Download and listen to 'Behind The Helm' Episode #17 - Christmas Special
Text is HERE thanks to Izzy! Merry Christmas from all of us at 'Behind The Helm'!
CH: Hello, and welcome to this episode of 'Behind the Helm'. I'm your host Connor Hicks and joining me as usual is Izzy Kilmartin, and joining us today is the brilliant reviewer Dita Svelte otherwise known just as Svelte on Classic-Pirates.com and Eurobricks.com. Welcome to the show Dita!
IK: You are the jewel in the crown of the Reviewer’s Academy, what is it about a set that makes you want to review it?
DS: Because nobody else has! (laughs) Actually, that is only half true. I get genuinely excited about sets and I like to share that excitement with others. I only review sets I like or want and that's why my reviews are generally very positive and I don't usually slag things off. I am not like one of those film critics who never has anything nice to say about movies or restaurant critic who rolls their eyes at menus.
I lurked at Eurobricks for a few years before signing up but one of the reasons I liked the site and kept coming back was because of the excellent reviews. So, I like to feel that I am continuing a tradition and giving something back to the community - I'm so giving, like some celebrity doing charity work for the UN. You can call me the Angelina Jolie of EB! (laughs) Plus, since I became staff, the chip implanted in my brain gives me a jolt of fresh endorphins every time I do something that ends up on the front page!
I also hate crappy reviews, so if a beautiful set comes along I want to make sure justice has been done to it. I feel sorry for the designers who put all that work into a set and then on some fan-site all they can see is 3 blurry camera phone pics with an obese cat in the background, and people have written comments like 'OMG! This set suxx! It needs 15 more figs! OMG OMG!' With the Indy sets, Carousel and new Pirates ship I was really glad to be able to show them to their best advantage. So really, I'm doing a free public service for LEGO. They should hire me! At least send me a few free sets to review. Go on! You know you want to! Also, join the Reviewer's Academy. I am contractually obliged to say that. Well, WhiteFang will slap me if I don't. Ha!
CH: What made you decide to build such an amazing modular department store? Was it the announcement of the new Grand Emporium set? Is it based on any real buildings?
DS: It was more motivated by the fact that I had bought a huge amount of dark tan and dark brown and needed to do something with them, otherwise all those pricey bricks would just lay there making me feel guilty! Those are my favourite colours and I hadn't really seen any AFOL yet make a building using that colour scheme. Most people have been using them as accent colours only, not for whole buildings. I also wanted to do something very beautiful that was detailed but not too detailed, if you know what I mean. There are some amazing builders out there, but sometimes their creations look too fussy, delicate or over-detailed to look like a real set. I like things strong so if the cat jumps on it I can easily put it back together! It's interesting, I heard Jamie Berard's earlier interview where he says he likes to build a prototype in white first to get the shape and add the colour afterwards. Not having an unlimited supply of bricks, I kind of worked the opposite way - it was all about the colours first and the shape evolved from that. It was very much layer of brick by brick and while I did a lot of small tweaking as I built, I didn't go back and make major revisions. It was a pretty happy combination of colour and design as I went. It wasn't really based on any specific buildings, but I took a few concept shots of Victorian corner buildings around Sydney and my own memories of Harrod's from London. Sadly there is no flowery shrine to Dodi and Diana in my building like there is in the real Harrods. I approached the Department Store as much as possible to feel like an official product. Ie, I only wanted to use a few key colours and put in a few techniques which hadn't been seen before - like the pot plants which only use the dinosaur flippers and that round piece often found in engines - they seem very popular. It took about 2 weeks on and off in my spare time, which is pretty good I think considering official designers get to work on a set full-time for a lot longer! Really is a tribute to Jamie's work on the modular line - I don't think I'm the only AFOL who was maybe waning a bit but got sucked right back in when the Cafe Corner was launched in 2007. I hope it's half as good as the rumoured official set.
IK: Do you have any more “gratuitous merchandise” reviews in the works?
DS: You mean like the Kitchen Scale? No, that crappy hunk of junk turned me off LEGO merchandise for a while. It was the most useless piece of kitchen equipment I've ever purchased. I actually got rid of it and just bought a new electronic one! I left the old giant head downstairs with some other junk, I was too embarrassed to sell it on ebay because it was so bad. I live near Kings Cross (but on the nice Elizabeth Bay side). Kings Cross for those who don't know is Sydney's main red light district, so I like to think there is some lady of the night out there who picked it up from the street and is wandering around desperately trying to accurately measure out her grams of crack on a giant mustachioed minifig head! (laughs) I will wait and see what else LEGO produces before committing. I still like the ice-cube tray! Indeed, I used it this very night. Just don't tell Hinckley.
CH: Your amazing Medieval Christmas Village is just, inspired, what made you decide to ‘mash’ them up?
DS: It was really intended to be just a quick project to round out my review of the 10199 Winter Toy Shop. I always like to include a humorous or bonus pic at the end, and it was just going to be one of those. I had some extra dark red lying around from the Fire Brigade and I thought a recoloured MMV looked Christmassy. I thought the carollers, tree and gaslights from 10199 looked kind of Victorian so I just tossed them all together with whatever else was close by - some Brickforge pigs and mushrooms that arrived that week. But it looked so nice that I thought it deserved its own topic! I don't claim any credit at all for originality on that score at all. 3D Brickthing did a great job digitally enhancing it for the official EB Advent Calendar too! As I said before, colour is important to me so I was really just being very tasteful.
IK: Who is your favourite Lego Set Designer?
DS: Well, interesting question. Let me think long and deep about that one. [Sarcastically] I would have to say, and I think a lot of people would probably say the same thing, but Jamie Berard is probably one of the most well known and most well loved designers at LEGO today so definitely the number one from my point of view. The Star Wars fans probably worship someone else, but if you have any interest in town or solid builds with great part selection and interesting little techniques and appreciation of what’s going on in the AFOL community, it’d have to be Jamie.
CH: Speaking of the devil, also joining us today is the man himself, who we couldn't get enough of last time. He was kind enough to come back for a second chat, this time about his ‘Winter Toy Shop Christmas exclusive’. Welcome to the show Jamie!
JB: Thank you very much!
IK: How long did you have to work on this set? I know that sometimes the time constraints can be pretty strict.
JB: This was actually pretty standard; I had about 3 months to work on it. Although one of the unusual things about it is probably that it was finished about two Christmases ago! It’s one of those sets that most of the people in my building are like ‘oh, that old set?’ [laughs] and now it’s finally out!
DS: Most Exclusives are quite larger than the 10199 Toy Shop (eg Emerald Night size and above). Did the idea for a mid-scale set come from you, or were you given a Christmassy brief to work to keeping the set to a certain size? (If the latter, did this influence any of your design decisions?)
JB: Yep, it’s a set that actually was a request directly from Shop At Home. Basically whenever someone calls the call centre, and they have a request for something, it is logged. And one of the number one requests for Christmas items, was people just wanted a Christmas tree. Perhaps if you’re in the US especially, you get catalogues from Shop At Home, and they always feature beautiful Christmas trees made on the front, then we don’t sell them. So it’s a bit of a tease for a lot of people, and they finally said ‘Let’s give them a nice Christmas tree as an exclusive’ so they actually wanted a $60 Christmas tree and then we thought about it a bit more and I said wouldn’t it be better instead of just a Christmas tree to actually give it a bit more life and maybe include a few minifigures so then we can do a bit of a scenario, and that’s where the thought evolved. The price point I think was set because they just wanted to sell a Christmas tree, and I doubt they would have wanted to sell a $200 Christmas tree! That would be a bit strange. Then I think once the idea evolved to the point that it was at, the price point was still very appealing as a Christmas item, so they just decided to go with it. So it’s a pretty interesting evolution of a Christmas tree idea!
DS: So there was like a giant version of that Christmas tree in existence? Or was it always based off the same design of having a Technic axle going down the middle with boughs coming off it?
JB: Well actually, Erik Varsigi in the US is a Master model builder, and quite often he’ll do these little things for the front of the catalogues, and I believe he did this really nice Christmas tree a couple of years back that people still talk about. I think that’s what got the idea going. I haven’t actually built a large Christmas tree, but I know that others have, and we just had to build a smaller one that people could build which was a challenge in itself. But yeah, no big Christmas trees here in the vault hidden around!
CH: I dunno, I think I’d be happy to buy a giant Christmas tree. You could either buy a flammable real tree that could blow up your house, a fake one that actually looks fake, or a LEGO one that is just perfect n every way!
JB: How much time do you have to decorate the tree if you have to build it first? [all laugh]
IK: And I suppose you mean a 6ft tree too Connor?
CH: Why of course! [laughs]
JB: You might have to start thinking about Christmas in the summer when you start building the tree!
CH: Or the winter here - Christmas is in summer in Australia, no white Christmases for us. [all laugh]
IK: This set is full of so many nice details, like the new Christmas Caroller’s head; can you tell us a bit about that?
JB: That was actually a real treat for me, because as you’ve probably noticed with the modular buildings, it’s always the two dots and the smiley face. I’d like to maintain that just because it’s a throwback to my childhood and classic LEGO as I see it. But when you’re doing these other sets, the sky is the limit �" well not really, we do have some restrictions as to what we can do, but we thought some of the biggest icons would be some carollers and we really couldn’t accomplish a caroller with the standard faces we already have. So it was a nice back and forth, trying to get the face right. I’d say between our graphic artists and our design team, some of the expressions were quite humorous as you can imagine for that style of face [laughs] but we ended up having to go for a design that was neutral enough that we could use it for both the male and the female but still iconic enough that you could get that cold winter feel and the singing all in the same expression, and I think it turned out very well.
IK: I think it’s gorgeous!
CH: Good for brick flicks too! You mentioned in your last interview about the little curiosities you have sitting on your desk, was the improved version of the park bench one of them?
JB: That one I wouldn’t say was on my desk, but of course when you are doing something similar to another set, you try and give it a little refresh, a new look. As far as things on my desk, I think the light next to the park bench; I did have that thrown around on my desk with the idea of using the sandy helmet for lights which was something I really wanted to use. I wanted to use it because we categorize elements within the company by their usage, and they get graded [laughs] so there’s a report card for every element. I gave myself an extra challenge of using that element because it has the lowest score of all the elements we have, because no-one thinks that you can use it for anything other than a dome for minifigure heads, so that just gave me the extra challenge to say ‘oh, that must be useful for something else!’ then I found a relationship between the globe and the parabola that fits underneath it where the curve actually fits well with it and you could lock it in pretty well, so that was probably the one that was on my desk. Also, the detailing in the middle of the building, those Technic lift arms, those weird half plate things, I had that little pattern or design also on my desk and then I tried to work it into the roof which is probably why the roof is a little more complicated than it would normally be but it’s a detail that I thought would be kind of interesting, and one that I decided to keep.
DS: That curve that you speak of, the parabola of the dome is something I would never have thought of in a million years, so it’s great to see something right from the start of a set that makes you say “wow”, that’s really different and original. The Exclusives line is probably one that most AFOLs get most excited about, and here at Eurobricks we have a very active and thorough reviewing community on which we pride ourselves. What useful feedback, if any, do you gain from reading these reviews? Do you sometimes AFOLs are a bit naive in their expectations? (eg with minifig selection) Or do you think 'Hehehe, if only you knew what was coming?'
JB: Yeah, it’s always good feedback from my perspective; I didn’t get to work on the carousel, I think I know what you are talking about, I have read about the minifigures. But that is everything from my role, it is another designer’s decision, some people love certain minifigures and others don’t. That is the way it seems to be with the fan community there is always this split. You have very purist Lego fans and then you have very forward thinking Lego fans, then you have conservative, there are a lot of different factions within the fan community and you can always here the “results” that you would like to hear and the ones that you know will never be happy. In the end I try to see the balance, you can almost learn to start filtering the comments of certain people once you know where they are coming from. For example on Lego.com you know one of the reviewers posts that he is a 9 year old boy and he is reviewing a 16+ set, he may have comments about it being difficult or boring, you know his comments are from his perspective because he is a 9 year old. Then you have a 34 year old engineer that says oh this was too easy (laughs) You know it was different comments from him, so it is just understanding where the different comments are coming from and the more information you have about them the easier it is to understand their perspective. But I also understand that they have a very limited perspective on a particular issue or something that they are commenting on. It is actually quite refreshing to hear a knee-jerk reaction or to hear just a gut feeling, so if they see a new set and they say ‘oh that is crap it is all juniorized blah blah blah blah blah!’ from an initial picture that came off a thumbnail from a catalogue that has now been blown up 500 times, you can only take so much value out of that but it is still good to hear a reaction, quite often, more often than not, I find the more information that people get the more depth that they have. They are more likely to enjoy a product or are a little less critical of a product. I find that the more the Lego company interacts with the fans, I find that the reviews and comments that we are getting are more constructive, even that they had been like 3 or 4 years ago when I started with the company. I find that people when they have had more contact and have tried to understand more and therefore do not just throw out their comments because it is the first thing that they are thinking about, but instead they see something and they think a bit more. So I think it had become a better process and more valuable comments and reviews than it has been in the past.
IK: What gave you the idea to use the Belville snowflake on this set? It hasn't been seen in any other sets other than Belville.
JB: We have, like I said the main focus point and request for this set was the Christmas tree. So for a Christmas tree in my mind, one of the key features is how do you top the Christmas tree, there is always an angel or a star or something fancy up there. And so it is just a matter of visiting our design lab where they have a long wall stretching across the building where you can see every element that you can possibly use that is available today. So I was just looking for something to put on a tree and that one jumped out, as you said it turns out it was only in Belville up until that point. They used to have a policy where some of our Elements were defined for certain themes only and they tried to restrict them for those themes but recently some have opened up and that was one of them so I jumped on it as soon as I could, as a chance to bring it out and definitely bring it to a new audience of people that probably haven’t seen it before.
CH: With the light piece, was that just thrown in or was it always planned that this set would have a light brick in it?
JB: It’s um, I think when we started looking for references for this we defined the, oh, how do I say this. When you are looking for references on a set like this you try to find is there anything comparable online or in books or something, the closest thing I could find to the idea we were trying to express was those ceramic buildings that you see at Christmas, they light up and are collectible as far as… I have even seen them on KLM when I was flying home one time. They had these little porcelain buildings that you could add and they said there was like the 89th edition where you could build this village. I have noticed those types of buildings seem to include a light inside of it and it adds a bit of warmth for a Christmas display. But of course the challenge you say, might have been better to use the power functions instead of a battery pack and the LEDs and stuff. Unfortunately for the price point we wanted to keep it low. We try not to have all of our Direct Items go sky high on the prices, because we know that we can slowly bankrupt people (laughs). So to have a few of these sets at a lower more attractive price point is important, when we can do it. And for this one especially, we wanted the light but we didn’t want it to get to expensive, which is why we used the one that you can turn on and turn off with the push button. But unfortunately you cannot leave it on non-stop, which is a fair comment, I have read in reviews that some people wish that you could leave it on, but I think at least now you get that warmth and you get that feeling, perhaps when you want to show it to people who are visiting your house, or seeing your Christmas display, it is just that little unexpected “Awww!” in moment when you can see it, so yeah it wasn’t an after thought, it was considered in the development of it, but I think the choice of the battery one versus the larger System one was intentional due to the price.
CH: Oh Okay, also with those songbooks that the Carolers are holding, I was actually quite impressed by those, but did you think of using those 2x3 moulded books instead?
JB: Yeah, that was actually our first idea. Um, it is the same problem that I had with the Fire Brigade. When I did the Fire Brigade, I had this little brown, what do you call it… a little brown piece of furniture. All the way up until the Model Review and into the Model Review, I had books inside another version of that, and the problem is those books just kept falling out, those books just aren’t made for the minifigure, so they are a throwback to, I think it was Belville or something. You can’t really hold them in a minfigure hand, and also when you put them in a piece of furniture, especially in a Modular building where you can lift up the floor, they will always fall out once they just kept falling out in the model committee we just decided to take them out, and we wanted this on the box shot, we wanted carolers with books. First of all those books are quite huge for the minifigures to be holding but then it is a matter of them not being able to hold the book properly, some people will say yes they can hold them but when you are designing a set for children and grandparents and people to be able to build, you want this to be repeatable, you don’t want them to get frustrated by trying to keep the book in the hand. So in the end we decided that we could build it so that is where that idea came from.
IK: Absolutely, there was a lot of those books in the Harry Potter sets and I found that the same thing, they won’t stay in the hands or in bookshelves. I thought it was really clever they way that the brick built songbooks look, so... The Micro scale Toys in this set, (the train, the car, the teddy and robot) are just adorable and so easily recognisable for so few pieces. Was there any other that you would have wanted to add in to the set, but they just didn’t make the cut?
JB: We had a wonderful workshop when we first were doing the set, where we invited in many designers to work on it. The things like the snowman and the little toys, all those little accessories were, ah, some of them, (like the teddy under the tree) was an idea from Megan Rothrock from Brick Journal, excuse me, at the time she was working as a designer for Lego and she made the little teddy bear. The brainstorm also came up with the idea for the Jack-In-The-Box, so we did have a range of toys to choose from. But in the end, pretty much which ones were the easiest to build at that scale and the most iconic. There is also the classic icons, what do people ask for at Christmas? It is usually the toy rains, the robots, the teddy bears and the other things so, I don’t know any specific ones that didn’t make the cut, but these were the most iconic ones in the group.
CH: Well that Jack-In-The-Box, I am thinking of one person in particular that used that as a base for an Avatar for many months on Eurobricks. (Svelte and Jamie laugh)
DS: Well, because I love Christmas, I am a Christmas tramp. I used it as a signature for EB, I was going to do 24 days, but them I started the Mafia game for I only got 21, but I did have fun working out different variations and colours and that sort of thing with the basic design, it is a cute clever little design. The 3long tubing had me confused for a while, so I think I ended up not using the Technic-y thing. But yeah, what I like about the Toy Shop and in conjunction with (a few people have mentioned this as well, when they have built the Toy Shop and have opened their Advent Calenders and have added the Advent things to the Toy Shop scene and that is something I have been doing myself. It is quite fun, you can see the things, like the little race car that the toy maker has got in his workshop and there is like a different coloured version of that in the Advent Calendar, things like the Castle and these classic little gift designs. So it really it’s a great, obviously there is the cardboard ice skating rink that you can put stuff on, but it is lovely to have a larger diorama and all that fun little Christmassy stuff too. So I think on another sort of level. Obviously you have been working in Billund, Denmark for four years since you have been with Lego. Do you miss not being in the States at this time of year? What makes a perfect Xmas for you?
JB: Lego is a bit extreme on their Christmas celebrations; I have probably been to eight Christmas parties already, even before going home to see the family. It is really wonderful how much people get in the spirit here, even our work Christmas party was in November, so that’s where it all started, and now as time goes on I am about ready to see my family. My colleges were actually commenting on it last week, they were like ‘What is with you?’ Something has been going on, I have been really giddy, because it has been six months now since I have seen my family, talking to my nieces and nephews over the phone and just getting ready for Christmas is exciting. I really enjoy the fact that my family growing up, it was always a real special treat. My Mom and my Dad would shop all year round for Christmas, getting ready for it is just really crazy in my family. A curious thing, the minifigure decorating the tree in the Winter Toy Shop was actually a little treat to my Mom, because she is always loving decorating the tree and stuff so just designing that set, I was thinking of the occasion and decorating the tree and preparing for the holidays and now it is about that time and I am just oooh so excited to head back. I am looking forward to hopefully so snow. I am living here in Denmark and my whole family thinks I am in the North Pole, they think I am hanging out with Polar bears and stuff (laughs) in the end we don’t have any snow it has just been very wet and dark. I am hoping that when I head back to Boston it will have some snow and then it will really start to feel like Christmas.
CH: Wrapping up the year, it has been a pretty busy one, what were your favourite 3 sets from 2009 (not designed by yourself?)
JB: Oh there are so many good one, strangely there is only one of the three that I actually own. The other I am looking forward to getting for Christmas maybe, or getting them shortly after. The Medieval Market Village I think is a wonderful set, talking to Nic and Matthew who worked on it, and seeing all the little details, it is definitely one I am going to have to get. And then I am also a bit of a Technic fan, so the front-end loader that they have out right now is really sharp and really nice, and surprisingly inexpensive from my perspective for its size. So that is another one I am looking forward to getting but I haven’t built yet. One I have built is the Architecture Series, Falling Water, I just think it is really beautiful. I think Adam Tucker who did it and also Steve who helped work on it a bit, they just did a really fantastic job, when you put it together it is like a puzzle and you don’t really see that on the box, I’ve grown to appreciate the packaging and the experience of those sets. But I think that Falling Water really takes it to the next level and makes it a really well rounded set and a good built. So, yeah! Good sets this year.
CH: Yeah, I have been pretty pleased with them, especially the Pirates line, and then hearing that it will be discontinued, but never mind about that.
JB: (laughs) I know, I haven’t even built a Pirate set for you yet, you have been kind enough to have me on the show twice and I haven’t given you a Pirate set.
CH: So don’t think you’ll be coming back for a third. (all laugh) Noooo. Well thanks very much for joining us today Dita and Jamie, it has been fantastic having you on our special Christmas edition.
DS: Yay for Christmas! Yaaaaay!
CH: Hopefully we will get a chance to talk with both of you again sometime, it have been fantastic, Merry Christmas to both of you.
Well thank you for joining us for our Christmas Edition of BTH, have a safe and happy Christmas and we look forward to seeing you in the New Year.