Great Debates! Has the Minifigure been detrimental to LEGO?

Achintya Prasad has returned from his exploration of the irradiated wasteland with spare parts for the generator, a few dozen rounds of ammunition and another article for your perusal.  Without any further ado, take it away Mr. Prasad!

Hey everyone, and welcome to another article in the new series, Great Debates! Today, I’m going to examine the large social phenomenon, one of the largest examples of a non-organic population created by humanity, the popular minifigure. Though introduced in 1978, the humble plastic figure has recently become far more than a playable accessory. Entire product lines, such as the LEGO collectible series, steadily crank out new minifigures, forgoing the traditional LEGO playbook of small to large sets, containing components.

Now, before I go any further, I have to say that even your studious guide (yours truly) to this topic has fallen victim to the wave of LEGO minifigures.  I’m not bashing people that buy the, for lack of a better term, action figure kits, that is the Minifigure series. But I think we all agree that buying these kits are not the same as buying a LEGO set, as there aren’t nearly as many components. The subject of these packs is the minifigure itself, not any particular object. Anyways, I once bought handful of LEGO British Royal Guards from Bricklink, at an astronomical price, only to have the figures be stashed away for years in a dresser. I’m sure they’ll eventually have some value as a collector’s set, but nonetheless, I probably could have spent the money on something far more useful. That said, I still feel that maybe, just maybe, they’ll be useful to me…

Truth is, I never had a problem with minifigures, but a recent trip to the LEGO store made me reconsider the actual role of the minifigure, and what it means for the hobby as a whole. I feel that this whole trend is most infamous for, frankly, ruining many of LEGO’s attempts at UCS style kits. A prime example of what I’m talking about is found on the Super Star Destroyer kits LEGO released a few years. The entire cityscape of greeble in the middle of the creation was designed to be shallow, to allow some classic scenes from the movies to be included in the kit. Of course, the 15-mile-long SSD is nowhere near to scale with the minifigure. This matters as, by definition, the UCS style kits are Ultimate Collector’s Items, not a kid’s play thing. The model is designed for large scale and accuracy to the movie, so why would include minifigures? They do little to enhance the actual purpose of these kits, and instead require unnecessary provisions inside a technically complex model. But perhaps that doesn’t quite bother you, as after all, the actual lines of the mammoth SSD aren’t quite ruined by the inclusion. Well, constant reader, let me direct your attention to one of the most controversial, infamous, and long-lived Star Wars model released: the minifigure Death Star.

 

91vIUgfOhpL._SL1500_.jpg

The Death Star was minifigures galore, 23 to be precise. The only thing the creation actually shared with the movie WMD is, well, the rough geometric shape (and even that is after squinting at a picture of the model after its been faxed through 12 different time zones and 8 Xerox copiers). As a microscale builder fixated on details, scaling and proportion (most of my creations are actually built using calculated dimensions, scale, and real-life examples, I’m that pedantic) this set is the spawn of Satan. At an exorbitant price of over $300, the set is a showcase, once again, of the famous scenes from the movies, and includes a massive amount of minifigures to complement the scenes. But accuracy? Who cares. Precision? Save that for the hobby modelists (see what I did there?!) If I’m going to be honest, I hate the Death Star set, and I really can’t fathom why LEGO is still trying to pawn the kit off to FOLs, at such a huge cost, with little in the way of exterior detailing.

Now, you may think, alright, so some sets are compromised by the playability “necessity” of the minifigure. You may also argue that there are plenty of kits that either utilize the minifigure very usefully (see the modular building line ups) or kits that are impressively built without considering minifigures (such as my all time favorite set, the Boeing 787, or my second favorite kit, the new Ideas Saturn V rocket).

 

10177.jpg

 

To all that, I answer, rubbish. In similar manner to James May’s hatred of the Nurburgring effect on car comfort, quality, and practicality, I think the minifigure is purveying an upheaval that is changing the purpose of LEGO itself.

I’ve mentioned this before in the article, and if you’ve looked through my photo stream, you’d know that I’m a primarily microscale military builder. And, in reality, the LEGO minifigure has done much for this side of the community. It’s common practice to use minifigure screwdrivers as gun barrels or binoculars as, well, whatever you want them to represent. In fact, I would argue that the whole idea of Nice Parts Usage (NPU) would not exist without the help of the minifigure. But see, the even in military building, including space and detail work for minifigures is a hassle that rarely results in a scale model (after all, minifigures are notorious for their “cute” inaccuracies of the human body) being accurate to the source material. And that really begs the question, what is the point of a LEGO Model (deep, I know). In the past, we discussed accuracy, but really that’s only half the battle. See, the minifigure adds the LEGO profit baseline: playability. As LEGO enthusiasts, we have to ask ourselves, is that our end goal? If it is, job done. But something tells me that the community builds for far more. See, I think that the goal is functionality.

I should explain, playability does NOT equal functionality. When a model, say, our Death Star example, is designed, it is originally created around the playability idea. Functionality, on the other hand, is something uniquely different. Its retractable landing gear, or moving drawbridges. Its 5 speed technic gearboxes, or moving Mech legs. Playability harvests the fruits of functionality to leverage an experience that allows the enthusiast to tell a story or playout a scenario. Functionality, however, has more uses. Perhaps functionality is used to service a detailed water mill on an Old English town scene. That same functionality helped create the sub-genre of motorized tank building, that creates realistic tanks with rotating turrets, functioning suspension, and even working cannons. Functionality allows the artist to express a depth in a creation. It’s more than a static model, it’s a faithful recreation of the subject, right down to the object’s intended purpose. It may not be an easy designation to make, but this is one of the biggest difference that marks us experienced FOLs aside. We’re building to service that accuracy, within the confines of the LEGO brick, all the while including some of the interesting movements and purposes of the subject material. While we may play or swoosh around an aircraft we build, fundamentally, the playable feature is still given to the minifigure, as that is the intended purpose of the little plastic men. If you need further convincing, consider this for a moment, which series is functional, Technic or LEGO city? Which one is more play friendly, Star Wars battle pack sets, or a Creator large scale car (such as the Mini Cooper or Ferrari F40)?

Perhaps another notable comparison is between the minifigure and its distant cousin, Army Men. Sold literally by the bucket, these plastic privates have taken major roles in movies such as Toy Story, and have inspired millions of people. Army Men, for what their worth, are all play. While there are communities out there dedicated to introducing realism to these little lieutenants, these flash-ridden toys are really all play. It’s notable that its common place to receive some larger military equipment, such as jeeps and cannons, with these playsets, similar to models being included with LEGO minifigures. While army men are also related to Hobby Models, and are often roughly to scale with these sets, they aren’t intrinsically adding something extra to the hobby, while minifigs have some noted innovation in microscale parts. Despite this difference however, the primary purpose of both the minifigure and the army man is play. This is something that I feel is stressed by toy companies and the LEGO group alike.

See, during my LEGO store visit (where I carefully and admittedly embarrassingly engaged the tessellation game which is packing a Pick a Brick cup), I noticed a larger and larger selection of minifigure related products. From the Pick-your-minfig station to the growing number of “battle kits” from Star Wars, to the numerous examples of LEGO City sets, the place was overrun with the plastic figure. Sure, I understand that selling playability is a lot easier than selling the different enthusiast goals of functionality, but that whole concept is what LEGO was literally built on. Ole Kirk Christian’s automatic binding bricks were an innovation in functionality in their own right (I mean think about it, you can put two plates together and literally it takes the force of a supernova, brick separator, or a good pair of teeth quite a bit of grief to pull apart FACT). While minifigures may be making innovation in the ever present NPU community, and the social justice community (women scientist series), I don’t think building a kit around the minifigure is quite the vision of the original company, or indeed, the trend of the bleeding edge of most LEGO community.

Now, for sure, the minifigure is an important part of the community. But when we start the cringe inducing shortcuts in the City line of sets, or create UCS kits just to include minifigures, we’re shortchanging ourselves from truly enjoying LEGO to its full potential. If the whole goal of LEGO is to create something outside the confines of the singular brick, why must we also be chained to including the venerable minifigure? Let us know your thoughts in the comments down below.

Great Debates! LEGO vs Hobby Modeling

The Manifesto is proud to present the first installment of what will hopefully develop into a regular column by noted TFOL, Achintya Prasad.  If you dwell exclusively in the lands of Flickr you may not be aware of him (he’s on Flickr but not as popular as he should be), but Mr. Prasad has amassed quite a following of admirers on MOCpages, where he is well known as a builder of outstanding military models.  What makes him unique though is his dedication to the power of debate and détente between community members, running groups devoted to the topic.  As it turns out, Achintya is also an aspiring scribe and unlike so many of you who have expressed an interest in writing for this venerable blog….he actually came through.  Bested by a teenager, the shame of it all.  If you are not familiar with his work and you’re too lazy to take the links, here is a sampling of Prasad Heavy Industries most popular offerings.

So move aside you rubes, and let the man come through. Writers live and die on feedback, so don’t hesitate to engage in the comment section with your usual vigor.  Take it away Achyntia!

Hello everyone, and welcome to the first ever out-of-left-field discussion of the intricacies an existential analysis of the hobby we all love, LEGO. In this first installment, we are going to delve deep into perhaps the biggest rivalry you have never heard about: LEGO versus Hobby Modeling. To give some perspective on my position, I have been involved in both LEGO and Hobby Modeling projects, and have seen the methods and processes of both interest areas. So, with that cleared, let the analysis begin!
To be clear, when I talk about Hobby Modeling, I’m talking about all forms of plastic building kits, from the likes of Revel to Hasegawa. While many associate Hobby Modeling (hither forth referred to as HM) with model aircraft, the truth is that the community has expanded into numerous fields, from warships to classic cars. While this comparison is still quite apples to oranges, we shall still pick apart the two fields and see what each area is actually made of.
LEGO’s cornerstone is the LEGO brick. The quintessential element, the humble 2×4 red brick is a staple in the minds of millions across the world. Of course, if you’re reading this, then you know LEGO is far more than that, crossing into the complex world of mechanical and structural engineering via the Technic system and other LEGO branches. Finer details, sometimes known in the trade as “greebling” is accomplished by miscellaneous pieces, from tiles to minifigure utensils.

newt16.jpg
HM, on the other hand, doesn’t quite have such an internationally recognized standard. Unlike branches such as Technic and Power Functions, HM primarily focuses on static display, coupled with skills in painting. Detail work of models is also done via water or oil based decals, designed to offer fine, natural looking detail without the thickness of stickers. For the most part, a HW box will contain anywhere from a dozen to hundreds of tiny plastic elements, attached to sprues.
Both branches, in the material sense, do share a common component: plastic, though to varying degrees. LEGO is world-renowned for its military grade precision in its factories, from the injection molding machines to the robotic transporters. HM, on the other hand, prefers to handle the challenge of assembly of even base elements to its enthusiasts; “flash” (or extra plastic left over from the molding process) cleaning is a vital step before the assembly of any model.

 

Now, examining LEGO and HM in a much wider aspect, we get into something known colloquially as “Kit-bashing.” It’s the bane of any child or parent attempting to ensure a LEGO kit is completed correctly, and the downright insanity that plagues the first HM projects, where the amateur rips the pieces off the sprue before even consulting the instructions. Both, however, tell an interesting tale of the fundamental difference at the heart of LEGO and HM: focus. Put it simply, LEGO is accuracy, and HM is precision. When you’re putting together a 1/72 scale model of an SR-71 Blackbird, you know the final product will look like a Mach 3 spy plane, unless you saw off the tails. What really counts HM are the details; making sure each individual dial in the cockpit is painted and labeled, and each landing gear strut might as well have come from SkunkWork’s planning division themselves. LEGO is far different. It’s simply impossible to recreate that same Blackbird with that level of detail at that scale. Instead, a LEGO builder must attempt to find accuracy in the final looks of the aircraft. Preserve the dark exterior and basic shape, and forget about any realistic attempts of finer detailing (unless you paint your pieces, in which case, shame on you!) Examining Kit-bashing, you see a similar technique. Kitbashing for HM is a very precise game, where elements from other kits are often filed down or otherwise modded to fit another kit, via putty or other techniques. LEGO, using its own universal dimensions, completely does away with any compatibility issues, again because the focus of the LEGO brick is on accuracy. The turbine inside that SR-71 is built with a similar, compatible piece as the third gear in a transmission of a power functions tractor-trailer. The same can’t be said for the detailed components of an HM kit.

674x501_15878776_9250653_1475027627.jpg.png
Before moving on, I’d like to bring special attention to a comparison that really drives home the accuracy vs precision argument. Below you will see two images, one of a 1/36 scale F-14 Tomcat built by the world’s premier LEGO aircraft builder, Ralph Savelsberg, and the other being a 1/32 scale Tomcat from Tamiya, an HM model company. Excusing the slight differences in scale and image quality, the point is seen clearly. The use of LEGO curved slope elements lent a fuselage shaping almost precisely to what we see in Top Gun. Tamiya, however, simply molded the shape to the exact specifications of the plane. Ralph nailed the paint job of the aircraft as a whole, but the Tamiya model managed to incorporate every panel gap, every warning label, and every bolt. Both are outstanding models, but each play to a completely different strength. Working inside the confines of the square LEGO universe, Ralph recreated the rippling, muscular body of the Tomcat, while Tamiya model managed to take Tom Cruise’s aircraft and throw it into a shrink ray. To the casual observer, these differences are hardly noticeable. To us enthusiasts, however, the differences draw the definitive line between LEGO and HM (unless you aren’t a purist, which is a discussion for another time).


From aircraft builders to even the most dedicated train builders, the differences are stark and apparent. I remember the day the Emerald Night Train kit was released. I watched the LEGO interview of the designer behind the project, and distinctly remember his pride in announcing several new train wheels. For years LEGO hadn’t done much for the train community, with few new elements for train enthusiasts to choose from. For HM, however, that has never been an issue. Think the train wheel included in your S2 class Baldwin locomotive is too small? That’s fine, just purchase a Soviet IS class steam locomotive and switch the wheels (actually, I have no idea how trains work, so apologies to the facepalming train fans, though the point still stands). The Kit-bashing of HM, while tricky in terms of compatibility, offers something LEGO fans today dream about: a larger, more specialized component pool.

 

Of course, those are the stories of the materials at hand. But the true test of these hobbies are found in the hobbyist. Both clubs are known to have different presences in communities, both locally and online. In terms of local clubs, the LEGO group is by far the more active in communities, with LEGO events scheduled via both LEGO official stores and LUGs. HM’s, meanwhile, are more fragmented, with no real support from concrete stores from the makers of model kits. While this can be attributed to the decline of sales for these companies since the early 2000’s, it shows a clear difference. While hobby shops still keep entire aisles for hundreds of different pots of paint for models, none of that compares to LEGO Land, not to mention the massive site Bricklink and LUGs, officially sanctioned by the LEGO group themselves.
But what does all this mean? How do these two similar yet different hobbies compare? In the end, I think the advantage of expanded areas and development must fall to LEGO. The humble brick is far more than a model builder; it’s a story-teller, one that reflects the ideas and personality of many different builders. HMs, meanwhile, have the advantage in realism. Building a LEGO F-22 Raptor would never end up in a completely accurate scale model, at least compared to the sharp lines and intricate detailing a HM can afford. My personal experience has always been the same: LEGO’s handicaps are its strengths, that is, its universal compatibility system. Quite simply, the blasted system makes it impossible to recreate the small details on a battleship or train. HM, however, allows me to include each individual air vent on a Bofors 40mm, but leaves me high and dry when I want to build something on my own. Really, it’s up to the viewer, which do you prefer? Story telling imagination, or realistic detailing? Is your hobby a sanctuary for your own ideas and thoughts, or is a projection of your skills onto the real world? Let us know in the comments below.