Creating the Star Wars Photograph: Vesa Lehtimäki’s “The Longest Night”

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We’ve got a very special Star Wars edition of Creating the Photograph in store for you today in celebration of Star Wars Day. Hailing from Helsinki, Finland, Vesa Lehtimäki is better known by the mononym Avanaut online through his various social media platforms. While you may be learning about Lehtimäki’s work for the first time, you’ve likely seen his images floating around the web. In fact, Vesa’s previous Lego-centric photography projects actually inspired the hugely popular (and Hugo Award nominated) Lego Movie.

Lehtimäki fashions himself “an accidental photographer with a day job as an illustrator.” His first foray into photography began with documenting his son’s toys back in 2009. Nowadays, his photos could easily pass as stills captured from the sets of big-budget Hollywood blockbusters. In the span of a decade, he’s helped pioneer original aerial effects using powders and smoke that’s become prevalent in toy photography today. Despite the epic scale portrayed by his images, Lehtimäki, like most photographers, actually operates as a one-man-band. He builds all the models himself and employs a fairly low-tech and hands-on approach to his projects. In honor of Star Wars Day, we’re excited to share how Lehtimäki went about creating his environmental portrait of an AT-ST walker, titled “The Longest Night.”

The Concept

As a native of Finland, I am used to winter and darkness. In fact, I find it inspirational, and with another source of inspiration, Star Wars, it comes together quite conveniently in the form of the frozen planet Hoth from The Empire Strikes Back. The exterior scenes for Hoth were filmed in Norway, our neighboring county. Scale models in photography have been done many times over. With snow, I try to find a less treaded path, a style not too ubiquitous.

My photographs often have stories written to them. I know a photograph should speak for itself, but I can’t help writing short stories to accompany them. This one is about trooper TK-24/7, a character I developed for these stories. The fictional planet Hoth isn’t inhabited but in my stories, it needs to be monitored from the ground at times. It’s a job for one man at the time only and this photograph is about one of these solitary patrol missions. I find the desolation in being the only human being on an entire planet genuinely fascinating.

The machine here is the AT-ST walker from The Return of the Jedi, not like the one featured in The Empire Strikes Back. But I’m not that strict to these details, I never replicate the events from the movies in my photographs anyway, it’s always something else. For this, I reprised an earlier photograph of the walker in a howling nocturnal blizzard on Hoth. The original was made with Lego but I wanted to try it out with a model I had just built. The night on Hoth is deadly, but inside the parked AT-ST walker TK-24/7 is off-duty, after an evening meal he reels back and reads books while the storm gently rocks the walker. The scenario is very cozy.

The scene would be monochromatic cool neutral in color, a bit on the bluish side. I wanted a splash of warm color to break it a little. So I slipped a warm white led bulb inside the cabin.

Gear Used

The Shoot

The setup is simple: a dark tabletop with a white backdrop, exposure set to 0.8 seconds on ISO 200. No data on the aperture because the lens does not communicate that back to the camera, probably f32. Lighting by strobe, manual trigger on the moment the baking powder substituting for snow is blown airborne. Again, no information on the strobe setting, I keep varying it on the fly looking for the right one to each angle. Camera triggered wirelessly with Pixel Oppilas.

The lighting is the simplest possible. One light source only for stark contrasts, no bouncers because the snow will act as one.

The scale model is small, only 17,5 cm high (about 5.5 inches) and quite fiddly. I tried to capture this in a single longer exposure but the light on the windows kept coming out blurry due to the movement of the model caused by air current with the baking powder. Eventually, I shot the windows separately and planted them over the main photograph. This was a letdown but it would look exactly the same had I constructed a solid support for the model. Unlike the models in the movie, or the Bandai model kit this is built from, my model has window glasses. They are from smoke-tinted clear styrene, quite yellow when lit from behind. I custom build my models specifically for photography, not for display.

The powder flows everywhere and is a pain to work with. I protect the camera with a plastic bag taped over it to prevent the powder from falling on it. The lens is weather- and waterproof. I have used this method a lot with my photographs during the past ten years. It has taken its toll, nowadays I get nosebleeds if the powder enters my nostrils for one reason or another. Baking powder is edible, it should be harmless but I have had to cut down a little. The cleaning is a burden as well, but I have some help in the form of an air filter now. It captures a lot of the fine dust floating from the setup.

For this, I tried to see if dropping the powder from above would look interesting. It would be better for containing the powder to the table only, but it didn’t look right.

Post Production

I shoot everything in RAW format, editing using the RAW file only, if possible. I removed a small bit of the electric wire for the LED, it got loose at some point and showed in the background. Then color corrections. In Photoshop RAW editor I added contrast and just a touch of clarity to bring out the flying snow. In this case, I added some exposure too, the original was quite dark. I sometimes use Alien Skin Exposure filters, for this a layer of Polaroid Cool Faded filter was added in 40% opacity. With snow, that particular filter works well but only in small quantities. A little bit of vignetting added.

Before and After

Credits

Vesa always shoots alone and constructs all of the models himself. You can learn more about his work through his various social media profiles:

We’d like to thank Vesa for sharing his creative process behind “The Longest Night” for this special Star Wars edition of Creating the Photograph. All images by Vesa Lehtimäki, used with permission. May the Force be with you, always.