Bricks LA Update (Part 1)

It’s been two weeks and a day since I committed to attending Bricks LA, and as I mentioned in this self congratulatory post, I’ve begun work on a diorama to share with my fellow attendees and the great unwashed masses who will pack the Pasadena Convention center in desperate search of a Lego fix.  I can hear the familiar questions now…is this Star Wars?  Is this Halo?  How long did it take?, How many bricks?, Do you live in your parent’s basement?,  are you sure this isn’t Star Wars?  As I mentioned in the first article, I’m planning on taking advantage of my SHIPtember offering from earlier this year, the BSL Marcus Garvey and use it as the centerpiece of the diorama.  I don’t typically keep models assembled for any length of time and one of the downsides of that policy is that I don’t have a catalogue of creations to draw from in an “emergency”.  I have managed to amass a decent sized collection of models by a rogues gallery of fellow builders, but I’m hesitant to use them for several reasons.  The most obvious one is that with very few exceptions the models in question have been previously posted and unlike Rutherford I don’t really dig trotting out a reliquary of greatest hits.   And of course, most of them don’t really fit the vibe of this current project. The Garvey is only a couple of months old and it’s never traveled to a convention so I figured it’s fair game.

Because experience has taught me that people are not really into my smaller builds (for better or worse they expect me to show up with the big action), I’m planning on a 4’x8′ layout that encompasses the entirety of my Legoratory table.  It’s the same footprint as Bucharest, Logan’s Run and Zero Hour but this new effort will certainly lack the vertical impact of those dioramas.   When your starting point is a 132 long ship, you need a large background to give it any sense of scale and perspective.

As of the time of this posting, I have a barely adequate 37 days and 35 minutes remaining to accomplish this task and for that…I must unfortunately embrace the boilerplate wholeheartedly.  That means there is no time for fussing about trying to come up with a new fancy technique or waiting patiently for artistic inspiration to strike…like lightning!  There is no time to conjure the muse, she’s a capricious wench at the best of times.  No, building under the guillotine of a hard deadline means reaching into the back-catalog of ideas and hopefully rearranging them into something that at least vaguely resembles a new build.  If something truly creative or original happens along the way, so much the better but the fundamental approach is different without the luxury of unlimited time.

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When building a diorama for a SHIP, you basically have two options for the setting, rural or urban.  Sure you can mix the two but in my experience one style is usually dominant.  I’m kind of burned out on the classic futuristic hangar approach or some kind of techno-ziggurat so I opted for a more natural setting.  I’ve amassed a decent quantity of dark blue tile over the past few years and I was itching to put them into use.  It made sense to start from the lowest point and build my way up (unlike my usual random approach to building things) so I tried to work in a subtle curve into the flow and break things up with little islands of mud.  Normally I’d at least try to break the grid and float some terrain at odd angles but in this particular instance, the baseplate is my friend. Things can get alarmingly jostled during interstate travel and I want to give the layout the best possible chance of survival on it’s way to the venue.

I wish I had enough dark brown to line the lower banks with, but looking at what I have on hand, a combination of old/new brown was the most logical choice.  I’m not ruling out a Cracklink order but I’d like to avoid it if I can, to save money for other things like SWAG and on-site refreshments.  After the mud went down, it was time to get a little elevation into the mix, so I began work on a rocky terrace.  I’m not a huge fan of your standard issue rock-vomit that features slopes going every which direction so I opted for this simpler one-direction technique I’ve used a couple of times in the past to good effect.  it’s not very inventive and certainly not state o’ the art, but I enjoy the look and it has the benefit of allowing me to gain elevation quickly.  As I mentioned earlier, I’ll be happy just to cover the entire footprint and I’m not terribly worried about the vertical aspect of the diorama.  In a normal situation, planning for an eye-block would be of primary importance in these early stages, but I’m just going to let it emerge on it’s own as the project advances.  I did begin an olive green retaining wall in the background, with small gaps between the slats, but I’m not convinced yet that it will still be around by the time the building is complete.  I might take advantage of the gaps by putting some indirect lighting behind the wall, but it’s just a vague notion for now.

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There has been one alarming development, in laying all that brown plate for the terraforming, I was amazed at how many 1×2 plates snapped like the bones of a brittle old man with osteoporosis.  The photo below is just a small sample of the carnage, I’d conservatively estimate that I lost 25-30 of these basic parts over the course of decidedly routine usage.  They were all of the newer reddish brown variety, I don’t think I lost a single example of the older color.  It’s disappointing, not because of the cost (they go for about 2 cents a pop), but rather because I expect a higher quality standard from our benevolent Danish overlords.

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The biggest challenge I face with this project is a familiar one for me; the lack of an overriding creative vision to guide me.  Simply put, I have no freaking idea what this thing will, or should look like when all is said and done.  I know I want to use the bulk of the SHIP to divide the scene into two separate areas, each with it’s own character.  I know I want a largely rural setting, and some lights and motion…but what the final form will look like is a largely a mystery and so is the story that will go along with it.  Instead of planning like a normal person, I started laying brick without a guiding blueprint.  This isn’t unusual for me, I typically start blazing away in the heat of inspiration and worry about the details later, safe in the knowledge that I have the luxury of time for a re-start or two along the way to get things right.  I have no such luxury for Bricks LA, the reset button is broken and I have to push past indecision and uncertainty to make the deadline.

When I started building I didn’t envision this project as a collaboration, it seemed rude to ask people to spend time and effort building something in a creative vacuum, without a clear picture of the target to inform their work.  Building for a convention is a unique monster though and it has been my experience that involving cronies in the mix is essential to the collective onsite experience.  Things are always better with like minded idiots.  With that in mind, I’ve asked friends of the blog and WackLUG members Jeff Cross and Andrew Lee to come along for the ride if this WIP shot looks at all compelling to them. I’m also hoping Zach Clapsaddle will defy the odds and show up, bringing along  his special brand of magic, but that seems to be up in the air for now.  As for rowntRee, he’s (of course) invited to participate but he’s got his own kettle o’ fish to deal with, working on a racing pit for his engorged Victor Viper.  I hope it all fits in the van, buddy.

If, by chance, you find yourself planning on attending Bricks LA, let me know and I’m sure I can find some pace on this bloated layout for your contribution as well.   I’ll update you on the progress in the coming weeks.  Any advice or constructive criticism you have is welcome in the comments, but if your words of wisdom require a massive revision or restart, don’t expect to see them implemented.

 

Constructive Criticism: Gil Shaw in the 25th Century

Welcome back to the Manifesto’s regular feature where I provide a builder with some feedback that is hopefully both entertaining and helpful.  The format is simple: a reader submits a model for evaluation, I come up with at least one good thing about it, at least one bad thing and one random observation that falls outside the first two categories.

Today’s volunteer victim on the rotisserie spit is constant reader and friend of the blog Toradoch (a.k.a. Gil Shaw).  You may remember him from such interesting and popular builds as: Tomahawk MkII, Space Police HQ and the critically acclaimed IP 3000 Hover Response Team.  While I typically review a designated builder’s most recent effort, Gil specifically requested that I apply my critical scalpel to an older model, Ice Base Gamma, from the fall of 2008.  It should be obvious by now that the diorama is my drug of choice, so I was motivated to dive head-first into this deceptively intricate layout.  It may look at first blush like a typical LUGNET.space era offering but there is more here than meets the eye and I hope to convince you that I’m not writing this critique while under that most dangerous of influences…nostalgia.  So get small with me, constant reader and let’s talk about the “Ice Base Gamma“, what went right, what went wrong and which celebrities most closely resemble the builder.

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I like to think that my ability to appreciate and critique Lego models has developed over the years and one thing I’ve learned to admire is playability.  When I first started building and posting I thought playability was for “losers and Canadians” as I once exclaimed on LUGNET to the delight of the crowd.  Although I do enjoy a good swoosh from time to time (I have a soul after all) and I like to push cars round dioramas I was never one for interiors.  I resented the added layer of difficulty and cursed the unfortunate proportions of the minifigs that fucked with scale by turning a mighty-starships into a modest WW2 era diesel submarines.  I also didn’t have kids back then and now that I do have a couple, I find  that  get a lot more enjoyment out of the inside of a model.  All of that is a long way of saying that I love how Gil put just as much (if not more) care and thought into the interior of this mode than the exterior.  The buildings have working doors and coffee machines (a classic of the genre) and science stations and fork-lifts and air tanks and all manner of objects for the minifig employees to interact with.  The moving elevator is the kind of working detail I always want to include but never do and refueling station is the good kind of boilerplate.  This base reminds me of a Lego set in the best possible way.  As I kid I would have killed for something like this and it would have provided hours of play.  And as we know, playtime really is funtime.

Hand in hand with the idea of playability, some of my favorite dioramas are one that convey a process or chain of events.  In this case I love how Gil shows how a cargo container is brought in on a ship, unloaded with a futuristic forklift and placed inside the building in a storage bay.  It’s not glamorous or violent or sexy in a conventional sense but it’s a great way of showing off the features of the diorama in a way that makes logical sense.  I wish more builders would consider this kind of approach, I find it to be much more engaging when looking through dozens of photos and it forces you to catch details that might otherwise be lost.  Since this paragraph is a little terse I’ll also throw in some love for the buildings here.  This isn’t the time or place (a frozen hell-hole) to be getting clever with fancy architecture or overbuilt, byzantine art installations, this is a place where utility is king.  Gil manages to respect that notion while simultaneously giving the viewer something interesting to look at.  I love the gently sloping shape and the dimple roofing.  It would have been easy to do too much here and I admire Gil’s restraint.

I also enjoyed two of the three vehicles, the land rover and the little VTOL fighter.  While Gil may be a crony of the highest order, I’m not going to sit here in my avocado-colored barcalounger and try to convince you these are state-of-the-art, Nick-Trotta obsessive builds, because obviously they are not.  This is mostly studs-up construction with a very conservative approach to the building, but it’s also almost a decade old and I think it’s important to keep that in mind while looking at them.  I may be rightfully accuse of having my nostalgic glasses on here but when I hit the scene this style was the big noise and part of me will always think it’s cool.  The use of a consistent color scheme on all three vehicles is great and really ties into the building well, they look like they belong to the same company/organization that operates the base.  The little fighter is delightful and I would very much enjoy a good low swoosh over the rooftops, and I also really dig the tie-downs Gil uses on the pad to protect it from the harsh arctic winds.  The turned-down wingtips and the double tails are a classic look, well executed on a small model.  The ground-vehicle is fun too, I like the offset cab, fat tires and ambiguous techno-thingies in the back.  I think Gil might have missed an opportunity to have the hauler capable of carrying the previously mentioned blue container, like he did with his classic Kyphon Cargo Outpost, but it doesn’t diminish my appreciation of the model.  You don’t have to reinvent the wheel every time out of the gate and I think these vehicles are a nice accent to the project and provide value without overwhelming the model or fucking with the scale.

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I feel compelled to admit that I never have understood the appeal or utility of the beloved, classic Crater Plate from 1979.  Although I’ve managed to accumulate a half-dozen of them over the years I find them surprisingly difficult to use and I can’t recall seeing a single model over the years that used them effectively or memorably.  Because of their regularity even using them for microscale has limited appeal. In this particular case I find that they manage to clash in terms of scale and style when compared to the brick-built rock formation that forms the foundation of the large landing pad.  The shape of the crater plates are just unlike anything else LEGO manufactures and I find their presence here jarring although Gil did a nice job socking them in with angled plates.  I’m not really a fan of the scratch-built topography either, the technique is your typical rock-vomit boilerplate…competently built, but there just isn’t enough of it to make it seem natural to the environment.  It looks like an odd hollow fence made out of rocks.  Perhaps if the entire base was on a hilltop constructed with the same technique I’d like it better, it might allow for some interesting elevation changes and separate levels of action, but as it stands  the combination of the molded crater plates and the sloping rock leaves me colder than a pimp’s heart.

I’m not a big fan of the cargo ship on the large landing pad, which is a bummer because it feels like the most important of the group.  From the jump it doesn’t jibe with my somewhat arbitrary idea of what I think a cargo ship should look like.  This thinkg looks more like a scout ship or a fighter or some kind of pleasure-craft, it’s almost too pretty to be a cargo hauler.  If it were pretty…which it’s not.  Where the other vehicles come across as clean if perhaps spartan in design, this one appears low-resolution and simplistic.  Specifically the relatively large expanse of studs on the red plates of the wings draws my eye in a bad way.  I don’t mind an exposed stud or two and Gil manages to capture that magic and elusive ratio of studs to smooth on the other two vehicles just fine.  I also don’t like the way the blue cargo module sticks so far off the back unprotected.  It looks back-heavy like it might topple the ship in inclement weather or easily come dislodged.  The shape recalls the kick ass Raptor from the Battlestar Galactica reboot, but it seems underdeveloped here like it needed another nose-to-engine layer of detail.  It also reminds me of an official Lego set in it’s sort of generic, in the box thinking.  What the diorama needed was AC/DC to play on it’s biggest landing pad, not Dokken.  To wrap it up, the wings are too stubby, the engines are too small and the canopy is too easy.  You might say I question this ships very heritage.

This falls pretty obviously in the realm of the nit-picky, but the secondary landing pad, for the vehicle that I do like, is way too close to the building.  I understand that in the future the technology in these crazy machines will allow for more precision landings that are possible now, but man there is exactly zero margin for error here.  Once wrong move and an inexperienced pilot could take out a quarter of the base.  This place is supposed to be situated on the windswept, ice-encrusted frontier right?  Why would your risk all the effort it took to establish the base with a such a dangerous landing pad?  To make matters worse, the surface isn’t even flat, the pilot has to put that bitch down in what amounts to a cradle.  Yes I fully realize nobody cares about that kind of stuff, and it’s the future so anything goes, but a little separation might have been nice, and a larger surface area on the pad for minifigs to get into shenanigans.

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I’m not going to knock Old Gil for his presentation techniques for the long-shots of the base, I’m not here to offer constructive criticism on anything except the build itself.  Not everyone has the time/bricks/mental instability to have a Lego-pure image, and not everyone has the time/skill/motivation to Photoshop their stuff either.  With the irregular shape I imagine it would be a bit of a nightmare to process for anyone that didn’t like the process of photo-editing to begin with.  So I don’t hold any of that against the builder, although I think it is incumbent upon me to mention the chains…they brings an unexpected BDSM vibe to the model that you just don’t see every day.  I was tempted to chastise Gil to keep his fetishes to himself but I’m always going on about mecha-feet so that seemed hypocritical.  What I will recommend to Gil or anyone else who is challenged by presenting a large diorama is to photograph the model against a painted wall.  I know not everyone has that luxury or circumstance but the technique served me well over the years, because bed sheets or paper always look distracting.  No matter how well you iron the sheets there are folds and wrinkles and it’ difficult to find a single sheet of paper in the right size and even then it can develop little dimples or scratches that are distracting.  For some idiotic reason that still escapes me I started off with a color called Stinger Yellow, but I think the Gunsmoke Blue I switched to later looked much better.  The current specifics of my Legoratory don’t allow for me to use this technique any longer, and it’s a shame because it’s low-cost, low-tech and usually yields good results.

One more thing…whenever I think of this long-time crony, my thoughts often turn to TV’s Gil Gerard and Robert Shaw, because Gil Shaw is like a hybrid of these two master thespians.  He possesses the luxurious chest hair and fashion swagger of Gil Gerard, paired with the understated gravitas and barely restrained violence of Robert Shaw.

So the bottom line is that I dig this retro-space base and I’d love to spend an hour with a beer and some minifigs to really explore it’s nooks and crannies.

I will close with this boilerplate reminder…if you’d like to have one of your models get the (good/bad/whatever) treatment, just sign up in the comments below.  I have a builder slated for the next edition of Constructive Criticism, but the subsequent slots are wide open.

Of Kayaks and Pultrusion

My next guest in the velvet-lined smoking lounge at Manifesto headquarters is Bruce Quillis: builder, connoisseur of fine cannabis and kayaking enthusiast!  This colorful micro-scale vignette caught my eye as I scanned the matrix this evening on my never-ending quest to bring you quality distractions.  The earth-tone strata look great and even though it’s not my favorite technique the 1×1 trans-rounds for water looks pretty good here.  The kayak design is simple but effective (like most quality micro-scale builds) and I really dig the decorative oar Bruce incorporated into the black frame, it really classes up the joint.  Kayak oars typically have two paddle-blades so it might have been better to put two oars back to back with a connecting element like a Technic pin.  Since I’m complaining anyway, I kind of wish there were some rocks mixed into the water but then the scene would have to be a little bigger to give the rocks scale and that way lies madness;  sometimes less is more.  What can I say, it’s roasting here in the wasteland and I’d rather be kayaking down some nameless river far from here.

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I was not previously familiar with the work of one Mr. Quillis so I took a leisurely stroll through his brief but entertaining catalogue that stretches back about 2 years.   One model stood out from all the rest and immediately captured my imagination immediately.  Predictably it’s a diorama…a very clever and no doubt accurate diorama that depicts Mr. Quillis’ place of employment.  I can’t possibly explain it any better than the builder himself, directly from his Flickr Page:

“Fiberglass Pultrusion Line.  I know that probably no one will understand this, but this is my stupid job.  Making fiberglass products by pulling fiberglass rovings and mats through resin and then a die that heats and shapes it. Makes me wanna blow my brains”

…out?  I think most of us can empathize, I know working retail on Christmas eve made me fantasize about all manner of unspeakable acts. The main reason I’m such a big fan of this diorama is because it demonstrates a process and it does so quite effectively.  It’s like a workplace motivational poster: “Safety is no accident!”  Bruce, if you’re reading this you might as well try to inject some levity into this bleak situation.  It wouldn’t be too hard to turn this image into a workplace safety poster and hang it up in the shop one day without explanation. Think about it, your co-workers would probably dig it.

There is nothing like art born from painful personal experience, but I hope your job pays well, brother.  I especially enjoyed the saw and the dripping red dye, where is the first aid kit?  Seriously, that might have been a nice detail, but maybe not accurate?

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I also found a couple of funny images in my wanderings through the house of Quillis and they seem like a perfect way to conclude our daily conversation.  What can I say?   I enjoy the comedic stylings of both Cheech & Chong and Harold & Kumar.  Until next time, constant reader, remember to stay hydrated (it’s a wasteland out there), stay cool and always pass the dutchie on the left hand side.