Builder spotlight: Aaron Newman and his alternate LEGO Castle universe

Set 64044 Ardun Observatory is part of the new wave called Mythic Machines in the Dragon Lands theme, and features a semi-circle three-tiered castle with astronomical equipment in the tower. Arrayed around it are the forces of evil, orc-like creatures with a battering ram, small catapult, and a fearsome red dragon. Play features include hidden passageways, spring-loaded catapults, a working drawbridge and portcullis, and breakaway walls.

Not familiar with LEGO set 64044? That’s because you can’t buy this set from the LEGO company, or anywhere else — it comes from the mind of Aaron Newman.

64044 Ardun Observatory

64044 Ardun Observatory by Aaron Newman

Aaron Newman doesn’t simply look at his LEGO collection and wonder what he can create; instead he looks at his bricks and asks, “What if LEGO sold different sets?” A 21-year-old UCLA theater student, Aaron’s got a knack for designing LEGO creations to fill his own alternate universe where LEGO produces the sets he’d like to see. And he’s got a fantastic sense of style. Aaron’s models center around a castle theme called Dragon Lands, which is a hybrid of LEGO’s official Vikings and Fantasy-Era Castle lines. He creates sub-themes to mimic LEGO’s habit of releasing sets in waves, and includes a set designed for each price point. His latest sub-theme, titled Dragon Lands: Mythic Machines, features crude orc siege machinery pitted against dwarven and elven strongholds. And, of course, there are lots of dragons, because no Castle theme is complete without them.

I recently had the opportunity speak with Aaron about his unique style and learn a bit about how he designs fan creations that look like sets.

Dragon Lands Wave 4

Dragon Lands: Mythic Machines

The Brothers Brick: Tell us about your history with LEGO? How long have you been a fan?
Aaron Newman: I’ve been a fan of the brand for as long as I can remember — really, I’ve been building since I’ve had fine motor skills. It was something my brothers and I did together, in my childhood. I guess I’m the one who stuck it out this long!

Uhuraz 3

Aaron Newman’s “Uhuraz”

The advent of Bionicle in 2001 was a big milestone on the timeline of my LEGO fandom, both because it was a favorite theme for about ten years, and because through Bionicle I discovered the online LEGO community. I joined BZPower [a Bionicle fan site] in 2008, and since then I’ve integrated myself into that community and others. The online aspect of LEGO fandom definitely helps keep me engaged with the hobby. There’s even a certain social-media addiction that goes along with checking how many “favorites” a photo of mine gets on Flickr — that keeps my involvement pretty immediate, too!

The way I interface with LEGO has definitely evolved over the years. While I used to buy sets for the finished models, or for the play value, I now buy products for their component pieces (or just use Bricklink!). These days I’m pretty much a dedicated fantasy MOCer, on top of being a general brand enthusiast.

64036 Sorcerer's Gully

64036 Sorcerer’s Gully by Aaron Newman

TBB: Your Dragon Lands creations are in the style of official sets. Most fans actively seek to create a unique style that’s different from what’s found in official sets. What drew you to creating models that look like sets?
AN: I think there are three main reasons behind my MOCing style. First, I have great memories of collecting LEGO sets from when I was younger, so the idea of creating my own “theme” appeals to me in a nostalgic respect. Every time I design a theme, I’m building the theme that would’ve been my younger self’s favorite one! Second, I enjoy building play features and functions, which I’ve always thought had more of a raison d’etre in a “LEGO product” context. Function determines form and, since I can have difficulty coming up with original shapes/forms from thin air, I like having a function in mind to stretch my ideas, so designing sets lends itself to that. Third, by designing my creations like parts of a theme, I actually have more motivation to MOC. If I’ve set myself a goal of, say, 8 sets, I’ll go crazy if I didn’t finish them!

64019 Siege of Issiad

64019 Siege of Issiad by Aaron Newman

TBB: Which construction techniques do you gravitate toward, and which do you avoid in order to maintain this style?
AN: I always build my creations to be as stable as possible — that’s a huge thing. My rule of thumb is: if you can’t pick up the thing and swoosh it, or transport it, or whatever, then it doesn’t have the same feel as a LEGO product, and so isn’t the kind of MOC I’m interested in. I tend to really like using SNOT, because it allows for complex shapes while maintaining structural soundness. I like trying to blend CCBS [Character and Creature Building System] and System on my dragons. For obvious reasons, I never use “illegal connections.”

64034 Faerie Outpost

Aaron Newman’s 64034 Faerie Outpost

Color schemes are very important to me when I’m building. Models shouldn’t be too bright or dark, too contrasting or monochromatic. I try to break up large color blocks with texture, and appreciate implementing a certain color vocabulary in each set (e.g. greys are rocks, tans are the stonework, browns are wood, etc.). I like to make each set colorful and appealing both by itself and next to its peers. Beyond color, unity can be — I think, should be — achieved across a model using visual motifs, like a lot of the same lantern on a building or the same spines on a dragon; however, too much unity is boring. It’s a balance that I’m always keeping my eye on when I build.

64034 Modules

64034 Faerie Outpost splits into modules and can be rearranged

When I construct large structures, modularity is almost always something I shoot for, since TLG designers do the same thing with their sets; plus, if a castle is re-arrangeable and modular, there’s another play feature! Beyond this, I think sets need to have multiple models, in most cases, especially if they’re on the larger end of the spectrum. I find it boring to have one set = one model; even if the opposition only gets a little crossbow, or a spring-loaded Spell Launcher, something’s always better than nothing.

64044 Modules

64044 Ardun Observatory is also modular, allowing for multiple configurations

TBB: In what ways do you take inspiration from official LEGO sets?
AN: Even though they don’t stay together long after I get them, I always build my LEGO sets, because a) it’s fun, and b) I learn building tricks from doing so. As a fellow “set builder,” I really feel like I’m getting in someone else’s head when I read LEGO instructions, seeing what choices a product designer makes in terms of function, color, and shape. I think the people LEGO hires usually do very good work. When they think of something I wouldn’t have, I take mental note of it, and definitely try and play around with that technique or concept in the future.

64041 Vault

64041 Vault features a dwarven safe carved from stone

In general, I’m always keeping an eye on TLG’s lines of products to see how they differentiate sets within a wave. What sizes do their products usually come in? How many minifigures per set, depending on price? What sorts of models do they release together? I definitely draw major inspiration for my MOC photos and descriptions from stuff on the; that’s what I’m trying to emulate in my presentation. I love it when people tell me they mistook my MOCs for actual sets at first — it means I’m hitting the look on the head.

TBB: Many of your models include extensive play features, and you often create videos showcasing them. Where do you draw your inspiration for the play features?

64019 Trebuchet

64019 Siege of Issiad includes a functional trebuchet

AN: Most times, when I integrate a play feature into a structure, I have that feature in mind from the get-go. Other times, I’ll think to myself, “Well, you’ve got this space that isn’t really being used, it’s sort of dead space, is there a feature you can put there?” Often, I’m inspired to replicate or tweak features that TLG has introduced to me, like trap doors, rock droppers, spring launchers, winches, etc.; other times the function comes from another toy or machine I like, like the floating arm trebuchet I designed in 64019 Siege of Issiad. I’m always thinking about how to expand my arsenal of play feature ideas.

64037 Back

64037 Wolf Chariot Chopper features spinning blades when the cart moves

TBB: Do you play with the features after you’ve finished the model?
AN: More often, I play with them as I’m working on the model! It’s important to me that the functions work well consistently, and so I’m always testing them and tweaking bits here and there while a model is coming together.

TBB: How did you develop the concept for the Dragon Lands theme?
AN: Four years ago, I was toying around with LEGO Knight’s Kingdom parts and was struck by the idea to build a flexible dragon out of them. One dragon turned to several, and soon enough I wanted to make MOCs to go with them. I built a prototypical version of what now goes by “Dragon Lands” back in 2011. Some years later, I was searching for a new project. I combed back through the 2011 stuff and saw several models I wanted to remake, but better. I decided to “reboot” the 2011 theme out of that desire.

64043 Echegob Side

64043 Dwarf Workshop’s Echegob dragon by Aaron Newman

So, I built a first wave of 10 “products,” setting half the wave in the scorching Essoni Desert (creating a theme, I’ve had to come up with dozens of fantasy names for characters, locations, etc.) and the other half in the Kingdom of Ardun in winter. I made up a fun, vague little backstory for my theme, which has only deepened as I’ve kept working on Dragon Lands. There are recurring factors like characters, items, and places. The more I build for this world, the more I get to know it and understand what kind of tone I want it to have.

I had a tremendous time developing the first wave of Dragon Lands, and got some fantastic response to the project, so I decided to do another. And another. And another . . . right now, I’m beginning to develop a fifth wave of Dragon Lands. I like to give every wave its own scheme, so to speak, like LEGO does. Wave 1 was an introduction; Wave 2 had zombies; Wave 3 was a flashback wave, “the Faerie Wars;” Wave 4 was both about divination and about machinery, hence its subtitle, “Mythic Machines.” No word yet on what Wave 5 is gonna be called, but I’m currently envisioning something industrial.

Dragon Lands: The Faerie Wars

Dragon Lands: The Faerie Wars

64032 Figures

The minifigs from 64032 Frost Dragon

TBB: How do you plan a lineup of sets?
AN: I start by making or revamping my cast of characters . . . At the time of writing, Wave 5 is in this “minifig stage.” I toy around with new combinations and accessories, and from that begin to imagine what the general conceit of the wave might be. The minifigs guide me, and then the dragons guide me. I’ll build a few new dragons shortly after I’ve assembled enough minifigs – and these can take a while, since I like to get them just right!

Once the dragons and figs are done, I’ll sit around with them for a bit, rearranging characters here and there and seeing who goes well together, who do I want to be enemies, how many figures am I grouping, what dragons are ridden by whom, what kind of sets have I made in the past, what kind of models do I envision for this wave… It’s an enormously fun step, full of possibilities! These questions all rattle around at once, and guide me to make eight tentative fig-and-dragon groupings of different sizes. I’ll have a loose idea of what kind of set I’ll build for each grouping, and then I get to work on the main models.

Generally, I build my waves from smallest to largest, always tweaking things here or there. As I go, characters swap, dragons swap, main models and ideas change… It’s really pretty much all up in the air a lot of the time, until I hit on something that I can look at together and feel is complete enough to share online, and of a suitable imaginary price point. For the combiner sets (e.g. 64034 Faerie Outpost and 64036 Sorcerer’s Gully), I design them at the same time, to make sure they’re compatible with one another, but otherwise each set has its own process.

64034 Faerie Outpost and 64036 Sorcerer's Gully

Combining 64034 Faerie Outpost and 64036 Sorcerer’s Gully creates a larger castle

TBB: What is your build process like?
AN: It depends. There are very few MOCs I’ve gone into with an actual plan… the only one where I felt the need to get seriously logistical was my Minas Tirith from a few years ago, since that required a lot of Bricklink ordering. That one, I drew a little blueprint for, and did some paper calculation to figure out what I needed to order. But in that case, I was trying to create something to look like a preexisting structure, which isn’t normally a constraint I operate under — I prefer to let the way my creations shape up happen more organically. I find it more exciting.

I always build by hand; LDD isn’t a tool I’m good with, and I also think there are traps to it, like the temptation to wash out a model in too few colors, or to build unstably. You can’t feel a model’s structure when you build on the computer, nor can you fiddle with any functions you’re building in, to test them as you’re figuring them out. I much prefer the feel of physical bricks, anyway, and feel like the parts I come across first in my bins (sorted by either color or piece type) can affect my finished designs in ways I couldn’t have imagined just by referring to a catalog of pieces at the forefront of my brain.

I also think that the smaller a model is, the more ingenious it needs to be to pull off whatever effect I have in mind. In a larger model, the size makes it easier to cover mistakes or inefficiencies. So I tend to fiddle off and on a lot more on my smaller stuff, and actually work for shorter amounts of time, in most cases, on bigger things.

64043 Dwarf Workshop

64043 Dwarf Workshop by Aaron Newman

TBB: Tell us about a time a model didn’t turn out the way you expected.
AN: This actually occurs almost all the time. One of the only MOCs I’ve ever made which came out looking almost exactly the way I first imagined it is 64030 Rock Golem from the third Dragon Lands wave.

A prominent (or, at least, recent) instance when a model turned out especially far from how I expected is 64043 Dwarf Workshop. I built 64043 last of the wave; I kept putting it off, because I didn’t have a plan. I had my group of figures mostly assembled, I had the dragon completed, and I knew I wanted to make something around the elevator, which I’d already built. I had originally loosely envisioned some kind of tower bridge, or something. The idea to make it an elevator into the earth, rather than up anything, was what finally got me working on the concept. Most of the elevator module actually occurred in one sitting.

I had, and tossed, the concept of making a re-arrangeable modular workshop when I finished that structure, since it wouldn’t connect to anything the way I’d designed it. The idea to have a second, smaller rock that could be “drilled” into rose as soon as I’d built the drill (which happened after the elevator model), but the rest of that structure was up in the air for the longest time. I played around with the concept of chutes a lot, but it didn’t make sense to me why they’d exist there, so I sort of scrapped them for a while. It was the concept of a secret chute that finally got me to go for it, and make the splitting tree up above. I loved that both modules subsequently had sections at “ground level,” that was a happy coincidence I hadn’t imagined happening until then.

The tool bench/spell launcher went through several iterations, and the flying backpack took me a while to get right enough to photograph- I’m still not entirely happy with that part of the set.

64042 Ustokal War Wagon

64042 Ustokal War Wagon by Aaron Newman

TBB: What advice do you have for fellow builders?
AN: 1) If you’re still a floor builder, get yourself a table. Does wonders for your lumbar spine.
2) Sort your bricks! It’ may take a while, but it’ll make finding parts so much easier down the line. It’s made me a much more prolific builder.
3) . . . But don’t sort your bricks too obsessively. It’s the surprises in your “steampunk bin” (I have one of these) that get you to see and use parts differently.
4) Research photography techniques, and maybe invest in some better equipment if you’re able. People take your MOCs more seriously if they’re photographed well, which isn’t fair, but I see it happen all the time.

TBB: Thank you so much for talking with us.
AN: Thanks for having me!

64028 Dynamic

64028 Zuvog’s Warship by Aaron Newman

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