Not many people who know this blog as it currently is are original readers from the time when Hunting the Elusive called its home at this domain. Those who do will know that for a long time, my only photographic practise involved anime figures, which I captured for reviews. While I learned things like aperture, ISO and shutter speed from figure photography, I can’t honestly say that I started climbing the learning curve until I started doing cosplay photography. Back then, I used desk lamps and makeshift paper structures to light the figures, and had my bridge camera on a tripod due to the relatively longer exposures times needed due to the weak continuous light. Of course, I knew next to nothing about lighting, so most of the results were mediocre.
Like many other bloggers in the anime/illustration space, I would sometimes bring the figures out to the outside world for environmental shooting. Of course, this practice has been extended to great effect by doll photographers, notably AZURE Toy-Box and Kiwira. On my part, budget pressures and space issues reduced my acquisition of figures, and those that I got more often than not stayed in their boxes.
However, I could not resist getting the GSC 1/8 Ultimate Madoka “Godoka”, which at 14,800 yen asking price is probably one of the most expensive figures I’ve gotten, and the size of its box certainly the biggest within its 1/8 size class. Originally slated for a November 2012 release, the figure was pushed back to December, and shipped just prior to New Year. I’ve always been a big fan of the Puella Magi Madoka Magica anime, plus, I could give myself the excuse that this would be useful as a reference in case cosplayers needed it.
The box, as mentioned, is big, and is designed to contain the figure safely. Most of the mass comes from the long flowing hair, and the large volume of the dress. Clear cut-out windows utilising the Ultimate Madoka magical circle motif provide additional peeks into the box, and there is also a clear window at the top, which makes for easy lighting.
The clear plastic shell which holds the figure and its accessories is divided into two parts: the main part which holds pretty much everything, and the second part for just the wings. As per modern figure packaging, the shells are secured with three mechanisms: moulded click-in buttons between the halves of the shell, tape, and wires which thread through holes between the shells and are then tied behind.
It is the latter which posed the most problems for me as I started to unpack the figure: unlike earlier figures I am familiar with, the wires on the Ultimate Madoka packaging shells are tangled or knotted in an almost random manner, making them hostile to the concept of being undone in order to access the figure. Small pliers are recommended for the job, if you don’t fancy cutting the wires.
Assembly has a difficulty level of moderate. It’s not the hardest task in the world (I’ve had figures where parts literally had to be trimmed with a knife in order to fit), but also not a task which should be attempted without first consulting the assembly instructions included in the figure. The biggest difficulties are the wings, which have a very very tight fit. The right wing is almost impossible to securely place, since it is positioned such that it must be slotted in between strands of the hair, where it becomes impossible to place the requisite amount of pressure to slot it in fully.
Another tricky point is the bow. Follow the instructions for this one, because the bottom part of the bow needs to be slotted into the left hand, where if correctly done, it stays firmly. Once this is done, the top part of the bow, which is quite heavy, fits into the hand and the bottom part, and there it stays. Doing it any other way will result in the bow insecurely rotating around and dropping off eventually.
But let’s talk about the quality. Or rather, let’s sing the praises of GSC, since they’re THE figure producers in Japan for a reason: they have consistent quality and finish. Their skin tones and texture were unrivalled in its day, and retains its quality today – it’s a smooth fine matte, and the colouring is great. Other figure producers I’ve seen have great skin on their figures sometimes – but when they get it wrong, it’s a nightmare with blotchy textural changes, overly shiny plastic, green or yellow tinges, etc.
Another point to love about the Ultimate Madoka figure are the wings – that perfect gradient between clear and opaque, white and pink. It’s almost unbelievable that this is not a 3D rendering.
And what about those sculpting details? Sculptor Hiroshi (Sakura Zensen) has obviously put in the work here. Look at that blooming flower on her bow, how that pink energy intertwines with the branches, the gems embedded in the bow itself, or her hair, with its weightless flow.
Every single part of the figure is endowed with rich detail, down to the bottom tip of the bow.
How about that dress with its multiple layers, the inside, true to the anime, with the universe in its fabric? Those ruffles, the scalloped edges of the inner-most layer, echoing the scalloping on her outer blouse and sleeve.
And of course, the choker, plus the five gens on the front of the dress.
The shading is of course outstanding. Not just the wings, which I have mentioned, but also the highlights on her hair – from the obvious lighter colours used for the crown of her head to the subtle variations with the flowing strands. The dress with its multitude of ruffles is also painstakingly shaded, and the subtle difference in colour between her blouse and the dress.
Ultimate Madoka comes with a big base which fits well with the inside of her dress. It is a big disc with her Sephiroth-like magic symbol (where Sephiroth refers not the the Final Fantasy character, but rather the Tree of Life from the Qabalah). The figure slots into the base via a column which is one of the major ruffles in the dress, allowing Madoka’s winged feet to hang in the hair. The system has been designed for balance, with the mounting point to the edge of the disc so the front-weighted figure is well supported by the base.
Ultimate Madoka looks best from the front. Other good angles are complete profiles from left and right.
She has a serious expression as befitting the moment when the fires her arrow to eliminate despair from her vision. In some angles from the front, the bow may obscure a part of the face, but it’s a pretty cool effect.
Note that if you do not rotate the figure so the angle is either fully from the front or full profile, viewing may not be optimised. For an example of how odd her face looks at those in-between angles, check the photo I used to highlight the wings of the figure.
Another picture with that profile. Love the way that hair goes all the way out there!
Of course, I’ve come a long way since the time I was shopping around at IKEA for adjustable desktop lamps and shooting figures at my study desk (said desk has since become a dusty book-infested wasteland and unsuited for shooting anything). One of my key pieces of equipment when it comes to product/figure photography is a large light tent I got off ebay. I can actually fit into it but it folds down into a really portable disc.
The light tent includes backdrops in black, white, blue and red, which is useful when you need a seamless background. If you are reminded of “studio” by “seamless”, then you’ve got the right idea. This light tent allows me to set up a studio environment for shooting at any place I need. In fact, for this shoot, the light tent was set up in the middle of the living room, on top of the cardboard shipping box Godoka arrived in (to give it height, so I’m not lying on the ground shooting, and to optimise the angles for the light-stand mounted lights).
Key light is a gridded beauty dish (it’s a Lumodi, a lightweight and small plastic variant suited for flashes, but not studio lights). Extra highlight for the feet/inside of the dress/base provided by a thickly-gridded flash zoomed in at 105 to limit its coverage to just the targeted area (note this light moves as I rotate the figure, so it always illuminates the same area of the figure). I wasn’t too worried about getting a massive light modifier, since relative to the figure, even the small beauty dish is big, so the light will be soft enough.
But the interesting stuff is happening at the back. I’ve got a silver reflective going on there which basically provides the rim light coming in from the sides and top of the box. Plus, on that very same light stand, I have two other flashes, one gelled red, the other purple, to provide the background.
The background being, of course, the red and purple bokeh. It’s simply an old dusty black piece of card paper taped onto a similar-sized piece of cardboard. I then used an awl and hammer to punch holes through the background so lights can shine through. While the reflective originally provided light through the holes, I made the decision to use purple and red with the transition in between for a more striking background suiting the lead colours of the figure.
While the original concept was to create a star field, I knew that given the depth of field available to me when shooting figures (basically macro shooting), those points of light would become bokeh. Which was okay with me, since GSC had already done the galaxy background for their official shots (though I suspect the background was composited on).
Both key lights were gridded, as mentioned, so as to reduce the possibility of light spilling onto the foreground and background – especially the background, since the black card paper was quite dirty from lying around.
Camera-wise, I used my trusty DSLR, with the 80-200mm lens, fitted with a 12mm extension tube, which has AF and full electronic control feed through. Most shots were done at or near 200mm due to focusing requirements from the extension tube, to minimise wide-angle distortions, and also to restrict the angle of view to ensure I did not capture the edges of the very small background. The extension tube, which allows the 80-200 to reduce its minimum focus distance (at the expense of focus at longer distances) is one of those things you have lying around which can be really useful occasionally, especially since I lack a true macro lens for the Nikon system.
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