April 13, 2024

The One From Japan

I’ve never been to Japan. I would like to but I suspect I may never be able to. Sigh.

This hasn’t prevented me to admire the sense of aestethics in the Japanese culture. Or what I see of it through the narrow window of literature, comics and movies. This picture is probably more distorted than I realise but it is what I got.

The Japanese toy manufacturer Bandai offers incredible quality when it comes to plastic injection model kits. It is unlike anything else out there. I’ve built some Bandai Star Wars models but I wanted to try something different. The Japanese Gundam things look great, mecha suits, not robots, as I found out. I wanted one.

I knew nothing about the various versions within the Gundam lore, never watched any of the tv-shows, also blissfully uninformed of the variations in the Bandai product line. There were many different scales and difficulty levels available, as I found out. After some serious googling I ended up buying the Bandai Perfect Grade Gundam RX-78-2 mecha suit in 1:60 scale.

I’ve not built anything of this sort before and for a newbie the kit offered some surprises. Biggest surprise I guess were the sprues with parts that had molded in ball joints. I hadn’t seen anything like that before. It was rather exotic for such an old kit, or any kit for that matter, this model was originally released in 1998. How much more complex the latest version that goes by the ”Unleashed” brand can even be? It looks insanely more detailed in photographs. I’m glad I didn’t buy that one. It would have been too overwhelming.

Painting this was very different to what I am used to, all the exterior parts had to be painted before assembly. Due to the precision of the parts, no paint must go on the internal structures, connecting pins and such. If you paint them the parts don’t fit anymore, the layer of paint ruins it. It’s THAT precise! This meant lots of tape masks. Organising all this part by part was not the most pleasant thing about this build.

I wanted this to look different than the stock red/yellow/white so I painted it in white with two shades of blue. Cold, wintery colours, I suppose. The decals that came with the kit were stickers. I didn’t like them very much. So, I bought some waterslide decals online only to realise afterwards that they were for the Unleashed version, not this. I used them regardless and they are all over the place. The colours were wrong anyway so whatever. Wrong colours and details must be somewhat irritating thing to look at for those who know this stuff. Ignorance is bliss in this case.

I have made a few photocompositions with the Gundam model to see how the model is to work with. The following two were made with photographs I took on one beautiful foggy day in 2023.

Like with most of the models I’ve built there is an idea or two for a photograph when building them. Sometimes even before building. This one was no exception. But the photograph I had in mind with this one hasn’t really emerged yet. I’ve tried it but it has proven to be a bit of a challenge for me. Meanwhile I have continued experimenting with it, like the one with the church below.

The white Helsinki Cathedral is a popular subject of photography, a tourist attraction. I didn’t quite get what I had in mind with the blizzard and light but it’s close. I’ll probably try again next winter.

March 5, 2024

What Lies Beneath

In 2015 I got an idea. We were about to embark on a family holiday trip to Italy and a couple of days before we left I rushed to a local camera store and bought the Olympus Tough TG-4, a new version of their waterproof camera, just released. I wanted to try underwater photography.

In the last minutes of packing I threw in an Action Man we had, one with scuba gear. I had tried photographing it in a water container earlier with poor results. I didn’t expect terribly much from this but with Jacques Cousteau in mind I wanted to give it a try. 

During our stay in Italy we were in a place where the waters weren’t clear, it was a disappointment, but a few days in our holiday we decided to take a daytrip to the island of Ponza, 33 kilometers from the coast. There I managed an hour on the beach in clear waters with the Action Man.

The Ponza session was improvised, I was unprepared, but looking at the images afterwards back home I began thinking there was something in it. I bought the then just released Lego Deep Sea Explorers submarine and tried it in our local waters here in Finland. But, alas, our lakes are nowhere near the clarity of the Mediterranean. The photographs were terrible. 

Next year we decided to go to Ponza again but this time to stay for a few days. It's a lovely place and we wanted to have a better look. Thanks to our national airline and their overbooking policy our stay got shortened by a full day. In the end I had two afternoons with the Lego sub and the Action Man. This time the Action Man had an orange wetsuit because the original blue had disintegrated. Same thing happened with the orange one after the trip. It is very unfortunate that soft rubber products these days are like that, self destructing.

Anyway, I was better prepared on this second trip and I got a nice set of photographs. I have posted dozens of them online over the years. I learned a lot of what works and what doesn’t during these couple of days. It was a big leap.

A fun thing happened after we returned home. We watched Wes Anderson’s magnificient The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou, one of my all time favourite films, and I realised they had used Ponza for some location shoots.

Not willing to fly if not really necessary anymore I have managed to find clear enough waters from Finland too. Unfortunately they are a long drive from where I live, the waters aren't clear enough in the south. The best I’ve found were some arctic meltwater pools in Lapland but it takes more than a day to drive up there. Then again, if you're on the road anyway, perhaps a roadtrip all the way to the Barents Sea, a part of the Arctic Ocean. It is clear and just as exotic as any ocean on Earth. Two days’ drive one direction. I'd like to do this some day.

Looking for potential locations within reach has turned up some interesting spots. Like this underwater freshwater well, Uhrilähde (Sacred Well) in Jämijärvi, three hours’ drive from home.

The freshwater pool in Jämijärvi has a constant upward flow of groundwater coming in. At this spot it is fairly calm but it was more or less accessible from the firm ground by the pool. I tested how to place the sub in the stream and took a short videoclip of it.

When photographing in various freshwater ponds and brooks, or even the algae prone Baltic Sea, the colours vary a lot. It depends on the weather too, obviously. Mid-day sunshine is different than afternoon underwater, so is an overcast sky. What is around above the water surface matters, even trees, buildings and rocks. I like that.

The TG-4 really is an excellent camera for its size, the TG series are the best underwater cameras in their class, say some reviews. It's quite telling that Olympus with their latest version TG-7 hasn’t been able to improve it terribly much. It’s obviously better but not radically so. The water seals on my TG-4 still work after 9 years of active use, it’s shockproof, offers RAW and has a surprisingly good macro. I've photographed closeups of spiders with it. 

I am looking at alternatives to the old TG-4 however. It’s a nice camera but I could use something with a sensor that is more forgiving. Especially if I’m going to spend days traveling to a location again. 

Photographing toys underwater in real environment is a fun idea all in all, I think.

February 14, 2024

An Adventure in Small Scale

In the early 2010’s my photographs with Lego, especially with Lego, were rather experimental. The manipulation of air around the little minifigures with smokes and blizzards was the thing I did. I even coined a name for it: “Forced Atmospheric Perspective Photography”.

The idea was very simple. The Forced Atmospheric Perspective Photography was about adding something in the air to scale it down, make it denser. You can’t scale down elements like fire or water but with air I knew it could be done, I just had to search for it a little. Densifying air will help match it with the small scale of the Lego minifigure thus making them look bigger than they are in photographs, less toyish.

The basic idea is not mine, of course. It originates from special effects and miniature photography in movies. Animators use it too, they simulate it with frosted glass between the elements. I used to read everything I could get my hands on about the subject of special effects, magazines and books. I grew up in Finland and finding this stuff wasn’t always the easiest thing. This was before the time of the internet, mind you. I was a subscriber to early Starlog, Cinefantastique and Cinefex magazines, I found books like ILM, The Art of Special Effects from the big Akateeminen bookstore downtown Helsinki.

From the cloud tanks of CE3K and Raiders of the Lost Ark to the Hades landscape of Blade Runner and more, that's what I had, and the idea of using it for photographing Lego and other toys. It was a different and new look with Lego at the time, it stood out. At least on platforms like Flickr, it was the giant for the photography scene then.

Today is February 14th, 2024, Valentine’s day and the 10th anniversary of The Lego Movie in Finland. The anniversary of The Lego Movie is why I brought up those old experiments I did with the brick. They caught the eye of the production team gearing up to make The Lego Movie around 2012 or 2013. In search for the look of the film they called me and wanted to know how and why I did my photographs the way I did.

Now, I must emphasize that the toyphotography scene back then was not like it is today. In the early days there was a moment my photography experiments left me thinking that they were indeed different and I was the village idiot making them alone because everybody else just couldn’t care less. Originally I didn't even have my name shown publicly because of this. I thought that if what I was doing somehow blew on my face I’d still have the protection of anonymity. That's where the “Avanaut” came along. Defying the self doubt was good in the end.

I have signed an NDA concerning the Lego Movie so I can’t say much. I don’t really know if they’d care after ten years, probably not, but I will let them say it for me. Just to be on the safe side. 

Here is an article I’ve shared a lot. It's from Craig Welsh, the lighting supervisor of The Lego Movie. In the article on his blog Expanded Cinematography he opens the process of finding the right look for the plastic toy. 

Another article in the FX Guide where the film’s production designer Grant Freckelton is interviewed about the very same thing but broader. From the article:

“Animal Logic took inspiration from Finnish photographer Vesa Lehtimäki (also known as Avanaut) who creates realistic scenes using LEGO, sometimes with ‘in-camera’ effects. “We actually talked to him,” recalls Freckelton, “and he described how Douglas Trumbull influenced his work by creating smoke tanks or much much smaller environments filled with much much more atmosphere than you would normally have. That was the same approach we took.”

That's it, ten years ago this was my little adventure with Hollywood. It was grand! Maybe even awesome.

Happy 10th anniversary Lego Movie!

February 4, 2024

Inspirations Part.1

One of the earliest spaceship memories for me are the Apollo missions. Still love them. But on fiction it’s the Tintin Destination Moon and Explorers on Moon comics albums by Hergé. The iconic red and white checkered rocket is one helluva spaceship! It was first seen in Belgium’s Tintin magazine in 1950, that is 74 years ago, 19 years before Apollo 11.

The realism, the depictions of mass, inertia, low gravity and weightlessness in these Tintin stories is astonishing. Even though everything isn’t 100% correct Hergé shows thorough understanding of these things. Today it seems pretty basic but back then it was anything but basic. Stanley Kubrick gets a lot of praise for his work on 2001: A Space Odyssey, a movie I love to bits, but Hergé was there tackling these concepts almost two decades earlier. Film and comics are obviously not straightforwardly comparable but maybe it shows how much thought Hergé put in this story. I mean, you see movies and tv-shows getting it wrong even today (excluding space operas, they take liberties), it’s really not that easy.

One wild scene in the comics was when Tintin stepped out the rocket in a spacesuit to save drunken and delusional Captain Haddock from drifting into space. The moment the rocket engine goes back online and how the acceleration yanks Tintin and Haddock hanging from safety rope is amazing. You can feel there is a mighty force at play.

For me the rocket was always there but my perception of it changed on my trip to Angoulême comics fair, France, in 2000. There was a buzz about the city planning to build a 50 meter tall model of the rocket next to The Museum of Comics located by a river that runs through the city. The city boasts several comics landmarks, there are murals and statues, including the statue of Corto Maltese, one of my favourites. The statue of Hergé himself near the center of the city is remarkable. Angoulême is a lovely little place that lives and breathes comics.

Sadly, the rocket was never built. They say the area reserved for the construction was unstable, it wouldn’t have sustained the weight of the rocket. Or maybe they got cold feet.

The image of a 50 meter rocket towering over a city stayed with me however. It was an exciting idea I thought, an incredibly visual one. I made a promise to myself that if I ever got my hands on a Tintin Moon rocket model I’d make something out of it. On my most recent trip to Angoulême in 2019, just before the pandemic, I took some photographs with this in mind. I had a small point-and-shooter with me only, so the quality wasn’t ideal but it captures the feels just fine.

I finally got myself a Tintin Moon rocket collectible a couple of weeks ago, it’s 30 centimeters tall and bloody expensive. It’s quite lovely though, I like it a lot. But it got me thinking whether a more “real” model was better. I wouldn’t alter the one I got, it’s a collectible after all, it’d have to be something else, maybe a 3D-printed one.

The first question was how tall is the rocket supposed to be in the comics. After a quick survey on Instagram and Mastodon it seems there is a consensus at around 55 to 63 meters. Now, let’s round it to 60 meters. If that is the height, my collectible is in a quite small 1:200 scale. If I wanted a 1:72 scale rocket, a common modeling scale in which there is lots of accessories available, it would be approximately 83 centimeters tall. That’s pretty big!

Weathering and detailing a 83 centimeter tall Tintin rocket would be interesting. Engine exhaust marks, atmospheric friction streaks, dust, things like that would make it come alive. Would it look something like this 3D render from Greg Broadmore? If I’m not mistaken Broadmore worked on The Adventures of Tintin (2011) movie and made this as concept art. It seems they at least considered adapting the Tintin Moon mission to a film. Or maybe this was just a promo for what could be. Whatever it is, I always liked this image.

Image ©Greg Broadmore / Weta. Source.
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