now I find I’m using less and less and less equipment as I did when I started out. The most important thing is to have the passion to want to do it and also to create your own style and feel to your work. Just like when you see a poster online and you know who has created it because of the look and feel, it’s the same for this medium. there’s a lot of great people I follow and each person has their unique take on toy art and I think that’s the most important thing.
A few of your recreations include a very realistic moon or skyscape. Talk us through this process.?
When you have no budget you have to improvise but as with the cotton wool explosion, you don’t know if its going to work until you try it. I recreated the ET bike scene using Lego and I have a big round beauty dish that I use I thought what if I printed the moon at the same circumference and stuck it on with a bit of blu tack and it worked. I wasn’t sure it would but it did. So then I created the Batman scene using the same technique and using cotton wool for the clouds
I’ve also dabbled with a few space scenes too so this one was a bit more complicated and it took me a few months to figure out what was the best option. I heard people recommend poking holes in card but that takes forever. I tried water particles which works fairly well but you tend to drench the figure then I thought what about glitter paper. Tried it and it worked.
I’ve tried things before that haven’t worked at all but it’s worth a shot. I also recreated the ET scene where he’s looking down on the town and tried some tin foil to make it look like the city and that worked really well too
Which practical effect do you find the most challenging?
Fake water, that’s a tough one, I’ve used cling film and it kinda works but then it’s so static that you set it all up and the next minute it’s stuck to your back or your hand like some super glue demon.
Which practical effect is the most time consuming to set up?
Again it’d have to be fake water cling film. When you want to create a ripple effect there’s a lot of adding pressure to certain points to try and make it look realistic and it takes a long time to get it right
Which practical effect is the most fun?
FIRE!, Fire is a lot of fun, again I was thinking how could I make fire and I tore some foil up and pointed an orange light at it and there it was in all it’s non flammable glory. I have fun with fire effects
You’ve experimented with a few animations, like the twins from The Shining, do you have any more planned?
Not as yet but maybe in the future if it’s needed. I only tend to animate if the image requires it. With the Grady Twins I wanted to show what Danny saw, so rather than posting two separate images I thought it’d be fun to put them together and freak everyone out. I’ve done a few in the past with the Lego shots of Marty’s hand disappearing in Back to The Future, Lego Jackie Brown going through the airport.
You’ve done a lot of movie mash-ups, do you have a favourite, if so why?
I love a good mash-up, I’m particularly proud of my Xeno Park photography, I had a lot of fun with that but it isn’t entirely original. I have to say The Ghostbusters Go to Halloween Town is my personal favourite because I don’t think it’s ever been done before and I thought that would be the perfect place for the Ghostbusters to visit.
I had Winston asking What’s This? Ray getting overly excited about the size of pumpkins and having a tour with the Mayor, Venkman chatting up Sally and leaving her his number and Egon talking about Dr Finklesteins favourite collections which are of course Spores, molds and fungus.
Do you see yourself creating more elaborate animations in the future, maybe a short film or series?
Probably not, I love creating this stuff but I think with how time consuming animation is, it takes away from the creative aspect that I enjoy the most. The Grady twins animation took me a while to create which took me away from other stuff I wanted to do. I’d love to just keep carrying on creating new and exciting scenes and getting better and better at it as cheesy as this sounds I think this is my calling I’ve never worked so hard on anything like I have on these. I have a real passion for it. Transporting yourself to a world that existed when you were a kid like Jurassic Park is so much fun and I think that others feel that too like they’re getting an exclusive tour. I’m not sure my photos have to move to get that effect but I might be wrong.
Having made what seems like hundreds of pop culture recreations, what would be your first piece of advice for anybody wanting to try this themselves?
You have to have the passion, don’t do it to just gain followers on social media. More importantly find your look and feel. I was looking at a few books and photography examples here and there and I found that more limiting to me. There’s no real rules if something looks great that you’ve made who cares if you didn’t do it as a book said? It’s all about what you want from your work. But again It’s not just about picking up a camera and taking a photo of a toy it’s a lot more than that and if your hearts not in it then it’s probably not for you.