Lugnet Member 3114
All things LegoJanuary 28, 2006
by Jeff McClain
Lego certainly isn't what it use to be. Or it is more, to be precise. There was a time when the number of different blocks (and they all pretty much WERE blocks) could be contained to about a hundred different types and about 5 colors. Technic sort of expanded that, with gears, shafts, bushings and studs with holes in them, but even in the mid-80's it was still pretty obviously Lego with the characteristic studs. Now, Bionacles (not to mention Dino, Viking, and Harry Potter lines) have custom made parts for all sorts of things and many without any studs at all. At least the Castle series still used basic minifigs and studs (not that I ever liked them that much). Technic Lego sets have mostly done away with the basic stud, and deal more in smooth "beams". Not necessarily a bad thing, just different. Certainly all these custom parts make the models far more accurate and true to form, and the move to beams have made the sets look much better in the final finish product. It just has made things more complicated (both to categorize and store as a collector, as well as to design). I'm still amazed at some of the forms and shape that some of my most recent technic sets end up being able to achieve, in ways I never would have thought of.
Migration to SNOT (Studs Not On Top) designs have also become pretty common place (especially with the pin connectors and the lock-hinge connector pieces), and the Mindstorm sets have moved Legos firmly into the 21st Century and are a perfect example of how GOOD of a toy Lego is (basic motor and sensor operation, feed back systems, program structure and virtually limitless possibilities are so cool, I wish could have had access to them when I was a kid when I had the time to play with them more). Even the Train series is pretty cool (despite still being pretty "specialized").
A look at Peeron for set inventories comparing recent sets to ones coming out in the late 1970's and early 1980's shows a dramatic difference in pieces, even when just focusing on the technic sets. I know my own collection, which has exploded since I got back into it in the last 6 years, has gotten far more complex to sort and easily store than it use to. Of course, I USE to just spread all the pieces on a big 4'x4' drop cloth that I could just pick up and put in a container when done. Yes, I started keeping the little technic pieces separate from the blocks and plates, which helped, but that was the start of my downfall...grin. Now, I have over 12 giant tackle boxes with individual 18"x10"x2" plastic storage boxes, and that isn't even close to being able to hold all the sets I have (so, I have to have a lot of sets always built and tucked in corners and on display in my house, which doesn't make my wife too happy having the dining room decorated in a "LEGO theme").
Then, when I found out a couple years ago that someone had made "virtual legos" a reality, I was floored. Through the work of James Jessiman, and many others since his subsequent death, we have LDraw. This is more a "standards" and "idea" rather than any one program, since from this open standard hundreds of programs have popped up and a community based part creation database has flourished. Originally starting as DOS based command line programs and editors to full blown Windows GUI interfaces such as MLCad today and portal into the rapidly expanding and always amazing 3D rendering scene, such as POV-Ray and Terragen, which have nothing to do with Legos at the core, but that naturally benefit a virtual world of Legos in tremendous ways.
So, once I started in on this, it has lead me to more and more "other" things, like the proverbial bread crumb trail. At this point, I've been hopelessly obsessed with learning more about native POV-Ray code and how to edit some of the files before I render it to get the best effects. I've also been distracted with all the wonderful include content that is available for this freeware program, especially Chris Colefax's Galaxy and City Scene utility include files.
I'm also knee deep in to learning how a truely wonderful program called Terragen works. It is basically a height field landscape generator (with some nice lighting effects and cloud generators as well as water surface effects). The results can be amazing. I'm really looking forward to version 2.0, which should add the ability to place objects, like trees, grass, shrubs, etc. to the scene. Currently, this must all be done with another program (I am using Forester) that you import the terrain generation files into and then render with POV-Ray (which doesn't look as nice, for some reason, as the more highly specialized Terragen renderer). Anyway, check out some of the images that can be created below. You can hardly believe that they are computer renders.
My next thing I really want to do, is begin animating some of these lego renders. One idea, is to render a particularly cool scene from one of the Star Wars movies (one of the cool space battles or possibly Darth Vader strolling into Princess Leia's ship at the opening of "A New Hope") and set each frame to an equivalent virutal Lego or minifig render. I'll admit, this is pretty ambitious, and I'll probably never get it done, but I'm going to at least try to get a lego minifig render to "walk". There is a pretty large Lego Film following, and while most of it is stop motion annimation, there is getting to be some computer rendering as well...
In the meantime, Lucas Arts has released Lego Star Wars, with a LOT of very good cutscenes of the movies. I've got Episode IV, Episode V, and Episode VI movies up from this. I'll try to go back and get Episodes 1-3 soon.