Monday, January 23, 2017

Nothing But Brick's January Builder Of The Month - Billy Lee

One of the things I look forward to when attending PinoyLUG and the Lego Trading Group's BxB brick events is seeing the MOCs of veteran Lego enthusiast, Billy Lee. The Man is a skilled vignette/diorama builder and also an army builder like myself. His builds, which typically features period and fantasy themes, are full of well-thought of details that give life to his creations. He's also adept at building minifig scale vehicles as you will see later on.

The Man himself, Billy Lee, in AC Pin's trademark pose. (Photo courtesy of Billy Lee)

I've always wondered how Billy goes about with his building and where he gets his inspiration from. Compared to other builders who draw inspiration from popular science fiction mythos such as Star Wars and Lord of the Rings, Billy incorporates historical figures which can be seen from the highly-detailed sets of armies he builds.

He also turns to themes from literary classics to add fantasy elements into some of his builds. I particularly like his steampunk MOCs.

Check out some of his other MOCs I've caught in brick events.

It's truly an honor to feature Billy here at Nothing But Brick. I'm sure both aspiring and veteran MOCcers would learn plenty of interesting and valuable ideas from the wisdom he will be sharing. Read on to learn about how Billy transitioned from being a plastic scale modeler into a Lego enthusiast. Read about how he faced the challenge of keeping his bricks and figs organized as he moved from one place to another. Take note of what inspires his builds and the discipline he imposes on himself to bring them to life. Last but not the least, learn about his 'Minifig is King' mentality, which governs all of his builds.  


1. What is your earliest memory of Lego? How long have you been collecting bricks?
When I was growing up, Lego was unknown (late '50s). As a teen, I was a plastic scale modeler, specializing in armor and aircraft. I first became aware of Lego when I was finishing up a technical course in Germany. I was given 2 weeks paid leave, and having some deutsche marks in my wallet and plenty of time, I did the rounds of the department stores in Hamburg and Bremen. I came across a Lego display where the store was promoting the first Lego castle series, and they had some open boxes which you could play around with. Needless to say, I played around with the open sets and even elicited praise from the salesperson who asked if they could use what I MOCced as display. I ended up buying 2 sets right then & there. Maybe I got 'sales talked', but that started it all.

This was in 1978. I was still making plastic scale models then, but getting increasingly frustrated because my builds did not travel well. Due to the nature of my work then, which entailed moving from one place to another every 2-3 months, my plastic scale models would end up as junk after a move. It was then that I realized that Lego builds traveled infinitely better and from the on, I left plastic scale modeling & began Lego MOCcing. I was always a MOCcer. I never built the set as is. I always tweaked the set and always with a technician's eye as to what could work in real life. I started buying loose bricks and abandoned sets at flea markets until I accumulated a sizable inventory of bricks and tiles. Up to now, I hardly ever buy sets, but am constantly on the lookout for unique parts and new colors.

(Photo courtesy of Billy Lee)

2. Which Lego theme is your favorite?
I love the castle theme probably for sentimental reasons more than any other. I bought a LOT of castle sets which I played with my kids while they were growing up. For myself, I went the automotive route. I MOCced a lot of cars and trucks (which I still do). Of the latest lines, I like Chima for the figs and Ninjago for the build ideas. The Speed Champions series are good starting points for MOCcing but they're only maximum 4-studs wide. Not very realistic for me. I don't collect the sets; I just get ideas from them. A fair number of my MOC armies are parts of Chima and Ninjago figs. Lego is not making a lot of money out of this AFOL, bu the parts and used sets resellers are.

3. What is the first Lego set you acquired? Which set do you value the most?
The classic yellow castle was the first set I got and the joust set with the knight on horseback. I still have that horse and the yellow bricks from the castle are mixed in with my parts inventory. I really don't have a favorite set, for the reason I never build sets as is. I have some MOCs that I can say are my best builds, but only pictures of them remain. I have one MOC that I will treasure and that's of a UNIMOG 416 and a log trailer, with 2 figs, one of which is me. This MOC is a memorial to my first regular job as a tractor mechanic/technician in the Black Forest. This MOC will probably never be chopped.

UNIMOG 416 MOC (Photo courtesy of Billy Lee)

4. How do you manage funding your hobby as a Lego collector/builder? Where do you get your bricks?
I have a fixed monthly budget for Lego acquisitions. If I don't use the amount up within the month, the excess is added to the next month's budget. To be honest, I have never exceeded my monthly budget and usually I end up with a fair amount of excess at the end of the year. But I also use this budget to small sets for my grandkids, which we build together whenever they're visiting; which is almost every Sunday. I already have a sizable inventory of basic bricks, so my purchases are for specialty parts and cheap figs. I'm ruthless with my MOCs meaning they have a shelf life of a maximum of 6 months, after which, they're chopped and segregated for the next project, so I'm never short of basic bricks and plates.

I acquired the greater part of my parts inventory from purchases in flea markets and parts resellers in Europe specifically Amsterdam, Copenhagen, Dusseldorf and Hamburg. Of late, I'm getting parts from the excellent sellers at PhLUG Brick Stores and the Lego Trading Group. I'm still a member of a LUG in Bremen and I occasionally participate in their group buys.

5. How do you address the hobby's requirements for storage space? 
The eternal problem of every hobbyist. Where do I store my stuff? Where do I display all of them? What do I do with the big builds? I've dealt with this problem early on in my Lego moccing career as I spent the better part of my working life in the limited space of dormitories when I was single and small flast when I became a family man. Traveling every 3 months or so doesn't help either.

First problem is storage for parts. My parts are segregated by color (I'm a brick racist) and stored in large 15-20 liter clear plastic containers. They are clear containers so I can see the colors immediately. So far, I have 8 20 liter containers for the basic colors, 2 15 liter containers for the special colors and 10 small flat containers for the specialty parts such as the clear and transparent colored studs. Within each container, like parts are clutched and stacked together so they're easily identified. The small parts (1x1 round, 1x1 flats, etc.) are stacked but packed in ziplock bags. Likewise, finishing tiles are kept loose in a separate ziplock bag. This way, I can keep the colors segregated but still have them somewhat organized within the containers.

When I was still a travelling man, but with the contracts of the duration of at least one year, I built myself a 'strongbox' of aluminum sidings with a welded channel frame. It had a hinged lockable top which could accommodate all my plastic containers. When it came to move, all the parts containers went into this strongbox for shipment by sea or overland. At the next destination, the plastic containers would be unpacked, and the strongbox would serve as additional storage for household items. At the moment, since I no longer travel, all my clear containers are parked, one on top of the other, in 3 stacks, on the right side of my worktable at my beck and call.

The second problem - what to do with the builds. I'm ruthless with my MOCs. I have a dedicated shelf system which I installed in my small office. There are 3 shelves and all builds are displayed there. My MOCs have a shelf life of a maximum of six months. When I finish a MOC, I take some pictures, make some notes on my MOCcer's diary and place it on my shelf. I clean my MOCs maybe once a month with a horsehair paintbrush, recall how I built them and so on. At the end of their shelf lie, the MOCs are chopped and the parts go into their respective containers. All I'm left with are my pictures and my notes.

Lately, I've been building MOC armies. They have a much longer shelf life. I solved the problem of storage for my 6 armies by fitting the figs on a standard 32x32 baseplate, which also helps in curbing excessive purchases. The armies are not displayed. But if I want to admire them, or tweak them, I just open up the container and pull out the baseplate and my army is right there, all at attention.

Army of Islam (Photo courtesy of Billy Lee)

6. What storage and sorting methods can you recommend?
I have described in some detail my personal storage and sorting method above. I don't think it's an ideal one, but it works for me. The basic one is to sort and store by color, but everyone knows that.

7. What made you start building MOCs?
I was a MOCcer from the start. I use the instructions as a guide, looking for unique building techniques or unique uses for parts; and there are plenty of these in Lego sets. Sometimes, when the set is new to me, like the Birds set  (Set # 21301) from the Ideas theme, I build the set as is, make some notes and then tweak the build. I can honestly say that I have never followed the set instructions to the letter, and sometimes, as a challenge, I don't look at the instructions and build the set purely from the picture on the box. I get a thrill out of seeing at the end of the build if it looks like the picture and having some parts left over.

Why do I do this? I don't know why. Why do birds fly? Because they can. Why do I MOC? Because I can.

(Photo courtesy of Billy Lee)

8. Describe your building process. 
I always build to a theme. The most recent example would be my classic car line of late '20s and '30s automobiles. I started this line as a complement to some mafia and police period figs I MOCced. I also just finished watching "The Untouchables" starring Kevin Costner and Sean Connery. I determine a specific width, in this case the maximum of 8 studs. I standardize on a specific size of tires. I determine the maximum height of the series (12 studs maximum). All this to make sure that I get the scale right. In other words, the fig won't look out of place when standing beside my build. Almost all my automobile MOCs are minifig scale. Then I start building the cars. '20s and early '30s cars are particularly suited to Lego MOCcing because they're boxy and simple in design. I usually build a maximum of 8 vehicles to a theme. In different colors and of different makes and models. I stop at eight. Don't ask me why, maybe it's because 8 is a lucky number. Then I place the MOCs in vignettes together with the figs, take pictures and display them at the monthly meet ups and on my display shelf. That's the vehicle building process.

I also MOC planes, helicopters, modern supercars, trucks, military vehicles (wheeled, not tracked), steam punk vehicles, space ships (not Star Wars) and ancient horse carts. I've started on sailing ships. All to minifig scale so that they can be displayed together with the appropriate figs. 

I don't MOC or build modular sets. Maybe that's because they're difficult to transport and they take up too much space on my shelves. I do build building facades mainly as backdrops for my vignettes and dioramas, but hardly any complete buildings. Well, that's not exactly right. I did MOC a small Buddhist temple and a small mosque for my MOC armies, but nothing elaborate like the Parisian Cafe' or Ghostbusters HQ. 

To sum it up, my building process is scaled to the Lego minifig and produced as a series.

(Photo courtesy of Billy Lee)

9. How long does one project usually take?
I have two timelines: short (4 hours) and long (1 year). Most of my vehicle MOCs have the short timeline. I always finish a MOC once I get started. I never start a MOC unless I'm sure I have all the parts I need. If I see that I'll be short of a part, I don't start the MOC until I source the parts I need. I have rarely exceeded 4 hours for any of my vehicles, planes, etc.

The long timeline is mainly because of the need to source the needed parts. This is the timeline for my MOC armies, which involve minimal build time but long procurement time. If I can't complete an army within the 12-month time span, I abandon the project and start on another.

The longest time I've ever spent building one specific project happened in October 2016, when I spent 7 hours and 20 minutes on a chapel ruins and cemetery diorama for the Bricktober event. It was a continuous overnight build which came out very well. Like I said, once I start a build, I don't stop 'til it's done.

10. What indicators/benchmarks do you use to measure your satisfaction with the quality of your work?
In my Lego universe, the minifig is king. The MOC must be minifig-scaled. Then it must look like it could do what it was intended to do: vehicles should look like they could work if they were real-life scaled, planes should look like they could really fly, and so on. In other words, second to scale, form must follow function. Lastly, they should be 'clean'. I have a benchmark in so far as exposed studs are concerned. A maximum of five exposed studs on any build, regardless of size. There are only 2 exceptions: plane's wings and of course, base plates of vignettes and dioramas.

11. Where do you get inspiration for your MOCs? Who/What are your influences?
Maybe I should start with where I don't get inspiration from. I don't go to the movies, so that's out. I hardly watch TV except for Bundesliga matches and I don't read comics. I never saw Lord of the Rings and the only Star Wars movie I watched was the first one. I saw the first Batman with Michael Keaton and none thereafter. So call me an old fogey and you may be right. I'm more Star Trek than Star Wars, more Lord of the Jungle than Lord of the Rings, more League of Extraordinary Gentlemen than Justice League of America. I can name all 12 Knights of the Round Table, but haven't the foggiest who the mutants in X-men are. Then why do I even bother with Lego? After all it's for kids. The sets are aimed at KFOLs, TFOLs and young AFOLs. What's a 63 year old man doing playing with Lego? I must be senile; on my second childhood. Maybe I am on my second childhood. I get to build the toy armies of Roman Legionnaires, Vikings, Samurai and Ashigaru (Shintaru, the Samurai in black and white), the British Army at the height of empire (Charge of the Light Brigade, Waterloo, Zulu) and the Knights of the Round Table. All of which I never got to play with growing up. I've always loved mechanical things, but I can't buy all the cars and trucks I admire, so I MOC them. I used to build plastic scale models of prop planes and early jets; now, I MOC them. Yup, you're right-I'm in my second childhood... and loving every minute of it.

British Army (Photo courtesy of Billy Lee)

12. What are the challenges you have encountered as a MOCcer and how have you dealt with them?
The biggest challenge I faced as a MOCcer was and still is- can it be done within the time frame of one year? For the small MOCs like vehicles and such, the challenge lies mainly in the availability of specialty parts. Like I said previously, I don't start a MOC that I can't finish within 4 hours. If I don't have all the parts, I just don't start. I have aborted only three MOCs that I started, all for the same reason... I changed my mind about the subject matter. What started as a great idea became less so after two hours. So, I stopped the build. I have never stopped building due to lack of parts.

13. What do you think are the necessary skills/attitude/characteristics a MOCcer must possess? How do you think these could be acquired or improved?
I believe that inside every minifig collector and set collector is a MOCcer waiting to come out. A neophyte MOCcer has to cut the apron strings that tie him/her to the instruction manual. That's why I don't believe in the virtual Lego building apps. To be a true MOCcer, you have to imagine the build in your mind's eye, sometimes even dreaming a MOC. It's instinctive, but it's in everyone who loves Lego. The only way to improve is to MOC, MOC and MOC. You can try this. Buy a small set or even a polybag. Don't read the instructions. Let the picture be your guide. See if you can build the set using only the picture on the box or the polybag as your guide. The sense of accomplishment you get when you're successful is immense and will give you the confidence to MOC even more complicated subjects.

14. What is your biggest accomplishment as a MOCcer?
I have the philosophy that every MOC is my greatest accomplishment. They may differ in size or subject matter, but if they meet the criteria I mentioned earlier, they are great MOCs. I guess my greatest accomplishment is my body of work-that I have built so many MOCs over the years with a diverse subject matter equally well. That's what I'm proud of.

15. What would be your advice to budding builders?
Lego won't like what I'm about to say, but I'll say it anyway... STOP BUYING EVERY NEW SET THAT COMES AROUND! The big sets are fantastic and compelling builds, and if you must, go ahead and spend your hard-earned money on them. But the smaller sets are eminently MOCcable. Invest in a workable inventory of diverse parts and start MOCcing.

(Photo courtesy of Billy Lee)


Hope you guys learned a lot from this month's Builder of the Month. Take Billy's advise and start MOCcing now! Don't get discouraged if your first build's a bust. Just keep on building. If you really want to get better at building MOCs, then I think it's a good idea to set personal standards to improve the quality of your work. 

Thanks for reading another entry here at Nothing But Brick! Stay tuned for more cool stuff soon. Till next entry!

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