As you all may know, LEGO Senior Designer Marcos Bessa is in Singapore for the launch of the LEGO BrickHeadz line of sets.
I managed to catch up with this incredibly talented man and chat a little bit about his life growing up in Portugal, the genesis of LEGO BrickHeadz line and *something* on an upcoming set yet to be revealed!
Marcos Bessa hails from a small town named Vilela in the north of Portugal. He completed college with a Masters degree in Informatics and Computer Engineering before deciding to pursue his dream to work at LEGO which lead him to be one of the youngest LEGO® designers to be hired by the LEGO® Group. He started as a junior set designer in 2010 for the Superheroes theme and was quickly promoted to a full fledge set designer in less than a year and finally senior designer in 2013.
Brickfinder (BF): Hi Marcos, and welcome to Singapore.
Marcos Bessa (MB): Thank you!
BF: How young were you when you first encountered LEGO?
MB: I was four years old when I first started playing with LEGO. I remember having some knock offs at the time because my grandmother had a store that sold some “construction toys” which she gave me but I would just take them apart and not mix them with my LEGO collection. I was always purist in that sense.
BF: Which LEGO set started your love of the Brick?
MB: There is one set that I can clearly remember from my childhood but I can’t remember the number of the set. (I should remember because a lot of people ask me that question!) It is a set from 1992 or 93 which had a baseplate with a river printed on it. It has a little a mountain, a house and a bridge. It had a yellow car and a little boat.
I didn’t have much LEGO as a kid but it provided me with so many starters for play and those bricks allowed me to create so many different things. There are a couple of other sets which I just added to the pile then I just had that small box of LEGO which I was carrying around everywhere and building everything from it.
BF: What was the inspiration behind the LEGO BrickHeadz concept?
MB: There is a guy named Austin Carlson who is a graphic designer at LEGO and he wanted to create a little gift for a friend of his. He wanted to make a cute elephant and the form of that character is very close to the form of what BrickHeadz is today. He gave that elephant to his friend who placed it on her desk and everyone who saw it thought it was quite cute.
Every year for a week, the whole design organisation stops, we don’t have any work tasks and we are free to just create something and at the end of the week we present what we have created to the design leadership team. A couple of years ago, a group of guys decided to pitch these cute little guys and they created a bunch of different characters from different franchises based on that ONE elephant.
BF: What is the design process like for LEGO BrickHeadz?
MB: First and foremost we explore what characters we want to do. For series 1, we started with some safe bets but also some strong line ups to attract attention and create a culture around what we believe will be strong long lasting series. We have a very important mission at LEGO with this product line which is that we want to engage kids that are not into roleplaying any more because they feel that LEGO is a “toy” and that they are too old for it.
We want to offer something that allows them to create something interesting with characters they can relate to and also give them a nice classic building experience. The purpose of the line is to reach out to those who are not so much into LEGO because they don’t know LEGO beyond that of a toy. This offers that extra layer of collectibility which they could easily put on their computer or next to their television.
BF: One thing I noticed is that a lot of non-LEGO fans are getting interested in LEGO BrickHeadz.
MB: Yup! Exactly that. For example, the Disney Castle has a lot of appeal and there were a lot of people were drawn to it even though they were not into LEGO before. They saw the model and said it looks so cool but then it is a full day of building and it can be quite daunting for someone who is not used to brick building because it is a model that is targeted to a more experienced builder.
We wanted something to bring on board a whole new level of consumers who haven’t been so used to building with LEGO. It is a quick, simple and fulfilling experience because it uses core bricks and very quickly you achieve something that is so iconic.
BF: What are some of the challenges of building a 100 piece set as compared to a 2000+ piece set?
MB: A lot of LEGO Designers will tell you that it is just as hard to design for a small price point as it is for a big price point. It just offers different challenges. If I design something like the Disney Castle which is 4,000 bricks, obviously I have a huge challenge of staying true enough to the reference and fulfil a good building experience, putting enough easter eggs or references that people recognise.
But then if I design a USD$10 price point set like the BrickHeadz which is around 100 bricks, the question becomes “how can I make those 100 bricks worth that singular building experience?” Every brick counts.
Whereas in those 4,000 bricks, I can have maybe a 100 bricks that are there just to fill this gap or it works for a certain purpose. It doesn’t need to be thought through to exhaustion. In BrickHeadz, every small piece makes a huge difference, it changes the silhouette, it changes the detail. It brings in that reference to the character or takes away that resemblance to another feature.
BF: What I do find is that the smaller the design, the more challenging it is.
MB: What I have most fun is with the small builds inside the big models even if it is a small section or a detail on the inside of the model. For instance the Disney Castle, these round bits over here (points to the castle spires), I spent so much time to find that perfect octagonal shape to create the same look all around. I played with so many variations of it like half a plate in, half a plate out, a quarter of a plate in. It’s like how can I play more with these dimensions in order for it to look perfect. If I look around and I see four of the sides are sticking out a bit too much I would feel like it is not good enough.
This is something people probably wouldn’t even notice but I spent so much elements on it. I could have done something that was half as good with much less elements and then use those elements somewhere else but I thought it would be important to keep it there. This are the things that I spend a lot of time in and it is fun for me, those small little challenges.
BF: Could you share some of these other small builds?
MB: Right now I’m working on another D2C (Direct-to-Consumer) model which is coming out later this Christmas and it has one of my first and favourite thing that I have ever designed. It is a small little thing but it is just a combination of the bricks that works so perfectly in my eyes and I’m so proud of it. Even though there are 3,000 bricks in it, that little thing is my favourite part of the whole model. Take for example the pool table in the Ghostbusters HQ, that was something that I created in 2009 when I was a LEGO fan. I made that pool table in LDD (LEGO Digital Designer). When I was designing the Ghostbusters HQ, I saw that there was a requirement for a pool table and thought “This is MY chance!” so I bring my pool table from 2009 and put it in the model. These are the things that are more fun.
BF: (hopeful) So can you elaborate more on your 3,000 piece set?
MB: (chuckles) That is all I can say!
BF: When does it come to a point during the design stage where you say “I need a new element”?
MB: It varies a lot from project to project because there are projects when it is not even an option. Sometimes when I get a brief, it will say that we don’t have new element frames allocated to that project, so basically I’m told that I have to design whatever I have to design without developing new elements. Some of the cases, we do have frames allocated because there are a certain amount of elements we can create per year.
That is also connected to a number of elements that we remove from the library so that we keep the number of different shapes in production on the same level. If something new comes in, something has gone out.
Obviously we need to have the characters right for the Disney Castle so we had elements developed for the characters but they were in connection with the minifigure series (Disney CMF) which came along with the product. We had one exclusive character which was Tinkerbell who has a very iconic look because she is an IP (intellectual property) character and we needed to get it right as iconically as possible that demanded a new wig (hairpiece) which was sculpted specifically for her.
So I had no new elements to use for the castle. Everything in there were made from existing parts with perhaps some colour variation that didn’t exist before.
BF: Which leads me to the next question: Stickers or prints?
MB: First, there are a lot kids that actually enjoy the experience of placing stickers. There are a lot of kids that for them the highlight of the experience is the father builds and they place the stickers. With that in mind, we try to deliver for that as well. There are also consumers who are mainly adult fans who don’t like stickers and we know of that. When it comes to a character like Groot that came out a couple of years ago in the Guardian of the Galaxy line up in Marvel Superheroes.
We foresee that a lot of kids will walk around a lot with it in their hands which will see a lot of heavy play as compared to a car or a house. For those we have a principle that we will use printed elements and it has to do with the fact that we want the character to look right so that there is no chance of mistake. Also that the print will withstand better during play. Like if you bring it to the bathtub or take it to the swimming pool.
When it comes to generic bricks, we also believe in versatility and keeping that versatility alive. So if you put a print on a brick, that is going to limit the possibilities. With a sticker, it is up to you whether if that decoration is now going to limit the use of the brick. Also if i put that specific decoration on a 2×4 tile as a print but you wanted to use it on a 2×4 slope instead because it fits your model better, you cannot to do it.
But if it is a sticker, you can place it on another brick. Another consideration for using prints when there is a “double curve” on the element, like on a satellite dish, as stickers have proven not to adhere properly.
BF: What is your go-to (favourite) element?
MB: My favourite element is the jumper plate. The reason why I like it so much is that as a fan I love to build buildings, houses and stuff inspired by the modular buildings. The fact that I can put the window half a stud in, in a wall, it is awesome. It is what makes it for me in a building and the jumper plate allows me to do that.
There is the more poetic way to look at it is that the jumper plate is one of the primary elements that allows you to “step out of the basic grid” which breaks the expected way of building. The idea of thinking out of the box is very inspiring and expands the possibilities of building.
BF: How was the process like working on the LEGO Ideas Ecto-1?
MB: Brent submitted his LEGO Ideas project which got the 10,000 votes which was great and thanks to his effort of spreading the word, putting up a great model that convinced everyone that it should happen as a LEGO model. Then I got contacted within LEGO with a proposal of “would you be interested in developing this into a product?”. I was a big fan of Ghostbusters since I was a kid when I first watched the movie and I watched it many times. So when I first heard that we were tapping into that franchise I said “Yeah, defintiely I would love to be part of it!”.
I got pictures of Brent’s model to kind of see what was his starting point and what he promised to the voters because at the end of the day, the people were voting for his model as their LEGO version of Ecto-1. While I was trying to stay true to his model, I also felt that I had a responsibility to stay true to the references as much as I could.
Being a LEGO designer at the LEGO Headquarters, I have access to a much wider library of bricks than Brent had. I also had some building restrictions that Brent didn’t have when it comes to model stability. There are model building techniques that a LEGO fan might use but as a LEGO Designer we don’t use because we know that in the long run it will eventually damage the bricks. We stay away from those as they are called “illegal builds”.
With all that in mind, I had the task to create the best version of the car that I could possibly come up with. Due to the timing and the fact that Brent lived so far away from Denmark, there was not a lot of chance to actually collaborate. It was more like he did his submission then I took his work as inspiration and worked close to the references of the movie as well. We had a check in session later where I communicated with him with what I had done with the model, he agreed with it and was very happy with the final result.
BF: Are there any projects where the original LEGO Ideas Designers collaborated closely?
MB: We had for instance the Exo-Suit, the actual fan designer in our office, in our building area, with Mark Stafford working on the model. In that sense there was an actual collaboration which is great and it is the ideal scenario but unfortunately we don’t always get that chance.
BF: The Ghostbusters Ecto-1 is one of my all-time favourite sets and I tried to mod it to fit the fourth Ghostbuster in the car.
MB: You know when I did it, basically the fourth one was laying down in the back as that was the only way he could fit. Funny enough, what people voted for was a car that didn’t even fit ANY of the characters in it. As a LEGO fan myself, it was hard for me to deal with some of the comments. Like c’mon, you voted for something that didn’t even fit anybody inside! I went through the trouble of making the model strong enough for a kid to play with it on the carpet and still fit three characters sitting down and one laying down in the back and it is STILL not good enough! (laughs)
BF: How excited are you when working on all these IP projects?
MB: What I have been doing for the past few years is very very exciting as I get to work in IPs that are very much loved by me. I love superheroes as I was a huge superhero fan as a kid growing up. Not so much about the comics as there was not much of a comic culture where I come from. It was mainly watching cartoons and then watching them in the movies. I love X-men and watched all the movies. I grew up watching Simpsons, they are as old as I am.
On top of that, having early access to stuff that is so confidential, I felt like I was working for NASA! Like it was the most super secret project like landing on Mars or something. Friends would ask me what I’m working on and I’m like “I can’t tell you“. Regardless of whether I’m working on an IP or not, I can’t tell. Like my colleagues that are working on LEGO City can’t say what they are working on either. I have that extra layer of confidentiality because if something comes out, it is not only me that is in trouble the whole company is in trouble because we are dealing with an IP partner. We’re talking about companies like Disney, Marvel, Warner Bros.
One of my favourite parts of this job is the chance of reading scripts for movies that are coming out in two years. I would go online and read the speculation about which storyline is it going to have or which characters is going to show up and I’m thinking like “I know but I can’t say anything but I know!”.
BF: I know that each LEGO designer does include a couple of Easter Eggs into their builds. Could you share a few with us?
MB: (laughs) The Batman: Arkham Asylum Breakout (10937) was my first D2C set which came out in 2012. Since it was my first set, and as most D2C sets have five digits for their item number, I asked my superior if the set number could be “10937” because if you turn it upside down, it says “ㄥƐ60Ɩ” or “LEGO”. And if you check out the licence plate on the ambulance, it says “28 MB 89”. The number 28 is very special to me, the letter “MB” are my initials and the 89 is the year I was born in. The number 28 is something that I try to include in my designs every now and then. It does pop up in one of the Guardians of the Galaxy Vol.2 sets (Ayehsa’s Revenge – 76080) too. Another easter egg that is hidden under two tiles on the Helicarrier (76042) is a brick built Portuguese flag because that is where I’m from.
BF: What advice would you give to a kid who wants to to grow up to be a LEGO Designer?
MB: The most important thing I would say is NEVER stop building LEGO. I did the mistake of putting my LEGO bricks aside because I let myself believe that LEGO was not for me any more. That I was too old for it. That is BS. If you love to build with LEGO and if you want to build with LEGO, don’t let anybody convince you that you shouldn’t do it. That is ultimately what will make you the great builder that you should be in order to achieve this job.
I was fortunate enough to wake up from my “Dark Ages” in time to make my dream come true. Why waste time? Just keep building. Keep getting better. Keep developing your skill. If you can, study something that is relevant to the job which is should be something related to design. Anything to widen your skill set is an advantage for you. Just try, there is nothing to lose.
BF: Academics is emphasised in Singapore and creativity sometimes take a back seat although that mindset is changing.
MB: In Portugal, creativity was also left aside in my experience academically. It wasn’t the priority unfortunately. At least for the programs that are created by the government. Things have been changing the last few years for the better. There has been more opportunities for kids to be more creative, to use their skills in creative environments.
I wanted to be part of the theatre group. I wanted to be part of the art class that was extra curriculum. I wanted to write my own stuff, play with LEGO, draw. My dad is also very much into crafts and drawings and he inspired me to be involved in it. If there is something you love, you are the first one that can actually to do something about it. Don’t let the others push you away from it. I hear a lot of kids say that “others in school say that it’s a toy and that I shouldn’t be playing with it anymore“.
I faced bullying in school from being a bit different because I wanted to be in contact with art. I was a sensitive kid and I was interested in stuff that a lot of other boys were not interested in. I didn’t like to play football and in Portugal you know, if you don’t play football there is something wrong with you. But look, now I am happy, I’m doing something I love. I have my dream job. At the end of the day when you’re a grown up, those people are not going to be part of your life anyway.
They shouldn’t be defining who you want to be.
Well, there you have it. I know its a LOT to read and I applaud you for making it all the way to the end! Marcos is a really friendly and genuine person who truly has the love for the brick which is why I tried to keep most of the dialogue intact.
Thank you once again Marcos! It is a genuine pleasure to meet and have a chance to speak with you on such a variety of topics! Do come back to our tiny island soon! Boa viagem!
(I apologise in advance for any grammatical /spelling errors as I just spent the entire night transcribing everything and my vision is completely shot)