Avast everyone! Welcome to the second part of the Nik Groves interview! Nik Groves is one of the designers at the LEGO PMD building in Billund, and he has been kind enough to come onto the show for us. Not only is he a great guy, he is just oozing with information, and in-depth answers to our questions. So check it out, and why not subscribe to our feed and have iTunes automatically download episodes when they become available! Enjoy the interview everyone!
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Thanks to Izzy, here we have the whole second part of the interview in text format!
IK: When you designed Medieval Village, what were some challenges you faced?
NG: That was a tough one. On a personal level, I had been designing sets for kids like 6 or 7 8 plus. The very first version of Medieval Village was very juniorised and it could very have happily gone in a box with 7+ on it. Normally you look at a model and think how am I going to make this buildable for a kid, this time it had to do it the other way around. How am I going to take this building and double the elements and do some crazy building and deliberately make it more complicated and use some crazy colours that we wouldn’t normally use. So it was a real reversal in my way of thinking which took a bit of getting use to. It was a change of pace, a change of gear.
CH: When you designed the Soldiers’ Fort, did you try to replicate the original Pirate line in any way?
NG: In the sense from a tone of voice, just like the look and feel and vibe of it. At the time, (and there still is) a lot of Pirates of the Caribbean stuff, which is um… I guess it is not really classic in the Lego sense. Which is really, really cool, but everybody else was doing it, in Hasbro or whatever. And we really wanted to bring back that classic Lego Pirates, when the parents go to a Lego store they can probably remember the building that style of Pirate ship and port and probably want to buy it for their kids. So we got a lot of the old Pirate sets in, and built them, all the classic ships and the ports and stuff and there were a lot of techniques in there that we couldn’t use today, but just getting the whole feel and vibe, just bringing that up to date.
CH: So we are not likely to get Pirates of the Caribbean line any time soon?
NG: Um, I wouldn’t say never! At the point we really wanted to bring back Lego Pirates, it was very different to what everybody else was doing. It was bright and fun, and cheerful compared with what everyone else was doing at the time. It just made sense.
CH: In my personal opinion it should be classic pirates all the way, there is no need for Pirates of the Caribbean. What has been the most interesting set, you would say you have designed?
NG: Most interesting, for me, I would probably say when I worked on Batman; I did the Harlequin’s Hammertruck. It was interesting because before that I had just been working on Castle solid for like a year and a half. So when it came to building a vehicle with wheels that was quite modern it was quite tough. I was like ‘are you sure you don’t want a catapult on this?’ (all laugh) ‘You sure you don’t want me to use brown so it looks like wood?’ I was just so used to being in a certain mindset and referencing for a certain look and feel, that when I had to suddenly shirt it up to a modern look and feel it was quite tough at first. But I kind of meet somewhere in the middle, I got a big kind of hammer on the back which it not too far off a catapult. (all laugh) So it was kind of merging of the two themes there. That was definitely interesting.
IK: So do you have a favourite piece?
NG: A favourite Lego piece, from a building point of view. I don’t know what you guys call it out there in the fan community; we just call it the Erling, as that was the name of the designer that came up with it. But it is a 1x1 brick with a stud on the side, slight recess.
CH: That is the same one that Jamie mentioned was his favourite.
IK: Yeah, I think sometimes it is called a headlight piece or something like that.
NG: Oh yeah, that makes sense. It is just really great for details and opens up a lot of options, but it is not a complicated way of getting right angles or details on the front of something for a kid. So it opens up a lot of doors for us and takes a simple model to another level of detail so you can build in other directions. It is a really, really good piece.
CH: So do you get the chance to visit many LEGO conventions around the world?
NG: We do try, we do try. I have to Brickworld and Brickcon, and Legoworld a few times over the past three or four years. I was lucky enough to unveil Medieval Market Village last year over in Seattle, which was really cool. So we do try but it’d obviously just tough from a timing point of view, we are pretty full on for time. But if the opportunity comes up we do jump at it because it is always really, really cool. It’s really cool to meet you guys, chat, sort of hang out and soak up the atmosphere and really recharges you and reminds you of how fun it can be, and there is life in these bricks once you are done with it and it’s put in a box. Which is pretty cool.
IK: You’d really get to see the other side of what happens to it afterwards. That would be quite rewarding I would think.
NG: it really is, when you go to conventions and you see kids and adults all like building at different levels and taking the bricks in crazy directions, doing massive stuff or really minute micro scale buildings. You do come away smiling, it is really cool to see that it lives and breathes, after you are done with it. It is really easy to build a model and finish it and move onto the next model and forget it but once you go to a convention you see a kid playing with it or someone has MOCed the hell out of it and just done something crazy with it, is really, really cool.
IK: Do you feel like a bit of a rock-star when people come up to you and say “Oh, I loooove this set!” (laughs)
NG: It is kind of weird when people kind of do that, or have signed sets, when you become a designer you don’t really think that will be happening. (laughs) You know.
CH: You sign sets?
NG: Yeah, signing boxes and instructions. But of course there is a flipside, you know, I have been cornered by some angry fans before as well. So sometimes it is good to go incognito and not tell many people who you are, so you don’t go about being lynched because you didn’t change the colour of a certain brick or something hasn’t come back in a long time.
CH: (laughs) Wouldn’t it suck to be beat up because you didn’t design a Lego set perfectly.
NG: Yes, it is hit and miss really. You meet some great people that love what you do and have a real passion for what you’ve designed. Then you get some people that can scare you a little. (all laugh)
CH: Like those weird interview types.
NG: Yeah, you get harassed by these people online and whatever. (laughs)
CH: Well hey; harassed for three weeks, it has taken us three weeks to produce this episode.
NG: When they approach me I just try to see how long I can put you off for, see how committed you are, if you keep at it then I’ll let you have the interview.
IK: (laughs) We are worthy Sir Nic, we are worthy!
CH: Definitely. Yeah, so err.
CH: Never mind asking things question by question, but whatever. Have you made any MOCs that you are particularly proud of? That doesn’t count for sets.
NG: Thinking back on it, I remember when I first moved over to Billund, I moved over with Tim. Tim incidentally is the creator of Squidman, I’m sure some of your listeners might have seen it pop up online. He was actually at the interview with me and we came over at the same time. But we shared a flat with another guy called Rob and we watched the movie Event Horizon, and Rob was completely freaked out by this film and what happened in it. We decided to build, I don’t know of you’ve seen the film, but there is this weird spinning hyper drive and we built that, and this character who has pulled out his eyeballs and we used cherries for eyes, and made this disgusting figure and gave it to him as a present to keep his nightmares going for the next few weeks, I think it might actually be on Brickshelf somewhere. So that was quite good. (laughs)
CH: You’ll have to send us a link.
NG: I will. I will, I’ll see if I can find it.
IK: Do you get around the online LEGO community much?
NG: Um, yeah definitely. We do check out the sites on an almost daily basis. To check up on the news, check up on the trends, see what’s leaked recently. (all laugh) I do get out there, I read Forums and see what’s going on, and just keep up to date. I’m not members of any of sites; it feels a bit like a conflict of interests. Do I go on the site, tell people who I am and open myself up to angry fans and happy fans. I would feel quite bad about going on and NOT letting people know whom I was. I’d kind of feel like spying. So I’m out there I’ve seen what you are doing, but I’m just dipping my toes in.
IK: So you are just spying incognito?
NG: I’m just spying on you yes! ( all laugh)
CH: Spying without feeling bad for spying. I like it. Do you have any particular favourite LEGO related websites?
NG: Ahh, so many.
NG: Of course Classic-Pirates and Classic-Castle are two that I have visited a lot over the past few years, obviously those are really great sites. Great inspiration and it is great to see the community on there and how much life there is. Also Brothers Brick and Eurobricks, they are probably the top four. There are so many more out there, and so many blogs but those four sites are definitely the coolest.
IK: Three cheers for us! Do you have any hobbies you do, that you can tell us about?
NG: I’m very much… I do paint. I’m involved in photography; I come from a design background so it is something I do on weekends and evenings as opposed to MOCing. I also do, I don’t know if it is a hobby but I do collect tattoos, I am very heavily tattooed and into the whole community and that world. I’d class that as a hobby, that is where most of my money goes, aside from Bricks.
IK: Do you have any Lego related tattoos?
NG: Not yet, maybe soon, maybe soon (laughs) I’m definitely feeling I should get something Lego related.
CH: What he hasn’t said is, he is going to get a big ‘Behind the Helm crew are Awesome!’ Tattooed on his forehead.
NG: Yes, a walking advertisement. (all laugh)
CH: Why not? So do you look up to anyone in particular in the LEGO community?
NG: I think people who have made the cross from fan to designer are really cool. People like Jamie Berard, Mark Stafford, Bastian SP? from the Dutch side. That is really cool. You know there is such a wealth of knowledge there that you can’t teach. There is such a passion and they have been building for so long that it is very rare that I ask them a question and they don’t give me a very long answer about the history of a brick this technique or fifty other ways I could built it, which is awesome. But people that are out there, I think Joe Meno is amazing and has taken a hobby and a passion and look it to a place where Lego stood up and took notice and Brick Journal is really making some headway and that is really cool. You guys really put in a lot of time and effort into this and it’s always awesome to see that.
CH: So this link that you have sent me, is that your MOC?
NG: Yeah, that’s the MOC of the Event Horizon Hyper Drive that we built. Just err, to continue giving our friend nightmares. For some reason the film just totally freaked him out, so we thought it would be fun to build this. (all laugh)
CH: You are so mean… I’ll post a link to this Brickshelf page in the interview.
IK: Those eyes are so cool. Do you just paint the cherries? How did you do that?
NG: Yeah, we painted the cherries, so there are some unofficial building techniques in there, but to get the effect of someone pulling their eyes out, the cherries were quite a good choice.
CH: (laughs) That is so good.
IK: So what process do you use when designing a set? What planning is involved?
NG: It really depends on what stage you come into the project, if you are in the project form the very beginning, you’ll start visual mood boarding, and brainstorming about the whole look and feel. How many sets should we make, who are the good guys? Who are the bad guys? You’d just kind of build sketches from that and decide should this project go on, should it be cut down? Should we double the amount of sets we do? Then you would break up into your individual teams, you will be given a brief regarding which set you are going to build, just how much money you have got, which is the price point, how many Minifigs you can have in it. At this stage you’ve got a rough idea of where you are going with it, and then it really comes down to the individual designer, some people jump straight into bricks, there are those that when you get a brief, you know exactly what it is going to look like, what functions it will have and how you are going to build it. And then there are days when I will have to sketch out the idea, just to get that form out of my head and onto a piece of paper. Just to try to figure out what that detail is going to look like, or those iconic elements are of this particular vehicle or ship, or building or whatever it is. It really varies, me personally I tend to sketch a little bit and then jump into the bricks. A lot of people just go straight ahead and start building.
CH: So what determines the number of Minifigs in a set?
NG: One aspect is obviously cost, two is we try to scale it as the price scale goes up. For kids Minifigs are a huge, huge selling point. Kids absolutely love minifigures. We want to make sure it’s balanced. We don’t want to put in 10 minifigures into a ten-dollar set and 2 into a 50-dollar set. Kids really focus on stuff like that. They would realize there is a difference, even though the model and bricks are ten times bigger, they would be quite disappointed they didn’t have as many figures. It’s about balance and getting it right and also having the right amount of good guys against bad guys and that sort of thing.
CH: Hmm, fair enough. What would you say is the biggest LEGO project you have ever undertaken?
NG: I’d have to say Medieval Market Village. Not only from the fact that it is a large set, a big piece count, but having that nagging voice knowing that this is primarily aimed at adults fans, knowing that every brick decision will be scrutinized online and discussed, and there will be hundreds of pictures of it, you know it’s quite a lot of weight on your shoulders to have that undertaking, normally when you build a set, you put it in a box, ship it and forget about it. But I was kind of still involved in with the unveiling and discussions with fans and stuff, you know. So there was a lot of involvement and much more than would be in a standard set I would design for retail.
IK: Have you ever… when you have finished designing a set and it has been packed up and sent off, have you ever wanted to go back to it and add all the things you wanted to but couldn’t because of price or something? Have you ever done that, or wanted to do that?
NG: I think every designer is never 100% happy; I still look back at stuff and think, ‘Oooh maybe I should have changed that and added that.’ And I probably would have built things totally differently. You know I’m never 100% happy, you know it is about balance, to get it done on time as well as to price and as well as making it cool. I’ve never felt like a set has gone out and it’s sub-par. But there can always be more apples and fish. (All laugh)
IK: If was me and I had a specific age range and price range, after it was finished I’d say that’s all good, but I’d want to go back and all the things just for fun and the satisfaction of having it how I really wanted it.
NG: Normally, when we build the sketch model as I said, it is much more fan like, and double the size, double the price, double the complexity. It’s kind of the set you really envisioned it to be and it is just getting it down to, what is the age range? What are the core functions that should really stay? So normally you have the ‘ultimate’ version as it were and then to the point of the retail version as it were.
CH: Just continuing on Izzy’s earlier question, could you tell us anything off the top of your head that you would change about the Soldier’s Fort?
NG: Change about the Soldier’s Fort? Um, the initial concept when I built it was, you know where there is that little bridge, with a palm tree, I wanted to have more of that detail, because originally I had like a little rocky outcrop and some other bits at the edge, and a lighthouse, but that was stuff that unfortunately had to be lost, it would have been really nice if those had have been kept in, from a visual and tone of voice kind of point, you know, just palm trees and adding to that kind of look and feel about the Caribbean Sea really made it for me. Visual stuff is usually the first to go when you have functions and lots of cool figures and a shooting cannon and stuff like that. So you really have to tone it down to the core stuff that kids are able to play with?
IK: Are you able to take picture of the set at that stage, because I think a lot of people in the community would love to see pictures of the ultimate version of it before it is changed down into what it is sold as.
NG: Um, it is probably out there somewhere, we work at a really fast pace, we build and discuss and break it down and discuss, we only really start taking… I might take a couple of snaps for myself, because when it gets to a stage where you are kind of happy with it you have to have each brick calculated, it has to be broken down and someone has to input every brick into a system that we have and you get a price back. So you have to rebuild it, so if you have only built the version once, then you need a lot of pictures so you can put this big pile of bricks back, because it is not imbedded in your memory, which it has to be at the end stage. But official pics don’t start till much later. But it depends who you are, some people take loads of pics and other wait till the box shot as it were.
CH: You were saying you have to have it pretty well ingrained in your memory; I’d like to talk with the designer of the Ultimate Collector’s Series Millennium Falcon, and see if he remembers how to build that. (laughs)
NG: Basically our deadline is what we call a model review, and basically what this is, at the end stage, I will sit down as the model builder, with say, two or three other sets designers from other sets, an engineer, someone from the building instructions team and we will build the model together brick by brick. But obviously there are no building instructions so I have to put it together brick by brick. And that is what the designer of the Millennium Falcon had to do, and I think it was like, a 4 or 5-day model review. It was pretty intense it is quite legendary within out department.
CH: Which set was that for?
NG: The Millennium Falcon
CH: So you were involved in that?
NG: No, no when we first saw the sketch model we were amazed at the scale he was aiming for, and we all looked at each other and though how the hell is he going to remember how to build that? Because you do have to remember how to build it, I give him full credit, as he is a great builder. And obviously he has an amazing memory because he remembered how to put it all together which is impressive.
IK: Yeah, you wouldn’t want to make a mistake on the first days that’s for sure.
CH: Who was that?
NG: Um, it was actually the Creative Design Lead of Star Wars called Jens Kronvold Frederiksen.
CH: We might have to get him on the show for a chat.
NG: He’s a really good guy and has been with the company quite some time and been the head of Star Wars for quite a long time, so he is a real Star Wars buff. It came up when there would be a Collector’s Millennium Falcon he basically stamped his authority and said I am doing this. He really wanted to do it, he used is power to get that one. (laughs)
CH: Now we need a Death Star of the same scale.
NG: That’d be pretty epic yeah! (laughs)
CH: You’d mortgage your house for a set like that. So, err Izzy, is there anything else you wanted to add?
IK: Yeah, do you have any tips for builders out there in the community?
NG: I would say keep building and keep sharing. It is amazing to see the community that is online, as I said when you got to the events of look at the forums the amount of passion that is out there, the kind of effort that you guys put into this type of thing really makes us smile so keep building and keep putting it out there and keep taking to each other. It is great; I don’t think there is many kind of toys or brands that has this. It is definitely one of our strong points so keep it going.
CH: Oh definitely. Thank you very much for joining us.
NG: Thank You.
CH: I know that I’ve enjoyed it and I’m fairly confident that Izzy enjoyed it too; she has been going on for a month about how excited she is to talk to a hot British Lego designer.
NG: Ahhh, Thank You, Thank You. (laughs)
CH: She will never let me live that one down. It has been very exciting to talk to you about Soldier’s Fort and Medieval Market in particular and how it turns out that you guys steal all our designs.
NG: Yes, yes! (all laugh)
CH: Thank You very much for joining us for this episode of Behind the Helm and it’s about damn time we got together, a month of attempts to record it. So I hope everybody has enjoyed this episode and keep and eye on the Horizon for the next episode of Classic-Pirates.com’s Behind the Helm.