A Conversation with Dan Kees (Blog or Die! Entry #19)

Accepted entry for the “Interview” category.

Author: LettuceBrick (Nice Try)

Word Count: 1,906

Judge’s Note:

* This entry was submitted before the deadline (Mon, Jan 15, 2018 10:10 pm), but I didn’t have a chance to post it until today.  The entry is valid and accepted for final consideration.

A Conversation with Dan Kees

 

With whom? I’m glad you asked. Dan Kees is the owner of PromoTec Specialty Printing, purveyors of, well, specialty printing. Oh, and he also prints custom designs on all manner of Lego for all manner of clients. And to top it all off, he builds! So without further ado, enough blather and on to the interview.

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The Standard Questions

LB: How did you get into Lego as a child and/or adult? What keeps you interested?

DK: I probably had some type of building blocks since birth.  I had DUPLO as a baby and never remember a time without LEGO. I got my first standard LEGO set when I was five, and it’s all I ever wanted after that. I probably entered my dark ages around age 16 or so. I actually brought all my LEGO to college but only pulled it out a couple times. When LEGO joined the force with Star Wars in 1999, I was drawn back in big time, and have been building ever since. I stay interested as an AFOL because of the high stress job I have owning my own business.  LEGO works as a great stress reducer. It’s just plain fun! Another major aspect of the hobby for me now is the community. I’ve made some great friends through LEGO clubs and conventions.

LB: What are your main areas of focus when it comes to building?

DK: My wife and I put on a large LEGOWEEN display every year, so that takes up a lot of my building. I always like to make at least one large “Wow” MOC each year. Those have included a working roller coaster, a large castle, and 55 Central Park West…otherwise known as Dana’s apartment building from Ghostbusters. I don’t really have a favorite theme. I’m often inspired by a single piece and just go from there.

LB: Describe your acquisitive process and how it relates to your building.

DK: I always try to avoid buying a lot of sets, though LEGO makes that very difficult. They keep releasing such cool sets that really appeal to the AFOL community. My main budget goes to Bricklink where I buy thousands of parts for our Halloween display every year.

LB: Do you use your own printed items in creations? Other third party products?

DK: Yes and Yes. When I first started printing, I made a lot of woodgrain tiles. I use these extensively in my MOCs. However, I rarely print anything new for builds. I use a lot of custom minifigs and accessories from companies like BrickArms and BrickForge.

The Printing Questions

LB: You run a printing business which also involves Lego pieces. How did you get into printing onto Lego? Is there an engraving component as well?

DK: I’ve worked in the printing business for almost 30 years. When I first joined BayLUG, I printed some LEGO business cards for fun. I went to my first convention that same year and was really introduced to the concept of custom printed bricks. I instantly thought…hey, I could that!  I got the word out and had multiple customers overnight. I do not do any engraving, just digital and pad printing.

LB: Are there any specific challenges that Lego presents that other materials do not? Or is printing on Lego easier?

DK: Printing on LEGO is actually pretty easy. They are made from ABS plastic which accepts ink very well. They are also very consistent, which makes them easy to print in bulk…especially when printing bricks. We can interlock them in stacks and print a large quantity very quickly.  The challenge comes from running a large variety of elements. Bricks and tiles are easy, but we also print all the way around minifigs. That can get a little tricky.

LB: I assume the customer provides the design and the materials. What challenges do you face in reconciling the two and what is the most challenging Lego printing job that you’ve faced?

DK: Fortunately, we deal mostly with large custom brick resellers. They typically send artwork that is accurate and well laid out. They also understand the limitations of the process. Some less experienced customers will draw extremely detailed designs that look great on screen. However, when you shrink them down to a 16mm wide minifig torso…they don’t work so well.  Minifigures are by far the trickiest jobs. As the industry develops, people want more and more detail as well as full wrap printing. Keeping things lined up over large runs is very difficult.

LB: I know you participated as a vendor for at least one Lego convention. How did that experience compare with your more usual method of sale?

DK: Vending at a convention was tricky, because I missed so much of the convention. I quickly realized I was not cut out for retail. I really enjoy printing more than selling individual parts.

LB: What is the future of custom Lego printing for you and the market in general?

DK: The future of custom LEGO printing is really in the digital process. There are a few of us pad printing parts, which is the process that LEGO uses. Pad is great if you want your custom parts to look like LEGO made them. However digital opens up a whole new realm of possibilities with raised effects, unlimited color options, and filling in nooks and crannies that pad printing cannot accommodate. Our ratio of digital orders to pad is probably 50:1. I don’t see any end in sight for custom printing. As 3D printing and desktop UV inkjet printers come down in price, I think we’ll see a lot more people getting into custom parts and printing. I’m excited to see what the next generation comes up with.

LB: To what extent and with what rigor do you separate “hobby Lego” and “work Lego”?

DK: There is a hard and fast rule that my work and personal stock shall not mix! On the rare occasion that I supply parts for a client, I always buy them “New” from Bricklink or LEGO PAB. Some parts are inevitably ruined when used at work.

 

The Community Questions

LB: How important is the Lego community both online and more locally to you as a printer and a builder? Do you sell to AFOLs only or just conventions or also the general public?

DK: The online community is much more important to me as a builder.  I like browsing the many Facebook, fan, and other community pages. It’s fun to see what people are building around the world. I feel like I could travel to just about any country and find some AFOLs to hang out with. I don’t use the online community much for business. Many of my favorite sites do not allow commercial posts…which I totally agree with and respect insistently. I have a pretty good set of regular clients that keep me plenty busy. I mostly sell to larger resellers. I get occasional requests from other AFOLs, but our order minimums usually don’t fit their projects. I no longer sell any of my own designs.

LB: Do you have an online Lego presence, business or otherwise?

DK: Not really.  I am involved with a few Facebook pages, but that’s about it. Most of my business comes from word of mouth and repeat clients.

LB: You have of late also taken part in Bricks by the Bay convention planning. (For a while now I think.) I believe you supply the brick badges and other printed items. Could you describe some of the planning that goes into that and other aspects of the convention?

DK: Yes, BBTB is one of the biggest highlights of the year for me. I love being involved with the organization. I print the badges, and any other custom parts needed for minifigs, event kits, etc. I donate a large portion of the printing. It’s a great way to give back to the community that I’ve enjoyed for so long. Recently, my company has also taken on some of the kitting for the con. It can be surprisingly complicated, but it falls right in line with our business. It takes an exhausting amount of planning to pull off the CON each year. I tried doing too much when I first joined, so now I make sure to only take on responsibilities that I have time to do well. I’m not nearly as involved in the overall planning as I once was. I mostly focus on any custom printing needs and kit planning for the badge, event kit, and workshops.

LB: Have you participated in collaborations?

DK: Yes, mostly with BayLUG.  I love helping set up large displays. It’s something I always wanted to do as a kid but never had enough stuff.  Now we have an unlimited arsenal of builds to create huge layouts…super fun.

LB: What is the Lego community’s greatest strength? What about its greatest failings and/or weaknesses?

DK: Hmmm…interesting question. I think the community’s greatest strength is the product itself. I strongly believe that LEGO is one of the most enduring and inspiring products ever produced. I would not be in a technical/manufacturing field today without it. Our greatest weakness? I’d say we expect too much from LEGO. We oftentimes forget that this is, at its core, a toy meant for kids. The AFOL community is a large demographic, but let’s not try to fool ourselves. LEGO is a toy company and needs to be run like one. They cannot cater to our every whim…and there are a lot of them 😊

LB: Do you have any thoughts on TLG itself and its relationship with fans, both of adult and long-term variety and of the more general customer?

DK: I think TLG goes above and beyond its core responsibilities when dealing with the fan community. They have been extremely generous with their support for BBTB and BayLUG. I’m sure it’s a constant struggle within the company to balance the fan relationship with core business values. LEGO Ideas was a huge bridge over that gap. I think they’re on the right path with the level of support they offer us big kids.

LB: And at long last, what do you think the future holds?

DK: More awesome sets and new parts! I often hear people say that LEGO has lost its way with all the new parts. They would prefer we only had 2×4 bricks. Those well-meaning folks just don’t get it. With every new part, LEGO opens our building palette to new possibilities. My favorite part of viewing other people’s builds are seeing the endless creative uses of new parts.

I do hold a bit of fear towards how LEGO will compete with the digital distractions kids now face.  LEGO struggles in the digital realm, with good reason. I feel the core of LEGO is the physical, tactile relationship between the user and the medium. I’ve used LDD a bit, but nothing compares with that satisfying “click” and having a great model to show for your efforts.  Emerging markets will help keep the company strong for years to come. Hopefully, future generations don’t get too lost in screens, and will still appreciate good old fashion playing with their friends.

Thanks!

LB: Thank you very much for your perspectives on general tomFOLery and your insights into the printing side of what you do. All the best for this still relatively new year!

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.

 

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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).

 

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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.

Friday Night Fights [Round 7]

Welcome back fight fans, to Sin City Nevada for another sucker-punch  edition of Friday Night Fights!   “Well, I hear it’s fine…If you got the time“…for this week’s battle of the bands.  It’s going down in Texas, with exclusive access “to that shack outside La Grange” on the line.  Without further preamble, let’s go to the tale of the tape.

Fighting out of the red corner, from parts unknown, it’s  j-p-30 and his “Eliminator”.

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And fighting out of the blue corner, from Joe’s Garage, it’s -derjoe- and his “Eliminator”.  PURISTS: please note the stickers on the side panels ARE official Lego stickers, cut for use.

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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 before announcing the next bout.

Last Week, on Friday Night Fights….

It was a rumble in the rail-yard, between two engines hell bent on being king o’ the tracks.  The bout had the closest margin of victory in the brief history of Friday Night Fights on the Manifesto.  In the end,  Monstrophonic and his “DB steamer“ scored a 6-4 victory over Omega3108 and his “Steam locomotive type BR23“.  Monstrophonic records his first win and improves his record to (1-0) while Omega3108 falls to (0-1).

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Friday Night Fights [Round 5]

Welcome back fight fans, to Sin City Nevada for another knuckle-busting edition of Friday Night Fights!    This week’s match-up features royal-rumble of fig-barf, featuring two seasoned fighters with a score to settle.  Without further preamble, let’s go to the tale of the tape.

Fighting out of the red corner, from the city of brotherly love, its Carter “Bone-Crusher” Baldwin and his “Evildoers“.

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And Fighting out of the blue corner, from the wild heart of Slovenia its “Murderous” Magma Guy and his “Evil magicians figbarf“.

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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 MOC that best suits your individual taste. I will tally up the votes next Friday and declare a winner before announcing the next bout.

Last Week, on Friday Night Fights….

Two towers went to war, leaving one reduced to a smoking pile of rubble.  Canada’s  Tim “The Sheriff” Schwalfenberg and his “Watchtower of Orodruin” scored a 7-4 victory over  James “The Zombie” Zhan and his “League Tower“.  Tim records his first win and improves his record to (1-0) while James falls to (0-1).

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“Taking a savage beating is part of being a hero!”

With one or two exceptions, I hate superhero movies with a passion.  Marvel, DC, independent, I don’t care, they are equally terrible and they’ve hijacked our theaters with their spandex nonsense.  Why bother with original Science Fiction when you can trot out Captain Buttocks for the 9th time or give the world Viking-Steampunk Batman?  I have no fond childhood nostalgia for comic books either, I always found the stories to be idiotic even as a youngster although I enjoyed the characters.  I do enjoy watching some of the better TV cartoon series with my kids,  but even those are basically one long fight scene.  The only good thing to come out of all this comic book overkill is the apparently never-ending stream of cool Lego sets and the occasional fan built model.  Most of the work done by AFOLs within this particular brand of building is decidedly uninspired and at least 50% of all comic book related builds are some version of Iron Man’s walk in closet where he keeps all his armored suits.  When you boil it down to gravy most builders who indulge in the comic book genre don’t really build at all, they focus entirely on the minifigs.  I get it, the little dudes are undeniably cool, I endorse them without qualification but it isn’t enough for me.  Without a compelling build to go with the figs, all you’re left with a catalog shot at best and clone-on-a-plate at worst.  Now that you’ve stepped off my lawn, we can get down with today’s build.  It was very refreshing to recently discover the work of Nexus-, who takes the shiny heroes and gives them a suitable stage to play on.   I don’t often look at a build and picture it as an official set, but I would buy this particular set in a heartbeat.  The scene is called “Cyborg – 0 – Application”.  The gray-scale background really makes the figs pop, the details ar tight and I admire the clean look of the base.  All good vignettes tell a story, like a cell in a comic book and Nexus- appears to have a good handle on the narrative action.

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The diorama is part of an ongoing series that features a number of familiar heroes from across party lines and it represents a step up for Nexus- whose previous vignette efforts were not nearly as polished or ambitious.  You can see a real progression in skill and style if you take a trip through the 2-year-old Flickrstream and it’s a pleasure to see.   The series as a whole reminds me of the old line of Star Wars Micro-Machine toys from the 80’s, with its emphasis on iconic figures in small settings.  The compact nature of the builds is very appealing and even though the super hero vignettes do not appear to be modular, they look like they could be with very little modification.

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It is surely boilerplate to trot out this observation yet again, but every piece in a vignette must earn its place and Nexus- seems to understand that.  With each new model he is clearly making the attempt to improve his work and that’s all you can really ask of a builder regardless of genre.  I should probably also point out that Nexus- clearly enjoys writing back-stories for his builds and although they are not my cup o’ tea, his many followers seem to enjoy them immensely.  If the builder can continue on this difficult path of steady, measured improvement, I think it’s clear we can expect truly great things from him in the future.

Each one of these builds has an interesting technique or dynamic action on display and unlike most builds in the genre and the movies that inspire them, they actually leave me wanting more…even with Aquaman involved.  Especially with Aquaman involved.  I’ll leave you with a clip from my favorite superhero series, Batman: The Brave and the Bold.  In case you were wondering Aquaman is voiced by John DiMaggio who is responsible for both Bender and Jake the dog from Adventure time.