Build-em-up-tear-em-down, an interview with Alex Eylar

When it comes to Lego and photo lighting, no one has a better reputation than Alex Eylar. Having emerged from his Dark Ages in 2007, Alex has made an impression on the community through his diverse and often pop culture-referencing creations that are photographed with realistic and atmospheric lighting. It is my pleasure to interview the man behind the camera about his take on our favorite hobby.

Nannan Zhang: Talk about what you like to build.

Alex Eylar: I tend to just build whatever I feel like, whatever inspiration hits, without really sticking to one theme or another. I admire the people who can stay in one theme and just put out hit after hit, but I’ve got a total LEGO-ADD that keeps me bouncing from theme to theme. I even had to title that one folder “The Unclassifiable” because the things just didn’t fit into one theme or another.

NZ: So it’s really just the spur of the moment?

AE: Oh, absolutely. I keep a Word Document on my desktop that has all sorts of random ideas in the shortest of shorthand. I get an idea, I jot it down, I build it or try to build it and fail miserably.

NZ: It’s interesting that you keep an actual list of ideas, how long is it?

AE: Generally about four or five projects long, but that includes things I’ve been thinking about for years and will probably never get to finish. Purgatory from Dante’s Inferno is a great example.

NZ: That list is actually much shorter than I expected, I know someone who has over 120 ideas on his list.

AE: Mind if I ask who?

NZ: I heard this from “Big Daddy” Nelson a few years ago. You’re on a building streak lately and cranking out some great models, what’s the occasion or inspiration?

AE: The occasion is free time thanks to summer and zero social life, and the inspirations are movies and internet. Big movie geek, so I’m always seeing things I want to build, and spend as much time online as I do and you’re bound to see things that pique your interest.

NZ: I’m guessing you liked Inception?

AE: Oh my yes. Best movie of the year so far, in my opinion.

NZ: And you built some MOCs based on that?

AE: I had to. Any movie with visuals as good as that has to be built. A tilted, spinning hallway; come on.

NZ: How long did it take you?

AE: Maybe three hours from start of the build to the last shot taken.

NZ: What about photography, was that a huge process?

AE: It can be; it depends on the project. If it’s something small like that, and only requires one shot, it won’t take that long, but if it’s enormous – “Containment” enormous – it’ll take its sweet time.

More of our interview with Alex after the jump:

NZ: What’s an example of a MOC that required extensive photography?

AE: The desert sunset signs (Bowl-o-Rama, Lou’s Café). Photography and lighting go hand in hand, and those two projects took forever just for the effect.

NZ: What did you do for the setup, and how much editing was involved?

AE: The setup was just a piece of red poster board taped to the wall, and then an IKEA lamp positioned just right to create the illusion of a setting sun. I’ve got no Photoshop, so editing never goes beyond adjusting brightness and contrast in iPhoto, and a few more touches in Flickr’s Picnik. The same goes for about everything I do.

NZ: That’s quite interesting, so a lot of skills for the setup then.

AE: Equal parts skill and luck.

NZ: Tell us about your latest project, what were you thinking when you decided to build a Lego Rube Goldberg machine?

AE: A Rube Goldberg machine was one of those ancient ideas I never thought I’d get around to, but then I got a summer assignment for grad school this fall: an introductory video. No idea what to do for that, plus I’m camera shy, so a Rube Goldberg machine was the best option. It was originally going to be a self-destructing Rube Goldberg machine. At the end, a giant LEGO wall would come down, smashing the entire layout, with the words THE END written in the brick. But that never happened. Would’ve been nice though.

NZ: What were the requirements of the video assignment?

AE: No longer than two minutes, and I couldn’t appear in it.

NZ: So you mentioned grad school, what are you studying?

AE: I’m going into the screenwriting program at Chapman’s film school in Orange, California.

NZ: What did you study in college?

AE: I studied film, majoring in film and digital media.

NZ: Have you thought about your plans after film school?

AE: God no. I’m heading into one hell of a competitive industry, so my plan is probably going to be: start small. Grunt work. Running to and fro, internships, whatever I can find.

NZ: Will Lego continue to be an ongoing hobby?

AE: Absolutely. I’m packing it all in my car and taking it down with me.

NZ: I’m glad to hear that. How much do you have to pack?

AE: It all fits in a 2000 Prius, so it’s not that big a collection, but it’s enough to let me build what I want to build.

NZ: You work with a much smaller collection than one might expect, but you’re able to do great things with it.

AE: It’s probably because there’s an unspoken assumption that anything I build, I keep forever, but that’s not true. Once it’s finished and the pictures are posted, it’s destroyed. People have been shocked to hear that.

NZ: That’s the complete opposite of what I do. I almost never take apart my MOCs. Have you ever kept any intact?

AE: Only the ones I intend to bring to cons. The Rocket Caboose and the Clockwalker are still intact, sitting on my shelf, waiting for BrickCon. But everything else is mercilessly slain. I always think of that final line in “Annie Hall”: “..but we go through it because… we need the eggs.” Building takes a while, photography takes a while, taking it all apart takes a while, it’s all very slam-bang and build-em-up-tear-em-down, but I do it because, well, I need the pieces.

NZ: Well put and well justified. So what’s your favorite creation that you built in which you then had to take apart?

AE: One of my recent favorites was Infection because the lighting sold it. Dusty, red Martian atmosphere: I got really lucky with that one. But the people’s favorite is Relativity by a mile. It was the first project to get 100 favorites, then 200 favorites, and it’s still climbing. People love it.

NZ: Relativity was truly quite something.

AE: I’m glad it worked out as it did. That Escher print was another ancient project I never thought I’d get to. Maybe the Space twist was the spark I needed.

NZ: I noticed you tend to mash Lego themes with pop culture classics.

AE: It’s always fun to do. Pop culture is one big well of inspiration, and mashing it together with all things LEGO always gets a good response. Though, it’s less creativity and more mix-n-match and see what works. The Pulp Fiction/Space Police scene, for example, started out as just a strict illustration of the original scene, but that was too boring. So what can I add? Well, there’s a Space Police theme that could work well. Two cops up front, alien criminal in the back. And boom.

NZ: Things are better with a twist.

AE: Totally.

NZ: How did you see yourself develop as a builder from when you first joined the online community?

AE: Well, lighting played a big part, obviously. That was the niche I carved out for myself and the reputation that’s stuck with me. Lighting made me known, so I’m glad I figured it out, I just hope I didn’t pigeonhole myself too severely. But hey, Relativity was a big hit and that was broad daylight, so maybe it’s all worked out in the end. Not to mention the Holy Hand Grenade, whose popularity has always amazed me.

NZ: Was it your original intention to make a reputation of yourself through your Lego photography?

AE: Not really. Like everyone else, I’m a comment whore, so as much as that could be an incentive, I didn’t set out to get famous. When I started, I didn’t even know fame was a possibility. LEGO was and is just a hobby; recognition is a lovely by-product.

NZ: That’s good to hear, so do you have other interests besides Lego?

AE: Film, for one. Screenwriting, specifically; I’ve got loads of scripts in various stages of completion. But no real other hobbies. Used to be a magician, though, so maybe nerd hobbies flock together.

NZ: I noticed that quite a few of your MOCs are film-based or inspired.

AE: Well, the simplest answer is: movies are easy. Like, with Inception, I had the source material right there in a promotional still that was released online, so it was easy to recreate. Same with Pulp Fiction: it’s an iconic scene.

NZ: That makes sense, but I see that you also build completely original scenes and the like.

AE: When I think of a good idea, totally. Original ideas take a lot of forethought, though, and if a project isn’t completely thought out before I start, I’ll flail somewhere in the middle and give up. That’s why a lot of my stuff is movie-centric: they’re harder to mess up.

NZ: So you never plan and build as you go?

AE: Rarely. There are times when it miraculously all comes together, but I can rarely just start building with a blank slate and end up with something post-worthy.

NZ: You’re a very rationally calculating man.

AE: I’ve gotten a lot of flak for it, yes.

NZ: So for every creation that we see from you, how many never see the light of day?

AE: For every 2-3 projects that do get posted, there’s one that fails halfway through.

NZ: That’s quite a significant ratio, we should not take your masterpieces for granted.

AE: Masterpiece is an overstatement of the highest degree.

NZ: So do you have future plans with the hobby?

AE: Not really. I’m just going to keep building things I like. No real need to go bigger, and no real need to expand the collection; I’m maybe one of the only LEGO fans who doesn’t want any more right now. Not even Tower Bridge; the amount of cheese slopes alone would overflow my bins. I’ve basically got all I need.

NZ: Has anyone played an import role in the hobby for you?

AE: Keith Goldman and Brendan Powell Smith were the two that brought me out of my dark age. I saw The Brick Testament on a bookshelf; loved it. Tried to build my own Last Supper; failed. But his work was a great inspiration. Keith’s Zombie Survival Guide was one of the first things I found on MOCpages, and it was the coolest thing I’d ever seen. I’d say those two were responsible for bringing me back into the hobby.

I actually blurted that out to Brendan at Bricks by the Bay; got a flattered, but weirded look. But both of these guys were enlightening illustrations of what could be done with LEGO.

NZ: Keith has certainly played a role in my inspirations and Brendan’s works were also among the first I noticed. I’m sure you’re also becoming quite an influence on many builders. When’s the next time we’ll see you at a convention?

AE: I’ll be at BrickCon this year; I’m sure it’ll be a blast.

NZ: Great, I’ll see you in Seattle next month. Thanks for your time!

AE: My pleasure, Mr. Bley.

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