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.

April 3, 2024

The Fullest of All Moons

From my early days of photographing Lego I have followed a guideline of not altering the photograph after I shoot it. I set this rule to me myself because otherwise I felt this would be more like a photoillustration thing than a photography project. Allowed was removing wires or supports, adjusting colours, contrasts and such, even cropping. The snow in my photographs doesn’t always flow quite like I’d like it to and I have used patches from other exposures to fix that at times. But this is the extreme. I have always avoided any altering of the image in a way that could be considered constructing it as it was a puzzle. That is to say, the subjects are all there as they were when photographed, not added, removed or rearranged in post.

This simple principle is an ideal, something to go for but not necessarily get overly hung up with. Sometimes I don’t even think about it, sometimes some extra effort is needed. The moons of the planet Hoth from The Empire Strikes Back setups are a good case in point.

With the early snowy photographs on the reimagined planet Hoth in 2010 I quickly realised the sky was a problem. It looked flat. I figured the skies needed something to make the whole image look more interesting. The three moons of Hoth are never seen from the planet surface in the movie but in MY Hoth they turned out to be essential. Only, the moons would have to be ”real”, as in not photoshopped in later. I was a bit fussy with the no-altering rule those days. I dusted my old Reflecta Diamator slide projector and made some custom slides. 

The slides I’ve used for throwing the moons or the sun to the tabletop skies. I’ve used this outside the Hoth setup only a couple of times, so it's very much an idea for Hoth only. 

The header photograph, Moonlight Shadow, 2011 (Alt. 2024 Edit), is a prime example of how the projector moon works. This is also not the one I posted originally in 2011. I like to dive into the archives and find alternates, it is fun even after all these years.

The bright moons on the background projected on white or dark blue cardboard sheets sometimes needed tidying. Removing errors in my slide mask handiwork in Photoshop is a thing I can easily live with. Punching perfect round holes through aluminium tape is difficult you see, there are almost always some imperfections here and there and they look huge when projected to the background in big size.

In total I’ve used this with thirty photographs, give or take.

The bottom line for this look is that the heavenly bodies are there, the moons and the suns, photographed for real. Until they weren’t.

With the more recent photographs I have sometimes just photoshopped the moon/sun effect to the sky. But only when I knew I COULD set the slide projector up and it would have looked exactly the same. I mean, my rules, I can bend them if I want to. The look was established with the real thing and I want to keep it looking like that. These days I’m photographing in a space that is much wider and roomier than I used to have but unfortunately it has less depth. There is enough for the camera but not for the slide projector, it makes rigging it a nuisance. So, I cheat.

I have talked about this technique also in my book Small Scenes From a Big Galaxy (DK Children 2015).

March 23, 2024

2OO1: A Space Odyssey

Stanley Kubrick’s 2OO1: A Space Odyssey was the first DVD I ever bought. It was also the first Bluray and 4K UHD disc I ever bought. That should say something, I love that film. 

There were not too many scale models from the film available until very recently. There was the small 1:144 scale Aurora Orion III Shuttle kit, first released in 1969, later reboxed and re-released by Airfix. The 1:55 scale Aurora Moonbus kit was also released in 1969 with subsequent re-releases. There were some small garage kit runs much later, most notably the 1:32 scale resin EVA pod kit and the elusive big 1:48 scale Atomic City Orion III resin kit. I tried to obtain the big Orion for quite some time but it was like trying to find a living Dodo bird. 

A few years ago kit manufacturer Moebius took on producing some 2OO1 kits in relatively big scales. They have several different kits now out. I first bought and built their big 1:8 scale EVA pod. It’s very pretty but has some issues. The detail is soft here and there and it is a bit awkward to build with the appropriate lights, it wasn’t designed for that. It is doable though and I like the big size, it’s great for photography. 

Then I got the 1:48 scale Aries 1B. It’s practically the same size as the EVA pod, they make a nice pair. Like the EVA pod I preordered the Aries the day it first became available. There are lots of aftermarket upgrade parts available for these kits: photoetch and resin parts, 3D-prints, decals and masks. I've not used all there is but there are some upgrades here and there.

Now, Aries 1B, the actual filming model, has an amazing history. As we know, the original models were supposedly all destroyed after the filming wrapped. Some say it was because Stanley Kubrick wanted to prevent them from showing up in other movies later thinking it would diminish the uniqueness of 2OO1. Some say it was simply because there was no budget for storage. Apparently it is a very complicated story with museum plans gone awry. Whatever the reason was, for decades they were thought lost forever. And some really were destroyed, like the big Space Station V. But then, in 2015, out of the blue, the original screen used Aries model turned up and in relatively good condition too. It was restored, auctioned for $344,444, and is now in The Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences museum in Los Angeles.

The Moebius Aries 1B kit is like the EVA pod kit, big, soft on details and not super well designed thinking about the building experience. The big question for me was whether to light the floor of the passenger cabin like the full size studio set piece. The kit clearly wasn’t meant for this, there is thick plastic and seams in unfortunate places. Furthermore the floor can’t really be seen once the model is finished, just glimpses from a very limited angle are visible.

What’s the point spending almost a week lighting the floor knowing it won’t be visible once the model is finished? It was a lot of work after all. Knowing it is there is one thing of course, there is satisfaction in that. One could also argue the light from the floor has an effect on the ambient light in the cabin even if the source itself is obscured. It makes the ambience seen thru the tiny windows look right. There are 25 individual leds providing the light in the cabin plus half a dozen red leds for the cockpit, you’ll never know there is that many of them just by looking at the model. Maybe this was a little bit of an overkill but it’s also about peace of mind.

These little things I can have control over when building, lighting and some custom details. It’s the painting and weathering what I fear the most. So many unknowns in the cocktail of pigments and layers. It is always intimidating, sometimes also horrifying. 

The original Aries 1B has a very straightforward paint scheme. Basically you could say it’s off-white with some panels ever so slightly grey and everything weathered with what looks like black soot from the manoeuvering thrusters. I decided to paint mine like that to keep it real. But, alas, it didn’t look good, not with my skills. It was too simple and to be honest this off-white colour is not really my favourite. I gave up on the attempts to make the model look like the original. It is often harder than it looks anyway. I decided to take the weathering to a different direction. Unfortunately the decision came a little too late to do a layered paintjob the way I like. I wouldn’t know how to do it on top of that white.

In order to not ruin the paintjob altogether I added some chipping and small details here and there, mostly random waterslide decals from the archives. The decals are small enough to not really make anything of them but they add a little bit of nondescript detail nevertheless methinks. Then just some subtle wear and tear. Not sure if this was the right call but the white just felt kinda wrong – even if it was kinda right.

I had some photographs in mind when I was building the model. The header photograph on this post is the first. I wanted to play with interaction of the two 2OO1 models I have. Surely, if the Aries needed attention somewhere between the Earth orbit and the Moon, the EVA pod was the right tool for that. Who said the EVA was a Discovery exclusive? I never heard anything of the sort. Yup, nothing about that.

The wintery field photograph is an edit to this blogpost a week after I first published it. The new photograph needed to be here. It is the final step of the process from first photographing the landscape image in December 2021, building the model in stages in 2023-2024 and merging the two. The original photograph was always meant for this, for the Aries 1B in particular. The news of an Aries model to be released turned up just a couple of weeks before I took it.

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 8, 2024

The Big Red One

The “Red Jammer” is, as many of you know, the one Y-wing starfighter that never made it to the silver screen, Star Wars (1977). It was the first Y-wing model built, not counting the Colin Cantwell prototype, and is the one the other models were based on. It has slightly different surface detail than the ones used for filming the attack on the Death Star in Star Wars and it was not fully finished on the starboard side. The Jammer was sent from California to London as a reference for the full size studio mock-up used in the Yavin IV hangar scenes.

Sometime in 2012 Nice-N Model Designs released a big 1:24 scale Red Jammer Y-wing model kit. It was an incredible kit, a real gem, and I missed the window to order one! The sell happened at a time I was just only realising these things existed in the first place, big “Studio Scale” resin kits, made in incredibly small numbers. It turned out these were rare as hen’s teeth.

The studio scale concept is often misunderstood to mean 1:24 scale in particular but it actually has nothing to do with scale. Studio scale is a replication of a screen used model, whatever the scale is. It is sometimes also said to mean not just the correct size but also the exact same parts and paint job. Studio scale means a replication of an original screen used model as accurately as possible.

I wanted to have a 1:24 scale Y-wing no matter what. I found an unbuilt kit in Belgium in March 2014 after a two year search. The entire production run of this kit was 44 numbered units with perhaps a few unlisted extras made. Mine is number 40 of 44. I believe there was an earlier release with some differences in how the kit was designed. There were also some made later, not the Red Jammer but I think Gold Leader. Or at least there was supposed to be more, I'm not really sure if of this. Nice-N Model Designs website suggests they are not active anymore.

Opening the box with the huge Y-wing kit parts inside was probably the most thrilling and profound moment I’ve ever experienced with scale models. This was a dream come true. It was not just the two year wait but the wait from 1977 fulfilled all at once.

My kit was the Red Jammer, the different one. I was only learning the differences between the individual Y-wing models and it turned out I wanted to have something that looked more like the ones we see in the film. I wanted something from them all, not one particular model – and made with genuine parts! There was some serious research ahead of me.

Ten years ago finding information on these models was very different than it is today. I happened to stumble my way into this peculiar niche of model building at a time when there still were some unidentified parts on the models and the data was not exactly public yet. You see, those bits and bobs on the original Y-wing filming models were resourced from vintage model kits, tanks, trains, battleships and whatnot back in 1976. All those parts were researched and identified in the past ten, fifteen years or so, when the Y-wings were reverse engineered by a group of enthusiasts. They went through hundreds and hundreds of old pre-1976 scale model kits in search for these parts, it is an astonishing achievement.

Photographs of the Gold Leader and the Red Jammer existed but they, along with information of parts and the particular vintage model donor kits, were not available to an inexperienced newbie from Finland just like that. It was frustrating at times even though I understand why the secrecy. Gradually the veils opened though and I got access to some high resolution photographs. I bought about a dozen of the vintage model kits for the correct parts, sourced some individual parts through various contacts, some from Australia, Japan etc, and learned to make silicon casts and resin copies of certain parts.

Then the Gold 2 a.k.a. “Tiger Sprocket” surfaced in 2016. It’s the screen used model that was given to Alan Ladd, the producer who greenlighted Star Wars. It was now in possession of Stephen Lane, the founder of Prop Store, an auction house specializing in screen used film props. Lane generously sent me some high resolution photographs of this beautifully survived Y-wing model. This was a superb resource.

Today you can find really good images of all of the filming models. With a little research you’ll find kit lists and part maps from builders’ forums. And let’s not forget the incomparable Star Wars: Chronicles, the Japanese book with great photographs of all the models. Unfortunately it is very expensive these days.

The research and altering the model with genuine vintage parts was time consuming. To add to the ambitious build I wanted to have the model light up for photographs. There are lights in the engines, cockpit dashboard and the astromech droid. On top of that I made removable landing gears from scratch with lights in the gear wells. I also wanted the cockpit hatch to open and close. This all took me to a rabbit hole unlike I have ever experienced before or since.

I knew I was out of my league with this model, it was my first resin model after all. At one point I put the Y-wing on hold and purchased a Salzo V3 X-wing (a remarkable kit as well) to learn about resin and big scale so that I wouldn’t mess this up. I finished the X-wing before proceeding with the Y-wing with the newly acquired skills.

The painting phase was incredibly unnerving, I procrastinated around it for months. The originals are gorgeous, their look, achieved with delicate layers of mist coats, is very difficult to replicate. I knew I couldn’t do it. My Y-wing is an amalgamation of all the Y-wings, it couldn’t be painted as any one of them anyway. I needed it to be a “Gold X”. I used the then newly released Archive-X enamel paints. The Archive-X product line is a remarkable resource for anyone building old Star Wars models. They have only acrylics available today.

So, the colours were right even if the paint scheme was going to be my own. I was so nervous that I wouldn’t succeed in painting the model quite like I had hoped. And sure enough, I made mistakes and the layers of paint grew thickness and developed grain. It was not as good as it could have been. The paint looks nice from afar but in close inspection it leaves room for improvement in some areas. I have planned to partially repaint the model, just the head and the engine nacelles, to give it some of the qualities I feel it’s lacking. Maybe some day.

The irony is that I love the big and beautiful Y-wing model despite the shortcomings with the paint, It looks amazing to the naked eye, I just don’t seem to like photographing it very much. That was the real surprise with this model, I have taken just a few photographs of it.

For this blog post I decided to take some studio photographs of the model as it is. I realised I had not really done even that before.

The thing is that my Y-wing is a relic of a bygone era. I built it the old fashioned way while watching 3D printing evolve from the crude early Shapeways products to what it is today; a new medium with affordable home printers with quality indistinguishable form plastic injection mold items. There will be those who still do this by hand but many have already moved to printing. Especially those who think of doing this commercially. While it is sad in some ways, it is also the beginning of a new, glorious era of modelmaking. I hope I have it in me to find a way to make use of it myself.

January 25, 2024

The First, Not First

Back in 2011 I had already had some media exposure with my Lego and action figure photographs and I figured it was time to resurrect my teenage idea of photographing scale model spaceships. I had taken a few photos and tried to build some models of my own in the early 1980’s but it didn’t go nowhere. Then again in the early 1990’s, still no go. I looked up what was available this time around and found the Finemolds 1/72nd scale Y-wing.  

The Y-wing was at the time my favourite of the classic Star Wars spaceships, probably still is, and I’d never had one before in any form, except the one I built from Lego when I was a kid, so the choice was easy to make. 

The scale modeling scene had changed since my youth and the availability of tools and materials was now so much better. One of these new things was the Tamiya ultra thin liquid cement. The minuscule plastic bits and bobs were easy to glue on to the model with it. Also the camera technology had changed. I now had my first DSLR camera and I knew a little bit about Photoshop. So, all this seemed like a perfect setup for what I was about to do.

The 1/72 scale Finemolds Y-wing scale model. This one didn't have anything extra, it's a straight out of the box build.

I was so pleased with the Y-wing model, it turned out looking great. Furthermore, despite the small size it worked much better with the camera than I had hoped for. I made some tests and posted the first photograph of the model on Flickr. There was great potential in the idea, I thought.

 A variation of the header image, a leftover from the same photo session.
A variation of the header image, a leftover from the same photo session.
The coldest days of that winter photographing the Y-wing. Almost lost some toes, and that’s only half joking.

As it turned out, I was right about the potential but not quite the way I had hoped for. Being new to the toyphotography scene, I was not that familiar with what was already out there. I was shocked to find Cédric Delsaux’s fantastic Dark Lens book. He had already cleaned the table with it and I’d had no idea of it even existing. 

I value the originality of ideas and I wowed myself to not proceed any further with scale models because of Dark Lens. Really, this was such a disheartening moment because the last thing I wanted was to come across as a copycat. 

But, you know how it is, days went by, I took some more photos of the tiny Y-wing and I loved it regardless of the circumstances. I changed my mind and ordered the 1/72 scale Finemolds Millennium Falcon while making even more photographs with the small Y-wing. I figured by making the models myself, customizing them with lighting and more I might be able to find a way to do this my way after all.

Not all the images I have taken of the Finemols model is about the Y-Wing being parked somewhere. They just work well, I think.
Not all the images I have taken of the Finemolds model is about the Y-wing being parked somewhere. They just work well, I think.
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