Did you play with toys when you were growing up? What kinds of toys did you play with? Did you make your own toys or did you have store-bought ones?
It’s hard to imagine any human being not having at least one particular toy in their life that helped them escape into their fantasy world.
The COVID-19 pandemic has placed a severe limitation on personal interaction with friends, distant relatives and anyone outside the family circle. The lock-down imposed across the entire globe had me thinking about how kids and adults have been trying to cope with this crisis that’s ravaged many lives, businesses and economies, and wondered if toys factored into their lives in any way. I’m willing to bet that some or most of them have used different types of toys to maintain a bit of sanity and as a distraction in this new way of life as we all will come to know it.
The Toy Stories project began as a follow up to the Sweet Tooth series in which I had focused on synthetic dyes derived from crude oil, that’s been incorporated into the mass-produced candy which I ate and loved as a kid and throughout my young adult life. The Toy Stories project follows this line of thinking, but explores the toys or alternate forms of toys which I remembered playing with as a child. It offered a way for me to reunite with those tangible toys that had allowed me as a child to just be a child and have fun. Toys like the wind up robots that are featured in the We Are The Robots diorama photograph are examples of toys that helped me develop and build on my imagination.
As a young kid I couldn’t always distinguish fantasy from reality, which was a type of escape back then, but became a growing challenge for this project, as I worked on the preliminary sketches and designs of the various miniatures, supporting characters and dioramas that would end up in the final photographs.
During this early process there were certain sketches that did not make the final cut for various reasons, for example the sketch that depicts my perspective on LEGO’s 50-year partnership with Shell Oil Company.
LEGO ended their partnership with Shell Oil Company in 2014 due to pressure from Greenpeace and other environmental groups, even though LEGO continues to manufacture oil-based bricks with a direction to go green by 2030. The idea behind this sketch was to use the LEGO bricks to create the imagined landscape incorporating the Shell logo. I also felt my idea was too direct in its focus and context and the landscape as a whole just did not work.
Other sketches such as the Dump Trucks (pictured below) was also discarded at the preliminary sketch stage because the idea presented itself as bigger logistical and production problem given that all of these dioramas would eventually end up being between 6-8 feet in length, height and/or depth.
My studio space could barely fit the diorama, me, the analog camera system I would use to photograph the dioramas and the amount of subject-to-film plane distance ranging between 5-8 feet. Working outdoors or renting a separate space wasn’t an option either for this project due to the time it took me to plan, prepare and build out the model sets.
When I set about working on the production of Toy Stories, I wanted to create scenarios with some relatable aspect that gave the viewer a familiarity with not just the toys profiled but also with the environments that showcased each toy.
By adding certain visual cues like movement, focus, light, shadow and camera angles I thought I could offer the viewer a perception of these environments that they might accept as their reality.
Understanding the relationship between the scale of the featured toy, like the plastic cars in the Plastic Wheels Keep on Turning photograph, and the perspective in which this scale would need to fit into was important. This relationship amplified the task of building the various miniature sets that would need to contain maximum detail that would fit into the work space.
Since this project was geared towards printing the final images for a gallery exhibition, the goal was to come up with an image that could showcase the necessary details that the viewer might be interested in observing.
Further revisions to the overall number and types of pieces for the project was also needed to be made. For example, the photograph entitled, Nanook, I ended up abandoning the original idea pictured below (left) and replaced it with a last minute design of the oilrig model on the right.
It was already February 2020 and time was running out as I had to wrap up the project for post-production before my scheduled exhibition in May of the same year. The oil tanker ship that’s being tugged in the image, would have measured 18 inches in length and would needed to have been built from scratch. Building a boat let alone an oil tanker presented various other challenges especially for a novice boat builder like me.
I decided to scrap the original idea and moved forward with the oilrig model presented in the digital collage. The thinking was to take on a formalized method of building a model kit that not only lent itself to the idea of featuring another familiar toy, but one that I could build-by-numbers, so to speak, to help reduce the amount of time, versus coming up with my own schematics as I did with all the other pieces in this project.
The only model oilrig kit available that fit the project’s budget was an old copy by the model kit company, Revell. This particular model kit was based off a now defunct offshore oilrig, one of many oilrigs that have been abandoned in the North Sea off the coast of the United Kingdom. As of 2020, there are over 27000 oilrigs abandoned in the world. This model kit was at 1/200th scale and included close to 300 individual parts.
In terms of building the model, experienced modelers had managed to complete it between a span of 3 – 18 months. I had roughly one month to complete this piece for the project, and my mind already began anticipating the thought of scrapping this piece altogether.
With some careful preplanning I was able to build the oilrig model in 19 days, before completing overall diorama in which the model would be incorporated and photographed in. The Coronavirus would be in full effect in the United States within two weeks of me finishing the project.
To follow the build process for this model kit visit my Instagram feed @neilmarcello
The Toy Stories project offered me an enjoyable escape back into my childhood albeit with some frustrations along the way. I still find it surreal in terms of how the world has been so adversely affected by the health crisis.
Amidst the ongoing human efforts to mitigate and overcome this pandemic, my thoughts focus on the children growing up in the post-Coronavirus world as I’m left wondering what will the toys be like by 2050?
Will these future toys still allow kids to escape into their own fantasy world that might some day help prepare them for the real world or will there no longer be any difference for them to distinguish between fantasy or reality?