• slocumkent

Building with LEGO

Updated: Sep 24, 2021

Expressing Creativity with LEGO

In our modern, hectic society, it can be difficult to find time to rest. When I say "rest," I don't just mean sleeping. While sleep is certainly important for bodily health, it is also important to reduce stress in other ways. The best way for me to reduce stress and recharge is to engage in creative activities such as writing and building with LEGO bricks. Although my creations have become increasingly complicated over the years, the joy of creation remains pure and simple.

My love of LEGO bricks started long before I even understood how to put LEGO sets together. Having LEGO bricks at an early age expanded my creativity and helped me develop important motor skills. If not for my parents giving me my first LEGO set, I would not be the LEGO fanatic that I am today. Speaking of fanaticism, here's a quick refresher on correct LEGO lingo, courtesy of the official LEGO games podcast, Bits N' Bricks:

"Please note that this episode of Bits N' Bricks contains instances of misuse of the LEGO trademark, which must always be used as an adjective and never a noun. As a reminder, it is never appropriate to refer to the company that designs and produces LEGO brand products as 'LEGO.' Rather, the correct name for the company overall is 'The LEGO Group.' " - Ben Ungren

Correct Terminology

If the statement above feels a bit severe, then you're not alone. Like many fans who have grown up with the LEGO System of Play, I have been building with plastic interlocking bricks since before I was too young to follow instruction manuals. And the whole entire time, I have been incorrectly referring to the whole system as "LEGO." For additional proof of just how wrong I have been, here is a surprisingly polite request from The LEGO Group that I found printed on the back of an old LEGO instruction booklet. Just like the disclaimer above, this brief letter is trying to remind us that "LEGO" is an adjective, even though most people will continue to use "LEGO" incorrectly.

Unconventional Conventions

Despite the fact that The LEGO Group can be a bit narrow-minded when it comes to the use of their trademark, my fascination with the LEGO brick is due to its infinite possibilities. I can build anything that I can imagine with LEGO bricks: banks, spaceships, lightcycles, and even roller coasters! It's no wonder, then, that LEGO bricks are used in a wide variety of professional and educational settings: schools, robotics competitions, art galleries, design firms, and corporate retreats. However, the setting in which people might be most familiar encountering LEGO bricks is the ever-popular convention.

In 2013, I had the incredible, once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to attend the massive LEGO KidsFest convention at the Oregon Convention Center in Portland, Oregon. In the image below, you can see me starting to work on building a structure out of red LEGO bricks.

In the image below, you can see that I have nearly completed the LEGO arch.

In the photo below, you can see the finished arch in place:

At exactly 31 seconds into the time-lapse video below, you can see my massive red brick arch added to the hundreds of other unique creations in the LEGO KidsFest Creation Nation. For some reason, it is later removed. Perhaps it used too many red bricks?

Mid-2010s LEGO Builds

Speaking of video, below is a film projector machine I made using LEGO Technic parts and pieces. I used thread to simulate the path that film would take from reel to reel, and the entire machine was operated via an RCX motor (the grey box located at the top left). Notice the spool of thread in the bottom left.

Four years after attending LEGO KidsFest, I returned to Portland once again for an incredible LEGO event, this time at the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry (OMSI). The Art of the Brick inspired me to build some of the things you can see below.

Here is a pistol that I built painstakingly from the parts of the LEGO Jumping Giant monster truck. At the time, I felt quite proud of the ergonomics and realism. Now, I feel that a creation such as this is rather dangerous, considering recent events. However, that was not my intention when I first built it. Since this was built entirely from Technic pieces, it is an extremely solid build: it took me longer to take apart than to put together! Take a look at this blog post to see how I used the wheels from this same Jumping Giant monster truck set to build the massive mining dump truck pictured below:

Another (but very different) vehicle is pictured below, which I built by combining my LEGO Mindstorms motorized robotics system and my LEGO PowerMiners Crystal Sweeper set. The top section could rotate a full 360 degrees, as well as raise and lower in order to sweep crystals and bricks into the collection bucket.

Current LEGO Projects

Although LEGO KidsFest and The Art of The Brick are no longer touring, other events have stepped in to fill the strong demand from LEGO AFOLs (Adult Fans Of LEGO) for conventions and meet-ups. The largest of these on the West Coast of the United States, Bricks Cascade, is held annually at the Portland Convention Center. Since the COVID pandemic canceled both the 2020 and 2021 events, I am planning to present at next year's Bricks Cascade Convention. Here is a sneak peek at my presentation. You might notice that most of the photos in this blog post depict fairly crude and rudimentary designs. That is because my more advanced and recent builds are not represented here. Instead, I have adopted a completely different workflow with my current LEGO building projects.

In the past, my extremely limited collection of bricks limited me to just a few creations at a time. This meant that as soon as I had built something, I had to snap a few photos and then promptly deconstruct it in order to work on something new. However, this has changed.

My new, improved workflow starts with an existing set (for example, set #4193, The London Escape). Below is an image of the original set:

Since I specialize in improving and enhancing existing sets, my limited collection of bricks actually works in my favor to maximize creativity with constraints. Since I couldn't completely rebuild this set, I ended up combining it with another from a completely different theme (set #6918, Blacksmith Attack), shown below:

The result is something that still looks like an official LEGO set and isn't insanely large, but has more playability and greater detail than either of the two sets by themselves:

As you may have guessed, the images above are not images of the version I actually built. That's because I generally don't take any photos of my completed builds. Instead, I reconstruct the build in, the powerful and user-friendly 3D LEGO digital building tool from Bricklink. Since I don't create massive MOCs (My Own Creations) like the ones often displayed at large LEGO AFOL conventions, it usually only takes an hour or two to assemble a fully-digital representation of my creation within the modeling program. Then, I use to generate high-definition renders of my creation from multiple angles and in perfect lighting conditions. I save these photos along with the digital file so that I can find and rebuild the set at any time in the future. As the images above demonstrate, there is a clear advantage to generating renderings over taking photos of the actual set. Using digital modeling, awesome images (such as the underside of a LEGO ship in the following image) can be taken, which would be nearly impossible to capture in real life:

Because rendering high-quality images takes a long time, I have not yet generated satisfactory images of all my most recent LEGO creations. Here is a real-life photo of a modified version of set #7415 Aero Nomad (please forgive the poor lighting conditions and image quality):

Another example of a set that I expanded and improved upon in #4194 Whitecap Bay:

You may notice that the main theme of all of these builds is that they don't look too different from the original set. That is partly the point. LEGO designers are very good at what they do, and they work very hard to ensure that every piece counts in the final official LEGO products. I want to preserve what makes the original sets so great while "plussing" them with more detail, greater stability, extra play features, and newer parts. However, it is just as difficult to remain true to the original design as it would be to make something from scratch. That's because it is extremely tempting to build something completely new, like the MOCs on display at LEGO conventions or on the LEGO Masters TV shows. However, having access to more bricks and fewer constraints is actually a detriment to my building ability. While I think that I would want a massive brick pit at my fingertips, it would in reality overwhelm me with possibilities and cause me to freeze up from indecision. With so many bricks, I would end up wasting my time on projects that don't pan out. This is a real effect, highlighted in a September 2021 New York Times article about Big Tech.

The article pointed out that the world's largest and richest tech giants spend billions of dollars annually on expensive projects that never result in any real success. Why do they throw billions of dollars at niche ideas? Because the money is burning a big hole in their pocket! It's been shown that when that much money is concentrated in the hands of just a few companies, it prevents smaller, more agile companies from implementing realistic, practical ideas that would result in real competition and major improvements for society. Although these fortunes allow Big Tech to pursue ridiculous ideas that just might work out, more often than not it simply results in companies that are less effective, efficient, and creative. The same applies to building with LEGO.

Having a wide variety of bricks in many different shapes and colors splinters my focus and distracts me from a specific goal. Having to work under price and part constraints allows me to zero in on what I actually need to complete a project, and then helps me move on afterwards, instead of making endless modifications. Taking a brain break like that is good for creativity, since it allows me the headspace to obtain inspiration from other areas of life.

Although the examples I have shown in the section are all of fairly medieval origin with muted colors, I have also been working on some LEGO City sets that have a much more colorful aesthetic. Stay tuned for more.

Early LEGO Builds

Of course, I was building with LEGO bricks long before I had a video camera. Although images are hard to come by, I have been able to scan some old family photos of the following creations:

The image at right is an aircraft carrier flanked by a submarine. Notice that the hull of the aircraft carrier uses several different brick colors because I did not have the variety of pieces necessary to build everything in a single color scheme. This is a common thread with most amateur builders: a lack of bricks.

The blurry, out-of-focus image below shows an eight-wheeler I built a very long time ago. Even though the picture is a bit fuzzy, you can see that I incorporated a hollow back-end with a lowering access ramp. The hardest part of the vehicle was the grill on the front, which unfortunately is not very visible from this angle, but later inspired the mining truck that I showed earlier.

The festive photo below shows a fishing pole I constructed out of LEGO pieces! Because of the length of the finished creation, it was necessary to use LEGO Technic pieces to hold everything together. Unlike real fishing poles, however, this LEGO build would not be able to reel in anything larger than a goldfish cracker. At this length, the LEGO bricks tend to lose some of their clutch power, making them weak and easily breakable.

You can also watch videos of some of my past LEGO creations on my YouTube channel:

In the very distant past, I tried my hand at building planets out of LEGO bricks. As you can see, I did a very poor job. Little did I know that building spherical objects out of rectangular bricks is one of the greatest challenges for any builder; in fact, LEGO Master Builders must past this test in order to receive official certification!

LEGO Inspiration

Speaking of LEGO Master Builders, the Fox Television Network has just finished airing the second season of the ever-popular LEGO Masters competition show. This fascinating show continues to inspire me to try new building techniques, step out of my LEGO comfort zone, and dream big. Who knows? Thanks to LEGO IDEAS, maybe one day a LEGO set that I designed will be on store shelves! In the meantime, you can keep up with LEGO news by subscribing to The Bricks King Podcast wherever you listen.

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