Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Tolkien’s Rivendell comes to life with 200,000 LEGO bricks – exclusive interview with builders Alice Finch & David Frank

The last time we checked in with Alice Finch, she had just unveiled the world’s largest LEGO Hogwarts built from several hundred thousand LEGO bricks. Not content to let sleeping bricks lie, Alice has teamed up with David Frank to recreate one of my favorite locations in Middle-earth, Rivendell, “the last homely house west of the mountains,” where Elrond hosts both Bilbo and his dwarven companions in The Hobbit and Frodo and the Fellowship in The Lord of the Rings.
The Brothers Brick is pleased to unveil official photos from the two builders and an exclusive interview with Alice and David.
The Brothers Brick: How did the two of you meet?
Alice Finch & David Frank: The July 2011 meeting was our first SeaLUG meeting, and I remember David brought a part of his Dragon Knight Castle. Even though we were both relatively new to LEGO, it was clear that he was already building like an expert. We got to talking about castles — those that we’d seen in person and those that we wanted to build out of bricks — and we both mentioned how we thought building Rivendell would be the ultimate challenge. We’re both avid readers and dedicated Tolkien fans, so our friendship began with a thorough discussion of Elven architecture.
Over the last two years, we’ve had other projects that we focused on: David has built several castles, one with accompanying village and market, we both participated in a collaborative build of Hobbiton for SeaLUG’s display at Emerald City Comicon, and Alice built Hogwarts Castle. after our building skills had been honed on our own big builds, and with the second Hobbit movie about to come out, we decided 2013 was a good time to take on the challenge of building Rivendell.
Rivendell with David Frank and Alice Finch
TBB: In the movies, Rivendell is simultaneously sprawling and highly detailed. How do you even start a daunting build like that?
Alice: Our first task was to do research, which began with the laborious task of watching The Fellowship of the Ring — again. We got together and looked at the models in the movie, screen by screen trying to figure out how the buildings fit together and how we might approach the swooping arches and colorful roofs. Alice looked through all the “behind the scenes” and “making of” books on LOTR and found some of the original sketches for the models.
David: And I found a souvenir model that Weta Workshop made of Rivendell. It turns out that when they were making the Weta model, they had to do some serious research themselves because the film never really established what scenes happened where. The model was key as it allowed me to map out 48×48 sections in a Visio diagram to figure out roughly what size we would need to build it to.
TBB: Elven architecture in Tolkien’s artwork and Jackson’s films is very distinct, with swooping curves and intricate details that don’t easily lend themselves to accurate representation in LEGO. How did you approach this project from a design standpoint?
Arwyn's TowerAlice: By the spring, I started studying some of the more interesting and potentially difficult parts of the model. The first thing I experimented with was the iconic tower from Arwyn’s building (far left of the model). I wanted to try out some of the large wedge pieces I had left over from some experiments I’d done for Hogwarts and thought they might just work. Again, it took some wrangling to figure out how to attach them, but I was really excited about getting that particular challenge ticked off my list.
I also did some studies for the roof design — 1×1 tiles, 1×1 round plates, and “cheese” slopes were all options to achieve the patterned designs. I tried them all — alone and together — and found that all cheese was by far the best and also had the most color options. Ideally, it would have been nice if LEGO would have churned out a few thousand sand red, sand purple, and sand blue cheese for me, but at least I had a drawer full of sand green to pair with the dark green, dark red, dark blue, and tan cheese. After all the patterned roofs were completed, I think we figured that there are about 8,000 cheese in the roofs and another 2,000 or so in the mosaic bridges and courtyards.
Arwyn's bungalow and waterfall tower
David: I had less actual buildings in my sections, so I really focused on blending what I had with the landscape. My main building really emerges from the rock and was built After the landscaping had taken shape. The actual buildings were very different than anything I have ever done as they needed to be airy and sweeping, so I focused on a more open design and heavily utilized odd angles to get a different look from the brick.
TBB: What part combination are you the most proud of?
Alice: In my prowling for interesting parts on BrickLink, I came upon the Gungan shields. My first thought was how they would make some very elegant Elven windows, so I ordered a few to investigate and see if I could make them work in an architectural setting. Figuring out how to secure them was a bit of a challenge, but with some experimentation I figured out how to make them cooperate inside the framing of some SNOT arches.
Bridge Building
Once I figured out how to frame them, I designed the rest of the building around them, bringing in as much sand red and sand purple as possible. I’ve been collecting sand color parts almost since I first started building again, knowing that someday I wanted to do Rivendell and that if I wanted enough to build with, I’d have to gather them a few at a time.
David: Oddly enough, for me it’s simple 1×2 trans-clear plates. I had to figure out a way to represent horses emerging from waves and my part selection was very limited. I am very happy with the result.
Wave of horses
There are many other areas I am happy with, but given what I had to pull off, that would be it.
TBB: Were there any structures you just couldn’t find a way to recreate purely from LEGO bricks?
Alice: I know the purists will cringe, but I used a few pieces made by altBricks because they fit so perfectly with the elegant, flowing style of the Elven architecture. The panel piece is one of my favorite pieces in this model since you can can apply it in so many different settings: tower-top decorations, windows, and balcony railing to name a few. I also used their 1×2 column since I like the fine texture of the fluting and the back has a nice arched opening as well.
David: In the bridge section, the altBricks element was key, since tan telescopes were not available and I really needed to project that sweeping flowy look. I tried to remain as purist as possible, but in a build like this we needed that part to really get the look we wanted.
TBB: What did you struggle with the most?
Alice & David: One of the major challenges with this build was making the buildings truly fit into their setting. Usually when you design a building, you do just that — you do the structure first and then fit it into its setting. In this case, we did all the landscaping first, which involved some significant elevation change and quite a few waterfalls. And since it’s on a total of 32 baseplates, we had to make sure that the joints were as invisible as possible — no small challenge when there are so many different elevations.
Elrond's LIbrary
Alice: Because the landscape and vegetation are so important to the model, I came up with the idea of having it transition through the seasons. We now have so many different leaf colors to choose from that I thought it would be great to be able to use them all, and having it flow gradually from spring on the left to autumn on the right would be an interesting way to highlight the variety of foliage colors. We spent an entire day just building trees.
David came over with his two sons and I had my two boys, and the six of us spent the day experimenting and improving on various tree designs. David has a great tree design that uses technic pieces that is flexible in terms of the variation you can achieve, but also is very strong, something that is really important when you have so many trees and need to move the model around to conventions. We found that we were continuously improving designs and trying out new ones.
Spring Landscape
Even my 5 year old came up with an interesting way to combine the palm top with the technic pieces to create a nicely vertical tree shape which works really well right up next to a rock face where you don’t have a lot of room for a more traditionally shaped tree.
Hadrian's Tree
I needed some tall trees behind the library building but I wanted them to be their own little scene, so I tried out a new style of tree that looks like a birch tree. I thought the combination of black sprinkled in with the white worked pretty well to achieve the right look, but unlike David’s trees, they are amazingly flimsy and will fall apart if you breathe on them too hard.
TBB: LEGO doesn’t make too many “official” elves, but your Rivendell is teeming with Elven life. How’d you manage such a thriving population of elves?
Alice & David: We wanted to make Rivendell feel inhabited by lots of elves and we had some elf pieces to work with, but when I found some decals by Eurobricks member ED-209, I knew I’d hit a gold mine. They are all beautiful and go well with the existing color schemes of sand green and dark green. I ordered up 200 torsos and got to work putting decals on them. We didn’t end up using them all, but you can’t have too many elves!
Crossing the river
TBB: We’ve come to expect large-scale collaborations at events like BrickCon, and you’re both members of SEALUG, but it’s not like you’re neighbors on the same block. How did you coordinate your sections to ensure a consistent display?
Alice & David: Overall, I thought the collaborative aspect of the build worked really well. We live within an hour of each other and met often enough to check our progress to make sure our color schemes and roof patterns were staying aligned, building styles looked related but not the same, landscapes matched, and waterways and paths looked natural. The last few months, we were both working really hard.
TBB: How do your families feel about LEGO on such a scale?
Alice: Thank goodness we both have amazingly supportive families who knew we had a serious schedule to keep. I would often come down at 1 am and find an email from him with some WIP photos and I’d respond back. He’d zip off an answer back to me and so a lot of our communication happened in the middle of the night during the final push to the end. We were motivated to get it done for BrickCon, which is the first weekend in October, partly because we hadn’t seen it all put together and we wanted to see what it would actually look like with all the buildings nestled into the landscape.
Library Watefalls at Night
Feasting Hall at Night Waterfall Pergola by Night
David: My wife was very patient and I worked on this through a move from Puyallup to Edmonds. My saving grace was that I involved the kids as much as possible. I have a great deal of water in my sections of the build, and my boys did 90% of the water and had a hand in many of the trees you see in the front. One of the most rewarding portions of the build was the time that our children spent building with us.
TBB: Taking good pictures of a regular-sized model is challenging enough for many of us. Alice, you’ve now unveiled two massive models. Any tips you can share about photographing very large LEGO models?
Alice & David: The last challenge has been photographing Rivendell. Even though it isn’t as big as Hogwarts, this model still spans 10 feet by 5 feet (over 3 meters by 1.5 meters) and it takes a pretty serious setup to get pictures. With two 10-foot rolls of paper and the help of some friends, we gathered the equipment we needed to make it work. The funny thing about setting something like this up is that no matter how much care you take to get every blade of grass stuck down, you can always find more tiny little things to adjust.
Rivendell from the Entrance Tower
So it goes when you have 200,000 or so bricks to wrangles!