License to Build

I have to say that coming back to building as an AFOL it took a while for me to come to terms with the presence of licensed themes.

Jurassic World. Disney sets. Simpsons minifigures. Scooby Doo. Angry Birds movie. The horrible SpongeBob in LEGO form. Even awesome franchises like the superhero universes and Star Wars.

When I contemplated all the time and pain I went through trying to make old-style hinges and trans yellow Space windscreens work for a proper X-Wing, the fact that there’s a set for that now seemed almost like a betrayal.

I probably sounded rather Grumpy Old Man about it: “Eee, lads, in my day we used a black-suited Classic astronaut holding a trans red antenna brick, and that were our Darth Vader. And we counted ourselves lucky to have a black spaceman! You young whippersnappers don’t know how good you’ve got it! You’d be better builders if you had to work it out and imagine like we did!”

Licensing? Bah!

Of course, the attitude is rather hypocritical, because I would have cheerfully strangled small furry animals to get my hands on a real X-Wing set at that age if there had been such a thing.

It didn’t help me come to terms with licencing that my inspiration initially flowed better in the direction of nonlicensed and classic themes. Classic Space was my first LEGO love, the pre-theme “theme” that really got me hooked on LEGO. Naturally as an AFOL I want to build with a Classic Space vibe.

Getting into storytelling using the LEGO Message Boards, I gravitated to non-storied, older themes or stories with only a tangential connection to LEGO. The part of storytelling I most enjoy is the worldbuilding, and there’s just less scope for that in a theme with an established story. Which includes every single licensed theme there is.

Still, I have to say that licensed sets do give you options for MOCmaking.

It’s basically impossible, for instance, to build a minifig-scale Darth Vader’s TIE Fighter or a steampunkified Batmobile without a Darth Vader or a Batman to work with. Since they exist, people want to see the real figures; a black-suited Classic Spaceman is not going to cut it as either Vader or Batman.

That led to a gradual re-evaluation and acceptance of the various licensed themes. I’m still pretty sparing in the licensed sets I’ll purchase, because licensing costs money and the Star Wars theme, for instance, are some of the most expensive ways to buy bricks when calculated on a price-per-brick basis.

I still can’t imagine willingly putting down money on a SpongeBob or Angry Birds set, just because I can’t imagine ever having a use for those minifigures.

But as my kids (and especially my son) gravitate to Star Wars and Batman and the Avengers and other things, our household stock of various licensed minifigures has grown to the point where it’s actually not unreasonable to contemplate a Star Wars-themed creation.

Licensed themes aren’t, in fact, destroying creativity. I’ll grant that a tile printed with the symbol of the Empire doesn’t lend itself all that well to a non-Star Wars build, but like balljoints or Travis bricks or pneumatic T-pieces, the sets open up possibilities. In this case, possibilities for modeling those worlds that just wouldn’t be there very well without the licensing. Who’s going to drive your replica Batmobile if there is no LEGO Batman?

So I’ve basically come to terms with licensing as a general principle of the LEGO Group’s operation. It has its downsides, particularly in the amount of time and energy the Group seem to pour into licensed themes versus nonlicensed ones, but I’m no longer feeling like my youthful not-very-good-but-using-what-was-available X-Wings and AT-ATs have been betrayed by the existence of sets for that.

I think in some ways I’d prefer it if there were proportionally a few less licensed themes, but I understand that the LEGO Group are a business and that’s where the money seems to be.

Advanced Mech-Building 101

Up until this point, most of my mechs have been relatively simplistic affairs.

Oh, I’ve done what I could to make them look interesting, but in terms of the actual structure, they’ve been fairly basic. I’d tended to use balljoint elements almost exclusively, with occasional use of those clickstop universal joints, and that’s forced several design constraints on my mechs that I barely even realised I had.

Also, I’ve tended to construct the torso all in one piece, and there’s only so much you can do with that.

I like mechs in general, even if I’m not very good at them. Well, except for some of the Japanese-style Gundams and Anime mechs, which always look strange to me. Yeah, I know I’m dissing the two most influential mech source materials in the universe, but I honestly don’t like those massively overbuilt shoulders and weird flanges and fins and wings all over the place, and the guns bigger than the mechs themselves and all that. There’s a definite Japanese style to many mechs, and if you’ve seen many you know what I’m talking about, but frankly I prefer something a little less Anime-derived.

Having said that, there’s obviously a lot I could learn from the hows of some of these Gundam/Anime mech architects. So I’ve been doing something I almost never do with my LEGO building: I’ve been watching building instruction videos and mech-building tip compilations on youTube.

For all that I overuse balljoint elements with studs, I’ve been noticing for a while how few of the really good mechs that give you even a vague clue as to their joint mechanics actually use balljoints. They use clip-and-bar hinges, pneumatic T-pieces, or other strange joint forms I’m still coming to grips with.

So I’ve been watching and learning how it’s done.

This new raft of joint-building techniques is only half of what I got out of what I’ve seen, though. The other main aspect of what I got from the videos is more deeply buried. It’s the idea of an underlying skeletal frame.

Anyone who’s built the large Bionicle/CCBS figures will probably grasp this by instinct, because I’m told that that’s where most of the building creativity lies in those things, but I don’t Bionicle any more readily than I build advanced mechanical functions with Technic, so you’ll forgive me for being a little slow on the uptake.

Anyway, I built a new mech, deliberately choosing to use some of what I’ve learned.

It’s far more articulated in the spine than any previous mech I’ve built, actually having an approximation of a spine for a start.

The construction of the legs deliberately eschews “normal” balljoint connections, and still has most of the range of motion I’d actually want out of a set of mech legs.

I was initially not planning on giving the mech arms as well as those shoulder weapon pods, but it didn’t look right without them, so I adapted the design a little, but the weapon pods seemed like the only reasonable attachment point.

The result looks something like a cross between a linebacker and a chimpanzee, and is just as topheavy and overbuilt in the shoulders as any Neo Evangelion or other Manga mech.

The claws combine with the black colour and the stick-thin arms to give it a slightly arachnoid look, and so between that and the simianoid remainder of its looks, I came up with the name for it: the Blacktron Monkey-Spider class Mech.

It isn’t perfect. In fact, it’s a long way from it, and I actually prefer the looks of last time’s Space Police Enforcer class.

But I offer it up here as a testimony that I’m learning new things and finding better ways to approach the building of stuff like mechs.

The Long Legs of the Law

Enforcer-class Space Police mech

The Space Police aren’t an aspect of LEGO Space I’ve gone into building very much before now. I’ve had a brief flirtation with the organisation in digital format, but aside from a single “crashed wreck” build to go with my neo-Alienator, I’ve not built a single Space Police construction before in real bricks.

Now I have Blacktron astronauts, though, and the beginnings of a potential alternate-universe story where the Blacktron are the heroes and the Space Police are a tyrannical instrument of oppression, I find I actually want to build Space Police. Even the bad guys ought to get some cool stuff.

I don’t, however, currently possess a first-generation Space Police trooper. Or any of the three separate generations of Space Police, but it’s the original Space Police, first genuine adversaries of the Blacktron, that concern me right now.

If I’m going to have a corrupt, oppressive Space Police, SP1 have about the most sinister colours with that black/blue/trans red livery. Seeing everything as they do through visors and windscreens in Sith Red, were they actually subtly intended as evil? They even look a bit like Stormtroopers.

I doubt they were specifically meant as evil, but Futuron’s colours do look so much more regular Earth police-like, as shown by their recyclement in SP3.

Rear view of the Enforcer-class

Anyway, my first Space Police build in real bricks was a corvette-sized microscale cruiser, but that was mostly a minor experiment with a new technique. If I think up a suitable backstory I may post it.

This, however, I wanted to post. Minifigure-scale despite my lack in the trooper department, it’s a walker, because I like them even if I’m no specialist genius mech architect.

I’ve done as much as I can to create a sort of ersatz Space Police stormtrooper, recombining parts from a white Classic astronaut and a Blacktron squaddie, and the result doesn’t look too bad, I think.

The mech may be one of my most adventurous yet. I’ve used several techniques that I haven’t tried before, most notably the sloped cockpit section, and I’ve tried to avoid using box-standard Bionicle/HF balljointed limb elements. Ok, mostly this is because a lot of them are in use on several dragons my kids and their cousins have built, but it’s the actually doing it that counts.

The twin rotary stud shooters are inspired by the six-guns of the stereotypical Wild West lawman, and I’ve used a stickered City element to label the mech as police.

On the roof are a pair of lighter guns, with searchlights mounted to aid in urban pacification. Possibly the roof-mounted guns are high-pressure water cannons, but somehow I doubt it. I have serious questions about the effectiveness of water cannons in a space environment. Wouldn’t the water just boil off into the vacuum?

I’m calling the mech the Enforcer-class walker, seeing it as probably one of the Space Police’s primary mechs.

The Viper, Victorious

I said I was going to build a cruiser in the Vic Viper configuration, and here it is, more or less.

Another corner build using my lone Blacktron quarter panel (I need to get another one of those so that it can become a by-choice deal rather than a by-necessity), it has all the features required for a proper Vic Viper, but in a cruiser format.

The single vertical tail fin becomes a bridge sail section, the twin prongs are in place, and the wings curl upwards because of my decision to use Castle turret top elements.

I’ve been far more sparing with yellow bricks than even my usual approach to the Blacktron; something that many people seem to get wrong is that they put too much yellow in a Blacktron creation, with the result that it looks like construction hazard striping. The Victorious-class goes to almost the opposite extreme. It’s a major light sink, and wouldn’t be easy to spot using optical sensors against the blackness of space.

Thankfully for those viewing, I’m sure, I’ve shot my photos against a white background so that the details are more visible. That’s the problem with black ships and vessels: they’re hard to photograph well, especially with the primitive handheld camera setup I have.

As befits a cruiser of the more militarily-inclined Blacktron Alliance, the Victorious is fairly well-armed, with heavy spinal lasers, lighter defensive pulse turrets and intermediate-size long guns. Much of the armament is exclusively forward-firing, which may be a weak point of the design, but in my “Brightly-Coloured Tyranny” Classic Space alternate universe the Blacktron are a rebel alliance or resistance movement opposed to the corrupt Federation government and its oppressive Space Police. They aren’t necessarily going to have the experience to make perfect combat designs right off the bat.

Anyway, here she is, the Blacktron Victorious-class Cruiser, ready to oppose the Federation and do some damage to as many Space Police ships as possible.

Archer-class Pulse Cannon

Aerospace defence. It’s going to be a critical need for any spacegoing force.

You’re going to need defensive systems that operate on several different levels. Force shields if your universe has them, but also antisatellite weapons – lasers or the equivalent, missiles and so on, and of different sizes.

For energy weapons, there will be the massive ion cannons or heavy lasers that can bust through dreadnought-level armour, as well as smaller ones, right down to something like this.

I’m calling it the Archer-class; a seven-barreled mobile aerospace defence cannon.

Having seven barrels might seem like overkill (or possibly stupid: why not just one gun that’s much bigger and more powerful?), but I’m thinking it would be like the early Gatling guns: the multiple barrels prevent overheating and allow more sustained fire.

Anyway, here it is.  I also made a little tow-truck thing to pull it around.

Enter the Viper

So I finally succumbed to the Vic Viper build-virus.

The term apparently comes from the name of the player starship from some ancient arcade game I’d never even heard of, but despite my utter personal ignorance that videogame original seems to have spawned an infinite number of clones and variants.

I became aware of the phenomenon some time back as I flipped through my search engine’s image files looking for LEGO space fighter inspiration. Seeing multiple very different space fighters being called “Vic Viper”, I looked it up.

Apparently the term defines a certain set of visual characteristics, most notably twin forward-facing prongs on either side of the cockpit, but that’s not the sole requirement. It seems They Who Decide have decreed that to officially qualify as a Vic Viper it has to also possess two (and only two) wings and a single tail fin.

Since I found out, I’ve been content to ignore the phenomenon. It’s not something I’ve felt any particular impetus to join in with. “I’m gonna build a Vic Viper” isn’t etched into my brain; if anyone’s going to decide what my spaceship looks like, it’s going to be me, darn it!

I did toy initially with building a Vic Viper battlecruiser, just to mess with people’s minds, and I still might, but up until now I’ve cheerfully ignored the phenomenon.

This is my token Vic Viper. It’s pretty conventionally-shaped; about the only slightly unusual feature is those down-curved wings. I doubt I’ll be building too many more of these things, because it’s honestly not a configuration that grabs me and says “build me!”.

I may have a go at that battlecruiser variant, though.

Sanctuary Moon

A break from the Classic Space and Blacktron modes, but not from sci-fi, this Star Wars Original Trilogy build is unusual for me on several counts.

Number one, it’s vegetation. I’m not a great builder of vegetation; my trees are pretty simplistic and I don’t have a huge amount of the various leafy green elements that make good cround cover. This build used about 90% of my inventory.

I always feel like to get good at vegetation I need more plant parts and elements that would be good treetrunk and so on, but because I so seldom build very much with vegetation I never actually purchase any more. It’s a bit of a vicious cycle.

Anyway, Endor is a forested moon, and needs lots of vegetation even at microscale. I’m satisfied, at least, with how it’s turned out.

Number two, it’s microscale with actual human figures, a first for me.

I’ve never really liked the “stack of 1×1 round bricks = human” approach; it’s about the best possible approach at that scale but part of my mind always rebels at it.

This time, though, I’ve used it myself for Luke and Leia in the foreground.

Number three, it uses a technically “illegal” technique, also a rarity for me. The scout troopers’ heads are not properly attached, just jammed onto the ends of the black barbs forming the necks. It’s not that I don’t approve of “illegal” (ie “you’ll never see this done in an official set”) techniques, but I just seldom think of them in building context. A lot of the techniques seriously stress or deform the element, and I don’t have the inventory to sacrifice to the resultant breakages. I’ll need those bricks later.

This creation began as something else entirely. I was haphazardly putting bricks together to build a microscale space fighter when my visiting nephew said “that looks like an X-Wing”. A flurry of “Build a TIE Fighter!”, “Build a Star Destroyer!” followed, and I found myself putting bricks together for a microscale speeder bike.

The white clip elements from the “Mighty Dinosaurs” Creator set seemed like perfect Scout Trooper bodies, but I had to try several different things before I came up with this design for the heads.

And then an Endor scene just naturally followed, with a second speeder bike and a massive tree and underbrush. Putting in Luke and Leia just completed the Return of the Jedi scene.  The giant mushroom in the back isn’t official canon, but I wouldn’t be surprised.