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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.

Horse de Combat

Ok, this is rather silly.  But people have made LEGO mechs piloted by frogs before, so I’m in good company.

But I don’t think I’ve ever seen a battle mech piloted by a horse before.

I  said once before that I’ve had a long-standing ambition to use the horse element in a spaceship, so perhaps this is where the inspiration came from.  But I really have no idea.  Just another of the weird ideas that pop into my head.

They’re Changing Guard at Buckingham Palace

Well, I’m back from my trip back to Dear Old Blighty, and in celebration of the event I’ve built a royal guardsman.

Complete with bearskin hat, red coat and trousers with the stripe down the sides, he doesn’t look all that happy about the prospect of guarding Her Majesty.  Maybe he’a a closet republican.

The hands would be better in either white, for white gloves, or tan for flesh tone.  But I’ve ended up with dark grey, which is buildable and can stand in for gloves.  Likewise, the sword’s a little wonky-looking; maybe one of those long sword blades with the bar attachment point would look better, but I think this works well enough.

I think my favourite part is managing to approximate the red and white cockade on the side of the hat.

 

Recombination

LEGO isn’t just a construction toy. In a sense, it’s a mode of thought.

The particular genius of LEGO bricks, of course, is that they can be anything. The model on the box is a starting-point, but any kid will tell you it’s after that model gets broken up that things get interesting.

Now, I know that there are apparently people (even kids) who build what’s on the box, play with that (or display it) and never ever break it up, but to me, this has always been incomprehensible and missing the point. I’m sorry, people, but you’re doing it wrong…

The whole genius (in its original sense of “presiding spirit”) of LEGO is that any and all bricks can be put together in any and all ways to build (almost) anything you can conceive of.

Part of this among the various FOL (Fan Of LEGO) communities is the urge to use different elements in unique and interesting ways. Banana elements become claws, ninja swords find new use as windscreen wipers, people make mechs piloted by a frog, a monkey, a roast chicken…

I personally have a long-standing ambition and intention to somehow use the horse element in a spaceship model. Whenever I finally build my SHIP (Seriously Huge Investment in Pieces), don’t be surprised if it’s in there somewhere. If I can make it work. And I’m probably not building a farming colony ship transporting livestock.

It’s not just individual elements, though. Whole official themes have partaken of this recombinant spirit, melding different genres together to come up with something new and exciting. Nexo Knights is the most recent example (though I still think the fusion of Castle and high technology could have been handled much, much better), but the old TimeCruisers theme did it to the max.

As a kid on the cusp of TFOLhood at the time, I always thought TimeCruisers was a bizarre theme. I was always fanatical to the point of OCD about colour matching and making things look right in my creations, and the TimeCruisers sets were the weirdest hodgepodge of elements and building styles imaginable, with Town and Castle paraphernalia jammed into some kind of not-sure-what-it’s-supposed-to-be vehicle with Pirate and Spaceship features and a semi-randomised near-Rainbow Warrior colour scheme my admittedly OCD colour sense thought was vile.

But if any theme before the LEGO Movie truly expressed the genius of what LEGO is, TimeCruisers was it. It’s the same sort of wacky laser-armed icecreamtruckplane or chomping trashcompactorspaceship idea, only perhaps even more so. It’s like the Master Builders’ submarine from the movie, with different sections of the vessel expressing the different personalities involved.

Recombination. Combining various diverse elements into a new unified whole. Isn’t this what LEGO is all about?

The recombinant mode of thought that LEGO building encourages and promotes is highly sought after in some careers. Enough that the LEGO Group developed the “Serious Play” concept using LEGO building to encourage out-of-the-box thinking in office and career environments.

For a lifelong builder, Serious Play is probably superfluous. Anyone who spent the bulk of their childhood with a carpet of plastic bricks on their floor has probably been marinated long and deeply in the central concept: things don’t have to go together any one way.

While for me, TimeCruisers still pushes things a little further than I really like (too many styles and elements mashed together and not enough finished unity of the final model), I do like to fuse genres together in new and interesting ways.

As an AFOL re-entering the world of LEGO building and discovering LDD and other digital building programs, one of the first things I built digitally was a series of Classic Space dinosaur-inspired vehicles (They look primitive and studdy compared to more recent creations, but I’ve grown considerably as a builder over the last two or three years). My username on the old LEGO Message Boards, Saurianspacer, reflected this fusion: dinosaurs (saurian) and Classic Space (spacer).

More recently, there have been the spacedozer, the Elemental Dragon of Classic Space, the Constructodragon, and my forthcoming project, the Mechnotaur.

Then, too, as an aspiring writer the impulse to take two or more genres and see what happens when we insert Tab A into Slot Þ307ð serves for a lot of inspiration, and it’s something I usually enjoy reading as well. Eric Flint and Ryk Spoor’s Boundary series is a sort of answer to the question “how can we get dinosaurs and the planet Mars into the same story without rewiring the universe’s fundamental workings?”; Dan Simmons’ Ilium and Olympos dyad does the same for space robots and Greek mythology.

Part of me wonders whether these authors were LEGO builders as kids; it’s a very LEGO thing to do.

For me as an aspiring writer, the part I have the most fun doing is the worldbuilding. Again, that’s very LEGO, and very old-school 1980s-theme LEGO too. The long-running Classic Space theme had no stories or characters or very much definition of any sort. You built a world; what the LEGO people were doing in it was up to whatever you wanted at the time. It wasn’t like it is now where there are plotlines everywhere and named characters and TV shows and story. It was building worlds first, then deciding what the story was.

Take my current building project, the forthcoming Mechnotaur. Building a giant steampunk mech shaped like a minotaur is a classic example of my LEGOlike tendency to recombine genres. But then my love of worldbuilding kicks in and I get inspired by my own creation for the background for a tale. Or at least, a story-world; I’m currently in-progress on a story attempting to fuse steampunk with ice-age beasts and Russian Central Asia and I really don’t need to get into another complex story at this time.

What kind of world could make a steampunk mecha-minotaur reasonable? Well…

I’m tentatively calling it “Labyrinth World”. A place in which a race of self-appointed “Gods” use a combination of immortality/longevity treatment (“ambrosia”?) and high steampunk technology to keep the mortals in forced ignorance and slavery.

Though united in their oppression of the rest of humanity, the gods bicker and fight among themselves and against the remnants of their predecessor Titans, near-gods who also kept the mortals in forced technological ignorance but did not claim godhood or desire to be worshipped. These struggles provide openings for the Prometheus, a struggling band of mortal technologists who oppose the tyranny of the so-called gods using the left-over mechanical constructs of the Titan War and their own engineering…

It sounds like a cool story. In fact, it sounds like a story much cooler than I can actually write; I’m sure I’d ruin such a high concept with mediocre characters and crappy dialogue and a wandering plot. Like I said, the worldbuilding is the part I most enjoy; I write because I get to develop a world, and I write sci-fi/fantasy because it gives me the most scope for doing so.

And so I come around to the realisation that what I really want to do is not so much write stories as it is build worlds. I want to play at being the Creator. I want to create the story-universe, the milieu, the Wookiepedia of the fusile interior of my brain… And I think I’m pretty good at it, too.

There’s got to be a way to make money off this weird skill I seem to have, but I’m blowed if I can tell you what it is. Author might be a fairly good match if I can develop the rest of the craft, but what really springs to mind is “LEGO theme designer”.

In the meantime, here I sit in the real world with a heavy-construction day job and a strange mind…

Double Whammy

My son’s been building again.

In fairly typical six-year-old mode, this is his super-turret, with every different kind of fireable LEGO weapon we have except for the 2×2 disc shooter on it somewhere.

I’m blogging this as an addendum because I was really impressed that he managed to re-invent the bar-with-clips-on-both-sides form of LEGO hinge all by himself.

Talented guy.

A Sort of a Problem

I need to face the facts. The LEGO brick collection of our household is now at the point at which some sort of order and organisation is a necessity, not just a helpful aid to building.

I’ve tried before to impose some order on the collection with a system of Ziploc bags, but that didn’t work. The LEGO bricks are a household collection played with by not only me but two and sometimes all three of my children, the youngest of whom is six and who, when encountering a Ziploc bag full of windscreen elements, immediately tips it out to find the piece he needs. And then doesn’t put the rest back.

We have a limited system of the three drawers in one of these small plastic chests of drawers, one of which contains minifigures and accessories plus animals and plant parts, one of which contains wheels and things that go round, and one of which contains bar elements plus all the really tiny giblets and greebles that are smaller than a 1×2 tile. But those drawers are really the wrong shape for LEGO. They’re too deep to make good contained spaces in which you can really hunt down a particular element in that mixed a bag, and too mixed to make finding elements instantaneous even so, and they don’t make enough of a dent in the rest of the collection to achieve very much. We still spend far too long hunting down particular elements, and the noise of LEGO bricks tumbling against one another is one that punches my wife’s “something is breaking” button. And stands on it, usually.

I love my wife and I’d like to minimise her exposure to sounds that she finds grating while I pursue an activity I love and find relaxing. But I’m stumped. How can I organise our bricks, preferably without spending a fortune and acquiring DIY skills I don’t have making some sort of custom shelving?

I don’t mean what sorting system should we use. I’ll find a system that works for all of us and we’ll roll with it. Something based on element type and connectivity, I think. That’s the easy part.

I mean practically, what can I buy to serve as an organised repository of bricks that will make a dent in the mountain of unorganised elements, be accessible to a bright six-year-old, and cut down searching and clinking times to something a six-year-old can have patience with?

Oh, and preferably not break the bank.

LEGO-brand storage bins are too highly-priced and small to deal with the scale of the collection. They’re also designed mostly to help parents regain enough floor space to get around and clean; they support the “big jumble of bricks” system of LEGO filing.

I’ve toyed with (and am still considering) the idea of one of those bolt organiser things that DIY enthusiasts use to sort their myriads of screws and nails and whatnot. It has quite a few advantages: small, transparent drawers designed to hold small items, readily expandable simply by buying another section, drawers rather than bags, which we’ve proved doesn’t work. But I look at some of the larger element types, especially rubber tyres, shell or windscreen elements and ship parts, and I have to wonder whether they make screw organisers with drawers big enough. The one example I have access to is my father-in-law’s screw and bolt tidy, and it only has drawers designed for screw-sized things.

Also, how expensive are these things? I need to look that up, because it’s looking like it’s a present for all of us. I get my bricks organised. My son and daughters get to find the brick they’re looking for easily. And my wife gets the endless noise of brick clattering against brick to cease for a bit.

I’m willing to spend some money in order to avoid carpentry, but I’m not in a high income bracket and I don’t have masses to spend. I need an off-the-shelf sorting system that has drawers rather than bags or boxes, is accessible to a six-year-old (nothing too tall, bulky or awkward), has visibility into the drawers from the exterior (my son is still learning to read, so written labels aren’t going to help him find things), has drawers that can be removed and put back by a bright but impatient six-year-old, and ideally can handle tiny elements like 1×1 round tiles and large elements like Star Wars planet sections with equal ease.

Really, a bolt tidy is the only option, isn’t it?

Or is it? Those things don’t come cheap, if I remember right, and they’re far more robust than I actually need. Is there another option? One that isn’t going to mean spending money on a huge markup generated by faddish hobbies like scrapbooking or cardmaking?

A Ghostly Vessel

Ghosts… ghosts everywhere. What can I do with all these ghosts?

Too many ghosts!

Too many ghosts!

I’m not really into ghosts per se, but with my kids’ love of Ninjago (and my own liking for the sets as cost-effective MOCfodder) we’ve managed to acquire quite a number of the blasted things. As ghosts go, they’re well-designed, I suppose, with the trans neon green and glow-in-the-dark elements combining well with the blacks and dark blues and purples, but spooky and eldritch aren’t really my thing as building goes.

Still, there’s got to be something I could do with these things.

The words “ghost ship” floated through the aether like an unquiet spirit, looking for a place to lodge.

Solution: Ghost Ship

Solution: Ghost Ship

A ghost ship doesn’t have to have anything to do with Ninjago’s ghosts or the Cursed Realm. There are plenty of maritime tales of ghost ships encountered in the fog or by night, apparently hundreds of years out of time, lost on an endless murky sea… We can do that.

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I’ve gone with a Ninjago ghost colour scheme, because the idea was to use all of these wretched ghosts and I wanted them to match. Besides, it’s a nicely dark, ethereal look and works well. The flag is technically Ninjago Sky Pirates, but it fits the look I wanted better than any other flag I’ve got. There are white bone elements here and there to add to the postmortem look, and I think one of my favourite parts is the bowsprit area with that jewel up ahead and the glow-in-the-dark skeletal spider legs.

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My favourite piece of building is the sails. I’ve used some of those 3x8x2 shell elements in dark blue, with clips to attach them to the long rigid hose element serving as the spar. They both fit the colour scheme and look suitably ragged.

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