As toy fans, there’s something magical about constructing dioramas. We arrange our precious collectibles in such a way to tell a story or simply showcase them. Often they’re done for our own enjoyment but all fans can appreciate the really elaborate creations. I used to think I had a knack for building such scenes. After stumbling upon the work of artist Bobby Sussman, I can easily say he’s a master at this toy-based specialty.
For almost a full year Bobby has been recreating the 1980 Star Wars film The Empire Strikes Back with action figures and handmade sets. He then captures the scenes with his trusty iPhone 4s and posts the photo collages to Instagram. I caught up with Bobby via email for an interview about his process and the inspiration behind this project.
I’m thoroughly enjoying your toy recreations of The Empire Strikes Back. What inspired you to do this photo series? And why ESB in particular?
Thank you. I’m glad you are enjoying them. I am so pleased that it’s getting such a positive response. ESB is, hands down, my favorite film of all time. Star Wars or otherwise. It has always been a favorite of mine and as a collector I have gone out of my way to collect as many figures from it to recreate on my personal displays, now formally known as Bobby’s Toy Shelf thanks to social networking.
This recreation series all started from a little setup I did almost a year ago. For Christmas I was given the 2011 TRU exclusive Rebel Transport Speeder. It was a toy I was excited about, but unlike other toys I have been featuring in my Instagram feed I didn’t think it would stand up being photographed by itself. After all, it’s a guy in a tan jumpsuit wearing a bowl driving a kitchen island. So I set up a little Yavin hangar scene with my X-Wing as well as any figures I had that were featured in that scene.
After having some successful feedback on that series, I decide to continue along those lines by shooting a series around another one of my Christmas gifts: Target exclusive The Search for Luke Skywalker. Hoth Han on his Tauntaun coming into the Echo Base hanger featuring most of the same pieces I had from Yavin but giving me a chance to get out my BMF and my 2010 Snowspeeder.
From that point, I just kept going with Empire. I skipped major lines of dialogue and key scenes due to a lack of having those figure. My desire for complete coverage kept expanding and by the time we got to “Hurry up, goldenrod, or you’re going to be a permanent resident!” I was breaking down the scenes and trying my best to match the shots.
Your sets seem to be increasingly more detailed and elaborate. The Carbon Freezing Room in particular looks amazing. How much time do you spend building the sets?
Thanks. I’m very proud of that set. Originally, I was doing this recreation with just whatever I had around the house. I had marshmallows for snowbanks and originally shot potatoes as asteroids. My earliest backdrops were even towels. I tried to keep to tight shots and focus on the characters so not to draw attention to my partial sets. I believe it was that technique which is what made the original trilogy so incredible. Make it about the story and not the backdrop.
I began to find others who had done similar sets on the internet, such as Frank Diorio’s site diorama workshop.com. I had been a follower of his recreations for 10 years now and he was my inspiration for accuracy for my sets.
I began work on the Carbon Freezing set at the beginning of Summer 2012 and after working on it part time here and there it was finished in about 3 months time. I would have finished it much sooner but I knew I didn’t need it until late September when I would have to be featuring those pictures.
In regard to the toys, which series of figures do you use most frequently?
I have found myself using a great deal of figures from The Vintage Collection for this recreation. Honestly, I’ll use whichever figures is best for the images, but Vintage always seems to be that one.
I have a fixed display in my Toy Room. It’s three tiers of Ultrama displays which each represent a film from the Original Trilogy. Over the years, I keep upgrading the figures as better ones come along as Hasbro goes back to redo core figures. Recently on my New Hope shelf, I was able to replace my original POTF2 Tarkin with the recent Vintage figure.
I’ve noticed from other photos that you own the original, vintage Kenner figs. Did you ever consider using those exclusively? Have you included any vintage figs in these ESB shots?
Those figures are the actual ones I collected in my childhood and will always be very precious to me. I’ve been wishing recently that I had a Kenner Bespin Guard to add to the background of the Carbon Freezing series I shot, but that is for more of an in-joke.
As wonderful as the memories of my original collection are, they are not the best figures for the job. I’ve even upgraded core figures midway through the series as better designs have been released. My POTJ Bespin Capture Han was swapped out mid-asteroid field with the better Vintage Collection one that was just released during that time. By the time I posted my first picture of Bespin Leia in the window of Cloud City I had just replaced the POTF2 one in the next picture again with the then just released Vintage one. I did wish the upcoming 2013 release of Vader deflecting Han’s blaster shot was already in my collection for when I had recreated that scene, but I haven’t taken apart my set for the Cloud City dinning room so maybe I’ll sneak in a Special Edition shot one day.
Are there any photos you wish you could go back and redo?
Oh, that is a good question! I am full of regrets when I look back at my first months of pictures. I wasn’t even trying to do backgrounds back then and all of Hoth is shot just in wide open spaces in my home. You see door frames and windows everywhere.
I am considering redoing the first half of the series with better sets and missing scenes. Luke is completely absent in the beginning up until Han finds him in the blizzard. I have recently acquired the Star Wars Saga wave Wampa and matching Luke with their ice cave dioramas, so we will have to see.
You clearly indicate that all the pictures were taken using an iPhone 4s without any digital editing. Were there any particular photos where you wish you had Photoshop at your disposal?
There are so many scenes I wish I could have used a little bit of Photoshop in, such as the space scenes. I’ll shoot a series of pictures of the Falcon, TIE Fighters, and asteroids separately. Then, I use the iPhone app Diptic to composite them together. I’ll remove the border and play with the exposure until the black background matches in them all. I know I could have completed the work much faster and have a much better look in Photoshop, but I love the idea of doing as much in camera as possible.
I’ll also use force perspective to capture those difficult scenes. Again, with Bespin Leia in the window of Cloud City I printed up a screen capture from the film and cut out the area for her to show through. I add more, I put a MicroMachine Cloud Car in the foreground to add more to the image.
However, my biggest wish for Photoshop came when Slave 1 flies away from Cloud City. I photographed Chewie along with my cutouts of the buildings and landing platform while I shot separately Slave 1 on my blue sky backdrop. Since the ship I am using is actually a nano Micro Machine from a Star Wars Insider give-a-way, the ship was so ultra tiny that I had to shoot it so close that you could see the weave of the fabric in the backdrop! So, when it came time to composite the two together, the skies didn’t match in texture. I adjusted colors in Diptic over and over again but was never happy with the results. I went ahead with the image, although I was never 100% happy with it. I got a great response to it via likes and talkback so I don’t think the public was as harsh on it as I was.
An Art Teacher of mine once told me something many years ago that has stuck with me my entire life: “Art is never finished. It is abandoned”. In other words, I would have kept redoing certain scenes over and over again but having the deadline of telling the daily story has allowed me to let go and move forward. As a teacher myself I see the importance of deadlines when working on something creative and pass this along to my students.
You mention you started this series in January. As you’re currently on the Vader/Luke duel, when do you anticipate wrapping things up?
In fact, I have just completed the gantry for Vader’s big reveal to Luke about his parentage. I’m very excited about showing that. Unfortunately, I have to still build the set for the scene before with Luke falling out the big window. As of this moment, those pictures begin five days from now and I have yet to build a single set piece. Talk about a deadline to motivate you!
This series I predict to conclude in late January 2013, which will mean I have spent a year doing this project. That is one picture uploaded daily for a year, sans five days in April when I was out of the country on a cruise. I expect the series to be around 375 images.
Do you have any projects in mind after ESB is done?
I recently completed a scene for Star Wars Uncut, utilizing my Carbon Freezing chamber. That was my first brush with stop motion animation and I can tell you hands down that I am better with single images versus motion!
The fanbase for this ‘ESB with Toys’ project has been asking for it to be re-purposed into book and slideshow form, so that is on my gameplan. I would love to see these images as a coffee table book, but I don’t know how well Lucasfilm would approve of my project.
I have been asked which film I’m going to recreate next. Honestly, I’m not sure if I’ll move forward with recreating another one just yet. As my production values went up and I found myself moving away from solid fabric backgrounds to actually constructing sets, it began to have a financial cost that I could not easily afford. Maybe with a producer or something along the lines of Kickstarter I would be able to make the other two original trilogy films. I’m still looking into my options.
Big thanks to Bobby for taking time away from his ESB photo shoots to answer a few questions. By all means you should follow his fabulous Instagram photograph recreations. You can see all the photos in the series under Instagram username bobbysussman. Also be sure to check out Bobby’s Toy Shelf on Facebook.