Tyler Halliwell’s Fantastic Visions

Tyler Halliwell’s creations have been stunning the Internet for the past 8 years. Whether building models inspired by gothic auteur Guillermo del Toro or popular video game franchise Pokémon, his art never fails to impress in both character and building skill.

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The Endless

David Alexander Smith You have been an active and inspirational part of the LEGO scene for some time now. What got you involved in the first place, and what is it about LEGO that continues to inspire you to create?

Tyler Halliwell My first taste of the online LEGO community came in late 2009 when I was looking for source material for my MOC (before I knew what the term MOC or ‘my own creation’ meant) of Boba Fett’s second ship, the Slave II. At that time I was a 14 year old Star Wars nerd searching for some pictures who just happened to stumble upon someone’s LEGO creation of the same ship. The creation was hosted on a website I’d not come across before: MOCpages. This, to me, was mind-blowing, as people here were sharing creations, commenting on each other’s work, and building things I could never have dreamed of making. From there, I started joining contests, building in different themes, and eventually volunteered to help in a ‘MOCpages collaborative’ for Brickworld Chicago 2011. That collaborative, with the future members of VirtuaLUG, was certainly the beginning of my current involvement in the LEGO community. Since then it’s been a combination of finding my own style as well as continuing to work with others to create new and exciting things.

As to why it inspires me, LEGO is the perfect medium for creating, in my opinion. You can build for hours, then leave your workspace for days and nothing will change. If you mess up, you can take a part or all of the creation apart and start over. LEGO can be sturdy or it can be flimsy. Any shape that you want to create  can to be achieved. There are so many possibilities with LEGO. However, it also imposes many restrictions. There are only so many colours. There are only so many pieces. At the end of the day, you can only put so much weight on a stud or pin before the clutch power will begin to fail. This combination, of complete freedom in conjunction with very definite restrictions makes LEGO a constantly engaging and fun medium.

DAS You have a certain reputation for building models that are macabre or uncanny in some way. What draws you to this subject matter?

TH As a child, I read a lot of fantasy literature. My father is an English teacher and has always instilled in his children a love of mythology, fantasy, and science fiction. Thus, it was not too surprising for me to fall in love with Hellboy, where Mike Mignola combines mythology and fantasy with a taste of horror. After finding two trade paperbacks of Hellboy at a booksale, I of course had to watch the movie. This was my first encounter with the work of Guillermo del Toro. His stylish renderings of the comic characters made me seek out more of his work. I found in del Toro a director who, like Mignola, respected fantasy and mythology and combined those with themes of horror. His work made me appreciate the creepy, the uncanny, and the macabre, and through my respect for his art, made me want to recreate these themes through my art, which just happened to be LEGO. However, I would be remiss not to mention that I also enjoy building things in LEGO that challenge the way people tend to think about the medium. First and foremost, LEGO is a children’s toy. If building a bloody ghost that has a broken jaw and a cleaver in its head makes people view LEGO in a new light, I am happy that I can help alter their perception of the toy.

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Lady Sharpe

DAS And then in creations like your recent Niffler and Oddish builds you seem to completely swing the other way towards a shamelessly cute aesthetic. Is this as important a side to your creativity as the more unnerving builds?

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Niffler

TH I must admit, while I’ve enjoyed dabbling in the cuter side of LEGO, these creations were both requested by my significant other. She desired some less-creepy builds to balance out my standard fare, as well as to see if I could even make such things. I cannot complain really as both creations were fun challenges, especially the Niffler. Who knows, this could be the beginning of a period where I only make adorable creations. Or I could go for a decomposing corpse next. It’s always a toss-up.

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Oddish

DAS I guess comic books might be seen as a connecting influence across your work, that draws the cute and uncanny together. What do you find so inspiring about this art form?

TH I’ve enjoyed comics for a long time. Hellboy will always be my favourite but Sandman has also influenced a lot of my work. While I enjoy those specific comics for many reasons, I think I most enjoy comics as an art form because of their accessibility. The stories are just as thorough as any literature but are easily picked up, put down, and reread. As a builder who does best when translating others’ visions into the brick, the art in comic books is very appealing when building. I love reading standard literature as well, I just tend to build from things that others have already designed.

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Hellboy (2)

DAS The other aspect of your work people might know you for is the medium of bust building. What draws you to this type of creation, and what challenges and opportunities does it raise?

TH My first bust was the Faun, based on the creature from Guillermo del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth. I needed to fill space on my little display table at Brickworld Lafayette, a small hometown exposition, and decided that the Faun would be a fun build. I’d recently built a giant based on Keith Thompson’s concept art and was in the mood for more large-scale figure building. I really hadn’t decided on scale specifics until I started building the nose and realized that the head would end up fairly large. Ten hours or so later, I had a bust and found the size and level of detail really satisfying. It was small enough that I had to use specific pieces to make shapes instead of basic-brick sculpting (a fairly common LEGO bust method) but large enough to allow for unique physical features.  Faun was a hit both at the expo and online. I realised that I’d found the scale I’d been searching for when creating creatures previously. With a bust, I could include a high level of detail without needing to produce a huge creation (though some have ended up quite large). I find the scale incredibly fun, and I never really know where each bust will take me. They’re entirely unplanned, I just start with a specific area that I think will be the hardest to replicate and, once that sets the scale, continue around to finish the creation. The biggest challenge has really been overcoming colour or part limitations. This was most prevalent when I made Thanos and the Infinity Gauntlet, as the parts palette for gold and medium lavender are both quite limited, dark blue less so. However, that made the build a lot of fun!

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Faun

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Thanos and the Infinity Gauntlet

DAS Some of your pieces look extremely complicated. How do you go about planning something as insanely complex as your awe inspiring Monkey King?

TH This assumes that I ever really plan anything! Other than having an idea of what I want to build next and ordering specific pieces if I know I’ll really need them (dinosaur tails/tentacles for the hair of the second of the two Endless after the success of Dream), I don’t really go into a creation with any sort of plan. There is no sketching, I just pull up some reference pictures and go for it. For the Monkey King, I originally made what is essentially a pseudo-chimpanzee head, but in tan and brown. As that turned out well, I remembered liking the mythology behind Sun WuKong in the past and decided to continue my way on down the body. I made the front and back armour plates, chose white for the colour of the clothes (as I have a vast amount from my Red Queen’s Castle build in 2012), and got to work. I made the staff after the armour to set the scale, then finished the upper body. Due to weight concerns, I followed the suggestion of Matt Rowntree and settled on the lotus position. So, there’s really no planning. It’s probably not the best method as it has occasionally led to some urgent Bricklink orders, but overall it’s never been a huge problem. The most planning that I generally do these days is looking over what colours I still have lots of pieces in and letting that determine the next creation.

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The Monkey King

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Monkey King Work in Progress

DAS Having had a close look at the innards of one of your pieces I know from first hand experience how much you like to push what most people would consider traditional LEGO building techniques. Do you have any special building approaches or tips you’d like to share?

TH This is a difficult question, as I have no experience building in the way that anyone else does. I’ve just gathered the techniques that are out there (SNOT [studs not on top], etc) and apply things that I’ve used with success in the past. I certainly don’t care at all about ‘illegal’ connections. If a connection will help achieve a desired form and there is no better option, I will use it. I suppose my special approach is that I do whatever is necessary to achieve the preferred outer form. If the inside of my creation is a web of hinges and clips all fragilely connected to one another, so be it. Just don’t be afraid to use some unorthodox connections if the perfect shape can be achieved.

DAS Looking back over your work you see a clear point of departure in your work where these new techniques were implemented. Do you see yourself seriously returning to mini-figure scale building – although I know there are the odd pieces for collaborations you still make – or does your art now entirely rely on this advanced way of building?

TH While I am not opposed to using minifigures, I just don’t find that scale very engaging. I have much more fun at a larger scale and have found a niche there. Minifigures certainly have their use, such as in my recent Ancient Ruins moc, where the overall scene needs to be large and there is no room, or need, for a larger scale. However, I doubt that I will be making any macabre LEGO creations at minifigure scale anytime soon. It is fair to say that my ‘art’ relies on the larger, non-minifigure scale creations, but I occasionally find it hard to shake the appeal of the cute little guys.

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Ancient Ruins

DAS You are an amazing part of the LEGO community, what has your experience of it been like?

TH I’ve had a great time in the LEGO community. I may not have started as much of a builder, but it seems I have found my niche and since then have been very fortunate to gain my current following. I’ve been in magazines, Mike Doyle’s Beautiful LEGO books, numerous blogs, and recently have been invited as part of a museum show. I’ve also gained the notice of many artists who inspire me, notably Neil Gaiman, Mike Mignola, and Guillermo del Toro. I’ve made many wonderful friends, some of whom I have visited while abroad, and continue to be inspired by the wonderful art constantly being produced. It’s also been strangely effective at making me embrace my overall nerdiness, as my success in the hobby has made it difficult to hide this facet of my life. This has been a good thing, as my friends have accepted that I’m actually pretty good at this weird LEGO thing. My involvement in the LEGO community has definitely opened a lot of doors and led to some incredible relationships and opportunities. I have to assume that my parent’s didn’t expect it to be this successful when I decided to attend my first LEGO convention as a nerdy teenager, beginning to make his way into the online LEGO community.

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Anubis

DAS The community has led you into several high profile and exciting collaborative projects, with VirtuaLUG, the Rivers of Hell with Mihai Marius Mihu and the Exquisite Corpse project we worked on together. Could you tell me a little more about these ventures?

TH VirtuaLUG collaborations have been a constant throughout my time in the LEGO community. While these are always fun, Mihai’s invitation to collaborate together was a wonderful opportunity to work on a something that perfectly fit my interests. Mihai has always been one of my favourite builders, if not my favourite. I also adore Greek mythology and thus, while we departed quite a bit from the myths in the end, I could not have chosen a better theme. Mihai is an incredible artist and combines a similar building aesthetic to my own with extraordinary artistic vision. I can build, but I could never hope to come up with the brilliant worlds that he does. Luckily, he was brimming with ideas and produced a hauntingly beautiful version of Hell in which we dwelled for six months. Once we determined which rivers each of us would build, Mihai produced final concept drawings and we got to work. As I mentioned earlier, I am at my best when building something from an established design. This is quite apparent when my final creations are compared with Mihai’s concept drawings. Of the rivers, my favourite to build was Lethe, as it provided me with the opportunity to build a LEGO skull as the centrepiece of the landscape. While the rest of the diorama was dismantled, the skull has stayed together as one of my many display pieces. I would love to collaborate with Mihai again, as we worked well together and shared a single vision throughout the project. I wish the project had been a little better received by the community and elsewhere online, but I suppose it wasn’t exactly the most mainstream of themes.

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Lethe

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Styx

The Exquisite Corpse project was also very engaging, as I was able to build what I arguably am best at, a head. However, this did come with the problem of shipping the creation across the Atlantic, as you know well. I decided to build a very sturdy head wearing a tribal mask. I wish I’d gone for a somewhat less sturdy creation, if only to give you a challenge, David, but I did have a lot of fun making the mask. I loved the end result of the project, too, as Tom’s Popeye torso and Stu’s volcano section made for a fantastic sculpture. The end result was as gloriously surreal as I hoped.

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The Exquisite Corpse

DAS And finally, what is next, where do you see you future building going?

TH This is a good question. I don’t see much building taking place in my near future, as I’ll be on your side of the pond in Scotland come fall, doing my Master’s work in Anatomy at the University of Dundee. So, for those twelve months, I don’t expect to have much in the way of LEGO on hand or time to build even if I did. After that, who knows where life will take me. It could be the beginning of my ‘dark ages,’ we’ll just have to see. I suppose I am fortunate enough to have staved them off through my undergraduate years. I think there is still a lot to do at this larger scale, and will continue to make organic builds and hopefully push the medium whenever I can.

You can see many more of Tyler’s amazing creations on his Flickr stream here, and for a closer look at the Rivers of Hell project click here.

From Pixel to Plastic

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Atlas and P-Body Wedding Cake Toppers by Legohaulic

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

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

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

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Manic Miner by Dr Dave Watford

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

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

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LEGO Store Leicester Square Mosaic Maker

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

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

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Bob-omb Battlefield by Matt De Lanoy

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

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Doom by Iain Heath

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

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Bank of the Prophet by Imagine Rigney

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

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

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Welcome to ‘LEGO’ Jurassic Park

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

Lego_Amber

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

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

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Minecraft Micro World

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

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LEGO vs Minecraft -Which Can I Build Faster by Grain

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

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

Endnotes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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