Friday, 10 July 2015

LEGO Pixel Projects - Tutorial

      For those of you that are interested, here is as quick behind the scenes look at how I go about creating these Lego Pixel mosaics.

Building on a baseplate vs building vertically

       Creating a mosaic out of LEGO is nothing new – there are plenty of examples of this out there already. Most however are ‘top down’ mosaics, meaning you are looking down onto the studs from above as they are built flat onto a baseplate. This is undoubtedly the most straightforward option.
       The pieces I like to make are, however, built vertically - meaning the bricks stack on top of each other to a form more a free standing model – fitting for that nostalgic videogame pixel art that I am a great fan of.

       Free standing ‘vertical’ builds require a bit more planning, especially since each brick needs to be supported in order for the whole thing to stick together (which occasionally requires a bit of re-jigging from the original design). 

      What follows is a quick step-by-step tutorial that outlines my working process.

Step 1 - Choose a picture

       For me, selecting an existing piece of pixel art is ideal, as: a) I love the aesthetic of old school video game characters; and b) pixel art is already split into ‘blocks’, giving you a good head start in the process of converting your picture into a LEGO sculpture.

       A couple of points to bear in mind when you first start though:

Don't aim too big – especially if it’s your first try. Getting your head around the process can be a bit tricky so start with something small. A sprite from a NES or SNES era game (8-bit or 16-bit) is ideal. You have to bear in mind that LEGO bricks can be expensive (depending on size, colour and rarity) so the more bricks (ie: ‘pixels’) your picture is made up of, the more expensive it will get it in order to source all the materials needed to create it.

Colours – It’s all well and good picking a nice colourful picture – but the fact of the matter is that LEGO bricks are not readily available in all colours. Some colours are indeed much rarer than others and as a result, end up being much more expensive to get hold of. Choosing a picture that has between 3-5 different colours is recommended to start with (for ease of sourcing them) and the more basic the colour palette the better (primary colours as well as black, white and grey are a good place to start).

Aspect ratio – ‘Top down’ mosaics needn’t worry about this as a single lego stud (or 2x2 brick) viewed from above is seen a perfect square. Viewed from the side however (as vertical builds are), the bricks are slightly rectangular – a little taller than they are wide, meaning that whatever your picture is, you must bear in mind that the end product will have a bit of vertical ‘stretch’ to it, if built using the vertical building method. Some pictures are less suited to this than others so it is worth factoring this in to your build.

Support – As we aim to end up with something that will be free standing, you should pick something with an adequate distribution of bricks so that it’s not too top-heavy. More importantly, however, is to make sure that all bricks are supported and that each one is affixed to another somehow in the model.
       In a ‘top down’ mosaic, every brick is fixed down on to the baseplate, so this isn’t a problem, but for a vertical build this step is critical in the planning process. A brick cannot connect to another side by side, only above or below, and so this must factor in when planning the layers on your model. Some builds will be impossible without a little re-jigging here and there to make it work. There will be examples of this later.

       So there you have it. Once you have chosen a picture, next comes the planning phase.

Step 2 - Planning your build

       This the perhaps the most tedious and time consuming part of the process but is essential in figuring out whether your build is possible. Are the right colours/size of bricks available? What alterations may need to be made to the original picture to make it feasible? How much it is likely to cost to build the thing?
       Most of us (including me) don't happen to have an unlimited supply of bricks in all colours just lying around the house ready to use, so careful planning will reveal exactly how many bricks you need in order to be cost efficient when it comes to buy them. In fact, for each of my builds I have counted and then bought the required number of bricks specifically for each model.

       So, to start from the picture – the first step is to split it into layers. A lot of pixel art is readily available online. If you can’t find one that is already split up, you can always use an image editor (I use a free software called GIMP for Mac) in order to draw a grid over your image in order to make it easier to count the squares.

        You may also notice that I have stretched the image a little bit – this is to account for the slight change in aspect ratio that stacked LEGO blocks will bring (as addressed earlier).

       For each horizontal ‘layer’, count the brick sizes needed. NOTE: I tend to make my pieces two studs in depth as this is a more common depth for a LEGO Brick and will offer the model a bit more stability when standing up (as opposed to trying to make it all one stud depth).


       So for example, if we start at the bottom left of Megaman’s foot in the above image, we count 9 blocks of black. So we could make that up out of:

3 ‘2x3’ blocks
3 ‘2x2’ blocks + 1 ‘2x3’ block
1 ‘2x6 block + 1 ‘2x3’ block

…and so on.

       How you split it up is up to you but I would recommend aiming for as many 2x3 and 2x4 blocks as you can, for a number of reasons. These are more common than larger blocks (such as 2x6 and 2x8 etc…) so will be easier to source and be cheaper, you will get more of a pixelated look to the model, and there will be enough support to overlap the layers to support other bricks - especially those ‘2x1’s.
       For the ultimate pixelated look – 2x1 and 2x2 are the best (and they are very common in terms of brick sizes) but they lack support as you need layers to overlap as much as possible to hold the whole thing together - so only use them when you have to.

      So for example with Megaman, if you look at the end of his arm cannon to the far right of the picture, in the original image there is nothing to support the two ‘2x1’ black bricks.

       One is stacked on top of the other, but there is nothing to connect it to the rest of the model on the left, hence the need to tweak the image a bit. By adding another black square to the bottom, this allows those ‘floating’ pieces to connect to the rest of the model. So the layer below becomes a 2x4 black brick instead of just a 2x3 one.

       Fun test: compare the two pictures below: can you spot the other support brick I’ve added in there? Also, there is another part of the model that requires an additional bit of support, which I have purposefully left out – can you spot where that is?

       Alternatively you can avoid any structural issues by just having the whole thing in a rectangle/square, such as my Codec Snake piece:

       You may also want to take into consideration, the colour of the bricks you want. With Megaman this isn’t so much of a problem. In fact, I chose to make this model specifically for the simplicity of its colour scheme. There are only 5 colours used: Blue, Medium Blue, Black, White and Tan.
       Of these, Tan and Medium Blue are somewhat rarer colours but are still attainable if you know where to look.

       For my Toad piece, however, I needed to simplify the colours a little bit in order to make it slightly easier to build. Here I went from 14 different colours to a much more manageable 10. Not only will this offer more overlap (and therefore stability in the build) but also it means the bricks are easier to source (due to rarity and colour availability). You may need to experiment with this, and the more experience you have with LEGO, the more you will get an idea of which colours are more economically viable.

       The final step is counting the bricks and making up a list of all the bricks you need. I like to list them in groups of colour and in order of size.
       To count the bricks, I find it easier to start at the bottom and work my way up, looking at each layer separately and figuring out how many bricks (and more importantly what size) you need. Remember: it is most efficient to go for 2x1, 2x2, 2x3 and 2x4 where possible.
        Here is the list I ended up with for Megaman, (I’ve also added a spare brick or two onto each number just in case I miscalculated somewhere along the way.)

       Once you've got your list, it’s time to go shopping!

Step 3 - Sourcing the materials

       There are a couple of ways that I recommend getting bricks. Firstly, if you are lucky enough to have one near you, you can pop into a LEGO shop and grab the bricks you need from the pick-a-brick wall. The advantages of this are you can see what you getting in terms of colour and size availability, but obviously you are limited by what they actually have in stock at that particular moment. Sometimes you can get some lucky but it's a bit of a gamble to rely solely on this – especially if you have a pre-planned design.

       The second option is to is to use the pick-a-brick feature on the LEGO shop at home website. They have a decent selection of sizes and colours but it’s far from exhaustive in terms of range.

       By far the best option is using Bricklink. There are hundreds of sellers worldwide that will have the parts you want – if LEGO make them, you’ll find them for sale on there somewhere. As mentioned in previous articles, Bricklink can be a bit tricky to navigate but once you learn how to effectively search it, you will definitely find the most cost effective ways of getting the materials you want.
       Depending on the size of the project, I often end up buying from 2 or 3 different sellers to get the parts for each model. It’s recommended that you take the time to compare many shops’s stocks and prices by compiling a ‘wanted list’ on the site. This can be another slightly complicated process so for the sake of brevity I will omit it from this tutorial, but needless to say it is worth taking the time to explore that feature for yourself.

       Once ordered, go and sit by your postal flap and stare at it until your packages arrive.

Step 4 – Building

       Now that all the boring stuff is out the way, we get to do the fun building part! You’ll find, however, that the time it takes to put the thing together (providing you have planned it well) is ridiculously quick compared to the time taken in the prep stage.

       Just build it layer by layer, from the bottom up, following your design. If any parts aren’t structurally sound (i.e. some parts not joined up correctly, you will soon know about it!).
       The aim is to have the whole thing stick together and stand on its own as one structure, although I am thinking about going back and using superglue on my models just for added piece of mind, as the models can break apart quite easily in transit. As long as you are not using any illegal building methods or don't plan on recycling the bricks for anything else later, the use of ‘KRAGLE’ should be allowable in this case.

       So there you have it – that’s how I make my vertical standing pixel art sculptures. I’ll be aiming for something a little bigger and more complex of my next project so once I get some time to plan – watch this space!

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9th July 2015

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