AFinterview: “Cantina” Danny Neumann and At Home With The Super Neumanns #AFIScoopWeek
April 20, 2016
No. 001 of 365
There are a lot of Toy Photographers out there these days, but none capture the joy, whimsy and fun of PLAYING with your toys quite like AFi’s own Danny Neumann. Danny Neumann is a dear friend of mine. He’s a blogger here at AFi, he created our logo (as well as the logo for Geek Shall Inherit), we have conquered 4 rivers together, we do a podcast together, he stood up with me at my wedding… and we met because of toys. We originally met back on the old RTM forum, over a decade ago, and started meeting up in person annually at SDCC.
Danny is insanely talented and for the past few years he has been doing some really innovative toy photography. Over those years has has amassed enough delightful images that has has been invited to exhibit he work at several galleries.
Danny has taken his love of action figure photography and turned it into an incredible and ambitious Thing-A-Day photo project called “At Home With The Super Neumanns.” on Facebook and Instagram. This project was best described by our mutual friend Monte Williams as:
“…endlessly charming and inventive photo-a-day series concerning the humble domestic adventures of a super couple. Each premise is cute and clever, the diorama world-building is ambitious as can be and yet deceptively unassuming… every entry in the series is humbling and delightful.”
Danny and the Super Neumanns just recently passed the mid-way point for the year and then over the weekend posted the 200th image. There’s PLENTY of great stuff to catch up on and plenty more in store for us in the months ahead. When you see some of the images and the care and attention to detail put into every photo you will not believe that one human would be capable of producing these works for seven days a week for six months much less 365 in a row!
We sat down with Danny as part of our 11th anniversary celebration to talk to him and get a behind the scenes look at this charming, inventive and fun project:
AFi: When did you first get the idea for the Super Neumanns and what sparked the idea?
Danny: I think it was about this time last year when I first started formulating the plan. I didn’t start quite as ambitious as it turned out. I was really just looking for a way to facilitate taking more photos. I figured that if I had a self-contained environment that allowed me to keep my camera tethered to my computer I’d be more productive. Not that I don’t enjoy shooting outdoors, but its a whole different ballgame when you have to scout locations, time things for the least amount of traffic, and hope that its not too windy or overcast or hot!
As the Super Neumanns project started to take shape I realized that the effort already expended dictated a bigger scope. I’ve always been fascinated by the idea of “one thing a day for a year” projects since they’re the type of commitment that guarantee productivity. I’m as much of a procrastinator as the next guy and this would force me to create!
The subject matter was an evolution of shots I’d done in the past that depicted scenes of Wonder Woman and Batman on dates. I like very much the idea of superheroes doing ordinary and even mundane things. The thought of Superman and Lois Lane at home, engaged in every day activities seemed really fun to me.
AFi: Where did the figures you use come from?
Danny: That question is like vital, because the project could not have happened without the right figures. I knew this universe would be 3 3/4” (or 1:18) scale. Firstly, because that is what holds the most nostalgia for me and is what I collect, but second, because its a manageable size. There are some vintage 3 3/4” Superman figures, but definitely no Lois Lanes. So already I knew I was gonna need something custom. Since I was imagining lots and lots of shots the need for more than just the basic five-point articulation was important. I remember thinking: “Man, how great would it be if there was a Superman and Lois Lane made in the style of vintage G.I. Joes!” I became aware of this figure Funskool made called “Superhero” which was essentially a bootleg Superman made out of G.I. Joe parts. Perfect, right? Well, to my disappointment, I discovered that one of those guys will cost you a small fortune.
Around this time I started a dialogue with my friend, Pierre Kalenzaga, about the project. Pierre is one of the best G.I. Joe customizers out there. Check out his amazing work at https://www.facebook.com/airmax.animated/. When I told him about the project he blew my mind by agreeing to help. Once Pierre was onboard it was full steam ahead. We bounced around some recipes for the custom builds, settled on the ingredients, acquired said pieces, and BOOM, Pierre delivered. Our Superman did not follow the same recipe as the Funskool version, which I think was a really good call. The Chuckles head we did use has so much more personality. Lois was pretty tough. There just weren’t a lot of vintage female G.I. Joes so we had to get creative. Obviously, we needed to start with the Baroness’s hair. But we had to use a different head since I didn’t want Lois in glasses. That was a challenge Pierre overcame beautifully. Some folks have remarked about how buff Lois looks and, on one level, those comments bug me. Like, not only did we do the best we could with what we had, but I wasn’t looking for these figures to be perfect specimens. I wanted them to have an element of normality.
AFi: Where do you get all the props?
Danny: Oh boy, well, lots of places. I joke that I’ve been keeping the lights on at a local shop called “Auntie Em’s Miniatures & Smilin’ Jack’s Pedal Cars”. Crazy what tiny dollhouse props cost. Having spent a small fortune, I leave with a bag that weighs less than a hummingbird. I’ve gotten stuff from eBay and Etsy, Michaels and Toys R Us. I’ve been to a local fabric shop called SAS a number of times. Friends have given me stuff.
AFi:Tell us about the history of the Super Neumann’s house.
Danny: Thanks for asking about that. I had a vague recollection that my sister, Meredith, had a Fisher Price dollhouse when she was young. Meredith died a few years ago, and I just felt like using this particular dollhouse would be a little way I could connect with her. After a bit of research I found that Fisher Price offered this dollhouse for a number of years in a few different incarnations. My sister had the original, but I ended up getting the second version since it had the additional feature of working lights. I’ve since gotten a full second house which I use for other places the Super Neumanns visit and for the exterior house shots.
Wanting to verify that Meredith did, in fact, have this dollhouse I asked my mom to go through old photos and pull any that showed my sister playing with toys. This past December my mom came out to visit and brought an envelope full of amazing pictures. My heart really leapt when I came across a series of shots from Christmas 1979 showing a four year old Meredith opening the Fisher Price dollhouse.
AFi: Tell us about the main cast.
Danny: Meet Mr. and Mrs. Super Neumann! I never actually refer to them as “Superman and Lois Lane”. Partly because this is a personal, somewhat autobiographical endeavor. Partly because I’ve had the email address: SuperNeumann@gmail.com for a long time. And partly because its an effort (probably irrelevant) to keep the project in a derivative, transfomative “fair use” legal zone. I know that sounds crazy, but I actually have missed out on some commissioned projects because the arts organizations have been nervous about my use of licensed characters. Before I started The Super Neumanns I even met with the VLAA (Volunteer Lawyers and Accountants for the Arts) to discuss the greater implications of the project but I won’t bore you with those details!
AFi: We’ve seen a few “guest stars” but will we see any reoccuring characters? Maybe a nosy neighbor?
Danny: Oh yes. I really enjoy the recurring characters and cameo appearances. The neighbors were introduced early on and have shown up a few times, notably on Friday “Game Nights”. Recently they’ve been shown to be the owners of two Westies, which is a little tribute to some really great Instagram followers I have. Wonder Woman and Batman show up from time to time, usually on special occasions. Or to pull practical jokes. At a certain point I realized I needed to work a kid into the storyline. Not only am I a stepdad to a pretty great six year old but I’ve been a “Big Brother” to a kid named Johnny for almost 10 years. (I guess he’s not a kid anymore since he’ll be heading to college in the fall!) Anyway, we’ve had lots of fun adventures over the years and I wanted to recapture some of them via The Super Neumanns. The kid’s skateboard in the “Dropping In” halfpipe shot is almost the very same one I got Johnny for our first Christmas!
The guest stars are coming a bit faster now. Last week, Mr. Super Neumann went on a camping trip with his father-in-law. That figure was custom painted by my neighbor Courtnay to look exactly like my real father-in-law! Mr. Super Neumann’s mom was introduced not long ago in a “FaceTime” shot. Oh, and you may have noticed that Bizarro showed up on “Siblings Day”. When Pierre floated the idea of Bizarro I almost cried with excitement. I was flabbergasted that he would be willing to make another complicated custom for the cause. But make him, he did. I just took a shot of Bizarro moving into the basement, so we will definitely be seeing lots of that fella!
AFi: How far in the future do you have pictures/story archs mapped out?
Danny: At this point, I plan things out month by month. I start by looking to see what observances, holidays, etc. fall in the given month. Then I choose and intersperse a couple larger, series-type ideas that will be multiple images. After that, I fill in the remaining days with more one-off shots. At this point, I think I’ve got enough of the bigger event stories to get me through the project.
AFi: How many pictures ahead are you on any given day?
Danny: I started the project with a full month’s worth of shots. (Something I’d recommend to anyone embarking on a project like this!) That head start dwindled quickly, though! At this point I try to maintain about a week’s worth in the bank. I’m just too neurotic to let it go much lower.
AFi:How long does it take you to set up and shoot a picture?
Danny: Oh man, that totally depends. Some are quickies that may just take an hour or so. Some are really involved and can take days to prep. For instance, the ice skating on the swimming pool series was really laborious. I wanted to tell a story that involved Mr. Super Neumann using his cold breath. I decided to depict Mrs. Super Neumann finding an old pair of ice skates and Mr. Super Neumann creating an environment where she could use them. To accomplish this I had to first track down an in-scale swimming pool. Fortunately, Tech Deck made a Tony Hawk pool that was just about perfect. Getting one wasn’t exactly cheap, though, and its actually rather large. Obviously, having the pool itself wasn’t enough. I needed to create the surroundings, too. (Sheets of that stone paver flooring are 18 bucks each!) And I needed to made it so that it was fairly easy to break down and reassemble since there’d be multiple shots, some where the pool is frozen and some when it wasn’t. Freezing the water required us clearing out our freezer for a few days (since it turns out that freezing clear and smooth water is a bit of a science!) It was a frustrating and time consuming effort. And the weekend that I HAD to get these shots done, I came down with the flu. It was terrible. Definitely a low point of the project for me.
AFi: Does everything have to be practical and in scale or do you allow yourself some digital wizardry?
Danny: I try and keep the photo-manipulation to an absolute minimum. Really, the only stuff I’ve done digitally so far are things like heat vision rays, smoke, and retouching out wires used to suspend things. Even that stuff bugs me and I did initially try and accomplish them practically, but either the scale or my craftsmanship were prohibitive!
AFi: Do you have a favorite post/storyline/scene so far?
Danny: Oh boy. I have fondness for different shots for different reasons. One of my early favorites was when Mr. Super Neumann decided he needed to get back in shape. One of the exercise pics had him following along to a Richard Simmons “Sweatin’ to the Oldies” video. I still laugh at that one. For a series that led up to Mr. Super Neumann’s birthday, I recreated a local bar we frequent called “Carlys”. It was a lot of work but the end result just feels right to me. Then there are simple one-offs that I enjoy just for the emotion conveyed, like the one where the super couple is drinking coffee on the balcony.
AFi: You are now more than halfway through your yearlong commitment. Do you regret making it a 7 days a week thing or by this time are you pretty much in a groove?
Danny: I am (finally) in a pretty good groove. Today I posted shot number 200. For like a split second I allow myself some satisfaction. Then all I can think about is the fact that there’s 165 more to go! Haha. I don’t regret committing to the “one a day for a year” task. That’s not to say it hasn’t been consuming and expensive and stressful. It has. But the rewards in terms of creative fulfillment are huge. And, even though I’m an action figure collector, I have not really “played” with my toys since I was a kid. That bums me out because I truly believe that the creative mindspace a child occupies when playing is magical. Its very hard to recapture as an adult. But, through the course of the project, I have come close to entering that zone.
AFi: With having to generate daily content for this has that put your other action figure photograpy on hold? Or does this scratch that creative itch?
Danny: Oh, its totally on hold, lol. There have been shots I’ve wanted to do, but honestly, all my free time is dedicated to The Super Neumanns.
AFi: Have you noticed any particular image/story being more popular or more “liked” than the others?
Danny: I hate admitting this but I use an app called “InsTrack” that gathers and clearly presents things like “most liked media” and (my bane) “lost followers”. By far my most liked shot is the little David Bowie tribute I did on the day he died. It was a spur of the moment decision, and I almost didn’t do it, but Meg pushed me in the right direction. After that, people seem to like when Batman shows up! Oh, and Mr. Super Neumann using his x-ray vision to find the remote control has been popular. I have to thank my buddy, Matt, for that idea.
AFi: Do you find it harder or more liberating to not use any dialog to tell your story?
Danny: Its never been an issue. I find it amazing how much story and emotion these figures can convey. A lot definitely comes from subtle adjustments in their poses and the angles you capture their faces. Still, the figures themselves don’t change which I sometimes find remarkable. But since its a “silent movie” I often have trouble when I DO have to write things like the little photo captions!
AFi: Do you plan stories around the props you find or do you plan the story and then find the props?
Danny: Both. I swear, if I find a good prop I will create a shot around it. Finding good props is like finding gold. I remember stumbling on an adorable French Bulldog. It was so cute I had to get it. Then the storyline of the Super Neumanns finding it and eventually Lex coming to claim it came later. Other times I go nut trying to track down a stylistically accurate 1:18-ish scale prop to complete a story. I just now won an auction for a vintage Lundby ping pong table. And some tiny red cups. You put the pieces together! 😉
AFi: How much of the props/sets do you buy vs. make yourself?
Danny: Also a bit of both. I enjoy making props but sometimes, due to the relentless nature of doing one shot a day, I have to resort to buying something I otherwise could have made. My wife, Meg, has been an invaluable help in this regard. I don’t know the first thing about sewing so Meg had made me all sorts of things like aprons, curtains, bedspreads, pillows, skirts, capes, shorts for inflatable gorillas, etc, etc.
AFi: The two figures that are the main characters are both customs. How are the holding up after 6 months?
Danny: LOL, insightful question! Pierre’s craftsmanship is superb and he incorporated a few tricks to help with durability. But even so, certain vulnerable areas like shoulder joints and thumbs just break down. Fortunately, Pierre has been kind enough to make me replacement parts. I’m on my second Mr. Super Neumann and the Mrs.’s has had some work done, too 🙂
AFi: Can you give us any hints of what we might see coming up in the second half?
Danny: Since I’m living this year vicariously through the Super Neumanns, they will most definitely be going on a vacation. I got a vintage Glamour Gals “Ocean Queen” cruise ship that is in line for some Super Neumann’s customizing. I’m currently prepping for a visit to an art gallery that may include super villain hijinks.
AFi: Do you have the last picture/story arc planned out already?
Danny: I’ve thought about it but haven’t decided. Maybe the Super Neumanns will just be sitting in a diner! It occurred to me that I could get a Fisher Price “Adventure People” boat with waterskis and a ReAction Jaws for a “The Super Neumanns Jump the Shark” story. But now that I’ve said it, it can’t be the last shot!
Thank you Danny for the peek behind the curtain look at the process and all the candid answers. Make sure all of the rest of you checkout “At Home With The Super Neumanns.” on Facebook and Instagram. Make sure you “like” your favorites and tell him AFi sent you!
Daniel “Julius Marx” Pickett has been around toys his whole life. The first line he ever collected was Mego’s World’s Greatest Super Heroes line back in the 70s. He has been surrounded by collectables ever since.
In 1999 he was confounded by a lack of information and news about some of his favorite toy lines he was collecting. Since he couldn’t find the information he decided to pursue it himself thinking other people might also be interested in the same news. He started writing a weekly column on the toy industry and action figure for a toy news site and in a years time he tripled the sites daily traffic with his updates, reviews and product features.
He built relationships with every major toy manufacturer and many sculptors, painters and mold makers. He grew his hobby into a world wide expertise that the industry has embraced.
In 2004 he teamed up with his toy buddy Jason “ToyOtter” Geyer and they created their own website www.ActionFigureInsider.com.
Daniel has been quoted in both industry and mass media press outlets. Over the years Daniel and AFi have been sought out as experts in the field. Daniel was regularly featured on “Attack of the Show” on the G4 network as the primary contributor to their “Mint On Card” segment, and our front page has been linked to from USA Today’s
“Pop Candy” Blog twice. Daniel’s content has also been featured on MSNBC.com,
Wired.com, Fark.com, Boing-Boing, Gizmodo.com, Ain’t It Cool News, the Official
Star Wars blog, Geekologie, G4, CNet and Toy Fare magazine, among many
others. He has consulted on toy lines, books, documentaries and TV shows.
But all of that really just sounds snooty and “tootin’ his own horn” – the long and short of it is that Daniel loves toys and he LOVES talking about them.