Talking Animation with David Pagano and David Pickett

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David Pickett and David Pagano are two names synonymous with the art of brick filming and LEGO animation. They are also the co-authors of The LEGO Animation Book. Earlier this year they joined me to discuss how the book came about, their work and the future of LEGO animation.

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We started our conversation by digging into both of the Davids’ pasts, searching for that elusive moment that got them hooked on animation.

David Pagano: When I was a kid my dad had a video camera; this was before everybody had a camera in their telephone.  It was a shoulder mounted VHS model with a tripod that could be attached to it.  My Dad used it to record home movies and birthday parties.  At some point, I don’t remember exactly when it was, he and I watched a stop motion documentary together – a behind the scenes type of thing.   I have a clear memory of me asking him if he could explain how you do “that thing where characters move but you don’t see your hands.”

I also had a friend whose dad did puppetry shows for children.  As a result, he had some experience with video cameras.  One day, when I was around 9 or 10 years old, we were hanging out in my bedroom where I had a long layout of a LEGO city.  He said “hey, why don’t we make a LEGO animation with your city set up here.” So he arranged my dad’s camera: he was the photographer and I was the animator. I’d used LEGO as a way to facilitate storytelling and make up little worlds before, so putting them on video was a very natural next step.

David Pickett:  Seeing as how similar mine and David’s stories are, my joke was going to be to just say “ditto” after all of his answers.  My family also had a video camera.  I actually have some video footage of me as a seven-year old kid who when they got a camera immediately wanted to use it to film everything.

The earliest LEGO film I made used the set 60506 Dragon Wagon to make a movie about a dragon.  It wasn’t animated, in fact in most of my early films I literally moved the characters around like little puppets, doing their voices as I recorded.   It’s actually something I’ve started doing again, as a lot of the content on my Youtube channel is simply me playing with the toys as opposed to professional animation.  The VHS tape of these early pieces is probably still in my parents’ basement –  there is a terrible Power Rangers rip off on it, which I know would be right up David Pagano’s alley!

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Things moved on when I made my first LEGO film for a school project.   Anytime in school I could justify using a video to fulfil the requirement of an assignment I would, sometimes with LEGO, sometimes not.  At the time it was still rare for anyone to have video technology at home.  So I was the video guy as much as I was the LEGO guy at school.  It just seemed very natural to me that these two things I liked doing should combine.

My first animation probably wasn’t until I was around thirteen in middle school.  And then in college I had this epic animation that was 60 minutes long.  I realised when I screened it that I was becoming THE LEGO guy.  I made a very decisive choice at that point not to pursue live action filmmaking and focus instead on the LEGO niche.   So far it has worked out pretty well for me.

Having established the formative moments of both Davids careers we traced the journey from their early projects into professional practice.

David Pagano:  When LEGO Studios – the official LEGO line of filming sets – was released, they also ran a film competition to promote it.  By that point I had a capture card that I could use to tie my VHS camera into my computer, which finally let me do legit stop-motion animation.  My film was called Haunted and earned me a semi-finalist place, as well as a trip to New York City.  Which ironically is where I grew up.  My mum got a phone call from the LEGO Company: “You are never going to believe this, you and your family are going to New York City”… and my mum was like: “We are in Queens right now!” That was definitely the first time that I felt like this animation thing could be a career.

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I actually didn’t go to college with the intention of doing animation.  I wanted to do live action work: the real ‘pro’ way to make films.  What I quickly learned was that live action involves a lot of cutting your teeth on other peoples’ projects, which you may have little to no interest in.  Whereas if I made an animated film, I could lock myself in a room for a couple of months and do all the work myself.

So I ended up taking the animation track.  In my senior year, I decided to make a LEGO film as my thesis. The thought was “I’m in college and I’m spending all this money to be here, so I might as well make the LEGO film now, because after I graduate no one is going to hire me to do this.”

The film I made was called Little Guys, and it has been unintentionally responsible for every stop-motion gig I’ve been hired for.  Most specifically, I brought it to the Brickworld Chicago fan event, which is the largest in North American.  (It’s where Dave Pickett and I first met too.) There I met a crew from the LEGO Company who liked my film and asked me to do some work for their in-house agency.  That’s how my weird hobby become a weird career making films with LEGO.

David Pickett:  I initially went to college to study biology and creative writing at the University of Chicago, mainly because it’s a cool liberal arts college and I knew I would get a broad education.  I spent all my free time in the student film group making LEGO movies and other stop-motion stuff for fun.   I made some really long convoluted movies, which I called LEGO Movie 2 and LEGO Movie 2 Vol. 2, which received positive responses.  But I wanted to reconceptualise what I could do, make it more friendly for the emerging trend of internet video sites such as YouTube.

So I came up with the idea of a LEGO web series; this became The Nightly News at Nine.  I spent a lot of time building up characters and a world in the summer of 2006; a short teaser with a few of the characters followed in 2007.  I then spent a further two years revising scripts for what would become Chapters 1 and 2.

I was in a screenwriting circle with some people I met in college.  We’d read each other’s scripts and give feedback.  I always like to emphasise how much time and effort it takes to make something funny and good.  For example, the original scripts had a war between the colours regular green and lime green. This original idea was more conceptual – the war between two gods to decide the official colour of jealousy – which I rejected in favour of the more direct opposition between orange and green.  The final 24-minute piece was cut up into smaller chunks of 5 minutes, which was small back then, but nowadays this is long even for YouTube.

This project ultimately became the basis for my YouTube channel BRICK 101. As of a year ago it has become my main job. The site has moved away from the animation work; it’s a mix of tutorial videos and reviews of LEGO products and other brands.  This helps me to be more profitable.  I have an office now, and a part-time employee.  This has really become my career path now, but it has gotten me away from animation.  I consider myself more of a construction block filmmaker nowadays.

This revelation brought the conversation round to how the LEGO Animation Book bought the two of them together to focus on an animation project.

David Pickett:  It was after the Nightly News at Nine Chapter 1 that we really started talking about writing a book together.

David Pagano: Dave and I have been teaching a LEGO stop-motion animation workshop for a decade.  When we first started, Dave and I would also sell DVDs of our animated films.  People would point to these and they would say “oh is that a DVD about how to make LEGO animations?”, and we would both sort of blush and say “No”. We just looked at each other one day and said we should make a how to book so people stop asking us for it.

David Pickett: As David mentioned we met in Chicago, where we were the only two people involved in making animations.  There was one other guy from Brick Films but he has moved on.  Repeatedly, we have been the only two brickfilmers at this event for the past decade.  The LEGO fan community hasn’t really seen many brick filmmakers, compared to any other sub-genre of LEGO fandom. With the book we really are just trying to create the next generation of LEGO filmmakers and hopefully get current adult fans to try something they didn’t do as a kid.

David Pagano: One of the stated goals of our book is to be the kind of book we would have wanted to read when we first got into brickfilming.  We wanted to answer the common questions and condense the first steps of brick filming into a digestible form.  Being a co-authored book it also offers our two differing perspectives.  We often finish each other’s – [David Pickett interjects] “sandwiches” – … hahah!  If we had written this book on our own we would mostly have focussed on our individual approaches to filmmaking. By writing it together it became more about us exploring the ways in which film making is possible based on our combined experiences.

David Pickett:  This is most pronounced in section 7 of the book where we talk about pre-production. I am all ‘play’ with only the minimum amount of planning.  The Magic Picnic is the most planned project I’ve ever done, because it was planned for a book, but also because I was working with David who has the most amazing spreadsheets.

David Pagano: I tend to plan out my films to a large extent, so that when I am on set I am ready to play, without having to worry where the lighting is etc.  I’ve started over the past 5-6 years, bringing other people into the fold to help me on my films, so I don’t have to keep all the details in my brain or on a spreadsheet. This lets me focus on the fun parts of animation.

David Pickett:  One of the best things about the reception of the book is hearing anecdotes about how it is helping kids’ creativity.  A couple of home schoolers have told us that the book has become a project for their summer curriculum.  Another reason why we made the book was that it was something that simply needed to exist in the universe.

A discussion followed as to how the book was practically written.

David Pagano: One year, after the Brickworld event, we hung out at Dave’s apartment and knocked out a very broad outline for what we thought the book would be.  Some of this came from the workshops we had been teaching together. We started to figure out what the key points and most asked questions were and went from there.

David Pickett:  In late 2010, David contacted me to write a ‘How to Animate’ article for Brick Journal Issue 14.   After that was released in April 2011, we talked again at Brickworld, and that’s when Dave stayed over at my apartment.  One of the key things we decided at that point was whether the content would make more sense as a series of videos or a book.  We decided that a book and an animation developed together would be the best option. We started a website, now known as the Set Bump, originally Brick Animation, to support the project.

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Between 2011 and 2013 we did lots of pre-production work.  I think we officially started writing the book when the LEGO Movie came out in 2014.  We saw it together and went back to my hotel room to start work. David lives in New York and I live in Chicago, so a lot of the creative stuff was done when we were together.

David Pagano: Trying to make the Magic Picnic at the same time as writing the book was a hilarious and insane idea.  One can’t exist without the other—the photography from the book is directly from the set of the Magic Picnic, and these images, to some extent, dictated the text.  The difficulty came in juggling the interrelation of the two projects and meeting deadlines.

David Pickett: It was hard to write a draft of the book with zero photos in it. Our publisher couldn’t comprehend it without seeing the photos.  Having an animation tie in with the book was a huge interlocking puzzle, which at times was extremely frustrating.  Chapter three specifically will make David whimper.

We divided up the work for the book and the animation.  Each of us took the lead for different chapters and passed these back and forth to review.  Similarly, we split the Magic Picnic up, I did town, castle, and pirate and David did space and the robot battle. Having a story about inter-dimensional travel hid the differences between our cameras and was also a shout out to the classic brickfilm, the Magic Portal. It also contains references to the history of LEGO themes, Power Rangers and the 1980s LEGO Idea books.

David Pagano:  Our goal was to make sure that you could not see which parts of the film are me or Dave Pickett. We wanted it to feel cohesive. But if you pay close attention, it should be possible to see which parts were made by each David.

David and David moved on to discuss their respective animation styles.

David Pickett:  Let me talk about David Pagano in terms of a throughline in his work: his PaganoPuppet, which debuted in Playback. These are large scale brick built figures, but not as large as those in Little Guys.  They have human articulations and brick-built mouths.  They feature in his finest commissioned work Country Buildin’; a country music video with the two cowboys live lip syncing to the song of the same name.  It is probably the perfect blend of the needs of the client and David’s personal style.

In addition to the way David has refined his animation and his production process he has also refined the actual LEGO build over the years.  The original version of the character in Playback is not as refined as those in Country Buildin’.  The PaganoPuppet was then revised again, based on the availability of new pieces, when we did the instructions for our book.  It has also shown up in other animators’ works.  Also, non-animators have used it in their work. Monster Brick (Matt Armstrong), for example, has made lots of different interpretations of that base model.

In addition, David’s walk cycle diagram is part of an internal official LEGO document for how the minifigure can be used in any stop-motion animation they produce, whether it’s made by Paganomation or one of their other contractors.

When I was working on the book, I spent a lot of time looking at David’s work, and deconstructing what he does in his animations.  My favourite example is the arm nod, as a way of showing consent or a “yeah that is a great idea!”

David Pagano: What I admire in Dave’s work, especially in his animation, is something I don’t have as much experience with: writing.  So when Dave talks about how long he spent writing the Nightly News at Nine, I’m both impressed and envious.  I just haven’t made the time to develop my own stuff in the way he has.

However, there is an additional artistic l element to Dave’s work that is very important too.  I work in a building with Sean Kenney – the brick artist – and one argument that comes up over and over again is the idea that there are certain LEGO artworks or LEGO artists where the work is made of LEGO bricks but it doesn’t go beyond that.  One nice thing about the Nightly News at Nine is that it is made of LEGO and is a technically proficient build, but it also says stuff about Dave and gets his ideas into the world.  At my studio, the way we describe great works of LEGO art is that “LEGO can be the beginning of the conversation but it shouldn’t be the end.”

This idea turned the conversation around to the theme of what makes a LEGO artwork, and how storytelling and narrative forms are essential to LEGO animation.

David Pagano:  Accessibility is a word that comes up often when we have this conversation.  Anyone can go to a LEGO sculpture show or a fan convention, see how a piece is built, and can go home and try it themselves.  More so than say when you see a watercolour painting in an exhibition. Because LEGO is a toy first and art medium second, there is a lower barrier to entry.

David Pickett:  One thing that elevates great brickfilms is that there is more to them than just technique. A 4K video of a minifigure walking across the floor is not art, nor is it interesting.   I wrote an article about this that looked at the dangers of hyper-reality.  It analysed the mania for technical perfection that prevented film makers from finishing their work or telling meaningful stories.  So much LEGO animation is focused on spectacle.  Spectacle is always a part of entertainment, and art to a certain extent, but pure spectacle seems empty.

I have much more compassion and interest in technically terrible brickfilms made by a kid trying to say something.  A kid doing a poorly animated film about her family is way more interesting than a shot by shot recreation of the latest Star Wars trailer. I hate that the latter is all some people think of when they think of LEGO animation.

David Pagano:  It was important that the Magic Picnic embodied these ideas.  In Chapter 6 of our book we talk about how important play is in the development of a brickfilm.

When I started doing videos for the LEGO Group back in 2008, the company was coming back from near bankruptcy, trying to figure out what they needed to do to be vibrant and profitable again.  Back then they were more willing to take a chance on a video starring a talking mailbox or lumberjacks with magic powers than they are now. Some of the playfulness has gone out of the company’s recent adverts.

This opened up a conversation around the recent LEGO films.

David PaganoThe LEGO Movie is interesting for us because we both have an encyclopaedic knowledge of the rubbish put out by the LEGO group over the years.  If you look at LEGO Friends as a lifelong fan, it is such an improvement over Belville and Scala, but if you look at it from outside the lens of LEGO fandom, it appears as if all of a sudden LEGO is catering to girls.  The LEGO Movie is kind of the same thing – “LEGO has started to get into the film business and got it right the first time.”  Well not quite!  There were a lot of failures before the hit.

David Pickett:  There is this really excellent Henry Selick quote: “Every kid has a toy that they believe is their best friend, that they believe communicates with them, and they imagine it being alive, their toy horse or car or whatever it is. Stop-motion is the only medium where we literally can make a toy come to life, an actual object.” I’ve printed this out and put it on my wall.  When I think of the connection between toys and storytelling, stop-motion animation is just the playing without the hand present. The LEGO Movie embodies this idea even more than most current current LEGO products.  It communicates something deep about creativity.  The fact that you build the thing on the box, or the 3 things that there are instructions for; vs the idea that you can build anything you want to.  It’s a weird paradox and the conflict between LEGO as a concept and a product that is sold, and what it means culturally.

But I also wonder about this from a story telling perspective, what does it mean to be a ‘LEGO’ story.  So I think about all the LEGO themes (Star Wars, Batman, etc.) that reinvent these properties.  The key theme I see between these is a self-aware ability to poke fun at something that is generally dramatic.  For instance what the LEGO Company did with the Travellers Tales Star Wars games and TV shows; these are pretty irreverent. The LEGO Movie is like The ‘LEGO LEGO’ movie, in that it both celebrates and parodies the LEGO brand itself.

On this note we ended our discussion, with a nod to the power of humour and parody in LEGO animation, and a timely reminder to just what makes both David Pickett and David Pagano’s animations so much fun to watch.

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Bjarne Tveskov

This is a reposting of my interview from 2015 with Bjarne Tveskov the legendary former LEGO designer and creator of several of the most-loved of the 1980s space sets. We discussed spaceship building, Minecraft, digital technology  and life as a professional LEGO designer.  (This interview first appeared in Bricks Culture 4)

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A selection of Bjarne Tveskov’s iconic 1980s space sets

Three years ago I was just starting to discover how welcoming the LEGO community is.  Not just the fellow fans, who quickly became friends, but also the talented individuals who have and still work professionally for LEGO.  Without expecting too much I dropped a speculative email to the LEGO designer Bjarne Tveskov, probably best known for his work on a number of the iconic eighties space ranges, including the Blacktron and Futuron themes.  A warm reply came back: yes he’d love to chat with me about the smaller pocket money sets he created.  And with this began my involvement in writing about LEGO.

Back to the present, and this summer Bjarne and I struck up conversation once more, after I posted a collection of my classic space LEGO creations online.  And as things often do, we soon found ourselves talking about design process, how LEGO is developing as a cultural phenomenon and the links between LEGO and digital creativity.  As before, when I suggested this might be the basis for an interview, he didn’t need much persuading.

Starting at the very beginning Bjarne took me back to the mid-eighties when he began working for LEGO.

“It happened pretty much by chance.  I was reading a local Sunday paper where I lived, and there was an advert in there, that I still have, where LEGO were looking for designers for LEGO Space and LEGO DUPLO.   And it didn’t make a lot of formal demands on your background… It asked something like: if you had done experiments with science fiction models, or if you could draw or paint and had a good sense of shape and colour, that was about it.  And I thought well that could be me somehow, so why not try.  So I made an application, probably the first I ever wrote for a job. I thought maybe it could be a freelance thing. I was 17 years old and still in school at the time, so it didn’t seem a realistic option as a full-time job.  I just had this vague concept that there would be people designing LEGO sets, and that it would be cool do to this, but what this black box of LEGO design was, I had no way of knowing at the time.

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The original advert Bjarne replied to

As well as LEGO I was also into the early home computer scene at the time, especially a lot of the stuff that came from the UK back then, the Sinclair ZX81, the Spectrum and suchlike.  So I put this in the application too. I think it was one of the reasons why I was called in for an interview, because LEGO was already starting to look into computers.  The first generation of video games were starting to get big in the mid-eighties, and my boss Jens Nygaard Knudsen could also see that this could be important for the company’s future.

LEGO was already collaborating with the Media Lab from Boston, which were one of the earliest sponsors of research into technology related to play and education.   So I think an enthusiasm for computers was my hook into the system, not that we were directly doing anything with it when I first started.  The work was still exclusively taking place in the company’s educational Department, where they were making these control products which could manipulate simple robots. But there was a sense that these digital developments could one day become a core part of the LEGO business. But sometimes my computer skills came in handy; I was working at creating alternate monorail layouts for the 6921 Monorail Accessory Track set. It was pretty tedious trying out many different combinations, so I made a piece of software for the Sinclair QL computer which enabled me to ‘build’ a lot of tracks on a screen instead of building on the floor. In 1990 I got to change my job from designing models to combining LEGO and computers.  I became a concept person, one of the first to look at how to combine LEGO models and digital experiences for the consumer market.”

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6921 Monorail Accessory Track Set

Despite Bjarne’s interest in computers and love of LEGO there was something else that proved to be of even greater value to the company in the early days.

“I had a good interest in science fiction, the whole Star Wars thing and a TV show called Space:1999.  It was a big thing for me at the time to try to construct the weapons from these films, and the Eagle spaceships from Space 1999 especially.”

To land his job with LEGO, Bjarne had been sent a package of bricks and asked to build a space model to accompany his application.

“The model I built for my application was almost like an Eagle from Space 1999.  And this brings up a theme I think I’ll continue to touch on, how designers absorb ideas from other creations and recombine them, taking aspects from different areas and applying them to new ones.  Which really is a LEGO thing, but also my thing I would guess.”

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The model that landed Bjarne his job at LEGO

I wanted to know what it was like working for LEGO at this time.  How did the role of designing toys for the company differ from the model building he’d previously undertaken?

“It was a learning curve, but not as steep as I feared.  I jumped in and started doing things pretty quickly.   It was very much a culture of building and building and building.  And most of it of course was pretty useless, but it was still a process, where I tried to absorb some of the LEGO designers’ principles and get feedback on what I’d done.  I started by building some twenty spaceships, and I plastered them all with tiles because I thought it would be a cool look, but I learned it wasn’t really the way to go.

I started to pick up more by looking at the other guys who had been there for years, and the results they were getting.  And I tried to just imitate design tricks and techniques they used, I think this is also a great way to learn.  But you could never get all the way there when you tried to copy something, there still had to be some twist you added.

The other skill I learnt was the craft of building something that didn’t fall apart when you handled it.  You would take some models to a kids’ testing session, to see how seven year-olds put something together.  That was the biggest culture shock, realising that you were not building for yourself or other designers or marketing; you were building for someone else with different skills and abilities.  Children follow this development curve, where you can do certain things at certain ages.  Things like symmetry are kind of mind-blowing, if you are five or six you cannot really comprehend this.   This is a constant that is not changed, evolution maybe. As you grow as a designer you get that much more skilled, but the kids you are building for remain on the same level.  And every year there is a new generation of seven year olds.

As designers we have this craving for creating new things, and new design themes, but normally in a five-year span you gain a completely new audience who doesn’t know or care about what went before.  As a result this craving for doing the new stuff is accompanied by a process of doing the same thing over and over.  If you look at some of the space models from back then you can see the same themes are conceptually present today.  What a child can play with and how they build are not so different.  Which is also something nice, LEGO as a product changes but stays the same over the ages.  It is still amazing to me that it has been thirty years since I started, and I am still working with LEGO, although as a freelancer now, on products like Nexo Knights that will appeal to both new five year olds and at the same time reference older themes that adult fans will recognise.”

It seemed from Bjarne’s description that the design environment at LEGO was very free and open to creative experimentation.   I asked him how design briefs were established at LEGO.  Did the designers produce them through experimentation, or did the company develop specific themes or narratives, or stipulate the use of certain elements?

“The biggest limitation was price range and the need for us to replace sets at certain price points.  Beyond that there wasn’t a lot of pre-established story, in fact we tended not to talk that much about the back-story, which I also think was a strength.  This openness is one of the keys to the longevity of those early space ranges, in that you put your narrative on top of the sets.  Of course fans will speculate and deduct a lot of stuff on how it was meant to be, and there are some elements that you can pick out, but the overall story was very broad.  That was until we introduced Blacktron and Space Police and so on, where you had more defined roles.  In the beginning it was just engineers in space exploring, and there wasn’t a lot of briefing about what that model was doing; it was a lot more about the functionality and the look and design of the model.”

This affirmed for me something I’d instinctively felt about the early spaces sets, that the designs implied pragmatic use but in an oblique way that resisted any implied intention.  These explorers and engineers were exploring or detecting something, but what and why remained a mystery.  The success here had always seemed linked to specialised pieces and their use.  I asked Bjarne about this, who designed the pieces, and was it the designers or wider company policy that decided on which elements were introduced with each range?

“It is a push/pull thing with the design of new pieces.  A lot of the design was driven by the introduction of new pieces: this quest for newness or a new twist being generated by these new elements.  In the earlier years there were grey space models and blue space models and white space models.  It started to get more uniformed when I came in, in the mid eighties, when we started running more themed series with the launch of Futuron and the Blacktron ranges.  But the pieces these sets deployed very much came from my boss Jens Nygaard Knudsen, who was a great influence.  There was normally a budget for some new pieces to create some novelty every year, and he was driving forward all the time by proposing a lot different pieces.

Very often we would build around new pieces, as was the case with my first model (6884 Aero-Module).  It has this big blue piece specific to the Futuron range, and is basically this piece with wings so that it can fly.  These new pieces gave the designers the possibility of doing very different things to what had gone before.  As a LEGO designer you are driven by how to really utilise these pieces and how far you can push them.  I was never content with putting pieces in an ordinary orientation, and always looked to twist them and make interesting shapes.”

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LEGO set 6884 Aero Module  with its distinctive blue canopy element.

I suggested that the same principle applied to fan builders who revisit these themes.  In my own case I often look at the palette of pieces that the designers used at the time, and see if I can see things they didn’t do, or find new angles through the use of pieces that weren’t available at the time.  Bjarne expanded on this line of argument.

“I think this is unique to LEGO, that you can simply work with existing pieces.  I’ve always been somewhat envious of the guys who design the pieces, because it seems a higher level of design somehow.  On the other hand it is quite an art to put together existing things in a way that is new.  Basically you could do a whole year of new models without any new pieces, it is probably harder but it is possible.”

This love of new pieces, I suggested, was something that both fans and designers shared.  As a child I’d actually used the argument that a slightly larger set had more new pieces to persuade my mother to increase my pocket money allowance.

“I think that still works, you see the fans going through the new sets and seeing all the new uses for the new pieces.  This attitude says something more about this idea I mentioned before of combining things that already exist.   Although I have never really designed any new pieces, a lot of the newness I created happened by combing things that were already there.”

I reminded Bjarne of the example he had given me in his previous interview, that he often looked for elements in other ranges, and transplanted them into space builds in new colours or deployed in new orientations.

“This was a humorous thing, taking some castle pieces and putting them into space.  I always wanted to use a baguette piece in space somehow.  It would have been awesome.  I tried but I never managed to get that through to an actual set.  I think that is part of what I enjoy seeing in other peoples’ creations, where they are using really unusual pieces in new contexts.”

Perhaps I suggested this ability to find connections and mix uses of pieces defines the LEGO design process.  And I wondered if he noticed this in the development of LEGO design.   Is there so much of a distinction today between the builders using the product in the wild and the way designers working for LEGO combine themes.

“Information technology has become a thousand times more complex and multi-faceted because of the Internet.  Now you can look at many more creations online, which has amplified and crystallised the capabilities of the builders.  As a result there is a much bigger awareness of LEGO as a medium, and as a great creative palette.

To be honest we didn’t have a lot of contact with the outside world in the eighties, apart form the building sessions where children tested the products.  But on the other hand, it is a bit false to think of an inside and outside with LEGO, because all the people coming in are fans and have already taken ownership of the product.   It is very hard to say what is inside and outside; of course you can eat in the canteen and you get a paycheck, but on a broader level it is so much more blurred, with a lot of the new designers coming in being super-fans who in many cases already know more about LEGO than those of us on the inside.”

I noted that there is something wonderfully democratic about LEGO,  anyone can pick it up and use it intuitively, but also that it is not constrained by any specific design principles provided by the LEGO group.

“ I don’t think LEGO in any way would want to constrain its product’s use.  It is so much bigger as an idea than the company.  The LEGO group take care of the product, but everyone who uses it somehow owns it.”

LEGO seemed to me to be aware that beyond the production of toys it could be used in other contexts, as seen in the  development of Modulex.  And then there are the cases of LEGO being used to solve real problems such as the Braigo Braille machine.  It could even be seen as widely experienced education that now influences many designers who played with the product as children.

“Well there are several ways you could discuss this.  I could say that of course I have been influenced by LEGO for a very long time.  I had my education through LEGO if you will.  It influences everything I do outside LEGO.  The basic principle of trying to do quality stuff, to do something that works well, that is just ingrained into LEGO. I think that the modular way of thinking as an approach to designing is also learnt a lot through LEGO.

LEGO also lets you take your time.  In the early days there was a lot of time given to us to get stuff right.  Of course there was time pressure, but there was also time to develop things.  I think now things are much more compressed.  Back then there was a three-year cycle.  There is not so much times these days.  I recently worked on the first little micro scale Minecraft sets. The whole thing was so fast, it was something like six months from idea to product.

As for the broader impact of LEGO onto design, or the more specialised niche ways of using LEGO, of course these applications happen, but I’ve never really been so much into using LEGO directly in other contexts.  About ten years ago I was into creative process facilitation, but I didn’t really use LEGO so much.  I also tried Serious Play (LEGO’s methodology designed to enhance creativity in business), but it never really worked so well for me. It’s really more about the general LEGO idea and the values behind the product.”

I was interested in the ides of the speed of thinking that Bjarne had suggested LEGO offered as well as it being a way of training us in new modular ways of being creative.

“Yes, it is kind of like you have been marinated in this LEGO way of thinking, rather than using LEGO as such.  A lot has been said about LEGO’s influence on software design.  And interface design with the whole modular pixelated thing.  As well as thinking about object orientated software.  The canadian author Douglas Coupland had all these theories about this in the nineties that we were quite inspired by.  In his 1995 novel “Microserf” he describes a software called Oop! which is very similar to what you can do today with Minecraft or LEGO Worlds

I worked mostly with the combination of digital and physical products in the nineties.  And there was a sense then that LEGO could work as the operating system for a lot of this digital thinking, but the idea was probably a bit too early then.  You can a see a lot of it now coming back in a more mature way in the digital worlds where LEGO has found its place in games.  There is still a long way to go though in combining LEGO with digital technology at a deeper level beyond branding or IP rights.”

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For me, I suggested, the link between video games and LEGO has always been a difficult one to square.  Video games begin from a position of immersion, whereas LEGO tends to begin from a point of creating a world.  Perhaps the modular coding techniques found in introductory programme systems such as Scratch might be closer to the LEGO experience?

“Totally.  The thinking is quite similar, and was what the collaboration with the Media Lab has been all about.  The intelligent brick which turned into Mindstorms, the programming language for kids called ‘Scratch’ as you know came out of the Media Lab too.  LEGO is such a basic invention somehow, that it will probably exist in one form or another no matter what.  Back in late nineties LEGO lost the belief in putting models together; would kids still want to do that, or are they into instant gratification and video games and these other fast moving experiences.  But boy was that wrong.  It seems like such a big and encouraging thing that children still want to put together that police station out of 500 small individual pieces.

I think the brilliance of what Minecraft got totally right, that we at LEGO hadn’t managed, was to put the ‘why’ into why you want to build on a screen.  Like the early space stuff, there was not a lot of story in Minecraft, but just enough that you could start doing something. It has this, low threshold high ceiling, ideology we talked a lot about at LEGO, in that you can basically go on forever; there is always more to do.”

I suggested that you could see LEGO as an established way of playing that was joining with these new modular experiences such as Scratch and Minecraft and informing future generation’s creativity.

“You can also ask is LEGO a nostalgic thing or is it the future, I think it is both.  A lot of the territory we are moving into now is more fragmented, with more modular technology being established.   On the one hand we have a future orientated convergence where everything goes into the mobile phone, but then again we have this tinkering and maker culture emerging that harks back to something else.  I think here LEGO can and will play a part, in both convergence and in tinkering.

I guess it is a bit like the Back to the Future film trilogy.  What is fun about that movie and makes it timeless is its future nostalgia; that we now live in that story’s future – back to the future in that context is now the past.  In a way LEGO space is timeless in a similar way.  If you look at the stuff it still is somehow futuristic and somehow nostalgic and somehow out of time, in a way other sets might not be.”

I expanded on Bjarne’s theme, that the  space sets represented a dream of a future that never was, in the way they referenced the optimism of NASA’s space exploration programme.

“There is a lot of NASA DNA in LEGO Space definitively. You also start to see some of this ideology coming back in films like The Martian.  I’m hoping for a new era of ambitious space exploration.”

With the tantalising idea of a new era of LEGO space sets I asked Bjarne if he saw any influence of his own work, or potentially even this future nostalgia, in other designers’ work

“Sometimes I get to talk to some of these people, and I quite often get people saying they used to play with my models as kids, which makes me feel very old, but is also very nice.  I can’t point out design cues, if you like, in their work though.  In terms of hearing that people appreciate those old designs, and that it meant something to them, that is a very deep thing. We are all literally and figuratively building upon each others ideas. Kids, fans, designers, all sharing and adding to the same vast pool of creativity and knowledge. The LEGO system is both the ultimate concrete example and the best metaphor of how new ideas are born and developed.

I also wanted to note that the toys that you never got are a big influence for grown ups and a different sort of nostalgia – these have a big impact on what you build now.  I know that there were big sets that I didn’t have but that I looked at in the catalogue.   The LEGO catalogue is a great inspirator for kids both back then and now. There is a whole research project to be done into what your toys do to you as a grown up.”

As well as the catalogues, I suggested that the alternative models that LEGO produced for the box reverses also provided tantalising inspiration.

“It is coming back again, this focus on more open-ended creativity rather than only building from instructions.  And you can also do that more now that we have digital ways of communicating and sharing creations online.  A lot that is very interesting for the future of LEGO comes from the question of how to open this up.”

With this focus on a positive future for LEGO, that combines both a traditional understanding of the joy of building with bricks with the bright new world of digital expansion, we ended our conversation.  And if I had been in any doubt before as to the importance of Bjarne’s work in the development of LEGO, his thoughtful observations only went to further convince me that he would have as important a part to play in its future.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

From Pixel to Plastic

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Atlas and P-Body Wedding Cake Toppers by Legohaulic

LEGO bricks and digital technology have become intimately connected. So much so, that trying to imagine a time before the two worked together is now unthinkable. The plastic brick and the digital pixel in a profound sense have become interchangeable.

An easy answer, which might explain this relationship, would see this connection reduced to prophetic business sense. Speaking with the former LEGO designer Bjarne Tveskov in 2015[i], he noted how his engagement with the early home computer scene corresponded with the company’s nascent project to harness digital technologies alongside more traditional building. This early investment has certainly proved important, whether it be through the highly lucrative partnership it has forged with the video game producers Travellers Tales[ii] or the development of the Mindstorms[iii] range, replete with its educational programming language; or its ability to link with innovative video games such as Minecraft[iv]. Today additional digital content is a staple of many of their ranges, from Nexo Knight power shields to the redeemable digital codes found in collectable mini-figure packs. Undoubtedly this is a trend set to continue.

Yet there is something resolutely material, real and grounded in the phenomenal experience of LEGO creations, that makes one ask how we got from the bricks we hold in our hands to the digital representation of  bricks on a screen. Are these two objects – one material, one not – even of the same type? Douglas Coupland, the Canadian, novelist, essayist and artist, put the problem succinctly when he suggested that ‘Aesthetic experiences and objects are now dividing into the binary categories of downloadable and nondownloadable.’[v] Taking Coupland’s thesis seriously the video game ‘experience’ of LEGO creations and the ‘objects’ that are built from ‘real’ LEGO bricks should gravitate to the polar axis of his binary distinction?

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Manic Miner by Dr Dave Watford

Yet, as is so often the case with proclamations that make extreme cases, in practice something else happens. It might in fact be possible to download the digital image in a unique way through the medium of LEGO bricks. For example Dr Dave Watford’s[vi] Manic Miner[vii] model of the eponymous 1980s video game produces a literal translation form digital to plastic representation, where one stud equates exactly with its associated pixel. Given the simplicity of Manic Miner’s 8-bit graphical style, where each pixel is easily definable, it  becomes a code that is effortlessly understood and replicated. The rectilinear form of this aesthetic language allows it in a straightforward way to be recreated via the medium of LEGO bricks

What happens in this process of transliteration between digital and brick languages is a change in status from interactive experience to phenomenal object. The movement between pixel and plastic becomes one of making ‘real’ in the material sense something that previously existed in the virtual realm. This encounter repeats a non-digital experience all LEGO fans have previously practiced: building from instructions. Taking a visual code and using it to build an object in real space.This relationship has come full circle in one of the LEGO Group’s latest ventures. At the newly opened LEGO store in Leicester Square you will now find a portrait mosaic maker. A customer enters a small photographic booth, much like the one you find in post offices and railway stations for taking passport photos. Once inside a picture of the sitter is taken. With the help of a little computer processing this is subsequently rendered as a plan, which can be used to build the mosaic portrait.   A few minutes later the machine deposits a box containing the thousands of 1×1 LEGO plates needed to do just this. As was seen in the recent Channel 4 documentary LEGO at Christmas[viii] this provided hours of enjoyment for the shop’s retail manager, as he diligently demonstrated the fun of translating pixels into plastic.

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LEGO Store Leicester Square Mosaic Maker

What makes this process interesting is more than the fact that pixels translate easily into bricks. It is something that many of the best LEGO fan builders have discovered when building models based on video games. When one builds a model of an existent thing from LEGO bricks there is always a sense that it is a representation of the real and tangible object. As amazing as the piece is it remains a dissimulation of the thing which it copies. On the other hand, the unreality of digital subject matter means that copying it is no longer about copying the uncopyable, rather instead it becomes about locating the code initially used to create it. Once this code is identified it provides a set of identical principles initially founded by the computer programer, and that can now be approached through the medium of LEGO bricks. Solving this puzzle, in and for itself, is pleasing.

Matt De Lanoy’s[ix] Bob-omb Battlefield from Super Mario 64[x] ticks all the boxes when it comes to this form of building. A complete recreation of the fist level of the much-loved game, this has everything you need, from launch cannons to Chain Chomp straining on his leash. Putting its subject matter in context, Super Mario 64 saw Nintendo place its iconic plumber into a true 3D world for the first time; and unlike the 3D worlds of today’s video games it wore its limited set of polygons on its sleeve. As such the code that underpinned it was as visible as the simple pixels found in the 8-bit Manic Miner, but now added the extra qualities of space and depth that called out for it to be made in LEGO bricks. There is a satisfaction both in the building and viewing of this type of model – an ability to see the code at work in both the original game and it LEGO  double. In fact the code becomes more visible because we see how it differs yet remains the same across both media.

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Bob-omb Battlefield by Matt De Lanoy

The spatial and geometric references that make De Lanoy’s creation so appealing is just one way in which the LEGO brick formula can work. For example Iain Heath (AKA Ochre Jelly)[xi] has in a similar way reworked the first Doom[xii] game in LEGO bricks. His sprawling diorama recalls the original pixelated demons and texture mapped Martian environments, right down to the perfectly rendered gore splatters and ammo pick-ups. In this case, it is the LEGO bricks’ ability to provide sprite-like details that holds the attention, and reveals the shared code between model and game.

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Doom by Iain Heath

Surprisingly even when a game’s graphical presentation reaches a level whereby its code is hidden to the player, the process of being translated into a LEGO model may still perform this function. Imagine Rigney’s[xiii] epic model of The Bank of the Prophet from the game Bioshock Infinite[xiv] is perhaps one of the best ways to appreciate this.  From its vast scale complete with emblematic sky rails to the huge Song Bird that perches at the top of its domed roof, it renders the lead designer Ken Levine’s world in a form that reminds us of its coded origins. At a time where the gaming world appears to be pushing ever harder for absolute immersion through the development of virtual reality and the race for pure graphical fidelity, LEGO models that remind us of the human code that made them possible, play an important role.

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Bank of the Prophet by Imagine Rigney

Often the supposed retro-graphics, which hark back to a simpler era in gaming’s history, are summarised in terms of fashion. Like the shifts in music and clothing, these games are framed as a stylistic reappraisal of that which was great and authentic about a scene a generation or two before. However, with video games there is another reason why a simpler aesthetic appeals; because again it reveals the code that founds it.

As video games have increased in visual complexity, this relationship to a code has become ever more distant. This growing gap provided the catalyst, which finally provided the LEGO Group with the mainstream success it sought in the digital market place. By teaming up with the games developers Traveller’s Tales they found a way of referencing this fascination for the visibility of a code in a game’s aesthetic without compromising on production values. They achieved this explicitly through a representation of another code, the code of LEGO bricks, within a game.

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Welcome to ‘LEGO’ Jurassic Park

The Traveller’s Tales franchise of LEGO games do not reduce their style to a blocky or retro form. Instead they revel in the high level of polygons used in contemporary video game graphics. Their worlds choose to render glossy 3d recreations of actual LEGO bricks, and by doing so use these as an analogy for the actual code beneath the shiny surface. As players we read the world dressed in studs and populated by mini-figures as coded by the building language of LEGO bricks even when the way they operate flaunts many of these principles. In fact these games use many elements that are explicitly not formed from LEGO bricks in their presentation. The gameplay too has little to do with the build-and-play experience of creating with LEGO bricks, relying instead on problem solving, narrative structure and item collection. What the LEGO language offers the game is a metaphor regarding its created other-worldly nature; a reference not lost on the designers during the creation of the LEGO Jurassic World[xv] game, which translates the story of a forgotten genetic code found in an amber brick into LEGO form. A code which allows the possibility of bringing an earlier prehistoric time back to life. Splicing bricks and genes becomes inter-changable in the dinosaur lab and allows the player to create a huge variety of prehistoric monsters through the metaphor of mastering a code.

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However it is not the LEGO Group or Travellers Tales who have undertaken the most notable translation of brick language into digital form . In 2009 the developer Mojang released the genre defining game Minecraft. It took some of the recognised block building code from LEGO construction and inserted it into a new ontological context. Here the movement from plastic to pixels retained the creative aspect of the code but altered the rationale for building. Unlike building with LEGO bricks, where there is always maintained a perception of one’s inventions as models, in Minecraft a new status is established. In its biomes the player is completely immersed into to a block-built word and from this a new existential relationship arises.   The reason for building becomes innately connected to the world in which one finds themselves; and the competency of making and creating is as such tied to the needs of survival: building shelters from evil mobs and the elements, finding food and crafting tools and kit to better tame the environment.

The game through its use of code scratched many of the same itches that LEGO building does, and as such a link between the two seemed almost inevitable.   Starting initially with the LEGO Cusso Microworld range, The LEGO Group quickly developed its own assortment of mini-figure scale sets. These products effectively took the Minecraft experience, and once more through the sharing of a familiar code, moved the product back from pixels to plastic.

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Minecraft Micro World

As if to point out the truly symbiotic interaction between LEGO products and Minecraft, YouTube’s most popular advocates set about building the LEGO sets according to the logic of their game. In Grian’s 2016 video LEGO VS MINECRAFT – Which Can I Build Faster?[xviii] we see the difference played out in the construction of the LEGO Minecraft set The First Night, both in game and in LEGO bricks. The advantages and disadvantages of each are discussed and the nature of the translation between the two solidified. At this point, it has become apparent that it is next to impossible to decide whether the digital pixel or the plastic brick came first, but more importantly that searching for such an origin is unimportant.

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LEGO vs Minecraft -Which Can I Build Faster by Grain

LEGO bricks reliance on a code has meant that from the outset, whatever was built already invested in the building of ideas. In fact one cannot build with LEGO elements without already manipulating a code, and by proxy developing ideas. One could say, that the natural framing that a rendering of our world in the right angled form of bricks archives, is in fact already a digitisation of the world: an obvious ability that transforms the unknowable world of things into the instructions for representation. The thesis follows that LEGO bricks are already pixels – material pixels if you will – and our use of them requires a technological thinking that deals in the logic of coded manipulation.

In conclusion, whilst it was of course financially prudent for the LEGO Group to embrace the digital sphere, it already had a massive advantage over many of its competitors in the toy market. It had a language that did not so much need to be reimagined in digital terms, as it was already a code that a computer could manipulate. But perhaps more importantly it was also a way of thinking that aligned itself with our own technological evolution.

Endnotes

[i] David Alexander Smith, ‘Interview with Bjarne Tveskov’ Bricks Culture #4 (January 2016)

[ii] See Travellers Tales website http://www.ttgames.com

[iii] See LEGO Mindstorms website https://www.lego.com/en-gb/mindstorms

[iv] See Minecraft website https://minecraft.net/en-us/

[v] Douglas Coupland ‘On Craft’ in Shopping in Jail (Sternberg Press, 2013) p.2

[vi] See Dr Dave Watford’s blog Gimme Lego http://gimmelego.blogspot.co.uk

[vii] Play Matthew Smith’s classic Manic Miner here: http://torinak.com/qaop#!manicminer

[viii] LEGO at Christmas, Channel 4 (2016)

[ix] See Matt De Lanoy’s Flickr stream https://www.flickr.com/photos/pepa_quin/

[x] See the Super Mario 64 wiki https://www.mariowiki.com/Super_Mario_64

[xi] See Iain Heath’s Flickr Stream https://www.flickr.com/photos/ochre_jelly

[xii] See the Doom webpage http://doom.com/en-us/

[xiii] See Imaging Rigney’s Flickr stream https://www.flickr.com/photos/imaginebrickzone

[xiv] See the Bioshock Infinite’s webpage https://www.bioshockinfinite.com/?RET=&ag=true

[xv] See the LEGO Jurassic World page https://www.lego.com/en-gb/jurassicworld

[xvi] See Grain’s LEGO VS MINECRAFT – Which Can I Build Faster? video here https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HUCr2UexTHo