Tag Archives: Opinion

How to get blogged on The Brothers Brick, in 3 easy steps [Editorial]

The Brothers Brick vignetteOne of the most frequently asked questions we get here at The Brothers Brick is how to get your LEGO creation featured on the blog. We’ve answered this tangentially with Linus’s LEGO is communication series and Tim’s blogging standards, but I thought it was time we helped all of you out there understand a bit better what makes a LEGO creation “blogworthy” to us.

Now, in three easy steps, here’s how to get blogged on The Brothers Brick…

Step 1: Build something awesome

Arvo's LEGO ChestbursterAwesome is a fairly subjective word, but it’s a good word to encompass all the different types of cool LEGO creations we like to blog. Several factors can influence how awesome a LEGO creation is:

A few LEGO creations combine several of these factors to achieve a truly unique mashup, like these awesome examples:

Step 2: Take good pictures of your LEGO creation.

LEGO photography is hard. You can’t just use your mom’s low-resolution camera phone to take pictures of your MOC on your computer desk. Putting some effort into your LEGO photography will highlight your creations to their best advantage, and help get them noticed.

  • The right things in focus: If you’re taking a picture of a minifig, the minifig should be in focus. If you’re taking a picture of a diorama, the foreground (or whole scene) should be in focus. For close-up shots, make sure you turn on your camera’s macro setting.
  • Good lighting: A well-lit LEGO creation shows off all its great colors and intricate details.

    One Stormy Night in October by Alex Eylar on MOCPagesNatural daylight is perfect, though diffused daylight is even better. A full-spectrum fluorescent bulb can stand in for daylight, but they can be expensive and hard to find. If you’re like me and you live somewhere that gets 55 days of sunshine in a year, a combination of “warm” incandescent and “cool” fluorescent lighting can work.

    Very low or focused lighting can also complement a LEGO creation, giving it a cinematic feel, as Alex Eylar demonstrated in One stormy night.

  • Neutral or appropriate background: Take a look at the LEGO creations we blog. One thing you probably won’t notice is their background. Neutral backgrounds don’t distract from the LEGO creation. Many builders use a large piece of card stock paper, while others achieve some interesting effects with bedsheets or blankets.
  • Complementary or immersive camera angle: Take at least one vehicle photo from a three-quarters angle that showcases the top, front, and one side. For LEGO creations that depict a scene, like dioramas and vignettes, take photos from a “minifig’s-eye-view.” Bonus points for having minifigs looking into the camera.

If you don’t have a good camera or you live somewhere that doesn’t have good natural light, you can still make your LEGO photos presentable by post-processing the images through software like Adobe Photoshop, GIMP (free), and even the photo management suite that came with your computer. More specifically, you can improve the colors and exposure, enhance the contrast, and sharpen the focus a little bit.

Apocalypsis by Mark Kelso on MOCpagesOnce you’re familiar with these programs, you can even use them to combine elements from multiple photographs to create a single cohesive whole — a process called compositing. Mark Kelso used this technique for many of the images in his Apocalpysis: A Journey Inward (right).

There are a number of excellent resources in the LEGO fan community about improving your presentation skills:

Step 3: Help us find your LEGO creation.

If you want others to see your LEGO creations (and get them blogged here), there’s no point in hiding them away somewhere nobody will find them. Gone are the days of firing up a free Geocities home page, hand-coding a bunch of HTML pages, and waiting for people to find you when they search Alta Vista in their Netscape browsers. Seriously, personal websites are a thing of the past.

Instead, we recommend that you upload your LEGO creations to one of several specific photo-sharing sites active today:

  • Screen shot of MOCpages.comMOCpages: A dedicated (LEGO-only) photo sharing site maintained by LEGO Certified Professional Sean Kenney. Identify and befriend your favorite builders, get comments on your creations, and receive e-mail alerts when one of your favorite builders posts a new LEGO creation. The best LEGO photo sharing site on the Web today.
  • Flickr: A general (non-LEGO) photo-sharing community site owned and operated by Yahoo! With groups, tagging, contact management, and syndication (RSS and Atom feeds for just about everything), Flickr enables LEGO fans to stay connected and have a fairly LEGO-specific experience on an otherwise non-LEGO site. A free account is limited to 200 photos, while a Pro account costs 25 USD a year.
  • Brickshelf: The original LEGO image hosting site. The site lacks many features of the modern Web (such as feeds and support for apostrophes), and experienced a major outage in 2007 that caused a mass exodus to other image-hosting and photo-sharing sites. Lack of updates and intermittent minor outages since then make the future of this site unclear. Still, many builders choose to post their LEGO photos only on Brickshelf and many LEGO fans continue to check Brickshelf for new and updated creations.

Yes, we know that there are a whole bunch of other LEGO and non-LEGO photo sites on the Web. Given how much time we already spend finding the best LEGO creations to feature for our readers, we just don’t have the time to pay attention to sites like Photobucket, MOCshow, and YouBrick. If you run one of these sites, it’s truly nothing personal.

Once you’ve uploaded your photos, you can do a few more things to help us find them more easily:

  • Tag the photo “LEGO” (Flickr): Tagging your photo adds keywords that help us find it. The most important tag for a LEGO creation is, naturally, “LEGO”. You can also add other relevant keywords, including foitsop for your main “announcement” photo.
  • Add one or more Brothers Brick contributors as contacts (MOCpages & Flickr): Many of us rely on notifications and feeds from our contacts to know when they’ve uploaded something new. By adding us as a contact, we’ll take a look at your LEGO creations and might add you back.
  • Screen shot of LEGO group pool on FlickrAdd the photo to the LEGO pool (Flickr):
    The LEGO group pool on Flickr is one of the primary places where I personally look for new LEGO creations from previously undiscovered builders.
  • Use meaningful folder and file names (Brickshelf) or photo titles (Flickr): A series of DSC_0119.jpg photos in your Brickshelf folder or Flickr photostream doesn’t tell us anything about the creation, and it’s hard to tell which is your main “announcement” photo — the one we should blog.
  • When all else fails, send us a link: If you’ve built something that you really think is good enough to be highlighted on The Brothers Brick, you’ve done everything we’ve suggested here, and we still seem to have missed it, you just might be right. You can use the Contact Us page to send us a link to your LEGO creation. We get a lot of suggestions, so we can’t always reply individually, but we’ll try.

Conclusion

Okay, so not quite as easy as 1-2-3. ;-) Still:

  1. Build something cool.
  2. Take a few decent pictures.
  3. Put them somewhere we’ll find them.

…and you’ll be in pretty good shape to get yourself blogged on The Brothers Brick.

Questions? Ask away in the comments.

Breaking even: sustaining your LEGO-building hobby through selling on Bricklink [Essay]

LEGO is expensive; we all know it. For us builders, we always need more bricks to complete that big project sitting on our desk or in the back of our minds. More bricks cost more money, and that’s where the problem comes in. Luckily, we builders have an extremely valuable asset that only a few have begun to exploit. For the first time in the building community, I will show you the benefits of opening your own Bricklink store, turning that once cash-consumptive marketplace on its head to bring you a dependable supply of money and free bricks.

So what’s the trick? Sell minifigs. What if I told you that since December of just a month ago I’ve a grossed a revenue of $1,500? Would that be enough for you to buy every set on your holiday wish list and finally get the parts to complete those half-finished creations growing cobwebs on your desk? I would think so. I have operated a Bricklink store for a bit over a year now, and I have acquired the experience to confidently say to you that “yes, you could maintain your LEGO hobby at zero cost.”

Let’s get started. First and foremost, you are a builder who is interested in the noble effort of funding for your expensive hobby. If you’re not the aforementioned type, things could go very differently for you at suboptimal outcomes. Now that we’ve established our common grounds, you will need to let go of your sentiments for minifigures. See them as the livestock you must consume to fight off starvation. You can choose to remain a peaceful vegetarian, or you can start eating meat.

Why minifigs? Because they sell high and are easy and cheap to ship. Plus, you don’t need them to build a castle wall or the hull of a spaceship. Here are two enticing examples from my recent sales. 1). I purchased about 40 new 2009 Star Wars Battle Packs at $10 each, sold nearly all of the minifigures, made a $200 profit and kept all the bricks and accessories for free. 2). I also bought Count Dooku’s Solar Sailer for $50 (after coupons), had fun writing a review, and then sold the Count for $37 and put up the Magna Droids for sale at $10 each. In the end, you can see that I’m easily making a profit while keeping all the parts from sets for free.

At first, it’s hard to believe why minifigs fetch such high values, but if you think about it, it makes sense. In addition to the builders, there are also collectors – people who want to own their favorite minifigs but don’t want the building blocks. Thus, why should they buy whole sets when they can get the figs individually? Plus, LEGO costs a whole lot more outside the States as most of us know; thus buying minifigs makes perfect sense to collectors.

To start your Bricklink store, dig up your pre-existing minifigs and find their market values on Bricklink through the price guide for each fig. It is highly worthwhile to sell Star Wars figs and almost useless to sell your non-franchised Exo-Force or Power Miner dudes (Indiana Jones falls in between).

Next, and this is important, list your minifigs at the lowest prices! There is no shortage of competition on Bricklink from large scale sellers. If you don’t beat their prices, why should anyone buy from a small store like yours or mine? But do not despair, even at the lowest prices, your Darth Vader will still make you over ten bucks richer and Yoda can buy you a medium sized set. So how low should you go? Here’s what I learned from over the months: note the lowest sale price in the US (provided you live in the States), then note the quantity available and the store’s feedback count. If both are low, then you can price your minifig at near that price, but if both are high, you should start by pricing your fig at 50 cents cheaper. At the same time, you need to take concern the popularity of the minifig. Check the number of times the fig was sold recently; the lower the quantity sold, the cheaper you must go to tempt buyers to buy your unpopular figure.

Shipping – it’s not as hard as you think and definitely cheaper than you’d imagine. Minifigs ship in tiny bubble mailers, which cost you a little over $1 to ship in the US and around $2 to ship internationally. You can buy the smallest bubble envelopes from Walmart at $4.44 per 10-pack. However, I recommend buying 100 from Amazon for $16. When it comes to charging your customer, you will not receive complaints if you start your shipping rates at $2 for domestic and $3 for international orders. Find that balance and you’ll end up actually making a profit on shipping that will compensate for your 3% Paypal and 3% Bricklink fees.

Fortunately, time is not an issue. As a minifig seller, it takes no time to package an order of just a few figs in contrast to an order of hundreds of parts. And since you’re already sorting your pieces as a builder, taking out the minifigs from sets should be no problem. However, the largest time consuming factor is shipping; you must be willing to make trips to the post office unless you are adept with shipping from home.

Last and most importantly: be aggressive in buying sets to supply your inventory. Once you target a set with minifigs that sell well; don’t hesitate to get it. The worst that can happen is you end up selling the minifigs but still fall $20 short to fully pay off your 1000-piece set (for example the Republic Gunship around the time of its release). But “oh my god,” $20 for 1000 pieces, what a bummer!

There is one major caution to be on the lookout for. Minifig prices dip fast and then rise fast once the set is out of production. Thus, you should strive to be among the first to sell a minifig from a new set (that’s when no one in the world has it and everyone wants it). Once people have gotten their hands on new sets, prices for new minifigs drop significantly by up to 50%. If you have not sold your figs yet, you may consider holding onto them until the set goes out of production in a year or two (and that’s risking re-releases of the same minifig). Unless you’re very patient, your biggest bet is to sell fast, or you’ll send up selling low.

These should be the basics. It is now up to you to spend a few hours to open your store and get acquainted to the procedures of selling. At first, things may start low (especially when you have a feedback count of less than 30 and not much in your inventory), but be patient and invest when the next wave of Star Wars and Indy sets come out (yea Taun-Tauns!). Wait for it like your birthday, and then go all out on the party.

Here’s a list of do’s and don’t’s to wrap things up.

Do
• Sell low – or you’ll be driven into oblivion by large scale competitors.
• Sell minifigs – especially Star Wars and franchised ones.
• Sell fast – you have a small time frame when new minifigs are released until their prices drop.
• Sell internationally – approximately half of your buyers will come from outside the US.
• Sell new – new minifigs are more likely to be sold and fetch higher values. Displayed minifigs can pass as new, but played-with minifigs should be marked used.
• Become best friends with the price guide – although it’s not possible to actually do so, nevertheless you’ll be relying on the price guide for every minifig you plan on selling.
• Frequently adjust prices – market prices are dynamic, and you should keep up.
• Be kind to your customers – and grant their requests for small discounts if they ever contact you before ordering. A small bit of pocket change is worth an order and a satisfied customer.
• Buy now, think later – I have abided by this simple axiom on purchasing sets and it has paid off. I suggest you do the same because LEGO does not depreciate in value.

Don’t
• Don’t sell parts – there are plenty of large Bricklink stores that do that, and besides, you’re a builder, you need the parts.
• Don’t sell sets – they’re a hassle to ship and are also costly and space consuming. Shipping a large set outside the US will cost you nearly $50. Selling minifigs give you cheap or free leftover parts. Selling sets don’t.
• Don’t offer free shipping – buyer’s aren’t much more tempted to buy from you if you offer free shipping. I have done this for several months without increases in sales.
• Don’t sell if you’re underage – Bricklink requires you to be at least 18 years old to be a seller.
• Don’t worry – it takes time to build the experience from selling and gain the confidence to invest. I am just experiencing both after a whole year. Nevertheless, any income at all is better than no income.

With these tips and advices, you’re off to start a new adventure, one that will someday break even the income and expenditures on your LEGO hobby. I have almost reached that point, having sold $290 in the past week and $350 the week before. It is then that you truly appreciate your capability to buy bulk parts without damaging your wallet, to build large scale creations as a student or without upsetting your wife, and perhaps to have some leftover cash to go partying with friends.

See it like this: when you spend Paypal cash like Monopoly money and see Bricklink as just a board game, you have found your way to a self-sustaining hobby limited only by the breadth of your imagination.

Questions? You can contact me via Bricklink.

Announcing the Brothers-Brick.com Terms of Service [Editorial]

Somewhere during our tremendous growth over the last couple of years, I feel that The Brothers Brick has taken a bit of a wrong turn. Yes, there are things we could do better, but no, I’m not saying that we’ve done anything wrong.

Rather, our audience has shifted from the people we first began blogging for — adult fans of LEGO like ourselves — to a vast silent majority and an active minority of apparently younger LEGO fans. Let me say this once and for all: The Brothers Brick is written by and for adults, as well as for those who are capable of behaving like adults.

As I said last week in my editorial about not posting leaked poor-quality photos, I want our contributors and readers to lead the LEGO fan community toward a more mature, constructive, informed level of discourse.

Over this past week, I’ve been more than a little disappointed in some of the comments our posts have received. I expect more from our readers than vitriolic furor over our straightforward coverage of the LEGO fan community’s reactions to the inauguration of a new president. And particularly confusing (and hurtful) have been those comments assuming that The Brothers Brick is our “job” — when in fact each of us gives up our spare time to do this. For free.

I frequently get home from my real job at near 8:00 in the evening, and then I spend the next three hours poring through my RSS feeds, answering your e-mail, checking forums, and blogging what I find. And that’s just weeknights; I probably spend more time per day on weekends. It’s hard work, even when I only find one or two things that are “blogworthy” in a day.

Still, we do this because we like to, not because we’re obligated to.

I never wanted to codify any rules about how I expected Brothers Brick readers to behave, but with intervention seeming like it’s necessary more and more frequently, I’m today announcing the Brothers-Brick.com Terms of Service.

As a legal document, the Terms of Service page is long, so here’s a summary of the most important points:

  • You must be 13 years old to use the interactive features on Brothers-Brick.com.
  • Don’t be a jerk. Play nice.
  • We don’t guarantee availability of Brothers-Brick.com now or in the future.
  • We reserve the right to take whatever action is necessary to keep The Brothers Brick a civil, safe place for all our readers.
  • We reserve the right to change our Terms of Service and Privacy Policy at any time.
  • The Terms of Service now encompasses our existing Privacy Policy.

The Terms of Service are not up for discussion, but that doesn’t mean we aren’t interested in hearing your thoughts in the comments on this post. Let us know what you think, and don’t hesitate to ask if you have any questions.

No! We will not be posting the leaked late 2009 LEGO set pictures [Editorial]

By now, most of you who don’t rely exclusively on The Brothers Brick for your LEGO news have probably encountered all the grainy, blurry photos marked “Confidential” circulating on Flickr, Brickshelf, and elsewhere. With no specific policy in the past, we’ve pointed you to these now and then. We ourselves have never been a source or conduit for such leaks, of course, but we are a LEGO news site, and we’ve felt that these were newsworthy enough to share with you.

With this post, I’m announcing that The Brothers Brick will no longer be posting pre-release set lists, retail catalog scans, leaked prototype photos, and other very early LEGO set news.

Here’s the thing. Solving LEGO’s information security issues isn’t up to consumers like you and me; the LEGO Group needs to figure out how to keep confidential things confidential. Nevertheless, LEGO frequently asks fan sites to remove leaked photos, explaining that these leaks can enable other toy makers to come out with competing products earlier and hurt LEGO sales by making fans hold off on buying sets now in favor of sets later. (For the record, The LEGO Group has never attempted to exert editorial or any other kind of control over The Brothers Brick. Update: Okay, just once.)

But none of that is why The Brothers Brick won’t be posting links to these scans and photos.

When photos of the Power Miners sets were first leaked, the comments about them were nearly universally negative. When higher-resolution photos became available, opinions started to turn, and with the actual release of the sets, it feels like many of us have actually found a lot to like in this new theme.

It can be fun to say, “How much do you think it will cost?”, “Do you think it will be available here in Mozambique?”, “Wow! Is that a new X piece?”, and the standard “Meh.” Following the comments on the most recent set of leaked images, I see this pattern repeated over and over.

Discussions about very early LEGO news are speculative at best and frequently seem to be proved wrong in the long run. Therefore, I believe they add little value to the conversation taking place within the broader LEGO fan community. I’m announcing this decision in an attempt to raise the level of discourse between all of us LEGO fans.

Who am I to dictate what you talk about and how you talk about it? I’m just a blogger and a LEGO fan, but I hope that The Brothers Brick and you our readers can lead by example with the sort of mature, thoughtful discussions we’ve been having lately with the Power Miners designers.

So, what think you, dear readers? Cop-out? Cave-in? Sell-out? Or can you get on board with this? Let us know in the comments on this editorial.

10 (other) LEGO blogs you really should be reading [Editorial]

As several of us spend more time away from the computer getting ready for BrickCon in less than two weeks, the creations we don’t blog begin to stack up. But remember, The Brothers Brick is not the only LEGO blog on the net!

I believe the LEGO blogosphere is better when there are lots of us out there highlighting our favorite LEGO creations and linking to each other. For those of you who are readers, though, all those links in our side bar probably look pretty overwhelming. Where to start?

Here are just a few of my favorite LEGO blogs:

  • Klocki: Marcin “Hippotam” Danielak leads my favorite LEGO blog, available in three languages — Polish, English, and Portuguese. If it’s not on The Brothers Brick, it’ll be on Klocki.
  • Young Spacers Association Blog: This blog excels by breaking many of my silly “rules.” Their irreverence makes reading YSAB a genuine pleasure.
  • VignetteBricks, MicroBricks, and MinilandBricks: Where some bloggers do one thing and do it well (or not), Bruce does three things well, highlighting the best vignettes, microscale, and miniland creations.
  • LegostyleLog: The only personal blog to show up on my list, Izzo’s blog is worth reading because we just can’t blog everything this prolific Japanese builder creates.
  • Brick Town Talk: LEGO Town creations deserve more exposure, and Brick Town Talk does just that by highlighting all of the fantastic buildings inspired by Cafe Corner.
  • BioniBlog: When there’s a great Bionicle creation to be blogged, it’s sure to find its way to BioniBlog. We just wish Ean had more to blog…
  • TechnicBRICKs: The Brothers Brick focuses mainly on SYSTEM creations, so Technic creations sometimes fall through the cracks. Read TechnicBRICKS to find out what you’re missing from all the talented Technic builders out there.
  • The NXT STEP: Kid-friendly and educationally focused, The NXT STEP brings together the best LEGO MINDSTORMS NXT creations and news from around the Web. With a contributor list longer than some blog’s blogrolls, there’s always something new to see and learn on The NXT STEP.

So, readers, what’s your favorite LEGO blog, and why?

Flawed visions in defining LEGO as art [Editorial]

Sometime or another, you may have thought about LEGO as art or even participated in a discussion. In this Brothers Brick exclusive editorial, LEGO Ambassador Roy T. Cook (aka Imhotepidus) challenges our popular views on LEGO art. As a university professor who teaches logic, philosophy of mathematics, and the aesthetics of popular art, Roy looks at the subject of LEGO art from a different perspective and makes an argument for our misperception of LEGO creations as art. I dare you to read his potentially controversial essay:

I have spoken at Brickfest (2005, 2006) and Brickworld (2008) on the topic of LEGO as art, arguing that LEGO creations can be art. In addition, I have argued that in order to be an artwork, a LEGO creation needs to incorporate three elements:

  • Form: (the creation has to display some minimum of building skill)
  • Content: (the creation has to express a message, emotion, etc.)
  • Context: (the creation has to be situated in a larger historical or traditional context)

I am not going to rehash these arguments here – a number of you may have already heard them – especially those of you who also frequent the Research and Development section of Classic-Space.com – and I can return to these issues in the comments if appropriate. Instead, I want to suggest that we, as a fan community, are thinking about LEGO the wrong way, at least if we want to take the idea of LEGO as art seriously.

I think that the problem with the way that we think about LEGO as an art form is easy to locate, and can be illustrated by a simple example: At Brickworld 2008, a travesty occurred: My own “MOC the Line: The Man in Black (and White, and Bley)” won the Best Artwork category, while Nannan’s “Cry of Dreams” came in (a very close!) second. (No worries, however, since Nannan went on to win the coveted Judges’ Award!) Now, I am not claiming that this was a travesty out of some misguided, false modesty (since I do think that my mosaic was pretty frickin’ cool), nor am I even saying that Nannan’s creation was necessarily better (I’ll let others make that sort of judgment). What I am saying is that my mosaic had no business being judged in a Best Artwork category at all, since it isn’t an artwork to begin with. Unlike Nannan’s creation, my Johnny Cash mosaic doesn’t come with a message, or express an emotion. At best, it is a technical achievement showing off a new method for creating mosaics. This doesn’t mean it was bad, or that it had no value – it just means that is wasn’t art. The fact that it was in the Best Artwork category at all shows that we are thinking about LEGO artwork the wrong way.

The problem, more generally, is that we, as a community, equate LEGO artworks with LEGO creations that resemble other art forms. Thus LEGO mosaics, LEGO sculptures, and perhaps LEGO vignettes get grouped under the technical term ‘Art’, regardless of whether they actually satisfy the criteria for being artworks. At the same time, many other creations which do seem to satisfy the criteria for being artworks – that is, they express a substantial message or emotion, etc. – are not included under the ‘Art’ heading simply because they fall into some other well-established theme or category. It is worth noting that this very blog – yes, the blog that was nice enough to invite me to write this editorial – makes this mistake in the way it categorizes posts. Just click on the category called ‘Art’ if you don’t believe me! :)

A few more examples:

When LEGO artist Duane Hess (Legozilla) was asked to participate in the Denver Art Museum’s “Best Spring Break Ever” this past March, members of the public were invited to help him assemble a LEGO mosaic recreation of Marsden Hartley’s painting “The Bright Breakfast of Minnie

After all, what better way to display the potential of LEGO as an artistic medium than by using it to copy a masterpiece in another medium (insert sarcasm here)? Of course, I am not denying the value of having simple, hands-on activities that engage the museum-going public, and it is likely that this sort of consideration, and not philosophically deep considerations about the aesthetic status of LEGO, motivated choosing this particular activity to be part of the exhibit. Nevertheless, identifying LEGO art with LEGO creations that resemble artworks in other media does little to advance appreciation of LEGO as a unique art form.

Even more appalling, in my eyes, is the ‘achievement’ of the Little Artists, John Cake and Darren Neave. For those of you who aren’t familiar with the work of the Little Artists, Cake and Neave have carved out a niche for themselves in the British Modern Art scene by recreating major works such as Damien Hirst’s “Shark Tank” and Salvador Dali’s “Lobster Phone” in LEGO (Shark Tank, Lobster Phone).

This pair have somehow become the most important LEGO artists alive by subverting the very idea that LEGO is an art form at all. As a result, the most important LEGO artworks in the world, at least in the opinion of the art world itself (Little Artists’ creations are included in the permanent collection of the Walker Gallery in Liverpool) and in terms of their price tags (the work of the Little Artists is collected by Charles Saatchi), would seem to be cute LEGO spoofs of other, important, artworks. Again, we have the idea that LEGO artworks, and in particular, great LEGO artworks, are those LEGO creations that resemble (or, in this case, are flat-out authorized forgeries of) great artworks in other art forms.

To head off at least one sort of angry response, I should make it clear that it is not the creations of the Little Artists that I find appalling – on the contrary, many of their creations are quite clever. What I find appalling is the critical reaction to these works, and the detrimental result that reactions like this have on serious thought about LEGO as an artistic medium.

What we have yet to grasp, as a group (and as a society as a whole), is that LEGO is an artistic medium unto itself. LEGO creations need to resemble neither great paintings nor great sculptures in order to be great artworks. Of course, there are strong analogies between creating with LEGO and sculpting (thus, Nannan’s creations can often be fairly characterized as ‘sculptural’), but there are also differences. We should not make the mistake, however, of thinking that the more sculpture-like or painting-like a creation is, the more artistic it is.

I will conclude this essay with a call to arms. Instead of mindlessly categorizing particular LEGO creations as artworks merely because they vaguely resemble masterpieces in other art forms, we need to begin to think hard about what makes a LEGO creation a great work of art, or a work of art at all. There is little reason to think that the criteria we discover will be the same, or even all that similar to, the criteria for being a great painting or great sculpture. At any rate, we won’t find out what the similarities, if any, are unless we spend some time thinking about these issues.

Of course, all of this depends on the assumption that LEGO is not only fun, but can also be a medium for creating works of artistic value. At LEGO events I often run into builders who are antagonistic to this idea, typically for one of two reasons: First, some builders seem to think that thinking hard about LEGO as an art form will somehow take the fun out of building. This line of thought seems mistaken to me, since there would appear to be no reason to think that one cannot both enjoy doing something and think hard about how it is, or should be, done. Second, I get the “But it’s just LEGO! It’s just a toy! You’re taking this all way too seriously!” reaction. Of course, on one level this reaction is correct: If no one begins to take it seriously, then it will remain just a toy, and neither we nor the public will have any right to treating it as anything more. On the other hand, if we do begin thinking about the status of LEGO as a medium for the creation of art, and we develop the critical tools for evaluating and critiquing LEGO models in virtue of their artistic qualities (and not merely in terms of how complicated the SNOT techniques are, or how swooshable they are, or how cool they are), then eventually we will accumulate the theoretical ammunition necessary to convince the rest of the world that what we do is (sometimes) serious and worthy of their attention. And that wouldn’t be a bad thing, would it?

In short, Roy has urged us to re-evaluate our definitions of LEGO art. As a start, I’ve inserted a variety of LEGO creations throughout this editorial to stir up the idle brain juice inside our heads. How do you judge if a LEGO creation is a work of art? Is there a clearly defined boundary that seperates LEGO creations from LEGO art, or is there a massive gray area? If LEGO is meant to be a medium for creativity and imagination, then wouldn’t every LEGO creation be a work of art? Let your voice be heard!

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Should LEGO release modern military sets? [Editorial]

Warning: This is an opinion piece, and may not reflect the opinions of my co-bloggers, The LEGO Company, or custom-accessory producers (whose products appear here for illustration purposes only). This post may also include external links to opinions and facts you may not agree with, so read the whole post and share your own thoughts in a comment.

We feature so many LEGO military creations here on The Brothers Brick that all those fighters, battle dioramas, and tanks have their own category. There’s also a lively discussion going on among commenters in the LEGO City 2010 post. Between Independence Day last Friday here in the United States, my own pacifist upbringing, and this recent discussion, I’ve been giving some serious thought to the convergence of LEGO bricks and the military, and the differences between realistic and fantasy violence.

Desert Soldiers on FlickrI myself have built plenty of LEGO military creations, most frequently to illustrate the most accurate historical use for custom accessories I’m reviewing. I’ll also admit that like many males, I have a strong fascination with things that go “Boom!

In responses to questions from Gizmodo readers, here’s what a LEGO Company representative said recently:

Q: Are there any chances that Lego will ever start producing modern day warfare Lego, with tanks and helicopters and what not?
A: We have a strict policy regarding military models, and therefore, we do not produce tanks, helicopters, etc. While we always support the men and women who serve their country, we prefer to keep the play experiences we provide for children in the realm of fantasy.

Some LEGO fans argue that LEGO has, in fact, released military-themed sets in the past:

And of course, there have been elements of conflict throughout many of LEGO’s themes, going all the way back to the earliest police and castle sets of the 1970s. More recently, LEGO has even included realistic-looking guns in Wild West, Star Wars, Batman, Indiana Jones, and other themes.

This leads to the obvious question from another Gizmodo reader:

Q: Why did they changed the founders rule to never make gun like elements?
A: The company still has a no gun policy when it comes to realistic or military play scenarios. However, in order to stay true to the strong licensed properties we incorporate to the Lego portfolio, we need to stay true to those properties and sometimes that involves including weapons. In our own play themes, some element of good vs. bad conflict is typically considered to provide for role play opportunities. In those instances, the setting is very clearly a fantasy world.

The distinction makes sense to me. Most 10-year-olds aren’t going to mistake a set that includes dinosaurs and a four-wheeler with a lightly-armored Humvee avoiding improvised explosive devices. Similarly, dwarves fighting goblins, the undead, or even each other are unlikely to evoke images of coalition forces putting down the insurgency in Fallujah.

If LEGO were to create sets based on the military, that begs the question, “Which military?” LEGO is a global company. If they were to design military sets, which countries should be represented? Royal Danish Jægerkorpset (special forces) or HDMS Absalon? American A-10 Thunderbolt (with depleted uranium flick-fire action!) and M1 Abrams tank? Russian R-36 ICBM (with pop-out MIRV warhead action!) and Sukhoi Su-27?

Extraordinary RenditionOr perhaps LEGO could take its inspiration from the military history of the past 100 years. Would you buy an Allied flamethrower set, with Okinawan civilian minifigs in caves ($29.99), or a Dresden Firebombing playset with limited-edition Kurt Vonnegut minifig ($49.99)? Modular Hanoi Hilton and Ho Chi Minh’s bunker? Something from the War on Terror, perhaps: An Al-Quada training camp set with Osama bin Laden minifig, camouflaged Navy SEAL, and inbound cruise missile ($19.99) or extraordinary rendition set with unmarked CIA jet, compliant third-world diplomat, and abducted French-Algerian shopkeeper ($39.99)?

How about a LEGO Third Reich theme, with an impulse-purchase Adolph Hitler for $2.99 and a LEGO Auschwitz for $89.99?

“An Osama bin Laden minifig?! LEGO Auschwitz?! That’s going too far. Andrew, that’s patently offensive!” Exactly. War is not fun. War is not play.

Ultimately, the job of every military is to conduct war (whether defensive or offensive), and I believe that war is wrong. There are those in every government who would have its citizens believe that the lives of people who don’t look like us, live somewhere outside our borders, or don’t believe the same things we do are somehow less valuable than our own. And therefore, it’s okay to kill our fellow human beings to achieve the political goals of these leaders.

Applying this philosophy to my LEGO hobby, I don’t believe LEGO sets that depict realistic or modern military themes — including soldiers, military vehicles, and historical conflicts — are appropriate for children ages 5 to 12. Other toy companies certainly don’t agree, taking advantage of patriotic fervor and every boy’s fascination with guns. And yet, this is one of the very reasons I respect LEGO and their no-military policy. They stand apart from the rest.

On a more practical level, LEGO’s largest market is Germany, a country whose 20th-century history has left many modern Germans without much of a taste for war. LEGO is also a global company. As my somewhat outlandish list of potential military sets illustrated, how could LEGO possibly choose which countries to represent?

Martin Luther King, Jr. minifig on FlickrI’m probably not going to convince many of you that pacifism or nonviolence is always the most appropriate political response, but I hope that I’ve made you think, and that perhaps some of you can understand why I personally hope that The LEGO Company never changes its no-military policy.

Thanks for reading. Without further ado, sound off in the comments and vote your conscience in the new poll.

[poll id="9"]

Lego is communication: summing up

Over the last six weeks, we’ve been on a fun ride. Through a series of posts we’ve been exploring our chosen medium from a communicational point of view. In case you missed it, here are links to the other instalments:

0. Introduction
1. Context: the message
2. Context: the audience
3. Tools: Design & build, with case study #1
3b. Case study #2
3c. Case study #3
4. Tools: Presentation
5. Other
6. Summing up

I’ve argued that all LEGO models can be considered messages (post #1) to an audience (post #2), designed (post #3) and presented (post #4) in a way that enhances or dehances the models’ effect. Deathdog exemplifies this brilliantly in a comment on post #1. His creation was bashed at Classic-Castle. To Deathdog, the people there misinterpreted his model – which really just means that they interpreted it differently than he did. Not wrongly. Time to either a) appeal to a different crowd, or b) create the next model so that they interpret it the same way he does. (The hidden alternative c) “educate” the existing audience is not only rather time consuming, but also ethically dubious.)

Analyzing your own builds like this, and the builds of others, help uncover flaws they might have. But remember, as I wrote in the disclaimer (post #5) – following this “guide” like a mindless drone will only result in good models. To create the great ones you have to add your own kind of magic. I’ve just preached for one way of thinking that could help you hammer out your build better.

It’s a way of thinking professionals have been using for ages – successfully, even – but that doesn’t mean it’s perfect.

Before I started to actually write this series I sat down and thought about what I wanted to achieve with it all. I divided the readers of this blog into three categories:

  • Active builders
  • “Sleeping” builders
  • The interested public

I assigned each of these groups one core effect I wanted to achieve, and ranked their order of importance. The things I learned from doing this let me decide how to present the thoughts. From least important to most important (you might be surprised):

3. “Sleeping builders”
Sleeping builders are those who might become a LEGO builder, but perhaps don’t realize it yet. I wanted to, with luck, wake some of you up. The Brothers Brick showcases a lot of nice models every week, and that combined with some food for thought can make for an interesting stimuli. I cannot describe the joy I felt when Alan R wrote:

Hey,

I’d just like to thank you for this series, and this blog in general.

From when I was around 5 until about 2 years ago (when I was 14) I played with LEGO non-stop, but then for whatever reason, I fell out of love with it, and took a long hiatus. However, thanks to (for a large part) this blog, I recently restarted my building, and am really happy to have done so (especially with 3 months of summer looming ahead).

I just recently finished an approximately to scale LCVP (WWII Landing craft, think D-Day), in a large part due to this series’ ideas of “message/ audience/ build”

As my audience is mainly me (but showing off to my friends b/c i’m proud of my work), I dunno if I’ll set up a flickr acct / MOCPages acct and share it with the world, but that’s not the point. Thanks in a large part to this blog, and especially this series, I went from vaguely thinking about LEGO once-a-month to actually getting back into the thick of it, and I’m really happy to have done so.

Thanks

Thanks for writing that, Alan. The best of luck to you in your LEGO endeavours. Don’t hesitate to let us know about the things you’ve built in the future, if you feel so inclined.

2. Active builders
Those that are already “in the thick of it” are active builders. I wanted to show you a new way to think about your models, away from all techniques, greebling, SNOT, studlessness, (and SNOTlessness!) and whatnot. I wanted you to see a bigger picture and get you to understand that if you want to, you really can do whatever with the medium.

It is you who have been most active in the discussions, as expected. You’ve questioned me, agreed with me, helped me twist and turn the arguments, and reminded me of things I forgot. In the end you made me think, both as a builder and as a communicator. Just how I like it. Thank you for that. I hope I made you think as well.

1. Interested public
Paradoxically, the people I considered the most important to reach are also the ones most likely to scroll past these posts: the interested public that mainly comes to see the fantastic models featured on TBB. This group constitute the bulk of our readers. What I wanted to show these people was that while LEGO is a toy, it is also a serious medium for expression. Even though most of you in this group don’t read these posts as carefully as the other two groups, just knowing that serious discussion is being held make you perceive LEGO differently – if only at a subconscious level. And nothing says intelligent discussion like lengthy written ramblings.

Now I’d like to your input again. This type of post was a first for The Brothers Brick. If I have my way it was the first of many meta-theoretical posts, but it was also a way for me to establish a framework in which I could post more concrete tips on building, presentation and much more on a regular basis. Tell me: do these kinds of posts belong on this blog? Why? Why not? What would you like to see discussed in the future?

Thank you for reading this far.

LEGO is communication: other

Welcome to the almost final post in the series where we’re looking at LEGO models from a communicational point of view. Start at the introduction and read all of the other posts. It’s fun stuff.

This is going to sound crude to most of you. It’s true though. If you’ve followed this series from the beginning you know that even if you do it consciously or not, your MOCs function like I say they do. They are messages directed towards an audience, designed and presented in a way that either strengthen or weaken the intended impact. That’s all there is to it.

If you always structure your building like I imply you should in this series, you achieve three things:

  1. Good MOCs
  2. Boredom
  3. In the words of Keith Goldman: Boilerplate

“So wait a minute. You tell us to think about things a certain way, and now you’re saying we shouldn’t do that? What gives?”

I said that I was going to teach you how to build great models. And that’s what I’ve done. I’ve put into words and structured up what you probably already sensed, but maybe couldn’t specify. But now that you got this basic knowledge, it’s easier to think about your building and evolve it further.

And that’s what’s really going to make you a better builder.

This is the last “true” part of this series of posts, since the next one will just be a summary of the discussions we’ve had. This post is short, but important. It’s essentially a big disclaimer.

Remember that reasoning on aspects like this series of posts does will get you on your way. But like good things in general you can’t exactly pinpoint what it is that make good LEGO models good. I personally believe it’s magic.

Magic is hard to create, but once you do – man. The feeling is indescribable, just like the results. Magic doesn’t happen when you stick to the conventional middle ground. You have to venture beyond for that, go where others haven’t, try the things others wouldn’t dare to. It increases your odds of failure, but also your odds of success.

LEGO is a creative medium. Structure your thoughts, but be creative.

And that’s the end of this short but important post.

Lego is communication: Presentation

This is the fourth post in a series of six where we’re looking at LEGO models through a communicational point of view. Feel free to read the introduction, first, second and third post to get you up to par before diving into this one – it’ll help. Also, I’m sorry for skipping the promised case study yesterday. I caught the flue and didn’t have much energy to write. But I wouldn’t miss this post for the world – this is the good stuff!

After looking at design and build last Monday, it’s time to present your creation to your target audience. Ideally, you should adjust your presentation to further strengthen your build (or adjust your build to strengthen your presentation, depending on what you’re out to do). We’re going to exemplify how presentation affects your message by looking at how it’s done online, but a lot of it is applicable to live presentation as well.

When you present your model, you can do three things:

  1. Dehance your model
  2. Enhance your model
  3. Neither

Obviously, you want do number two. Different groups have different guidelines, so as we said before: make sure you say what you intend to in a way your audience accept.

I’m mainly a space builder. When I took my first stumbling steps online, LUGNET had just started to break down, and it wasn’t long before Classic-Space was founded. The site has been around for a few years now, and is starting to get a set of informal rules on how a model should be presented there.

Let’s have a look at those who dwell there and the informal guidelines on that site as a case study.

  • For starters, the site is all about space and science fiction. Trains and castles shouldn’t expect to get a whole lot of replies.
  • Many people there are adults, or in their late teens. A grown up behaviour is expected.
  • The site is very building oriented. Interesting custom models is a high priority.
  • That also means “furthering the medium” – interesting building techniques, creative shapes and colouring – is important…
  • … as well as individuality.
  • Science fiction leaves a lot of room to disregard realism. So what if the engine is too small? If it looks cool, you’re on.
  • Building focused means little space to tell everyone about your personal universe in a long back story…
  • … and means you should put up clear pictures that shows your model well from plenty of angles.

So, to dehance your model on Classic-Space, you would write a five-page long back story with lots of details on the fictional technical construction of your small generic space fighter. It probably belongs to some obscure faction you made up (that you’re trying to get everyone to build in), and uses pre-molded guns on a studs up construction. Your pictures would be taken with a cellphone or a webcam, have a lot of clutter in the background, be poorly lit and out of focus. Oh, and it’d be your first time posting there too, and you would be acting like you’re the end-all answer to LEGO building because your mother said you were sooo good.

If you want to enhance your model on Classic-Space, do the opposite. That doesn’t mean you’re guaranteed success, but it places your message in a much better position to make an impact on the crowd there.

Do a separate analysis on your target audience.

Taking pictures of your models has almost become an art in itself in the LEGO community. It’s pretty obvious how to dehance a model – said blurry, out of focus and poorly lit shots are sadly too common. Here’s a random picture from MOCpages that tells us nothing:

This model seems like a start. A more skilled builder could’ve at least offered advice on how to improve it – but when we see nothing, we can do nothing.

Neutral pictures would be those that show your model well, on a non-distracting background. Have a look at Don Wilson’s (ThePaleMan’s) Thundertank:

Great photos help convey the feeling of your model. Mark Kelso’s recent piece Apocalypsis: A journey inward takes model presentation to a whole new level:

Here the actual build, though stunning on its own, is nigh secondary to the presentation.  I only wish that he had created a custom website for it rather han putting it up on MOCpages. Too much distracting clutter there.

To see more cases where presentation influence the build, comparing the Brick Testament to “ordinary” castle customs (these by Aaron Andrews, aka DarkSpawn) will yield interesting things. Note how construction suddenly become a lot less important and carefully planned scenes matter more.

If you’re going to present your model live, you have basically the same things to think about as when presenting online: How do I best convey my built message to my audience? Except now you can consider another factor: interactivity. Should your audience be allowed to touch your model or not? That might help you connect with the audience, and lets them see play factors. No playing can create a distance. Think how you best support your model’s purpose: if you consider it a toy and built it for your kids, then maybe it’s a good idea to somehow enable people to play with it. If you want it to be considered art or a sculpture you should probably put it behind a fence.

And that concludes the bulk of this series. Next Monday we will look at a few other factors that can affect how your build is perceived by your audience before summing up what we’ve learnt.