My next guest is from the post-LUGNET generation, a college-age wunderkind with a penchant for the machines of war. Carter Baldwin is an accomplished builder, collaborator and veteran of the American convention circuit who has inspired a legion of younger builders with his innovative designs. I sat down with Carter at Pat’s King of Steaks restaurant in Carter’s home town of Philadelphia at 3am PST. We talked about wine, women and song. We also talked about LEGO.
KG: I’ve read a few older builders grousing about how all the fancy new parts take all the skill and fun out of building. React to that attitude or to old cranky builders in general.
CB: I actually haven’t seen this attitude too much within the AFOL community, but I see it constantly whenever a build leaks out onto the wider internet. Invariably, there will be the ‘this is cheating, in my day we only had 2×4 bricks in three colors, and we liked it that way! there’s no creativity anymore!’ I hate that attitude. Tim Gould made an excellent graphic of all the one-use specialized parts that were available in 1980, but I can never track it down quickly enough to avoid remembering that arguing with internet strangers is a pyrrhic endeavor at best.
I’d agree that the ’90s saw a proliferation of useless parts that lead to the well documented juniorization of sets, but the past decade has been a bonanza of amazing new parts. In particular we’re seeing a lot more excellent small parts, which really boosts the fine grain detail that’s now possible. We’re seeing a lot less of the pixelation that used to define Lego builds. Fans of Lego who haven’t picked up a brick in a couple decades can’t deal with that, but I haven’t heard any actually active builders complaining.
KG: How important is it when designing a model that you employ a new technique? Does the want to use a specific technique ever drive a model? if so can you give an example.
CB: It’s become less important to me over time. When I first entered the internet community I tried to do that with every build, do something that hadn’t been tried before, or at least do it better than I’d seen it.
I think now I build shapes rather than techniques. I have enough of a library of tricks that I don’t have to worry too much about how to achieve a connection, but forcing all those connections to form the shape I want is the new challenge. My Golem Hardsuit would be a good example; I knew the shapes I wanted to achieve; the techniques I came up with to get there weren’t particularly exciting or novel.
KG: You recently took part in a popular and imitated Flickr Group called called World In Confict:2070. Describe this group to our readers and your experience as a participant of the group?
CB: World in Conflict started about two and a half years ago as a general repository for the various unconnected faction sorts of things that a bunch of us had floating around at the time – my own NATO faction, Craig’s South American Coalition, Forest’s amoral PMCs, Dane’s biomechanical atrocities, and others. We certainly didn’t start the trend of faction building – NickDean is probably the best known originator, but I’m pretty sure people have been building private armies for as long as Lego has had greyscale bricks.
Once we had all these factions under one roof, naturally the next step was to slug it out. We developed a complex ad hoc system that was part model UN, part wargaming, and part tabletop-style roleplaying and carved out a cyberpunk storyline that meshed with our collective vision for our imaginary universe. Since this was a long-term and long-distance group, we couldn’t simply play BrikWars in order to determine tactical prowess; instead, we built scenes to depict our movements on a more strategic scale.
As much fun as we had with slaughtering the other sides cannon fodder and blowing up tanks/bunkers/cities, the really interesting thing that came out of the game was the storytelling. Due to the interest in the stories of the scenes we built, we created a public group for others to follow the WiC narrative, and I think it’s the persistent narrative of the game universe that inspired a number of similar groups.
World in Conflict is two years old now and starting to show signs of winding down – while the game has always had lulls in activity between spikes of conflict, this latest hiatus has been particularly stubborn and long-lasting. But fans who have been watching the storyline don’t need to worry; there are plans to end at least the current incarnation of WiC with a proper finish.
KG: What do you make of the small but alarming trend of cos-playing at LEGO fan conventions. Can any good come of it? Is it too late to contain the infection or is radical surgery the only answer?
CB: I never thought I’d be saying this, but so long as the community maintains the self-aware humor that leads to Master Chief bodyslamming 6-foot cylindrical sculpture-y things, I’ll be okay with the occasional cosplayer. Just keep the furries out. We have enough weirdos at conventions without their kind.
KG: Convention related collaborations are enjoying a surge in popularity. Speaking from the perspective of a builder who has lead such an effort, what are the challenges and rewards?
CB: Collaborative displays are immensely fun. I’ve always wanted to build huge displays – you don’t need the ego inflation, but it’s likely a direct result of seeing your megabuilds in my formative years. Of course, I don’t have the budget or the brick to build the massive displays that will make The Goldman feel inadequate, so the next best solution is to steal other people’s collections. Making those people build your vision for you is even better.
The most fun I have with it is right after completing a display, and brainstorming up the ideas for next year. Just about everything after that is a horrible slog through the seven phases of being a coordinator for 15-20 people who are all trying to make a cohesive display in a limited amount of time. The first six months are procrastination, followed by lack of motivation, normal laziness, builders block, compromising the ideas you had with the reality of having only two months left to build, panic as the deadline closes in, and finally acceptance that it’s not going to look quite like you imagined it. The past two years we’ve done a considerable amount of building on the convention hall floor at BrickFair. I’m trying to avoid that this year.
Of course, it’s enjoyable enough that I’ve coordinated displays for the past 4 years, and we’re planning an even more ambitious project for the 2013 convention season. Being in charge and watching people create your vision, but even better than you’d conceived of, is its own kind of rush, and I’m not willing to give up my dictatorship quite yet.
KG: You’ve been blogged a dozen times by TBB. Describe the effect on your numbers and is it something you think about / hope for when building a model? Do we place too much emphasis on this blog as an arbiter of taste?
CB: Getting blogged is always nice. Everyone enjoys validation, and it’s neat to see what has popular appeal. It’s been interesting to see that TBB almost never blog scenes, pretty much only MOCs, even though scenes are becoming an increasingly common style in the community. I’ve definitely had moments where builds I thought were sure to get blogged didn’t, and conversely things that I thought would never get blogged were picked up immediately.
What’s most impressive to me is the number of views that are a direct result of getting blogged – there are a crazy number of people whose sole interface with the community is through TBB.
KG: The present seems to be all about movie franchises, look into your crystal ball and prophesize three movies we’ll see as sets down the road.
CB: I’m looking forward to the Game of Thrones line. Flayed minifigs, heads on spikes, genital-eating goats, all that. Maybe now that the Alien franchise is back in the form of Prometheus, we’ll see some official Xenomorphs. That curved head is hard to achieve at minifig scale; it’d be great to have a specialized piece for it.
Honestly, I’d love to see Lego revisit the Avatar universe, after their underwhelming foray there with the original show. Now that Legend of Korra is on TV and immensely popular, it’d be great to have a proper line of sets.
KG: Has the popularity of the hobby peaked yet, and if not, then when? What do you think of all this expansion?
CB: Every pop-culture phenomenon has peaks and troughs, but I think Lego is going to be ascendant for a while yet. All the adults who played with Lego as a kid are rediscovering the hobby through the internet, and even if some of them bitch about ‘specialized parts’, the majority seem pretty enthusiastic about the builds coming out of the community.
The other side of that is the TFOLs being introduced to the fan community at a young age, and posting their builds online right away without spending a couple years honing their abilities outside the public eye. I’m tremendously glad that I didn’t try to post anything of mine on the internet as a youngster; the stuff from the beginning of my flickr account is cringeworthy enough.
I definitely think the majority of these youngsters will be weeded out by the aggressive social Darwinism of the internet community, but those who survive the thunderdome will come out stronger for it. Knowing that there are 14-year-olds out there that are miles better than I was at their age is both intimidating and cause for hope for the future of the community.
KG: Do you think the model-presentation video will ever truly replace the static photograph? What do you think of using video, and have you seen a good one?
Using video for presentation coincided pretty nicely with all the power functions builds that have been popping up. It’s always fun watching a motorized tank clear tiny, insubstantial barriers. As to the best video I’ve seen, I think Mahjqa has perfected the art pretty well; this is my favorite of his. Of course, video will never replace classic still pictures – though I’m sure people said the same about horseless carriages. I think static pictures offer a better chance to actually appreciate the build, rather than just what the build does.
5 Boilerplate Questions:
KG: If you had to select just one of your models for enshrinement in the great FOL Time-Capsule, which would it be and why
KG: If you could call the shots and design an official set, what would it be?
CB: Forget just one set. If I’m calling the shots, you better believe I’ll make it an entire line. I don’t know exactly what it’d be, but most likely some sort of cyberpunk dystopian hellscape that’s flagrantly unsuited for Lego’s target market. Hire me!
KG: If time, money and proximity were not an issue, give me 2 builders besides me that you’d like to collaborate with on a project?
CB: Definitely Soren, though even with the starting conditions you gave me I’m not sure I could tempt him down from his mountaintop hermitage in Malaysia to take part in a collab. I’d also love to collaborate with Dasnewten. He builds good spaceships. Honestly, the biggest advantage of running massive collaborative projects is that I’ve spent the last few years collaborating with a wide variety of my favorite FOLs.
KG: Name a famous person living or dead who would have made great LEGO-nerd.
CB: I feel like Colbert has all the necessary ingredients to be a proper Lego geek, aside from ample free time.
KG: Who controls the action?
CB: Everyone does! Nah, joking, it’s definitely me.