Sunday 29 May 2011

Weird Science

I recently visited the Science Museum in London with my family. It was the first time in years that I'd been, and it was excellent - hundreds of interesting machines of all shapes and sizes to marvel at, a number of excellent science demonstrations for the kids (both young and old) including blowing stuff up by igniting hydrogen gas and making huge bubbles, and a huge room full of interactive science exhibits. Not to mention an enormous shop full of cool things to play with and maybe even buy. And lots of rockets - you can't go wrong with rockets. We ended up being literally herded out at closing time as there was so much to see and do and we didn't want to leave. Highly recommended.

Anyway, as concincidence would have it, barely a fortnight after my visit, the call went out to members of the UK Brickish Association (BA) for volunteers to assist the Science Museum with an event they were staging as part of their Science Museum Lates programme for adults. Initial details were pretty sketchy, but the gist of it seemed to be that the museum wanted us to build some models of important inventions out of LEGO. These models would provide inspiration to people attending the event to build their own LEGO creations. It sounded intriguiging, so I and 6 fellow BA members signed up.

On arrival we were ushered up to the Flight Gallery on the third floor of the museum, a large exhibition area chronicling the development of air travel from the very beginning to the present day. The plan was as follows : we were going to be given a small mountain of red 2x4 LEGO bricks, out of which we were going to build five inventions of historical significance - Sputnik 1, Black Arrow, Gipsy Moth, the Bell Telephone, and Jennings Patent Water Closet (i.e. an early toilet....). During a previous blog entry about the opening of the LEGO London Westfield store I wrote about the challenges of building with only 2x4 bricks, but that was all we had, so we got cracking. The museum staff provided us with two tables to build on, 5 photographs of the objects we had to build, and a bunch of crates full of LEGO, and left us to get on with it.

Science Museum : the Flight Gallery
So what to build ? Well, I have to confess to whispering a quiet prayer that I wouldn't be asked to build Sputnik 1. The prospect of building a sphere out of 2x4 bricks alone really didn't appeal much...... Ed and Annie dived into the Gipsy Moth, and for reasons that aren't really clear, I started to build the toilet. Poor Stuart got lumbered with Sputnik, although approached the challenge with considerably more cheer and optimism than I would have done, bless him. As darkness began to fall outside, the low levels of lighting in the exhibition hall started to become a factor, and it became harder to see what we were doing; it was particularly difficult to see the joins between bricks, but hey - it just added to the challenge....

After about an hour of building, event attendees started to arrive. It was all rather surreal - groups of twenty-somethings would arrive, many of them clutching beers. They were given a container of LEGO bricks as they entered, sat on the floor in groups, and started to build. I don't know whether they were supposed to be building anything  in particular, or whether it was just a big free-for-all. It was however excellent to see so many adults clearly rediscovering their love of LEGO, and some of them put together some pretty impressive creations. The floor space filled up pretty fast, and soon we were surrounded by literally hundreds of people.

We had to build at a fair pace; building didn't start until around 6.30 pm and we had to be done by 10 pm. The Gipsy Moth and Barney's Bell telephone were completed first, and as models were completed the builders pitched in to help those who were flagging behind or had more to do; apologies for the quality of the photos, but it was so dark in there, just be glad you can see anything at all....

As my toilet started to take shape I began to have some regrets about my choice of subject matter. Problem was that it was starting to resemble a rather a nice vase rather than a water closet, and I was having some trouble recreating the elegant curves of the subject material with 2x4 bricks. Still, there was no time to go back, so I had to crack on. Andrew got to work on the cistern, after which we faced the thorny problem of how to support the weight of a cistern made out of a couple of thousand bricks a few feet over the toilet bowl.... Teamwork was the key; Ed and Barney pitched in with Andrew and myself to build a large supporting structure out of a few thousand bricks, which we managed to build to a height of around 3 feet before time started to run out and we had to bring it all together.

Alec wrapped up his Black Arrow, and Stuart was last to finish, somehow managing to fashion a respectable sphere which was pretty much to a 1:1 scale with the real Sputnik. You can see all the models below lined up against one of the display cabinets.

There was a lot of interest in what we were doing from attendees, with the Gipsy Moth in particular getting loads of admiring comments, and lots of photographs being taken of the models. People repeatedly asked us how we had secured coveted jobs as professional LEGO builders, and we had to confess that we were merely enthusiastic amateurs rather than paid LEGO employees.

I'm not sure what the museum have planned for the models now; we were asked to provide piece counts for some of the models in preparation for a kid's competition, but beyond that I don't know how long they'll remain intact. Even so, it was a good crack, and definitely something I'd also have enjoyed participating in as a general attendee rather than as someone connected to the event, maybe even more so as us "contractors" were prohibited from indulging in a beer or two to oil the creative process....

Saturday 21 May 2011

Too much of a good thing...?

I probably wasn't the only one to be amazed that LEGO managed to keep details of Set 10218 Pet Shop secret until literally days before launch. There were longstanding rumours that the next Modular might be a Pet Shop, but these whispers weren't backed up by anything concrete, let alone the almost obligatory leaked images or set numbers from LEGO's online cache.... And then the official announcement came, and barely before we could draw breath the set was available at retail. I bet LEGO are delighted that they managed to maintain the suspense for so long.

Set 10218 Pet Shop - another "must have" modular building
Thing is, was all the secrecy really necessary ? It certainly didn't help the customer much - at around £120, this lovely set will make a hefty dent in most people's LEGO budgets and therefore needs to be planned for. And on top of this, lest we forget, the brand new Pirates of the Caribbean theme has just appeared at retail, with another new theme - Alien Conquest - hot on its heels, not to mention the Summer wave of City and Creator sets. And in a couple of weeks the Cars 2 sets will arrive, closely followed by the Summer Star Wars sets, not to mention the Summer Harry Potter sets..... I think a judicious Pet Shop-related leak or two a couple of months or more in advance would have helped people to budget and better prepare for the financial onslaught....

Cars 2 sets - coming to a shop near you.....
Of course, LEGO might well argue that while a lot of these sets are indeed appearing at retail at the same time, they are targeting a variety of different age groups. And they'd have a point, to some extent - the target market for the Pet Shop is clearly rather different to that of the upcoming Cars 2 sets, for instance. Except that regardless of the intended target demographic, a number of these sets seem to transcend any nominal recommended age range and potentially appeal to people of all ages. Take, for example, the new Alien Conquest sets, allegedly aimed at kids aged 8 to 14. That didn't stop me spending a good 5-10 minutes staring longingly at them during a recent visit to Toys R Us before eventually leaving with the top of the range Earth Defence HQ set under my arm......

Set 7066 Earth Defence HQ - Irresistible....
At the end of the day, however, these are all minor gripes. After all - nobody is forcing me to buy all these wonderful sets, and when I think of the dearth of decent LEGO in the dark days of the 1990s, the glut of superb sets over the past few years is really a cause for celebration rather than complaint. I just wish it was a bit cheaper.....

Monday 9 May 2011

Mini Me

As you'll probably have guessed from earlier blog postings, I have a real thing for the big Star Wars sets. In particular, I'm a sucker for the huge Ultimate Collector Series ships such as Set 10030 Imperial Star Destroyer. These rarely fail to provoke a reaction, regardless of whether the person is a LEGO fan or not.

It's become increasingly clear to me, however, that accomplished building at the other end of the scale may be in some ways equally as challenging as building huge ships. I'm talking about Mini scale models, which attempt to capture the essence of an iconic design using just a few pieces. Clearly, compromises have to be made on account of the scale and small piece count, and it's here that the designers' skill really shines through, coming up with ingenious ways of using common and not-so-common LEGO elements in order to overcome design challenges.

The LEGO company have produced a surprisingly large number of Mini scale Star Wars models over the years. According to Brickset, at least 35 different Mini scale Star Wars models have been produced by the LEGO company since 2003, with further models appearing as part of Dorling Kindersley's Brickmaster book series. Some of these models are, IMHO, superbly designed, others are pretty average, but all approximate the subject material fairly well. Reverse engineering some of these sets is a great way to learn some ingenious building techniques, and these small models tend to be splendidly swooshable to boot !

Some of my personal highlights ? Well, beauty is certainly in the eye of the beholder, and bizarrely, two of my favourites were seemingly never actually released..... For reasons best known to themselves, LEGO made instructions available online for Set 8029 Mini Snowspeeder and Set 6968 Mini Wookiee Attack without actually producing the sets. Having been made aware of the existence of the building instructions, and liking what I saw, I downloaded them, sourced the necessary parts and built the models (pics below; click to enlarge).

Set 8029 Mini Snowspeeder

Set 6968 Mini Wookiee Attack

I particularly like the Snowspeeder - chunky and irresistibly swooshable. Why it was never put into production beats me as it's a gem. The Wookiee Attack model (it's actually a Corporate Alliance Tank Droid I believe) is perhaps less faithful to the source material, but nevertheless appeals due to it's bug-eyed cuteness and neat colour scheme (it's the dark blue and sand blue that does it for me I guess - both relatively unusual colours, particularly the latter).

Other 'official' Minis that I'm quite partial to include Set 6967 ARC Fighter and Set 4489 Mini AT-AT. The Mini ARC-170 is I think a pretty good likeness given its size and it's another model which I can't resist swooshing about. You can read my review of the Mini AT-AT on Eurobricks; this one is admittedly some way short of being a faithful reproduction of the subject material, but it's another which scores by way of a cuteness factor I reckon.... I'm actually not entirely convinced that the new Mini AT-AT released at the end of last year improves on the 2003 original a great deal, although others will I'm sure disagree. I'd certainly be interested to know which Minis readers rate the highest - feel free to leave a comment and share your thoughts.

Set 6967 Mini ARC Fighter

Set 4489 Mini AT-AT

While I'm on the subject of Minis, I really must mention some of the superb Mini MOCs out there. There are a number of accomplished designers of original Mini creations online, with perhaps none more impressive than Chris Deck (AKA Legostein). This guy is prolific, churning out literally hundreds of cracking little models. I was drawn in by some of his superb LEGO Star Wars Minis, but he's also created some excellent non-Star Wars models including ships from universes such as Battlestar Galactica and Star Trek, and also some very clever architectural designs. You can see a selection of my favourites below (as ever, click to enlarge) :

Mini Venator (Legostein)

Mini Cloud Car (Legostein)

Colonial Viper MK II (Legostein)

Colonial Raptor (Legostein)

I think he has a real talent for capturing the essence of the source material, sometimes with literally just a few pieces (the Mini Cloud Car being a perfect example). To see more, visit Chris's website or check out his Flickr stream.

And a timely piece of news just to finish - I'm hearing that UK LEGO fans will get the chance to pick up Set 30051 Mini X-wing Fighter in an up-coming LEGO promotion being run by The Sun and the News of the World newspapers. The promotion apparently starts on Saturday 14th May 2011, so keep your eyes peeled.....

Monday 2 May 2011

Favourite Sets #5 : Emerald Night

When I was a boy, LEGO trains were a simple affair, barely resembling 'real' trains at all other than for the fact that they (usually) came with flanged wheels and ran on rails. Not that I cared - my first LEGO train was Set 171 Train Set without Motor and I adored it, particularly when my parents subsequently bought me the accessories that I needed to motorise it. It's probably worth mentioning that my childhood was during a simpler age when the ability to propel a LEGO train around a circle of blue railway track using a battery-driven motor still carried with it a genuine 'wow' factor.....

My first LEGO train......
I emerged from my almost-obligatory LEGO Dark Ages a few years ago, and it quickly became clear that things had moved forward on the train front in terms of realism. Set 7989 Cargo Train Deluxe and Set 7897 Passenger Train were available at retail at that time. Both these sets made a better fist of looking like 'real' trains, and the Cargo Train in particular came with some interesting rolling stock, trackside vehicles and extra track including a set of points. Also, both came with motors and could be remote-controlled to move forwards or backwards at various speeds, in stark contast to the system of my youth when you had to flick a switch on the battery box to get the train moving and then run after the thing and flick the switch again to make it stop..... All that having been said, neither the Cargo Train nor Passenger Train had enough to entice me back into the train fold at that time. For me they lacked that all-important 'wow' factor, so my re-introduction to LEGO trains was further delayed even as I immersed myself in the delights of the LEGO Modular Buildings, Star Wars sets and other goodies.

All that changed in early 2009 when I stumbled across some early publicity shots and a video of Set 10194 Emerald Night. I initially couldn't quite believe that this beautiful steam train was even made from LEGO, such was its aesthetic beauty. I wanted it so badly that I made a special trip to my nearest LEGO brand store (which by UK standards really isn't that near.....) on the day of launch to get one.

Beautiful !
Usually I build sets, enjoy them for a few weeks or months, and then disassemble them and return them to their boxes. I've had Emerald Night built and on display in my house since the day I bought it, however. The only other sets I've kept and cherished in that way are my Modular Buildings. In my eyes Emerald Night is absolutely beautiful - perfect. Admittedly I'm no train-spotter, but to me it looks like a 'real' train, and it manages to do so without a bucketload of brand-new custom-designed parts made specifically for the set. There are a couple, certainly - the large train wheels were made specifically for this set, for instance - but by and large this set consists of 'real' LEGO pieces magically combined into a work of genius. I just love it - I love the overall design, the colour scheme, the splendid coach that comes with the set, even the grumpy-looking train driver with his red necktie. And not only that, but it can be motorised with minimal effect on the aesthetics, it runs well, and it even has a couple of lights at the front which are cleverly integrated into the design. Gorgeous !

Mr. Grumpy the Train Driver

Even the Passengers and Conductor love Emerald Night.....

My love-affair with Emerald Night is largely a harmonious one, but there are a couple of bittersweet elements to it. Firstly, I remain frustrated that the LEGO company don't sell standalone coaches for Emerald Night. Watching this magnificent locomotive pulling just one coach looks a bit pathetic to be honest. The only ways round this are either to buy multiple copies of the set and try to sell the spare locomotives to make it financially viable, or to source the parts needed to build additional coaches from the likes of Bricklink or LEGO's own Pick A Brick service. The problem is that some of the parts such as the tan window frames and light blue-gray curved coach roof pieces are quite rare and hence extremely expensive in the numbers required. I've personally already spent a fortune trying to aquire the parts for an additional 5 coaches, and some of those parts are still on order.....

The other main problem is the effect that my discovery of Emerald Night has had on me, and more specifically my bank balance. My newly rekindled love-affair with LEGO trains encouraged me to explore LEGO's back catalogue of retired trains, and in this way I've discovered a number of other superb trains and accessories from the past which have cost me a small fortune to source. These include Set 10020 Santa Fe Super Chief plus its unique coaches, which I eulogised about in a previous blog posting, and Set 10133 Burlington Northern Santa Fe (BNSF) to name just a couple. Then there's the fact that I've been inspired to plan and construct a sizeable layout for my LEGO trains which will require substantial space and cash for the 10,000+ pieces that it will take to build. After all, my Emerald Night plus 6 coaches (once completed) will need somewhere fitting to run.....

Mine, all mine !
So buy Emerald Night at your peril. It's beautiful, but it can take you down a slippery slope from which you may never return.....