A behind the lens look at this year’s San Francisco Toy Safari
It’s been a long time since I had taken a road trip. And, I’m not talking about a casual 2-3 hour drive away from where I live.
This one would take 13 hours and some change, cursing through a couple of states, with a few cups of coffee.
But, we were on a mission. Along with Eric (IG:@intangibledandy), we were heading down to San Francisco for the big toy safari photography meet up. Though it was Eric’s second toy Safari, and my first. We were both in much anticipation to meet everyone and start shooting pics.
Now, we could have opted to fly down and cut some travel time.
One of the things that Eric and I both agreed, is starting our photography adventure as soon as we hit the road. Turning onto side roads that led to possible interesting areas, setup our favorite toys and click a few shots. Even using the landscaped areas of rest stops offered a good variety of natural props.
In one instance, there was a setting like that of a savannah. And, then, a few hundred miles later, an “enchanted” forest.
They really have come a long ways from the basic brick bathrooms surrounded by an army of trees that I remembered.
About an hour or so past Redding, California, something piqued my interest and I turned off from I-5. The exit curved right into rolling hills of golden wheat fields. Occasionally, there would be a fenced off dirt road that would lead… somewhere.
There definitely weren’t a lot of turn offs. It started to feel like once you committed to this road, you were committed to this road.
Whatever might be waiting at the end of this road? I can’t speak for Eric, but, A part of me hoped it would turn out like the movie, From Dusk till Dawn. Except for the part where we’re killers on the run. But, vampires? Cool.
We were two guys in a jeep full of camera gear and toys, determined to get to San Francisco.
I pulled the jeep into a spot that popped up after what seemed like the 50th bend in the road.
It was as close to what what can be define as a driveway, where huge tractor tire treads were imprinted into dried up dirt. Chain-link fences that failed from keeping the giant stems of wheat from running wild. And, to top it off, there was a stack of darkened, oily wooden posts. Where, to our surprise, laid the freshly decomposing body of a raccoon.
Coincidentally, Guardians of the Galaxy 2 opened in theaters that week.
And, needless to say, no toy photos were taken anywhere in the vicinity of the little masked fella.
But, I did get my desert canyon shot.
Speaking of deserts. I should also mention a separate and very specific mission. Eric was determine to find an area along the way that best suited a scene similar to planet Tatooine. Not to drop any spoilers, but, it’s a key location for his photoshoot.
We were two guys in a jeep full of camera gear and toys, also determined to find orange colored sand.
After hundreds of miles of mountains, wilderness, and farmlands, we finally rolled into… traffic!
Our first stop into the San Francisco area, was a toy/comic shop, Comic & Figure Addicts, that a few folks had agreed to meet before the first official toy Safari event began.
I have to say, that it was a pretty impressive shop. A big selection of Hot Toys figures, imported toys and action figures of today and yesterday. Did I mention comics? I think there were some comics, as well.
It would have been bad if they had a section for Lego. I was definitely fighting the temptations of dropping off my pals Jackson, Washington and Lincoln and carpool with a few new plastic/ die-cast friends.
Instead, I left with a sense of regret. But, hell. It was only Thursday and the weekend was just starting.
Speaking of new friends, we met up with a few fellow toy photographers… David (IG:@fathersfigures), Josh (IG:@papajov), and Austin (IG: @toy.at.heart). They were also going to be our weekend AirBnB housemates. It was great to finally see the faces to go with their instagram handles!
When you see their photography up on Instagram, you can imagine how inspired I was for this trip.
And, If there’s anything I’ve learned over the years as an artist, is how much you can learn, even just through conversations with creative folks.
Every little bit adds up to a lot.
It was back into the “Toymobile” and off to our next destination: Google + headquarters.
If you just thought to yourself, ” Google+ headquarters? That’s an interesting choice to shoot toys. #corporatespies
No, no… no corporate spying here.
One of the masterminds behind the Toy Safari, Shelly Corbett (IG: @shellycorbettphotography), also heads up the group of toy photographers from around the world on Google Plus – Check out the Toy Photography community!
And, to kick off the Toy Safari, she arranged for us to meet with the Google+ social media crew who are in amazing support of our creative endeavors.
Eric’s trusty GPS led us to this lot of buildings that was obviously Google headquarters, with its high tech, modern appearance. They were fairly new, as there was still quite a bit of construction going on. This place was definitely an ideal area to take toy pics, with all the building material laying about.
It also stood out from the suburban-like neighborhood, towering over houses and apartment complexes. Not to mention it’s glass exterior, where the sun gave it a warm glow. Much like whatever was inside briefcase in the movie, “Pulp Fiction”.
We were greeted by the fantastic folks of the Google+ team: Carter, Pamela, Faith and Tracy.
Much thanks to them for getting the party started!
After getting our name tags, we were led to conference room where the everyone else attending Toy Safari have gathered. Introductions were exchanged and excitement shared. I’ll be listing everyone I met (and miss!) and their instagram handle below.
Do check out their work! 😀
Next, a good amount of delicious pizza was stuffed in my mouth and washed down with much needed water.
And soon, what’s the phrase…
‘Shit was about to get real”.
Carter gave us a presentation of what they do and the perks of using Google Plus. Which, I’m doing my best to adapt and use.They also gave us cool little Google Plus Lego mini figures, complete with a little Lego camera. Meet Gary!
Followed by more gifts from Lego; A swag bag full of more mini figures and seasonal Lego sets.
For being part of the toy safari, we were also given another custom Lego minifig, brought to us by Dennis (IG:@krash_override).
Here’s a recanted “band photo” of myself, Gary and “Specs”.
It’s been a great start, indeed!
With cameras in hand, we were then escorted to check out their break room. In hindsight, I should have taken a shot of the area in its entirety. But, I was already looking at this “world” through the eyes of the Lego mini figs I had in hand, ready to pose and be photographed.
It was a very impressive looking break room. With a relaxing, modern tropical theme represented in wood, metal and glass materials. Not to mention unique furniture, light fixtures and lots of plants! At this point, marked my first collaboration photo with, Maëlick (@reiterlied)!
We all had some time to roam the tri-level area and take some shots. The Google+ team joined us in taking toy pics, as well.
And, to top off our visit, we gathered together for our first group photo.
After expressing our thanks with the Google crew and sharing goodbyes, we called it a night for rest. As, the next morning we were to venture towards the next location of shooting: Sutra Baths.
I love San Francisco. Every time I’ve come back, I’ve had the opportunity to visit and explore new places. And, among the list of locations that was planned for the weekend of the toy safari, Sutra Baths was by far my favorite. Usually, when I travel, I’ll do a little research of the areas I’ll see. But, in this case, with the exception of the directions to get there, I had absolutely no idea what would be there. A good part of me welcomed the challenge of the unexpected and force myself to answer some of the following questions that would pop up in my noggin…
What Lego minifig will I choose? Do I just choose one?
What kind of story can I suggest with whatever minifig(s) I decide to use?
Should the colors of the characters match?
Should I have bought those toys I was eyeing back at that cool toy/comic shop?
Did I turn off the oven back home?
What specific elements of the area would make a great backdrop to compose in my scene?
The choices were aplenty.
There were graffiti covered ruins, beautiful rocky terrains, a mini “swamp” area with, what I’m assuming had been used as a swimming area.
Also, high winds.
Art through adversity.
Luckily, I thought ahead and brought a pack of sticky tack to help my plastic models hold a pose.
Actually, this is where I learned from @fathersfigures that wax works much better.
Because the gusts of winds were not forgiving at all. Like a younger sibling would do while you were trying to construct a house of cards. Tip over our toys just before the moment you pushed down the button and take a picture.
And, of course, the sunshine was very welcoming and shining incredibly bright. Coming from Seattle, I felt like mole coming out from underground. There was definitely a lot of lighting to work under.
By noon I felt I took a good number of pics and used a good variety of characters. Luckily, I brought a lot of minifigs. In fact, I think I brought almost all of them.
Days before leaving on the trip, there was quite a bit of decision making of what to bring. Clothing? Meh… that’s a no brainer. Number of socks, and undergarments to suit the days of travel and add one in case of “emergencies”.
But, considering the distance of travel for the purpose of a photography project, I thought it’d be best to have a lot of options.
The thought, “Ohhhh, man, I should have brought that ONE Lego minifig because it would be PERFECT for this situation. But, I didn’t bring it because I was being stupid!”, didn’t sit well.
I couldn’t think of a better time to exclaim the boy scout motto: Be Prepared!
Though, I’ll admit there was one instance of having too many options as downside that happened later in the weekend. But, it was still a “good” problem.
And, regardless of any creative venture, there will always be something more that could be done. That’s another conversation and I’m catching myself from straying away from the topic of the toy safari.
After much needed reenergizing with food and beverage purchased from a local market deli (mango and jalapeño
chicken wrap paired with jojo potatoes), the next stop was Golden Gate Park.
Before the next round of photography began, there was the tradition of the elephant gift exchange. It’s been a long time since I last participated in one of these. The variety of toys revealed from the unwrapping brought a great mix of reactions from, “oohs” and “aaahs”. Lots of laughter and, of course, the sense of loss when one takes a cool gift from another. All in good fun! 😀
Plants, trees, flowers and grass… oh my!
There were plenty of these at Golden Gate Park. As much as one would hope to see when visiting a park.
A lot of people.
I also couldn’t get the theme song of “Full House” out of my head. I have to note, that Eric does sing a pretty good rendition of the song. (And, ya did, dude…)
If there was more thing I enjoyed, was encountering folks who were curious to what each of us were doing.
We definitely stood out from the locals and tourists, outfitted with camera gear and cases (or bags) of toys that rattled while we walked.
As I walked around to find a good spot to shoot, I also observed how the others were working. It was great to see everyone so dedicated to their craft and the determination to create and capture the shot they envisioned.
With the rest of the world fading into the background, as they created another world with their choice of toy(s):
… crouching down, or sitting in an awkward manner while adjusting the tripod to capture their shot in a tough, but great angle.
… or battling with the constantly moving light that filtered through the tree leaves.
… or helping one another holding up figures or other props for the shot
… or having to wait for folks to walk past, so that the scale of the world isn’t off kilter to the much tinier character.
… of course, there’s the usual keeping the toy from falling over. Sure, I had my moments of swearing out loud every time the figure toppled over.
And, the thing was, despite all these little challenges, we were all having fun doing what we do. Its TOY PHOTOGRAPHY!
I honestly can’t imagine someone angrily taking photos of toys.
So, when it came down to chatting with people wondering what we were doing and the explaining the concept of toy photography, it was great to see it bring them a smile. Like, at that moment, it brought the kid out of them.
It makes me happy to hear people chuckle the moment they lean in to see why I was hunched over a bed of flowers and discover that I was taking a picture of a little Lego dude.
There was one lady I met who said she used to do something very much like what we were doing. She laughed aloud when I teasingly asked her, “Well, why did you stop?!?”
A part of me hoped that when she got home, she took out a keepsake box full of the toys and a camera kept in storage. Dusted them all off , cleaned up the camera lens and began taking pics.
A little inspiration can certainly be as infectious as was her laughter.
I managed to get a few more shots before my second battery decided it was time for a nappy nap. Though I still had one fully charged battery left, it was time to call it a day. There were only a few moments during the weekend where I used my cell phone camera. This shot was one of those times:
I kept forgetting about them, but there were photo challenges and contests throughout the weekend.
I’ll be honest, I was caught up with my main goal. Which was to come home with a lot of pictures, regardless they were good or bad.
The toy safari was not just going to be an experience. But, a learning experience.
And, when you see the list of folks below and see their work on the social medias, I was shooting pictures amongst some pretty big guns with serious skills. That thought, alone, was pushing me to up my game and try things outside my own little comfort zone.
It was a perfect time to experiment.
It was important to remind myself that I wasn’t in my hometown of Seattle taking pics in all too familiar area and make best of wherever I was at the moment, as it may be a long time before you can visit there again.
That said, Eric told me about his favorite restaurant in Chinatown, New Woey Loy Goey Restaurant. And, that night, we were there. Best Chinese food I had in a very long time.
And, for dessert, an In and Out burger. Yep. You read no wrong. Dessert was an In and Out burger.
With that, Friday night came to an end.
Well, almost. I stayed up a little longer. Not because I had to digest that delicious In and Out burger and the copious amounts of even more delicious Chinese food.
But, a little more pre-planning. I was wanting to use more props for the next photo session. If anything, vehicles.
It was at this moment, another lesson was learned.
I should have packed my Lego vehicles into something better than the bags and cases that I had used.
There’s nothing more lovely than to have opened that case and find pieces of different Lego cars scattered about. So, there was quite a bit of puzzle piecing to be done before I can reward myself with sleep.
Cue in the cock-a-doodles of a rooster.
Saturday morning began with a cup of coffee and a much shorter drive to the first area to shoot: Fort Baker.
We got there at a great time, as people began pulling in and filling up the parking lot right quick. And, when I got out of the car and turned. I saw the attraction. It was a great sweeping view of the Golden Gate Bridge reaching out and across the bay.
It was an angle of the iconic bridge that I have never seen.
And, just like the Sutra Baths, we were greeted with lots of wind.
The colors of the area were different from the previous spots. More reds, as opposed to the golden brown rocks and dirt. The range of vegetation offered a change of background texture, too. But, the view of the bay? Breathtaking.
Still no luck finding orange sand for the Tatooine shot. Orange sand was becoming the “Moby Dick” of the trip.
As I was walking up to a higher elevation, something on the ground caught my eye. There was a hole in the ground. If I had to guess, it was entrance to the home of a field mouse. I can’t imagine what the mortgage would be, considering the view it had at it’s doorstep.
A picture was to meant to happen here. I dug through my case in search of a choice character in this scenario: March Harriet, from the Lego Batman movie. Additional prop? A little Lego bunny that came with this year’s Easter set.
As I began to set up, Julien (IG:@ ballou34 ) stopped by to see what I was doing. Before I knew it, we collaborated on a scene and escalated into something more. Julien brought out a bunny husband to go with my minifig. Along with another little baby Lego bunny. Rabbits were literally multiplying before our eyes.
That’s when Dennis @krash_override came by and said something magical to the likes of, “That’d be cool if you had a wolf or something…”
At that point I realized I didn’t bring the Lego wolf man character. Julian was on it, reached into his case and pulled out the wolf man minifig. Although one thing was missing. He needed an axe. What started out as a wholesome scene of a happy bunny family escalated into dark comedy right quick. And, laughter ensued.
Collaboration is a beautiful thing. As individuals, we can be creative to a certain extent. But, how far can we really push ourselves?
It’s one of the biggest things that I miss from my days working in the video game industry. Sitting beside like-minded folks and brainstorm. Playing the “what if” game, taking an idea and making it flourish into the unexpected and unique.
That one shot was a helluva lot of fun to set up.
It also reminded me to be more playful with my shots. The previous day, it was mostly placing the minifigs to work within the composition. I think there were only a few times where I suggested a story in the photo. It was more about just composition, colors, and pose. But, today, I tried to make more of an effort and consistency to add story elements.
And, then I lost my hat. I was setting up another shot, closer to the edge of a cliff, where the waters crashed at the base.
Now, I may have a little bit of anxiety when it comes to heights. With the gusts of winds playfully pushing, my “spidey-senses” were tingling big time. Funny thing was, I was just as nervous for my minifigs being swept up and falling into the ocean.
That’s when I heard someone come up from behind me. As I turned to see who it was, the wind picked up and stole the hat off my head.
Pick a swear word. There’s a good pretty good chance I said that one. All of them.
The person behind me turned out to be a local fisherman. He stood there with fishing pole in one hand, the other at his hip.
We both watched my hat disappear over the cliff. At that moment I was fairly certain I heard sound of a sad trombone play in my mind.
The fisherman brought back levity by playfully saying the obvious, “Well, I think that one’s a goner”.
Better the hat, that me. Or, my minifigs.
Lesson learned? Get a hat with a snug fit or that has strings you can tie around your chin.
Venturing on, I got to do another collaboration with Doug (IG: @doughleyg), took a few behind the scenes shots while watching other toy photographers at work, and then I hit the nearby trails that led me to the remains of a bunker.
At this point, I took another step from my comfort zone. Eric had inspired me to shoot something different from the army of Lego minifigures. This time, I brought out one of my favorite action figures: Astro Boy.
It was a little refreshing to work with something with more articulation and ability to pose.
Then, time ran out, as everyone was being called together for another group photo. This time, with the majestic Golden Gate Bridge behind us.
And, of course, while walking back to where everyone was gathering, I followed a different route, only to discover even more great places for toy pics.
The world certainly becomes bigger looking through the eyes of a Lego mini figure.
Lunchtime brought us to a BJ’s restaurant located at a mall not too far away. As people found a seat in the outdoor patio, minifigs and action figures were placed onto the table. Nick @wiiman held his tradition of taking pics of Cheyanne @lady.nightingale and his alter-ego Lego form with their meal. Dennis @krash_override took out a couple of his custom figs; including an eye-catching, glitter covered Unicorn. How could I pass up a photo op with a one-of-a-kind?!
There was also talk of where the next toy safari would occur. Everyone was having such a great time, we were all already looking forward to the next one.
This was also when the photo exchange occurred. It’s one thing to see everyone’s work on the social media. But, to have actual printed photos of their work? Sweet deal!! I now have a cool collection of toy photography on my wall.
The second location of the day is also in a very close tie with my favorite spot mentioned earlier, Sutra Baths.
The name of this second location: Albany Bulb.
The sun was slowly starting to descend, as the light source had more of an orange hue. The interest points of the area involved a little bit of a hike. But, while walking there, Melisa (IG: @lizzybelle9), gave me a little history of Albany Bulb. Basically, it used to be a junkyard that took some cleaning up and scraps were blended into the landscaping or turned into sculptures. Albany bulb is a place with a whole lot of character.
The first area I chose to shoot was an abandoned structure that now lies in ruins. Little concrete was visible, as it was covered in graffiti and offered a variety of colors and imagery to make for a great backdrop. We also seemed to have stumbled onto a little party celebrating a graduation. Wine was served amongst those attending. I playfully apologized to one of them for crashing their party. But, they enjoyed seeing what we were doing. And, he responded in kind, saying that we were “adding to the ambience”.
I found my way into what was left of the structure’s interior. There was a slight spiral staircase that led to a very tiny upstairs area. I was beginning to walk up those stairs when I saw these three things:
The color green.
A painting of an eyeball.
And, on the stairs, a drawing of a question mark.
Choice of minifigure? The Riddler, from the Lego Batman minifigure series. If you couldn’t tell, I’m a BIG fan of that line.
This was probably the most challenging setup of the whole weekend. For one, the interior was like a wind tunnel. Despite using the sticky tack to help keep the Riddler’s pose, that wind kicked up really strong through there.
Secondly, the stairway was very narrow. So, in order to get the shot I wanted, I pretty much had to hold a yoga pose for a long time. In fact, I’d like to take a moment and call that pose, “Downward Staircase”.
The frustration was escalating. But, I really wanted to make this shot work.
This was a point where I told myself persistence will pay off. I think it did? In any case, I was happy with what I got. If anything, because of the efforts that came along with it. In the bigger picture (pun totally intended), developing that discipline to do my best, regardless of the outcome, is better than having regret for not having tried at all. And again, I travelled much to far, to simply walk away from any possibilities of a great opportunity.
The second area blew my mind. Found art, sculptures from scrap objects, slabs of concrete and metal blended into rock formations, coated with foliage and the colors of the impending sunset. It was like realization of a scene as described in William S Burroughs’s, “ My Education: A Book of Dreams”.
Random, unexpected and surreal.
Earlier I mentioned an instance of having too many options as downside. This was that moment.
I was visually overstimulated.
It wasn’t until Kiwi (IG: @wikitoybox ) stepped in and understood my situation. We were walking in circles until she showed me what looked like a great backdrop that suggested an entryway to ruins that held a long hidden relic.
And, just like that, the imagination kicked in, the momentum began rolling forward and focus came back into play.
Choice of minifig: Lego Indiana Jones. Additional prop? A giant rubber cobra borrowed from Shelly @shellycorbettphotography
Creativity and collaboration really is a beautiful thing! Thanks, Kiwi!
One more thing that I had never done and excited to try, was shooting a subject against the sunset. Shelly and Leila (IG: @brickandmordor ) were taking these photos and they looked so damn cool. I couldn’t quite get the same result. But, it was great to learn the steps of how to achieve that shot. Unfortunately, the sun was making a speedy exit and I ran out of time. But, now that I’m back in Seattle and the sun having (seemingly) followed me from San Francisco, I’m looking forward to practicing this over the summer.
Darkness fell upon us while walking back to our cars, as did exhaustion. The one thing I forgot to do throughout the trip was keep hydrated.
Mental note: I should have brought the Camelbak. Also, the box of protein bars that I had conveniently left back at the AirBnB house. Smooth move, self.
I was pretty much running on fumes and was in zoned-out, automatic mode. Like, the slow transition before turning into a zombie. Except for the eating people.
On the plus side, I definitely slept soundly.
The woes of one last day.
Another early start, and we had to tidy up the AirBnB place before we left. Meaning, “ Make sure all your toys are accounted for and packed”.
Our last location for the toy safari was to be at Sausalito Marina.
Eric and I weren’t sure how long we were going to stay, considering we had to (unfortunately) make our way back to Seattle.
And, there was still orange sand to be found!
We slowly made our way to a small enclosed beach. A group of folks were out in the water doing yoga on standup paddle boards, people taking after brunch strolls on the beach, some walking their dogs. I spotted a few areas I saw that inspired a few pics.
But, mostly I ended up watching Dennis setup a rig to capture a cool Stormtrooper skateboarding shot. I also got to talk shop with Johnny (IG:@sgtbananas ). I got some great advice on ways to create special FX in a shot. We’re talking about the ways of old school FX and not post production. He was setting up a shot with Hot Toy’s latest Black Panther action figure, which I got to take a closer look. And, I tell ya… I definitely regretted not getting anything at the action figure/comic shop we went to at the start of the trip.
The details that Hot Toys puts into their work is incredible.
One more group photo was taken and goodbyes were shared.
Shelly handed out the remaining Lego set giveaways. Eric called me over and handed me the Sarlacc Pit set, asking if I’d want it.
Ummm… yes, please! #bashful
With that, gear and toys were thrown in the back of the keep. A small supply of food and coffee was attained and, the journey home to Washington began.
But, not without having one last toy photoshoot.
Orange sand, at last!!!
Or, so we thought. What we hoped to be Tatooine, was more like Jedha.
Yep. The accuracy in the details is everything.
And, Eric’s quest for orange sand continues.
It was truly a weekend of epic proportions. I had a really great time and felt fortunate to have experienced the combination of being a kid at heart in a creative endeavor among like-minded creative folks amidst the beautiful surroundings that is San Francisco.
And, I really am going to miss everyone I met at the toy safari.
The friendship that was brought together over a shared passion for toys and photography really makes this event special.
If you ever the opportunity to join the Toy Safari or any other toy photography meet ups, I highly encourage you to take part!
It really is a unique and fun event.
Since coming home, the photos everyone took throughout the weekend are being slowly being uploaded, posted and revealed.
Knowing what it took for everyone to set up the shot, it made it so much more inspiring to see the final photo.
What I’m finding interesting, too, is that with social media, it doesn’t seem like it’s been couple of weeks since we were all together.
With that, I’m going to shut up, now. Bring the typing to a halt, grab a few Lego mini figs, my trusty camera and continue taking toy pics.
But, first! One final note.
A BIG shout out and much thanks to Shelly, Dennis, Melisa, and Cindy for organizing the toy safari.
To David, for finding a really great place and organized a small crew of toy soldiers to call headquarters.
Special thanks to Eric for the help in navigating through the roadways of San Francisco. And especially, the great conversation that kept me going throughout the “short” drive to and fro Seattle and the Bay. #fistbump
Additional special thanks to Pamela, Carter, Faith and Tracy at Google+ for the welcoming and starting off the toy safari weekend on a super great start!
And, of course Lego, for the cool swag! 😀
As promised, here’s a list of Instagram accounts of all the folks who attended the San Francisco Toy Safari!
Enjoy the photos! They’re amazing!
- Austin @toy.at.heart
- Cheyanne @lady.nightingale
- Cindy @coney_dogg
- David @fathersfigures
- Dennis @krash_override
- Doug @doughleyg
- Eric @intangibledandy
- Jazer @knightwing2110
- Josh @papajov
- Julien @ballou34
- Ki @wikitoybox
- Law @lego_laws
- Leila @brickandmordor
- Marcus @mexcell90
- Maëlick @reiterlied
- Melisa @lizzybelle9
- Nick @wiiman
- Shelly @shellycorbettphotography
- Travin @saiyanranger
- Johnny @sgtbananas
- Daniel @louiebaton