I give you words, you give me money. Isn't capitalism great?
From building to blogging, Iain Heath is a man of many talents. Chris Wharfe meets the prolific AFOL*
As anyone who’s ever found the bargain of the century, met with likeminded AFOLs through forums or just showcased – and viewed – endless MOCs will tell you, the internet has been a goldmine of a resource for the LEGO community. Just ask Iain Heath, Managing Editor of leading LEGO blog The Brothers Brick (TBB) – a man whose entire LEGO career has effectively been facilitated by everyone’s favourite online buzzwords, ‘viral content’.
That’s not to understate his own building talents, of course. Prior to joining TBB, Iain helped to define two brand new scales through his exploration of character building. A fond love of Classic Space and Technic in his early teens developed into a penchant for pop culture creations in adulthood (naturally), and it was in 2007 that he first found viral fame with a MINILAND-scale Stephen Hawking model.
‘It was so many years ago!’ Iain recalls. ‘It showed up in an in-flight magazine, on a British TV quiz show, in the Daily Mail newspaper – everywhere, really. It was through the viral nature of that MOC that I discovered the AFOL community, other builders and, of course, The Brothers Brick.
‘I realised that character building was an underexplored theme, and it seemed like an interesting and challenging way to differentiate myself from the usual buildings and vehicles, which can be so rectilinear. I also realised I could make a ‘shtick’ out of creating LEGO versions of trending images or events.’
From Justin Bieber and Kim Kardashian to a twerking Miley Cyrus and even the legendary Grumpy Cat, no pop culture idol, reference or meme was safe from being immortalised in the brick. Iain became a regular at events, joining SeaLUG in 2009 and displaying his creations at BrickCon in Seattle – where, alongside fellow builder Tommy Williamson, he launched the ‘Bricks of Character’ theme to showcase his and others’ character builds.
‘The only criteria we use to help people decide which MOCs belong in the Bricks of Character area is, ‘does it have a discernible face?’’ Iain says. Nevertheless, his own models have largely been limited to those two scales he helped to establish, MINILAND+ – a ‘taller, more realistically proportioned’ evolution of the MINILAND scale – and the 1:6 ‘foot long’ scale, a specific technique incorporating three-stud-wide heads.
‘MINILAND+ employs no fixed building techniques or patterns since each character is unique,’ Iain explains. ‘There’s a lot of SNOT involved. I developed more elongated heads to allow for more detail, and I also have a signature way of applying a pupil to the eye bricks using a Sharpie.’ Purists may have felt a sharp intake of breath at that last sentence, but there’s a reason for it – as Iain stresses, the animated eyes allow the viewer to ‘engage more with the character’. The differences in scale have differing demands of a builder – where a MINILAND+ figure might take eight hours to complete from start to finish, a 1:6 scale figure takes anywhere up to 40 hours.
As you may imagine, being such a proponent of brick-built characters, Iain isn’t so fond of the traditional minifigure. In fact, he’s been dubbed a ‘minifigure-hater’: ‘When I introduced my kids to free build LEGO play, I found the inclusion of minifigures sabotaged the creative aspect of the medium – they just role played with them like dolls and didn’t build anything. I also think minifigures are ugly as all hell, and that Friends mini-dolls look much nicer!’
Iain’s controversial views on the LEGO Group’s plastic population aside, his work soon caught the attention of LEGO fan sites, including – of course – The Brothers Brick. When the site’s co-founders, Andrew Becroft and Josh Wedin, contacted Iain about joining the team, it came as little surprise to the man who’d already been blogged about dozens of times.
It also helped, of course, that Iain had participated so actively in the LEGO community, both on and offline – from his displays at BrickCon to an annual exhibit at Emerald City Comic Con, where this year Iain gave a talk on the secret world of AFOLs. ‘My aim was to give the convention-going crowd a humorous overview of the AFOL world, which in many ways is similar to the geeky subculture of comic book conventions and fandom, but which is probably unfamiliar to many of them.
‘I covered everything from how we acquire bricks and sort our collections, to how we create our amazing MOCs and what goes on at LEGO conventions – and, of course, all of our crazy lingo.’
Prior to joining The Brothers Brick, Iain ran his own blog, The Living Brick, which focused – you guessed it – on character building. When he decided that that outlet had run its course, he clambered aboard the good ship TBB. ‘I’m now part of the editorial team, editing articles, planning contests, reviewing sets and making videos,’ Iain explains. ‘There’s an almost inexhaustible supply of MOCs to cover, news to report, sets to review, and crazy ideas that our team has for contests and articles.
‘Typically, there’s a natural ebb and flow that each of us can use to tailor our TBB workload around other things in our lives, and we tag team a lot – though I’ve had my share of crazy all-nighters along the way!’ One of those all-nighters came along very recently, in fact, when Iain volunteered to review 76052 Batman Classic TV Series – Batcave. Over the course of three days, he built, assessed, photographed and wrote about the largest DC set to date.
‘I think I submitted the final post at 3am and the review went live the following morning,’ Iain recalls. ‘Working for TBB is an interesting job – there are no set hours, and we can work from almost any location. But there is some flexibility to it. If someone needs to focus on real life for a while, there are always other contributors ready to cover. When the need arises, we pull together and do what it takes to get the job done.
‘At the end of the day, we do all this out of a love for the hobby and the fan community.’
The site has grown enormously since its inception a decade ago, now boasting six-digit figures for monthly users and seven-digit figures for monthly page views. In its infancy, TBB was simply a platform for Josh and Andrew’s custom minifigures, but it’s now a portal for reviews, contests and curated showcases of the very best MOCs around. Despite its wide scope, however, its editorial values are simple: to highlight the best LEGO creations and the most interesting LEGO news from around the world, to the broadest possible audience.
‘While our core demographic is certainly hardcore AFOL builders like ourselves, we present the MOCs and news we highlight in a way that’s accessible to casual LEGO fans, parents, and many others who enjoy the subject matter we cover – from Star Wars to architecture,’ Iain says. ‘Our editor-in-chief Andrew keeps a tight ship and has the final say on everything. Thanks to his professional experience in the field, it is run like you might run a real news room.’
To that end, there’s a simple structure to TBB’s staff hierarchy: regular and senior contributors are responsible for generating content, while the editorial staff outline strategy and keep things running smoothly. As for Iain? ‘My role as Managing Editor is really the same as the other editors, I just know a few more passwords… in case Andrew falls under a bus!’
MOCing has taken something of a backseat recently for Iain, in favour of – perhaps unsurprisingly – YouTube videos. Last year, he helped kick-start TBB’s own channel with a review of 76042 SHIELD Helicarrier.
‘I think video is a more immediate and powerful way to engage an audience,’ Iain says. ‘However, making good videos is much harder and more time consuming than writing articles and taking photos. I would certainly like to make more LEGO videos and see the hobby become more video-centric as time goes on. I don’t think there’s really a ‘go to’ YouTube channel for LEGO fans yet, and I would love to see TBB’s channel fill that role someday.’
Bold ambitions, for sure – but would you expect any less from an AFOL so ingrained in pop culture, technology and the online world?
*AFOL: Adult Fan of LEGO
The Brothers BrickJournal
TBB isn’t the only hand Iain’s had in the LEGO journalism pie – last year, he co-edited an issue of BrickJournal alongside his character building comrade, Tommy Williamson.
‘It was a lot more work than I had expected!’ Iain laughs. ‘After spending time identifying suitable builders to feature, and compiling a portfolio of their works, I had to conduct and write up interviews with each one. That proved to be a challenge, since there was quite a variety of writing styles in their responses, and some language barriers too.
‘Plus, as editor-in-chief Joe Meno had warned me, it’s hard not to end up just asking the same questions of each interviewee, so it was important to tailor each set of questions so it brought out the unique aspects of each builder’s work. But I got to choose a few of my favourite character builders, which was very satisfying.
‘The degree to which I had to research the builders featured in the magazine was an order of magnitude greater than what we would normally put into MOC posts for TBB, but my experience there – and on my own blog – certainly helped give me an understanding of the AFOL community when developing BrickJournal content.’