Recently TBB’s Chris Doyle shared with us his journey of creating a custom LEGO Art mosaic. One of the tools Chris used, LEGO Art Remix, was an essential step towards getting to the finished product. We took some time to talk to Creator Deb Banerji about the project. With his background in Computer Science, Deb coded the foundation of the LEGO Art Remix tool in about 5 hours, though he’s spent a bit more time refining it since then. I’ve had some hands-on time with it from the first release and to its current final form, and it’s only gotten better. The latest results output close to a finished mosaic design that you can immediately start building within minutes if you had the parts on hand.
Mosaic creations using LEGO studs and plates are not something new. LEGO fans have been making them for decades, and official sets have been around even longer (Read a brief history in our review of LEGO Art 31199 Iron Man). What’s I’m hoping to do here is explore how to get to a presentable and decipherable mosaic in the shortest amount of time possible, from image upload through to knowing which pieces to order on Bricklink. I know at the outset that virtually all custom LEGO mosaic creations will require some amount of tweaking eventually. But the LEGO Art Remix takes away a huge portion of the work needed, only leaving you to fine-tune a little if you wish. Casual fans just want to build with as little effort re-designing as possible, and this lowers the barrier for them to get started quickly on creating a custom mosaic artwork. There’s clear interest in this market, with LEGO’s own release of the LEGO Art line garnering broad interest among fans. Many fans who want mosaic wall art want things easy, and Lego Art Remix is that simplicity customised to your own images instead of being stuck to what LEGO provides.
Part 1: Hands-on experience with Lego Art Remix
For my first quick and dirty attempt, I wanted to start with something simple and recognisable. Who better to select than Mario himself? I googled a character image and picked a decent looking version, which I then cropped at the shoulders to give a nice portrait.
Test Subject 1: Mario – a cartoon character with strong bright colours.
Loading images into Lego Art Remix is a no brainer. When you visit the website, the screen below is all you get on the landing page. Don’t let that fool you though. Its superpower is its simplicity and efficiency.
Once you upload an image, you’re presented with a few options. With very little effort in manipulating the options, I was able to achieve the below outcome. I didn’t take note of my specific settings, but it involved selecting a few new colours and increasing the number of available elements for each colour.
The results were a great first start. My next thought, however, was that if cartoon-like characters with simple colors were easy, I should try something a little more challenging.
Test Subject 2: Michael Keaton, Batman. My consideration here was that should be something that I’d actually want to build if it turns out well.
Besides cropping into a square frame up close, I did a bit of light editing to remove the background around his left shoulder and cowl area. Once I imported it, manipulation and fine-tuning for this image were a little bit more tricky. I wanted Batman’s insignia to retain its yellow bits, but as you can see, it didn’t quite turn out as such. This is where I felt that if I needed to complete the build, there would be some manual intervention and placement.
Once again, I was overall rather pleased with the results, knowing that with a 64×64 stud configuration, the outcome was something that could be built with sufficient details and shades.
Test Subject 3: More Batman, because I can. Here I’m experimenting with long-portrait mode.
Cropping and ensuring the right aspect ratio for stud count is all that’s needed. This one required no artwork manipulation before I uploaded it. Knowing how Mario turned out, I wasn’t quite sure about how the gradients would turn out.
The outcome was decent overall. I had to add a few additional colours and piece count to get the final effect but I’m satisfied with the colour translations and consider it a job well done.
Test Subject 4: Wonder Woman Gal Gadot. What about portrait-type image that has studio lighting quality? How would that work?
I admit I could have done a bit more tweaking on the colour palette, but I was satisfied with the results as I wanted to see how the algorithm would section out the various features. It processed the image quite well indeed. I think it would be suitable for a poster of a portrait with minor tweaks if you decided to make one of yourself.
Test Subject 5: Christoper Reeves as Superman. After all, he’s the best of the lot and my favourite. I was having fun at this point just throwing images in to see what would work. Again, my selection of this piece was also with the premise of if I had to really hang it as a decorative piece. I needed something that has a cool factor.
The results were not perfect, especially around the insignia, where I wanted the yellow parts to stand out a lot mor. There would also be some fixing needed with some red parts. With a few tweaks though, think I’d be ecstatic to have this done up proper as a mosaic for my wall.
The Instructions and Bricklink ready XML
Now that I’ve tried a few images, it’s time for the next step. Clicking on the “generate instructions” button creates a build guide almost instantaneously. The great value about this is that on the first page, it will tell you exactly how many pieces of each element are needed based on the colors you selected. Each 16×16 panel is thereafter displayed with each colour quantity required for that step. And the final part of the process is to just hit the Bricklink XML button to copy the parts you need to order via Bricklink.
Summary of the experience
Once again, what’s the big deal here? The things you see here are not something new at all, but I must say from all the various mosaic tools that I’ve used before, this is by far the simplest and easiest way to get to a final outcome that’s more than decent, especially since it’s paired with easy-to-follow instructions and relatively easy integration with Bricklink, the ordering process that most serious LEGO fans are familiar with.
What’s important here is the secret sauce. Everything is done and coded within the page that you loaded, and there’s no backend application or server needed. We’ll leave some tips and tricks at the end of the article, but for now, we had to find out more about this from Deb, so we asked him a few questions.
Part 2: Interview with Deb Banerji, creator of Lego Art Remix
TBB: Tell us why you created Lego Art Remix.
Deb: I really liked the idea of Lego Art when it was released, since it reminded me of an assignment from my computer vision class back in college. I thought it would be cool if I could use some of that knowledge to help people create pictures without having to buy parts beyond what they may already own, mostly because it’s an interesting algorithmic problem. I realised that I could use a simplified variation of the algorithm of what was used in the original assignment, followed by a custom post-processing step (this is marked as step 4 on the website).
My favourite part of the project as it exists today is still how well the algorithm is able to run due to the pixelated nature of the images–I lucked out in a way that let me make the tool accessible for free to anyone who wants to give it a shot, without having to install any software. This is definitely one of my favourite weekend projects since it combines computing with human creativity in a way I didn’t think of when I started building it. The algorithm has limitations, and depending on the input image and the parts available, may not always work very well. Ultimately, the constraints of the medium is what makes Lego art beautiful, and the tool itself is not very useful without a human choosing an image, and helping the algorithm navigate the constraints in a creative way to make something amazing.
TBB: How long did you take to code this? It seems like there’s a lot of work behind it.
Deb: Where I got lucky was that due to the nature of the problem, the resolution of the images I would have to deal with after the preprocessing step would be very low (you can only realistically achieve so much with Lego studs). This, alongside the way the postprocessing step scales meant that I would not have to worry as much about performance and that I would be able to run this directly in the browser.
Since no servers would have to be involved, and I was not dealing with a bunch of other complex infrastructure, the application itself took around 5 hours to build, and a few minutes to deploy. I put in a couple of hours some days later to address some feature requests, such as more resolutions and custom input creation.
TBB: Chris Doyle, our team member used it for his LEGO Wonder Woman mosaic. Did you see that, and what do you think of it?
Deb: I just read the article, and it’s quite interesting, especially the part about applying the algorithm with different image filter parameters to different portions of the image–just goes to show that even with good tooling, the most important part is always the people building. The funny thing is that it turns out I’ve seen this particular build before! (or at least part of it). It looks like either Alyse or Chris opened an issue on the project’s GitHub page some time ago, and linked me to their work in progress. A majority of the features that I was updating the website with were actually just the ideas that they had posted here, so it looks like we’ve come full circle.
TBB: Indeed, we happened to get in contact while Chris was already working on his build, so it’s pretty timely indeed that the stars aligned. Tell us a bit about yourself Deb? What do you do? And can you tell us a bit more about your favourite LEGO theme?
Deb: I was a pretty big Lego fan growing up, though that kind of fell off in high school and college, mostly due to time constraints. I got back into it after college, though I need to limit myself because unfortunately I am now cursed with only being able to store so much. I studied computer science in college, and every so often, I work on an open-source weekend project that’s unrelated to my regular job. I like to combine my hobbies with my knowledge of code and algorithm design, so as I started getting back into Lego, the idea of combining Lego art with computer vision seemed like a pretty natural fit.
My favourite Lego theme when growing up was definitely Harry Potter since I was also a pretty big Harry Potter fan. It’s funny how details about sets you had growing up ingrain themselves in your memory–I once made a friend in college because we had the same Chamber of Secrets set growing up, and thought the glow in the dark fangs were so cool. In recent years, I’ve really taken a liking to Lego Ideas–so many of those sets are so ambitiously designed and unique, and I actually have my eye on one for a future project (once it’s back in stock :p).
TBB: Any future extension of the LEGO Art Remix that you foresee?
Deb: Right now it’s running into some issues regarding my login, but once that’s cleared up, I think it would be cool for me to create a couple of Lego Ideas projects stemming from Lego Art Remix. It would be so convenient if Lego was able to combine the algorithm from step 3 of the tool with Pick A Brick, or a similar custom service to allow people to create and order their own art pieces directly from Lego, or if Lego just created a Lego art set with a lot of pieces representing different skin tones, paired with an app that uses the full Lego Art Remix algorithm to allow people to easily make pictures of their friends and family from the pieces already in the box. The beauty of these is that the proof of concept already exists.
TBB: That’s interesting, it’d surely be cool if LEGO picks up on this. We wish you the best! Is there anything that you’d want to share with our readers out there who may have already given Lego Art Remix a go by now?
Deb: There’s definitely a lot of room for creativity in images regarding things that the algorithm on its own cannot yet do. It would be interesting to see images that incorporate elements such as metallicity and transparency, and of course, pieces that glow in the dark are cool no matter how old you are. I’m excited to see what people come up with!
TBB: Thank you Deb for creating such a wonderful tool that does so much and especially, for keeping it as an open-source project that’s free to use. It can only mean good things if you or someone else now can even expand on it as more ideas develop. If you ask me, keeping it lightweight and simple to use is key, and that’s what you’ve achieved. All the best in your future projects!
Tips and Tricks
Here’s a quick list of things to keep in mind as you try out Lego Art Remix, based on my experience.
- The aspect ratio of your image is important. Before you upload an image, make sure it’s roughly the same aspect ratio as the layout of 16×16 stud sections that you’ll want in the finished mosaic. (e.g. 2×3 sections)
- For portraits, try to zoom in close on the facial features–this is so you can achieve a higher resolution (number of studs) to highlight the details without creating too large a canvas. You may get excited in creating a large mosaic to flesh out the fine details, but that’s going to cost you a pretty penny when you put your order in to buy the parts.
- Do some light editing of images where needed. For the second test subject, Michael Keaton’s Batman, we blacked out the area behind Batman, as it would create unnecessary noise (random coloured elements) in the final creation.
- If you’re planning to buy the required elements later, it’s a good idea to select “9999” for the element limit to maximise the elements of each colour. The instruction generator will automatically only count the actual studs needed. This section will also come in handy if you want to work within the constraints of what elements you already have.
- If you already own any or all of The LEGO Art official sets, you can input them into the tool and immediately build whatever you generate from Lego Art Remix. This is going to save you time if you don’t even wish to buy anything from another source. It’s extremely cool, but your mileage may vary. I suggest experimenting with this.
- Not all images will work perfectly. It’s best to pick something with high contrast and vivid colors.
- Don’t increase resolution if you can avoid it – mosaics are meant to be seen from a distance. When working on your Lego Art Remix outputs, take a step back from the screen and squint your eyes a little to see what the image would look like from a distance.
- Less is more. Select fewer colours when possible, the outcome may surprise you. Continue to tune Hue, Saturation and Value parameters in Step 2 little by little until it looks right.