What happens when you combine an incredible collection of horror movie action figures, a vivid imagination, and awesome photography skills? Meet Jesse Diaz, a toy collector and photographer from Los Angeles, CA, whose incredibly realistic images of his toy horror figures in action are both entertaining and impressive.
As a kid, Jesse Diaz was fascinated with horror flicks, and the action figures that they inspired. It started when his uncle gave him some Movie Maniacs action figures, and he was immediately hooked. He began to collect action figures in the likenesses of his favorite characters: A Nightmare on Elm Street's Freddy Krueger, Friday the 13th's Jason Voorhees, and Michael Myers of the Halloween franchise, to name a few.
By high school, his collection developed into a full-fledged obsession. In the beginning, Diaz was adamant about perfect packaging and mint condition in his collectibles. But then, he discovered the joys of staging and photographing these miniature menaces. These days, the highly collectible, valuable figures are kept in their sealed boxes, while the rest of the gang gets to come out and play.
With a growing collection of mostly 1/12th scale horror figures, Diaz first began to stage and photograph his action figures as part of a high school film class project. It was a project that sparked a full-fledged passion that combined two of his favorite things: photography and horror films. Armed with an iPhone, a vivid imagination, and some favorite action characters, he would take advantage of the best natural lighting to fit the mood of his images. “I would eye-ball and find certain locations that would fit well and in scale with the action figure I was shooting. My favorite type of days to go out shooting were overcast days; the lighting was the best in my opinion.”
When he decided to up his game and the quality of his work, he stepped up from the iPhone to the mirrorless Sony a6300. He began to learn from practice and experience how to stage, light and add special effects to his images to make them as realistic as possible. Today, his go-to lighting set-up is still natural light, although sometimes he chooses to go moodier and shoot in a dark space indoors. “I’m pretty basic and I use nothing fancy for my indoor shots,” says Diaz, adding that for studio lighting he opts for lamps with different colored light bulbs, along with Genaray LED-5300 on-camera lights.
Just recently, Diaz has started shooting film for some of his work. It’s a craft he enjoyed learning back in his school days, and was happy to pick back up recently. He alternates between his first film camera from high school, the Canon Rebel 2000, and his beloved Canon A-1. When shooting film, Diaz prefers Kodak Portra 400 35mm roll film. Diaz says he likes the fact that his film images set him apart from most other toy photographers in the digital age. He also enjoys the challenges that come from the more complex nature of shooting film. "With film you have to know your camera, your lighting and know that you only have a few chances to get your shot," says Diaz. The thing he likes least about film is it's limits. He tries to use just four exposures per action figure. "Sometimes I get the results I want and sometimes I get nothing!"
As with his lighting, when it comes to the special effects he adds to make his work look like live action stills, Diaz says he likes to keep it basic there as well. “It’s mostly practical effects,” says Diaz. “Things like water, blood splats, dirt or sand, flour for snow effects, vape smoke, and of course Atmosphere Aerosol.”
As is apparent when viewing his super realistic images, Diaz definitely has an eye for detail. He says posing and eye-level framing are key for making these characters come alive. And although he does often recreate movie scenes with his action figures, he has an affinity for creating his own settings. Says Diaz, “my own scenes are usually my favorite. Like my photo of Freddy Krueger as a Darth Sith! How nuts would that be if Freddy Krueger had the power of a Sith?”
Diaz says that setting up these scenes and capturing the perfect shot of an inanimate object such as an action figure is not always as simple as it seems. He recalls his most challenging situation, when he took a likeness of Conan the Barbarian to the beach for a shoot. It was a rare and expensive action figure, and Diaz wanted to make it appear like waves were coming in and crashing on Conan. What Diaz hadn’t anticipated was the force of the wind and the water that day, and how much abuse little Conan would take as he was repeatedly knocked off his perch atop some rocks. At the time, Diaz hadn’t done much action shooting, and he learned a lot that day. “I loved the feeling of catching that shot!” he says.
Diaz's images are inventive, realistic, sometimes scandalous, and thoroughly entertaining. You can see more of his outstanding toy photography by visiting his Hack Em Figures page on Instagram, and watch this video for some behind the scenes footage.
Images used with permission from Jesse Diaz.