Simon Liu is a prolific builder and one of the most recognisable faces on the LEGO convention scene, displaying regularly across Canada and North America. Two years ago I had the opportunity to discuss the ethos of science fiction building, what makes the LEGO community unique and the challenges of collaborative building.
David Alexander Smith: All builders’ work is hard to define, and your work especially, with its coverage of so many of styles and themes. Saying that space builds seem to be something you routinely come back to. What is it that makes space building so appealing?
Simon Liu: The quick answer: because I’m good at it… The long answer, because that’s what I grew up with, watching sci-fi films and TV shows, reading science fiction, and playing space themed video games. In short I love Sci-fi, and when I build I tend to want to build things I’m most familiar with – I just enjoy building it, and I think that enjoyment is reflected in the final product.
Thinking back that enjoyment comes in part from being a kid, building robots and spaceships that I would fly around the house. At the time my collection, and abilities were limited. Now the size of my collection is no longer an issue I can try and build what I always wanted to … my ability on the other hand, well I’m still working on that one.
But perhaps there is an even longer answer: when I sit down to build, I like to construct what comes to mind. I have a fairly large collection, but it’s finite, and while I can order more bricks it takes time and breaks my creative flow. The space and sci-fi creations I make are usually figments of my imagination, which allow me to work in a more intuitive way.
DAS: That’s interesting, I recently interviewed the Australian builder Karf Oohlu, and he said something very similar about the need to allow inspiration to take hold through pieces. Perhaps sci-fi building fits well with this creative approach?
SL: Perhaps, although I do take heavy inspiration from other sources, including builders I look up to, but ultimately everything gets filtered through my brain and personal inventiveness. In other words there are no ‘right ways’ to build I suppose, if you don’t have a specific piece, then you just use another. And sci-fi building does seem to support this approach.
DAS: Its true, sci-fi, although often soaked in the aesthetics of technology and pragmatics, is actually more about the look of something rather than its real function. Maybe this provides the freedom to see pretty much any LEGO piece as part of a spaceship?
SL: Well, sometimes there are odd piece choices that I put into builds, and that’s usually because I don’t have a part. This works well for Sci-Fi builds, as the genre lends itself to maximum creative freedom. If I were building a car that leeway isn’t there.
This leads to a recurring joke I am fond of making: ‘any part, is a spaceship part’ – it all depends on how it’s used. Building Sci-Fi is really conducive to using parts in unintended ways to achieve your build. One of my favourite Sci-Fi elements is the 1×2 Masonry Brick, which is definitely intended for town and castle, but in the right orientation it creates excellent textures.
DAS: Expanding on this idea of ways of building, I’ve speculated in one of my other articles that LEGO encourages us as builders to explore the limits of design conventions. I see this in many of your works, for example the revamps of Classic Space or Ice Planet conventions.
SL: In the case of some conventions, like Ice Planet, it’s obvious; it’s the colour scheme. Whereas for others like Vic Vipers (the two pronged spaceship), the design convention can be shown through a diagram. I think that many of the space building contests in the community have an innate ability to come up with a clear and flexible set of conventions. This allows for a cohesive and recognisable set of builds, but also allows individuals to challenge and bend the conventional norms.
For me, once you understand the boundaries that are expected a convention becomes fairly straightforward to build in. The trouble with some design conventions is that they’re unclear or too broad, resulting in ill-informed creations.
DAS: This naturally brings up a question about the relationship between science fiction themes and the games builders play in the LEGO community, I’m thinking of course of the likes of Febrovery (the month of lunar rover building) and the yearly giant space building event SHIPtember (SHIP being an acronym for seriously huge investment in parts) that you’re well known for creating and running.
SL: I think during these themed months and contests people see this as an opportunity to apply the design convention from their favourite sources (sci-fi, video games or otherwise) and apply it to the convention established by the contest.
The most obvious example is SHIPtember. Many people, including myself, built Homeworld (the real time strategy video game), or Homeworld inspired SHIPs this year. Another common example, which I’m also guilty of, is applying the classic space colours used in the sets of the late 70s and early 80s on other conventions. The trans yellow-blue-grey colour scheme accented with yellow and black bumblebee stripes is extremely recognisable in the community and as a result can be easily applied to pretty much any of the established conventions. Try it!
DAS: Yes I love pushing the classic space convention myself. But, have you ever pushed a convention or design principle so far that it became ridiculous? For example your Si-Fighter I would think comes directly from the process of pushing an S-shape to an extreme.
SL: I think it would depend on what you define as ridiculous … I do tend to borderline on the silly … I think I have a predisposition to replace our beloved mini-figures with various animals, from frogs, to teddy bears and the like. There’s just something incredibly fun about the juxtaposition of my usual sci-fi builds with the addition of cute animals.
Though I think I may have inadvertently ruined a convention by redefining it for my own purposes. Before I came along, SHIPs had a pretty specific meaning: 100 studs long spacecraft, almost always mini-figure scale, with interiors. But when I created SHIPtember, I added a new constraint to the convention – having builders start and finish in a month. As a result this led to a gradual decline perhaps even erosion of the some of the old conventions to meet the new. Though hopefully I can try to push the needle back towards mini-figure based SHIPs next year.
DAS: As you’ve already mentioned in the case of Homeworld, you often build models inspired by video games, Borderlands and Starcraft lately. Why is this subject matter appealing to you?
SL: What’s interesting is that the previous generation of LEGO fans took inspiration from books and movies, whereas for the newer generation it has become more about the video games they play.
It’s funny that you would think that I’m associated with this shift towards video game representation, as I’ve generally stayed away from building and recreating from pop culture, be it video games, or movies. It’s not that it’s not fun, but I generally like exploring my own little worlds, not to mention there are a lot of builders out there that are phenomenal at rebuilding from pop culture.
But there are a few games that I feel particularly passionate about, Starcraft and more recently Borderlands. As for why they’re good subjects, perhaps for me its because there are a lot of grey dropships in these themes which I like building, which are also in films like Aliens and Avatar that I grew up watching. And I think my builds tend to reflect a lot of that space-marine vibe you find in these properties.
However I don’t set out to recreate certain popular cultural forms because they are popular or would work well. I think of it as less, ‘what would look good in LEGO’ and more ‘what do I want to build’. But I do admit that the audience and reception is different when you tackle builds based on video games, or other pop culture icons. There’s a resonance your audience and you share, a bond that comes from playing the game or of watching a film.
DAS: How do you feel about LEGO moving into the creation of sets around video game IPs? Obviously there has been Minecraft, and soon we’ll have Angry Birds. Is this a different cultural moment to say the collaboration in the late 90s with Star Wars?
SL: The response to video game IPs in LEGO really depends on your point of view. For many builders, it really doesn’t matter where the IP is from, the question is what’s in the box? Are the pieces useful and interesting? Is the cost of the set reasonable relative to non-licensed sets? For causal LEGO fans, it will depend on the inclusiveness of the LEGO fans to the video game fans.
For me, I like it. The sets themselves are not overly important, but I tend to look within to see the inventory of each set, and the building possibilities that can arise. But I really do like the fact that LEGO has been producing popular IPs. It allows me to give the gift of LEGO to a whole new audience that wouldn’t necessarily be that interested in a standard set. Over the past few years I must have bought everyone I know some sort of Ideas set for a birthday or other event.
I also believe that for the younger generation, who might be entering their dark ages, having that tie-in with games that they play may ultimately help prolong, if not solidify a life long LEGO passion.
DAS: You are also known as a key figure in the LEGO community. What makes the LEGO community special and potentially different from other communities, both online and in real life?
SL: We all like LEGO, and it doesn’t matter who you are in the community, from the most famous of builders, to the newest teenage builder, or the set collector, we all share a common love. And I’ve noticed that especially in the builder community, we share a very similar mentality towards the brick and the joy of building, otherwise we wouldn’t be doing this – and it’s independent of social or economical background. I’ve been extremely lucky to go to the four largest conventions across the United States and Canada, and it’s always the same, there’ll be a group of builders there that you can spend an entire weekend with.
And then there’s always that bag or bin of loose bricks, and one of the great joys is just sitting down and building. I think this ability to want to build together is the best way to describe our community. Many other hobbies or groups seems to be a little individualistic and self-centred, whereas this hobby as a whole may at first glance seem to be a fairly solo endeavour, as a community it is different, we play well together, and embrace each other’s abilities, ideas and ultimately each other. Very few communities out there would so willing to share with everyone their so-called tricks of the trade, and to actively encourage newer builders, and that’s pretty cool.
DAS: Is there something about the universal language of LEGO that allows us to understand each other better than other more culturally embedded activities?
SL: I’ve had the pleasure of sitting down and building with people from around the world, from the United States, Europe, New Zealand, Australia, and it’s the same around the world. The stud goes into the anti-stud. It doesn’t matter what language you speak.
But even within local areas, it’s fascinating to see the actual lexicon of LEGO change. Have you ever asked someone what a 4070 brick is called? Depending on who you ask it’s an ‘Erling’ or a ‘headlight’ or a ‘washer’ or even a ‘half plate recessed SNOT brick’.
But even with the ultimate equaliser that is the standard LEGO brick, the resulting builds are unsurprisingly geographically diverse. If you look around the different areas of the world, there seem to be some trends that pop up in certain locales. It doesn’t mean that everyone from a given area or a certain group build the same way, but there tends to be a consolidation of styles, which LEGO users as an international community then see come together. That’s amazing.
DAS: LEGO building has a wonderful way of inspiring collaboration. For instance I love the Protego Maxima build for the Symphony of Construction project you were part of. Could you tell me a little bit about that project, and how successful you felt it was?
SL: I almost think collaboration is my favourite part of the hobby. There’s just something wonderful about the idea of doing more as a group than you can individually, and I’ve made lasting friendships, and possibly some enemies by working on a variety of collaborations.
Symphony of Construction was the brainchild of Paul Vermeesch and Ian Spacek, two incredibly talented builders and composers (though I will take credit for coming up with the name!). The idea was simple: take the traditional LEGO ‘telephone game’ (where a builder would build a model, give it to the next builder, who would then build a new model based on the one they received). But instead of a standard cycle of building one thing and passing it on to the next, they literally added a musical interlude. A builder would not base their build on the previous build, but on a piece of music, which in turn, is based on the previous build. I must have listened to my score (written by Christopher Baldacci) a hundred times, even spending an entire work day playing it on an endless loop to try to get a feel for the music.
Unfortunately I don’t think it was nearly as successful from an audience perspective as I would have hoped; as to properly follow it, you would have to look at the build, listen to music (or watch a video), which may have exceeded people’s attention span. But from a participant’s view, it was most definitely one of the more fun ‘games’ I’ve been a party to.
DAS: With the aspiration of collaboration, what would you like to see the community try? Is there something that could potentially be said in a collaborative build that a solo builder could never achieve?
SL: Whenever you collaborate I feel you’re really forcing people from different perspectives to work towards a uniform whole. The more cohesive the intended outcome the more you truly collaborate. It’s easy to create a standard and everyone build their section, but does that make a good collaboration?
It depends I think on the goal of the collaboration. Collaborations with standard conventions are a fantastic mechanism for getting people building and involved. Especially for new comers who have never participated before or maybe even attended a convention.
Whereas for some groups their goal is to create the most amazing creation possible. This usually involves complex standards, both in terms of structural as well as aesthetic cohesiveness. These collaboration giants, such as BrickTimeTeam, BrickToThePast, BroLUG, KeithLUG and VirtualLUG are the next level of collaboration where the creation is more than a sum of their whole. The combined might and effort that goes into these monster collaborations adds an extra quotient, an amazing multiplier that ends in utterly jaw dropping results.
While I’m thrilled to keep seeing new amazing collaborative builds form these collaborations, I would love to see how some of them would apply their group’s talents to different genres. Sometimes the most surprising builds comes from the least likely sources, there’s something to be said about taking on a new subject with fresh eyes and new perspective. And there is always something new to see at every convention.
This interview first appeared in Bricks Culture 4.
To see more of Simon Liu’s amazing creations visit his Flickr stream here.