Recently I ran across a concept that helps me understand my fascination with the LEGO minifigure. It’s called “masking.”  When I first read about masking in Understanding Comics by Scott McCloud, it was a true lightbulb moment. I finally understand why I stick with LEGO minifigures as the primary muse of my creativity. While I love the details and articulation of more expensive action figures, they don’t help me tell my stories. The concept of masking helps me understand my creative process. In my struggle to see why I do what I do, this information is priceless.

What is masking?

Masking is a concept that builds on our understanding that the human mind will recognize a face in just about anything. From a light socket to a garbage can, the human mind will create a face where often there isn’t one. Think of the #iseefaces hashtag.

This is an important concept to exploit when it comes to cartooning. Cartoons are drawn on a continuum, from ultra-simplistic to hyper-realistic. But by making the face on the abstract end of the spectrum, the viewer can experience the story through the eyes of the characters.

The Lensbaby Sweet 35 and composer combination gives this image a little extra motion.

Does this make sense? The more universal the protagonist is, the easier it will be for a viewer to place themselves into the scene. Which will then make it easier for artist to make the all-important connection with the viewer. For example, a beautifully sculpted Princess Leia action figure from Hot Toys will always be Carrie Fisher. While the same character represented as a LEGO minifigure is more anonymous and often easier to identify with.

This concept of increased viewer identification with an abstract character versus a hyper-realistic one explains our acceptance of masked superheroes. Spider-Man and Iron Man are two of the most popular characters in the Marvel Universe. I wonder if this idea of masking helps us connect with those characters in a more intimate way?

Why I use LEGO

Everyone has their own reasons for photographing toys. Reasons I hear often are:

  • Connecting with their childhood
  • Playing director of their favorite movie franchises
  • Practicing photography techniques on a willing subject

There are many excellent reasons to photograph toys. I photograph toys as a way to connect with my audience. I want to use our common stories, our universal experiences, our favorite toys, plus a little humor to reach across the digital divide and connect. While LEGO minifigures have a limited range of motion, this concept of masking / abstraction / universality makes them the perfect subject for my needs. They are both recognizable and abstract.

“By stripping down an image to its essential “meaning,” an artist can amplify that meaning in a way that realistic art can’t.”

Scott McCloud – Understanding Comics

Using masking / abstraction as one tool in the storyteller’s toolbox hit home like an arrow. It was a true “ah ha” moment. I can now say with confidence that I choose the LEGO minifigure because of masking. By using a toy that is simplistic and relatable to a wider audience, I have a greater chance of connecting with my audience.

Love that natural lens flare created by a Lensbaby Sweet 50 Composer combination.

Of course it’s complicated and I probably don’t do this subject justice. If this concept intrigues you, I highly recommend picking up Understanding Comics and exploring it further. I love this idea of masking. It explains so much of why I’m not investing in those super-cool, hyper-realistic, collectible toys. While beautiful and amazing, they wont help me achieve my own creative goals.

What do you think about masking? Does it make sense? How can you use it in your own creative work?

I wonder if ‘masking’ helps to explain the popularity the stormtrooper? What do you think?

Image taken with a Lensbaby Composer / Sweet 35, f4, 1/50, ISO 100 in Central Park, NY while on holiday earlier this year.