Duane Shoots Toys uniquely captures our flashback faves
The 80s and 90s paved the creative way for our pop culture world today, and Duane Shoots Toys makes the notable moments of this era even more timeless by permanently capturing them with his unique, nostalgic style of photography.
The hyper-detailed photos are always arranged with precise intention, and often feature mashups of prominent cultural figures and places in previously unimagined scenarios, like Snoop Dogg practicing wizardry at Hogwarts or Will Smith and Prince facing off on the court. Through his work, you can also clearly see Duane Perera is a sneakerhead, so don’t be shocked if you come across a shot of Luigi trying to cop your dream pair of leather Yeezy Boosts.
The bright styled shoots, incredibly detailed scenes, and exciting features will keep you scrolling thru his page for hours. So, get comfy and scroll here instead for an exclusive chat with the photographer capturing your childhood dreams about his creative process, cultural inspiration, and even his fave kicks.
Your scenes make us wish we were 10 years old again, watching Saturday morning cartoons. Why did you choose this ultra-nostalgic subject matter as your main creative focus?
I was heavily into cartoons, video games, and toys as a kid, and I have a lot of fond memories from the 80's and 90's. Toy photography gives me a way to relive my childhood, and it allows me to connect with people who have a similar fondness for pop-culture from that era. I love reading the comments on my photos and engaging in discussions about classic tv shows, videos games and toys.
Photography as a medium is everlasting, but pop-culture is right here, right now. How do you make the combo of these two elements work?
With a camera, I'm able to capture a moment in time and preserve it for people to appreciate in the future. Photos are a great medium for documenting the evolution of pop-culture, because they allow us to briefly pause and absorb what was going on in a particular moment. Through my work, I'm able to connect with people who experienced the same pop-culture moments that I did, but I'm also able to introduce a younger generation of people to things that they haven't experienced.
At what point did this transform from a hobby to a passionate career? Do you remember one of the specific scenes you created that made it click for you?
About 1.5 years after I got into toy photography, I posted a photo of Woody and Buzz from Toy Story, examining a pair of Jordan 6 sneakers. This was shortly after "Toy Story 4" was released in theatres, and the timing of it helped the photo become popular. It was re-posted by several big accounts on Instagram, which opened many doors for me. It led to my first paid gig, a handful of interviews and lots of new followers. At that point, I realized that I could eventually turn this hobby into a career, if I just kept working at it.
The scenes you make are crazily detailed and shockingly proportionate, can you guide us through your work process from start to finish?
I usually do quite a bit of planning before creating a scene. If I'm working on a nostalgic piece from the 80's, I'll make a list of pop-culture references from that time period, and then pick and choose which things to incorporate into the diorama. I try to make things as historically accurate as I can, so I'll do some research online to confirm release dates for movies and video games. I don't always get it 100% correct, but the references in my scenes are usually chronologically on point.
Next, I'll start making miniature props for the scene - these are typically things like vintage posters, video game boxes, candy wrappers, magazines, etc. I'll build the walls and floors, and then I'll start arranging furniture and props to fill out the diorama. Once the set has been built, I'll pose some action figures in it. Then I'll adjust the lighting, and take a photo with my camera once everything is in place. Finally, I'll import the image into my computer to do some editing - basically fixing blemishes and tweaking the image.
On average, my shots take about 3-4 days to finish, depending on how complex they are. Some shots can be completed in less time, but others take longer.
With nostalgia being the main element of your work, how do you channel that nostalgic feeling through tiny pieces of art?
I reflect back on my childhood and try to think of moments that were exciting to me. Then I'll try to recreate those moments through my action figures. I try to pose the figures as if I were there in that moment, experiencing what they are experiencing.
The long-lasting nature and high quality of leather make it a perfect material for items meant to be appreciated over time, and because of that, people often get sentimentally attached to their fave leather goods, like sneakers, for example. It's similar to how we feel about our favorite toys, many of which you've captured. What is the challenge when recreating materials that can last more than a lifetime?
Most of the dioramas I build are actually temporary in nature - many of the backdrops are disassembled and re-cycled shortly after I take a photograph of the scene. So I don't really focus on building durable items that will last a lifetime. My only concern is to make them look somewhat realistic in the finished photo.
You’re pretty open with sharing the behind the scenes aspect of your work on social media. Why did you choose to share so much of your process with the world? And what kind of response have you gotten in return?
One thing that I realized early on is that documenting the process is just as important as posting the final photo. It helps people put the pieces together and fully understand the artwork that they're looking at. When I first started posting photos on social media, I didn't document my process, and I got a lot of inquiries from people asking how I created the photo (Was it a 3D-modeled image? Was it a drawing? They didn't quite know what they were looking at). After posting some behind the scenes content, people began to have a much greater appreciation for the end product.
You always feature the most iconic kicks in your work. For you, what is the sneaker of the decade, the design that will go down in pop-culture history, and was able to completely transcend sneaker culture?
From this past decade, I'd say either the Yeezy 350's or the Jordan 1 Off-Whites - both of them created so much excitement in the sneaker world and will be remembered as a huge part of pop-culture and fashion from this era.
A lot of your scenes feature legendary basketball characters, like MJ. What is the role of this sport and its journey in your creative inspiration?
Basketball has a global audience. Star players like Michael Jordan and Lebron James are bigger than the sport - they're known by people who dont even follow it. So these figures are easily recognized and are relatable to people from many different backgrounds. Basketball is also tied closely with the sneaker world, so there's a natural connection with one of the other recurring themes in my photos.
Every aspect of your scenes is hyper-detailed, down to the custom backgrounds and sneaker props you create. How do you conceptualize and create all these tiny details and pull them together?
I like to challenge myself to make each new scene more detailed than the last. It sparks my creativity and helps me develop a better eye for detail. When I'm building a scene, I'll study photos of real-life examples and try to pick out as many details about them as I can. Then I'll try to replicate those details as best I can in miniature form.
Your scenes feature some of our all-time favorite cartoon characters, what was your absolute fave show growing up and why?
I was into a lot of different cartoons as a child, but if I was forced to pick one, it would probably be the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. The show was exciting to watch and had a humorous component as well. I liked the fact that the four main characters had four distinct personalities that different people could relate to. My personal favorite was Donatello since he was the brainy scientist of the group (plus purple is my favorite color).
Community is key when it comes to giving social media the power to become a creative platform like the one you have. How did you cultivate this community of followers?
My following has grown primarily through sharing and word-of-mouth. I try to create content that evokes warm, fuzzy feelings and reminds people of their youth. I do my best to engage with as many of the comments as I can and I take feedback into consideration when coming up with new ideas.
There have been lots of unexpected duos in your scenes, like Michael Jackson making beats with E.T. or Kim Jong Un playing one-on-one with Dennis Rodman. Can you tell us a dream duo you haven’t created yet?
I think it would be fun to work on more scenes that combine characters from modern-day shows with characters from older shows. I don't have a dream duo in mind at the moment, but it might be cool to place a character from "The Office" with a character from "Seinfeld", for example. Or perhaps someone from "Breaking Bad" with someone from "The Sopranos"... there are so many interesting possibilities to consider.
A lot of super nostalgic aspects of pop culture like old comics and cartoons, classic basketball, and Super Mario are still influential for the younger generations who didn’t live it first-hand - becoming popular even on Gen-Z dominated platforms like TikTok. What makes these pieces of culture special and allows them to transcend generations?
There's a universal appeal to characters like Mario and the Ninja Turtles. When they get re-booted and introduced to a new generation, it gives parents an opportunity to bond with their children over something that they grew up with themselves.
Some things are just timeless, and we hope Duane keeps capturing ‘em all.
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