Why do I build so many spaceships?

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Up early again on Saturday – no work today – a whole day dedicated to whatever I want to do.  What shall I do?  Hmmm, … grey plates, transparent yellow bricks… how many hinges do I have in stock.  Stupid brain!  How predictable!  Looks like I’m going to be building a Classic Space model again.

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At breakfast with the family drinking my coffee… didn’t quite catch what the wife was saying.  “Hello, were you even listening” she resigns herself to asking.  And still I’m thinking: if I rotate that row of angled bricks it will align perfectly with one of those beautiful honeycomb pieces… what was that set from 1986 called again?  Googling on my phone for some images; typing in ‘Classic Space Lego 86’… or was it 1987. She sighs and clears the plates away.

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Mid-morning, second pot of coffee ready, on my hands and knees in the bedroom surround by several hundred blue and grey bricks.  Turn up the Jean Michelle Jarre on the stereo – Equinox perfect for the mood.  The front door slams shut and the voices of the wife and children fade off down the street as they set off to do something ‘constructive’ with their weekend.  Meanwhile I’m constructing the most epic space ship yet.  “Prepare for the ride of your life”, I impart to my trusty crew of yellow-faced astronauts.  Us guys go back a long way you know.

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Lunchtime refuelling, time to leave the hangar and join the civilians back in the rest room… sorry I mean join the family in the dining room.  I start to explain to my son what’s going on upstairs.  “It is going to be amazing”, I tell him, “I’ve found a way of aligning a row of angled bricks with those old honeycomb pieces”.  “Daddy it sounds like all the other spaceships you’ve built” he notes in the bored tone only a 7-year old can affect.  Supress the annoyance, he’s only small, he obviously can’t appreciate the innovation I’m trialling here.  This technique will usher in a whole new set of brick alignment techniques for us builders working in the post-86 Classic Space paradigm.

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Some challenges throughout the afternoon, but after the brainwave that recognised how a couple of technique pins would secure those v-wings, she’s ready.  What a ship, better than me and the little guys could have hoped for.  Let’s get this baby photographed and online.   And as the thrill of sharing fades out, I settle down for a glass of wine with my dinner with my wife.  Talk of LEGO spaceships subside and normal relations return.

I’m ill, I’m obsessed, 32 Classic Space models this year so far, and the itch still needs to be scratched.  How many space models does one man need to make to be satisfied?   Time to begin some analysis I think.

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Leaning back on my metaphorical couch, the analysist’s voice chimes, “tell me about your childhood.”  I’m five again, and ripping open the packet of a small LEGO space scooter. Grey pieces scatter across the carpet, and my little hands slots the first oxygen tank onto the torso of my first astronaut.  Everything is heady with nostalgia and meaning. The sound of the bricks clicking, the sunlight from the patio doors filtering through the transparent green bricks, the fake moonscape on the discarded packet.  And I feel warm and safe.

For the first time in my young life I had managed to successfully follow a set of instructions.  The prize an amazing space vehicle I could hold in my hand.  My self-esteem had just grown a little, and the world around me transformed.  Suddenly I could see the kitchen worktop as a landing strip and the garden a wonderful new planet to explore.

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This is where the obsession begins. When you build a spaceship you find a new way to explore your ordinary everyday life.

I hear my analyst calling me back to the present. “tell me now why do you build so many spaceships?”  The answer seems easy now: long long ago, in galaxy far far away I gave up on seeing the world as a boring place.  The next morning my son has been up in his bedroom for a while, and now he’s bounding down the stairs holding something.  “I’ve made you some rovers to go with your spaceship.” Perhaps somehow the space ship building gene has passed down a generation.  Perhaps neither of us are prepared to see the world in boring grey quite yet… much better to see it in grey, blue and transparent yellow.

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My wife looks over at us both happily.  “Are you going to share his models with your friends online?”  she asks.  “Of course, they’re great” I say.  And then I seal the deal….”so what are you going to build next?”

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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.

David Hughes at OXO Gallery

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If you turn the corner from Gabriel’s wharf towards the OXO Tower on London’s Southbank this week you will be greeted by the sight of one of David Hughes’ amazing LEGO sculptures.  Taking centre stage in the west facing window of the OXO Gallery is his The Stuff I Didn’t See, a hunched LEGO figure that reflects on the emotional effects of depression.

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The Stuff I Didn’t See by David Hughes

This and a number of Hughes’ other pieces contribute to the collective Caiger Contemporary Art Show MEGALOPOLIS, and fulfils the promise he made to me to me last year when I interviewed him, that he wanted to take LEGO art into mainstream art spaces.  It is something he has been doing for a while now, being featured at Clerkenwell Design Week in May, displaying at the Park Theatre Gallery Space in January as well as regularly turning up to the various London art fairs.

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But this show is different, here for the first time his work avoids the novelty often associated with LEGO art.  Rather than it being a surprise to find LEGO in a gallery, the LEGO art presents itself as a facet of a wide range of creative practices on show.  Fitting in with the exhibition’s aims which declare that: ‘The world seems a bit of a divided place at the moment, so we wanted to celebrate its awesomeness and how it unifies us all.’

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Bowie by David Hughes hung in context

Sympathetically curated Hughe’s works are distributed throughout the show, with his Bowie portrait mosaic, collaboratively created at Roy’s People’s Art Fair last month, sitting between paintings and prints by more traditional artists.  And in this context the work ceases to be only about its LEGO built nature and becomes something else, a work of art that just happens to have been built with bricks.

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Leave Me Alone, Don’t Leave Me Alone by David Hughes

Hughes’ most recent works, the aforementioned The Stuff I Didn’t See and its sister piece Leave Me Alone, Don’t Leave Me Alone, are the stars of the show.  Where he steps beyond works that chime with popular culture or express the human body, often dancers, in architectural terms, and explores the themes of mental illness, the choice of building with LEGO bricks truly attains its potential as a medium for thoughtful content.  In these pieces he takes some of the aesthetic traits of more famous LEGO artists such as Nathan Sawaya, but by playfully selecting the perfect scale for brick recognition and image resolution to oscillate, achieves something more interesting.  The contradictions between a sense of self and its desire for both social interaction and isolation, suggested by a piece like Leave Me Alone, Don’t Leave Me Alone, is perfectly reflected in the LEGO brick medium, which jumps between visual cohesion and a reduction to individual elements if the viewer gets too close.

The show is on till the 15 October, and is free.  If you happen to be in London this weekend and want a chance to see what is happening in the world of LEGO art, a trip to the OXO Gallery is well worth the visit.

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Simon Liu

 

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CL4P-TP by Simon Liu

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?

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FE Junterr by Simon Liu

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.

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Locust by Simon Liu

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.

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Point Defense Fighter by Simon Liu

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.

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ip s1 by Simon Liu

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ip s2 by Simon Liu

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.

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UCS Benny by Simon Liu

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.

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FE Junterr (Deep Space Carrier) by Simon Liu

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!

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Moonbase 3 by Simon Liu

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.

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Si-Figher by Simon Liu

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.

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Clux Flapacitor by Simon Liu

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.

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USS Sulaco by Simon Liu

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.

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Master Chief by Simon Liu

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Dropship by Simon Liu

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.

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Calvin and Hobbes by Simon Liu

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?

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Protego Maxima by Simon Liu

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.

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Operation Olive Branch by Simon Liu

This interview first appeared in Bricks Culture 4.

To see more of Simon Liu’s amazing creations visit his Flickr stream here.

 

 

LEGO fables – telling stories with bricks

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LEGO Fabuland

Two children found a termite nest on their father’s farm.  The oldest child became fascinated by the structures the termites created, and spent many hours playing, replicating them in drawings and models.  The younger child played a different game, visiting the termite nest daily, leaving cake crumbs and leaves for the small creatures to use.  As an adult, the oldest child designed aqueducts that brought clean water to her city, and was rewarded by the king for this important work.  The youngest child became a philanthropist establishing almshouses for the very poorest people, and was similarly rewarded. The moral: there are many ways to play, and each may lead to its own good.

This little attempt at a fable could be taken as an allegory for the way we think about the types of play LEGO bricks afford.  Unconsciously we attribute to LEGO certain types of play, which culturally have been considered consonant with the practical problem solving games of engineering[i].   And whilst there is no doubt that it provides a fantastic springboard for this way of thinking, there are indeed other ways of playing with bricks some of which require an active participation with the worlds they create.

One of the outcomes of this intentional interaction is that worlds built from LEGO bricks create a stage for a type of play that performatively encourages storytelling.  For an art form that predominately deals with static 3D models, the fact that it has become so conducive to narrative exposition is something that requires deeper investigation.

Rewind some thirty-nine years to the late 1970s and the advent of the now iconic mini-figure.   This inspirational design profoundly changed the company’s thinking.  By introducing characters to the range of elements sold as kits it altered the way in which LEGO bricks would and could be played with.  Crucially adding faces and articulation to the figures, allowed them to be more than the place-holders for characterisation that the earlier faceless figures had been.

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LEGO mini-figures on the cover of the 1978 catalogue

Of course figurative elements had existed long before the creation of the mini-figure.  There are brick built figures aplenty, like those found in the Moon Lander and the Maxi Figures found in the Homemaker sets.  However all of these cases still needed to be built and remained more of an adjunct to the model building process.  Whilst the maxi figures featured elephant trunk like articulation, their clothes and bodies were still built from bricks; actually playing with them proved more problematic than one would expect (the three-year old me could attest to this).

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LEGO Maxi-Figures

The mini-figure on the other hand in no way attempts to be a figure built from LEGO bricks.  They are discrete entities, designed as a stand-alone system.  Yes, they do adhere to the broad logic of interchangeability, with their studded heads and hats and variety of trousers, but ultimately there is really only one – although that rule is often broken – way to build a mini-figure.

The characters’ success came from the ability of this new system to interact with the standard brick.  The anti-studded bottoms and feet of the mini-figure meant that its narrative and character driven system of play could intersect seamlessly with the building and model making potential of the traditional range of elements.  And in reverse, the clip logic of  the mini-figure hand introduced new connective elements to the standard range of pieces.

Sets that now contained a range of mini-figures altered the established idea of LEGO as a model kit.  Whilst models were still built, they were now constructed for the reason of providing a world in which the mini-figures’ stories could be told.  And a new realm of play between building and story telling was born.

Intuitively children grasped the concept that you could tell stories with LEGO bricks. The question ‘why build?’ had attained a new dimension and arguably a new audience.   The LEGO company also understood the value of  this new approach, and explored it in the Idea Book published in 1980.  More than just a collection of inspiring models to build, the book told the story of two archetypal mini-figures, and their journey across the then current LEGO themes.  From town to castle by way of outer space these two heroes offered a reason to build.   The replication of the real sacrificed in favour of a fantastical world of adventure.

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LEGO Ideas Book 1980

But the mini-figure was just the first step into these new realms of play that aligned with narrative thinking.  Following quickly on the heels of the mini-figure LEGO developed the Fabuland range of sets.  Taking the aspects of characterisation that the mini-figure had opened, these sets saw the creation of an anthropomorphic group of friends.  The mainly alliteratively named Charlie Cat, Robby Rabbit, Ernie Elephant and others, living together within the eponymous Fabuland, put story telling play, and the play of the fable, at the centre of the LEGO experience.

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Fabuland

The range has garnered both advocates[ii] and critical response over the years.  On the negative side, it is seen as reducing the LEGO building experience, in its employment of large pre-fabricated pieces, such as windows and scooters, which required no building.  It represented for these critics a ‘dumbing-down’ or ‘juniorisation’[iii] of the LEGO building experience.   Of course the sets were designed for the younger range of  the company’s audience, and the simplicity of the building experience offered, stood in contrast to the tastes and needs of the advanced builders who made up the vast majority of the critics  At the other end of the spectrum, the charming design ethos of the characters combined with the development of many new and ironically multi-use elements made the series a fascinating addition to the LEGO catalogue.

It could be argued that the critics had missed the point; that a deliberate choice had been made by the LEGO Group with regard to Fabuland’s range of elements.  These constituted a new system of play, in much the same way that the mini-figure had.  The notion that the sets were created to facilitate model making was replaced by the need to foster story telling.  Quickly utilisable objects and units such as windows and doors provided the best way of generating narrative play.

As with the mini-figure, the success of the venture stemmed from the retention of universal connectivity, which allowed Fabuland to adapt to both standard LEGO bricks and DUPLO bricks.  In this sense its system of play remained essentially open to the more recognisable LEGO building experiences, at both the younger and more advanced ends of the company’s demographic.

This freedom has seen a small but continuing engagement with the theme from the adult building community.  Many took the naïve forms, and accentuated their architectural tropes to create a unique and knowingly twee alternative reality.  Those skills that had been developed by the architectural and castle builders found new fertile territory in these works.  The advancement in techniques undermining the  perception that the simplicity of building must essentially tie the range to a younger audience.  Builders like Tikitikitembo[iv] prove the point when they take the fable element to its literal conclusion, using Fabuland combined with more advanced building techniques to recreate traditional children’s tales like The Three Little Pigs.  The anthropomorphic figures continuing a long tradition that uses the characteristics of the animal to explore our human foibles.

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Three Little Pigs by Tikitikitembo 

So whilst the extension of the Fabuland theme by the enthusiasts explored the aesthetic terrain of the theme, by proxy they also continued to develop its affinity for story telling.  And not just any story telling, the animals that LEGO created being direct descendents of Aesop’s own creations.   The result a fusing  of the problem solving and creative building experiences with the narrative devices of the fable

This return to the fable is something of a theme in children’s literary of the late 70s.  Fabuland mirrored the terrain writers like Roger Hargreaves and his Mr Men books, and the lesser-known anthropomorphic Timbuctoo[v] series, had taken in embracing the fable and its ability to tell allegorical tales.

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Roger Hargreaves lesser known Timbuctoo series

Following the transition made by Hargreaves to Television, so Fabuland became LEGO’s first interdisciplinary foray.  Edward and Friends[vi] the Fabuland show, produced by Film Fair, the same company responsible for cult classics like The Wombles and the 1970s Paddington television series, shared the Mr Mens’ sense of storytelling.  Each of the animal characters explored moral problems through simple narrative dilemmas.   Fabuland in its translation from building toy, to more traditional narrative forms such as television and even a range of associated books, revealed just how versatile an aesthetic LEGO was for telling stories.

This resurgence of fable like stories in children’s literature and television can be tied to a larger trend in literary theory.  In 1967 the literary theorist Robert Scholes had written his seminal text The Fabulators[vii], which was followed in 1979 by a second volume on the theme entitled Fabulation and Metafiction[viii].  Scholes’ considers a range of novelists, such as Borges, Durrell, Pynchon and Barth, as actively choosing to create worlds that whilst referencing the real operated as alternative fabulatory constructs.  This shift away from a concrete notion of the real, allowing a fresh way of dealing with ethical and social problems aside from the realist literary movements.  He writes, “modern fabulation, like the ancient fabling of Aesop, tends away from direct representation of the surface of reality but returns toward actual human life by way of ethically controlled fantasy”[ix].  The fabulator’s narrative does not seek to show the conflicts between the individual and society, rather the struggle between a world and the ideas, dogmas and conditions that allow it to exist.

The genre of science fiction – another theme the LEGO Group and popular culture were embracing in the late 70’s – benefited from this theory.  It also reflected a changing public taste, where the modern myth would be played out in the alternative realities of other futures, galaxies far, far away and romatacised pasts.  In these self-contained mini-verses big ideas regarding what it means to be human and their ethical grounds could be explored as concepts.

The LEGO Group’s embracing of play that revolved around the creation of fabulous other worlds replicated this cultural movement.  Children were being encouraged to explore their world through the imaginative creation of their own fantastical constructions and characters.  And in turn were being asked to think ethically about what constitutes a world, and what those parameters mean for its inhabitants.

So far my exploration of the LEGO Group’s development of the narrative potential in their sets has spoken of the theme purely in the context of children’s play. That narratives are discovered in bricks through the children’s act of playing and telling stories.  And whilst this may be a place where many of the adult building community first started to explore narrative devices, the variety and complexity of their work now challenges the idea that play is a purely childish aspect of the LEGO art form; something that serious builders and artists outgrow.

To understand the importance of the role of play in a LEGO creation’s ability to tell stories it helps to think how it differs from traditional art forms.  In one sense you might think that LEGO artworks function as illustrative counterparts to narrative pieces.  The number of LEGO builds that realise a scene from a film or book would seem to support this.  The 2013 VirtuaLUG[x] collaboration, which saw the collective recreate in diorama form the story of The Wizard of Oz being a case in point[xi].   Does this piece only work if you know the story of The Wizard of Oz as a film or novel?  The answer is emphatically no.  Although an illustration, if one did not know the famous story, through its set-up it provides the components to allow one to link scenes together, to create a story – it just might not be the story that inspired its build.

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VirtuaLUG The Wizard of Oz

This is the crux of the matter.  To tell the story present in the LEGO artwork, the audience has to play with the aspects of the build.  Inventing and playing with features of the creation, making creative and imaginative connections – telling new stories of their own.  Like the child who tells stories with the Fabuland world they have made, the audience who view a LEGO artwork, has to use those same skills, effectively remembering how to play and engage with an alternative world.  Play is the active component in this dialectic between static 3D creation and the temporal story.  Play makes every spectator of the narrative LEGO artwork an author too.

To anyone who has spent time studying painting this revelation tells them nothing new.  For example the allegorical painting of the Middle Ages require the active participation of the viewer to disclose both narrative and meaning.  However, narratives in LEGO further increase its audience’s intentional interaction beyond the two-dimensional image.  A LEGO creation that tells a story is never finished; the interlocking pieces and the placement of the characters, always remain open to reconfiguration, rebuilding as is the want with LEGO elements’ intrinsic malleability.

Taking the premise Mark Currie puts forward in his book on narrative time, simply titled About Time[xii], there is a conflict in the structure of a written narrative, and I would argue a similar issue in the narratives produced in film.  That the moment of reading, where we find ourselves part way through a story, not knowing what awaits its characters in the future, is an illusion of a future possibility; it is already structured as part of a finished whole – the story is already written.  Even the author who writes, and begins with open possibilities, must eventually relinquish this privileged position and commit their story to the block time order of a narrative.  However, should we concede that the audience of a LEGO art work which presents narrative possibilities, is not a reader, but already a potential builder, and re-builder of the work, how does this change the narrative scenario to that found when reading a novel?

The stories that LEGO artworks offer do so not through the traditional conditions of recording a sequence of events and happenings, nor through the active interpretation of events that have been established.  They begin by asking its audience to play with them.  To take on an intentional role, to tell stories with the figures and pieces present.  When we look at a LEGO artwork, which implies narrative, we begin by seeing all the physical connections that can be made, where figure may stand, where houses, castles and buildings may be restructured, and we begin to play and imagine what might be.

In the more traditional illustrative pieces of LEGO art, this capacity to play remains purely cognitive.  We become virtual builders.  The skill of the LEGO artist in these cases is to create a world that induces imaginative play and shows paths and associations of bricks and characters that an audience finds inspiring to think about.  As soon you find yourself saying “where are those knights going”, or “what cargo is being loaded onto that spaceship”, and start to answer your own question, then you are initiating a playful activation of the nascent story unspoken in every creation.

This focus on generating narrative has become a core part of the LEGO experience, no more so than in the official LEGO video games.  It might seem surprising that the actual act of building is so minimally represented in these games, that is until you understand them as forays into the art of play driven storytelling.  The analogue between LEGO building and the video game comes from the requirement that worlds are built so as to be explored and played within.

The LEGO video game presents these worlds made and ready to explore.  However, as is the constant struggle in video games, the dilemma between narrative exposition and compliance to the requirements of the game limits the range of stories that can be told.  So whilst the LEGO video games returns a tangible intentional quality to story telling, it does so at a cost, through the adherence of the narrative to the game’s rules; to competition and problem solving.

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LEGO City Undercover video game

Perhaps the video game can find some answer to its genre specific conflict in LEGO’s narrative potential.  The assumption regarding the generation of a narrative from an artist’s LEGO creation, is that these works are created, finished and only virtually engaged with.  If the LEGO builds of adults however reclaim the open play of childhood, where would this lead the narrative potential of the medium?  What would happen if an audience wasn’t only asked to look at a build, but participate, play, change and move components around?

This would extend the argument that Scholes’ has made with regard to fabulation.  The other worlds built from LEGO bricks, unlike their literary counterparts, don’t simply present the ideals and concepts in separation ready for investigation, they offer the possibility of changing altering and setting up new ideas and intentions beyond those that the original builder perceived.  Playing with a world, with the fluidity of an ancient god, puts not only the mini-figure back into the playful hand of the adult, but also the ethical responsibility for the stories they tell with them.  And here we end back at the fable that started this invesigation, with child who played with the termites as a benevolent deity, and subsequently learned the value of caring for their world.

Endnotes

[i] See Sir Harry Kroto’s infamous comments as recorded in The Telegraph article ‘Why Britain needs more Meccano and less LEGO’, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/1333215/Why-Britain-needs-more-Meccano-and-less-Lego.html (accessed 30 May 2015).

[ii] See the Fabuland Builders Guild webpage, http://www.eurobricks.com/forum/index.php?showtopic=17396 (accessed 30 May 2015).

[iii]  According to Brickwiki, “Juniorization is a term used by Adult Fans of LEGO to both describe and criticize the inclusion of a few highly specialized elements in sets instead of already existing elements that could be assembled into the same configuration.”

http://www.brickwiki.info/wiki/Juniorization (accessed 30 May 2015).

[iv] See Tikitikitembo’s Flickr stream https://www.flickr.com/photos/64693712@N05/.

[v] Reference to add.

[vi] Links to the Edward and Friends episodes can be found here, http://lego.wikia.com/wiki/Edward_and_Friends.

[vii] Robert, Scholes, The Fabulators, Oxford University Press, Oxford (1969)

[viii] Robert, Scholes, Fabulation and MetafictionUniversity of Illinois Press, Chicago/London (1979)

[ix] Ibid, p.3

[x] See the Virtualug homepage, http://www.virtualug.org/.

[xi] See the Brothers Brick review of the collaboration, http://www.brothers-brick.com/2013/07/09/virtualugs-wizard-of-oz-diorama-will-knock-off-your-ruby-slippers/.

[xii] Mark Currie, About Time: Narrative, Fiction and the Philosophy of Time, Edinburgh University Press, Edinburgh (2010)

Classical Coupling: Matt & Linda Rowntree

Matt and Linda Rowntree are a couple that share a passion for LEGO.  For the past four years they have helped run online building competitions, contributed to large-scale collaborative builds at a host of conventions across America, as well as making a series of amazing film and popular culture themed creations.  Whilst Matt has often taken the lead in this activity Linda has been involved at every step of the process.  I asked the husband and wife team to work on a special build, an illustration of a Classical Greek myth, where their creative talents could fully work together for the first time.  This is what happened.

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Icarus by Matt and Linda Rowntree

David Alexander Smith: Both of you have been involved in the LEGO community for some years; how would you describe your different interests and how did each of you get hooked?

Linda Rowntree:  I was never interested in Lego growing up.  I became hooked the day I realised that I needed Matt to build (if he does not have a creative outlet, he is not a happy boy.)  It was hard to get him to build without me joining in; I think he felt guilty being by himself building.  I needed to build so Matt could build.  The sets that finally hooked me where the insectoids and the technic sets.  I think my interests are in the oddball, weird pieces that come together to make something fun.

Matt Rowntree: My interests are all over the place, I’ve always tried to consciously step away from comfort zones and identifiable styles.  I’ve been with bricks my entire life from the early 70s and never had an official “dark age.”  It was more of a “dim age” when I was in college and really couldn’t access my bricks practically with work, school, more work, Linda, more Linda, and more work.  And more school.  I was really busy then.  I found the community back around 2013 looking for techniques relating to my “first” SHIP (SHIP being the acronym for a 100-stud plus long spaceship, meaning seriously huge investment in parts).  Up until then, I knew the world was filled with crazy people but I had no idea that they could be concentrated into a couple websites called MOCpages and Flickr.

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The Ecosse (LL-928 “upgrade”) by Matt Rowntree

DAS: What is your build set-up like at home, and does it allow you work together?

LR: Don’t tell Matt but I see our Lego set up changing as soon as he finishes his new SHIP (currently being built for Simon Liu’s month-long building challenge SHIPtember).  Our Lego room is perfect for the one person sitting at the desk in the chair with access to everything.  If you are not the one sitting in the chair you need to ask for pieces to be given to you or try to find a working space.  A re-work will need to be done for our next project together.  Hint, hint.

MR: Fine!  I’ll get another chair.  Good grief!  The space has evolved forever and always will.  It has been conformed to fit my building technique and organisational madness, which tends to frighten Linda off a bit.  The organisation, that is, not the madness.  Actually I suspect that frightens her as well.  Come to think of it, it frightens me too.

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Matt and Linda in their Studio

DAS: How would you describe your respective styles and creative approaches?

LR: I like my builds to be whimsical; I don’t want people comparing my builds to the actual object.   My creative approach is still a learning approach, “Hey Matt, do you think that if I did this it would work to give this effect?” From there it starts a conversation and experimentation.

MR: Brick on brick.  I usually have a vague notion of a direction, but I try to let the pieces and colours do the work.  I do tend to corral it to maximise the fun for myself as it seems pointless otherwise.  It’s likely a major factor in how Linda and I work so easily together.

DAS: Is there a build of each other’s you really like and why?

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Marvin the Martian by Matt Rowntree

LR: There are several builds I like of Matt’s.  The Looney Toon’s build was spot on and placed me back into my childhood (this was entered in Chris Phipson’s MocOlympics building competition).  The Emotitron build puts a smile on my face every time I see it.  The Perry Mason build, however, I would have to say was my absolute favourite.  It did not get a lot of viewership; however, I believe people were confused by the colours.  His goal was to use the wild colours to create the grey scale just like they did in the old black and white movies.

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Emotitron 024 by Matt Rowntree

MR: Unfortunately, Linda hasn’t really put much together other than some interesting table scraps.  However, in the body of work that we’ve created together, I would have to agree with her about the Perry Mason build.  She came up with the brilliant idea and I built it strictly to get a solid smile out of her.  That tends to be the gauge of success in any build for me.

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Perry Mason by Matt Rowntree

DAS: Have you worked on a project together before?

LR: I am always a part of the builds.  This project however was the first project where I feel my vision was a part of the final project and that I showed up in the build.

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Inception by Matt Rowntree

MR: It would be much easier to list the ones that we have NOT worked on together to some extent.  Her critical eye and brilliant ideas are always present and keeps my tunnel vision in check especially if they are venturing off the rails.  She helped rein me in on the Inception build as well as the Forbidden Planet.  Our builds also tend to tell a story, so she is more of a proper editor in that light.

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Forbidden Planet by Matt Rowntree

DAS: I set you the challenge of illustrating a Classical Greek myth.  What did you choose and why?

LR:  Initially this was a solo build.  Matt chose the subject and built several of the elements before it became our collaboration.  I had never heard the story but instantly saw why he chose it.

MR: Icarus was the one that stabbed me straight in the brain.  However, I wanted to challenge the standard imagery of a young man contorted midflight as the feathers venture out in all directions.  Those iconic images usually focus on the sun and its power over the human element.  With this build, I wanted to eliminate the sun and rely more on the expression of hubris through a feeling of vertigo and that moment of realization as the first feather disembarks.  I felt that there was much more of a connection with the viewer in that respect as we have all found ourselves at that point when we realized that ignoring a certain bit of advice was not a wise decision.

DAS: How did you go about planning the project?

LR:  For me it was a lot of discussion with Matt about changing his vision to include my own.  I had to come up with solutions and present them to Matt in a way that opened his eyes to a new vision and welcomed it.  Trying to change tunnel vision is not as easy as it sounds.  Also, since the feather and wing were already done, I took the lead on the Labyrinth.

MR:  My initial idea was to build a framework of the wing with feathers and have a single feather falling away with a wax drip.  I knew it would tell the story, but it also relied too much, I feel, on the viewer knowing it as well, in addition to being led by the title and the challenge description.  I also added the element that is forgotten in the story about the advice Daedalus also instilled about complacency and flying too low by adding Daedalus in a smaller size about midway up.

DAS: Were there many problems along the way; how did you solve them?

LR:  The Labyrinth was probably the simplest element in the build but honestly it was our biggest challenge.  Since the wing and the feather were already done we needed to find a way to incorporate the old vision with the new vision without scrapping what was already done.  The solution forced the Labyrinth to be a specific scale to read as a Labyrinth without it being the focus of the build.  I think we built six different versions of it before we were happy.

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The Challenge of the Labyrinth

MR: The iterations of the Labyrinth were definitely challenging.  This final version was spot on with its smaller scale in comparison to Daedalus and the large feather and wing.  However, this also led to what became the most difficult challenge:  The photography.  It was built to be photographed from above in forced perspective to increase the vertigo and make the primary subject the feather, the lighting and focus for all the elements proved argumentative, to put it nicely.  In the end, compositing each element separately was the only way to get everything right.

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The unique photography set-up

DAS:  How do you feel about the final piece?

LR:  I think the final piece did what we set out to do; it does tell the story in a single image quite well.  I am happy with where my ideas took it and I feel it made the project more complete.  The initial vision was to only shoot the one feather with the wax dropping off of it.  With this version I see us working together for a more complete vision and I find that exciting.

MR:  I would say that it is our most complete vision fully realised.  Like The Thing movie poster, I felt that there really wasn’t much more to do other than sign it (something I have very rarely done being an artist never fully satisfied with execution exceeding expectation.)  I love how this piece of teamwork explored the entire process regardless of specific successes or failings.  To me, the conversation was always open and free to go wherever it wanted and it was fun to follow and watch it evolve.

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The Thing Movie Poster by Matt Rowntree

DAS: If the opportunity arose would you work together on another build?

LR: I am happy to say that we have a very large project we decided to do together.  We will be starting it once Matt’s SHIP is complete.  I think working on this build together has allowed us to finally see eye to eye and has helped us to understand and respect each other’s visions in a way that now allows us to build together.

MR: No way!  Just kidding.  I don’t think that there is any other option but to work together; it is how we have done everything and will likely be the way we do everything to come.  I may have done the heavy lifting in the past, but I think with Linda’s comfort growing in the language of LEGO bricks and her receding intimidation of my organisational methodology, I see more equal time developing with the bricks.  Her visions have no boundaries developed through years of LEGO building trial and error; so, there is freshness that I love exploring and building upon.  Although, I’m not giving up MY comfy chair!

Check out more of Matt and Linda’s creations here.

This interview was originally published in Bricks Culture 7.

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Irish Yoga by Matt Rowntree

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.