SHIPrites Vol 1: The Journey

The Manifesto is proud to present the first installment of a month-long series by friend of the blog and creator of SHIPtember, Simon Liu.



Keith asked me to jump in and write some commentary during this rite of passage for Space builders. I might not be the best SHIPwright, but I know a few things about building ships right.

I already had a series of articles prepared for this month, a semi useful series of guides and discussions on tackling the SHIPBUILDING conundrum, especially in the tight confines that is SHIPtember, so I was very willing to join. But Keith pointed out, that an article about SHIP building is kinda obvious, the standard blog fodder, and he wanted to hear about me, and my stories. The Manifesto , in my eyes, is about story telling, commentary,criticism, and most importantly: meaningful  discussion between builders.


Next week, I don’t know what I’m going to talk about, you tell me in the comment section. You control the action. History of SHIPtember? Trends and current happenings? My favorite SHIPtember success/failures? How I probably fucked up SHIPs for the whole community? The lunacy that was battleSHIP?


The reason why I choose the story of the FK Antrotta is because it’s the truest to what I intended SHIPtember to be.  It’s not my favorite SHIP, nor the one I think is my best. But I followed the purest form of SHIPtember: Fly by the seat of your pants, zero planning building action as controlled by you: the commentators.

I actually feel less that it was ‘my‘ SHIP, but ‘OUR‘ SHIP. I may have physically put the pieces together, but it was a bit of a community effort to lead me to where it ended up to.

I’ve always imagined SHIPtember as a kind of community collab, posting WIPs for feedback and direction of where to go. The first year I had a general plan. Year three I based my SHIP off an image, but year two I had zero planning.

The only thing I did prior to SHIPtember was settle on a colour scheme. Skip back to 2014, and easily my favorite build I saw that year, was Forest King’sKingfisher“.


Here was a SHIP like none other. Forget the sleek ships of Star Trek, the colourful ships of Homeworld, and the greeble-ladened ships of Battlestar Galactica and Star Wars.

Kingfisher was a beast, it came out of the Bro-LUG cyberpoc ethos in a cacophony of dilapidated paneling. I was actually fortunate enough to witness the primordial sketch that lead to this monstrosity, in a little hotel room on Seattle (now there’s a whole new topic worthy of discussion: the crazy creative concepts that gets thrown around and conceived during or immediately after a convention.)

Suffice it to say the KingFisher left an impression on me, specifically the patches of old gray. I came into to the community with this new bley beauty as the norm, and hoarded the pretty new colour like Nutella. But when I saw how the grey-bleyadients played, I was hooked and vowed my next SHIP would follow suit and I’d order a bunch of old gray.

In fact, I partially named the SHIP after it’s builder, FK = Forest King

But you might be calling bullshit: how could I order parts in a specific colour if I didn’t know what I was building? Half points! I had no clue of what pieces I needed or how much…. so I overcompensated and just ordered a cap ton of plates in 1×4, 1×2 and 1x1s.  It should be noted that this decision on what to order (plates) dictated the final design of the ship to some degree: a lot of different paneling and flat surfaces.

So how to start building a SHIP?

I’ve seen several different approaches to this over the years, and each as their own merits.  For me though, it’ll always be like how the pros do it: start with framing and build out.  It wasn’t until I started writing this article that I realized there actually is a standard methodology of SHIPbuilding: the design spiral:


For a LEGO SHIP the process boils down quickly to: concept, structure, functions and details. There are lots of great resources in the main SHIPyard group on Flickr, just pursue each year’s SHIPtember WIP photos for inspiration and technique. Though this is probably the most useful infomatic on strong frames and here’s a great group with examples of how to add some greeble detail to your ships.

But for the purpose of this diatribe, I’m going to focus on Concept.

Most builders have a concept in mind before SHIPtember, and even post their intended builds in a tantalizing appetizer for what is to come. Some don’t post their concepts at all, instead leaving a breadcrumb of how is that even a SHIP?!?  which ultimately leads to a Hitchcockian twist. For year two, I started with no concept in mind. I treated SHIPtember as a pure month-long free flow’n jam session with my buds. Looking back, I realize it’s the most horrific example of the Agile Software design methodology:Short sprints of work, followed by user feedback and testing, then start another round of development.

I basically did this. Every day was a sprint. I did my building, I posted it and you, the clients, provided invaluable feedback on what worked and what didn’t, some even helping solve technical problems (best clients! ) and I took the feedback and iterated the design.

And that was one of my main goals of this SHIP, to go and iterate. In most cases, my builds are basically a first draft, rarely do I refine the build unless it’s going to be mass-produced or handled by others. The year prior to this build I met the great TardisBlue (Nick Trotta) and just like Forest and the Kingfisher, it had a lasting impact on me. His approach could not have been more diametrically opposed to mine: his typical starfighter building method involved hours spent finding the perfect connection and angle. Then he would iterate and try to build it better. I normally try one thing if it works, great! Move on to the next element. But Nick’s constant refinement is what makes his models so immaculate. While some might think he doesn’t really build fast, or much, I think the opposite is true.  In terms of the number of iterative sprints he must go through, I wouldn’t be surprised if he’s a monster of productivity.

So based on Nick’s build style, I knew that SHIPtember was probably never going to be something he would be comfortable partaking of, due to the time constraints.  So I stepped in and basically tried to build a SHIP like Nick would… and actively tried to iterate and rebuild sections over and over again incorporating feedback and experimentation.

This cycle of feedback to drive the concept and design worked amazingly well. Yeah I know, I was surprised too.

A good example was this:


It was pointed that I should add something to balance it out, and the black part was neat and I should expand on it. They weren’t sure where, but they suggested more black. As

well the lines were a bit disjointed and pointless …. Okay then!  next update:


The power of feedback and criticism.

This may not be arguably my best SHIP, but certainly the most refined. The collaborative nature of this build and the multiple cycles of (Build. Present. Gather Feedback. Repeat)  paid off time and time again, as the critical feedback or sometimes even crowd sourcing solutions kept making each iteration that much better.

Which was really one of the tenants of SHIPtember in the first place! I didn’t want another month where people hid and built and unveiled their masterpiece in 30 days. The real drive behind SHIPtember wasn’t the SHIPs.

But the journey.

As we all set upon this journey  (or some have already finished and it’s day 3?!?) I implore you not to forget to live in the moment. This collective creative process is what makes SHIPtember special. So post those WIPs, comment on others, take criticism  to heart and don’t be afraid to change it up.

Because after the journey all you’re left with is just a pile of LEGO pieces: HINKLE SMASH!

Oh, and Antrotta –  Named after Adelle and Nick Trotta, who not only did I try to impersonate, but also had the clutch answer to my striping problem.



11 thoughts on “SHIPrites Vol 1: The Journey

  1. Don’t be afraid to change it up. Goddamn right! I’ve seen more builds ruined by tunnel-vision than any lack of mastery of technique. Many of my own mocs have admittedly suffered from this. Being humble in this art is what will save it and examples like this are key to that survival.

    I found the greatest part of the Antrotta was watching it change every other day, there were elements that were completely awesome that were casually scrapped for the greater collective concept. Which I don’t think was ever defined as anything other than an idea, it didn’t even qualify as an abstract or a notion. And that was the ultimate beauty of it. It was an idea and ideas can always change. It’s when a build becomes a belief or dogma in the builder’s mind that it becomes a failure in the grand scheme.

    I find that I don’t care what you write about next week as this article was delightfully revealing in every way, so you could recite the Mahavamsa and I’d be fine (I’m a born-again Buddhist. 😀 Get it?) I would love for you at some point to cover the gory glory that was Battleship, specifically the audience’s cheering for Caesar Simon to launch that bitch and understand what gravity is all about. To quote Douglas Adams, “It hovered much in the same way a brick doesn’t.” Why do we want to satisfy our taste for carnage at this level? Is there some elemental synapse in all of us that requires a bit of sadism? Have we not all thought of doing the same to our own builds at some point? Does our reverence for LEGO and its destruction call for us to test both with relish? It was truly entertaining, barbaric, cathartic, sad, and ultimately empowering. Why?

    Another intriguing aspect is how people conceptualize something of this caliber. The size is universally daunting, but what is it that makes EVERY one of us feel a need to attempt a SHIP? And do it inside a month? The parameters are equally sadistic (I approve) but for all spacers this is more a necessity than a rite. Are we that thematically tunnel-visioned? When will there be TRAINtember? TRAINuary? TRAINch? Never mind that last one, it sounds like a Jason Statham movie. I suppose it is more of demographic disorder than anything relevant but I would be interested in the make up of the participants and the community percent they hold.


    Brilliant article, my friend! Keep ’em coming and a hearty MATANGO to you!


    1. Thanks for the kind words Matt!

      And I echo your thoughts, rarely can a build stand on technique alone (the Mayos, and Grant Davis’ recent master piece are the exception of the rule). Techniques help flush out a build or get the effect your looking for – but rarely do the sum of the techniques make a build.

      Antrotta was a lot of fun, and glad you were a part of it 😀

      Some great suggestions for next week, I think I have a beat on the next Sunday edition. 🙂


  2. And a hearty MATANGO to you brother, what a way to make your debut on the blog. As stupid as it sounds, I really didn’t realize how much of SHIPtember revolves around the WIP shots and the exchange of constructive criticism, I always focused on the general buzz and the sheer output each year. I viewed it more as a community phenomenon than a process driven conversation. So many participants got hung up on “the poster!, don’t forget me on the poster” that I developed some partially informed opinions that were less than kind. Even the year I participated I kind of begrudgingly did my construction journal and I deleted it when the month was over, so I’m guilty of missing the point entirely I think. I can’t be the only one so hopefully this series better informs people about your mission statement. The instructions and overview is kind of bare-bones on the Flickr Group.

    I especially enjoyed your anecdote involving Trotta, that dude has no idea what a genius he is. I liked your point about how he really is kind of prolific if you consider the time spent building, he’s like a kinder version of the Borg, he just assimilates all possibilities and spits out a masterpiece. When he sent me that kick ass rig for Bucharest, he mailed it to me in like 50 sub-assemblies with a link to one of his break-down videos, it was the most fun I’ve had rebuilding a MOC and it was a unique glimpse into his process. You nailed it man, he just hammers on each major point of interest until it’s perfect. Although I’m not as spastic as you, Mr. rough draft, I can only handle so much revision until the idea grows cold.

    I dig the stream of consciousness of the piece too, you had your points, but it flowed in a way that is very consistent with the blog. I’m stoked for the next volume. Don’t be shy with the numbers, how many have played? How many SHIPs on the sacred poster? How many fails, What about the poster-thing? So much I’d like to know, dig deep my friend, I know people will dig it. Above all, thanks for coming through with the content, it’s this kind of perspective that keeps the Manifesto interesting.



    1. Thanks Keith for this opportunity to spew my consciousness on the internet.

      Well the idea of the WIP and comments were more emphasized year one and two I think. And this was a bit of the rationale, but you know me, my efforts have to be easily accessible to all, so I didn’t try to steal the shop back so to speak.

      At one point there was to be a trophy for the best commentor, I made illusions to it in the original refrain but I don’t recall falling through / no one called me on it.

      But I’ll make sure I reinforce it a bit this year!

      Haha yes, I’ve watched Mr. Blue put together his own star fighters and it was the same deal. He pulled out his phone and watched his own video. It was brilliant.

      Numbers are great, but require work.
      I’ll see what I can do.


  3. Great piece indeed. I have always felt like SHIPtember was more about the process and the community involvement as well. They journey was the thing. I think that the judging round kind of lost focus the last couple of years, rewarding those whose ship looked best on the poster and kind of ignoring those who bled their sufferings onto the page as it were. I also love when folks are clearly trying something new instead of the tried and true, “building something from a popular ip is sure to get more clicks” mentality that seems to prevail among SHIPtember-ers.

    Thanks again.



    1. Hey Nathan,

      Thanks for chiming in, you’ve always ‘got’ what this was suppose to be about.

      I always found the judging to be difficult to balance, as you said, it kind a goes against the original spirit which has evolved. I tried a few things, trying to make awards for specific criteria to reinforce certain ideals… but even that has gotten a bit lost.
      Last year was a bit skewed as I was tasked to write a series of articles for TBB which resulted in focusing on the wrong thing.

      In my mind there really are two actually important SHIPtember trophies: People’s choice (which I can win!) and ‘Spirit of SHIPtemeber’ which now that I think about should be given out more – being one that most representative of the journey.

      Not the destination.


  4. That article was a delight, Simon. I highly enjoyed your perspective on concept, process, and the spirit of WIP feedback. Brilliant!

    I also dug your framing of the broader concept within a singular build retrospective. The journey, indeed. 🙂 To that end, here’s a vote for more future “look backs” on a specific build, a series of models, or evolution of the builder.

    Lastly, I remain *highly honored* by the Antrotta naming, and the way-too-kind comments from you and Keith above. Thanks, guys!


    1. Hey Nick, thanks for the comment.

      Evolution of a builder would be an interesting take…
      And there are a surprisingly large number that have done all 3 years, and on the way for for a four-peat.

      Or maybe comparisons between different builders, or dare I ask the horrifically politically incorrect question of who hasn’t ‘evolved ‘ in last 3 yes And building the same thing?…


  5. WOW, Great interview, ShipTember is special , when you think about a spaceship you can say “Ok, It’s just a spaceship” , but when you reminber that the spaceship needs to have 100 studs or more, every thinking goes down, It’s extremely intense.
    ShipTember it’s a good month for a big challenge!!


    1. Gil!

      Yes, it’s not the easiest thing for most people to build, even for vets, it’s about the best SHIP you can build. And it’s as intense as you can handle!


  6. Simon,
    Excellent read! I especially enjoyed reading about the notion of buying blind. You knew you liked the colors… but you had no idea of how much you would need, so you bought lots of plate. That seems like a perfectly natural solution to me! Just get your hands on the parts and start playing around.

    I also liked the detailed look at the iterative process. It scares me. I don’t WANT to share my build process… let people in before I’m done… incorporate their input… encounter compelling observations that force me to change direction. It all sounds terrifying or at least frustrating to me. So I am committed, I will try it! Not this year, not just yet. I can’t make good on the time commitment. But as soon as I change jobs, I think I’ll try it. Like Keith, I was on my ass about the importance of the iterative process.

    I would like to read about the challenges of running this beast. The problems you have encountered that you did not expect. The unexpected. The changes you have made to the contest based on experiences. All that stuff that makes these large efforts so difficult to do well.

    I would also love to read about what you would like to do with the contest but cant, due to some external limitations. I have no idea if any such limitations exist, but my interest is in the notion of large on-line projects and the challenges of running them.

    You make Shiptember LOOK easy, but am I safe is assuming that it has it’s HARD PARTS?

    Again, great article! Hope for more in the weeks ahead!



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