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 21, 2024

The Day Off Posterworks

I work as an illustrator and an occasional graphic designer by day. Sometimes I like to relax by making some laid back posters with the toys. And by toys I do not mean just the toys but also the tools, the camera and the computer. These posters are not meant for anything, they are just something to have some fun with and maybe to have something nice to look at.

The first posters of this sorts were with scale model spaceships in the summer of 2013. There was four of them and they got some exposure on social media. They still come up on Pinterest from time to time. After those four posters I switched to Lego spaceships. I figured it could be an interesting way to look at Lego to highlight them by not showing too much.

In this first set of four posters the TIE fighter is the second Lego spaceship poster I ever did. Over the years I have scrapped a couple of the early posters and made new versions of them. For example the first Millennium Falcon poster (top right, the first version) was nice but a few years later I made an updated version of it. For a good reason too I think. The Slave 1 was originally made with the old Lego model, this with the UCS Slave 1 poster is, again, a remake.

I’m not entirely sure where I got that high vertical format but I have used it for all the spaceship posters I’ve made. I like it even though it appears to be arbitrary, just something I figured would look interesting. It may be that I simply had a piece of old paper that I sometimes use as an overlay shaped like that.

I wanted the posters to look very simple, rough silhouettes and most basic forms suggesting maybe locations connected to the spaceships. The Death Star stencil on the X-wing poster is by far the most complex of them all while the TIE Striker next to it is the simplest. I like the TIE Striker by the way, I liked Rogue One too. The movie had well thought out designs, different and new but all stylistically very faithful to the Star Wars original trilogy universe.

The third batch of posters. I’m very happy with the last three of these posters, the Tantive IV, the U-wing and the Blade Runner Police Spinner. With them I think I managed to capture a look I like with the heavily manipulated photographs and the graphic elements, spheres and lines.

The Blade Runner Police Spinner is obviously not an organic part of this particular series but it deserved a go too. The model is a MOC by someone who goes by the name Kaitimar, not an officially released set. It is actually quite a wonderful little thing.

I have some more Lego spaceships for future posters but haven’t found a satisfactory approach for them. I haven’t put a lot of hours on them to be honest, this is a relaxation project after all. If it takes too much effort it isn’t relaxing.

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!

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