Stephen Hayford has been creating Star Wars-themed photo dioramas themed around major holidays for a number of years now, and his work with figures has led to bigger installations as far ranging as a replica of Thomas Edison’s botanical laboratory for the Edison & Ford Winter Estates museum to a 15-foot by 60-foot mural for the City of Tampa and various official Lucasfilm Star Wars events, including Star Wars Celebration VI and Star Wars Weekends.
As interest in his work has spread, more and more fans have been seeing his work through StarWars.com and most recently, as a featured artist at Star Wars Celebration Anaheim. As big fans of Stephen’s work here at Hasbro Pulse, we thought it was time to get to know a little bit more about the man behind the lens.
DDD: Stephen, the fan response at Celebration VII seems to have been tremendous, but not everyone got a chance to meet and talk with you. Tell us a little bit about yourself and what interests you.
My favorite color is blue, I like moonlit walks on the beach. . . I’m kidding. Actually, I do like those things. But more important to me than anything is my family. I have a 13-year-old son and a 10-year-old daughter and my wife and I will celebrate 20 years together this August. And we all share a healthy love of all things creative, the outdoors and satire. So, our dinner table conversations are generally the most fun part of every day.
We also all share a love of movies and pop culture. I count on my family as my first line of editors in all of my work.
DDD: You began your career as a photojournalist. Was your interest in photographing toys something that began at the same time as your interest in photography, or did that develop later?
Well, it’s a story that goes back to my childhood. Star Wars inspired my creativity and interest in telling stories visually. As early as 6 years old I used a Kodak point-and-shoot to take pictures of my action figure battles. That love of storytelling eventually met with my idealism and social awareness as I grew older, which in turn, lead me to photojournalism.
In photojournalism I worked to help others by making them aware of issues by documenting the stories of their communities. But along with that came covering lots of death and destruction. So, in an effort to regain some levity at the end of the day, I turned to my childhood love of action figures. First I started sculpting characters that hadn’t yet been made by customizing existing figures. Then I discovered building dioramas as a way to recreate scenes from the films. As a photographer, it made sense for me to document my creations. I began posting them on rebelscum.com and received a big reaction.
That reaction encouraged me to continue diorama photography alongside my photojournalism career. However, when I had my aortic and pulmonary valves replaced in 2006 to fix a congenital heart defect, I re-evaluated everything I was doing. It took me two years to finally decide to leave journalism and dive into my art full-time. And it has been extremely rewarding.
DDD: You use action figures as your “canvas” for storytelling. Can you tell us when your interest in action figures began?
My childhood was loaded with action figures with my first memories being of the Aventure Team G.I. Joe figures, with the life-like hair and beard, in the early 1970’s. But my interest in action figures became obsession with the release of Star Wars. I had to have every figure as it came out. I went as far as calling toy stores every week to find out if they had any new figures yet. La Belle’s department store would bring out boxes from its storeroom to let me search for new releases.
I also would frequently write letters to Kenner asking them to create figures for unnamed cantina creatures. I included very detailed drawings to eliminate confusion. Any chance that Hasbro still has my old letters?
And after Star Wars I had to have every 3 3/4” figure I could get my hands on, from G.I. Joe to Tron to Clash of the Titans. I only deviated from the scale for some of the larger Micronauts figures and one or two other lines.
DDD: How many Star Wars action figures do you have, and would you describe yourself as a collector?
I have THOUSANDS of SW figures. I definitely would have called myself a collector BEFORE I began working with toys professionally. Since I began doing gallery exhibits and commissioned pieces for entertainment companies, the toys were a necessity to satisfy client needs. And I needed LOTS of them.
As a collector, I had my toys on display. But when I began working with toys for a living, the amount I “needed” became overwhelming. Everything became relegated to storage tubs for space sake and work flow organization. So, I still have a tremendous love of toys and the utmost respect for toy design, but I don’t really consider myself a collector any longer.
DDD: How have fans reacted to your own unique style of art?
I have been very surprised by the amazing reaction to my art. But I think it goes back to the basic human fascination with anything in miniature. I know my love of tiny props comes from my mother’s love of doll house miniatures.
Fans of my art tend to tell me they love the combination of subtle humor and detailed sets. People seem to love that many of my images have hidden jokes that take a while to find. And I love hearing that. I’ve always argued that art can be fun and that satire is an underrated vehicle for reaching people.
DDD: Tell us about the latest prints that you created for Celebration VII. How did you come about selecting the scenes, and give us a few highlights of their creation. (We will include the three images in the piece)
I always take my first inspiration from the figures when it comes to Star Wars. So, I initially looked at which figures were soon to be available, because everyone gets excited to see NEW toys. Then I looked for logical groupings based on the films.
Then I had to think practically. We had a tight deadline (29 days instead of the 90 days I would prefer to have for building three sets of this magnitude). So, I had to limit my scene choices to what could be done in that period of time. It became apparent that the figure groupings and the design limitations lined themselves up nicely to allow an image from each of the Classic Trilogy films.
The new Black Series 6” Han Solo and Luke Skywalker in Stormtrooper disguise figures were an easy choice to highlight for “A New Hope.” Immediately, I imagined the scene of them walking Chewie down a long curved hallway on their way to rescue Leia. Then I wondered, what if Vader had given into impatience (instead of waiting for them to lead him to the Rebel base) and hunted them down right off the bat? That became the idea I wanted to explore.
Growing up with “The Empire Strikes Back” as my favorite Star Wars film, I always was fascinated by the desolation and surprising danger of Hoth. The upcoming release of the Black Series 6”-scale Han/Tauntaun and Luke/Wampa sets made the frozen landscape of Hoth an obvious choice for a dramatic image. And I love to re-imagine scenes whenever I’m afforded the opportunity. I loved the idea of Han finding Luke earlier and attempting to protect Luke from an attack from the wounded wampa. The landscape also excited me as an opportunity to play with practical special effects (blowing snow, etc.) and interesting light.
Princess Leia dressed as Boushh is easily my favorite moment for Leia. Bossk is one of my favorite characters of all time. The figures were both ready to hit stores. So, Jabba’s palace, my favorite environment from “Return of the Jedi,” was the obvious selection for the third poster. And the fact that many people don’t realize Bossk was in Jabba’s palace at that time was a bonus. (I like to give fans something extra by highlighting obscurity.) The scene is so rich in great props and unique set design that I knew it would a great diorama to create. In the end, I believe in simple storytelling rooted in characters. So, much of the work I put into creating film-accurate props and set details is obscured in order to make a more compelling composition.
DDD: Can you give fans a peel into your process of creation? Does it begin with a bigger idea, or start with a small spark of inspiration and build from there? (….we would also like to get some behind the scenes images here)
My process always starts with thinking about characters. When a certain interaction between characters inspires me, I then begin looking at visual reference material. I examine lots of film stills or behind the scenes photos. Then it’s on to design of props and structures. That happens in sketches and on computer. My final compositions are largely worked out in this design stage. My ideas for composition usually guide the design.
Design leads to the cutting of pieces, by hand or by laser cutter. Then comes construction, followed by shaping to make the parts come together seamlessly. There are also lots of other applications that take place based on the environment I’m creating. It could involve plaster, wood shavings, baking soda, sand, etc.
Painting is always the last step of the physical creations. But there are many applications of paint: primer, base coat, tone, detail, weathering, etc. Painting involves many colors and techniques.
The actual staging of characters and set pieces takes place for the photography. Staging usually takes a minimum of an hour. Photography generally lasts a few hours with many different light treatments at different focal points. Then finally, those images come together in post-production.
So, my art is not just photography, it’s dozens of arts, including sculpting, painting, design and more all wrapped up together to tell one single-frame story.
DDD: This was your first time working with Black Series 6” figures. Did that scale pose any unique challenges?
Working with Black Series 6” figures for the first time was extremely challenging. The sizes of my scenes more than doubled. That required different scaling to make sure my designs were proportionally accurate to the figures. It also demanded more attention to detail simply because the larger size allowed me to accomplish more significant detail. For example, in a 3 3/4” scale version of Jabba’s dais area, I decided the size of the steps was small enough that I didn’t have to bother with the raised bumps all over the surface. In the 6” scale, the absence of those bumps would have stood out like a sore thumb.
The sheer enormity of the scenes also created challenges with materials and space. The acrylic sheets used to create the Death Star scene weighed more than 60 pounds, requiring different engineering to support the walls than I had used in smaller versions of the set pieces.
The diorama for the Hoth scene was 8-feet by 8-feet and required more than 70 pounds of baking soda for surface coverage and flurries. I used a fog machine to create background atmosphere while I dropped baking soda in front of a fan to create blowing snow. The combination filled the air with a thick cloud of particles that had me coughing for three days after the shoot.
DDD: Have you pioneered any techniques that you find yourself employing regularly to help you create your vision that you can share?
I have pioneered many lighting techniques with specialized light housings I’ve created. And I’ve also come up with some building techniques that keep many of my pieces unique for my clients. Therefore, many of my methods are proprietary and can’t be discussed. But for the most part, I use basic modeling techniques which I’ve been happy to pass on to others as they have been passed on to me. In fact, I’m often surprised how many times I thought I was doing a unique technique only to see several videos on YouTube describing the same method. I’ve always loved getting folks started in diorama building when they have a genuine love for creating something with their own hands. It’s a very therapeutic art form.
DDD: Do you have a favorite Star Wars piece or two from the past that you are particularly proud of?
My favorite Star Wars piece is almost always the last piece I created. But then I also have images that I’m fond of forever, like “Dad Carves The Turkey” or “Trooper Break II.” And there are others that I love most because of the story behind the image, like “Sandstorm.” When Lucasfilm asked me to create an image of the deleted scene of the Tatooine sandstorm in “Return of the Jedi” to promote the release of the Blu-Ray edition of the Saga, I turned to Hasbro for help. To my surprise, Hasbro supplied me with the only hand-painted prototypes in existence (at the time) of Lando and Leia. Holding those figures in my hand as I set-up the scene made me pause and remember all the letters I wrote to Kenner asking for them to make specific figures. It was at that moment that I felt my life had truly come full circle. Images like that always stay with me.
DDD: Anything else coming up that you can tease us with?
Ohhhhh, I wish I could. Doing much of my work with entertainment properties means that I often have to sign Non-Disclosure Agreements. Sometimes I can’t discuss what I’m working on until several months after it’s been completed. Right now I’m working on four projects related to three different properties. All I can say is two of those properties are space related and one is very “sweet.” The first to be completed will be seen at San Diego Comic-Con. That’s all I can say. :)
Thanks for your time, Stephen. We can’t wait to see what you create next!