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.