Vesa Lehtimäki (aka Avanaut).
Illustrator, designer, storyteller.

I discovered you through your Lego Star Wars artwork, but then I saw your previous work on Suomen Kuvalehti. That’s the work of a lifetime, amazing oevre.
Thanks. Yeah, that’s the bread and butter, what pays the bills. The Lego Star Wars thing was just a hobby that got out of hand, an accident.

We’ll talk about that, but first some background. Where are you from, what did you study?
I’m a local. I was born and bred here, didn’t get far. (laughs) I have a Master’s Degree in Arts from the Finnish University of Industrial Arts (which is Aalto University today). I first applied for filmmaking but didn’t get in, so I switched to Graphic Design.

Were you filming anything at home?
I was. I made movies in super-8 when I was young. I love movies, I grew up with them, they are magical.

Agreed. Pity they’re so industrial these days.
Small-scale films and internet movies are still great. You never get that sort of… intimacy in a studio film.

Do you like Japanese anime?
I’ve seen some, but it doesn’t seem to move me. I like Akira very much. And Porco Rosso is one of my all-time favorite movies. But other than that, not so much.

Did you know Miyazaki’s father was making parts for Zero airplanes during the war?
Yeah, that detail came up when The Wind Rises came out. I guess we can’t change history, only learn from it.

What did you do after school?
Illustrations here and there. Then I was at YLE doing art design, and then I spent ten years in Suomen Kuvalehti. Then I quit to become a full-time illustrator again, in 2006. (Suomen Kuvalehti is a prominent Finnish weekly, akin to LIFE or TIME – ed)

Ten years at Suomen Kuvalehti! Did it ever get boring?
There were lots of routines, and you not always get kicks from routines, it’s the same with every job. But there was also a lot of room for being a designer. And I loved the job and the people there.

Your caricatures are epic.
That’s… I happened to be at the right place at the right time. It took me a couple of years and a bit of a struggle to get the language of that kind of work. I had to teach the hand, so to speak.

It looks like watercolors, but is it digital?
I draw the ink lines on a computer, but the color is made with real aquarelles. I prefer to use the real stuff, as I don’t see the point of simulating that.

(at this point I take my camera out…)

I hate being photographed.

I’m sorry. I hate it too. Did you bring Lord Vader?
Yes, I did! It was difficult to find, because we’re having some renovations at home. And I recently shot him in the snow, so he’s a bit powdery…

(Vesa dusts off the tiny Sith Lord and they both -reluctantly- pose for the portrait)

So you quit Suomen Kuvalehti.
Yeah. It’s a wonderful place to be. Great journalistic values they uphold. It was very educational and I love the people there, and miss them. Some are not working anymore, they are retired and enjoying well-earned pensions. But at the time I wanted to do something else. I felt I couldn’t get any further as a designer there, it was a sort of dead-end. I was doing layouts and designing pages, a few illustrations… I was also an art director for a while. So in the end I went freelance, to work with agencies and magazines.

Are you so big that they call YOU now?
He, he, no. I still have to call them! But it works, and it’s a lot of fun. I still work with Suomen Kuvalehti, I have done like 600 portraits with them by now. It’s always very motivating, never boring. Especially the cycle, once a week.

Let’s talk Star Wars. Did you see A New Hope in ’77?
Yeah, the first round. The stuff of legend.

It’s amazing to think there were no lightsabers, Jedi or storm-troopers at the lines when we were waiting to get in. We just didn’t know what was it we were going to see.
The premiere in Finland was in Christmas, on December 18th, so it was a six-month delay. But for Return of The Jedi in 1983, we were the first ones in Europe to see it. That was good.

Such a mind-blowing visual experience.
Yes. But I was a fan of other things in this genre before Star Wars. Do you know Space 1999?

Gerry and Sylvia Anderson!
Yes! That was on TV here a year before SW. I loved those Eagle spaceships. I built a model of one of those. And before that there was Valérian and Laureline by Christin and Mézières, do you know that?

No. What is it?
It’s a French comic. The first albums are from the late 60s. It’s about this duo of special agents who travel through space and time. A movie by Luc Besson is coming this year about this, by the way. It’s a lifelong dream of his, and it’s finally happening. But those first albums are pre-star wars, and are full of pages and details which can be clearly seen in Star Wars movies. Leia’s bikini in Jedi is straight from the Valérian comic, or the stormtroopers breaking in at the beginning of A New Hope, Boba Fett’s helmet, Han Solo in the carbonite block… a lot of stuff. And I don’t think ‘plagiarism’ really applies here, it’s just a very strong influence.

What about Enki Bilal, or Moebius / Jodorowski?
The French / Belgian scene, yeah. Really big and influential.

Would you have liked to see Dune directed by Jodorowski, with Dalí in it?
Yes, of course. David Lynch’s not bad, though.

He did a great job. Are you a fan of Dune?
I have the first three books, the Atreides trilogy.

Super-cerebral stuff. Books with such depth, at each stage in life you find something new, just like The Lord of The Rings.
I read LOTR as a bedtime story to my kid.

“And the Balrog danced and sang a song…”
(laughs) After reading Harry Potter, and comparing the story with LOTR, it’s interesting to notice how different they are in terms of structure. HP is wide, while LOTR is deep. The age shows in LOTR by now.

Monster difference in personalities and zeitgeist. Tolkien was an Oxford man, interested in mythology and language.
The Finnish Kalevala was very influential for him too. Have you seen The Iron Age (Rauta-aika)?

With Vesa-Matti Loiri. That’s pretty badass.
Yes. It has very good moments, and I haven’t seen anything that approaches the Kalevala in that tone.

Shall we start talking about the Lego Star wars thing?
Sure. There was this illustration project, for which I had to buy my first digital camera, a Canon 400D. This was in 2008, I think. I finished the project, I had the camera, so I started to shoot other stuff. I had shot analog film in the past, but I was happy to play with the digital. I had this idea: as my kid grows up and his old toys are being tossed away, I will start documenting them one by one. Just put them on the table, shoot. So I had a lot of those photos. And in June 2009 it was the turn for these Star Wars action figures that were surprisingly fun to shoot. I just tried it and put some up on Flickr. I had just found out about this toy photography scene, I didn’t know it existed, and people responded nicely. At that point I remembered a time as a teen when I had tried to photograph toys, but the lenses of our camera were so crappy that I abandoned the project. But I recalled ideas from back then, and I began to use them, and that’s how I came into the smoke and the snow effects.

All the toys belong to your son then?
Initially, yes. I didn’t want to open Pandora’s box by buying the toys for me, so I only used stuff that was laying around the house.

“Son, you definitely need a new AT-AT…”
(laughs) It sort of… developed into that, yes. I had to give in at some point. But I don’t have so many of my own. And I return everything I use to him (mostly).

Was he also into Star Wars?
Yeah, but he has his own interests too. I myself don’t live and breath Star Wars either. It’s not present in my life all the time, nor do I have posters on my wall, or toys on display. It’s a world I know from that time when I was a kid. Only recently, before we went to see Rogue One, I watched Episode IV again after many years and I was like “yeah, fine”.

What does your son say about your hobby?
Well, I think… he couldn’t care less. (laughs) But in a good way! It’s just something his father does.

Does he ever show any interest? Like “dad, do you need any help with the lights, or the smoke..?”
If I ask him he helps, yes. He has helped me a lot through the years. And he has his own ideas that he carries out himself.

What is it about SW that’s attractive to you as an adult?
Mostly the designs. The look and the feel of things.

But what moved you to explore the SW universe with Lego figures and toys?
Well, the special effects -which were built around tons of photographs put together- didn’t have anything in the space itself, around them. There was no smoke, nor snow, nothing. I saw an opening, it was a new thing, so I put the atmosphere there. And so these already known characters and vehicles ended up looking very different, and people seemed to like it. Today, if you look at what people are doing with toys, I don’t stand out at all; they’re all doing the same thing: debris sprays, smokes, blizzards…

But you did it first!
(laughs) Yes. That’s why the people from The Lego Movie contacted me.

They felt your presence.
They were trying to determine the look of the movie, they saw my work on Flickr, and sent me an email. Then it continued through Skype.

So how did it go?
It went well. The only thing I would do differently in retrospect is to demand to have my name in the credits. That was a bit of a disappointment. But the lighting director and the visual supervisor wrote very nice blog posts about my involvement, so it’s not just a story I made up myself. That was really nice of them. And people at the right places know about it. Still, it would have been nice to see my name up in the credits of The Lego Movie, though.

So you finally had the chance to shoot toys the way you wanted.
Finally, yeah. All the ideas I soaked up as a kid from ILM, and all those old movies and timeless special effects… King Kong, Ray Harryhausen animation, Douglas Trumbull, the cloud tanks from Close Encounters of The Third Kind… All that I could finally try and play with, and everything came together.

All that stuff is so organic, unlike CGI.
Yeah, and it’s so much fun, because it’s totally unpredictable. You think you know what you’re going for, but you don’t actually know what you’ll get exactly. It’s a surprise! That never happens with computers, because they give so much control. Still, with CGI you can do wonderful things, it’s just different by nature.

Perhaps that’s the problem with the prequels: control. George was so scared to touch anything, that everything feels stiff and contrived.
Those films do have problems, sure. And they (and George) have been abused so much online. But you have to give him that he had a massive hit, something that the world loved, and he chose to re-invent it. To do something different, not just repeat it. He failed here and there, but the new world is in beautiful harmony with the one in the sequels.

But wasn’t George more like an administrator? Everything in episodes 4, 5 and 6 is designed by other people. George was essentially saying “this is SW, this isn’t”. In the prequels he had absolute control.
George and his stamps of approval. Yeah, of course. Still, I think it’s really ballsy to risk everything to try something new. Especially in Phantom he has very cool designs. The world looks really nice. But as far as the storytelling goes, yeah…

And how did your book come to be?
That was a… Well, I had made this birthday book for my kid, about Lego figures on Hoth. And it was nice. Then I thought of doing a version in English. And then, while I was doing some work for Lego, I showed them the book. And then they wanted a bigger book. So that got the wheels turning.

Who does it belong to, legally?
It belongs to everybody. (laughs) The agreement is terribly complicated, because these big franchises are involved. It took a lot of time to sort out. There’s Disney, Lucasfilm, Lego, and Dorling Kindersley, the British publisher. Someone told me that it may be the first official licensed book made by a Finn, which I haven’t been able to confirm. As a Lego Star Wars photography book, it’s the first of its kind, that’s for sure.

Are you making money with it?
Some. But there are so many takers. Which is also understandable because there are so many owners. So everybody gets some.

Long live The Empire. Was Vader evil, you think?
Have you seen Rogue One?

No, and I probably won’t. Not feeling it.
I understand. But anyway, there’s one scene in Rogue One, with Vader, that’s amazing. I don’t want to spoil it for you, just in case, but it’s one of those rare instances in which you see him as truly evil. It’s a horrific, panic-inducing scene. Take for example, the scene when Anakin slays the children in Revenge of the Sith. It’s horrible, but it feels like “I get it, he’s evil” but it’s not… intimidating. But these few moments in Rogue, when Vader does his thing, it’s great! It’s worth the ticket price on its own.

I’ll think about it.
The first hour is slow, but closer to the end it starts to build up. I really liked Rogue One, I think it was nice to see a different SW movie, away from the Skywalker family soap opera and all that, it was a different take. There was maybe a little less fantasy and that magic feel of being out there in an alien world, perhaps. For me, The Force Awakens was a bit dull, it didn’t do it for me. Good sequences, though, like when the Falcon rises from the sand, and the chase afterwards with Rey and Finn, nice chemistry. But other than that… “OMG! they have a BIGGER Death Star!” It felt like a weird Spinal Tap Star Wars: it goes up to ELEVEN! The planet-destroying device may be bigger, but the result is the same: the planet is destroyed. I give them that TFA must have been very difficult to make, because of the expectations. You’re going to fail either way, so the pressure must have been terrible.

People go to the box office anyway.
I guess, yeah.

I just watched the original trilogy on Blueray.
Oh, that’s horrible. I can’t…

The transfer is really bad. Jedi and Empire are watchable, but Hope is terrible… Those over-saturated colors… It’s unbearable. The problem of course is that they can’t release the restored versions because Fox owns the rights, but Disney the property, and they can’t reach a deal. It’s a pity, because this year is the 40th anniversary, and we should have a celebration.

I assume you’ve read J. W. Rinzler’s The Making of Star Wars?
Probably the best making-of book ever, by far. Reading it, it’s possible to understand why the first movie almost destroyed Lucas.

Oh, definitely. It just drained him.
It damaged him. You can tell by what he did before SW and what he did after. THX is an interesting movie. American Graffiti also, and Star Wars is very innovative, very different and original. And then, after Empire and Jedi he produced… Howard the Duck.

And he went to retouch perfectly good stuff.
The Special Editions, you mean? Not everything is bad. For example when they try to make Bespin bigger, more grand. That’s fine, I think.

He did the same thing with THX. It’s like he felt his movies needed more cowbell.
And most of those changes dumb down the films, they’re made more kid-friendly, which reduces their power. Take for example the whole Han-shot-first debate. It’s childish, horrible. Have you seen the Harmy de-especialized version, by the way?

No. What is it?
It’s a fan-made work of love. Collected footage and audio from the Blueray versions, film stock, stills, and many other resources, used to edit away all the stuff that was added in the Special Editions. Even the color corrections resemble the original theatrical version shown in 1977. Legally it’s a shady affair, but they’re saying it’s okay if you own the original releases. I do not know the legality of it.

Interesting, I’ll look it up. Hey, I saw your book in the Canary Islands, in El Corte Inglés.
Ah! Yeah, people send me photos from all over the world about the book. That’s so cool, I didn’t expect that. It’s been published in English, Spanish, French, and Finnish. I save them all, it’s great. The book was released a year ago, and I thought it would have been fading away by now, but in the last months it’s gone up in sales again. Christmas, I guess.

And now you’ll get the Helsinki Heroes bump!
(laughs) One thing that was interesting and addictive was to check the stats on the images I was posting on Flickr, how many hits they got per day. I remember having like a thousand views in one page and being like “Wow! Amazing!” Then, when I got 1.3 MILLION hits… That was… It became uncomfortable. I stopped replying to the comments and the emails altogether. Not that I didn’t want to, but because it was just too much.

You’re famous, man.
My 15′ minutes of fame, yeah. I’ve had an incredible amount of exposure, sometimes too much to handle. When it peaks, the numbers… But one great thing is that I’ve had absolutely zero negative feedback. There’s been comments like “Yeah, I’ve seen this before…” or “lame!” but nothing directed against me personally, which has been a pleasant surprise.

It’s not controversial, and it’s very beautiful. When I saw it the first time I thought of Edward Hopper.
The painter of Nighthawks?

Those X-Wings on parking lots. Quiet, nostalgic moments, echoes of Americana…
Well, yeah. I grew up with Belgian and French comics, and American movies. I saw Taxi Driver a little too early… Jaws, the 70s American cinema…

Heavily influenced by the French New Wave.
Of course, yeah. That beach-house in Malibu, where Scorsese, Spielberg, Coppola and Lucas would get together… That was totally my scene. So of course all of that would show up in my work. Have you seen Stranger Things on Netflix?

No. But it references 80s sci-fi and horror, right?
Exactly. It has its few good moments, but my point is that the source is almost the same, it’s referencing the same things. Sometimes it’s just too easy to exploit that era.

There was this guy on my FB page saying he won’t see Rogue One -like you- because it doesn’t have enough of this or that, or enough Jedi (nevermind that the Jedi are all but extinct at this point). But I suspect many people are disappointed because these new movies are not… old. Like they expect to see the movie they grew up with. They’re trying to find a new friend at 50, expecting to find the guy they grew up with at 15, but new.

It’s human nature. We cherish the past.
Exactly. And if you don’t acknowledge this, the fact that you’re watching something new, you will not give yourself the chance to like it.

Big studios push for sequels based on the idea that people will pay again to see almost the same movie. Do Back to The Future or The Matrix really need sequels?
Or Jaws! (laughter) I do like movies made today, the technical side of them, I like blockbusters if I can see them in a big theater, because of the technical joy in them. But then I also like small films. My favorite from last year was The Happiest Day in the Life of Olli Mäki (Hymyilevä mies). Shot in 16mm, black and white. So beautiful, I was almost crying. It won Un Certain Regard at Cannes. It’s a small, contained, beautiful little movie.

I’ll check it out.
I loved it. And as per grand cinema, when I get a good moment, I’ll watch Lawrence of Arabia again, magnificent filmmaking. And I just gave À bout de souffle (Breathless) in Blueray to my wife, as a Christmas present.

So all that stuff ends up in the little stories I make, they are my one-frame movies. I make little synopses for them. People say that if you take a good photo, there’s no need to explain it, and I agree. But there’s no way you can express all that in the photos I make.

You like to tell stories. Ever thought of doing stop-motion animation?
Very much. I like Henry Selick (The Nightmare Before Christmas, Coraline) and this Czech guy, Jan Švankmajer…

The guy who did the food animations on MTV?
Yeah! And I’m also eagerly waiting for Wes Anderson’s (Fantastic Mr. Fox) next animated film, Isle of Dogs.

What can we expect from you in the future?
No idea. I do as I please when I get the time. I’m now building two scale models, which take so much time, and I’m also working on a lighting set. I like to keep it fun. If I have an idea, I’ll do it.

You can see much more of Vesa’s work on his Flickr page and Instagram. His book is available (it’s completely sold out, so pre-order only) from Suomalainen Kirjakauppa, Akateeminen Kirkakauppa, and Amazon.