We singled out Jeff Friesen’s Cityscapes as our 2017 Creation of the Year. If you’ve missed it then, these are still very much worth a look, and even if you’ve seen them, they’re so mesmerising that you may find something you missed earlier on. It’s almost soothing and appealing to let your eyes wander around these intricate builds.
We could not resist reaching out to have a deeper discussion with Jeff to understand the mind of an artist that could create something so different and unique with the very same bricks all of us see and build with every day.
Can you tell us a little bit about yourself, e.g. where are you based, your LEGO history, and your work (LEGO/Photography and real life if it is different)?
I’m an award-winning photographer based in Victoria, British Columbia, Canada, which is on Vancouver Island. I have vivid memories of playing with LEGO from the age of 3 (that was in the early 1970s). I had a shoebox full of white and red bricks in the classic sizes, mostly 2 x 4s. Those bricks were used to make everything from aeroplanes to cities to double-decker car ferries for Matchbox racers. Recently, I was wondering why the brick selection was only red and white. After doing some research it appears the bricks must have been a hand-me-down set from the 1960s. Back then LEGO used to have basic building sets in just red and white.
The late 1970s brought with it the dual treasures of minifigures and Space LEGO. I essentially lived in a Space LEGO drama for a few years. Blue, trans-yellow, and grey were the primary colours of that era. As a child, the actual LEGO building is just the beginning of the fun, and then you get to play with what you’ve made. As an adult, I’ve replaced the play phase with photography.
It’s amazing how LEGO has been there through every stage of life, and now my daughter’s life.
How would you classify your LEGO hobby? Set collector? Builder? Photographer?
These days I view LEGO as an artistic medium. The creative decisions I make with LEGO are based on form and colour before building techniques come into play.
Your photography is amazing. What are your setup and your process for photographing LEGO creations?
I use 3 LED spotlights to shape light in a light tent. The lights go through extensive repositioning during the photography process and it’s customized for each micro city. The micro cities are particularly hard to light because they are so multi-faceted, and shadows tend to collect at street level.
The colors of each cityscape are very striking. How do you decide on a color palette?
Color choice is a huge factor when building with LEGO, because color affects the variety of bricks you’ll be able to work with. Grey and white offer a lot of flexibility in terms of brick choice, but limitations encourage creativity so I like the challenge of building with colours such as dark azure, dark orange, and sand green. The city’s era also affects color choice. For whatever reason, the micro cities get more monotone the farther they move into the future.
When building a new model, do you start with the bricks and see what shapes and styles they inspire, or do you begin with a theme in mind and find the parts to create it, or perhaps a sketch?
Usually, I begin a project with a pre-visualized idea that cannot possibly fit onto a 20 x 20 stud base. Then I spend time doing the LEGO builder’s equivalent of sketching. Bricks are gathered into a pile and attached together in somewhat random ways. Eventually, a building style will emerge from this process. The first building I’m happy with has a big influence on the micro city’s theme. It may have nothing to do with the original city idea, so those ideas are filed away for later use.
Do you go through multiple iterations of each model before getting one that you’re happy with? Or do you tend to develop the finished model on the first try?
My philosophy is that if a build is going too easily it must not be good enough. The micro cities are built and rebuilt and rebuilt again. Each building must harmonize with the other, and a lot of individual builds do not survive that test. It takes a lot of experimentation both with colors and proportions. I’m not very technique oriented, but I’m very concerned with how each piece affects the look of the whole city. There is always a difficult stage to get through. It can last for days.
Do you have sources of inspiration, e.g. other types of art or design or perhaps other LEGO builders?
Movie set design plays a big role in inspiring the micro cities. My book collection is full of “The Art of (Movie Title)” themed books. On top of that, I’m a huge art and design geek. My strategy in terms of inspiration is to saturate my mind with great work from all mediums and with any luck, something worthwhile will pour out.
There are so many great LEGO builders out there setting a high standard to work towards. Chris McVeigh’s elegant builds and stunning photography pack a real one-two punch. Spencer Rezkalla does incredible microscale work. The list goes on and on. It’s great to live in a time when you can see the work of builders living all over the world.
Almost all of your cities feature some slight optical illusions — we thought you skilfully combine buildings and structures and transport of various sizes and scales, which helps to create some forced perspective. Is this on purpose as a direct aim or a side effect of microscale.
Yes, forced perspective is used in the micro cities. The micro cities are all on a 20 x 20 base, which is about 6 inches square. To give the feeling of a large city in such a small space it’s essential to play with scale. Usually, the forced perspective is enforced with smaller buildings, which makes the feature buildings look more monumental than they actually are.
Do you have a particular scale you prefer to build in (eg microscale, minifigure scale, 1:1, etc)?
Right now I’m building exclusively in microscale. The puzzle-like aspect of representing details in microscale is an engaging challenge. It may take a lifetime to master. I do have a lot of minifigures waiting for something to do, however…
Prior to your cityscape models, what kind of LEGO creations did you enjoy building?
I really enjoyed building vignettes with mystery bag minifigures. The mystery bag minifigures are ingenious little works of art that are so fun to work with.
What are you currently working on and what are your plans for 2018?
I’ve been working dawn to dusk on a LEGO Micro Cities book, which is being published by the great No Starch Press and will be released this fall!
How can your fans recognize you if they bump into you?
You can look out for my photo in the upcoming book! ;-) I do normally wear a baseball hat and plaid shirt like the “Canadian” minifig.
We want to thank Jeff again for taking time off to spend with us and for sharing how he approaches creating his tiny masterpieces. In case you’ve missed it, here’s a flashback to our announcement for the Creation of Year winner back in 2017.