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.

Two for Tuesday: Jon Palmer

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Good evening constant reader, its happy hour and our bartender Lloyd is setting them up neat, just the way you like it. Tonight’s V.I.P. in the Manifesto lounge is my personal Lego spirit-animal, and O.G. Spacer, Jon Palmer.  Like too many of the builders featured in this column, Jon has drifted out of the scene, but you won’t find a person who had a bigger impact on the hobby in it’s formative years.  Jon had a hand in all of the sci-fi boilerplate we take for granted now From Moonbase to geodesic domes to the SHIPyard (an early pre-Flickr archive of SHIPS).  In the age of LUGNET, when things could be a little stuffy and insular, Jon was always super friendly and above all, funny.  Sometimes we tend to take the hobby way too seriously, myself included, but never Jon, he could find humor in almost any situation.  It’s a cliché, but he really did have a talent for bringing people together in a positive and creative way.  I had the great pleasure of hanging out with Jon on a half-dozen occasions,  even at my homestead here in Vegas, and that’s really the acid test for my fellow nerds, would I want them in my home?  Jon is one of the few people I’ve met who could move in, if he needed to.  Hands down my best convention experiences were the BrickCons in Seattle where Jon and I had a chance to hang out, it was the first time I appreciated offsite activities more than those of the convention hall. As a builder, very few people were as personally inspiring to me, his 2002 spaceship Bison, for instance, was just as important and influential to me as the Dragonstar. It may look dated by today’s standards but it was a breath of fresh air ten+ years ago in an unusual color scheme.  Outside of Rutherford and Rubino, my two cronies since high-school, nobody had a bigger impact on me in the hobby than Jon.

For tonight’s first shot, we’ll be examining Jon’s often duplicated geodesic dome from 2006.  I can’t stress enough how popular this model once when he first posted it online, people were blown away.  As a fan of 70’s Sci-Fi, it certainly made a lasting impression on me.  My build table is not ideal to make one, but I have one of those ‘some day’ projects in mind that involves about 5 domes of varying sizes.  Because he was a community minded kind of dude, Jon thoughtfully shared the building process in a series of photos.  Check out the link and maybe you’ll be inspired to make your own.  The cost may be a little steep but the result is magnificent and sturdy.  I still see this design pop up every now and then at a convention and it always looks fresh, but I don’t think anyone (including Jon) has really done much with the interior space.  I have a small section of the structure built to keep me inspired and I’ve been slowly accumulating the parts over the years.  I’d like to see how much of the dome can be closed off without annoying gaps or sag.  The dome is one of those rare models that captures your attention, even from across a crowded convention hall, surrounded by other amazing things.

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For our second shot, we will take a brief look at one of the biggest building fads the hobby has ever seen, rather than a single model.  Most of Jon’s stuff has been lost to the digital ether, the photos available on Flickr only represent a fraction of his output.  In 2002 Jon was in important part of a small group of Spacers who created and developed the Moonbase concept, the very popular first attempt at a modular, collaborative, convention-based standard.  The ghost of Moonbase can still be spotted now and then, but it’s a shadow of it’s former glory.  At it’s height, every major convention had a sprawling layout with monorails, giant towers, moon-track and smoking volcanoes.  Like every fad, Moonbase eventually jumped the shark and became a kind of parody of itself, but it’s importance in the history of the hobby and conventions cannot be understated.  As with the geodesic dome, Jon thoughtfully compiled the instructions and examples first on his personal site Zemi.net (now defunct) and later on Flickr, so that anyone can easily get in on the action.  Whether it was minifig scale or microscale, Moonbase united builders from across the planet and that’s pretty cool.  The possibilities were endless and the standard was scaled to be very attainable, even for new builders with relatively small connections.  You could make just a corridor or an end-cap, and still feel like you were a part of the display.  When I think of Palmer, I think of inclusion and innovation.

Probably the biggest build-related regret I have in the hobby was the failure of the Lord Mandrake Memorial Sea Tower, a collaborative project involving myself, Palmer and Ryan Rubino back in 2008.  Ryan and I were fresh off the Omicron Weekend and we were fired up to work with Jon, who we both considered to be a mad genius.  Ryan’s famous Leviathans model was originally intended for the this ambitious undersea diorama, with Jon building the tower itself and yours truly providing the canyon and seafloor terrain.  We were a couple of months into building and things were really shaping up, when Jon abruptly moved from Seattle to Tulsa and subsequently lost all interest in building.  There is no dramatic story or unsolved mystery, like many builders space to build was an issue and other real life considerations got in the way.  I blame it on the geography, I have a deep and abiding hatred of Tulsa and all things Tulsa related to this day.  It’s the city that ate Jon Palmer and it should be razed to the ground and salted to make sure nothing grows there again.  If I could wave a magic wand and bring one single builder back to the hobby it would be Jon, for me the hobby is a worse place without him and I’ll certainly never enjoy BrickCon in the same way again.  Well, truth be told I guess I’d bring nnenn back because he’s dead and I’m sure his family would be thrilled to have him back, but second would be Jon.

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For this particular feature on the Manifesto I like to conclude the proceedings with a photo of the builder in question. I do this to help you put a face to the name and sometimes with the express intent to take the piss out of the builder. This is one of those times. Please recall that a precedent has been set in this ongoing series that we will be reviewing the fashion choices of each builder.

Jon is actually a pretty stylish dude, often without really trying, so I had to go the extra mile to find just the right photo.  Anyone who knows me is aware of my extreme aversion to ‘cosplay’ and more specifically ‘cosplayers’.  Most people like attention in some way or another but cosplayers take it to a whole new attention-whoring level.  The entire core of the hobby is based on the premise “look at me!   No, really, look at me!“, and it may be the one group of nerds who has a higher concentration of special snowflakes than Lego people.  The most insufferable in-law I have is a cos-player, so I’ve seen them up close and personal and it’s nothing but narcissism all day long.  I love Halloween as much as the next person, and costume parties are great, but I’m sick of cosplayers invading other hobbies and I really hate when they try to insert themselves into ours.  The only time I’ve been tempted to violence at a convention was with a dickhead cosplayer who looked like a kabuki-jedi who would run his mouth about the models without having brought anything of his own.  I think it was less about the quality of the models and more about his need to feel superior.  Just go away…I don’t care how cleverly made your gender-swapped Ant-Man X-wing pilot costume is, you’re annoying and you should leave. The same with steam punk people, save it for your own convention, nobody cares how many brass buttons you can fit on your codpiece.  Go push your tchotchkes somplace else.

Getting back to Jon though, this is the rare kind of cosplay I can appreciate.  Jon was the Space Coordinator for the BrickCon the year this photo was snapped and it was his job to handle the Moonbase layout.  This vibrant one-piece certainly looks like a suitable Moonbase uniform, without being derivative of a specific franchise and it’s orange!  Having your rank spelled out on your sleeve may not be as cool as a mission-patch but it rocks in a very 1970’s kind of way.  As you can imagine Jon was easy to find on setup day, which made it easier for newcomers to figure out who was in charge and join in the Moonbase fun…a frequent problem at conventions…most coordinators suck at their jobs.  This one is an easy decision.

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