Today we are fortunate enough to get the chance to explore the mind of Master Mech builder, Mark Neumann! Mark lives with his family in western Washington State and has been a prominent member of the Adult LEGO Fan community for many years. While being know primarily for his awesome Mechs, Mark has also planned and organized many collaborative builds as well as the first BrickCon. In addition to his other efforts, He also recently finished a massive Classic Space SHIP known by her call sign “LL-2016”. Without further ado, let’s dive in.
TBB: Hi Mark, glad to talk to you today! To kick things off, can you tell our readers a little bit about yourself?
Mark: Well, ok. Hiya. I have been an adult fan of LEGO since around the year 1999. That would have been when I was walking through a Fred Meyer with my (at the time) girlfriend and spotted something cool in the toy section. Star Wars LEGO. I could get a X-Wing, with Luke Skywalker! Yeah, I racked up some debt on the credit card that day.
I played with the Star Wars stuff for a while and marveled at some of the new parts, like click hinges. These would make cool joints that I could not accomplish from my days of youth. The answer was clear, I had to make a battlemech. It was a sloppy, messy thing, but I loved it. And the challenge of the thing made me go back to refine my mech building.
The collection made its way from a few boxes, to several tackle box trays, to drawer systems. When I was starting out, the entire collection would be put away in a closet and moved to the living room for building. My wife thought I was crazy, but cute.
She discovered Ninja sets though and she had to have them. She has gotten a few sets over the years. Now she keeps a few tubs of brick out of my reach to make sure it does not get absorbed by the collection. My son is also a big fan of LEGO. He helps me out on occasion and has a fair amount of brick of his own. But I think his interests go in other ways.
TBB: What LEGO part or color is most tasty?
Mark: Mmmm shiny chrome gold. I’d horde that stuff in large piles to savor it later. That and LEGO cows. And pigs. And chickens. Mmmm LEGO BBQ. Dang it, now I’m hungry.
Mark: I like the challenge of it. When working on Mechahub with Bryce McGlone, we would talk about what made Mech building unique. There is a certain discipline that requires equal parts engineering and artistry. The model has to look good and stand on its own. The complexity of a Mech grows exponentially with size. A three foot tall mech is much harder to accomplish than a one foot model.
The first thing with Mech building though is to break it down as simply as possible.
I like to think of a Mech is simply a model that is built upon a platform standing on two posts. Balance the platform and you’re good to go. After that you start thinking of how to adjust the platform, can you make it tilt and bend like a hip? Can the posts twist and bend like a leg? When you throw the platform off balance can you counter balance?
To accomplish these things you have to start looking at your available parts. Technic turntables and worm gears are far stronger than click hinges, but also far larger and more complicated to hide.
What can you get done with what you have on hand? What can be used conventionally, unconventionally or simply insanely used to get the job done?
Combine all of that with, at the end, looking at a model that comes to life. Mechs develop personality as they grow. As parts go on the character of a model comes out. Faces and heads take time, sometimes many rebuilds, until it is just right. Maybe a color is out of place and needs to be redone. It is all part of working the brick.
TBB: “Working the Brick”, I like that phrase. It’s probably like asking someone to choose which of their children they like best, but if you had to pick a couple, which of your Mechs are your favorites?
So I’m going to just start off by saying I do not judge my models after the fact. They are what they are. They were the vision I had at that time with the materials I had at the time. If I feel the need to improve or do something different, then I will build anew with that in mind. I may look backwards from time to time, but only to learn and take that information forward.
If something didn’t turn out the way I wanted, I scrap it and try again. If something is not feasible or I am unable to accomplish something, I don’t force it. I’ll understand that whatever is vexing me is telling me that I need to let it go. So I’ll take a look at the process that brought me to where ever I might be learn from it and leave it behind to move on to the next thing.
Onto the mechs:
Titan was what I would call the first successful mech I built. It was big, it stood on its own, it could move and it looked like a big beefy mechwarrior thing. It also incorporated swappable hard points so I could make different load outs. It had play features so it was always fun to mess with. It was also my coming out model to SEALUG and LUGNET.
Shade was the first mech that I think had a soul. I also accomplished a fair amount of movement from a compact design. I still have Shade’s head assembled, I couldn’t bring myself to take it apart.
Warhammer IIIa (seen right) was my homage to my inspiration, Battletech. I played a lot of Battletech back in the day and I always liked the Warhammer. I was playing with a double ball joint design at the time and that this would be a good subject. It isn’t a direct copy off of the Battletech design. I don’t do that. I kind of hate trying to make a model copy of somebody else’s design. I want my ideas to flow. Hence why this is an homage. It is my spin on the Warhammer.
Olympus Defense Mech (six-legged Mech, seen above). This is another homage. This harkens back to Masamune Shirow’s Appleseed. I read through the manga in college and still like those stories very much. In Appleseed’s Olympus there are these massive defense platforms. This model is my take on those mecha.
MTM168, it’s a mech, it‘s a tank. What’s not to love!
Kogeseru/Kogesiru (red Mech seen at left) would be my biggest mech to date. I wanted to go big after a dry spell of building and made Kogeseru. He would stand on his own, but the stand made it so I could walk away and do something than tweaking the gears and joints. I made up the name, so every now and again I would mess up the spelling much to everyone’s frustration. I just heard the name, he didn’t tell me how to spell it. :P You can see more than a little bit of Appleseed’s Briarios in the face.
I still consider Shogun (seen below) as one of, if not the best mech I’ve done to date. It looks good. It’s a fair size. It was posable. It could stand on its own all day long. It had a personality. It used quite a bit of technic trickery. It in my opinion is just about everything a mech should be.
TBB: Since you have been involved in the hobby for so long, has your building style or technique changed a lot over the years?
Mark: Of course it changes. Who doesn’t? I know there are builders out there that crank out the most amazing stuff, and you can count on them to continue to produce similar kind of things, but I guarantee you building technique evolves. Maybe we figure out a different way to configure something. Maybe there’s a new angle. Maybe you see someone do a technique that you happen to think is simply brilliant. If there is one thing we can count on it is that things will change.
For me personally though, I have done a lot of Mechs. I could do more, but it feels like I’m forcing it a little. If something speaks to me, I’ll build it. But I’m just trying to find the joy in building. Put the little plastic bricks together and feel a spark inside. A glow of inspiration and creativity.
TBB: You have attended quite a few fan events and conventions as well as maintaining a long-term presence online. What are your thoughts and feelings about the LEGO fan community and how it has grown and changed over the years?
Mark: Ha! Hahahahha. Oh lord. LEGO fans are like any other group of enthusiasts. Politics come and go. Cliques forms and fracture. Drama ensues left and right. On a personal level I focus on myself first. I’ll be me, you be you.
I know that sounds super self-centered on a superficial level but consider this. What do they tell you on an airplane before takeoff? Put on your own air mask first. What do they tell you in first responder training? Ensure your own safety first. The reason for this is that able bodied people become incapacitated when they are trying to manage someone else’s safety.
Our emotional well-being is no different.
If I focus on what others are doing, if I obsess with what the other guy is living, then I am not living my own life. I can observe. I can see what is happening. I can ask them for their perspective and learn. But if I let outside influence manipulate my path then I am lost.
So what I have learned from the community is this: There are a lot of fans who are passionate about what they create. And a lot of competition. And a lot of judgement.
(Picture by Topsy Creatori)
Too many builders out there think they can’t build something cool because someone else has built something they perceive as cooler. That is simply idiotic. I try to see the brilliance in every model. Not everything is a masterpiece but at a fest every one of those models on a table took courage. Courage to risk public and peer scrutiny. That takes guts.
What will irritate me is the guys who come to me at fests and brag about how awesome they are and how massive their collections are. Yet they won’t attend a LUG meeting. They won’t show you what they built. I’ll back the guy that brings a single minifig from their collection to BrickCon before the public attendee braggart. At least the minifig guy had the guts to stand up and stand out.
I’ve made mistakes along the way. I think I pissed people off. I don’t mean to. And if they’re out there reading this and still angry, I’m sorry. I really am. I’m horrible with names. As in, if I don’t interact with you on a daily basis, there is a very good chance my brain will forget a name/face connection. It’s not personal, I promise. I’m just an idiot.
But then there are the others. There was a guy who was only able to attend BrickCon by himself. He was going through a tough time and couldn’t afford the tickets for himself and all of his family. At the time I was liquidating a LEGO collection for a family of a deceased AFOL. They gave me some discretion for the distribution of the brick. They wanted it to go to people who would love it. I was able to gift this man a few sets from the collection, for him and his family. He was thankful and next year he returned to BrickCon. That year he brought the whole family.
And the people at public hours. The kids. Last BrickCon (2016) it truly hit me. I talked with more than a few BrickCon attendees who first saw me many years before when their parents took them to a BrickCon. They were blown away by all the awesome LEGO. And they remembered the people they had talked to. Those fans and models of yesteryear inspired them to grow up to be awesome builders themselves. It is beyond humbling that the 10 year old that was wide eyed 10 years ago is now showing me their awesome thing. And then a few hours later when BrickCon opens its doors to the public what do I see? Many more wide eyed 10 year olds. I wonder how many of them I will meet again in 10 years time. This is a hell of a hobby.
The thing is you never know the impact you make; good or bad. The community is what we make it. After all these years I strive to make it good. I fail occasionally. I know I do, but that isn’t a reason to stop moving forward.
TBB: I think that is a really good point. It is really easy to overlook our own role in improving the community in which we are involved and we may never know the impact one small act of kindness may have on someone. You organized the first BrickCon, correct? What was that experience like?
Mark: Yes, but back then it was called NWBrickCon. Back then several SEALUG members were going back and forth to Washington DC and California for the two big fests at the time. (Brickfest and Bricks West respectively) We thought amongst ourselves that up in the Pacific NW (between SEALUG and PNLTC and SMART) we had enough of a following to do our own fest. Everybody nodded and thought that was a great idea.
Then the inevitable question sprung up, “so who wants to organize it?”
The conversation continued and at a SEALUG meeting at my home I stepped up and said I’d do it.
I had a ton of help. Dan Parker stepped up and helped organize the business contacts. And of course all of SEALUG, PNLTC and SMART came through. It was a lot of running around, trying to arrange any kind of space for as little as money as possible. We were able to use a room in the upper floors of the Seattle Center House. It was packed and crazy and fun.
I’m having trouble remembering the specifics from back then, being 15 years ago and all. But I do remember this, it was really stressful and really rewarding. Everybody stepped up and helped. The idea of BrickCon snowballed and people kept coming.
I was able to do BrickCon for another year and then it got to be too much for me. I had a newborn son and with that a lot of responsibilities that didn’t let me run about on con business during my free time.
I was also witnessing the breakdown and turmoil of Brickfest and Bricks West. The solution was clear. BrickCon is about the fans and the brick, not centered on the person running it. I was convinced that somebody else needed to take the reins and I had to go hands off if BrickCon was going to survive.
A committee was formed and BrickCon was able to keep on being what it was meant to be. The best LEGO fest for fans to attend.
TBB: Let’s talk about the elephant in the room, your latest build, LL-2016. It is an incredible build and quite breath-taking. How would you describe it to someone who has never seen it? Essentially, what is LL-2016?
Mark: Thank you. The LL2016 Universal Explorer is a Classic Space SHIP. Her mission is to explore and discover whatever may be out there. Be it deep space or your bedroom. She is designed to spark imagination and creativity. She is meant to start stories.
LL2016 currently sits just shy of 12-feet long and uses the typical color cues from the Classic Space theme. The primary color combination is grey and blue, utilizing black/yellow stripe highlights. She has a large spoiler fin found from the old sets akin to the Galaxy Explorer.
Keeping with the Classic Space theme the ship is more playset than model. Minifigs are meant to be scattered throughout. Things that look like they should do something. There are hidden features throughout the ship.
On the cargo module there are 12 containers docked. Each one will un-dock. I have placed cargo in each container. The containers are designed to dock not only with the container module but also with a cargo ‘truck’ that can transport the container. The containers also stack if desired.
The bridge has a wheel. The pilot can turn and elevate the wheel to steer the ship.
There is a garden, bar and restaurant in the living module. There is a lab and grabber arms and scanners in the science module. The transport module has two landers docked to it. The landers come off and are play models all on their own.
Just behind the bridge there are 10 small ships available for the crew to use. Originally I thought them to be emergency escape pods. But they become too cool for that. Now they are simply scout/shuttle craft for the minifigs to use for whatever they need.
The big “LL2016 on the side of the ship are doors. They open to reveal a cargo bay. When open the doors become landing platforms. The platforms are strong enough to hold up to people placing stuff on them. Fun fact: Benny’s Spaceship can pass through the doors, land in the cargo hold, and the cargo doors can close.
There is a lander, and cargo, and mech suits that all go with the ship.
There is a large rotating ring that spins slowly about the ship. I specifically do not call out what the ring does. That is up to you.
TBB: I like that, not ‘what does it do’ but ‘what do you think it does?’, very nice. Can you talk about lighting and motorizing something like this?
Mark: I used a couple of different lighting systems on the LL2016. One is a scavenged LED from a dollar store book light the other is a magnetic shop light from Walmart.
The LL2016 also was an exercise in motorization. I’ll be doing more of this in the future. The LL2016 was great to learn on. (Click picture below for a video of the lights and motor function of LL-2016)
What I learned was that there are better lighting options. The Walmart lights work ok, very bright at first but then dim down after about an hour. The dollar store lights are trash but worked well to get me thinking about lighting. What I will do next time is get a different lighting system that I found at Ben Franklin and then rip the wiring apart to work with the older train 9v system. No batteries and can adjust the brightness.
The motorization stuff was fun. Very much like building a Mech in some ways. Now that I have it in mind I’ll get more complicated with the automation. This was a great first effort.
TBB: It is a great effort, period. Personally, I can’t wait to see what the next step might be! Now for something fun… name one non-LEGO item you own with which you love and why?
Mark: I love my Jeep TJ (Wrangler). I like to enjoy a lot of the wilderness that is Washington State. My favorite times are when my boy and I hop in the Jeep and go find some place to go get lost. It is the tool that lets me explore.
TBB: That sounds awesome! I know you are a very creative person and have many other interests outside the LEGO hobby. When you aren’t building, what other sorts of hobbies and such are you involved in?
Mark: I like to draw. I’m re-discovering that talent and am trying to develop it more thoroughly. I want to be better at it than I currently am. It is another form of expression and I just have to get it out. I’ve been drawing with pencils now for a few years and have just gotten my first set of art pens. I’m playing with the different tools and experimenting. Many of my subjects are animals in one style or another. But I’m trying to get better at drawing anything.
My wife and I are in a native song class. We are learning the songs so we know what to sing when going to sweat lodge and other events.
My camera bag also goes along with me on my various field trips. I love to take photos and try to convey my perspective on the world.
TBB: Thank you very much for taking the time to answer our questions. I really appreciate it. What is next on the horizon for you?
Mark: You are welcome. I am glad to do it!
I love LEGO, but it isn’t an end all. I’ll build something if it speaks to me. Most of my time these days is spending time with my son whenever I can. He is now in his teen age years and too soon he’ll be out living his own life. I want to have as much time with him as I can. He is a remarkable man and I am immensely proud of him.
I want to travel and get out more. We will see if I can make that happen. If I can fly away, I will.