Monday 18 February 2013

UCS AT-AT : Beside Myself...

Given my track record I'd be willing to bet that you weren't expecting another UCS AT-AT posting so soon; hell, it's barely 3 weeks since I posted the last update. Having moved things along nicely last time out by wrapping up the AT-AT's head, however, I had the bit between my teeth and decided to press on.

I've now built all four legs, the body, the head and the neck, so all that's left to construct is the outer shell which covers the body. This consists of left and right sides plus a roof to top it off. On the surface it sounds like I'm on the home straight, but when you consider that each side consists of over 700 pieces, I've still got the best part of 2,000 pieces to put together so I guess I shouldn't start counting my chickens quite yet.

You can see a screenshot of the LDD file for the left side of the body above; LDD has a useful feature which outlines all the bricks in a virtual build, but this capability unfortunately hasn't been available to me since I 'upgraded' to the latest version of Apple's Mac operating system - Mountain Lion (OS X 10.8.2). The left side of the AT-AT thus appears as a largely homogenous, ugly and uninformative grey wall across my screen when viewed in LDD. The lack of brick outlines also extends to the building guide generated by LDD which makes it harder to see how the different pieces fit together on the building guide - not good.

LDD's building guide generator took a good few minutes to generate the instructions, ultimately spitting out more than 200 building steps after cogitating for what seemed like ages. Same old same old, however - similar to previous sections, just a few steps into the build I found myself staring at multiple sub-assemblies and loose parts floating in mid air (below). This is fine if you're building in zero G, but not so convenient if like me you're subject to the usual laws of Earthly gravity.

Thankfully it's pretty obvious where all the floating bits and pieces eventually fit when the time comes to attach them, and after 64 steps I'd finished the rear-most section of the AT-AT's left side (picture below - click to enlarge) which has a typically nice greebled look to it. It was at times a challenge to prevent it from falling apart during the build, but it all came together OK in the end. This fragility would come back to haunt me later, however, as you'll discover in due course....

Steps 65 to 95 deal with the construction of the front-most section of the left side (below - click to enlarge). It's largely an exercise in stacking plates and topping them off with tiles, in marked contrast to the completed rear-most section which is predominantly brick-built. It's a fairly quick, straightforward build and thankfully pretty stable

Next up was the structure which under-hangs the large central section; this is rapidly dispatched in just 18 building steps, and then it's on to the central section itself. With a width of 24 studs and a height of more than 19 bricks, this is a somewhat time-consuming build but not particularly difficult. The LDD-generated building guide rather blots its copybook at times with a bizarre sequencing of building steps, such that if you were to follow them to the letter you'd frequently have to back-track and remove pieces you'd already placed in order to proceed with the build. Thankfully, however, it's pretty obvious how everything fits together and hard to go too far wrong.

Once the central section is completed, the lower, under-hanging portion attaches to the bottom via nine 1 x 2 hinges; these hold it firmly in place while allowing it to be positioned at the appropriate angle relative to the body, and you can see the results below (click pictures to enlarge).

Having completed the three different sections making up the left side of the body shell, and with only the job of joining them together remaining, I figured I was moments away from finishing this bit of the job. How wrong I was.... The first inkling I had that things wouldn't be quite so straightforward was while building the two structures below (click to enlarge). These are part of the central section, and it's to these 'linking structures' that the front and rear sections attach, thus knitting everything together. They're pretty simple, basically just consisting of a bunch of 3 x 2 slopes mounted on a couple of plates, and topped off with a load of hinge bases.

Anyway, for reasons I couldn't quite fathom, placing the slopes on the plates caused them to warp, so much so that the linking structures bore more than a passing resemblance to a couple of light bluish grey bananas. Even aside from any aesthetic concerns, this meant that I couldn't get them to attach securely on either side of the central section, which in turn meant that they were unable to support the weight of the front and rear sections. The problem was compounded by the connections between the central section and these linking structures being quite weak anyway, and this was particularly and infuriatingly evident when trying to attach the fragile rear section. Cue about an hour of cursing and frustration, characterised by the following cycle : (1) carefully and painstakingly attach the fragile rear section to the central section via the relevant linking structure, (2) fragile rear section immediately falls off and smashes, (3) rebuild fragile rear section, (4) apply pressure in order to try and re-attach rear section to central section more securely than before, (5) application of pressure causes fragile rear section to break apart in my hands, (6) rebuild fragile rear section again, (7) jump back to step (1) and repeat ad infinitum..... Gradually I was forced into making a few modifications which somewhat reduced the warping of the rear linking structure at least and also increased the clutch between the central section and the linking structures.

Eventually, and with a massive sigh of relief, I successfully attached the front and rear sections to the central section, and they stayed put. I was even able to move the whole completed build across the room and on to a black sheet so I could photograph it (picture below - click to enlarge). You don't have to look particularly hard to see that the join between the front section and central section in particular is not as tight as it should be, but I didn't dare apply any more pressure for fear of triggering the above cycle again, albeit at the front rather than the back....

So that's left side finished, and thank God for that. I'll obviously be able to apply what I've learned when I build the right side, so that should be polished off a lot quicker, and then the only section I'll have left to build is the roof. At this stage I don't even dare to think about what it'll be like trying to join all the sections together into the final completed AT-AT, but I know it's possible - I've seen the completed model "in the flesh" - and it's that which sustains me through all the trials and tribulations. Well, that, and also the knowledge that having spent hundreds and hundreds of pounds on this project, not to mention countless hours, if I fail you'll all give me tons of grief and wind me up mercilessly. That's also pretty motivating...

For the record, that's another 720 pieces down, meaning that I've now used up 5,149 of the pieces. Which means I have only a little over a thousand pieces left to go.

Before I go, just a reminder that if anyone wants a copy of the LDD files for this beast, please get in touch and I'll forward your details on to the AT-AT's designer Pete (cavegod).

< -- Building the AT-AT : Part 7                                    Building the AT-AT : Part 9 -- >

Thursday 7 February 2013

The Real Classic Space ?

As regular readers of this blog will know, I'm a massive fan of LEGO's so-called Classic Space sets. For the uninitiated, 'Classic Space' isn't an official LEGO title or theme, but the name given to a group of space-related sets produced by LEGO during the late 1970's and early to mid-1980's.

It's pretty easy to pinpoint the start of the Classic Space era, which was kick-started in 1978 by the North American release of four sets which were to become truly iconic and highly prized. I'm no LEGO historian, but I've always considered these sets, and those which followed close behind, to be truly ground-breaking on a number of levels. While their superb forward-thinking designs and wonderfully evocative branding and packaging weren't necessarily without precedent, there was also clear design DNA running through the sets as evidenced by the consistent colour schemes and parts they utilised. I can remember being wowed at the time by the first appearance of transparent parts in various colours, particularly yellow, green and red, not to mention a host of exotic new parts, both printed and unprinted. The early Classic Space sets were also the first LEGO space sets to feature the iconic LEGO minifigure. Like I said - groundbreaking on many levels. The end of the Classic Space era is perhaps a little tricker to pinpoint, simply because there was no break in the production of space sets, but most including the likes of Wikipedia cite 1987 as the cut-off. It was at this point that 'generic' LEGO space started to morph into sub-themes such as Futuron and Blacktron, with a shift away from the Classic Space design DNA as a consequence.

With all the hoo-ha about Classic Space, however, it's easy to forget that LEGO had already made their first forays into space many years earlier. As far back as 1964 LEGO released a 112-piece space set, imaginatively titled Space Rocket, and then in 1973 we were treated to Set 358 Rocket Base, which remains one of my favourite sets to this day and was the first LEGO space set that I ever owned. Two years later in 1975, Set 367 Space Module with Astronauts appeared, known in North America as Set 565 Moon Landing. That one unfortunately passed me by at the time, however, and it would be a few more years before I received my next taste of LEGO space in the form of the absolutely wonderful Set 928 Space Cruiser with Moon Base. As living proof of the old adage that "Good things come to those that wait", however, I recently managed to get hold of a boxed example of Set 367 Space Module with Astronauts almost 40 years after its release, and I thought I'd share it with you here.

The packaging consists of an inner box which contains the parts and instructions, and a decorated outer sleeve which slides over it . My copy of the set is a little worse for wear, particularly at the ends, but it's still largely intact. You can see the front of the outer sleeve below (click to enlarge) - wonderfully atmospheric and minimalist in contrast to the heavily branded and sometimes rather fussy box art we tend to get these days. That having been said, it's hard to shake the suspicion that the sun is in fact just an out of focus table lamp pointing at the camera through a sheet or similar....

The rear of the outer sleeve gives us something sadly long gone from most current LEGO sets - pictures of alternate builds. I can't speak for the rest of the oldies out there, but when I was a kid these alternate build ideas were a great source of inspiration for my own creations, and I miss them. A couple of the suggestions - the helicopter and the TV camera - are rather good.

Sliding off the outer sleeve reveals the parts and instructions sitting in a plain cardboard tray; when the set was new you'd also have found a sticker sheet in there, but those stickers that remain in my used copy of the set have already been applied. The instructions are in the form of a double-sided sheet akin to a poster rather than a booklet; folded up they occupy a modest area (front cover below) but fully unfurled they're huge !

The building instructions themselves occupy a little over three quarters of the available space. There are no part call-outs, and some of the building steps are quite hard to follow, although an attempt is made to try and help the builder by printing a thick magenta line around the newly-added parts in some of the building steps. The instructions culminate in the image below which shows the completed build.

Some of the pictures of alternate models featured on the outer sleeve are repeated on the instruction sheet (below) although you don't get building instructions for these, so if you want to reproduce them then you're on your own.

Buying a set this old is often something of a lottery - even if you've seen photographs of the packaging before you buy you're never quite sure what horrors will await you inside the box.... I was lucky, though - all parts were present and correct, and they furthermore lacked the dust and grime that's often an unexpected 'bonus' when you buy a used set.

The set contains 3 maxifigures; if anyone is unfamiliar with these precursors to the modern minifigure and wants to know more about them, I've previously posted here on the subject so you can get up to speed. Unusually, but appropriately given the subject matter, the set calls for brick-built helmets rather than the typical maxifigure heads. You can see one of the maxifigure astronauts below. It's pretty impressive that after 40 years the sticker is still attached; OK, so it could have been applied a bit more neatly, but after all this time I'm just grateful that any of the stickers have survived at all.... 

While helmets as above are obviously the order of the day given the lunar setting, the set also includes three maxifigure heads and hairpieces so that the astronauts can let their hair down at the end of a hard day's space walking; it's a nice touch which enhances the play possibilities of the set.

Having completed the figures, it was on to the moon buggy next, and you can see the finished article below (click to enlarge). The building instructions zoom through this in just 8 steps; it'd probably be more like 80 steps today ! Interesting parts include the fully intact milky white antenna which is typically found with less than its full complement of 8 spokes, the multiple white 1 x 1 round bricks with a solid stud on top, and the front engine grille which is etched into the side of a blue 1 x 6 brick as opposed to just being printed on the surface. The 'control stick', which is made up of two red 1 x 2 plates, is wedged vertically between two studs on the floor of the moon buggy; this would be considered an "illegal" building technique by LEGO nowadays and thus wouldn't make it into an official set.

Finally it's on to the lunar module itself. The upper section (below), known as the ascent stage, was an at times tricky build as you're required to place pieces on the rear aspect which can't actually be seen on the instructions; in the absence of part call outs this requires some educated guesswork.... The light grey engine pieces first appeared in a couple of sets released in 1974, one of which (Set 657 Executive Jet) I've reviewed previously. The iffy technique of vertically wedging a 1 x 2 plate between two studs crops up again in this part of the build, on this occasion providing support for the yellow radar 'dishes'

The lower section of the lunar module (below), known as the descent stage, consists of four identical legs attached to a boxy central section. It was very quick and easy to assemble. The non-retractable ladder, which attaches to the central section via a vintage 2 x 5 hinge plate, doesn't reach the ground which does beg the question of how our intrepid astronauts are supposed to get back on board. Oh well - in low G they can just jump, I guess....

The ascent stage fits snugly into a 2 x 5 stud-sized slot at the top of the descent stage and the lunar module is complete (below). The ascent stage is held in place by a couple of studs on either side. All that's missing is the sticker of the Stars and Stripes which is supposed to adorn the side of the lunar module but which sadly didn't survive the ravages of time. Given that the sticker would have covered multiple bricks, it's absence is unsurprising; if I'd owned the set as a kid I would have wanted to reuse the bricks so the sticker wouldn't have lasted 5 minutes....

You can see all the various components of the set laid out below (click to enlarge). As well as the lunar module, moon buggy and 3 astronauts you're also provided with some additional equipment. The flag is stickered on both sides with the Stars and Stripes and sits on a 2 x 2 plate, and you also get a white radar 'dish' and some sort of rotating, floor-mounted device - bonus points for anyone who has a clue what that's supposed to be.... Mystery devices notwithstanding, it's a nice set with lots of play possibilities, and I would have been literally over the moon to get this when I was a youngster.

Set 367 Space Module with Astronauts was released in 1975. It contains 364 pieces, and according to Brickset it cost £3.95 back in the day. Having decided that I wanted the set, tracking down a boxed example on eBay predictably turned out to be a challenge due to the set's age and rarity, although they are occasionally listed there. I didn't initially check Bricklink as I assumed that the price of a boxed example on there would be more than I'd be willing to pay, but when I eventually got round to looking there I found exactly what I was looking for, located in the UK, and at a price which was below what I would have had to pay for any of the eBay auctions I'd been following. One of the reasons that Bricklink prices can be higher is that in marked contrast to eBay, sellers on Bricklink tend to be genuine LEGO enthusiasts who know how to clean, check and securely package their LEGO, and in general spend the necessary time and effort doing so; it was therefore no surprise that the set turned up well packaged, complete and clean. At the time of writing there are only eight copies of the set on Bricklink, plus a further four copies of sister set 565 Moon Landing; unboxed they're priced between £25 and £77 depending on location and condition, while a boxed example will set you back £86 and up.

There's no doubt that this set has charm, and as a child I would have absolutely loved it. Even so, it's easy to see why the appearance of LEGO's next generation of space sets just 3 years later - the start of the Classic Space era - caused such a stir. When you compare the images of Set 367 above with, for example, Set 928 Space Cruiser and Moon Base (below - click to enlarge) from 1979, the progression in terms of parts, colours and sophistication is just massive - truly a giant leap for mankind....