Bricks LA 2018: The Long Winded Tales of a Jaded Lego Nerd

They say that Lego blog readers don’t care about convention coverage, they say that unless you were present to join in the action personally it is impossible to appreciate the experience fully.  They even claim that people are resentful of parties they are not invited to.  While I don’t necessarily debate this sage and long-standing wisdom, I’m throwing caution to the wind to provide you with the unvarnished truth of my time in the city of angels.  It took me almost a full week to process everything that went down in order to compose my thoughts in a way that didn’t read like an embittered rant and even allowing for the interval I’m not sure I succeeded.  But I am confident you’ll let me know in the comments.  -Spoiler Alert!-  Bricks LA 2018 was in turns awkward, uninspiring and mostly boring, which is the greatest sin any convention can commit.

I journeyed to America’s second largest city in search of big-city adventure and excitement but found only regional boilerplate and the only fun was the fun we brought with us or had nothing to do with the convention itself.  For the T.L.D.R. crowd you can check out now, go back to your video game and jumbo-sized bowl of paste, but the rest of you should gird your loins and prepare for a deep dive into….mediocrity.  We’ll get into it later but this was the convention that made me realize I’ve become terribly jaded, almost incapable of enjoying the conventional traditions of our people. So if you were there and you think I’m being terribly unfair, take solace in the fact that this review may have more to do with my growing disenchantment with the very concept of conventions than the event itself.

This was Bricks LA, 2018.

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Continue reading “Bricks LA 2018: The Long Winded Tales of a Jaded Lego Nerd”

Mecabricks Interview (Blog or Die! Entry #16)

Accepted entry for the “Interview” category.

Author: Caleb Inman (VAkkron)

Word Count: 1,674

Mecabricks Interview

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It is my pleasure to present an interview with the mysterious man known online as Scrubs, creator and supporter of Lego CAD and rendering software Mecabricks.  Ladies, gentlemen, and constant readers, please put your hands together and lend your ears as we pull back the curtain on the life and work of the one and only Mr. Nicolas Jarraud!

[Caleb Inman: CI; Nicolas Jarraud: NJ]

CI: Hello Nicolas!  Can you give me a brief description of yourself, either education or career, and your interest in Lego?

NJ: I was born in France in the early 80s and like most kids there I played with LEGO in my childhood. The sets that we owned with my sister are now in a big case stored at my parents’ place. I currently live on the other side of the globe in New Zealand where I moved more than a decade ago. Until recently I was designing production equipment for a medical company. I am now working for a big tech company as an optical engineer where we design the next generation cockpits for traditional and self-driving cars.

My dark age finished somewhere in 2011 when I started Mecabricks. I had to catch up on 15 years of LEGO products and history! From this date, I accumulated a big amount of sets. Way too many according to my wife. Some of them to keep like the modular buildings and others only for parts that I model.

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Render credit: Nicolas

CI: Impressive to hear you actually buy parts in order to model them for your parts library.  That’s an amazing level of dedication.  Do you actually use those Lego pieces that you’ve bought to build anything?  What made you decide to devote your time to virtual building, and why do you believe virtual building is important?  What are benefits of digital Lego modelling over physical building?

NJ: I am not really a builder. I can barely follow the instructions from the LEGO manuals and I always have pieces remaining at the end! I am not bringing any news by saying that LEGO is expensive. Building virtually allows to use any quantities of any parts in any colours. Freedom! You are not constrained by physics. Parts can intersect and are not subject to gravity. This is a different way of thinking and it can appeal to both people wishing to build their creations later with real bricks or simply create something more abstract that is not possible in real life.

To put it in a wider context, this is also a fun way for kids (or adults) to discover CAD (Computer-Aided Design) and maybe generate vocations. With the likes of 3D printing or laser cutting being more and more accessible to the public, understanding CAD system is a nice to have skill.

CI: I know exactly what you mean, and in fact I was one of those kids who decided to be an engineer because of my experiences with Lego CAD programs.  However, I used LDD, and there were other CAD programs available for Lego building before Mecabricks.  Can you describe your experience with them, and the problems they had that you are trying to solve with Mecabricks?

NJ: LDD is not for me. Too many constraints. I am not able to build anything with it. I always end up fighting with parts to put them in the right orientation at the right place. LDraw based CAD software were maybe the opposite at the time. Too much freedom and therefore the same issues. I have also been asked multiple times why Mecabricks was not using the LDraw part library – For the same reason I wanted something unique for the building tool, I did not want to depend on a third-party library. I managed to create a whole separate system using modern tools and modern formats.

Overall, I love technical challenges which was probably the main driver. Bringing more options to people is also not a bad thing. All of them are very different in the way they work.

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Render and model by saabfan2013

CI: So Mecabricks is essentially build from the ground up.  Very impressive.  What else makes Mecabricks unique?  Has developing a community forum and website helped to generate interest in your CAD program?

NJ: Mecabricks doesn’t need to be installed. This is only online. You open your browser on your computer or your tablet and you have all your files available with the latest version of the tools and the parts. It all happens seamlessly. This is a big advantage for example for schools where it can be a complicated process to get anything installed on the kids’ machines.

Mecabricks is also a great place to discuss everything about digital LEGO. The forum is still pretty basic but includes a lot of great tips for building and rendering. You will find there talented people with different skills: Renderbricks for technical stuff, Zanna for the artistic side, Saabfan (one of the designer of the Apollo Saturn V set)  for the building technics to name a few.

CI: You are doing some ground-breaking work with digital render systems.  First, tell me how these renders are becoming more and more realistic, and closer to mimicking real-life photography.

NJ: It is only in 2014 that I have been pushed by user Renderbricks to create export tools so that models could be opened in traditional 3D software. This has brought Mecabricks to a new level and I am now working at making this even easier and more accessible to a wider audience.

My favourite software is of course Blender and in the recent years the community has been really active. The rendering engine called Cycles is now mature and powerful. I am closely following the development and every new feature they provide is implemented in the Add-ons available on Mecabricks.

In the past few years I also spent way too much time observing and taking close shots of LEGO elements to understand how they interact with light. Being an optical engineer was a big help.

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Render credit: Nicolas

CI: I wouldn’t have thought of that.  That’s a great way to combine career experience with your hobby.  I am sure the technical expertise extends far beyond light and computer programming. Is the hardware system just as complex?  Also, what will be the availability of this render feature?

NJ: This new feature of Mecabricks will be available in the second half of January 2018. It will be possible to create stunning images in your browser without special knowledge. Although the use is very simple, this is not the case of the system that is running in the background.

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Render by Renderbricks

CI: I have heard the phrase “render farm” used.  Can you describe what that means and how is this the best option for builders who want to render their models?

NJ: The main issue with 3D rendering is that it takes a lot of power and a lot of time. It can take multiple hours for common home computers to calculate a single frame. So, the idea here is to send the LEGO scene to special computers that are built for this task only. When the render button is clicked, a 3D file is created and sent to New Zealand. This file is then converted to a Blender scene and shared among multiple computers to be rendered. The final image is assembled and composited before being sent back to the user.

As an example, a 4K images (3840×2160) that would take more than 3 hours to be generated on my 3-year-old iMac is only taking about 7 minutes with the system I designed and built. Everything is optimized for LEGO rendering.

Ease of use, quick turnaround and guarantee to use the latest render features available are the key aspects of the Mecabricks render farm.

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Render by Nicolas; Model by IstakaCiti (link unavailable)

CI: Who is your target audience?  Can builders from other Lego CAD software export their models into Mecabricks?

NJ: Anybody willing to showcase a digital 3D LEGO creation. I think it will be popular among designers posting projects on the LEGO Ideas platform. Having nice presentation images is a bonus to ensure a good visibility.

It is currently possible to import LDD models in Mecabricks with some limitations. But with minimal rework in the workshop the result it pretty good. Obviously, I am not a wizard and parts not available yet in Mecabricks cannot be imported.

CI: What will be the cost to use the rendering feature?

NJ: To be announced very soon but very affordable anyway. The goal is to find a balance to be able to pay for electrical power and any future hardware development.

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Render by Renderbricks

CI: What do you plan to do next?  Where will your innovations take you in the future?

NJ: The to-do list is never ending and the community growing. So, I try to share my time between running what is currently existing and designing the future of Mecabricks.

The next big feature that is long overdue is an instruction builder. The goal is to make a tool that is both easy to use and powerful enough to create high quality manuals.

CI: I know many builders from both the physical and virtual branches of the hobby have been waiting for an easy, comprehensive instruction builder for a long time.  That will be a massive innovation.  Before I conclude this interview, is there anything else you’d like to share with these wonderful constant readers?

NJ: Building digital LEGO models is fun and the possibilities endless. Give it a try.

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Render and model by saabfan2013

CI: You do incredible work and I have seen the excitement of people who have been able to use the render farm.  The results look spectacular.  Thank you for doing this interview, and I hope you keep up your excellent work!  Best of luck in the future.

 

*All images in this interview are made with the Mecabricks render engine and courtesy of their respective creators.

Advice Works (Blog or Die! Entry #15)

Accepted entry for the “Article” category.

Author: Caleb Inman (VAkkron)

Word Count: 1,282

Advice Works

I often see Lego touted as both an art form and as an application of engineering principles, because of its immediate tactile response and precision.  Fortunately for me and all those who choose to participate in the greater community, Lego is also a culture.  One that offers community and inspires me to learn about other people, understand our differences, and celebrate a shared passion for creativity.

Well, you already knew that.  You’ve all had that same realization.  Heck, maybe you’ve even put it all in a job application essay like I have!  Anyway, I want to tell you all a story tonight.  So fill a glass at the eternally flowing countertop that is the Manifesto, sit back, and try not to puke at the WIPs.

I want to explain what I did when both the science and the art of Lego failed me.  I had a great vision and a hopeful imagination, but not surprisingly, it was difficult to pull off.  This is a story about the creation of my Isaac Newton storytelling bust which I created in 2016 for a competition.  But I decided that I wasn’t content simply meeting the contest criteria, and Bricks Noir and Absurde were both inspiring me to push into the character-building genre.  The competition was Radley’s annual mad scientist competition, and the assignment was to build a crazy scientist in their laboratory, either real or fictitious.  I decided to make a bust of Isaac Newton, and from the first minute of my planning, I knew exactly how I wanted it to look.

I say that because I very rarely build with such complete vision.  But for this model, I knew that I wanted to build a super-realistic version of the man’s face in full or close-to-full scale.  I wanted his luscious wig to unfold with stories of his life built in miniature atop them.  I even wanted to build a Lego orrery coming out of Sir Izzy’s scalp.

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Photo Credit

The problem was, I wasn’t very good at that.  I started out with my science, by building a Technic frame, which limited my size to roughly a ¾ model.  Fortunately, that helped my tan parts collection actually stretch across the entire model, which it would not have with a full-scale face.  The wig was difficult and I wanted the fold-out miniatures to be saved for the big reveal, But I knew I was having trouble with the face when it looked far more like your grandma than Isaac Newton (reference picture).  It was time to call in the big guns.

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[First WIP Image]  Photo Credit.

I’d only seen closed-group WIPs talked about on the side a few times, and had maybe been a part of one myself.  But I decided to post a private photo of my senile, rat-haired freak to Flickr, because heaven knows I had no clue what to do next.  And that is where the beginning of my story becomes relevant.  Since this hobby has introduced me to so many engineers, artists, and everything-in-betweeners who know what they are doing, I asked them all for help.  I’ve seen carefully-worded, politically-correct posts about “comments and criticism are welcome”, but I didn’t want any criticism.  I wanted straight-up mockery, swearing and vocalized pain that my model inflicted on their eyes.  To my great delight, that is exactly what I got.

If I showed you the group of homies who commented on my model, you’d probably recognize many of the names.  That’s because the Manifesto is something amazing to me in a personal way: literally most of my good friends online are constant readers here.  Hi friends!  They breathed fire, they broke down my model step by step.  Absurde brought the technical expertise.  Keith brought the vision.  Matt brought the artistic commentary, Wolff brought the cranberry pie, and we all had a delicious collaborative Thanksgiving dinner.

Now I’m going to serve you some of the best comments that turned this build around.  I will include mostly the helpful stuff, so if you bear with me, you might learn something yourself (unless you were the person who said it).  Until further notice, please refer to the above eyesore that is a WIP.  This is what the comments applied to.

First off, Matt Rowntree chimed in early and gave some wonderful advice.  So useful, in Advice

fact, that half of my other responses were echoes of his advice, or rather, the advice of one of his mentors.

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I’ve actually taken this to heart since, and try to see through all replicas that I make with this sort of inspiration.  Matt also kindly noted that my nose was too small, citing Izzy’s “massive proboscis of pugilistic proportions”, which sounds like it could be a disease description.  If that is so, I probably suffer from the same thing.  Keith commented with some professional hair advice.

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Topsy also joined in the nose conversation, bringing some near-compliments to the table.  Unfortunately, her advice on color wasn’t going to work, but I had to make some concessions.  Luckily I took her and Keith’s advice regarding color tone and consistency, and this model made me realize the true power of color in a piece of art.

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The undisputed master of the art form (imo at least, but hopefully that’s enough credit to his skill) Letranger Absurde graced my page with his presence and offered some frank and very specific suggestions.  I am so glad I changed the nose and got rid of those two awful studs above the round 2×2 tile as well.

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My good buddy Josiah pointed out that the focal point of the picture was off, something that I hadn’t even considered when building it.  Again, that’s a piece of advice that has stuck with me for every model I’ve built since.

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After all this welcome but challenging feedback, I took two weeks to improve the model.  In this case, improve actually meant scraping off everything but the lips and chin, which had been the only unanimously liked part.  The result is shown below, with the final version at the bottom.  Fortunately this second iteration was such a hit that there was very little to change.  Even I as the artist could just feel that this was almost spot-on, and I was expecting the minor critiques that I got.  Some of that second-round feedback is posted below.

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I think the best thing I heard was “recognizable”.  I learned the valuable lesson that mimicry of real people with Lego is hard.  But fortunately, with the specific advice from people who had very good perspective, I was able to look past my creator’s blind spot and see this through their eyes.

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[Second WIP Image]  Photo Credit.

I know SHIP-builders revel in the big reveal.  I know castle builders love to show their latest technique or greeble-intensive rock wall.  It is so easy to hold our visions to our chests and not let anyone else peek inside until we can vomit it out on an expectant audience.  But my best work, which was truly borne of my hard work, came at the behest of others’ advice.  I trusted those people with garbage.  As it turned out, if I hadn’t shown the garbage to anyone, I wouldn’t have created the treasure.  And in doing so, I learned that all the gents and lady who I counted on for frank and succinct advice really did want me to succeed and were willing to help me develop my best.  It’s a valuable lesson, and again one that I’ve used in internship applications.  So thank you to that whole jolly group who were my work-in-progress commentary.  I wouldn’t even have tried to do it without you.

Friday Night Fights [Round 33]

Welcome back fight fans, to Sin City Nevada for another Choku zuki edition of Friday Night Fights! This week’s bout is the battle of the lurker at the threshold, with the souls of children and leftover Chinese takeout on the line. Without further preamble, let’s go to the tale of the tape.

Fighting out of the red corner, from St. Petersburg, Russia, it’s “ShotgunSheo. and his “Monster”.

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And fighting out of the blue corner, from beyond the reach of human range, it’s “cantankerous” Cab ~ and his “What Crawls at Night“.

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As usual, constant reader, you are tasked with deciding the outcome of this pugilistic endeavor and determine who will receive a week’s worth of bragging rights.  Simply leave a comment below and vote for the model that best suits your individual taste. I will tally up the votes next Friday and declare a winner.

Last time, on Friday Night Fights….

It was the battle of the tiny brutes, with a lucrative sponsorship from Cemex Inc. and the critical blessings of Le Corbusier on the line.  In the end, “MadmanMagnus and his “Government Building” scored a decisive 9-4 victory over “relentlessAre J Heiseldal and his “Høyblokka 2  Magnus scores his first victory (1-0) while Are runs his record to (0-1).

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