Action figures are displayed the way every child of the 1970s and 1980s only wished they could have pulled off with the toys in their room. The figures are not posed in some galaxy far, far away, but rather in the home of Cape Coral photographer Stephen Hayford, a photojournalist who decided in 2008 to hang up his press pass and instead spend life playing with toys. Since then he has produced promotional materials for Lucasfilm, Disney, Lego and other clients who commission Hayford to focus his efforts on these painstaking dioramas. “I’ve always been a big toy collector since I was a kid,” Hayford says. “Now I found a way to turn my art into a career.” It’s a gig that started out as a way for Hayford to keep his mind off his work. As a photographer for the Sun-Sentinel in Fort Lauderdale in 1996, he spent much of his day at crime scenes and car crashes. “It was a lot to take home, and I just needed something to give me levity,” Hayford recalls. He’d always had a collector’s mindset, boasting an impressive assortment of Pez dispensers. But in those internet 1.0 days of web forums and trading sites, Hayford saw the early rise of a new retail market in custom action figures. People working with Super Sculpey and Polyform from their local hobby shops started turning widely available action figures into movie characters so forgettable that no major manufacturer would waste a mold to order into mass production. Hayford quickly developed a super-niche reputation for those background Star Wars characters that the casual fan might be surprised even had names. “I took the most joy in making the most obscure characters and making them as accurate as possible,” he says.
Turning artistic talent into action figures
A favorite remains Nabrun Leids, a mouthless alien you may remember (but probably don’t) from Star Wars: A New Hope in the Cantina bar scene. Of course, why sculpt all the aliens of Tatooine and not have a bar where they can share a death stick together? Hayford soon found himself creating elaborate sets. Real life continued as well. Hayford would meet his wife, Pamela, at the newspaper, and the two eventually took jobs at The News-Press in Fort Myers. But as he neared two decades in print
Hayford quickly developed a super-niche reputation for those background Star Wars characters that the casual fan might be surprised even had names.
journalism, Hayford dreamed of a time when this hobby might pay the bills. With two kids at home, he felt pressure to keep a steady paycheck, but then went on an assignment in Africa in 2008. There, he met families living in huts with no valuable possessions to their name, but they still seemed truly happy. “I realized a lot of the issues that were holding me back were a problem with my frame of reference,” he says. Hayford’s first day back at the office, he walked to Human Resources to take the paper’s buyout deal. In the next few months Hayford contacted Lucasfilm, where many folks already knew his work. The company commissioned him for a series of holiday-themed images. His favorite image remains the first one he did for the series, a Thanksgiving-themed picture with Darth Vader carving a turkey with a lightsaber while Luke Skywalker glares at his (spoiler alert!) father. A caption reads, “And you thought YOUR family was dysfunctional.” His success also affords him some advance knowledge of Star Wars films. For example, he received packets of production stills for The Force Awakens that included names of characters but no story details and was told to make posters guessing at the plot points. “I would submit an idea for something,” he recalls, “and they would reject it and not tell me why it was wrong.” Hayford also does unlicensed art. He’s been pleasantly surprised that even when he sells posters at Stars Wars Celebration and other conventions marketing his work with Lucasfilm, many consumers gravitate to his “Greetings from Florida” series. He depicts environments similar to Southwest Florida with contemporary figures greeting characters from across the horror and sci-fi world. “Doing my original work is the most rewarding,” he says. “I don’t have any restrictions like I do for the licensed properties. I don’t have to worry about whether I put too much satire, or if this might offend the company that owns the property or worry about the fans. All that can be a hindrance on creativity. With my own work, it’s simply my self-expression.”
Jacob Ogles is a professional journalist based in Southwest Florida.
From Stephen Hayford’s “The Black Series,” the artist recreates a famous moment from the original Star Wars film released in 1977.
Stephen Hayford’s “Friends” diorama plays off a scene in Star Wars: The Force Awakens with characters Baze Malbus and Chirrut Imwe.