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Book review: Beautiful LEGO 2: Dark

January 7, 2015 2 comments

Beautiful LEGO 2: Dark
by Mike Doyle
published by No Starch Press

http://www.nostarch.com/beautifullego2
Book cover
 

Disclaimer: I received a free review copy from No Starch Press.

 

Beautiful LEGO 2: Dark is the sequel to Mike Doyle’s Beautiful LEGO. I thoroughly enjoyed the first volume and the second is just as high quality.

When I read the first volume, I was in the presence of young children who were entranced by the pictures and made me turn through all the pages multiple times. There were images that they considered too scary. In that first book, such images were few and far between. As you can imagine from the subtitle “Dark”, there’s a lot more disturbing stuff in this volume. I wouldn’t recommend letting young children see many of the creations featured in this book.

The editor explores various meanings of the word “dark”, from the literal (models of the ocean and places that get no sunlight, or models of silhouettes), to creepy (bugs, insects), to violent/horrific (zombies, a crawling baby devil). Some of the models I would not have thought as belonging to the Dark theme (such as the trains or the buildings), but the chapter titles (i.e. “The Robber Barons” for the trains, “Greed Co., Unlimited” for the buildings) frame the models and give them a gritty and dark connotation.

I was disgusted, creeped out, and generally unnerved from many of the creations on display. I let out an audible ‘ugh’ of disgust upon seeing Hatchery (p. 3), and got shivers down my spine upon seeing Jason Ruff’s Big Hairy Spider (p. 25). The aforementioned devil baby (Junior, by Ekow Nimako, p. 194) also gave me the creeps. If the first volume asked the question, “Can LEGO be art”,  then the emotions that these photos of plastic toys elicited in me is a strong argument in the affirmative.

That’s not to say that this book is unenjoyable. I was consistently impressed by the quality of the models. Some of my favorites were the Tyranosaurus rex by Ken Ito (p. 114), the wonderful depth of field and leading lines of Tim Goddard’s “Tunnel Vision” (p. 79), the incredible scaly underbelly of the sea monster in Lauchlan Toal’s “Guardian of the Emerald” (p. 92), the “Micro Bone Dragon” by Sean and Steph Mayo (p. 111). Finally, I have to recognize “The King in Yellow“, by Brian Kescenovitz (p. 318). This is a brilliant minimalist scene featuring a king on his throne; the king himself consists of maybe 4 pieces. It’s absolutely wonderful, and a far cry from some of the models that are made of thousands of pieces. The restraint required in such a model is wonderful to see.

Just as in the last book, the backgrounds of the images have been digitally replaced to have beautiful gradient backgrounds. While all of the models are terrific, there are the same problems that plagued the last book, which is that some of the photographs are of low resolution (for instance, you can see jagged pixelated edges in “Jones’s Addiction” by Cole Blaq on page 72). If the rest of the photographs and production quality weren’t of such high quality, I probably would not have noticed these issues.

Finally, some LEGO purists might be upset at the inclusion of digital renderings of some creations. I did not have any problem with it, and in fact I mistook some photographs for renderings (the hairy spider for one). There are only a handful of renderings within the 300+ pages of the book if it matters to you.

This book is a must have for LEGO fans. It does have some disturbing content in it, so I would not recommend buying it for young children.

Categories: LEGO Tags: ,

Book Review: “Steampunk LEGO”

December 20, 2014 Leave a comment

Steampunk LEGO

by Guy Himber

Published by No Starch Press

http://www.nostarch.com/steampunk

Disclaimer: I received a free review copy of this book from its publisher, No Starch Press.

The central conceit of the book is that it is the journal of the Queen’s Chronicler of Technology, who “…ventures around the world and reports on exciting developments in the Sciences and their potential for civilian and military applications” (p. viii). This provides an excuse for the book to jump between many different themes of models.

I am not an enormous steampunk fan, but I do like the art style and admire the craft and artistry that goes into these LEGO creations. I was afraid that the models would all be drab brown and grey, with some copper tubes and gears shoved on almost as an afterthought, but I was pleasantly surprised. There is a huge variety in the models, both in the subject matter (the book ranges from trains and tanks, to bicycles, to robots, to mechanical animals, and even to space ships) and building technique.

While many of the models do stick to the standard color palette of grey, brown and copper, there are some great splashes of color throughout. For instance, Machine No. 1 by Vincent Gachod on p.44 is a beautiful green and grey steam powered automobile; Kaptain Kazoodle and the Travelling Circus of Doom by Nathan Proudlove (p. 61) is a strange insect like train with brown and teal and stark white. A robotic butler (p. 72) has a nice splash of purple.

The section on the Seven Seas, featuring many ships and submarines, illustrates how different builders approach their subject matter. The contrast between Ruben Ras’ studs-out submarine (“Dr. Schweitzer’s SW – Physeter I”) built using the Lowell Sphere technique on p. 123 and the completely hidden stud technique using tiles and barrels (“O’Neill’s Mini Submarine” by Rod Gillies) on p. 124 is striking.

Dr. Schweitzer’s SW – Physeter I

O’Neill’s Mini Submarine by Rod Gillies

Many of the models in this book are references to something else, or recreations of something famous in the steampunk style. For instance, the submarine I just mentioned, “Dr. Schweitzer’s SW – Physeter I” is actually an allusion to a sperm whale (Physeter macrocephalus), as I discovered when trying to search for a picture of the model. Other examples are much more obvious, such as J. Abba’s Luxury Air Barge, by Amado C. Pinlac (p. 142), which is a clear recreation of Jabba the Hutt’s ship in Return of the Jedi, or Baron Von Batten’s Train by Lazlo Kissimon (p. 7), which is a take on the Batmobile from the Batman universe.

preferred when these little references and nods were sprinkled throughout the book; when we get to the section on space, virtually every model is a recreation of a Star Wars vehicle (i.e. the Letter-Wing Fighter by Larry Lars, p. 180 is a recreation of the Y-Wing) or some other popular sci-fi show (Steam Viper, p. 183 looks to me like a take on the Vipers from Battlestar Galactica). That section felt a little weak to me as a result.

The other low point for me is the section entitled “Cabinet of Curiosities”. The fictional journalist details finding an ark containing “a wonderful collection of photographs depicting a great many items both mysterious and fabulous, but no description or mention of how the strange cabinet had functioned or what arcane magicks had powered it and its thirst for artifacts.” (p. 103). That whole section is full of various artifacts throughout history, such as a joystick, a child’s wagon, a microscope, and a micro-scale Hogwart’s castle. I felt that there was little rhyme or reason to this section, and that it did not fit at all with the theme of the rest of the book.

Other than these minor complaints, there is a lot to like. The section on robots and automatons is wonderful. Many of these models break far out of the staid grey/brown/copper color scheme. For instance, Sir Biggles by Théo Bonner (p. 72) is a model of a robot butler which uses inverted tires wrapped around parts of the model to form striking contrast with the metal colors underneath. The Queen’s Hammer by Hammerstein NWC (p. 73) is a great mech with brilliant red and gold pieces and a bright green face plate. Steam rises from the boiler on its back, as it does in many of the models. A cannon forms the weapon on one arm, where a laser rifle would normally be expected from such a model.

In addition to the great models, I was pleasantly surprised by the quality of the author’s prose. I’ve complained about lackluster story and writing in such other LEGO books as LEGO Space: Building the Future, so I was happy to see the quality in this one.

I heartily recommend this book to LEGO fans, even those without a passion for steampunk.

Categories: LEGO Tags: , ,

Book Review: “LEGO Space: Building the Future”

October 27, 2014 1 comment

LEGO Space: Building the Future
by Peter Reid and Tim Goddard
published by No Starch Press
http://www.nostarch.com/legospace

Book cover

Disclaimer: I received a free review copy from No Starch Press.

I was very excited to read this book because space has always been one of my favorite LEGO themes. In some ways this book exceeded my expectations, particularly in the way that it pays homage to the old LEGO themes of classic space, ice planet, Blacktron, and Space Police, while creating things that are new and different.

The book is different from most LEGO books I can think of in that it tells a fictional story, starting from the US space program in the 1960s (Neil Armstrong’s footprint on the moon on p.7 is particularly nice) through to the distant future. It uses photographs of LEGO to illustrate this science fiction, as well as 3d renderings of the step-by-step instructions on how to build some of the models. These instructions are the only real ways in which the ‘fourth wall’ of the fictional universe is broken.

The story is a neat excuse for the authors to bring in elements from the various themes that I mentioned, starting with classic space (“The Federation” – pp. 20-59). If you’re unfamiliar with this theme, see http://lego.wikia.com/wiki/Classic_Space?file=Classic_Space_1979.jpg. The models that they show for this do a great job of keeping the color scheme (yellow, blue, grey) of the builds, while adding much more sophistication and detail than were ever present in the original sets.

Small scale classic space creation – notice the inventive manner of orienting the cockpit

The story continues on to Ice planet (see e.g. http://lego.wikia.com/wiki/Ice_Planet_2002), which this story renames as “Inhospitable Climate Engineers (ICE)” (pp.62-85). This was one of my favorite themes growing up, and I love how the authors have retained the blue, white, and orange color scheme in their builds, while introducing entirely new concepts, such as the ICE robots (pp. 76-77). The snowmobile build on p. 75 is also impressive.

An update on the classic space planet wheel design

Blacktron is up next (http://lego.wikia.com/wiki/Blacktron) starting around p. 116. One of my favorite two page spreads in the book is on pp. 122-123, in which these Blacktron lookalikes are attacking the Octania refueling ship. Fans of LEGO will instantly recognize that the name and color scheme (red, white, and green) of the Octania are a reference to Octan, the gas station in the town sets. (See http://lego.wikia.com/wiki/Octan)

The last main theme covered by the book is Space Police I (http://lego.wikia.com/wiki/Space_Police_I), whose ships are often black and blue, with distinctive transparent red canopies. The authors bring these into a more modern palette by changing the shade of blue and using many pieces which were not yet manufactured during the Space Police I theme (1989-1991).

Overall this book is amazing. My only problem with it is the story and prose. Here is one short excerpt:

“In the medical bay, the doctor was able to realize his increasingly bizarre dreams. His ambition reached new heights, and he went about his work with newfound passion. His scientific breakthroughs were as terrible as they were incredible” (p. 125)

I find that the writing is cliched and lackluster. The story is completely forgettable (I am struggling to remember one aspect of it after having read it about 2 weeks ago). I don’t think you would miss much just by looking at the pictures and admiring the models and skipping the story entirely.

The models are incredible in this book, and so too are the lighting and photography. This is an extremely well produced book, and some of the two page spreads could have come straight out of a movie. For instance, see pp. 154-155 which shows 3 soldiers in exoskeletons fighting off a mass of incoming aliens. The scene is shot from an overhead perspective, and you can see that the three soldiers are about to back right into each other, with no hope of escape.

LEGO barrel using elastic bands

If you are a fan of the LEGO space themes that I mentioned, then you will enjoy this book. It is full of fan service (e.g. the Octania ship I mentioned earlier), and all of the models are top notch. They manage to evoke the original theme without just copying directly. They bring the old styles into the modern day, using updated colors and pieces, and taking advantage of the roughly 20 years of progress between these early sets and today.

Categories: LEGO Tags: , , ,

Book Review: “The LEGO Neighborhood Book: Build Your Own Town!”

October 6, 2014 Leave a comment

The LEGO Neighborhood Book: Build Your Own Town!
by Brian Lyles and Jason Lyles
published by No Starch Press
http://www.nostarch.com/legoneighborhood

Disclaimer: I received a free review copy from No Starch Press

If you have ever gone to a convention where there is a LEGO exhibit, then you have probably seen elaborate displays of city life. Skyscrapers soar to the rafters, cars wind their way through the streets, minifigures enter and leave the various shops and establishments. They represent a moment in time in a city, either real or imagined.

A LEGO neighborhood display from Maker Faire

A LEGO neighborhood display from Maker Faire

Prior to reading this book, I had no idea how these feats of creativity and engineering were accomplished. Due to the scale and complexity, I imagined that there must be multiple builders involved. I wondered how each builder ensured that his or her creation would fit with the rest of the city. Were there elaborate blueprints drawn up and exchanged among all of the crew?

Brian Lyles and Jason Lyles, two brothers who build models for such displays, answer these questions and more in The LEGO Neighborhood Book. The first chapter details a standard of building sizes and part placement that allow the city to be constructed plate by plate and later joined together. This standard, known as the “Café Corner”, is a natural scale at which to build as it allows minifigures to be the inhabitants of the city; windows, doorframes, and other elements look an appropriate size next to them. While cityscapes could be built at much different scales (the displays in LEGOLand in California, for instance, use a much larger scale to show even more detail), the book focuses almost exclusively on this minifigure scale world.

The rest of the book concerns the design of these buildings, including such topics as choosing which buildings to build, how to incorporate color and contrast into the models, the importance of symmetry in brick placement to more closely approximate how real buildings are built, and most importantly, how to approximate details in the real world with the imperfect assortment of LEGO pieces that have been manufactured.

The most interesting part of the book to me was the Bricks Everywhere chapter which shows photographs of buildings or building details like moulding or awnings and the pieces that the authors would use to represent them. It showcases the authors’ talent and expertise – I would not have thought of many of these solutions.

Other sections of the book include adding details to the buildings through elements like columns and railing, windows and shutters, plant life, benches, scaffolding, stop lights, and various pieces of furniture that belong in different areas of a house.

Most of the LEGO images are computer renderings rather than photographs. In my opinion this was a good choice as it more easily allows the reader to see small details in how they were built; these details are often lost when photographed. There are a few examples of their final creations which are photographed; the Chili’s example on p. 69 is particularly impressive.

Chili's Restaurant built out of LEGO

“Chili’s Restaurant – Cafe Corner modular building”

A large portion of the book is spent on step-by-step instructions for building two large buildings – one being a corner drugstore, and one being a home. The interesting part to me was that the last build is itself modular – the authors shows how the same base house can be transformed into a Parisian apartment, a Colonial Row House,and a Canal Ring House, merely by attaching different windows shutters, door frames, walkways and other elements to the front of the house.

Conclusion

This books does a great job of explaining the basics of modular LEGO neighborhood construction. It provides dozens of examples of details and techniques that transform what could be a lifeless building into one that appears lived in and part of a real time and place.

I have a few complaints about the book. One, I would have preferred if there were more text and meat to the book. Since it is comprised of so many pictures, it is a very fast read. I would love if there were interviews with other builders of this same style, particularly if they had different ideas than the two authors.

The second complaint is that the book does not make clear who its audience is. It mentions topics like SNOT (Studs not on top) but then doesn’t really explain how that technique works or how it could be used to good effect within these LEGO houses. This shows me that the authors expect their audience to be at least intermediate to advanced builders, which does not always match the tone and content of the rest of the book.

Book review: “The Art of LEGO Design: Creative Ways to Build Amazing Models”

September 22, 2014 Leave a comment

The Art of LEGO Design: Creative Ways to Build Amazing Models

by Jordan Schwartz

No Starch Press

http://www.nostarch.com/legodesign

The Art of LEGO Design cover

Disclaimer: I received a free review copy of the book from No Starch Press.

While there are many books that feature amazing works of art using LEGO as a medium, few delve into the techniques and thought processes used by the builders. Jordan Schwartz’s “The Art of LEGO Design” tackles this subject in a remarkably successful way. Mr. Schwartz’s background as a designer employed by LEGO make him an authority on the subject. His work has been featured in some of the books I alluded to, including Beautiful LEGO.

The book starts with the assumption that you will not be building enormous models like those featured in a LEGOLAND park, and that the standard size 2×4 bricks are far too large to use as the basis of your models. He shows how there are some tremendously versatile, smaller pieces that allow you to create amazingly intricate scenes, and illustrates the use of pieces in unconventional ways. A few examples spring to mind:

  • p. 25 (Minifigure chapter): by using a Technic ball rather than a minifigure’s head under a helmet, the head can be posed at many more angles than would otherwise be possible.
  • p. 60 (Patterns & Motifs chapter): by arranging so-called “cheese slopes” in various configurations, you can create amazing mosaics and stained glass windows using shapes and angles that are very different from the standard blocky LEGO mosaic; see for instance Katie Walker’s “Flower Petal Study”
  • p. 85 (Texture chapter): by turning rubber tires inside out, you get a much different look and feel, which in some cases is more appropriate for the era being modeled
  • p. 249 (Science fiction chapter): in “The Paradise Syndrome“, the designer Keith Goldman uses minifigure hands stuck through the holes in the plant pieces to form yellow flowers. It’s a beautiful technique and one I never would have thought of.

Another valuable section in the book is that of composition. LEGO is an interesting medium in which to work because of its dual nature. On the one hand it is a physical medium, having depth, volume, and weight. On the other hand, it is primarily presented to the audience through photography. As such you can use the tricks of photography and cinematography to create stunning scenes that wouldn’t actually work or hold up if viewed in person. There are two striking examples of this in this chapter.

The first is the use of perspective in “This Town Ain’t Big Enough for the Two of Us“, by Tyler Clites. The scene is built at different scales to suggest an enormous sense of depth. In the image we are looking through the legs of one figure and see a confident man ready to duel. The legs through which we view the scene are built at a large scale. The figure is a standard minifigure. A few studs behind him is a house that is rendered only three studs wide, suggesting instead that it is many hundreds of feet away. In the far distance are objects made of just a few pieces, showing mountains and other landmarks. It is a brilliant composition, and Mr. Schwartz’s analysis of the scene goes into more depth on things that aspiring builder should learn from it. I’ve since found that there are groups on Flickr devoted to this technique, such as “LEGO Forced Perspective“.

The second example is David and Goliath by Nick Vás, which positions the Goliath character closer to the camera in order to make him appear enormous compared to David. This technique was used in the original Lord of the Rings trilogy to make the hobbits appear tiny in some scenes; see TXFilmProfessor’s video for more details.

The “Art of LEGO Design” has some great practical advice for those looking to model creatures that exist in the real world – don’t start with the head or you’ll end up making the model far too large for minifigure scale. Conversely, for fantastical creatures that could exist at any scale like dragons, he recommends starting with the head before moving on to the rest of the body. He also shows clever ways of blending fabric elements from various LEGO sets in with the plastic bricks to create intriguing textures and styles. For instance, the model of Maleficent (p.147) uses capes to form the sides of the dragon’s mouth, and some sort of fabric for the wings. It’s a technique I would not have considered before reading this book.

The book covers some topics which I haven’t seen addressed before, namely how to create realistic (or fantastical) trees and foliage. He shows how one can interlock the prefabricated leaf pieces to form much lusher and more realistic trees, and how to use non-traditional pieces like Technic connectors and levers to form realistic trunks and branches.

I found this book a pleasure to read. The prose is well written, and the illustrations are of high quality and well chosen. The topics follow a logical progression from conception through implementation to photography and publicity. The interviews with various master builders are insightful and informative. If you are a fan of LEGO and aspire to improve your building skills, I cannot recommend this book highly enough.

“Beautiful LEGO” review – inspiring and beautiful

January 8, 2014 1 comment

Disclaimer: I received a free review copy from No Starch Press. The images I’m linking to do not come from the book itself; as I mention later in the review, the images in the book look better than the ones I am including in this review.

Beautiful LEGO Cover

Beautiful LEGO, by Mike Doyle, asks the question “Can LEGO be art?” Given that Mr. Doyle is himself a LEGO artist, it’s no surprise that the answer presented in the work is a resounding yes. If you’re looking for an in-depth discussion of the subject with academic criticism, look somewhere else. If you’re already a fan, this book is an incredible collection of artistic talent, and one I recommend without reservation.

Contents

The book is divided into various themed sections, punctuated by interviews with the artists. The sections include

  • Everyday Wonderful – Depicts everyday objects such as a Polaroid camera, the Nintendo Entertainment system, cameras, and telephones. These works are very realistic and not stylized.

  • Attic Treasures – Works by Matt Armstrong, in the same vein as Everyday Wonderful, but focused more on older technologies such as Morse code, sewing machines, and telescope.

  • CubeDudes™ – Angus Maclane creates famous characters and historical figures out of LEGO, with the heads at 45 degree angle (pointing towards you). These include Smokey the Bear, Abraham Lincoln, and Star Trek characters. Here we really start to see the art form come alive as more than just a representational medium. There is great style and care put into these small figures, instantly recognizable despite their size.

In all there are about 30 sections/interviews throughout the book. The usual suspects, such as cars, buildings, space ships, and mechs, are present, as well as less usual subjects, like Monty Python (Pythonscape) and mosaics.

Interviews

There are about 10 interviews with the artists, and they might be my favorite part of the book. The artists discuss how they got into using LEGO as an artistic medium as well as their design process.

Interview subjects include

  • Ramón and Amador Alfaro Marcilla – two brothers who work together to create incredible sci-fi works, such as the chest burster from the movie Alien (p. 9). They also have the honor of having the most disturbing picture in the whole book, The Doll (p. 5).
  • Jordan Schwartz – a professional LEGO designer working in Denmark.
  • Nathan Sawaya – a builder who creates life-size sculptures, and who has an art show called “The Art of the Brick”.
  • Mike Nieves – a builder who uses pieces I’ve never seen before, as well as using familar pieces in creative ways. For instance, Olaf the Bearded depicts a warrior with a long flowing beard. On closer inspection, the beard is an octopus figure.
  • Arthur Gugick – a creator of incredibly detailed architectural creations, such as Big Ben and Salisbury Cathedral.
  • Mike Doyle – the author of the book. Like Arthur Gugick, he creates large scale buildings. He is perhaps best known for his beautiful decaying Old Victorian mansions.
  • Nannan Zhang – very short interview, but Mr. Zhang creates some of the darker pieces in the book, such as End of Days.
  • Lino Martins – a builder best known for his series of car creations.
  • Ian Heath – creates human characters with lots of personality, like Freddy Mercury and Stephen Hawking.

My favorite quote is from Lino Martins, whose work “Hidden Treasure – 1949 Buick Fastback” is shown below:

Lino Martins' "Hidden Treasure - 1949 Buick Fastback"

One LEGO piece, while an engineering marvel, is not very exciting on its own, but bins of thousands of pieces – that’s stored kinetic potential. That is a million works of art waiting to be made. That is life. And in the hands of another LEGO artist, the very same pieces can become a million things I have never fathomed myself. It’s like being in art school all over again. Even without a signature, our styles are diverse enough that we can tell one artist’s work from another. (p. 186)

Styles

I thought this comment on styles was hyperbole, but as I looked through the book a few times, I realized that it’s not. I started to recognize artists that appeared in multiple sections of the book. For instance, Tyler Clites packs a ton of personality into small spaces. “Sometimes It Sucks To Be a Ghost” (p. 105), shows a ghost being sucked into a vacuum cleaner, with toys strewn about the floor. Without reading the artist’s name, I guessed that another work, “Grandpa! You better not be using my loofah again!” (p.92) was by the same author.

The styles and scale of composition vary tremendously among the artists. Mike Doyle, for instance, creates enormous, intricate, realistic decaying Old Victorian mansions
Mike Doyle's "Three Story Victorian with Tree"

Nathan Sawaya creates life size human sculptures, such as Frozen Figure (p. 48). Others create whimsical fantasy architecture on a medium scale, such a Sean and Steph Mayo’s Micro Fall’s Fortress (p. 142). MisaQa’s Little Town (p. 106-107) is even more microscopic.

At the most minimal level are Eric Constantino’s adorable Big Eyed LEGO Duck and Big Eyed LEGO Peacock, which are instantly recognizable yet weigh in at no more than a dozen pieces or so.

This book helped me appreciate the fact that there is real artistry and talent that goes into making very small scenes. It’s easy to appreciate the enormous scale of Nathan Sawaya and Mike Doyle’s work, but I am convinced that just as much skill goes into some of the smaller compositions featured in this book.

Quality

The production quality of this book is excellent. All of the pictures have had their backgrounds digitally erased and replaced with a pleasing gradient texture (look at the Mike Doyle pictures I linked to above to get a sense of what all the pictures look like). There are a few places where the photos submitted by the artist were clearly not high resolution enough to feature in the book, and they look very out of place. The two instances I found were “Mort” (p. 101) and “Pierre, Of Course” (p. 133). This is a minor nitpick of an otherwise excellent book. For some sample high-res images see MicroBots, or the page of horses.

Conclusion

I have read through this book about four times now, twice on my own, and twice with a 2- and 3-year-old on my lap. They would not let me put it down and were awe-struck on every page, oohing and awwing. As soon as I finished it once, they made me immediately start over again. It was wonderful to see such excitement and energy channeled towards these LEGO creations.

This book is a wonderful addition to my library, and I’m confident that anyone with a passing appreciation for LEGO will love it too.

Categories: LEGO Tags: , ,