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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.

Book Review: Unofficial LEGO Technic Builder’s Guide by Pawel “Sariel” Kmiec

December 3, 2012 Leave a comment

Unofficial LEGO Technic Builder’s Guide by Pawel “Sariel” Kmiec, published by No Starch Press.
Cover

Disclaimer: I received a free copy of this book to review from O’Reilly.

I have a deep and abiding love for all things LEGO. Growing up, I assembled a few Technic sets but never really tried to make any creations on my own with that system. I received a great set last Christmas, the well-loved 8421 crane model.

Crane Model

I enjoyed the process of assembling it tremendously, as it had great small details like working doors on the cab and a brilliant modular design. I was eager to review this book because Technic interests me but I know so little about it.

Bottom line up front – this is one of the best, most informative books I have read. It exceeded my expectations in its breadth and depth of topics covered and its effective use of illustrations. It is divided into five sections – basics, mechanics, motors, advanced mechanics, and modeling.

I did not expect such a thorough explanation of all the physic and mechanical engineering principles that are necessary to make working models. The first Basics section covers such concepts as speed, torque, power, friction, traction, and backlash. The author proceeds to cover more specific concepts related to vehicles, such as drive trains, front wheel versus rear wheel drive, turning radius, and center of gravity. I was familiar with some of these terms but not others (for instance, “Backlash describes the gaps between mating components, such as two gears”).

Only after exhaustively covering these basic mechanical principles does the author tackle Technic specific elements, such as pins, axle holes, units of measure in the LEGO system, important ratios (for instance, 3 plates = 1 brick in height), and the difference between beams and bricks (studless vs studfull). This section was very interesting to me as it gives precise names to pieces that are hard to describe otherwise.

The second section of the book covers mechanics, with an in depth looks at gears, chains and pulleys, levers and linkages, pneumatics, and reinforcing models to avoid being pulled apart by the stresses of the system. Almost all of these concepts were new to me, with the exception of gear ratios. The author introduces real world mechanical devices/techniques (such as the Chebyshev linkage), describes what they are used for (converting rotational motion into a straight line), and includes a fully realized Technic version of each system. Some of the systems are laid out in multiple steps, while others have just a single image of the completed structure. Still images allow you to get a sense of how the systems work, but the author also includes links to videos of some of the systems, which are much easier for me to understand.

Chebyshev

Chebyshev linkage figure

The third section of the book is an exhaustive look at all of the LEGO motors and their stats (torque + speed), as well as examples of what each is particularly well suited for (or not, as he has clear disdain for some of the models).

Advanced mechanics covers steering, suspensions, tracked vehicles, transmissions, and the use of adders and subtractors. I found this section particularly interesting because I’ve never bothered to take the time to understand how a real world car works. After reading through the explanations and mentally visualizing how the gears would turn in each example, I have a much better understanding of what happens when gears shift in a car, or how suspensions help to keep vehicles in contact with the ground (not just to provide a smoother ride and act as shock absorbers, which I erroneously thought).

The book concludes with a section on creating models, and the tradeoffs involved with using Technic to mimic real life objects. There is a natural trade off between form vs function, and the author encourages prospective builders to decide which one they’re willing to sacrifice before beginning to build. He discusses how to use blueprints to determine at which scale the model should be built, based on the fact that certain Technic elements are only available in a small range of sizes. For instance, if you’re modeling a car, you are limited by the size of the wheels – you could not build a 1/4 scale model, for instance, with off the shelf Technic components.

Conclusion

As I said up front, this book blew me away with the amount of technical details it presented in a clear, easy to comprehend format. I found the figures in the book absolutely crucial to my understanding; I estimate that there are at least 200 such figures. Some are photographs (usually of his finished creations), but most are high quality 3D renders. The author makes consistent use of color throughout a section, and details what the color scheme means (for instance, a red axle might always be the one that is connected to the motor, while a green one is on the output side of the equation). My one nitpick is that it’s very hard to make out some of the figures on a monochrome display (i.e. the Kindle), but I was able to consult the beautiful PDF version if I needed clarification.

This could have been a dry textbook, but instead it’s fun and eminently readable. The author’s quirky sense of humor manifests itself in some of the photographs, in which a hamster appears, ostensibly for scale. I’m inspired to try my hand at building my own Technic creations, and that’s about the highest compliment I can pay this book.