Jeff Friesen, Photographer and Author, "The LEGO Engineer"
21st September, 2023
The podcast episode features Jeff Friesen, an award-winning photographer, author, LEGO artist, and creator of miniature worlds.
Jeff's work has received recognition in the photography world, including an Award of Excellence from Communication Arts, and his LEGO art has garnered international attention.
The interview explores Jeff's journey into the world of LEGO art, his creative process, and his book, "The LEGO Engineer."
Key Topics and Quotes
Inspiration for LEGO Engineering
Jeff's interest in LEGO engineering stemmed from his desire to understand complex engineering concepts and make them accessible to a general audience.
Jeff: "If someone could explain to me how an airplane flies in a way that I, as a layperson with no engineering background, could understand, then it would be valuable to others too."
Balancing Aesthetics with Engineering
Jeff's LEGO creations not only focus on aesthetics but also delve into the engineering principles behind each model.
Jeff emphasizes the importance of combining beauty with functionality in LEGO creations, mirroring real-world engineering challenges.
Iterative Process and Problem-Solving
Building with LEGO is akin to solving a puzzle, and the process involves constant problem-solving.
Jeff describes the iterative nature of LEGO building and the satisfaction of overcoming challenges: "You're always limited by the shape of the bricks, so you have to think creatively to deal with these limitations."
Publishing "The LEGO Engineer"
Jeff's book, "The LEGO Engineer," focuses on explaining engineering concepts through LEGO creations.
He highlights the collaborative process with his publisher, No Starch Press, and the importance of proving oneself through previous publications.
Jeff mentions the challenge of combining technical and aesthetic aspects in the book's design.
Advice for Creative Practitioners
Jeff advises creatives to continually refine their work, even when they believe it's complete, and to focus on personal projects.
He emphasizes the potential of personal projects as gateways to larger opportunities, highlighting that his LEGO journey began with playing with his daughter.
The interview with Jeff Friesen showcases the intersection of art and engineering in LEGO creations. Jeff's dedication to making complex engineering concepts accessible to a broader audience offers valuable insights for creative practitioners. His iterative process and commitment to personal projects underscore the importance of persistence and continuous improvement in creative endeavors.
I've been wanting to explore this area of LEGO art. And then just in our last episode, I interviewed Bill Hammack, the engineer guy, and author of The Way, The Way Things Work. And what I saw in your review, that this is art... And photography combined with the way it works your book, the Lego engineer is not just beautiful in terms of these Lego models, but you actually break down how the stuff works.
Oh, thank you. Yes. So what [:
those. Thank you. It's actually because I have no aptitude for engineering and I thought if someone could explain to me how an airplane flies, if they can make it clear to me who has no aptitude, then this would be a valuable thing for the general public.
So I decided to explain to others, in my words, how an airplane flies, like me as a lay person who mostly deals with aesthetics and nothing technical.
Yes. The aesthetics are gorgeous and right on the surface, the photography and the modeling and the design of the book is outstanding. And I was thinking about, the inspiration.
Was this a photography inspiration? Some of the, some of these models have colors I haven't seen in Legos.
r between just the art of it [:
I'm interested in the engineering because I don't have an aptitude for it, so I decided to explore engineering through LEGO, but keeping my ingrained sense of aesthetics that comes from being a photographer.
And the inspiration behind things like the cities and the travel, there's ships, there's rockets, there's skyscrapers and cranes. What was your inspiration behind some of these
models? So I take inspiration from a lot of sources and never concentrate on one source. I just fill my head with animation, movies, graphic novels, you name it.
But I try not to take too much inspiration from any one thing. And I just put it all in my mind and hopefully something good comes out.
m and so forth, where you've [:
You went one step further. You gave us the whole book.
Yes. People often want instructions for a whole city. That would take about 500 pages and my publisher would not be interested in it. So there are bits and pieces of the city and people can construct their own city with the pieces I have given them.
It's modular, just as Lego itself.
Yes. And right in the introduction, you get into the engineering of the Lego, of the brick, how it's made. That must have been a fascinating piece of research.
Yes, I often wonder about the engineering of Lego, because people often say to me, Oh, you should just 3D print your own bricks.
at you had that were made in [:
Like I assume all the rest of those toys are in the landfill somewhere. The Lego is still fine. It's incredible. So interesting.
And I guess we've all had that experience either at the Lego store, these traveling exhibits where you look at these, three story tall Lego models and you say, how in the world, how, who did this, what kind of mind can stay at it?
How long did it take? You must get a lot of these kinds of questions about your work.
Yes. One thing about Lego that is rare in the. Creative processes that you can't really get into a flow because you're always solving a problem. You're always limited by the shape of the bricks. So it is more like solving a puzzle.
ry limited. And I think that [:
And in your work, the look isn't the only thing.
In other words, just like a bridge has to have the infrastructure to make it work. You couldn't just say it looks great. I don't know if it works or not. You were really focused on, does it work?
Yes. And this has a parallel in real world engineering or architecture where you have to deal with budget constraints, material constraints the laws of physics.
So there is a parallel between building Lego and real world engineering and architecture. Yes.
And the problem solving that you mentioned.
And the problem solving, exactly.
I love the illustration of the sagging, bridge. It's we can't have a sagging
bridge. Yes. Yeah. And the qualities of Lego are, of course, different than the qualities of cement, but they have their own set of limitations that have to be worked with.
ing I don't... No, go ahead. [:
Yes. And this all began Jeff in photography. And how did you then become to see these models? As photography what subjects?
It's interesting when my daughter was young, I was teaching her how to photograph her Lego creations using my studio. And then I thought, Oh, I'll throw my own creations in there as well. And I thought, Oh, these look pretty good. Actually. Maybe I'll put them on the internet and I did that. And then it blew up.
So it really fell backwards into it. If I, if my daughter. Wasn't playing with Lego. I probably wouldn't be doing this right now.
blow up, to say awards, from [:
For creation of the year from the Brothers Brick, even featured in the LEGO Group official channels. What does it take? There's a lot of great models and worlds out there. What does it take to get on LEGO's radar?
I think ultimately there are a lot of talented builders out there.
I think it's very important to just Work a little bit harder, or when I think something is done, I'll photograph it and then I'll often spend another day fixing that up. The thing I thought was already perfect, I will challenge my view on that and change it. So I think it's just the extra little bit of work.
ng. This is my philosophy on [:
So that works. That's how it works with my Lego as well.
That's right. And that's why we creatives are often late to dinner, late to the theater staying up too late. Because it is that one more thing, right?
Yeah sure. I'm a photographer, so now that everybody has a high resolution camera in their pocket it's, it's a challenge.
Yes. I can
guarantee folks, when you go to Jeff's website, jeffreason. art you'll see photos that you won't be taking with that thing in your pocket. They're gorgeous. I also was thinking about the other scenes and worlds and, models and so forth and subjects that you've done, Jeff. And that is things like the train across Canada.
That's things like a re reenactment of artwork from Banksy, things like this again. What were some of the inspirations behind
. I like things in miniature [:
But there was so much magic in this little train going around and as an adult, I thought, Oh, I should take a little train and just bring it across Canada because when you have a train that's only two inches high, the whole scenery of Canada is viewed in a different way rather than the usual grand landscapes that Canada is famous for.
I focused closer to the ground so you get a new view. of the landscape. I'd like to do the same thing for the United States, by the way. I'm not sure when I'll have the time, but it's on my mind. First we have
to find a train that'll go across the United States. I'm not sure
where it's connected.
There isn't one, but I like this California Zephyr train from Chicago to Los Angeles. I think that might be a good
do a double take on some of [:
Yeah, it's interesting when I saw that train. I'm not sure where I first saw it on the internet, but I thought, oh, I need this train. And, but that train is very expensive, right? This is a custom model train builder. So I got ahold of them and they were kind enough to give me the train wholesale.
Yes. Yeah. Let's talk a little bit, Jeff, if we could, about the actual creation of the book. The Lego engineer, how did you begin to, convert some of these, Hey, these are interests. These are some great cities, great worlds. I think I'll put this into a book. I'll think I'll really drill down on how many of this piece and how many of that piece and the real instruction part of it.
That's a lot [:
So it's just, it's a challenge and often I'm just sitting there. staring at a pile of Lego bricks, hoping for some kind of inspiration. And this staring is an important part of the work. Actually, it looks like I'm doing nothing but eventually and, I'll start putting bricks together and it's actually, I will say it's a fairly frustrating process.
ke being frustrated so much. [:
Yes. And I think of authors, of just typical, maybe novels or nonfiction books that go through the various drafts.
But it all starts with the pitch. Yes. How did you begin to pitch? And I should say the book is from no starch books who published these kinds of very engineering, but very artistic kinds of books. How was the connection with them?
No starch is an excellent publisher. They have a lot of technical books.
They also have Lego books. This seemed the perfect fit. It hadn't been done before. People usually associate Lego with architecture, but many of the most popular sets actually feature engineering, the international space station, Saturn five rocket, et cetera. So I just thought, Oh, there's no, there, this hasn't been done before.
ration, the book. How things [:
And I guess again, drilling down on some of the specifics and technicalities.
Did you show them a layout, a concept spread or two? Did you show them a draft of here's the kind of feel that I'm looking for?
So I've published three books with them. So I didn't really have to prove that I could make the book. I did make the cover. Sometimes things are just better expressed in a picture than words.
r second book is quite a bit [:
Yes. And we always think in this show about the individual creator. But of course, nothing happens with just one person. Maybe you can contribute the idea of other collaborators, either from, the publisher or from other people who might have contributed ideas and research or something to the book.
Most of the research was done online, so I'm grateful to you. anyone who ever edits Wikipedia or people are so generous online, with explanations of how things work. The way I research engineering is the same way that I make a recipe. I don't use one recipe. I will look for 20 recipes and I will average them out.
o anyone, but I, I certainly [:
With the writing, I do need some editing, so I get help with that. I'm not really a professional writer, but photography and design is really in my wheelhouse. I don't think they've ever asked for any change.
There were two parts of the writing craftsmanship that I noted, it's a gorgeous book, but it's not just gorgeous in that you have a whole page of references and, as you mentioned The research behind it.
I also in the acknowledgements noted that you said they're not afraid of semicolons, which I think was very useful.
Yeah. I just don't understand the semicolon. So I just avoid them completely. It looks like, is there a good explanation for where do they go? Yes,
I probably over you. I'm a dash guy.
the dash. I love the dash. [:
Let's talk about what else you're working on listeners as an audio podcast, you don't always get a glimpse into the actual studio of my guests. But here, you wouldn't be surprised to know that behind Jeff is a whole workshop of Lego pieces instructions, lots of, is that like hundreds of drawers of bricks?
Yes. It's awful. It's awful. Every new piece takes up a little space in my mind. And now I don't know how to tie my shoes because new information knocks out old information.
So what's a brewing in that workshop
lly do is have an exhibition [:
So I am building up a collection of cities and I plan on getting them exhibited. I'm not sure where this will land but I'm building the cities and hopefully someone wants to exhibit them. Very
nice. And what insights and advice would you have? We have creative listeners in all sorts of crafts from photography to maybe this kind of physical sculpture, and other forms of art.
And of course, those who want to publish a book. What insights from your experience would you have for them?
My first insight is to keep working when you think it's done, question whether what you have made is actually done, even if you're sure it's done, just try and improve it a little bit more. And I'm sure something good will come out of that.
sure anything is ever done. [:
Otherwise no one's going to see it, right? Yes. Eventually
the publisher says I'm going to need that by Thursday.
Yes, exactly. Exactly. Exactly. And these started out as personal projects. So People should focus, creatives should focus on their personal projects. It's often personal projects are the are the gateway to something bigger even if they don't seem that way at the time.
Remember this came from playing with my daughter, that's right. You never know where it's going to take us. You never know what's going to happen. Yes.
I'll put all your connections in the show notes, but folks, it's website is jefffriesen. art, but a terrific Instagram at jeff underscore works.
alled the Lego engineer from [:
work. Thank you so much, Mark. And I hope you enjoy the rest of the summer.
Yeah, certainly will. And listeners come back. We're continuing our around the world journey, talking with creative practitioners of all kinds in all places about how they get inspired and organize their work.
And as we've heard today, how to gain the confidence and the connections to hit that send button and get our work out into the world. And we appreciate Jeff's insights and experience on that. So come back again next time. And until then, I'm Mark Stinson and we're unlocking your world of creativity. Bye for now.
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