LEGO

MOTU Studio Photography

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Ever since we’ve had so much time on our hands, I’ve re-arranged my basement to beef up my studio. I’m starting getting into the swing of things with my vintage Masters of the Universe toys. I have tons of pics to share, and some photo tips along the way.

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I recently restored a vintage Castle Grayskull (you can read about the process, including some 3D printed pieces) and I thought the best way to get started with my studio was recreating the end of the original Castle Grayskull television ad from 1982. That end frame that laid out all of the accessories and adventures to behold captured my five year old brain and was the first time an ad got me thinking “you really want this thing”. So after I got every last part of the weapons rack (which wasn’t easy) I set up the castle and pieces as the best I could. The video camera lenses in the 80s are built differently than the 24-70mm lens on my DSLR, so it was tough getting the perspective exactly right. The lighting wasn’t so complicated, I noticed there’s a lack of hard shadows, so I had two remote flashes aimed right up at the ceiling to bounce the light on either side of the castle. You can see where they were situated in the pic below.
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The toughest part was the background. I can’t really pop out to Staples and get a blue backdrop. It would be easy enough to put in whatever background I wanted to in Photoshop, however I knew the light grey weapons and the shadow around the castle would be a pain to cut out digitally, so I used several sheets of blue construction paper at the base. Once I had the right angle, I took to isolating the white and filling in the blue. One of the crutches I had was I intended to age the image to look more like a video freeze frame and less like a 2020 studio shot. I used this tutorial to age the text and the image to look appropriate, and that would hide the seams from where I cut out the white.
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Now that I got that out of my system, I wanted to take some fun photos. I’ll take this opportunity to point out that my He-Man is the recently sold Super7 Filmation style He-Man. I’ve always been a Skeletor guy, so I never had a lot of He-Men, but I knew I needed one for these photos. A complete vintage He-Man from the 80s goes for around $60 or more on eBay, so I went for a close second. I’ve still got my eye out for an original, but this will do for pics.
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There’s nothing quite like Skeletor sitting in the Grayskull throne. When I popped him in there I instantly regressed 35 years. I had a lot of fun putting Moss-Man and Roboto, and Trap-Jaw (and then I got Stinkor) all over the castle to take pics, you can see a bunch below. These were all taken with two flashes bouncing off the ceiling. But I wanted to try some new things.
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I wanted to do a stylized portrait that could be used over and over for each character. I pointed one of the flashes directly at the white wall so it would come through the open door, and then had the second flash bouncing off the ceiling in front of the castle. In Photoshop I added the colored background, red for heroes and purple for the villains. I also removed the other half of the castle digitally. You can see all of these doortraits in the gallery at the bottom.
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I have to admit, after I completed Castle Grayskull I decided to do my part to stimulate the economy and keep buying on eBay. Now I needed to track down Vykron on eBay.
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In the early 80s when the Mattel brand masters were trying to come up with something to compete with Kenner’s Star Wars line, they knew they wanted a hulking barbarian style figure. They knew space and military themes were also popular with young boys. I recommend watching the Toys that Made Us on Netflix. I love all their episodes, but the Masters of the Universe line gave me the inspiration for this pic. The original pitch to the Mattel brass included a couple of Big Jim figures customized to try and see what could be their next big line. This photo of the three prototypes inspired the MOTU Classics Con-Exclusive Vykron. You get one figure, and the armor to make the other two. If someone from Mattel is reading, I’d love if one could buy two more base bodies so I could display all three at one time. I had to take these photos separately and composite them together. I used a tripod to make sure the perspective would match. I tried to replicate the shadows as best I could and actually found it was best to put the flash on the camera and a second for fill to get that low, centralized shadow.
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Now I wanted to play more. I scored this custom Bone Dude off eBay. From what I understand he’s a resin custom by artist Billy Boy. I loved his transparent body and giant skull head. I didn’t have the Slime Pit at the time (and I don’t think he’d fit anyway) so I just used some slime, some playmobil terrain, and played with lighting. I used a green gel on a flash coming from the rear, a fill light from the front, and I had my son hold a flashlight with a focused beam aimed right at the back of his head so he’d be lit up. It was one of the those tactical flashlights where you can make the beam wide or focused. I didn’t like the white background I shot with, so I replaced it with black in Photoshop. The greenlight not only gave the silvery slime some green sheen, but it added accents to the mountain in the background. If I were to do this set-up again I would have just used my black background. The slime was Liquid Metal by Amazing Slime. It’s runny, but thick enough I could take several photos before I had to re-drape him.
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Still with me? There’s a bit more to go! (You can always skip down to the large gallery of pics… For Halloween I grabbed this misting ionizer. It’s much cheaper than a fog machine and runs on just water. It takes some experimentation to get it right, but add some colored light and patience and you can add some real drama and excitement to your toy photos.
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About this time I received the Evil Horde Slime Pit off eBay. I always wanted this set when I was little, but my parents forbid it. I thought I was being real smart and saved up my allowance and birthday money and attempted to buy it on my own, but my request was declined. This also happened with the Mad Scientist Dissect An Alien. (You can read my vindication review here)
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For most of the Slime Pit photos I had the remote flashes aimed from either side, one with a green and the other with a purple gel. I had the ionizer creating “fog” in a bowl just off camera and my son would gently blow a cloud into the frame and I’d click when it looked good.
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I wish I could tell you more about the slime. If I need slime I usually pop over to Five Below, but with quarantine that wasn’t an option. I have a friend who’s daughter is big into slime, so I asked them if they had any green slime they could spare and do a porch drop-off. This slime was absolutely perfect. It looks great on camera, but it oozed so slowly that I could get plenty of shots before needing to adjust it. I love how it contoured over He-Man’s face, and the best part was it cleaned up super easy and went right back into it’s tub. I asked her for her secret recipe but for now know that her secret was using hot water and a little bit more of the slime activator.

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I feel that Skeletor is the perfect villain and this is the best action figure in history. Seriously. I’ll have a blog post about that shortly.

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I admit I cheated for this photo. This is not the classic 80s Skeletor, this is the two-up jumbo sized Skeletor. I saw this at Toy Fair many years ago and always wanted to get my hands on it. THEN, once I had it, all I could think about was busting it open out of its packaging and playing with it. That would instantly decrease the value! How could I be so impulsive?! But, actually, I took an Exacto blade to the bubble and carefully removed him from the packaging in a manner that I can replace him on the card for display. So now that he is liberated I was able to play with lighting and get all the details. Actually the main reason I busted him out was for this video:

I put the camera on a tripod, the giant sized figures on a lazy susan and had two opposing lights aimed on them. One shop light and that high-powered flash light from before. The hardest part was spinning it in a manner that looked smooth.

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This lava pit scene was fun to shoot, but I didn’t quite get what I had in mind. I didn’t get enough of the fog rolling enough so I beefed it up digitally in Photoshop. I set Skeletor at the edge of the table and put a flash on the floor with a red gel. I sat on the floor, shooting upwards.

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One of the main philosophies behind my shooting style (including concerts, models, sports) is that I want to highlight and elevate something that’s been overlooked. I want the view to see my photo of a monster truck leaping in the air and regret their decision to stay home last weekend. I could see that coming through here. I know I don’t have to convince a lot of you reading this article, but I want someone that thinks action figures are for kids, or that they’ve outgrown Skeletor to see one of my photos and think about hitting eBay and tracking down a bit of their childhood.

Thanks for getting this far, I hope there were some helpful tips. And I enjoyed showing off some of my collection. Tag me on Instagram @MillionairePb so I can check out some of your toy photography. And stay tuned for more from the studio. Now here is a huge gallery of pics. (Click here to see the gallery on Flickr if the gallery below is taking too long to load)

MOTU Photo Shoot

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