Saturday, July 31, 2010

W Robot (Noguchi / 1960s / Japan / 7 inches)

A mystery in the toy world: What's the "W" on the W Robot stand for? "Wonderful"? "Wicked"? "Wow"? I have no idea. Like I said, it's a mystery! What's not a mystery is that this little robot is super cool. (See what I did there? It's call reincorporation, and it's a writing technique that's so common it's actually a cliche. But I did it anyway, because that's how I roll.)

I've always liked this funky little 'bot. His unusual, round body, the playful litho, that cool sparking window on his chest -- he's a true original! The W Robot is a fairly common toy, relatively inexpensive, and often an early addition to many people's collections. I think he was my fourth or fifth robot, and I remember being excited to discover a toy I recognized immediately from one of the great books by famous Japanese collector T. Kitahara. (Not that this particular example of the toy appeared in the book, of course.)

The W Robot is part of a category of robots known as "paddle wheels," so called because of their unusual walking mechanism that employs a pair of off-axis wheels connected to paddle-like feet. Unlike his cousins, though, the W robot's mechanics are much more finished looking.

There are a number of variations on this particular robot. One version has more human-like arms, which are in fact taken from a paddle-wheel astronaut toy that uses the exact same body as the W robot, but entirely different lithography. Another version of the W Robot features a small, plastic spinner on its head. A third, extremely rare version -- I've only seen one -- has a different red gel on its chest. And lastly, there's a version of the toy produced by a Greek company that has a different symbol on its chest (and is marked as being made in Greece).

By the way, the background in these shots is yet another experiment. I was trying for something vaguely lush and organic, something weird with a lot of texture. I think I achieved it, but I'm not sure it actually works. It's a little busy, I think. Nice, but maybe not quite right for photographing robots. The opening shot, in particular, lacks sufficient separation between the subject -- the 'bot -- and the background. The lighting's too strong, and there depth of field isn't nearly shallow enough. Oh well, live and learn!


  1. You may also think this idea too distracting for a background, but I visualize some kind of vintage space planet in the background, the cover of a space book, a small vintage poster, or one of your artworks. A planetscape the robot is 'visiting' or taking over with his spark gun and photon rays.

    Just a thought. =)

  2. I don't think those would be too distracting. The problem is finding an image that's big enough. I generally like to have my backgrounds far enough away that they blur out a bit. (Something I didn't do in the first photo of the W Robot.) But it still needs to fill the frame... So that means a large image -- larger than anything I've got on hand. I suppose, though, that I could blow something up at the copy store to use as a background. That might work pretty well, actually. Something to consider, certainly!

    Thanks for the suggestion.

  3. Personally, I like the other photos that have the out of focus robots in the background. It gives the robots a context. But I also wanted to say that these are some of the best photos of toy robots around. I was hoping one of these days you would explain your technique. I'm assuming your using some kind of macro lense?

  4. @Tom:

    Man... Everyone seems to prefer the wall of robots as the background. Maybe I'll acquiesce to the crowd's demands after all.

    Thanks for the compliments, though. I really do appreciate it. But the truth is, I'm hesitant to write about my technique. Not because it's a deep secret, but simply because I'm just winging it. I shoot a lot of video -- it's part of my job -- and generally, I find myself translating what I know about that into something I hope is usable within the context of still photography. The parallels aren't perfect, though, and oftentimes things don't go as planned.

    As far as equipment's concerned, I don't actually own a macro lens. In the early days, when I was shooting with a Canon D7 point-and-shoot, I'd take advantage of the macro mode. But nowadays, I'm using a Nikon D60 DSLR. I've only got the standard kit lens, which is 18-55 mm. Nothing fancy, but it does a decent enough job.

    I can get a tight depth of field by setting up kind of far away and then zooming way in. I'll also open up the iris while speeding up the shutter to compensate for all that extra light. I'm able to emphasize the narrow depth of field by shooting high rez photos which I can then crop in on (thanks to the limited space on the blog, as well as the much lower resolution on people's monitors).

    My lighting is pretty straightforward. I started off using a 60-watt CFL inside one of those scooped, metal dishes -- basically, it was a flood light, like a work light or something. I used a white umbrella from my video lighting kit to diffuse it. The whole thing worked well enough, but it was a pain to maneuver through the shoot.

    I ended up upgrading to a giant, daylight balanced CFL inside a large softbox. Nice, but it provided way too much light. The subject, the background -- everything was illuminated and it looked kind of flat. If I were taking product shots for a catalogue, it'd be perfect. But it's not really what I want for the blog.

    So now I've gone back to my little, metal dish, but this time it's loaded with a low-watt, daylight balanced CFL. I've got a diffusion gel taped over the whole thing and I just hold the rig in my hand while I'm shooting and move it around to try out different looks.

    (The camera sits on a tripod and I use a little remote to trigger the shutter.)

    Anyway, like I said, pretty basic stuff. I wish I had more to say on the subject... I definitely know the toys better than I know photography!

  5. Thanks for description of your technique. At the moment I just have a point-and-shoot with a macro. If I shoot a robot I put it by a window with bright diffused light and use a white piece of board that I curve under the toy and up behind it. I get good results with this set up. Nice detail and no hot spots. Although I have to move the camera around and experiment to get just the right angle to eliminate the hot spots. I've only done this a few times, mostly for selling on ebay. I've also got one of those scooped aluminum lights with a light that's daylight balanced. If I get serious maybe I'll dig it out of the attic. In any event, I think variety is good too, so keep experimenting. I like the idea of enlarging one of the paintings in your collection and using it as a background.

  6. Hi Doc!

    Just wanted to drop a line and thank you for even make me want some robots I didn't value that high – till they are put in the right focus on your blog. Part of this is of course effected by your photos (particularly #2 & 3 in this article).

    Doing so, found the above comments: May I say, I do not consent at any rate. I think part of the effect of those particular photos is the contrast of the organic background that puts an else humble robot to life!

  7. The "W" obviously stands for "Wobby the Wobot".
    Great site - love it.


Doc Atomic wants to hear from you!