Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Inside the LEGO Vault

I am a sucker for hidden doors because they represent infinite possibilities. Thus, it should no surprise that the LEGO vault, which contains a majority of the sets that the company has made over the past five decades, should be accessed via a secret doorway. LEGO is a company that prides itself on creating a product with endless possibilities, as I heard repeatedly during my visit to Denmark last week.

A panel in the Idea House exhibit (the museum set in the former home of LEGO founder Ole Kirk Christiansen) swings open to reveal a set of stairs. That in and of itself would be cool; but a dozen or so steps down is a temperature-controlled room with a series of white shelves. Those shelves are stacked chronologically with a product catalogue that is a visual history of the plastic brick producer. Ostensibly maintained for legal reasons, this is a rich treasure trove that shows the evolution of the toy maker. Each shelf has a black hand crank that can be wound to allow it to slide open. There is a brief hesitation before the shelves are set in motion, a slight hiccup that increases the dramatic moment when the LEGO collection is revealed.

The video above shows some of the early sets from 1959 and 1960 and pans down the row, which includes kits from the next decade or so. The audio discussion is concerning some of the original sales techniques tried by LEGO, where bricks were actually sold by the piece at barber shops or corner drugstores (perhaps, the early precursor to today's Pick A Brick in LEGO retail stores?). The shaky camera work is completely intentional. I expect this vault video to rank somewhere historically between Geraldo Rivera's uncovering of Al Capone's vault and Kerri Strug's successful fault on one wonky foot in the 1996 Atlanta Olympics.

Monday, September 29, 2008

You look just like...

My brother has a great game that he often plays with his wife. He'll point out a random person on the street and define their look in relation to a celebrity, ie. that's a fat Kevin Costner or a bald Sarah Jessica Parker. The point is to identify the salient features of a person and use the given characteristics of a celebrity to make a comparison. The next time you're in public, try it out. You'll be amazed by how many alternate reality celebrities you can find.

I'm starting to discover that when building a real object or person using LEGO bricks, that's the general idea. The goal is not to build a caricature of a person; but rather something that captures the most salient features and lets people instantly see what you've intended to construct. When building with rectangles, you can never recreate curves or certain shapes perfectly, you just provide the illusion of those features and let people fill in the gaps based on memory or recognition.

[The above picture was in front of a pizzeria at LEGOLAND in Billund, Denmark. As you can see it's all about the mustache, just as it always should be...more pics, stories from Denmark to come].

Friday, September 19, 2008

Man meets Denmark

And we're off to see the wizard. I guess that is how we start every trip when we leave Kansas, at least according to the new version of 90210.

In real life, Toto goes to a kennel and we travel via three airplanes to Billund, Denmark. While not quite Oz, there will be plenty of toys and a lot of wonder. Kate and I will be abroad for the next week- where we will sample smors bread, a kind of open-faced sandwich indigenous to the country (any nation known for sandwiches gets a passing grade in my book).

The schedule includes a tour of LEGOLAND, a stop in the Idea House, and lots of interviews with the good folks at LEGO. This is my chance to learn how LEGO bricks are manufactured and the process behind element design. It will be my own private "How It's Made."

Photo by LouisL

Thursday, September 18, 2008

On fanboys and building

In playing with LEGO bricks for the past six months, I've been exposed to a lot of different fanboys (and a few fangirls). It made me wonder if you had to be addicted to comic books or a frequent viewer of Star Wars to play with LEGO, or if it was just some happy accident of geek attraction.

After a while though I figured it out, those other interests were not necessarily related to building with LEGO, except in the specific cases where Star Wars or Indiana Jones fans found themselves picking up plastic bricks after a long hiatus because of specially released sets.

In choosing to embrace LEGO and redefine a children's toy, adult fans have found the confidence to embrace their fanhood in other arenas. At the same time, the creative element of LEGO allows the fan experience to be more interactive, characterized via the Boba Fett suit made of LEGO. And for that, all fanboys should be grateful because when we are around the thing or movie we love, we suddenly turn into babbling incoherent eight-year-olds. I just wish someone had offered me a chance to build with LEGO bricks before I toured the Marshmallow Fluff factory- it would have made it a lot easier to focus.

Photo by zachmoe.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Bionicle has come to Kansas City

The alien came in the mail. Not a bad first line to a novel or a description of the slim, book-shaped cardboard package that was waiting between my screen door and front door yesterday.

BrickMaster sent me the Bionicle creature you see to the left, and despite it's size (about the width and height of my hand), it was a challenging build. Bionicle is different than traditional LEGO construction as ball joints and pins replace the familiar studs and tubes of bricks.

While the sense of creating your own action figure was intriguing, the radically different pieces and connection joints had my brain threatening to shut down on me. This is the first style or theme of LEGO that has flummoxed me, although I have yet to try and tackle NXT programming- so I'm sure there are areas in which I will be less successful. Overall, the creature aspect of Bionicle is cool; but I'm not yet sold that's it my kind of cool.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Hands on

Planets have gravity, sucking you into their orbit and keeping you from flying off into space. It turns out that LEGO bricks have the same forces of attraction.

When I first started my research, I noticed that adult fans of LEGO would always touch nearly every sculpture or MOC (my own creation) they were being shown. I meant to keep a respectful distance because I felt that touching a completed building was akin to smudging a painting in a museum with my greasy fingerprints.

Today, I have to restrain myself from handling every LEGO object I see. I've discovered my fingers are as valuable as my eyes at discovering building techniques and understanding the choices of a given builder. Plus, LEGO is meant to be handled- it is a tactile toy, one that screams out to be touched. The main thing that stops me is I know that I couldn't rebuild something if it were to come apart in my hands. But that might not be true in a few more months.

Photo by pirate johnny.

Monday, September 15, 2008

The land of plenty

Buying in bulk is one of America's finest traditions. I purchase paper towels by the dozens, toothpaste containers four at a time, and I have enough Snyders of Hanover pretzels to last me through the End of Days that Arnold Schwarzenegger will hopefully stop.

But I had yet to buy LEGO bricks in bulk until Friday when I hit the submit button on Bricklink for close to 6,000 bricks. At this point I'm pot committed to building a LEGO mosaic with four colors of grey (both the new and old bley or "blue grey"), black, and white speeding across the country. And now I wait like an angst-ridden high school senior for that package to arrive.

The cat has yet to be informed that she will have to cede the dining room table to a mosaic project, but I'm attempting to annex portions using a series of green baseplates. Worst case scenario, we'll settle it like we settle most things in the house with rock, paper, and scissors. I've got a distinct advantage- the cat can only throw "rock" currently, so I bet I can take her in a best-of-three.

Photo by
Trevor D.

Friday, September 12, 2008

The mystery is the prize

Young and old, the word that keeps coming up in conversations with fans of LEGO is...imagination. The idea that you can create whatever you want out of these little plastic bricks is what drives so many builders and helps form the base for the connection that people feel with what is not a very cuddly toy.

I left Bellaire, Ohio, with a going away gift from the Toy & Plastic Brick Museum founder Dan Brown- a mystery package that is fueling my imagination. It's the Bionicle set that you see in the picture above, only the label is blank and there are LEGO bricks instead of Bionicle parts inside. I don't think I'll ever open it up.

This, like JJ Abrams' mystery box, "represents infinite possibility." The idea that anything can happen; which serves as the inspiration to try and make something special happen.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Back in the good old days

My wife and I are starting to spend more evenings at home, sitting on the couch and building with LEGO- the black ottoman in our living room covered with open tupperware tubs of loosely sorted parts. She is busy cranking out sets while I continue to try and discover what theme of freebuilding is most appealing to me.

I don't know if it's a return to a simpler time, although we do churn our own butter and make Dutch pretzels by hand. Alas, that is not true- our butter is store bought and our pretzels are likely manufactured by a cold-hearted robot that wishes to end our terrible pretzel-demanding reign. But there is something to be said for the quiet click of bricks competing with stirring dialogue that is The Sons of Anarchy.

[The photo is of an oversized minifigure from the Toy & Plastic Brick Museum in Bellaire, Ohio. He's who comes to collect your debts if you bounce a check on Bricklink.]

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Putting the mo in mosaic

Today I'm channeling my inner Chuck Close and searching for a bit of perfection in that last piece.

It's mosaic time here in the Bender household, as I learn to monkey around in PhotoShop, Bricksaic, and a number of photo manipulation software programs in an attempt to digitally manipulate a photograph to be a coherent representation that is 96 studs wide and 96 studs tall. I'd love to produce a final product that looks like Brian Korte's Yoda mosaic, which currently hangs in the Toy & Plastic Brick Museum in Bellaire, Ohio.

In layman's terms, I'm trying to turn a photo into a LEGO mosaic. In reality, I'm currently failing quite badly. On the positive side, this project requires me to buy more LEGO bricks, which is never a bad thing...

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

BrickShow 2008: Dispatches from Bellaire, Ohio

I'm just back from BrickShow2008. The convention was held this past Saturday and Sunday in Bellaire, Ohio, home of the Toy and Plastic Brick Museum. The former middle school has been transformed over the past year via the collection of founder Dan Brown. There are LEGO sculptures/mosaics of Yoda, knights, basketball players, and chupacabras. It's an awe-inspiring place.

As for the convention, I'll attempt to explain a few of my experiences through math. Here it is, according to the numbers:

6: Hours of building. I participated in constructing a 30-foot yellow wall for the world record attempt on building the largest castle.

3: The preferred time of night for going to bed, as in 3 a.m.

112: Ounces of caffeinated beverages that entered my system in four days. A bit disconcerting when you add the numbers up, but perhaps connected to the above number.

1: The numbers of camels I built when asked for a horse by a little girl. I apparently have a slight blindness towards animals, where I believe a camel and horse are the same thing. Fortunately the little girl was able to differentiate between the two species.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

Master of my universe

When I began building, I had delusions of becoming a master builder. I haven't given up the goal of mastering LEGO building; but I may have just found a shortcut. For just $39.99, you too can be a BrickMaster....or at least join the club.

The first edition of the BrickMaster magazine came with my welcome to the BrickMaster Club, along with the set you see: the LEGO Indiana Jones jeep. I put it together within minutes of discovering it in my mailbox. Apparently, I can delay gratification as well as any other adolescent who finds that a package is addressed to him.

So I still have a ways to go before I'm a master builder, but in the interim, I can celebrate my BrickMaster membership. And to paraphrase Dodgeball, a title won (via mail order catalogue) is a lot sweeter than a title earned.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

We venture into space

In the multimedia extravaganza that is this blog, today we have a video of my latest (and first) space creation. A small winged ship, that is bus-like in shape, perhaps in a nod to the flying RV that starred in "Spaceballs." This fine bit of camera work was thanks to a cork coaster and the Flock of Seagulls singing "Space Age Love Song."

Ultimately, while I'm happy with the overall lines of the ship and the wings, I struggled to define the front and ended up with the boxy final appearance. It might as well be a bus or truck because without the side jets there is nothing to indicate that this vehicle is meant for space travel. But true builders don't complain about a lack of parts, they just discover how to be more creative with what they have in their collection.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Poison Ivy, not just a villain in the Batman series

With the start of football season around the corner, we're headed for a series of playing through adversity stories. In football, it's common for nearly every player to be playing with bruises and strains.

Well, I've got my first injury that wants to derail my building career. A vicious bout of poison ivy I picked up while weeding has rendered my hands and fingers a useless itchy mess. So for now, I'm busy sketching out a bottle of Calamine lotion and hoping that the poison ivy dies down so I can get back to snapping bricks together.

Anybody ever had a LEGO-related injury or something that kept them from building?

Photo by

Monday, September 1, 2008

It just takes one sale

The unexpected sale or set in a bizarre location is the great white whale of LEGO collecting. But it is the rare moments that keep us going in the lean months.

My wife and I were headed back from a day of recycling and yard work when karma rewarded us. A second-hand shop was going out of sale and liquidating its inventory. As soon as we walked in the door, I saw the familiar red logo of LEGO and my heart beat a little faster. It was the World of Mosaics- Set 6163, marked down to $1. A set that originally retailed for $20/$25 and currently sells for $15. Better yet, it is chock-full of headlights, 1x1 bricks, which I sorely need.

To find the Yellow Castle in a garage sale or a bag of dark green pieces at a flea market might be (or seem) impossible. But yet, it has happened. I think I'm starting to understand why car enthusiasts look for old Mustangs in barns and art enthusiasts hope to track down paintings in attics. It is the thrill of the find combined with the hope that the next sale will be the one to hold the rarest sets.