Lego Magic

I write this as I am fascinated by the way Lego – more than any other modular building material I'm familiar with – can produce that certain something that attracts and engages the viewer.  It is that something that keeps our eyes focused on pieces for longer than they might otherwise and amazes. I call this Lego Magic. 

Knowing what is going on emotionally when one views a piece can help in the design and development of our own pieces. We can exploit the medium to work for us to create designs that engage, entertain and amaze. Below is a collection of observations and intuitive feelings I get from this intricate collection of plastic bricks. 

Lego: The Everyman Art
Lego inherently has this going for it. Most everyone, at some point or another, has played with Lego: either as a child or a parent with child. This familiarity with the medium draws people into the works faster. They see what you’ve done and can relate to their own experience.

Works utilizing advanced building techniques, amaze folks as this is not the way they ‘played’ with lego. Comparing to their own works, they can relate to how difficult a piece must have been to make.

Lego: A Child’s Toy
It is arresting to see that a child’s toy has been elevated to a high degree of craft and sophistication. The transforming of these plastic bricks from toy to a serious medium is unexpected and shocking. This is the "I had no idea Lego could be taken to this level!” reaction.

This child’s toy or play thing perception is what makes Lego stand out from other mediums. In painting and drawing, one is aware of what high craftsmanship can be. We expect that something painted well can (or should) look like something we have seen in a museum. That is what the medium is supposed to do. However, one does not expect a child’s toy to be taken to such a museum quality level. Toys aren’t supposed to do that after all, or so the thinking might go.

The Macro/Micro Transformation
The macro view usually comes first. It is the seeing of the whole piece as one. A viewer first needs to identify the subject. Usually, this comes very quickly. A house is a house. A car is a car. A ship battle is a ship battle.

After this, comes the micro view inspection. Suddenly, one discovers what the piece is made of – that is, Lego. The Lego comes to view and then the individual Lego types. This is an excellent exploit one can utilize. By selecting unexpected pieces, you reward the viewer with a second tier of discovery. I remember being shocked and delighted with the clever use of minifig hair pieces for smoke in the tank picture. Also used again for mushroom tops. I simply did not expect that.

Upon closer inspection of this piece by BMW_Indy, the smoke has been made up of hair pieces.
In this scene by Legohaulic , the small mushrooms here have been made with minifig hair pieces as well. This displacement of a piece's original function (to go on a head) and it's new placement (as a mushroom top) is unexpected and memorable.
For this reason, I do not think the use of plant Lego (bushes, flowers, grass, leaves, etc) and other ready-mades is the most effective practice. When one views a scene filled with Lego specific plants, there is not much deeper or more micro to go. Preformed plant shaped Lego pieces = a scene with plants – no surprise here. To contrast, if one is to look at a scene filled with plants that upon closer inspection are something else, one will enjoy that surprise and then reexamine to the effect. On one hand, the prefabs might look more like the real thing, on the other, the prefabs are just not as interesting or exciting in the end.
The use of prefab plants denies the viewer the experience of micro. When one gets in closer to examine the piece, there is no displacement here. The plants are exactly what they seemed... pre-made Lego plant parts.
It is this back and forth from Macro to Micro and back to Macro that can engage. We’ve all done it as observers. You see a lego work – say a ship battle – then look closer to find the cannon smoke made of round 2x2s or something else unexpected, then back again to macro to reexamine those round 2x2s in a different light. That’s magic.

This is that universal appeal that miniatures have on us. There is definitely something magical about seeing small models of things. Whether they be cities, houses or trains. We stare and stare and stare. There is an appeal to suddenly being a giant; we gain a new perspective.

Flickr Size Me
Photographing a piece and posting is a very convenient way to get a larger audience. It is also a great way to trick the eye with scale. By building pieces in a larger scale and photographing without any other reference – such as a person in the picture – the object’s scale is unknown. Instead of a build that might be 2’ or 3’ high in reality, you have an image that now may be a 6” or 8” picture on screen. This gives the impression of more detail. There is the surprise one gets when viewing a thumbnail or smaller image, only to zoom in and find out that it’s not a real thing but a Lego build.

A common tool in the world of art and design, is also applicable here. Seeing a work that is made up of smaller pieces which are all identical is mesmerizing. Such an effect can be enhanced by choosing designs which use many like pieces rather than using a ready made piece.

Minimalism vs Maximalism

Some architectural minimalist (micro) examples from 2 Much Caffeine, and the castle by Max Niebling

There are many ways to approach pieces, but two ways that can guarantee positive appraisal when well done are minimalism and maximalism. The minimal approach is also known as micro in Lego jargon. It is the reduction of form to the simplest possible construction while still remaining recognizable. The exciting moment for a viewer is that point which comes after first view when one sees the blob of Lego and then ‘gets it’. The light bulb appears and all of a sudden your brain sees a castle or car. It’s not really a castle or car, but a very abstracted version of one. It’s a puzzle that needs solving. In so doing, it builds a level of enthusiasm that is not there from an instant recognition. The mind flips back and forth from micro to macro or macro to micro very fast with these. Like a strobe light you rapidly flip back and forth from a simple stack of pieces to a castle.
A maximalist piece oozing with texture and detail.
Maximalism is the opposite approach. It is constructing a piece in a manner which has a high level of complexity to it. It is a baroque, greebley, expressionistic point of view that excites through an apparent level of detail and aesthetic noise. This is the same allure we get from a FabergĂ© egg, palace or cathedral architectural details and close ups of natural patterns, like bark or such. Often times achieved through the use of repetition, this technique causes the eye to dance around the piece and get lost in the details. It is simply mesmerizing. 

The Picture Perfect Moment
Here is something that I feel is underutilized in many scenic, dioramic, vignette pieces. Designing a work with a hero point of view, or the perfect picture moment, is important. What I mean by this is that it is important to bear in mind where you would prefer the viewer to see the piece (from which angle) and optimize the scene for it. Build the scene as if viewed from this point of view. Compose everything so that that as many objects as possible look their best together at this viewing point. Make this your hero shot when photographing and posting. This gives the piece a drama built around a moment and a focal point to concentrate on. It is not uncommon to see the pictures of larger scale works that don’t seem to have a well composed focal point. It seems to take a number of photos to 'get' the whole piece yet no one image seems sufficient. There might be a ship on one end, an underwater scene somewhere else and an island on the other side. Alone, all are fine objects, but together there is not the visual glue – at least, none captured by photos. Composing a single picture ahead of time and building to that seems an effective way to get a magical image or moment in a piece.

Usually, this picture perfect moment is not seen from above but somewhat level with the piece. It’s like those family photos of the kids seen from the adult point of view – looking up at you. The same image is much more engaging when crouching down to take the photo. You are on level with the child and the moment is more intimate. For this reason, at cons or other events, displaying at the proper height seems very important. Smaller pieces are really killed by simple placement on a table. They tend to appear thrown on the table together like a day at the flee market. The most ideal spot is along the wall at eye level. Shelves on walls  anything that can get the pieces against the wall, just below eye level allows the eye to focus in on the small object in an intimate manner. The wall helps to frame the object and reduce distraction. The eye remains at a single focal point rather than straying off in the distance. The problem is, of course, varying spectator heights – kids to adults. Ideally, but not practical for cons are two standing levels.

For large scale pieces more open and scenic, somewhat lower is good, about a little higher than the stomach area.

The Square in a Circle Hole
Lego's strict modularity and consistent proportions seem at first to limit creativity. For many, the perception of Lego is that of square, bitmappy buildings, bridges and other linear objects with bumps (studs) on top. When a work breaks through this limitation, it can appear as unexpected as the square going through a circle hole – it doesn't seem possible. Advanced building offers many techniques to squeeze through the ridged modularity of straightness. Other pieces, such as tiles used along with SNOT, smooth over the bumpiness many expect. The delta between the expectation and breaking of the expectation here can catch many off guard.

Cause and Effect
It is one thing to document a thing, like a building or car or a train. but it is another thing to record that thing which has been affected. This is because of what goes on in the mind when viewing that object. We at once see the affected object (say a house) and then imagine what the house must have been like before that effect. We even can imagine the event itself. This then involves the viewer in the piece in a way that mere representation cannot. Of particular interest is when only the effect has been recorded and not the event. This allows the viewer to imagine the event rather than receive it literally, though a build. Again, by engaging one's imagination, we draw the viewer in. It creates a dual image in their mind of the piece – the before and the after (as well as what the event might have been like).

When creating Two Story with Basement,  I made sure to employ this technique to great measure. Some effects were subtle, like the way the snow melted on the window panes – generally more melting toward the right where the sun was strongest, unless this might have been in more shadow. The snow sort of sunk a bit on the porch roof as it melted faster when further away from the building side. Also, the melting formed icicles which centered on the clogged storm drains. The snow on the main roof melted into patches which had frozen ice flowing down the roof from them. On the ground, patches of fallen slow disrupt the perfect blanket of snow. The snow on the broken steps seem to have been walked on with patches leading up to them. Also, frozen ice appears out of the gutter drain on the ground. All these things document the passage of time so that we see a process or activity that has already happened.

Through the Keyhole
Seeing something through something else is very interesting. Whether this be details inside a store or house window or a scene behind a cluster of trees we get a sense of a world that has just been cracked open for us. Not enough to totally see, but enough to imply that something is going on.

Again, in my last piece, Two Story with Basement, I was very pleased by the way the second story side shingles had broken to reveal the substructure underneath. you get the feeling that there is detailing behind the shingles without showing it. Or the way the just visible ornate bookshelf in the first story can bee seen through the center window. All these things provide interest, depth and a sense that there is more there than there really is.

The Lego Immersion 
Using only Lego pieces for one’s work allows the viewer to step out of their real world and into the world of Lego. This is a large problem I have with the Miniland exhibit at Legoland. Here, we have fantastically detailed buildings and city street scenes, brilliantly done, but spoiled with real grass, plants, water and rocks. As soon as one is brought into the world of Lego we snap back out with a dose of real world which has been manicured in Lego scale. They are building not only with Lego bricks, but also pebbles, grass blades, water and such. The two mediums don’t mesh at all. How much more mind blowing such exhibits would be made entirely of Lego – all the water, all the trees and bushes. Everything. I want to see these incredible artisans’ techniques on the organic parts of the scene as well. This Lego immersion would then be like entering a Disney ride. You are taken into another world, believable by the absence of everything else real. Here you can escape.

From Miniland at Legoland. Yes, it looks real and pretty, but it doesn't feel lego. The introduction of real plants is distracting to the Lego experience - I don't feel like I'm in a Lego world and that's what I really want
For us Lego hobbyists, incorporating model craft pieces, like train hobbyist’s scrub, rocks and trees into one’s Lego scene is distracting and diminishes the overall effect. Sticking to a pure Lego build enhances the immersion and let's us escape into it.

These are just a few thoughts towards what is happening when we and non FOLs look at works. As builders, we have the advantage of surprise. We are not bound by our early preconceptions surrounding the medium that many still carry. Working around bitmappiness, bumpiness and lack of round can be a step towards this level of surprise and amazement. Complexity, intricacy and scale can be stunning effects, while reduction can exude a level perfection of form. There are many exploits at our disposal to manipulate the pieces to our advantage which makes Lego a really incredible medium to interact with!

– mike


MontanaVista said...

Mike - Wonderful insight here! This should be a must-read for any AFOL. Keep up with the blog, if you keep writing, they will come.

Catsy said...

They are building not only with Lego bricks, but also pebbles, grass blades, water and such. The two mediums don’t mesh at all.

I love the rest of this post, but this is where we part ways. :) Which won't be surprising to anyone who's seen my work, but I felt it was a viewpoint that needed to be expressed all the same.

There is something to be said for working within the constraints of the medium, to be sure. And I appreciate--and have built--purist MOCs.

A turning point for me in my hobby, though, was when I stopped treating Lego as an isolated medium, and started treating it as just another source of raw material. Perhaps not "just"--I still build within the system and create many arguably purist works, and Lego is still my focus. I still enjoy the challenge of working within the constraints of Lego elements. But I find that being willing to cut, paint, glue, and otherwise use skills and materials from my miniature modeling hobby opens creative doors that were closed as a strict purist.

It's certainly not for everyone. But it's something to think about.

Mike Doyle said...

Hey Catsy thanks for your POV on use of other materials! I don't think there is anything wrong with that for sure. Just as an oil painter might use wood, collage or other things mixed into the medium, so too can Lego.

The point I was trying to make (and maybe not well) is that by staying within the world of Lego there is a certain, unique, magic to this. In this paragraph the message was that one sets up a viewing circumstance that is a Lego immersive one. There is an awe that comes to knowing that beauty and complexity can be found within the rules and bounds set up by Lego. In the case of Miniland, it seems as if that is what the message should be. They are Lego, after all, and this is their way of showcasing the possibilities of the product they have made with all its inherent rules. By treating as a mixed media, I lose this total immersion.

There is no denying the freedom from breaking free from the rules and constructing outside of this with other materials. And no denying the merit of such pieces. They, however, must be looked at in a different way – not a necessarily better or worse way – just different. It is no longer a Lego piece but rather a mixed media one.

Anonymous said...

Man, you are a genius. Do you have a FB page? I'd like to like you :)

Katie said...

Hi Mike,

I've quoted your paragraph on the hero image a few times now... including just today. I hope you don't mind! I always link back to your post, which I still think is a wonderful one.

Hope all is well!