Source: Mitchel Wu/the Pop Insider

Hope can be found in mysterious places — even in a pile of burning numbers.

The cover of the spring issue of the Pop Insider features a group of familiar superheroes standing tall atop a pile of dusty rubble and a familiar set of numbers we’ve all come to despise: 2020. The image is one of hope, recognizing the difficult year we all experienced, as well as the bright future that lies ahead. And the featured action figures are from a mix of different fandoms, showing how we can all come together to rise above even the most difficult of challenges.

For the man behind the cover, toy photographer Mitchel Wu, the image blends a sense of catharsis and a new adventure. We talked with Wu about how the powerful photo came together.

Pop Insider: We’ve talked before about how you got your start in toy photography, but how has your career evolved over the past few years? What projects have you most enjoyed working on?

Mitchel Wu: My career has evolved in a few ways: First, besides continuing to create images for many of the large toy companies, my client base has grown to include many of the major entertainment studios as well. These include The Walt Disney Company, Marvel Entertainment, Warner Bros, and Funimation/Sony Pictures. Second, the scope and scale of my collaborations have also expanded. Throughout 2020 I represented Schleich USA and created a series of really fun images for their amazing “Power of Imagination” campaign, which encouraged and supported real play, imagination, and creativity among kids. And third, my work has become a lot more visible both within and outside of the toy industry. Marian Bossard, EVP Market Global Events at The Toy Association, invited me to speak and exhibit at Toy Fair New York 2020. The work I did for the Toy Association, Schleich USA, and the Pop Insider Magazine at Toy Fair NY 2020 led to the most epic and memorable week of my career. I’ve also been getting a lot more mainstream media features. Being featured in the documentary series “Marvel’s 616,” which is currently streaming on Disney+, is a good example of that. And even more recently I was filmed for a show that will be televised across Germany, Austria, and Switzerland on one of Germany’s major television networks.

Honestly, I enjoy every project I work on. Each presents its own challenges and opportunities for creativity. With that said, of course, I love the magazine cover images I’ve created for the Pop Insider! Those are always really fun collaborations!

Related: Mitchel Wu: Telling Toy Stories Through Photography

PI: What was the inspiration behind the latest issue’s cover for the Pop Insider? Why was this an exciting story for you to tell?

MW: I was really thrilled to create this image because I knew it was a theme most of us could relate to. And I always have a wonderful collaboration with the team at the Pop Insider. Marissa Dibartolo, co-editor-in-chief of the Pop Insider, and I always have a fun back and forth on ideas, playing with a variety of different themes and concepts until we arrive at something amazing. For this image, we wanted an image that communicated the power of working together to triumph over monumental challenges, which 2020 was for most of us.

Pop winter cover
The Pop Insider’s Winter 2020 cover by Mitchel Wu

PI: The cover for the Pop Insider’s spring issue is not the first you’ve done with us. What were some creative differences between creating this new cover and last winter’s Mandalorian cover?

MW: The emotion and intent are completely different. The Mandalorian and The Child cover was about the father and child relationship I saw building between the two characters with each new episode, so I wanted to create a fun, heartwarming moment that captured that. That image also has a very organic feel to it, created through environment and tone. This current cover image has more to do with coming together to rise above monumental challenges, which 2020 was for most of us around the world. The image itself is more in your face with its message and stark environment and shows the struggle we’re just now getting past and the optimism and hope most of us are feeling today.

PI: Can you walk us through the process of creating the image? How did you take it from idea to reality?

MW: I work with my clients in a variety of ways based on what works best for them. For the Pop Insider, I typically will provide them with a written list of several ideas for some initial feedback, to see if any of the ideas resonate with them. This is a very collaborative stage that takes into account toy availability, concept, and ultimately if I feel I can successfully create an amazing image from that concept. This then leads to a rough concept sketch so that the team at The Pop Insider can see what my vision for the image is. Once that’s approved I will move directly into set-building and photography, using the concept sketch as my guide and roadmap.

Source: Mitchel Wu/the Pop Insider

PI: This cover features some fun elements like fire and smoke What sort of techniques did you use to pull off these fun effects?

MW: I typically create my images using practical effects, which simply means they’re real effects as opposed to digital. For this image that meant actually setting fire to the 2020 numbers seen in the image, which felt oddly cathartic! I also created the smoke rising through the image with a burning stick – simple but effective! And then there are the unsung and unseen heroes of my images, like my Litra LED lights, which I use to light nearly every one of my sets. I also used a product called Atmosphere Aerosol (fog in a can!) to create some added atmosphere in the background, which I then enhanced further with a digital glow creator called Oniric. This is a good time to mention that I will absolutely use digital effects if I feel it will help create a stronger image and story. I love how it all came together!

PI: Did you have any creative plans that didn’t work out or that surprised you in some way?

MW: Aside from the usual challenges of constructing the set and posing and positioning multiple figures, I was unsure of how the 2020 numbers would burn. They are made out of cardboard and I didn’t know if they would burn too quickly (as in, “POOF!,” gone!), or hardly at all. I was hoping for a slow burn and nice orange flames, which is exactly what I got! For obvious reasons whenever an image requires smoke or fire, I will create it outside, with full safety measures and precautions in place. Working with smoke can also pose its own challenges since creating interesting smoke patterns requires a fairly windless day. I was pretty happy with the variety of smoke plumes and patterns I was able to create that day.

Source: Mitchel Wu/the Pop Insider

PI: This cover, much like the one you created for our 2019 holiday gift guide, features characters from a variety of different fandoms. How do you make all of the figures work well together, and how important is it to highlight their individuality as well as their power as a group?

MW: I love that every character used in this image is so incredibly different from the next. I think it symbolizes and illustrates perfectly how, even though we are all so different, we can come together during an incredibly challenging time to solve almost any problem. It’s cliche to say we are better and stronger when working together, but it’s also true! I think the characters all work together in this image because, well, they are all working together, so to speak. But more to your question, the theme, the composition, and the environment really binds them together.

Mitchel Wu’s pandemic-inspired toy photography. | Source: Mitchel Wu

PI: Is there anything else you would like to share?

MW: My images are often topical and based on current events. If you look at my images from a year ago a few of them were clearly influenced by what was happening around the world, in my own community, and in my own home. I handled them in a playful way because this is toy photography after all, but it definitely impacted my work. I much prefer the optimism and hope that I and others are feeling today. Good riddance to 2020!

Check out more of Mitchel’s toy photography on his website, Instagram, and Facebook pages; and read the full spring 2021 issue of the Pop Insider here! 

From left to right, the figures featured on the cover of the Pop Insider‘s spring issue: Ghostbusters Plasma Series Peter Venkman Action Figure (Hasbro), Masters of the Universe Origins She-Ra Action Figure (Mattel), DC Multiverse Build-A 7-Inch Batman Figure (McFarlane Toys), Anime Heroes Naruto Uzumaki (Bandai America), Fortnite 7-Inch Deluxe Plastic Patroller Figure (McFarlane Toys), and Power Rangers Lightning Collection Mighty Morphin Metallic Armor Pink Ranger Figure (Hasbro).


About the author

Nicole Savas

Nicole Savas

As a kid, Nicole either wanted to be a professional toy player-wither or a writer. Somehow, as social media editor for The Toy Insider, The Toy Book, and The Pop Insider, she’s found a career as both. She's grateful to work somewhere that she can fully embrace both her love of teddy bears and her admiration for the Oxford comma. When she's not playing with toys at work, she's playing with her baby girl at home.