Meet the military veterans transforming 'Star Wars' action figures into works of art

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Happy Star Wars Day! To celebrate, Task & Purpose interviewed three military veterans who create incredible images and artwork using the plastic action figures many of us grew up posing and pew-pew-pewing with.

Each artist uses sophisticated photography, painting and sculpting techniques — as well as their own memories of service — to give their work an authentic military feel. 

The Star Wars galaxy may be far far away, but these guys make it seem closer than ever.

Is it the movie, or is it plastic? Military veteran artists on Instagram create art that will keep you guessing.

Is it the movie, or is it plastic? Military veteran artists on Instagram create art that will keep you guessing.

Episode I: The Photo Menace

Matthew Callahan was in Afghanistan less than 30 days when he broke his leg jumping over a canal in 2010. It was the Marine infantryman’s first deployment, but now he had to go all the way back to Hawaii to recover. 

It turned out to be a blessing in disguise: while he was in Hawaii, Callahan started shooting pictures with the base public affairs office. That experience kicked off a newfound love of photography and a lateral move to public affairs, where he spent four years taking award-winning photographs of Marines training and fighting both at home and abroad.

A lifelong Star Wars fan, Callahan realized in Hawaii that his photographs were echoing the frames of the movies he grew up with.

“I didn’t know how much influence it had on me until I was making images myself,” he told Task & Purpose. “Speaking this visual language, and realizing I had the power to do it too … it was like ‘this is amazing.’”

From there, it was a short leap to applying his newfound powers to the action figures lying around his barracks room. 

Callahan started using small, 3.75-inch or 6-inch figures and bottles of cologne or Listerine for lighting effects. But as his real-life photography skills improved, so too did his Star Wars images.

"The maturation of the project grew up with the maturation of being a storyteller generally," he said.

Today, setting up a Star Wars photo is often a day-long group project for Callahan and his family and friends. They often bring in smoke machines, scatter dust in the air, and rig up lights to make Callahan's high-end 12-inch figures come to life. It's a big production, but a bit of low-budget improvisation goes a long way.

To create a fog effect for one photo, "I had three Marines blowing vapor through their vapes at the troopers," he said.

Though the images are sci-fi, Callahan never took off his reporter helmet: each of his Star Wars pictures comes complete with an Associated Press-style caption and a weighty, real-world feel.

“The idea is I’m like a correspondent in a galaxy far far away, getting the boots on the ground perspective,” he said. “When you have crazy kinetic photographs of these toys, writing dry, AP-style captions lends a journalistic credibility to them, almost like we could be experiencing themselves.”

In keeping with his real-life job, Callahan focuses not on the lofty view of the Jedi and Sith, but on the gritty reality of everyday stormtroopers and clone troopers. The notorious white helmets these troopers wear act as a sort of blank canvas, Callahan explained, where fans like him are free to create their own stories and characters.

“You don’t see their faces, so you can put yourself in there,” he said. “That mechanism was used to dehumanize the stormtroopers, but this is taking that concept and flipping it on its head.”

Most of Callahan’s work focuses on clone troopers, both because they’re the good guys in the Star Wars universe (at least before Order 66) and because the figures are easiest to pose in photographs. But eagle-eyed fans will notice that the clone troopers are not toting laser guns or plasma cannons, but instead carry M4 carbines, rocket launchers, and other real-world weapons. 

Those weapons act as a “tether,” to bring the Star Wars universe closer to ours, Callahan explained. But the Marine veteran's quest for authenticity in his images goes deeper still.

For example, real-world weapons are heavy, but ⅙-scale toy replicas are not. In order to convey that sense of weight, Callahan often thinks back on his memories or asks his old infantry buddies what it looks like to hold those weapons.

“If I'm behind the barrel of an M240, where are my hands, what are they doing?” Callahan asked. “My infantry buddies will be like ‘oh, like this,’ so it adds to the authenticity. None of it is realistic, but if you can make it authentic, people will get into it with you.”

Discussions of Star Wars and the military often lead to profound political questions such as ‘is America the Empire?’ or ‘are these the extremists we’re looking for?’ While there are no explicit political messages in his work, Callahan says that fans familiar with the military may pick up on the ambiguity of being a soldier on the front lines of America’s foreign policy.

“A stormtrooper has as much knowledge about the Empire’s galactic defense strategy as the Marine grunt has into the national security strategy,” he said. “There’s an ambiguity there, and it’s the general frustrations that service members have had, like ‘What are we doing here?’ ‘What’s going on?’”

Frustrations aside, Callahan’s emphasis on authenticity may leave you wondering whether you’re looking at pictures from Afghanistan or Tatooine.

“I think what’s kind of cool is it’s like life informing art informing life,” he said. “My real world experiences have an impact on the project, and the project impacts my real world experience. It’s like a synergy.”

Episode II: The Return of Callsign Jedi

One day in 2007, David Fitzmaurice found something cool on eBay: a Superman action figure repainted in the classic style of George Reeves, who portrayed the Man of Steel in the 1950s TV show, Adventures of Superman. A devotee of comics, Star Wars, and most things considered geeky, Fitzmaurice bought the figure, but when it arrived, his wife said something surprising.

“She was like ‘you can totally do that yourself,’” Fitzmaurice recalled. “So I took some figures and started experimenting.”

She had good reason for saying so: Fitzmaurice is a lifelong artist who studied creative arts throughout high school. But painting and sculpting action figures was a new challenge for Fitzmaurice, who had to squeeze custom sessions in between caring for a young family and a busy job as an air battle manager with the Air Force.

“I don’t have a lot of time, so I do it whenever I can,” he said. “I started sculpting with different compounds, kitbashing" — a term for creating a model out of pieces from several commercial kits — "just bit by bit, trial and error, so I’m better now than when I started.”

Fitzmaurice started sharing pictures of his work and connecting with other artists online, and, later, through social media. His work really picked up when a wealthy patron offered to pay him a pretty penny for a line of custom superheroes based on the DC Injustice video game.

“There are wealthy, eclectic art collectors who buy pieces that are one-offs nobody else has,” Fitzmaurice said. “Honestly, that project jump-started me into doing this. Before, I was doing it now and then, but this got me into a regular battle rhythm, regularly working on something fun.”

The regular work helped the airman figure out the tips and tricks of the trade, such as how long to let things sit, which medium to use, and even how the weather outside effects things like drying times.

"I made all my biggest mistakes," he said, "including physical injuries, because X-Acto knives are super sharp."

While Fitzmaurice still does some commission work for a few repeat customers, he mostly customizes for fun. A tour of his Instagram page features plenty of custom superheroes, but Star Wars will always have a special place in his heart: Fitzmaurice still remembers seeing the first movie, A New Hope, in theaters when he was five years old.

“It made a huge impression on me,” he recalled. “Not only was this a cool, fun, awesome movie from a kid’s perspective, but it also had a lot of details that weren’t in other movies. I really like that gritty, grounded, realistic look to sci-fi.”

Star Wars also has a military flavor that resonated with Fitzmaurice, who's served 25 years in the Air Force. As an enlisted weapons director and, later, as an officer air battle manager, Fitzmaurice was responsible for controlling planes, telling them where to go and informing decision-makers who directed operations. His powers of persuasion soon earned him the callsign “Jedi.”

"Other people thought that my suggestions were always being followed, and that’s why they dubbed me ‘Jedi,’" he said. "I don’t think that highly of my powers of persuasion, but the name stuck … some people don’t even know what my real name is.”

“Jedi” now serves with the Air National Guard as a major in the Inspector General’s office. In his civilian job, he’s a director of an Air Combat Command detachment where he leads instructors and training developers. The Air Force is still a huge part of his everyday life, which is why the military side of Star Wars hits that much closer to home.

“It’s easily translatable to the intrinsic parts of my life, which is the military and art,” he said. “That’s why Star Wars projects are so attractive.”

Star Wars itself is a kitbash of World War II props, Samurai movies and Western aesthetics, Fitzmaurice pointed out, so it lends itself well to custom projects. Want a Mandalorian warrior sporting The Punisher’s skull symbol? You got it. Want Buzz Lightyear painted in Boba Fett colors? That works too.

“Star Wars as a genre is universally able to soak up other genres,” Fitzmaurice explained. “As a mechanism for artwork, it is perfect.”

'Other genres' also include different eras of history. Some of Fitzmaurice’s most eye-catching customs include a line of Imperial troopers sporting the gear and colors of the major countries that fought in World War One. Picture a Death Trooper with the Royal Air Force bullseye on his shoulder, or a scout trooper with a Bismarck-era spike on his helmet.

“To me the WWI mashups have been so much fun because I can take the sci-fi armor and the historic equipment and mash them together," he said. "So it’s still Star Wars, but it has an earthbound feel.”

Fitzmaurice hopes to do more Dieselpunk/Star Wars mashups in the future, such as a Star Wars version of the American tank team from the movie Fury. He's also building a 1/12-scale mech from scratch; a Han Solo-style Woody from Toy Story; and much more.

“I just really enjoy doing it,” Fitzmaurice said. “It allows me to exorcise whatever is in me. It’s a good outlet for stress, creativity, and it’s fun. And it creates something that I enjoy, whether other people like it or not.”

Episode III: The Grunt Awakens

Editor’s note: The artist behind The Imperial Grunt preferred to stay anonymous, so this article will refer to him by the pseudonym Wayne Smith.

Wayne Smith was driving a Humvee across the desert at the National Training Center at Fort Irwin, California when the Humvee flew over a wadi and caught some air before hitting the ground again.

“I was like ‘Oh my god, it’s like we were on a land speeder on Tatooine!’” Smith recalled. “And my buddies were all like ‘Smith, you’re such a nerd.’”

That moment was one of many Smith experienced as an Army infantryman that reminded him of Star Wars. The Fayetteville, North Carolina-native enlisted in 1988 to pay for art school and, like a young Luke Skywalker, went on an international tour of duty prepared to fight an evil empire.

“I grew up in the Cold War,” he said. “I wanted to fight communism.”

While Smith enjoyed his time in the Army, he was still an artist at heart. By the time his four year contract was over, he’d had his fill of the Army’s orders and its physical toll. He got out, went to art school and worked in a music store for a while before eventually becoming a high school visual arts teacher. Smith loved his job, but his memories of Army life stayed with him, as did his love of Star Wars.

When Smith first saw A New Hope in 1977, it “changed my whole life, my whole outlook,” he said. “It really made me want to become an artist.”

In particular, the aesthetic of the stormtroopers and sandtroopers, with all their gear and armor, reminded Smith of his dad, who also served in the Army.

“My dad being in the military, it just seemed very familiar,” he said. Plus, "everything being dirty and used made it look real.”

Even before Star Wars, Smith was always drawing or painting, and soon his work was filled with images of stormtroopers and TIE fighters. Little did he know, Smith was taking his first step into a larger world.

“Trying to draw troopers made me better at gesture and proportion, so it was a gateway to the elements and principles of design,” he said. “I don’t think I knew that’s what I was doing as a 7 or 8-year-old, but now as a teacher I'm like, ‘that’s what I was doing.’”

Smith added photography to his repertoire during a project in art school, where he had to make something small look lifelike or big.

At the time, Smith collected ⅙-scale military action figures, so he used a 35mm camera to take shots of toy Japanese soldiers in a bunker. The shots were so good, his professor thought they were actual war photos.

Smith kept at it, but the hobby really took off after he discovered a group of artists online called “The Chip Monsters.” The group was unique in that they took shots with sophisticated lighting and set designs which made the images seem more realistic.

“It was action figure shots where you didn’t look like you were in your backyard or at a kitchen table,” Smith said. “It looked like a real scene … it just inspired me and made me want to do it.”

In 2018, Smith started his own Instagram account, the_imperial_grunt. Two years, 800+ images and 13,000 followers later, Smith is still documenting the experience of the average grunt caught up in a galaxy-wide war. And it looks like hell.

“I like the troopers to have extra grit,” he said. “I like to add extra gear, plus a little bit of pathos to the poses. Because when you've been walking all night through a swamp with 80 pounds on your back, you look like a zombie.”

Smith’s work is informed by his own experience pulling guard duty and patrolling the jungle in Panama during Operation Nimrod Dancer; driving Humvees and APCs across the desert in California; and studying war photography in art school. While Smith occasionally uses his skills to document the rebels or bounty hunters of Star Wars, his heart is with the Empire.

“When I was a 7 year old, it was the sandtroopers that got me, not the rebellion,” he said. “They had all the cooler looking stuff, and they had the military industrial complex which I could identify.”

The Empire often brought prosperity and trade to war-torn planets, Smith pointed out. And unlike the clone troopers of the Republic, who were practically slaves born for war, the soldiers of the Empire were volunteers, he argued. While some stormtroopers were no doubt cruel, others were simply seeking out better opportunities in a cruel galaxy. In that way, Smith said, the stormtroopers are like the troops of our own military. In other words, they're like him.

“A lot of my stormtrooper shots or the Tatooine crowd control shots, that could be me somewhere in the military,” he said. “I want to tell the Star Wars story from the grunt’s perspective. Not the Jedi or Grand Moff Tarkin or Grand Admiral Thrawn, but the private who joined the Imperial military to pay for art school on Coruscant.”