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Microscale building tips and techniques?

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#1 AngleBrick

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Posted 12 March 2013 - 08:31 PM

Hello, I'm new to the Eurobricks forum,

I really like microscale creations, and I'd like to build some, but due to the relatively small size of the scale, I'm not sure how to do it without feeling like it's (the model) too minimalist. Also, since i've never really built a microscale model (I usually stuck to minifig scale for some odd reason) I'd like some tips and techniques to help me make some microscale models without feeling super-minimalist.

TL;DR (just in case) : Anyone have some tips and/or techniques to offer me when it comes to microscale building?

PS: I didn't know where else to put this, if it's in the wrong forum section then feel free to move it.

- AngleBrick
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#2 ShaydDeGrai

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Posted 13 March 2013 - 05:40 PM

Hello and welcome!

I make no claims to being an expert by any stretch of the imagination, but I typically don't work in mini-figure scale (mostly just due the subject matter I choose) so I can offer some personal opinions if it would help.

I think the biggest thing to remember when building small (whatever your definition of small happens to be) is abstraction.  From an artist's perspective, abstraction is the conscious effort to remove details without compromising the essential form of whatever it is you're trying to render.  Typically this means breaking things down into simpler forms that _suggest_ rather than depict the original idea.  

Most people who take, for example, a figure drawing class can't draw a human body on day one, but they can draw an oval or a trapezoid and with a bit of shading those flat shapes can suggest spheres and cylinders.  Two of the first lessons given is how to "break down" the human form into the essential masses (a collection of draw-able spheres and cylinders) and how to flow those masses together to capture the critical flow that will trick the viewer into seeing a human in the rough sketch even without the surface detail one would expect from other media like photography.

It's no different when your media is LEGO brick.  You have a palette of core shapes to draw (in some cases a very extensive palette) and just need to develop an eye for how a model breaks down into those forms.

Once you free yourself from the expectation that the model needs to "fit" with mini-figures, the question of scale gets blown with open, and there probably is never a right or wrong answer to it.

Personally, I like to start with some sort of reference or model and figure out what it is about that image that 'defines' the piece for me.  This feature (or features) represents the heart of the build, it can't be abstracted away and if I get it wrong, the whole effort is going to fail.  For example, in my Pillars of the Kings piece, it was all about the statues outstretched hands - people might forgive the flat faces or the cheesy beard, but if the hands didn't say Argonath, I was dead in the water.  (The shot below does have mini-figures, but it really is out of scale, the statutes are only about half of what they should be for mini-fig scale).

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This same concept of "find the essential form and go from there" holds true regardless of scale.  When I tackled my Minas Tirith build I was working from a bookend/jewelry box.  The first exercise I did in the design/build had nothing to do with LEGO. I put away the reference, picked up a pad of paper and tried to draw the shape from memory in under a minute.  When forced to throw together a thumbnail that quickly, one's mind naturally gravitates to the 'key' features.  In my case, the first half dozen strokes I put on paper were the curved outer wall, the knife edge of natural rock extenting 700 feet in the air (Denathor's diving board) the tower on the top and the hillside behind.  I knew that if I could map those key shapes to bricks, the lion's share of the design was done.

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Note also that this is a very busy "micro-build",  I abstracted away tons of surface detail, but that doesn't mean I had to throw away everything and go super minimalist.  Just like when sketching, once you've captured the core form and created the highest level of abstraction that your mind will still believe echos the original, that's when you start putting the detail back in, rounding out shapes, playing with shadow lines, texturing surfaces.  You can draw an egg, put it on a neck and shoulders and most people become willing to believe it was intended to be a head.  If you then give it eyes or a nose, the viewer doesn't need to _believe_ anymore, now they _know_, they've bought into the illusion you were trying to create.

But just as the base forms can be abstract to simple blocks, details themselves are subject to reduction; Perhaps a door is just a brick of a different color or texture, or a window is just a headlamp brick installed backward to expose its open, rectangular hole.  It's just a question of know what parts you have, how they combine in non-traditional (SNOT) ways and mentally mapping them to the forms you're trying to suggest.

In the case of Minas Tirith, I just fiddled around until I was happy with the look.  My reference model had almost no smooth surfaces exposed, so part of my abstraction include the idea that I wanted the surfaces to be irregular, almost organic, something that would suggest the building and rebuilding that would go on over time in a real city; a barely organized clutter to suggest that this is a microbuild of something _huge_, not just a single building or fortification.  I was concerned that if I'd taken too minimalist an approach I'd lose the suggestion of grandeur and age I was shooting for.

Now sometimes, minimalist is _exactly_ the look you're after. I'm a big fan of the Architecture line with its clean lines and almost brutal minimalist approaches to some model.  You could probably build the Empire State Building from a well stocked PaB wall, there's nothing fancy going on at all and all the needed parts fit in one hand (granted I have rather large hands, but still...) but when you step back and look at that four in tall uber-abstraction of a skyscraper, anyone who has seen the original instantly recognizes it for what it is.

When I tackled Helm's Deep, I was going for a minimalist feel.  Where I exposed studs, they were meant to suggest shrubs, boulders and uneven ground, everywhere else I wanted smooth walls and tiled tops.  I don't have a recent photo (as I revised it to smooth the ramp a bit more and narrow the culvert to scale) but here's an old one to give you a sense of what I mean.
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BTW, I've seen an even better micro-abstraction of Helm's Deep by George G. that further illustrates the idea of abstracting to essential forms then adding back surface detail to help sell the finished product.  Again, the image below is NOT my creation, I just include it here because it shows how two different designers can approach the same subject matter while making entirely different implementation choices in micro (that and the fact that seeing his encouraged me to dust off mine and revise it a bit).

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Now sometimes, as you suggest, abstraction and minimalism can be taken too far.  I think good examples of this in actual kits (both from the Architecture line) are Rockefeller Center 21007  and Big Ben 21013.  Rockefeller Center, to me, looks like a bunch of tan brick stacked on a plate - it's been cleaned up and scaled down to the point where it no longer suggested the scale of the original, unlike the Guggenheim Museum 21004 which has fewer pieces (but they're the right ones) yet suggests a much grander structure.  Big Ben, in my opinion, lost its way when it embraced the idea of the clock face at the expense of the basic form of the tower.  The tower is too narrow and the clock faces stick out way too far, in effect the _form_ of the clock and the _image_ of the clock were insistent with the essential _feel_ of the tower and the design suffers as a result.  I've MOD'ed this kit and I've seen plenty of fine examples of others who have done likewise to tweak the proportions.  You'd be amazed what difference the thickness of a plate here or there does for sustaining the illusion when working in Microscale.

While the concept of identifying the essential forms and mapping those forms to the right piece is pretty core, sometimes inspiration works exactly backwards.  I recall one trip to the LEGO store where I picked up a ridiculous number of 2x4 left plate w/angle:
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My wife asked me what what on Earth I was going to build with an entire cup of those and at first I didn't have a very good answer.  Then it dawned on me that I'd seen that shape before, not on Earth, but on Middle Earth.  It reminded me of the corrugated flair on the Black Gate of Mordor.  Mapping this one piece to that one feature set the scale for the rest of the model.  The end result came out like this:

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So to recap,  when _I_ build in micro (other's mileage may vary) I find the tricks are:

1) Know where you're going before you start
- Reference photos, sketches or large models are a great resource

2) Figure out what the _essence_ of the model really is
- Abstraction is all about throwing away _extraneous_ details while keeping what really matters

3) Break the model down into key masses
- Be mindful that you'll actually need to build these shapes, so...

3a)  Know what parts you have available and what they look like from odd perspectives or partially obscured
- Learn to love cheese wedges, plates, tiles, hinges, clips, tiny technic bits and all manner of odd little part you never thought you'd use in quantity.

4) Once you have the core form, decide how much detail you need to put back to satisfy the look you're going after
- The only person who has to like what you produce is you

Good luck and have fun.

Edited by ShaydDeGrai, 13 March 2013 - 05:55 PM.


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#3 Kai NRG

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Posted 13 March 2013 - 07:11 PM

ShaydDeGrai gave you some great tips, especially about learning to love small pieces - cheese slopes, headlight bricks, round 1x1s, small tiles - all that stuff is really useful when you're going micro.  I really love building Micro myself, there's just something about that scale that is so cool!  In general I don't have a plan/refference when I build, I just start snapping pieces together - sometimes I work until I find an interesting combo or technique; for this (yes, I built that, though it's not my photostream), I jumped on the build as soon as I realized that I could stick four 2x1 plates on a 2x2 - and then put at lightsaber hilt inside that would allow me to attach the top.  Headlight bricks are very useful, as they can give the impression of doors or windows (depending on scale) besides some interesting piece rotation not possible otherwise (letting me to attach both sides of this, for example).  Sometimes the build can be really simple (and mixing micro and minifigure scale builds can work really well, for example this simple build in a larger minifigure size setting):

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Here's another fairly simple design, but that works pretty well and uses quite a few headlight bricks to attach everything:

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Sometimes a micro can revolve around a single piece (this isn't mine, but it illustrates the point really well):

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or an interesting combination of the same pieces:

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And of course Micro building can be great for Forced Perspecitive!

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I hope that was helpful, have fun and I look forward to seeing some micro builds from you!

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#4 AngleBrick

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Posted 13 March 2013 - 07:15 PM

Thank you for your assistance! I'll build something in a bit (like a few days) and then I shall post an image :classic:

Edited by AngleBrick, 13 March 2013 - 07:16 PM.

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#5 TheLegoDr

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Posted 13 March 2013 - 09:41 PM

I guess the main idea is to what scale do you really want to work in. Microscale is probably actually pretty small, compared to say a midi-scale or a minifig scale, or of course macro-scale. I've built smaller builds before, but the more I see it from other builds, mine might not technically be microscale even though they are quite small. My Black Knight castle mini seen in my signature is on a smaller baseplate, but I don't know what scale it is technically.

But like everyone else, just find a certain shape or piece that you want to use and build around that. There is a lot of great inspiration out there.
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