I have been enamored by the work of Chris Shaylor of Empire Toy Works for quite some time now. His intricacy, detail, colors, and so much more, intrigue me. I am so excited to share this interview with you. I hope you enjoy learning more about him, or maybe being newly introduced to him. Let us know your thoughts in a comment below!
How long have you been building your wooden miniature playsets? What led you to the medium of wood, the miniature scale, the business?
I started building wood based playsets sporadically over 20 years ago. It was mostly just random scenes/settings inspired by vintage playsets from the 70’s and 80’s. Fast-forward maybe 10 years later and I started getting this itch to one day create an entire functionally playable city. The idea was there but it wasn’t until I was constantly watching Deadwood while also playing Borderlands that the idea really grew into sort of a mission to prove to myself that it could actually be done. I toyed around with the notion of making a sci-fi version of a roadside carnival. Complete with rickety rides and alien carnies but I eventually decided on a full city sized spaceport as it would give me tons of individual play venues to build the city up. I knew if I kept the universe it’s based in generic or rather vague that could have it inspired by ALL the sci-fi movies and TV shows I grew up watching. As a kid, I would jump from watching Blade Runner on VHS to Sanford & Son to Battlestar Galactica to One Day At A Time to Star Wars to Laverne & Shirley and instead of watching them as individual movies or shows, in my head, I would mish-mash it all together. Alien families trying to pay rent or old cyborg junk dealers being chased by an evil empire. So I wanted to create a gritty sci-fi dystopian complex that still had everyday life settings within it. So instead of ‘climatic hero scenes’ I have details like porta-potties and a med clinic with waiting room magazines and coloring books. It’s those little things that you know probably exist in those big cinematic universes but you aren’t going to see them on the big screen. I took a dollhouse approach to its design so there are countless accessibly open venues to play in. My intention was to make it as detailed as possible but structurally hands-on for actual play. It was after I was halfway done with the city, I named Rotgut Station, that I eventually posted a few pics on several toy collector forums. Requests started pouring in for me to create similar structures as commissioned orders and I started making playsets as a side job. Which eventually led into a full time business.
When I first started making the playsets, I was working for our family business making custom staircases. We had heaping stacks of cabinet grade plywood scrap so it was the obvious choice both structurally and financially. If I had a virtually unlimited supply of free material, I knew I could build anything I wanted. Plus, since I mostly focus exclusively with 3.75” 1:18 scale figures, the thickness of the plywood scaled well for the walls. After building with wood for several years, I trained myself with molding and resin casting for many of the small detail bits. I now work almost exclusively with resin construction.
What’s a defining moment, in your childhood or more recently, that points to the inevitability of this passion?
As for a defining childhood moment that led me down this path, it was mostly frustration. I’ve collected action figures within countless toy lines since the 70’s and over the years and noticed that actual playsets started to fade away from the toy shelves. Tons of great figures with many great vehicles and accessories but things like buildings, bases and battleship bridges were never usually produced anymore. Sometimes these scenes were just as much of a character as the actors themselves. Star Wars had a few decent playsets over the years and GI Joe has a pretty good assortment but by the 90’s a lot of those plastic scenes were just not being produced. And I get it, playsets are expensive to produce and the boxes take up more store shelf space. A few great toylines were based on movie flops so a continuation of the line never saw the light of day. Plus, during that time and even now, video games were grabbing most of the consumer attention. I wanted my figures to live somewhere besides a shelf. I wanted my spaceships to have a place to land….so I started making my own playsets.
How’d you get into photographing these miniatures with figures in cinematic scenes? What do you want the viewer to get from your photography?
Toy photography basically created my business. I needed to take decent pictures if I wanted to sell something. I never studied photography but I always paid close attention to cinematography and comic art. Staging and composition, lighting etc. There are a ton of “bad” movies out there that are visual masterpieces and I’ve always been more about the eye candy of the scenes than the storylines. As for equipment, I only use my iPhone and a few small lamps if necessary. I post a toy photo on Instagram/Facebook everyday, even when I don’t feel like it, and that’s honestly the best way to get better at it. The majority of the time I have no idea what the subject matter will even be. Sometimes an idea will hit me as I’m walking upstairs to take the picture. I usually try not to force a story in the photos and even if I add a caption of dialogue I leave it up to the viewer to decide who is even talking. Sometimes it’s obvious and sometimes it can be interpreted a couple different ways. I try not to spend too much time on one shot. If I can’t pull it off within 5-30 minutes including editing then I’ll move on to something else.
Tell us about you, your family, where you’re from.
I’m 46 and live in Dinwiddie Virginia. Married my high school sweetheart 23 years ago. Yes, she knew about my toy obsession since 1991. We have 2 teenage boys that think that their dads toys are pretty cool but video games are better.
What’s your favorite hobby, aside from what we’ve already discussed?
I’m a gamer myself when I’m not making toys. I get tons of inspiration being able to explore settings in open world games. I’ll master a game just so I can easily clear a room so I can stare at a rusty generator in a corner or the piping attached to a wall. I also watch a ton of movies and TV, all for inspiration. Sometimes I have no real interest in the storyline it’s just for those little background details. Dangling wires and cables or old TVs stacked in a basement or beams of dusty sunlight drifting through a gated window.
Thank you so much Chris!
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