Monday, April 19, 2010

LEGO Certified Professional Sean Kenney takes a walk on the wild side

The Philadelphia Zoo unveiled, "Creatures of Habitat: A Gazillion-Piece Animal Adventure," a few weeks back, causing a minor Internet sensation over the LEGO-ized versions of endangered animals designed by LEGO Certified Professional Sean Kenney. The exhibit will run from April 10 to October 31 of this year and I caught up with Kenney -- author of Cool Cars and Trucks -- via e-mail to talk about how he tackled the project that required 259,450 LEGO bricks and 121 pots of coffee to build [Part one runs today, Part two is tomorrow -- yup, it's a cliffhanger.]

For a project of this size, where do you even start?

This project was a very large undertaking, over five times more involved than anything else I'd ever done. About a year ago, The Philadelphia Zoo contacted me about putting together an exhibit. They wanted to tell children about animals that are losing their habitats in a way that might grab their attention and hopefully make it memorable. And more importantly, show kids how they can even do something to help.

We looked at a lot of different animals --- all of which were important to the zoo's conservation efforts in one way or another --- and narrowed down the list based on importance and logistical model-building feasibility. We also had to think about where in the zoo these sculptures would be installed, and where visitors would be able to see them. And zoos aren't set up the same way that LEGO displays would be set up. After all, for a LEGO model, "don't get too close" means three feet... to a zoo, "don't get too close" means 300 feet.

Once we narrowed down exactly what we'd build, I started doing a lot of drawings. Creating animals is different than cars or logos... the pose, expression, emotion, and demeanor of the animal all help tell a story or paint a picture of what's going on. Should the polar bear be sitting down, bewildered? Lying with his head down on folded paws, dejected? Sniffing around for a way off the ice flow, confused? I did this sort of thing for all the animals, and working with the zoo staff we came up with some final poses by late October.

It was going to take a lot more time than I had, so I hired several assistants to help. They didn't have "LEGO building" backgrounds (other than their childhoods, perhaps) but they all had backgrounds in the visual arts. So I spent a few weeks training them on the basics of how to build good sturdy LEGO sculptures, how to duplicate from a prototype, gluing, and so on, leveraging their experiences in sculpture, drawing, and so on.

In November, I started designing and building the models. We did the polar bear first because it needed to be ready for photography and marketing things that would be prepared prior to the exhibit opening. The first step once the scale and pose were ready was to get an armature made. The bear is built around a steel armature that acts like a skeleton ... it helps prevent the sculpture from breaking or sagging under its own weight if it's bumped around in a truck or jumped on by kids. We all spent a lot of heads-down time just building, building, building... usually about 4 or 5 of us at once for 10 or 12 hours a day. (And weekends.)

The bear was done by the end of December, so after New Years we started work on the other animals. My assistants and I worked on all the different animal sculptures over the coming months .. penguins, monkeys, birds, etc, as well as some mosaics and scale models. Everything was finished right on schedule, amazingly! (Granted we pulled a lot of long days and weekends towards the end! I computed that 121 pots of coffee were consumed over the course of this project. That's about 1 cup of coffee for every 300 bricks) :) So we packed everything, trucked it 100 miles from New York to Philadelphia, and set it up in the zoo in late March.

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