When you’re a kid and you play with toys, the action seems real to you. You see the glow of Darth Vader’s lightsaber, even though it’s not there; throw your X-wing across the room and the stars streak as it hits lightspeed; take an AT-AT outside on a snow day and it’s just like the Battle of Hoth. Of course, that’s all just the power of youthful imagination. But fan toy photography — an art form that has exploded thanks to Instagram and social media — makes our playtime dreams real. Today, fans are taking photographs that utilize practical effects, real locations, sets, and digital tweaks. Improved likenesses, detail, and articulation in action figures have brought toys closer to looking like our heroes (and villains) more than ever before. The images produced are often incredible.
So to mark the home release of Star Wars: The Last Jedi, StarWars.com asked two of our favorite toy photographers to take photos for official, custom Blu-ray covers that fans can download and print. Those photographers are Johnny Wu (a.k.a. @sgtbananas) and Vesa Lehtimäki (a.k.a. @avanaut). Both have had books published collecting their work — Wu’s Ten Frames Per Second and Lehtimäki’s LEGO Star Wars: Small Scenes from a Big Galaxy — and are truly gifted artists. For StarWars.com’s covers, Wu utilized Hasbro’s 6-inch Black Series figures to recreate the throne room battle and Rey’s Ahch-To journey, while Lehtimäki employed LEGOs to depict a nighttime scene on Luke’s island (making use of 200 — yes, 200 — porgs). The resulting photographs are alive, fun, and beautiful. StarWars.com caught up over e-mail with both Wu and Lehtimäki to find out how they did it.
StarWars.com: What was your first step in taking these photographs? How did you get started?
Johnny Wu: When I decided to recreate this scene, I had to figure out how to create the environment, Snoke’s throne room. So I decided to go to a local plastic fabricator and buy some sheets of plastic. I bought two sheets of red, and one black — the red for the wall and black for the floor. Once I had that stuff, I started posing the figures around and playing with ideas. Usually when I’m sitting down watching TV, I’ll have a figure in my hands, posing it around ’til I get something I like. After a few days I had a pretty solid setup and began taking test shots.
Vesa Lehtimäki: The first step, before picking up the camera, was to draw some pencil thumbnails. This is for determining if the original idea would work on the desired space. After some sketching, I took some preliminary images of the subjects simply with a phone to see how the volume of details would work on the final image. It’s a lot of back and forth, twisting and turning to make the elements sit nicely. This phase however, doesn’t account the focal length of the lens I planned to use in the actual image. A 16 millimeter wide-angle on a full sensor DSLR acts a whole lot different than a camera on a phone, so I moved to do more test shots with the big camera. Then it’s just lot of tweaking to find the best angle and lighting.
StarWars.com: Vesa, you were working with, what, 200 porgs? How did you decide the best way to showcase them?
Vesa Lehtimäki: The idea was to make a photograph of the moment Luke and Rey suddenly realize they are surrounded by all these birds. It’s supposed to be a humorous Alfred Hitchcock reference, with the idea that perhaps the porgs’ true nature was never really revealed in the film. I mean, what if they were carnivorous? They could be, they act sinister enough.
There was also a practical reason for the large volume of porgs. In the start I didn’t know what the Ahch-To set would look like exactly, and I was a little concerned how to keep the world in the photograph intact. I mean, if the set was really small, I would have had to figure out how to create the Ahch-To island surroundings outside the LEGO set without dropping out from the LEGO make-believe world. That can be very difficult to pull off. To see how that would have worked out, I did make some experiments with real rocks after I actually got the set in hand. It didn’t work. I also tried building some cliffs from LEGO to extend the Ahch-To set, but that sort of made the whole set look hokey. I’m not used to building anything myself. So, I hid everything under a big flock of porgs.
This was not so much about showcasing the porgs, but using them to keep everything together. Okay, it was a little bit about showcasing the porgs, too. They’re fun!
StarWars.com: What really impresses me about your photo, Vesa, is the depth of field. The Falcon really looks like it’s off in the distance. How did you accomplish that?
Vesa Lehtimäki: Initially I tried to achieve this by making the composition in-camera. It turned out the massive Ultimate Collector Series Millennium Falcon was so big that it completely overpowered the Ahch-To set. That was not good, as it was supposed to be the main attraction. Moving the Falcon back a little to make it less dominant threw it out from the camera focus range. That didn’t work, so I decided to make this as two separate shots.
The two separate elements created a different set of challenges, like how to merge the elements so that it didn’t just look like it was just two random images mashed in one? Just having a flock of porgs didn’t seem enough to tie it together. I decided to go for something I call “The Forced Atmospheric Perspective.” I use small amounts of smoke to create an illusion of aerial haze, which in turn suggests larger-than-real quantities of air between the camera and the items in question, as if they were bigger than they really are.
If you know how a camera lens works, you know having both elements in focus in front and back like this is not really possible. But there’s a catch: it would work if the elements were “real,” if the minifigures were human size. When the camera objective doesn’t need to focus right in front of it, but a little further to where the imaginary human-sized minifigures would be, a few meters instead of a few centimeters, it would be feasible for the depth of field to extend all the way to infinity, or close, at least to the Falcon in the background. Together with a little puff of smoke this works rather well.
StarWars.com: Johnny, in your throne room battle photographs, you used some practical effects. What exactly did you do and how many attempts did it take to get what you wanted?
Johnny Wu: One of the most memorable things about that fight scene was how chaotic the throne room becomes. It starts off so calm and clean and in the end it’s war zone. I’ve always loved using practical effects in my photos. After a trip to the city I had a bunch of new fireworks in my possession, and a scene begging to be lit on fire! [Don’t try this at home, everyone.] Since I had the poses and scene set up, I had to figure out where to position my lights and fireworks. I had to shoot this outside because of the fireworks, so I had to wait until it got dark so the fireworks weren’t competing with daylight. The first attempts weren’t too bad, but usually I have to light off a few fireworks before I know exactly where I want to put them. Once I had that figured out, it was just a matter of getting the look I wanted. That part is always different… Sometimes it takes a few minutes and other times it’s a few hours. I think, overall, I took around 3,000 photos. My camera has a fast frame rate so it’s easy to get carried away, ha.
StarWars.com: There’s a lot of energy in these photos, much like the scene. How do you make sure you’re conveying that?
Johnny Wu: One thing I’ve learned about shooting action shots is that it’s all about the closeup. The challenge with this photo was that I couldn’t shoot super-tight like I normally would due to the Blu-ray dimensions. I believe the poses really help sell the fight. The effects are the cherry on top. It helps tie it all together. Posing really helps convey emotion. Something as subtle as a slight turn of a hand can make a world of difference. I worked on different poses for over a week and when I finally had something I liked, everything else followed. The poses were the spark that led to a full blown fire.
StarWars.com: And tell us about the Rey on Ahch-To photo — I love how you framed it.
Johnny Wu: I was browsing photos of Rey on Google and came across one that I knew I could recreate fairly easy. I thought it would be cool to send a completely different photo from the throne scene, and I had just the location to do it.
There’s a mountain by my house that resembles Ahch-To — a lot. The rocks in the distance really sell that environment. I’ve used that spot a few different times now and it’s paid off each time. The Black Series Island Journey Rey was begging to visit it.
StarWars.com: Vesa, you obviously used LEGO for your photo, and Johnny, you used Black Series figures, which you both use regularly. What do you love about those respective brands and why do you think they photograph so well?
Vesa Lehtimäki: Illustrator Brad Holland has said that illustration is ”art under circumstances.” I love that quote. The LEGO minifigure has only seven points of articulation: hips, shoulders, wrists, and the head. Or six, if you use the LEGO snowtrooper minifigure, which happens to be my favorite. It can’t turn its head. I consider these to be the ”circumstances” — limitations that provide a positive challenge.
To me, the story in a photograph is very important. I find it very rewarding to do an image, a one-frame movie, if you will, with the story delivered as simply as you can with the limited range of the LEGO minifigure. You can only do so much with the little clips for hands on the LEGO minifigure, yet they are very expressive. I like simplicity, which doesn’t tell everything. Looking at a photograph of a LEGO figure, there is a lot of room for interpretation.
I practically always use stock LEGO sets in my shoots. They are something you have access to, not something unique only I possess. Whatever I do you can do, too, is the idea. We work with the same set of bricks. That is another [reason] why I think LEGO is great for photography; it’s relatable.
Johnny Wu: When I think about Black Series, two things come to mind: variety and accessibility. I love the amount of figures in the line. So many characters to choose from, and the best part is how easy they are to find. You can go to your local Walmart or Target and find them with ease. It makes them great figures for collectors of all levels, and at an affordable price, as well.
One thing that remains constant when reviewing a figure is the articulation. How posable is the figure? Can you get it into that iconic pose you saw in the movie? Black Series does a great job at that. I’ve said this before, but a pose can make or break a whole photo. The Black Series line is highly posable and I believe that’s a huge factor in why they photograph so well. A lot of times the pose dictates the direction of the photo. At least for myself.
StarWars.com: How did you find this project overall — having to create something that would work as a Blu-ray cover? And what did it mean to you to take part in it?
Johnny Wu: Creating a photo for a Blu-ray cover is new territory for me. A welcomed challenge for sure. I found it really exciting when I put the photo into the Blu-ray template and saw how official it looked.
As for being part of this project? It’s hard to put into words, honestly. A few words come to mind: insane, epic, amazing, honored, and proud. To create anything for Star Wars is insane. Knowing that people are going to download my photo to display on their Blu-ray is epic. Seeing the final shots in the Blu-ray format was amazing, and I’m incredibly honored and proud to be a part of this.
Vesa Lehtimäki: I liked this very much. I had just emerged from a long and grueling scale-model build and was looking forward to photographing some LEGO. It’s something I often do when I want to unwind after a project. This fell into that moment perfectly.
I also liked very much he idea of composing an image to a given space, the Blu-ray cover template. It’s that “circumstances” thinking again, I genuinely enjoy that. The Ahch-To set is not very big and thus not very rich in detail; I found it very interesting to figure out a way to make it stand out, to give it more gravitas than the mighty Millennium Falcon. Positive challenges working with elements from a world I’ve known from 1977. I find that ideal.
I am happy that this is Lucasfilm and StarWars.com. The Internet didn’t exist when I was a kid dabbling with my first LEGO photographs, but Lucasfilm did, and I was very much aware of it. About 40 years ago, Lucasfilm and Industrial Light and Magic were the places I wanted go for work. I’ve never been to California — it’s a long way from Finland — but there is a sense of homecoming here somewhere deep down. It’s one sided, but it’s good.
StarWars.com: Finally, what would you tell aspiring toy photographers?
Vesa Lehtimäki: You live in a blessed era in terms of how you have a fairly easy access to digital cameras and even editing tools. Finding people with similar mindset is also easier than ever before. It doesn’t matter if you don’t have the best camera, you can do wonders with pretty much anything that can capture an image. Just go and shoot many, many frames, try things, use what you got. Be inspired by other photographers’ work, but don’t stick to just toy photographers. Better yet, don’t stick to photographers only, there is a lot of beautiful work out there to draw inspiration from. Use ideas, mix them, make them your own by aspiring for something you haven’t seen before, do something new, challenge yourself, find what you want to say. It’s okay to enjoy making images similar to someone else’s — copying is a very good way to learn techniques, maybe the best there is. But do give credit to whomever it is you are drawing from. Be fair, be honest, be true, and you will have a ball.
Johnny Wu: For any aspiring toy photographers out there looking for advice, I would say the most important thing is to have fun and follow what inspires you. Your best work will happen you’re highly inspired and having fun. Everything else will come naturally if you focus on those two things.
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Dan Brooks is Lucasfilm’s senior content strategist of online, the editor of StarWars.com, and a writer. He loves Star Wars, ELO, and the New York Rangers, Jets, and Yankees. Follow him on Twitter @dan_brooks where he rants about all these things.