Monday 25 November 2013

Who Ya Gonna Call ?

Having recently finished up and publicly displayed my reproduction of cavegod's massive 6,200+ piece UCS AT-AT, I figured it was about time I got to work on a MOC of my own. I did initially think about cracking on with my LEGO City layout, but given that there's still some sorting out to do in my LEGO room before I can comfortably work on it, I decided instead to tide myself over with a new, shorter project while I freed up the necessary space. The question, then, was what to build, and it didn't take me long to come up with an answer. Having recently been impressed by some of the Ghostbusters-inspired MOCs on Cuusoo, and also having coincidentally initiated my youngster in the delights of the first Ghostbusters movie, I thought I'd have a go at designing and building the iconic Ghostbusters ECTO 1 Cadillac and headquarters building.

Perhaps surprisingly, I felt more daunted by the prospect of building the Cadillac than the Ghostbusters HQ. Buildings are often well suited to being translated into LEGO form given their angular morphology, and the Ghostbusters HQ is no exception. Cars, however, with all their vehicle-specific characteristic features and subtle curves and contours, are a totally different story. Builders such Ralph Savelsberg a.k.a. Mad Physicist have spent years taking LEGO vehicle design to a different level, while I hadn't meaningfully MOC'ed a car since I was a kid. I decided to face my fears and start with the Cadillac.....

Image from
One of the concerns I had was that I'd agonise endlessly about every little detail of the model and end up never getting the thing done at all. I therefore made a conscious decision up front to fight my natural instinct to get everything perfect and instead just try to capture the essence of the subject matter and not obsess too much about getting every little detail included and accurate. I figured that once the thing was built I could tinker with it to my heart's content if desired, but the primary objective was just to get something built and "good enough".

My first job was to track down some half-decent photographs of ECTO 1; this proved harder than expected. While an internet search yielded an enormous number of images, most of them appeared to be die-cast models of the vehicle, LEGO renditions of highly variable quality, or horrific attempts to turn real-life respectable family saloons into ECTO 1 with just a lick of paint and a few decals.... I had initially hoped to find some reasonable quality movie stills, but these seemed to be few and far between. Eventually, I stumbled across a useful posting by speederice on containing a ton of useful ECTO 1-related information and some usable photographs including the one above which I could use as a reference. Without any further ado I powered up LDD and got stuck in. When designing a new MOC, some people prefer to just dive in and experiment with real pieces, but I find that the almost infinite choice of elements available via LDD, compared with my limited selection of loose LEGO, means I can just get on with the design process without wasting lots of time searching for parts.

I spent a few hours on LDD over a couple of consecutive evenings designing and refining, and you can see a couple of LDD screengrabs of what I came up with below (click pics to enlarge). I predictably struggled with aspects of the design; while the passenger compartment and roof look pretty good to me, the front isn't quite right - it looks too narrow. Also, there's supposed to be a pair of headlights on each side rather than just the one, and the blue hose is supposed to insert lower into the bodywork. Even so, I felt that the design captured the essence of the vehicle sufficiently well and was "good enough" to be going on with. From a technical perspective, incidentally, I couldn't figure out how to detach the control sticks from their hemispherical bases on LDD; if anyone knows how to do this then please let me know.

The next job was sourcing the 310 parts needed to build the Cadillac; Superkalle has written an application called LDD Manager which can, amongst other things, take an LDD file and export a list of the constituent parts into an Excel spreadsheet which can in turn be imported into Bricklink as a wanted list. It only runs on PC, however, so as a Mac user I had to resort to a more cumbersome approach, namely using LDD to generate an html building guide, the last page of which contains a parts listing. I printed out the parts listing and systematically went through it, digging out those elements I already owned from my loose LEGO stash, and adding those I didn't to a Bricklink wanted list. During the process of trial and error that ensued, it became evident that a few of the elements would be best sourced direct from LEGO, be it their Pick a Brick (PaB) or their Bricks and Pieces (B&P) services. The remaining elements were eventually sourced from a bunch of diferent Bricklink stores and the aforementioned LEGO services and gradually arrived over the next 1-2 weeks. You can see a picture below of the 310 parts (click to enlarge) - doesn't seem to be a great deal to show for all that hassle....

Once the parts had been sourced it was time to boot up LDD once again and enter building guide mode in order to generate a building guide from the Cadillac's LDD file. For the uninitiated, this is an automated process available from the LDD menu at the click of a button, and in the case of a relatively small model like the Cadillac it only takes a few moments. The resulting guide differs from the html building guide described earlier in that it's possible to rotate and zoom the images on the screen at every step, thus allowing the builder to look at the build from multiple angles; this can be especially handy if it's a complex build. The building guide for the Cadillac consisted of a total of 145 building steps, and you can see a selection of the steps below (click to enlarge).

With the building guide up on the screen it was finally time to get building with real bricks. Having previously extolled the virtues of LDD, I do have to admit that one disadvantage of using it is that I sometimes end up virtual building with it in quite ridiculous ways, doing things that I wouldn't dream of doing if I was building out of real bricks. Unknowingly using seven elements where just one would do, for instance. I merrily go along adding more and more bricks to my designs, quite oblivious to all the brick-stacking crimes that I'm committing until I come to actually trying to translate the design into real bricks, and it's only then that the extent of the bizarre building techniques becomes evident. It can make for some unstable builds, not to mention higher-than-necessary part counts. Thankfully, notwithstanding a few idiosyncratic brick combinations, the build was fairly quick and reasonably sensible on this occasion, and the finished model held together OK; you can see a couple of pictures below (click to enlarge).

So nearly there, but something's missing.... Regular readers will be well aware that I'm no fan of stickers, but I knew from the moment I started to design the Cadillac that it just wouldn't look right without the Ghostbusters logo plastered onto it. Given this, there was only one place to turn; Caroline and Nick Savage, a.k.a., have quickly made a name for themselves as designers and purveyors of excellent custom minifigs, but they also have the necessary equipment to produce custom stickers. Having sourced the Ghostbusters logo from the internet and e-mailed it to them, they were able to make me some perfectly-proportioned stickers for my Cadillac. An advantage of their stickers over those produced by LEGO is that you can wet the part that you want to stick them on to and slide the stickers around on a thin film of water until you're happy with the position, at which point you dab the stickers dry and they stick fast. It took a matter of moments to apply the necessary stickers to the Cadillac, and you can see some views of the finished vehicle below.

In an ideal world I would have loved to have ended up with a faithful reproduction of the Cadillac, but it was never really on the cards; as I stated up front, the objective was to capture the essence of the subject matter, and I think I've done that at least. I'm very happy with the passenger compartment and roof rack containing all the ghostbusting equipment. Less satisfactory is the fact that the rear wheels are more hidden than I'd like, the front is too narrow, and there are supposed to be two headlights on each side rather than one. Also, the blue hose is supposed to insert into the bodywork below the red stripe, not in the middle of it. There's certainly room for improvement, then, and I may yet do some more tweaking at some point, but all that having been said, it's "good enough" for now, and I'm delighted to even be able to say that given my initial misgivings.

Next up : Ghostbusters HQ. Stay tuned....

                                                                                                       Ghostbusters HQ -->

Wednesday 13 November 2013

American Beauty

As I noted in a recent posting, one by-product of LEGO's current upsurge in popularity has been an explosion of LEGO-related publications. I've already reviewed a couple of offerings on here this year - Sariel's Unofficial LEGO Technic Builder's Guide and Nathanael Kuipers' Amazing Vehicles volume 1 - and I hope to review a couple more in due course - David Robertson's Brick by Brick and Pete Reid and Tim Goddard's LEGO Space. Each of these books has a distinctly different focus, highlighting the incredible diversity of LEGO-related publications out there right now, and recent arrival Beautiful LEGO by Mike Doyle continues in the same vein, offering something very different to any of the other books in my LEGO library.

First impressions of this surprisingly weighty tome are very positive - Beautiful LEGO is a beautiful book. The front cover (above) showcases one of the author's own creations, snappily entitled "Contact 1: The Millenial Celebration of the Eternal Choir at K'al Yne Odan" (I kid you not) while the back cover (below - click to enlarge) highlights a few more modestly-sized creations. The book looks like a hardback from a distance, but the front and back covers, which fold back on themselves to confer additional rigidity, are actually made of card and are printed with a mixture of sumptuous matt and glossy photographs. All in all there are well over 270 pages of content, and it's all beautifully laid out and printed. Quite exquisite, actually.

In the preface, we learn that the author only became aware of the kinds of LEGO artwork that people were creating about 3 years ago. If, as this suggests, he didn't start to design and build his own LEGO creations until that time, then he's a rare talent. To put things into perspective, he's managed to accumulate his astonishing portfolio of original work in the time that it's taken me to build a few official LEGO sets, tinker with my LEGO City layout and reproduce cavegod's UCS AT-AT. Gulp.

Alien Chestburster, by Ramon & Amador Alfaro Marcilla
The organisation of the book is pleasingly haphazard, with chapters showcasing the work of specific builders rubbing shoulders with collections of models focused on specific and seemingly random topics as diverse as birds, architecture, mecha, mosaics, space and Monty Python. Maybe a third of the book's thirty or so chapters focus exclusively on the work of individual builders. Some of these LEGO artists, including the likes of Nathan Sawaya and the book's author Mike Doyle (both of whom I've previously featured here) I was already aware of. Others, such as brothers Ramon and Amador Alfaro Marcilla, creators of the incredible Alien Chestburster model above, I wasn't. For me personally these builder-focused chapters are the highlight of the book, as in addition to the featured models they also contain text which provides insights into the motivations, creations and favourite elements of the builders. The chapter which casts a spotlight on Mike Doyle's own creations features some of my favourite-ever MOCs, namely his series of Abandoned Houses, one of which you can see below.

Three Story Victorian with Tree by Mike Doyle
The chapters focusing on specific topics consist predominantly of collections of models made by different builders, although in a few cases all themed models in a chapter have been built by a single individual. Topics covered range from the predictable (architecture) to the plain inspired (Monty Python), and the featured models range from tiny to huge and showcase an almost bewildering array of different building styles. These chapters would I think have benefitted from explanatory text to accompany the pictures; I would have particularly appreciated getting some insights into some of the ingenious building techniques used in the models. That having been said, I guess the author had to draw the line somewhere in the interests of keeping the book to a manageable size. As a Brit, it was pleasing to see a number of models created by fellow Brickish Association members Tim Goddard (his Rearing Stallion model can be seen below), Barney Main, Rod Gillies and James Pegrum - great work, guys !

Rearing Stallion by Tim Goddard
One minor downside from my perspective is the absence of a few specific builders and their creations from the book. I was disappointed that the work of Ed Diment (Lego Monster) wasn't featured in some form, for instance, and the omission of his stupendous and much-admired model of U.S.S. Intrepid was particularly surprising to me. Fully forty pages of mechs and space ships without a single Peter Reid (legoloverman) creation was also disappointing, as was the absence of any of Ralph "Mad Physicist" Savelsberg's fabulous vehicles. Admittedly, as the author is at pains to point out in his preface, for practical reasons it would have been impossible to feature all of the models that deserved to be showcased, and in a book of this type there's consequently always going to be a substantial element of personal preference in the selections. Truth be told, therefore, aside from a few notable omissions I actually think that the author has done a pretty good job of highlighting a diverse range of different models and building styles; I suspect that had I been responsible for choosing the content it would no doubt have been criticised by some for being too EU-centric, so you really can't please all of the people all of the time.... Talking of preferred content, in an ideal world I would also have liked to see more commentary on the models, and better still get some insights into the building techniques used, but again it's a fairly minor gripe.

Temple of Jugatinus by James Pegrum
I suppose there's a potential question to be addressed regarding the purpose of the book. It's undoubtedly wonderful eye candy, but you could argue that most if not all of the featured creations can be freely seen on the net, and there's precious little accompanying text to provide additional value. Interestingly, non-AFOL friends and family were particularly wowed by the book - they couldn't quite believe that the models were made out of LEGO - but I don't see much likelihood of such people actually buying it. AFOLs, on the other hand, will generally know where to find such content on the net, so is the book really worth the $29.95 MRSP ? Well, that depends on your perspective. The book is beautifully presented, and it showcases a thoughtful selection of impressive, inspiring, amusing and thought-provoking creations which richly deserve to be captured for posterity. You can therefore look upon the book as a source of inspiration and an object which brings pleasure in it's own right. If that's important to you, as it is for me, then I can wholeheartedly recommend the book to you. Otherwise you're probably better off saving your money and looking elsewhere.

Westie by Shin-Kai Huang
Beautiful LEGO is available now. At the time of posting you can buy it at a decent discount from Amazon in the U.K. (click here), the U.S. (click here) and elsewhere. Many thanks to the publisher, No Starch Press, for sending me a copy to review here on Gimme LEGO.