We’ve featured a ton of amazing toy photographers over the years. Something we noticed about many of them is their attention to set design. Photographer Alpha Whiskey is no different. In fact, they’re inspired by old-school movies from the 80s. Alpha Whiskey in an interview with us “…They had a background in art, so they understood good lighting and good composition.” That’s just a small part of his Alpha doing his job.
We’ve seen a few similar things done to varying degrees recently in the movies too! Alpha Whiskey made an ode to Top Gun. If you’ve read anything about how the new 2022 movie was made, you’ll know they really didn’t want to use CGI. And as we have demonstrated through various interviews, this type of work requires a lot of skills.
Alpha Whiskey Photography’s essential photo gear
I wouldn’t say that I find any particular piece of equipment essential. I often tell parents to try this kind of photography with their kids as a creative exercise and their phones would honestly do the job. I never had to adapt to art. That said, I personally use a micro-four-thirds mirrorless camera, having ditched a full-frame DSLR several years ago. The m4/3 system gives me access (if I need it!) to a wide range of compatible lenses. For most of my images I use a 12-40mm F2.8, which is sharp and reliable. If I need more compression of scene elements, I’ll use a zoom such as a 40-150mm F2.8 (80-300mm equivalent focal length). I guess the most essential piece of equipment is the tripod as I often shoot at narrow apertures using the lowest ISO, which obviously requires a slow shutter speed.
Photographer: Tell us about your beginnings in photography.
Alpha Whiskey: I’ve always been a very visual person, drawing comics and caricatures from a young age and moving into photography about 20 years ago seemed like a natural progression from there.
Photographer: What made you want to get into toy photography?
Alpha Whiskey: I’ve been fortunate enough to travel to many parts of the world and photograph almost any subject from landscapes to wildlife, sports and architecture, but ultimately one hits a creative dead end just by pointing a camera at something and pressing a button. I happened to watch a behind-the-scenes documentary on a movie (Aliens, 1986) and was amazed at the workmanship and photography of the miniatures and models, how they even fooled the studio executives who were watching the dailies by making them believe that they spent a fortune on giant sets and vehicles (the extraterrestrials cost only 18 million dollars). I also started noticing a lot of photography of toys online, for which there is a huge community. And while much of it is very creative, most look too much like toys. Making a scale model or action figure look like the real thing, which is my main goal, has been a creative and stimulating challenge for me so far, and uses all the principles of a good photography, such as composition, framing and lighting. So I’ve been doing this kind of photography almost exclusively for over four years.
Photographer: Obviously, you do a lot of set building for each of these scenes. Do you think it’s a meditative process?
Alpha Whisky: Initially, I spent a lot of time building sets and props as they contributed to the scene, like garage decor or paper traffic cones. It can be relaxing to do but very time consuming, so these days I tend to shoot with minimal backdrops and composites in my travel archive backgrounds. I have many scenes of forests, deserts and urban skylines from my travels. I tend to plan my shoots to account for that too.
Ferrari in snow, garden pebbles and dusted with flour.
Phoblographer: I guess I know the answer, but how has the pandemic affected your creativity?
Alpha Whiskey: The pandemic just gave me more time to take on projects, including Top Gun, and I also had a project of composing my friends with die-cast cars.
My friend and a model car
Photographer: Where do you usually draw your inspiration from? I guess films, but what about photographers? Who have you studied?
Alpha Whiskey: I’m a kid of the 1980s and movies of that era, especially in the sci-fi action genre, like Terminator, Predator, Aliens and Robocop (all of which I did projects!). This was the pre-CGI era, where the illusion had to be created by highly skilled craftsmen building miniatures and using practical effects. I also love how previous Ridley and Tony Scott films would be lit, how they painted the scene with smoke and rays of light. They had a background in art, so they understood good lighting and good composition. When I watch movies, even for entertainment, I also study camera angles and the framing of shots. Sometimes I duplicate iconic film shots for easy recognition.
Phoblographer: How much of this work is done behind closed doors compared to Photoshop or post-production? For you, where do you think the magic happens to do these scenes?
Alpha Whisky: I try to do as much as possible behind closed doors because it means less playing time in post. I use practice sets, LED lights or torches and a vape device for the smoke which helps give the images depth. I will use fishing line to hang the models. If it looks good practically, you know the image will work. Ideally, the magic should happen behind closed doors, but sometimes I plan a shoot knowing that I can create the result in post with specific effects. In the post, I’ll add things like muzzle flash, explosions, and headlights, and I’ll incorporate the backgrounds into the shot.
Photographer: For this project, why choose Top Gun? And what about a movie that lends itself to being an easy scene to recreate? Are these really just toys?
Alpha Whiskey: Top Gun was just another project to take on, and I was looking forward to the sequel to the movie that just came out recently. Obviously, I wouldn’t capture the visceral experience of the flight scenes in a still image, but I thought I could ignite a sense of speed and action with them. I’m not interested in the toys as such, just the means of creating the illusion. So, model selection is very important and details should be realistic, especially with characters and faces. A scene isn’t necessarily easy to create, but I try to capture iconic or recognizable movie scenes.
Photographer: What are you currently working on? We are curious!
Alpha Whiskey: Just finished a Star Wars related project with Hoth Rebel figures. At the moment I’m working on a Formula 1 crash project using tiny (10cm) albeit very detailed die-cast racing cars. I then have other projects to do, followed, quite presciently, by a Youtube video explaining how and why I do this kind of photography.