A little over year ago, I stumbled across an amazing image on Facebook that someone was passing off as a production still from “Star Wars: The Force Awakens”. Knowing how closely J.J. Abrams protects his mystery box, I was dubious and started digging. That search lead me to Matthew Callahan and the toy photography project that would come to be known as Galactic Warfighters.

I have been a huge fan ever since.

Not long after, I reached out to Matthew, who, as Marine Corps Combat Correspondent, was stationed in Okinawa at the time. This fact only made the project more intriguing. I was already curious about the technical aspects of Galactic Warfighters. Now, it was clear the gritty realism of Matthew’s work spoke to more than a love of Star Wars.

With that introduction, lets get to the good stuff; learning about the project directly from Callahan.

Copyright 2015 - Matthew Callahan
Matthew Callahan

How did Galactic Warfighters come together? Did it the idea arrive fully formed? Or, did it evolve over time?

Galactic Warfighters has been evolving for the two years Ive been doing it. It all started at the Defense Information School on Fort Meade, Maryland in 2013, where I was cross training from the Infantry to public affairs for the Marine Corps. Part of a public affairs specialists, known as combat correspondents in the Marines, job is to tell the stories of service members through written word, photo and video. We were on a class assignment to photograph with shutter speed in mind, making photos that froze time and photos with motion blur. One of my roomates had a 6-inch storm trooper and I asked if I could use it for my assignment. So it really all started with the basics of photo composition in mind, and has grown in both scope and meaning since.

Once you had the idea in hand, how did you proceed? Did you do test shots to play with the concept/look before you started posting images. Or, did you just start putting your work out there and refine the look on the fly?

After the first image I made, I was hooked. Most of the early work with Galactic Warfighters, which I called TheDroids then, was on the fly and encompassed a range of different characters from different sci fi universes. One of the first things I began doing was making hasty studio set ups in my barracks room and using a single strobe, started playing with long exposure and anything from listerine bottles to cologne bottles as gels. I didn’t have the equipment (and still largely don’t, haha) to set up lighting. Using this method allowed me to play with light in a way I hadn’t really thought of before. I could use the long exposure to emulate a three-light setup with a single flash and some toiletries. The other action-oriented images are just my building off what Id learned in previous years and experiences photographing Marines. From the beginning, there was always a desire to sort of re-create what I photographed in the Marine Corps.

The short vignettes that accompany your shots really add a powerful journalistic element to your work. Is that part of the typical role of a combat correspondent? Or, is this something you started to play with on Galactic Warfighters?

The idea to tell these stories in an editorial way came several months before I photographed an actual toy. I came across a stunning digital painting of a battlegroup star destroyers conducting an orbital bombardment of a planet. My imagination buzzed about what story the painting told. So I framed it through the lens of a journalist. I reposted the image with the artists name and with the new caption contextualizing the scene on Facebook. It didn’t occur to me after Id first started photographing the Star Wars toys to tell stories with them. Marrying the two ideas together sort of formed on its own for me over time. The format for these vignettes has stayed pretty much the same since I started doing them. They tell the real stories of these fictitious characters in this fictitious world the same way these stories would be told of real men and women in the services.

How has your experience as a combat correspondent help you plan your shots from a technical perspective? I know some are referencing some classic combat photography, but are you also recreating your own USMC work when planning GW shots?

Many, if not all of my images are inspired by either my own work, or known and iconic imagery of service members made. Being around Marines doing Marine things for many years has sort of seared how they move into my head. I use these memories as a reference point when I pose these figures, which are now almost exclusively 1/6th scale collectibles.

Copyright 2015 - Matthew Callahan
Copyright 2015 – Matthew Callahan

How do your fellow Marines and other service personnel respond to Galactic Warfighters?
So many Marines are the biggest nerds. Reception for the project has been overwhelmingly positive. Many combat veterans have messaged and told me in person these images bring them back to their times on deployments. Some even say its therapeutic for them.

The project first acts as an ode to our personification of “things.” For many of us, we started anthropomorphizing with our toys as children. Star Wars has always been a huge influence in my life since my grandmother introduced me to it when I was 4 years old. This project brings these inanimate objects to life in a way,I believe, no one has ever seen before.

Secondly, with the specific characters I photograph being the rank-and-file ground troops of the Star Wars Universe, the project takes them off their fictitious pedestals and grounds them in reality, telling their very human stories. The vignettes I write about these photographs reflect a myriad of experiences and hardships real men and women I’ve known in the service have encountered before, no matter how big or small.

Conflict generally has been one of the biggest informants in the way pop culture creates stories. Galactic Warfighters is a snapshot that tethers the real and fictitious worlds more closely to each other.

Copyright 2015 - Matthew Callahan
Copyright 2015 – Matthew Callahan

Lets drill down into some of the technical details of your toy photography. How do you approach the challenge of scale; particularly with the natural elements in play on your outdoor shots?

There are two tenets I usually follow when I begin photographing these figures. By far the most important is posing them in a way that looks human. Working with sixth scale figures affords me the luxury of giving the figures depth and motion because of their articulation. Wavering just slightly from what a real person would look like firing a rifle in posing, however, can rip you right of the reality Im trying to create. I often find myself putting the figures down and shouldering an imaginary weapon, seeing how my body rests and where my limbs and head are.

The second rule is composing the image in a way that gives the figures size while simultaneously working the background to get rid of elements that can ruin the reality of the image.

How are you creating the smoke and sand/dirt blasts? Do you have an assistant creating those elements as you shoot?

All sorts of ways! The vast majority of my imagery is all made in-camera. I process my images in photoshop, but all the effects like dirt and smoke and debris are all made with friends assisting. Sometimes its four guys blowing huge drags from their cigarettes, while other times its one guy with two cans of compressed air shooting it into the dirt to make dust and debris. I keep the shutter fast and have to time it right shooting bursts if images Until the effects compliment the composition of the photo.

How difficult has it been securing the scale elements, like the folding chairs, in your images?

The 1/6th scale figures are made by Sideshow Collectibles, but the other 6th scale elements can all be found with a quick search on eBay. The majority of these products come from Hong Kong, where I guess the 6th scale market is pretty big. Prices range wildly depending on what youre looking for. The chairs were $4 a pop!

Copyright 2015 - Matthew Callahan
Copyright 2015 – Matthew Callahan

Are there any lens/lighting tricks you have found useful for toy photography?
I started using a macro lens for the smaller figures but have since stuck with either really wide lenses or really long lenses. The wide shots can be close, while the long lenses allow me to compress the image, making background control much easier.

Your images have a cinematic feel. Is there anything special, while shooting or in post, you do to achieve that effect?

All effects work minus one or two early images is caught in camera and I process the images in post with the basics: levels adjustments, contrast, some sharpening tools. But I believe what gives these images their cinematic look is the choices made before the frame is made. The posing, the choice of effects and the way I compose the photos I think comes together really well to make a frame someone wishes they would have seen in a Star Wars movie.

What has the project taught you about photography?

SO MUCH! But mostly patience. For every good image you see from Galactic Warfighters, theres dozens of failed attempts at making photos. Ill go out with an idea, get all my gear and figures ready to roll and start shooting, only to come back with nothing. Its frustrating. But it keeps me motivated to continue shooting, and to make the frames exactly as I see them in my head.

Aside from the mechanics of photography (e.g. the exposure triangle, framing and composition), what one piece of advice would you give a person picking up the camera for the first time to help them capture the best image.

I would tell them to try their best to tell a story with their photos.

Aside from Star Wars, what book or film to you like to revisit regularly?

The Forever War by Joe Haldeman.

Your images really feel like an organic part of the Star Wars universe. Has anyone at Disney/Lucasfilm reached out to you about the project?

Not yet, but maybe soon!

Copyright 2015 - Matthew Callahan
Copyright 2015 – Matthew Callahan

Want to know more about Matthew? Check out his website and follow him on Instagram (Matthew), Instagram (Galactic Warfighters) and Facebook.