Sci-fi toys spring to life in filmic photos

By day, Robert Larner works for an investment firm. By night he directs Stormtroopers, Transformers and Daleks.

Using toys, camera tricks and a keen sense of story, the photographer delights Flickr and Instagram fans with movie stills. But the movies don’t exist.

The Scotsman grew up a discerning cineaste with a taste for the Indiana Jones, Back to the Future and Ghostbusters movie franchises, but his greatest inspiration — in film and toys — was Star Wars.

“I could probably track my interest in toys via Star Wars,” Larner says. “When I was a kid in the early ’80s, I was completely swept up by the original Kenner 3.75-inch range. Then, in the ’90s, the remastered movies came out along with whispers of the prequels so the Star Wars toy range was reintroduced, so that caught my interest again. However, it was when Lego had the bright idea of making Star Wars Lego sets in 1999 that I really got sucked in and I haven’t looked back since!”

Series reboots don’t trouble Larner but his work is a battle cry for a generation wounded by Jar Jar Binks: Take ownership of cherished movie memories, script your own sequels, and relive the fun. His expertly realized appropriations soothe scarred nostalgia and prove that Hollywood doesn’t have a death-grip on imagination. The result is infectious — his wife now carries a stuffed rabbit named Beulah just in case it’s showtime.

Turning action figures into movie stars isn’t easy. The key to shooting realistic miniatures is forced perspective, a technique that takes advantage of the eye’s perception of depth. A Stormtrooper held close to the lens looms as large as a distant person. Proper lighting and uniform focus complete the optical illusion.

Larner’s elaborate scenes are framed by a Panasonic Lumix G3 while his off-the-cuff street shots are handled by a pocket-size FS35. Wherever the action takes place, images go through simple tweaks in Picasa or serious editing in the open-source GIMP.

A fifth-generation iPod touch running iOS 7 augments Larner’s traditional cameras, and is rapidly becoming a favorite one-stop photo factory. Getting into iPhoneography opened the door to Instagram, a welcome new home for his work.

“It has really made me appreciate what I can achieve with my iPod alone,” he says. “I think it also encourages a certain aesthetic — the smaller image size and 1:1 ratio forces you to keep things simple, which is really quite refreshing.”

Other mediums and formats may be on their way. Larner would like to experiment with Comic Life to craft more fully fledged stories, and given the cinematic nature of his current output it’s no surprise that he’s dabbled in filmmaking. Efforts at stop-motion animation have so far faltered, suffering frequent critical input from his cat.

The toy stars of these vignettes come from all corners. Larner scours thrift stores like a casting agent searching malls for a new face, not unlike a memorabilia hound hunting bargains. A cast of Lego figures is always in pocket for impromptu appearances on street corners and backyards. Toys came and went when Larner was growing up because his family moved frequently. Now that he’s in a position to amass a robust collection, space is limited. In between shoots most figurines are packed away in storage boxes awaiting their turn beneath the klieg lights. Even so, there’s always a surprise tucked into the corner.

“I am grateful to my very tolerant wife for putting up with what I do have on display, though, and not minding that we have an army of Godzillas waiting at the front door to greet any visitors,” he says.

Images: Robert Larner

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Brendan Seibel

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