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Weekend.gazeta.pl interview

February 13th, 2016 Leave a comment Go to comments

Sariel
English translation of the interview for a Polish website.

The following is translation of an interview published in Polish at the weekend.gazeta.pl website on February 12th 2016:

You’re 33 years old. Is this a proper age for playing with bricks?

I guess not, but does it really matter? I have a hobby I can develop myself in and share it with people around the world. No reason to be ashamed of that.

Have you been building your own models since childhood?

I went down the same path most adult fans of Lego have: I’ve come across them as a kid first, then went back to treat them as a hobby when I was adult. As a kid I was dealing only with small, simple sets since my family wasn’t well-off, but that was sufficient to get me hooked up for life. I remember spending long hours just browsing the Lego catalogue page by page, imagining myself playing with all these wondrous sets. As a teenager I thought playing with Lego childish, typically for that age, and it wasn’t until I graduated that I remembered about my old sets stuck in the attic. They were still there, waiting for me, and I could still tinker with my Technic pieces. Then I’ve discovered I could now afford many sets I’ve only dreamed about as a kid second-hand, and so it started.

For quite a while building with Lego pieces was something that was supposed to get my mind off my job and to keep me from sitting in front of the computer all the time. The YouTube channel, the articles, the books – all these things followed it in time. To me building custom models is a constant process of learning, improving, developing myself and I guess that’s what I just can’t get bored with, even after all these years.

Can anything be built with Lego pieces?

Not really. One needs to remember that by its very definition Lego is a toy for young children, which imposes a number of limitations. We’re talking about plastic pieces held together by friction and moved by motors that were primarily designed to be safe for kids. It’s not a kind of basis that you can build high performance models upon, there’s no coming close to what proper RC models can do. You can’t make Lego fly, for instance, because the power-to-weight ratio of Lego motors and other elements isn’t even remotely close to sufficient. Personally, I’ve dreamed about Lego subs since I was a kid, but in order to make it possible I would need an effective third-party sealant because Lego isn’t really into watertight stuff.

But I’ve seen a Lego boat on a lake at your channel…

Yes, a Lego boat can stay on water thanks to a special Lego unitary hull, but the only way for it to actually submerge is by sinking.

I’ve also seen a chopper.

That was a review of a Lego chopper set and none of these sets can fly. They only have spinning rotors for looks and for fun. Lego cares very strongly about safety of their products, so they have absolutely no incentive to make a toy that has a good chance of dropping on a kid’s head.

Where do your building inspirations come from?

I’m deeply fascinated by mechanics and something I would call a history of technology. Half of my apartment is filled with books covering these subjects, starting from medieval siege engines to WW2 tanks and dawn of the stealth technology in aviation. I also can’t get enough of da Vinci’s works, it’s incredible what he could achieve using gear wheels carved out of pieces of wood.

Describe the process of making one of your models.

In most cases I have a specific vehicle to model in mind so my first step is to find documentation. It starts with a blueprint, preferably showing the vehicle from a couple of different angles, which provides a basis upon which to calculate dimensions my model should have. Knowing dimensions, I get rough idea of how much room is there to use, what mechanisms and functions can fit in and where. The next step is looking for photos from which I learn all I can about colors, markings and other details.

Do you ever ask manufacturers for documentation of a vehicle they’re making?

I’ve never done that, although it did cross my mind when I was working on the Rosomak – for some reason it was really hard to dig up some solid info. But that’s to be expected when your research has to do with the modern arms industry – some info is simply kept secret. Sometimes it even works another way around: I was once contacted by BAE Systems, one of world’s biggest weapons manufacturer. I’ve built a model of RG-35 4×4 they were making and they wanted to use my photos in their internal newsletter, to show it as a curiosity to their own workers. I never got to see the actual newsletter because it was kept secret, too. That’s just how this industry operates.

How long does such a model take to build?

That depends, besides I’ve developed a habit of working on several models simultaneously. When one model is waiting for delivery of pieces, this allows me to keep myself busy with another one. A single model can take anything between two days to more than a year to complete. It mainly depends on its complexity, which can vary greatly because it’s not my goal to build as complex as possible. My rule is that complexity should be a result, not a goal in itself, and besides simple models are no less fun.

Do you also make up your own vehicles?

No, simply because I’m not good at it. It’s another thing building with Lego pieces can do for you – to let you recognize and accept your limitations. I’ve learned that I can keep getting better with models of existing vehicles but I lack the skill to invent my own. There are other builders, far more talented in this particular area than I could ever be.

Which model was your most expensive one to make?

In most cases the costs are proportional to the size and complexity of a model. I’ve spent quite a lot of money on a tow truck which included 17 motors and nearly 19 meters of electric wires. I’ve spent six months just hunting for pieces I needed at lowest possible prices just to have something to start working with. Smaller models can also be expensive for example because of a color. I have recently built a model of a vehicle from the latest Mad Max movie, and it proved surprisingly costly because it was tan. Tan is one of rare Lego colors, many pieces just don’t exist in tan. I was doing well until I found I absolutely need two little tan pieces which were only made once, for a single set over a decade before. They were exceedingly rare, selling at over $30 a piece – if at all – so I ended up buying the whole set just for these two pieces because it was actually cheaper.

There’s also a second-hand market of pieces and sets which is subject to the usual laws of supply and demand. If it’s rare, it’s also expensive. That’s how you come across wheels that sell at upwards of $100 each or sets that could buy you a car. Every Lego product is phased out of production after a few years and its value starts growing instantly. In time, rare sets, sought by collectors, can grow in value more than 10 times of their shelf price if kept in mint condition, that is unopened.

What would be the estimated price of your complete tow truck?

I guess upwards of $3,000, not including my work and the design which was entirely custom and unique. I’d rather not sell my models though, there’s just too much time spent hunting for pieces behind each of them.

Which model took you longest to complete?

I think my Audi R8 model took close to 2 years, all things told. That includes a period of preliminary shopping for rare pieces – it had to take a while simply because I couldn’t afford buying everything I needed at once. But that just shows how much time goes into logistics and trial and error. If it was a set with building instructions and all pieces in a box, I could build it in a day, maybe two.

What’s your favorite build?

It’s difficult to pick one, but I’d say the tow truck I’ve mentioned really changed things for me. It allowed me to build in a fairly relaxed, laid-back manner, it made me feel that I don’t need to show off, to prove what I can do. There are also models I remember fondly because of the feedback. I have recently built a mecha-hamster driving on two legs, with moving whiskers and ears. It was so completely off-the-wall that I was somewhat concerned about how would the audience react to it – but it all went away when someone told me it was exactly the kind of video he needed after a tough day at work.

And your biggest model?

Still ahead of me. I’ve just built the biggest tank model I’ve ever done, the Maus, weighing nearly 6 kilograms. One of my largest models so far was a Rusich tank carrier, a truck that was roughly 2 meters long and 8 kilograms heavy with trailer and tank included.

Have you ever failed to complete a build?

No more than once or twice, I’m usually pretty stubborn in trying our various solutions until one works. A few years ago I gave up when building model of a bucket wheel excavator, a machine working in strip mines and considered one of the largest man-made machines on Earth. My model was 2 meters long and at some point it became so heavy that the chassis started bending in the middle. It was a structural problem, one which would need a completely redesigned chassis to solve, so I gave it up back then but I’d like to give it another try in the future.

Is it necessary to understand mechanics to build models like these?

It definitely helps, it’s difficult to pull off a complex model without a general grasp of how gear ratios work, what properties various Lego motors have, what’s friction or structural stress or weight distribution. There are no ball bearings in the world of Lego, so all moving parts are very load-sensitive.

Are you an engineer?

No, my education was English philology. I have no technical education whatsoever, which I regret, it would surely come in handy.

Are there many people like you?

There’s a few hundred active fans in Poland, gathered around LUGPol and Zbudujmy.to associations, and we also have KMFL for teenage fans. The fan communities across the world are growing larger every day, the largest seems to be the US one, but the fun fact is that while Lego generates plenty of interest among adults in US, Lego Technic is pretty niche. So much, in fact, that some Technic sets are released later in US, if at all. I suppose it has to do with the education system. Surprisingly, one nation that really rocks Lego Technic are the Dutch.

Why aren’t you popular in Poland? Your viewers are mostly based in US.

I believe it’s still commonly seen as weird when an adult in Poland has a hobby other than sitting in front of a TV with a beer in his hand. I’m genuinely amused when I sometimes bring a model into a bus and see how confused the passengers are, they are clearly at loss to what to make out of it. On the other hand, if there is any reaction, it is always a favorable one. More than once men whose hair was going gray took interest in some Lego car of mine, and asked advanced engineering questions. Also, there’s the matter of me recording all videos in English, which results in a number of Poles who watch them unaware that I’m a Pole too.

How did you feel when you got the Grand Video Awards award?

Utterly surprised. To be honest, I wasn’t even going to participate but my MCN convinced me to. I don’t actually consider myself a YouTuber, I simply have a hobby I’m sharing, and let’s be honest, it’s a really niche one. When I got two nominations it was a surprise to me already, but I considered it to be the end of it and I went to the GVA gala expecting two other nominees in my category to win, just wondering which one it will be. Then, suddenly, I had to climb up on the stage and say something that would make sense. I’ve never seen it coming, in a nice way, and I think it proves the substantive quality of the contest – it wasn’t a simple popularity contest, the jury was able to find and appreciate interesting content from largely unknown creators. My video, the one that won the award, had just around 100k views back then.

Why are you building just vehicles and not structures?

I guess structures are mostly too static to catch my interest, and many buildings are made of the same module repeated again and again. But there are times I get interested in the engineering behind some structure and it results e.g. in a lift bridge for Lego trains which has been featured at Discovery Canada. Anyway, there are true artists in this area that I can’t dream of competing against.

What you learn by building, is it useful to you in your daily life?

Maybe not really in my daily life, but there are these interesting occurences like when during conversation with a friend who’s into off-road cars I learn that real off-road cars are subjects to basically the same rules that apply to Lego off-road models. For example using a big wheel can result in twisted axle.

What’s your single favorite Lego piece?

A separator, I guess. It’s a tool that saves me a lot of sore fingers.

What are you building right now?

There are three large projects at my workshop at the moment. One is a Kenworth T600 truck, nearly 1 meter long and with a 1.5 meter long trailer. The other is Land Rover Defender, meant as a celebration of the real car’s coming out of production. The third one is a USS Sulaco starship model from James Cameron’s Aliens movie which is my attempt at something new to me.

Are you helped by someone when building?

Just hamsters. Lego builders rarely team up to build together, simply because it’s hard to build with someone else’s pieces. You need to know the pieces, how many are there, of what kind. What I do team up on is inventing various kinds of third-party Lego-compatible products. A friend of mine from France is a 3D designer, together we’re coming up with ideas for useful pieces that Lego isn’t making, then he designs them, we print them at Shapeways, and I test them in my models. There’s a guy from US who’s building custom lighting systems and every now and then we put our thinking caps on and come up with things like warning lights. And there’s a Polish guy who’s chroming Lego pieces.

Why would you chrome Lego pieces?

For aesthetics and realism. Many real vehicles, like US trucks, include chromed elements that are best recreated with chromed pieces. The trick is, Lego makes chromed pieces, but few and far between. So if there’s someone who can make more of these, identical in quality, why not do it?

Does it mean your builds aren’t just original Lego pieces?

Each of us, the builders, represents various degrees of purism on subjects from painting, cutting or gluing bricks to e.g. putting RC tires on Lego rims. I wouldn’t paint my pieces but I consider chroming acceptable because the Lego company does it too.

How did you become a Lego ambassador?

Initially I was elected by the Polish community for a single annual term. Ambassadors are something of middle-men between Lego HQ and local fan communities, they’re there to help coordinating various support programs. At the moment I’m sort of an ambassador to myself, by which I mean that Lego considers my viewers and followers a community of its own.

What kind of privileges comes with it?

Mostly it’s the access to a secret ambassadors network where we forge our world domination plans. On a more serious note, we have these working groups that Lego sets up to cover subjects of interest. One of these subjects is 3D print, it’s no surprise that Lego is looking into what the current technology can do and what it can be used for. Sometimes there’s also a big box of Lego sets coming and Lego asks to put it to good use. This is how I was able to donate over 40 Lego sets to children in need, I passed them along to a Serdecznik charity group and they made sure Santa had something for the kids.

You have published two books. What are these about?

Yes, two books in six languages, one is currently being translated into Chinese. I’ve never actually planned to write books, it was all somewhat accidental and I think it’s a cool example of why you should always help others. You see, I was getting a lot of similar questions from people, so after a while it occurred to me that I should write a large tutorial on Lego gears, just to have something to refer the people to when they need help. I thought it would be just one of many tutorials, nothing significant, and then later I found out that there’s a link to it at the University of Cambridge’s Department of Engineering website. The tutorial also caught the eye of an editor of the US-based No Starch Press publisher who offered to publish a book on Lego Technic if I write one. So in a way I was commissioned to write my first book and then I’ve spend 18 months producing a 300+ pages long Lego Technic compendium.

And your other book?

The other book is a collection of fan-made Technic models from around the world. There’s over 70 models from nearly 40 various builders, with descriptions, specs or see-through drawings. Our goal with the publisher this time was to show the reader that Lego is much more than just the sets on the shelf of his local store. I wanted to inspire as many people as possible to try and create on their own, because as the joke goes – if you just want to follow instructions, try Ikea rather than Lego.

What about Polish editions of your books?

The first one came out near the end of 2013, the second one in the middle of 2015. Funny thing is, I had to translate both of them because I’ve originally written them in English. In fact, a professional translator was hired for the first book before the Polish publisher managed to contact me.

How expensive is your hobby?

Extremely expensive if measured by store prices. But like with any hobby, a little thinking can save a lot of money. First of all, we mostly buy online. In Poland you can buy via Allegro, especially when many sellers have to compete with each other. The other option is Bricklink, an international platform where shops from around the world sell sets as pieces. It’s mutually beneficial because I can only buy the pieces I need and the seller earns more by selling all pieces individually than he spent on the set.

As the Lego ambassador, is there a support you can count on?

It doesn’t work that way. I can get Technic sets for reviews, but that’s it. Lego doesn’t support individual builders, and it has no reason to because what a builder does is beyond their control. There were cases when builders simply abused the support Lego has offered in good faith, and it has inevitably resulted in changed policies.

Have you ever spent really long looking for a single piece?

I did, as a matter of fact I was looking for an officially nonexistent piece. When I was building a Tiger tank model I needed a few pieces in a color never produced for any Lego set. Still, I managed to find a couple of these – they were made either for some Legoland build or as result of a molding test, and somehow they become available for second-hand sale. It happens very rarely and costs a lot.

Have you ever been offered a job at Lego?

I haven’t, but I’m familiar with a few cases of Lego fans becoming Lego designers. Thing is, all these people were building in a way very close to how the modern Lego sets are built, and they were all very talented, more than me perhaps. Also, let’s not forget that the designers are subject to a long list of limitations and requirements in their work, so the mere fact that I can do something when I’m completely free doesn’t in any way mean that I could handle designing a Lego set.

And they’ve never wanted to buy one of your project?

Lego doesn’t buy projects on a principle. In fact, the designers are not supposed to take any inspiration from fans’ work, although there was a case of two when a Lego set showed some similarities to a fan’s creation. However, there’s the “Lego Ideas” program where fans can submit their designs. Other fans can vote for projects, and a project that gets enough votes is being taken into a consideration by Lego as a possible set. There are some cool sets that resulted directly from this program. The other side of the coin is that the program is being criticized for insufficient transparency and rejecting vast majority of projects without giving a reason, and there are also cases where the final set had actually little to do with the original project.

But still, the author of the project gets paid?

Yes, they get 1% of the sales. I’m unable to say into what kind of money this translates, what I do know is that some of the first authors who received it donated it to charity.

Would you be interested in working for Lego at all?

Sure, it’s an interesting company and I appreciate the Danish work etiquette. But I doubt I have makings of a set designer, perhaps I could realise myself more fully as a graphic designer or as an intermediary for the company/fans relations, given my knowledge of the community.

Are you playing with what you build?

By the time I’ve tested and filmed my models I’ve had plenty of fun with them. I then take them apart to re-use the pieces. It’s the only way I can afford building this number of models, and besides it’s the building process that I’m into more than into the finished model. Every model is a set of problems to be solved, many of these are impossible to predict, and that’s the part I just can’t get bored with.

Don’t you feel sorry for the models you take apart?

Once finished, a model is basically of no use to me. I see no point in keeping it on a shelf to slowly disappear under a layer of dust, and there’s always a risk that I’ll start reworking it again and again. I can always recreate what I’ve built before, even if I don’t usually do that. I’m constantly learning, improving and developing my skills, so there’s no point in feeling sorry for completed models – they will get overshadowed by the next ones.

Can you estimate the value of all your Lego pieces?

I’m guessing somewhere upwards of $5,000. I’m not a Lego collector, in fact I’m doing my best to buy as little as possible because the more pieces you have, the harder it is to keep them organized. There are actual collectors, in Poland too, who sometimes have entire rooms just for storing their pieces.

Why aren’t you selling your models?

Behind every model there’s a massive amount of time spent shopping for pieces – pieces which I can then re-use without shopping for them again. To me, selling a model would basically mean buying most of the pieces that went in it all over again. This would need to have huge impact on the price of such a model, to the point where, I believe, it would be way too steep for anyone interested. Of course, I’m getting offers all the time, but sadly they usually don’t cover the cost of pieces alone because most people are unfamiliar with the real costs. There are cases where industrial manufacturers hire a builder to create a model of something they’re making. I, for instance, was approached by world’s biggest forklifts manufacturer, but unfortunately their budget would at best cover what I would spend on pieces. But I know people who are making money this way, for instance a Dutch builder who creates massive and extremely detailed ship models for shipyards, and there’s a Polish builder who makes models of mining vehicles for the Swedish Sandvik company.

Has your hobby allowed you to meet some surprising people?

Definitely yes, I’m very lucky when it comes to interesting and funny viewers. Even though I show Lego pieces I’m mostly watched by adults and this can result in amusing scenarios, like when a man in his fifties, who looks straight from Hell’s Angels gets all excited at Facebook about how cute my hamsters are. Another case is a person who sells big format screens and does demonstrations by playing my videos on them at large companies or universities. I was told that hamsters are instant win, among the CEOs and the professors alike.

Do you ever get fed up with all this building?

Absolutely, for instance when a tenth version of some mechanism is falling apart in my hands for the tenth time. That’s when I think about beer cap collectors and how pleasant their hobby must be. But in the end it’s usually a matter of time to find a working solution. I take breaks, naturally, sometimes you just need to sleep on a problem. Sometimes I stay away from Lego for a week or two. It’s a hobby, not a duty.

And what do you do when you’re not building?

I’m a graphic designer, I do some commissioned work for media. I’m also trying to find some time for my mountain bike, climbing and playing bass. I love mountaineering.

Does your hobby generate some revenue?

It’s mostly books that bring some revenue, with a bit from YouTube. I’m one of the lucky few whose hobby can actually earn back what you spend on it. The review sets I get are sort of a revenue, too, I get to keep them, although there’s plenty of work behind how I do my reviews, a medium set usually takes around 12 hours of filming and editing. But I guess that work pays off because I’m often told that people make their shopping choices based on my reviews, and they’re happy with results. I also know that my reviews are sometimes watched by the designers of the respective sets and that Lego actually keeps their copies in its video archive. I was recently told that watching my review is almost like holding a set in one’s own hands – that’s very motivating.

What’s the Lego set of your dreams?

Definitely the 10221 Super Star Destroyer – massive set which is no longer produced and sells for no less than $1,000 these days. I guess it will stay in my dreams because I have no idea how to pay for it nor where to keep it.

What’s your opinion on the Polish Cobi company?

I’m not really familiar with their products, I just see them on a shelf in a shop from time to time, so it’s hard for me to have an opinion. What I’ve noticed is that they seem to be evolving, apparently in a planned way, and they are focusing on certain market niches that Lego chose to omit, such as military sets and sets with historical/educational theme. I have my doubts about making your business using someone else’s idea, but I have to appreciate that there’s a less expensive alternative to Lego bricks, because many kids in Poland will never get to play with genuine Lego sets.

The trademark of almost every video you make are the hamsters. Did they come first or did the Lego pieces come first?

Lego pieces came first, the hamsters sort of forced their way in later. I’m generally fond of small hairy creatures and perhaps that’s why rarely clean up around here. Seriously though, I used to live with a girl who worked with pets and one day she brought a hamster home. He seemed to be just the right size for playing with Lego models, so he made an appearance in some video. I was never really able to stop ever since, my viewers protest if there are no hamsters – in fact, some of them claim to watch videos just for the hamsters, with Lego models being just an addition. Anyway, hamsters are naturally curious, I can see no harm in providing them with extra stimuli they wouldn’t get from just sitting in their cages, and besides there’s something tasty waiting for them after each performance. I’m also careful to keep them safe, they only ride slow vehicles and I keep them away from any moving parts.

Have the hamsters ever caused some destruction?

They certainly have plans of their own when it comes to Lego tires or insulation on the wires, but as long as I’m keeping quick reflexes we’re getting along. As far as rodents go, hamsters are exceptionally harmless.

Have you ever been to the Legoland?

Not yet, but hey, I’m only 33. I’d love to visit it one day, although being a Lego fan I would probably just spend my time thinking of things I could build with all these pieces and ways of getting a permanent residence there.

Original interview (in Polish) at: Weekend.gazeta.pl

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  1. Igor
    June 6th, 2016 at 22:51 | #1

    Bardzo fajna strona, Twoje modele są genialne. Fajnie, że “Polak potrafi” to nie tylko pusty slogan.
    Przez Ciebie zaczynam się zastanawiać czy nie wrócić do lego po nastu latach przerwy. 😉
    Rozumiem, że większość Twoich widzów/fanów jest z USA, ale szkoda, że nie piszesz również po polsku i opisy do filmów również nie są po polsku.

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