Building Your Empire One Book at a Time
Again an interesting story. After leaving grad school, I still needed to complete my thesis, so I needed to acquire a job where I could finish up and still make a living. I was showing my student portfolio at a design studio and was given the name and number of Frankenfield and Associates, who I was told, needed help in a big way. He was a stones throw away from losing the design company as a client. I called and set up an interview which went well, because Roy Frankenfield called me later that day after the interview about coming to work for him at $100.00 a week, yes 40 hours a week, this was 1981. Roy's primary client was that design company and needless to say that work was Star Wars packaging photography for packaging. Roy was the first Star Wars photographer but not really a fan of Star Wars, to him it was just work. When I started working for him, I was shooting, not as an assistant as I was hired on to be but as the photographer doing most of the work and I never looked back. Roy slowly stopped working on the Star Wars toys and instead worked on other projects we were doing in the studio. This became my training ground for multi-tasking.
What was the most challenging part about shooting Star Wars action figure photos?
It was always a challenge to read the minds of the designers who wanted what they had drawn out for the layout. That is until I proposed I use the camera that I would eventually use when i would shoot the "pre-photo's". These were images of a toy where I was given a written description of the toy for each panel of the package. Before this, Roy used a 35mm because it was cost effective, then made prints for the designer to use in creating the layout. This method itself became the problem due to lens differences. Roy would use the 105mm lens on his Nikon, but then try to match those same images once they were compiled or just used for layout. Because the final camera was to be a 4x5 or 8x10 nothing ever was the same because the optics were so different. That is until I suggested using the same camera and lens I would use in the final and just keeping a record of what I originally used to shoot the toy with, we never had the problem pop up again. Might sound like a simple solution, but I had to convince Roy of why. The designers no longer had problems with settling for the differences because now there were far fewer problems.
How about the most rewarding part?
I would guess the most rewarding aspects of photographing Star Wars toys, would be listed on a lot of different levels. My son thought I was the biggest hero ever because I shared with him what I was doing and actually involved him a few times when ever it was possible. Being interviewed for Star Wars Galaxy magazine, creating one of the most memorable photographs, the Hoth Battle scene to name just a few. I learned a lot working on this image. Roy had gone on vacation for a week and thought this was to be a simple table top scene, he had no idea it was to be a major photo. I worked on this scene for a week and had it "blessed" before Roy came back. Roy spent another week trying to make it his photo, but he could not and did not succeed in improving the image. At the conclusion of this shoot, it became a signal to me about the future. Digital and all its glory was coming and I could see it because the POP of the Hoth Battle Scene became the first digitally retouched image Kenner was to do, at least that is what I was told anyway. After I bought Roy out in 1988, I put in a computer and bought Photoshop 1, and my wife became pretty good on the computer retouching. By 1991 I was buying my first digital camera, and soon I was educating my clients about the benefits of allowing me to shoot digitally. The art director at Kenner/Hasbro was seeing it as well, we experimented and learned as I offered to shoot jobs both digitally and using film as we learned together. When E1 was being planned, I was told we would be shooting digital for almost all the coming packaging shots.
How much creative control did you have over the Star Wars action figures photos?
I was given a layout to follow and solve the problems the designers would create from their design layout. If you were not creative you were stuck with the issues the designers did not think about.
Can you describe a typical day working on the Star Wars action figure line?
There was never a typical day. But when it rained it could turn into a goose drowner very quickly. I found and put into use every view camera Roy had when I came onboard. More then once I had many different sets going at one time, in particular one time I had 7 different table top sets going on at the same time. I had a pad of paper beside each set and just moved cameras or lenses around as I needed to move from one set to another. You see, it would take no less then 2 hours usually 3 hours to get the film back, so by just moving lenses or cameras from set to set I could easily come back review my notes and reshoot if there were any problems. I remember Roy coming out of his office once and exclaiming, "OH MY GOD, how are you keeping track of all this? Then he saw my pads of paper and walked back into his office shaking his head. Another time, it was 4:30 in the afternoon, 1/2 hour from the end of the day and Roy had already gone home. The client called with something he needed first thing in the morning and it "had" to be on 8x10 film. We had one sheet left, I shot the film and dropped it off to be delivered to me in the morning. Roy gave me Hell for doing this when he walked in the next morning saying I should have demanded more time, then the perfectly exposed film was delivered which surprised Roy. He turned to me and asked me to order more film, asap walked out the door to deliver the job. I shot additional sheets of film and put them away incase they would be needed at a later date.
How did working on Star Wars compare with other projects you've done?
You have to remember this was a job for me, a great job because of the subject matter, but very little can actually compare to shooting toys especially Star Wars toys and working for the people I worked with at Kenner then Hasbro. I loved creating the small sets -dioramas which was the best, I loved creating those sets, I loved the problem solving they represented. The greatest disappointment was when they stopped wanting the dioramas for the packaging shots. But for almost twenty years I shot toys and Kroger Ice cream for their packaging, I was living a great life and having a great time.
How have you seen product photography evolve over the years on the Star Wars Kenner/Hasbro lines?
Personally, in my own opinion, while the toys themselves have evolved in to fantastic detailed toys, the packaging has gone downhill. But that is my personal opinion. Showing a diorama with a toy shows children they too can create a toy scene. It ignites their imagination and get them working with their hands building and solving their own set issues. Using the still from the movie is a cop out--again this is my personal and very biased opinion.
How did you decide to launch the website The Man Who Shot Luke Skywalker and sell prints of the vintage action figure line?
Tom Derby thought I should give it a try and sell prints through Brian's Toys who he was in partnership with at the time, I believe. While at first sales were OK, they never materialized like I felt they could. I joined in on the Rebelscum.com forum not long afterwards then a man in Germany, Thorsten Lafos contacted me about getting ahold of a print. My son had the print he wanted so I said go ahead and sell Thorsten the print and I would sign it for him. Around this time I read that buyers of the prints from Brian's Toys were having issues on delivery of prints in good condition. I experimented with shipping , I believe I even sent a few prints to Thorsten to test our shipping. Then my wife created the website and off we went. It is not a commercial success, but there are people / collectors who want prints that I printed myself and actually signed. Since I had the printer already the primary expense is the ink and paper for my printing, but we do try to put something aside to do repair work on my old printer.
Once our website was up and running we had one packaging issue which we corrected immediately, I promised that and mean that if for any reason a print would arrive in bad condition due to my packing, the purchaser would just need to notify me and return the print (at their expense ) in the original shipping container and I print a new print and ship it out at my expense. People who love Star Wars love my prints and want my prints, but they do not "need" my prints, so the number of prints are limited but there is no need to try to price the prints out beyond anyone's wallet. So now we control the print making, the shipping and complaints of which there has only been one.
Plus as I have stated before, anyone who bought a print from Brian's Toys, I will personally sign their print if they ever bring it to a convention I attend, That was the primary complaint I heard about me on Rebelscum, that they were not personally signed. But then ask anyone who has bought a personally signed print if they can read my signature after I have signed a few prints and you'd know why I put the signature on as part of the image file to be printed at that time. As it stands right now once my big printer bites the dust, it is highly unlikely I will print any more prints larger then 8x10, unless the economy picks back up and people start spending money on prints, I "might" buy into a new printer but as I said that is unlikely more so because the big printers cost so much. I will not purchase then sell the Star Wars prints again like I did through Brian's Toys, it ends up costing everyone too much.
How often do you get a chance to meet Star Wars fans or fan groups?
There are two groups I go to and talk to each Fall, one is in West Virginia, the other is Kentucky, once in a while I am asked to talk to the Ohio group. All are great people and all are Star Wars people thru and thru. My biggest problem is remembering the names of the groups, I am bad with names. But I can tell you the West Virginia group asked for and my wife and I have created a really cool looking poster for their October 9th gathering. For this I have contracted the printing out, my only concern is that I ordered either way too many or way not enough, I only ordered 25 posters to be printed. ( I would show it or give it to you but not without their permission)
What's next for you?
Well life goes on, and things change. Because I did most of my work directly for corporations for almost twenty years, I ended up cutting myself off from the design studios and thus I did not know anyone any more and they did not know me. I realized I was up against 24 year olds for photo work, that is when I knew I had noting in common with the art directors and the 24 year olds did, there was no need to keep hitting my head against the wall, so I stopped calling on design studios or advertising agencies. But I still have a few corporations I do photographic work for and I started teaching about 8 years ago, so between selling prints, teaching and the few commercial shoots I do, my wife I enjoy life as best we can.
A big thanks to Kim D M Simmons for taking the time to share his story with SWBookZone.com. For more information about Kim's Star Wars photography, visit his website TheManWhoShotLukeSkywalker.com.
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