Friday Night Fights [Round 40]

Welcome back fight fans, to Sin City Nevada for another shanghai edition of Friday Night Fights! This week’s bout is the battle of the shipwrights, with at least a month’s worth of bragging rights and and a dram of top-shelf whiskey on the line.   Tonight’s bout is a little unusual in that the fighters in question recently challenged each other to see who could come up with the most accurate model of the Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force’s Asagiri class destroyer from the mid 1980’s.  The rules were simple: the Asagiri would be built in 1:350 scale, using only parts that are available IRL. The match-up has some added importance in my mind, because these guys went out of their way to challenge each other and they are not currently getting any help from the community to resolve the challenge.  The handful of comments is typically weak, never more than a sentence and avoids the topic of comparison entirely.  Let’s do these gents a solid and determine the winner here, on the blood-stained floors of the Manifesto arena.

Without further preamble, let’s go to the tale of the tape.

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Fighting out of the red corner, from a long patrol somewhere in the Sea of Japan,  it’s Mark “The Machete” B. and his “JDS Asagiri (DD-151)”.

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And fighting out of the blue corner, from the top of a swell in the East China Sea, it’s “Lock and Load” Locutus666 and his “JDS Asagiri DD-151“.

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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 big rock candy mountain, with a bottle of hooch and a bulging bindle of SWAG on the line.  In the end, David “MagnetoZambito and his “Country Side Tunnel took his opponent to the woodshed with a bruising 14-3 victory over Jason “The Axeman” Allemann  and his “Moutain Train“. Zambito scores his first victory (1-0) while Allemann runs his record to (0-1).

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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.

A Little T&A (NSFW)

I have mixed feelings about mixing Lego and erotic themes, which is nothing new under the sun, people have been combining the two since the phallic space-ships of Bonktron debuted over eleven years ago.   It probably goes back even further but that’s the first ‘adult’ series of models I can remember.  Even MOCpages, went through a prolonged stretch in the mid 2000’s when the height of humor was sig-figs sodomizing each other with hotdogs…I’m sure you can imagine the sheer hilarity of it all…  It’s not just the guys who get in on the erotic action, Janey Gunning showed us some in whips and chains back in 2006.  As long as adults have been building with Lego, there have been sexual themes.

I don’t object to the adult stuff based on any moral objections or hand-wringing over what the “children” might see.  I admit that I get a little squeamish when I see minifigs engaging in sexual situations, because of the stigma attached to us by the outside world about  men (primarily) who play with a children’s toy.  Showing minifigs boning just throws fuel on that fire and more often than not it doesn’t serve any larger scene or idea, it exists purely to be provocative. This is one of the worst examples, I can’t endorse this image in any way, it’s skeevy, and barely qualifies as a build.  In a stereotypically American way, I don’t have a problem with minifig violence, but showing little dolls having sex is not something I’m want to see. To me, minifig-sex works best when the action is more suggestive than overt.

Once you get away from the minifigs though, I don’t have any reservations at all.  I enjoy watching builders struggle with the human form and the challenge of turning plastic parts into something sexy.  My final objection is that most erotically themed builds are terrible, there is often little thought put into their construction because the builder is too busy giggling about boners or trying to decide which porno to watch next.  I’ve never seen a Bonktron ship that wasn’t absolute crap and all that sausage humor on MOCpages was mediocre at best, it was the same basic idea repeated over and over. For every Letranger Absurde, Ian Heath or Bricks Noir, there are a hundred hacks who don’t really try to make something compelling, just provocative.

All that is a long-winded way to work my way around to a builder who should be familiar to most of you, Bricks Noir.  What separates the builder from the crowd who indulge in erotica is the skill level.  This kind of SNOT work has a high degree of difficulty whether it’s built in the brick or in this case, digitally.  In Bricks Noir’s latest impressive work, “Classic Curves“, it isn’t the anatomy that interests me so much as the Mustang badge on the grill and the subtle curves of the fenders and mirrors.  Sure the lady is attractive, the legs are extremely well done, but everywhere you look in the image you’ll find some delightful detail.   If you slapped a frame on this one and hung it in a coffee joint people wouldn’t know it was Lego, even when they got up close. Sexy and scary are two of the most difficult themes to capture in the brick I can’t commend the builder enough for capturing sexy like no other.29345890883_4c3d0467fc_o

Bricks Noir is one of those rare builders who seemed to spring to life fully formed (like a Greek god) with advanced skills and no awkward initial builds.  Such instant success tends breed suspicion, especially when the builder in question is relatively quiet and provides no information in their profile.  The most clever blogger on TBB, Ian Heath, speculated last year that  Bricks Noir is a pseudonym for an “established builder” but as usual, the big blog would rather play coy about it than make a statement or even an educated guess.  I’m a conspiracy theory guy, so that makes me think it’s probably the clever blogger himself.  Heath certainly has the skill-level to pull it off, and he likes mixing butt cheeks and Lego, so until proven otherwise, I’ll go with Mr. clever.  I would love to hear your take on the true identity of Bricks Noir in the comments, or if you think there is no conspiracy at all.

I can’t help but wonder how far Bricks Noir  will push the envelope in a genre he basically owns.  Will we be looking at blow-jobs and golden showers by this time next year?  Is uncensored erotica something you want to see more of, constant reader?  Is there a line that shouldn’t be crossed?  I kind of hope he or she goes in that direction because the pearl-clutching and moral outrage by the true-believer Lego cultists and the general public would be a wonderful spectacle to behold.

I went down some nasty rabbit-holes while exploring the topic for this article and it almost turned into a long-form Omnibus post because there is so much content.  In the end though, as I complained above, very little of the content was quality building and I thought it would be better to leave the focus on the incredible work of Bricks Noir.  I will leave you with two links, the first is a group (NSFW) on Flickr that specializes in all things erotica, and the second link is to perhaps the strangest thing I found in my research, a customizable Lego butt-plug (very NSFW) which may be the strangest Lego related aftermarket product that I’ve seen.

Digital Death-Machines

Maybe it’s the hangover from the Matt Bace double-shots talking, but for this spotlight post we’re staying in the realm of the digital. It seems like we’ve been trippin’ down memory lane a lot lately so with that in mind, today’s offering is fresh as harvest day.  The builder in question is Sergey Cat, who has only been on Flickr since last month.  MOCpages is predictably down for service so I was unable to find out if he has an account over there.  Don’t ever change, MOCpages, may your unofficial motto always remain “Bonk! Smash! … Thud.”  I don’t think I could bear it if gentrification hit that ghetto…it’s mediocrity shall never tarnish or fade away.

I think Sergey Cat is a good example of the uphill battle digital builders face in the community at large.  Sure they can rise to prominence pretty easy within their genre (given a stable of good builds) but to get that much coveted wider recognition is more difficult.  I think if Sergey Cat had used brick instead of a program, he’d be enjoying a much higher degree of visibility and statistical success, even when considering the short period of time he’s been around.

We’ll start with the latest effort from Sergey Cat, that I found while stumbling around the usual haunts, looking for something new to blog.  I had two thoughts when I saw the Raider Buggy:”I want one of those” and “I hate those red hex wrenches.”  I’m not sold on the white gem or even the gun when it comes down to it, but the rest of it is money!  I want an RC version too, since I’m thinking about stuff I can’t have, and I want it available in a variety of color schemes to suit my discriminating taste.  That suspension is a monster and I love the doubled-up tires.

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You don’t see too many dioramas from digital builders, and even fewer that have a Sci-Fi theme.  Not surprisingly, I was drawn to this build called “C&C диорама”, which has some rough edges but is really compelling and definitely looks like it’s Command & Conquer RTS inspiration.  In fact, all of Sergey Cat’s models seem to be drawn from the C&C series of games, so it will be interesting to see if he branches out eventually.  I took a quick look at the source material for these models and it looks to me like he nailed the respective designs, and in the case of the Buggy perhaps even improved it a little.  If you’d like to see the individual builds from this diorama, Sergey Cat has most of them documented in his Flickrstream.  My favorite details are the defensive turrets inside the fence, they look wicked and can work as a stand-alone model as well.

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I’ll finish up with this Flame Tank, because how often do you see a good flame tank these days?  Sergey Cat has an arsenal of great war machines from mecha to giant tanks and everybody’s favorite, VTOL gunships!  Let us welcome Sergey Cat to the warm and embracing community, or at least to the ivy covered halls of the Manifesto.

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The Amazing Starships of Matt Mazian

Although it took me a long time to come around, these days I’m a pretty big fan of digital building.  Full disclosure, I used to think of it as cheating because it seemed like a completely separate endeavor to have the luxury of every part in every color at your fingertips.  Building is supposed to be difficult, damn it and chock full o’ limitations that force you to be truly creative.  I was also convinced that the program allowed you to cheat by requiring no interior structures or solid connections. However, after speaking to a few really great digital-only builders and trying my hand at the usual programs with limited success, I think about the topic differently now.  I still consider the two styles entirely separate, but each as it’s own inherent value.

Some of the of the most creative and innovative building I’ve seen in the Sci-Fi genre in the last few years has come courtesy of digital building.  One of the best examples is the work being done by relative newcomer Matt Mazian.  I wish I could tell you more about him, but Mr. Mazian’s Flickr profile is empty and he doesn’t seem to have much to say.  Matt lets his building do the talking and I think you’re gonna like what he has to say.

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The Antares Starship was just posted today and it immediately stopped me dead in my tracks.  In the old days I would have shrugged and thought “yeah, but it’s digital” and moved on, but today I just opened up another window to blog it.  While the Antares doesn’t feature the unique geometry of his previous builds, Matt makes the most out of a fairly traditional starship shape.  Where the build really separates from the pack is when you flip it over to see the dark gray texture of the underbelly.  The look recalls several franchises: Battlestar Galactica, Star Wars and Mass Effect to name a few, but without being too literal about it.  What franchise fanboys don’t understand is that nobody wants to see another god damn X-Wing, they want to see something inspired by the X-Wing.  I really appreciate the builder’s perfect use of little pops of color to catch the eye on an otherwise drab color scheme.  The colored bucket handles were the perfect choice to break things up.

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You have to go a little further back in time to really appreciate Matt’s innovative design style.  This orange and teal number is called the O-Shadow Starfighter and it’s unlike anything I’ve seen in the genre.  It kind of reminds me of nnenn’s work in both shape and color, but even more unconventional.  I don’t throw the comparison around lightly, this guy really has a different take on spaceship design, even if some of it based on concept art.  This O-Shadow in particular manages to do the hardest thing within Sci-Fi building: to look truly alien.

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I don’t want to spoil all the fun of discovering Matt’s vision, so I’ll leave you with the Turtle Aeroship from 2014, the year he hit the scene.  I may not know much about Mr. Mazian but I think it’s safe to expect great things from him in the future.