Initially conceived in fall 2011, I present to you one of my largest, most elaborate, and personal favorite iconic LEGO creations — The Fireflower Airship. This titanic brute spanned over a 6-foot folding table and contained over 10,000 LEGO bricks, and best of all had an illuminated stained-glass window in the ships cabin. For game accuracy of mimicking the appearance of being built out of wooden logs, I painstakingly developed a sophisticated design method of riveting panels onto an internal structure. This creation was also my first original LEGO model to have electronics incorporated in it: the crude circuit in the stained-glass window foreshadowed my skills of making illuminated LEGO lamps and trinkets.
“. . . The abundant starfighters and space combat in conjunction with my spiritual bond with Super Mario Bros. 3 caused a meltdown of ideas to go off in my head.”
October, 2011: I had recently launched a Tumblr blog in order to streamline my LEGO creations, rather than linking them on my homepage. Although I had obviously been a fan of LEGO for most of my life, it wasn’t until late 2011 that I wanted to take my creations seriously as an art form. At that point in time, most of my projects were simple, poorly-made, and thus lacked any major exposure. In an endless sea of internet nerd fandom, I didn’t want to be a faceless entity — I wanted to carve a niche within the LEGO community. The period of time from the tail end of summer 2011 to fall of that year I refer to as my Artistic Renaissance: this was a period in my life when I kicked my creative ventures into overdrive, following a dark era of inactivity and reclusiveness upon my relocation to New York only a year previously. This was a point in my life when I was painting more pictures, taking up photography, and most importantly — acquiring more LEGO pieces to make monumental builds. I then launched a Facebook fan page to showcase my work, but started off with a very minuscule following.
Feeling frustrated that I was taking lots of photos and building all sorts of projects with little or no feedback from friends/fans, I sat down and decided to make a name for myself by building something of great caliber — something that had never been done before, so that I’d be forever known as “that guy who built [insert project]”. I brainstormed about a bunch of aspects from my childhood, such as pipe dreams and failed creative ventures. I thought to myself, “I’m an adult now; I have a steady job, I have money, I have engineering abilities. Not to mention, LEGO group has come quite a long way since the 1990s, ergo anything I wanted to build as a child but was unable to, I can easily do now.” Just then, I thought back to my carefree days of 1993: while watching Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi on late night cable TV with my old babysitter, the abundant starfighters and space combat in conjunction with my spiritual bond with Super Mario Bros. 3 caused a meltdown of ideas to go off in my head. It was at that moment in the summer of 1993 at age 8 that I stayed up all night drawing pictures of Super Mario Bros. 3 airships and mini ships, with a fantasy in my head of building and piloting those ships in real life for air combat. I couldn’t sleep. The next year was tempered with a newly-found fascination for aircraft, as I also drew hundreds of pages of concept art to construct my own real-life versions of Super Mario Bros. 3 airships from wood and propellers — all in all disregarding flight dynamics and basic engineering. I didn’t care: in my head as a young boy I was genuinely convinced it was physically possible to construct real flying ships made of logs and propelled with rotors. I even took trips to lumber yards to get quotes on purchasing lumber, and started scrounging for logs to keep in the backyard for constructing the hull of my ship!
Due to various unforeseeable circumstances (namely the fact that a giant wooden ship with a few propellers on the back of it can’t fly), I scrapped this plan and carried on with my life. Now back in 2011, I smiled and said to myself, “God damn it, Julius: you can finally build that freakin’ ship — only smaller, non-flying, and from LEGO!” And thus, the conceptualizing for the Fireflower began. Unlike previous attempts at massive LEGO projects, I didn’t want to construct this one “organically” — as in, arbitrarily with no direction nor planning — rather since it’s an engineering feat, I decided best to map it out and plan the logistics of its design. I drew some concept art on grid paper, but deviated drastically and made my physical mockups to be completely different than planned. I had too many ideas racing in my head at the Fireflower’s early conception, which meant I was having a difficult time focusing and making solid ideas. I couldn’t decide if I wanted the ship to be 100% game accurate, or to be simply be inspired by the game with an original idea of my own. I wasn’t sure if I wanted to have minifigs and characters throughout the ship – like robots, Vikings, or the Village People as a sort of pop culture parody — or if I wanted to keep the ship completely Mario-meta. I chose the latter of both sets of ideas: creating a completely original design inspired by the ships in the game (but not based on an actual Mario 3 airship), and cutting out any pop culture references to keep the whole project within the Super Mario universe. I then acquired hundreds of reddish brown wooden log LEGO bricks to start making an early mockup of the ship — some were bought from Bricklink.com, others from the Rockefeller Center LEGO Store in late October 2011. I developed a design method of weaving the pieces together to wrap around in the shape of ship, but unfortunately this particular design was much too flimsy and had weak structure.
These following images were of of the initial Mk.I version of the ship from late October 2011, when it was much smaller, flimsy, and poorly-designed. This initial concept took about two weeks to build, but wasn’t worked on consistently: I was working like a maniac at my day job (Tzumi) and was thus super stressed out. In addition, this was during a period in my life when I was very social and was regularly attending burlesque shows in Manhattan, which was interfering with my creative time. After constructing this basic design, I tore it apart and developed the sturdier method of using an internal structure with riveted side panels:
I decided best to make a new version with an internal rigid skeleton, with the wooden panels riveted on the sides. As you know, in the games the airships look as if they’re constructed from horizontal logs stacked on top of each other, like log cabins; the LEGO logs have the studs facing upwards in traditional fashion. In order to have the studs facing sideways — to mimic the appearance of horizontal logs — I had to make panels of the LEGO logs and somehow rivet them to the internal structure. What seemed easy in theory was rather difficult in execution.
“. . . Somehow while I was heavily inebriated, I figured out how to build a successful mockup for my airship.”
I spent an entire week or so trying to develop a system for having the panels riveted onto the structure, with only failed results in design and engineering. One of the biggest issues was the mismatch of sizes when having a sideways panel attached to a structure with its studs facing upwards. On one particular night in late November 2011, I stayed up late and drank heavily while fiddling with various configurations of Technic pieces and regular LEGO bricks to make a solid mockup to base the ship’s design off. Rather than using my attic spare room (which is currently my LEGO workshop), I worked on this mockup on my computer desk in my bedroom. I put on one of my classic rock playlists and continued pressing little plastic bricks together whilst chugging alcohol. Throughout the night I was getting increasingly frustrated at my constant failed attempts to engineer a sturdy design; all in all I drank an entire case of beer, a bottle of Kosher wine, and finally a can of Four Loko. By the time I reached the four Loko I was drunk as hell and only managed to drink about half the can before I remember seeing a bunch of colors and spinning around, right before I blacked out. I woke up momentarily at I believe 5 AM and got up off the ground to vomit in my trashcan. I could hear Neil Young’s “Hawks & Doves” playing on my computer. I stumbled over to my bed and found a pile of LEGO pieces scattered about — and in the middle was a crude little structure containing LEGO pieces facing upwards with a sideways panel securely attached via Technic pins. In other words, somehow while I was heavily inebriated, I figured out how to build a successful mockup for my airship. To this day, I still don’t know how I did it — but I did it. I cleared the pieces off and took a nap until around 2 PM.
Once I sobered up and recovered, I examined the crude mockup to see exactly how I pulled it off. On the corners of each panel is a Technic brick, and the internal structure has corresponding Technic bricks to be connected with pins. This fashion was used in early failed tests — however in this final version, I figured out a tiny error that was causing problems. As I mentioned previously, when having sideways panels attached to the structure, the holes of the Technic bricks don’t like up — they’re slightly off by a tiny fraction of an inch. To have the holes line up, the panels would need exactly the precise configuration of wooden log LEGO bricks, flat plates, and Technic bricks in locations that would align perfectly with the internal structure. Any slight changes to the configuration of the plates or bricks would result in the holes not aligning. My earlier mockups essentially used this general idea/design — but while intoxicated, I simply figured out the exact configuration and placement of the plates and bricks to align securely. Normally I don’t condone excessive consumption of alcohol (especially to you younger LEGO fans), but if you’re over 21 and struggling to come up a plausible design for one of your elaborate LEGO builds — just go to 7-Eleven and pick up some six-packs to guide you on your journey.
Now in the final week of November 2011, I finally had a completely usable method of building the bulk of the ship. I purchased several dozen large lots of pieces of Bricklink.com, mainly 1×2 and 1×4 reddish brown log bricks, in addition to 2×2 reddish brown round bricks — all by the hundreds. After lots of sorting and counting, I broke ground for the Mk.II Fireflower Airship. Progressively throughout the next weeks into December, I’d spend every available minute working on the ship in various segments. Since I greatly underestimated the exact number of pieces required to build the project, I’d have to constantly deal with parts shortages and delays whilst awaiting new pieces to arrive in the mail from Bricklink.com. To make efficient usage of my time, I’d construct only segments of the ship based on the pieces I had to use — hence I didn’t just start with the bow and end with the stern, I made half of the bow, 1/4 of the stern, and used whatever leftover to make mini ships. Around this time I had big hopes of showcasing this ship at an exhibit in Manhattan, so during its construction I’d often Tweet about how I want to unveil the final project at a gallery at the start of the new year. Just a little side note: although I never showcased the Fireflower at an actual gallery, I did eventually exhibit some of the mini ships at my store display for Nintendo World Store one year later.
Work-in-progress photos of the Mk.II design with the riveted panels and cross section of the command bridge. Also shown: early stages of the tiled walls for the ship’s rear cabin:
Early construction of the ship’s stern, when the stained-glass window wasn’t ready, but the inner cabin contained the mosaic walls.
When making this ship, so many ideas were racing through my head as I neared completion. I wanted the rear cabin to contain a stained-glass window, which would be illuminated with a battery box and a small light bulb. I also attempted to come with a system of playing audio in the ship (such as the Super Mario Bros. 3 airship theme) via a hacked-apart MP3 player with mini speakers. I ultimately scrapped the music player idea when due to time constraints, but as the for the electrical portion, this would be my foray into the world of incorporating electronics into LEGO models. During downtime of making the bulk of this ship, I started tinkering with batteries, wires, and light bulbs to construct crude proto-circuits for the ship’s stained-glass illumination. At this point in my engineering savvy (early December 2011) I didn’t know much about electronics, let alone how to solder; my final circuit for the ship’s electronics was merely a tiny 6V flashlight bulb rigged up to a 9V battery kept in a box made of Technic pieces. The switch for the circuit was snaked through Technic bricks and exposed on the roof of the ship’s cabin. While trying to come up with a method for an efficient but bright light bulb, I ran back and forth to Home Depot, Radio Shack, and various Chinese lighting stores just to find obscure parts and bulb types. In retrospect, this could have easily been done with a few little LEDs and a small circuit — using my current skills with electronics.
Although the side panels are made of 1×2 and 1×4 log bricks, the roofs were made of flat panels of 2×2 round bricks to also mimic the appearance of wooden logs from the games. Since these bricks were heavier and more prone to breakage, inside each log was a long Technic axle (or two) — almost like the LEGO equivalent of rebar. It seems as if my high school shop class days paid off. Within December 2011, I’d gradually make some revisions here and there as soon as sufficient parts arrived. During the rest of the month, while experiencing downtime as I awaited parts, I’d work on supplementary LEGO-Nintendo projects. Notably I built a wonky little statue of Ludwig von Koopa, and also around this time in mid-December I had the ingenious idea of the LEGOformers. Essentially, when I anticipated and intended on showing off this massive ship at a gallery in New York, I decided it was silly to have the ship by itself — and that I needed dozens of Nintendo-related LEGO models to surround it on a table, like at a convention. I was originally going to build all seven of the Koopalings and have them surrounding the ship on display, but instead stopped upon making Ludwig. Instead, I built a fleet of Koopa Troopas about the size of minifigures and intended to place them amongst the ship’s components — which I also scrapped, but kept the Koopa Troopas themselves for other projects.
As for the LEGOformers: I wanted to amplify the geekiness of the Fireflower by including with it something that was so utter fanboyish, that I’d more than stake my claim in the nerd kingdom. While brainstorming one day at work during a boring meeting, my mind wandered and naturally I started thinking about Transformers. I thought about those unpopular Star Wars/Transformers crossover figures from the mid-2000s (which kicked ass, by the way), and how cool it would be for a likewise Nintendo version of those figures. In doing so, I came up with the ideas for Plasmashock (Zapper) and Domaster (Game Boy) to originally be guardians of the completed ship when unveiled. Although I completed both robots around the time the Fireflower was released on the internet, I kept all projects separate from each other in their own respect.
“It seems as if my high school shop class days paid off.”
By the time the ship became too big to build on my computer desk, I moved the major sections to the table in my attic workshop.
The bow and stern of the ship. Shown in the picture if the 9V battery used for the stained-glass window.
The inner cabin featuring “classical artwork” for mosaic walls.
The completed stained-glass window of a fire flower sprite.
All of the reinforcement of the stern made it rather heavy, thus it was difficult attaching stanchions on the bottom to keep it suspended. LEGO bricks may appear small and light, but can acquire excess weight when stacked together in great volumes. The ship’s stern was even hollow, too, as its cabin and command bridge were accessible via doors: the command bridge had a trap door on the roof, and the back of the stern had two barn doors as a deck for launching miniature aircraft. The door on the roof of the cabin had a hollow warp pipe on it for accessing the insides of the cabin, and even had the chain barriers around it for game accuracy!
Progressively throughout December, I continued making components for the middle of the ship, such as the mini ships broken up and non-attached, as in later airship levels in Super Mario Bros. 3. To create the illusion of the ship hovering off the ground, I’d have each major section of the ship suspended by transparent stanchions made of clear LEGO bricks and slopes. Some of the larger portions needed thicker stanchions, and since the stern was so heavy, attaching the stanchions accurately nearly caused it fall over and break. To successfully attach them to the stern, I actually “jacked it up” by placing it atop a pile of books and slid the stanchions underneath it.
In these work-in-progress photos, I took some publicity shots for Facebook and Tumblr by placing my custom Mario and Luigi minifigures at various spots on the ship in order to jokingly tell my fans I used independent contractors to assist me. As December drew to a close — after Christmas — I made the final touches to the ship, such as the Bullet Bill cannons, yellow cargo crates, and other assorted tweaks to maintain specific game-accuracy.
Although most of the ship was completed just after the new year in 2012, it was still looking a bit bare and needed some more components. I ordered hundreds more log bricks to make extensions on the ship’s bow, and also to have some unnecessary decks above the middle section — just like in the game. In some of the later photos in this section, you’ll see how I placed Koopa Troopas throughout the ship as crew members. As you can clearly tell, it makes it look way too cluttered, ergo I removed them for the final photo shoot.
I placed transparent flames in the jet engines like in the game as well, and even used transparent red, orange, and yellow pieces to create the effect of a Bullet Bill being launched from the cannons! Albeit, in the game, the ships’ cannons usually just launched generic round black cannonballs. Oh well. Since there was lots of downtime as I awaited the final packages of remaining parts — some of which taking several weeks to get to my house — I used available time to break ground for my LEGOformers Plasmashock and Domaster with the intention of releasing them side-by-side. Also I was seriously looking forward to showcasing several dozen Nintendo-LEGO creations at an exhibit in Manhattan, hence a lot of my social media posts around this time were buzzing about my plans for a gallery. In my head, I envisioned a large table with the ship as the grand centerpiece, accompanied by various models such as the LEGOformers, the mini Koopas, and an illuminated mosaic Mario lamp. The Mario lamp was built in the final days of the Fireflower’s construction, using leftover parts; it was originally intended to go on display with the ship in the planned exhibit, but since the gallery never occurred I simply sold it to a coworker in early 2013.
February was now approaching, and although the ship was essentially completed, I held back its photo shoot in release due to my desire of constantly ordering pieces for making additions — additions that I’d eventually scrap anyway, such as the mini Koopas. I addition to the unnecessary revisions, I also came up with a half-assed matte backdrop idea for the photo shoot. Long story short, moments before the shoot I ultimately designed a huge sprite mural in Illustrator and Photoshop, used the slice tool to chop it up in sections, had all several dozen sections printed on glossy paper, then decoupaged each sheet to a large panel of foam board that I glued together. This mural was wonky and didn’t match up with the ship, ergo I never used it, and instead used a really cheap method of hanging a white bedsheet behind the ship on its display table.
At this point in history, I wasn’t skilled enough to shoot photos with a DSLR camera, and although I owned a decent Sony Cybershot at the time, I wanted professional photos for this project. This wasn’t some little throwaway project for Tumblr, this was a major creation that costs all sorts of cash monies and man hours, thus I specifically intended on it being picked up and published in various media. That being said, I needed to hire a professional photographer to get good shots of the project, as well as of publicity images of me for if/when it gets published. Most of the burlesque photographers I knew of were booked solid for next weeks, which meant my only choice was to contact a girl I knew from Twitter — to whom recently mentioned she owned a DSLR and wanted to expand her portfolio. Her name was Roz, and from New Jersey, but wouldn’t be able to visit my place for the photo shoot until about some time in mid February. During the next weeks, I completed Plasmashock and took the photos for an internet release in early February. Shortly thereafter, my transforming Zapper was showcased on various online publications with positive reaction amongst nerds: this helped encourage me to have confidence in releasing epic creations, and also foreshadowed the tremendous feedback I’d eventually get from the Fireflower towards the end of the month. In the days leading up to Roz’s photo shoot, I made major progress with Domaster as well — although he’d be released later on in March.
On Saturday February 18th, 2012 in the evening I invited Roz to my house to take the photos of the ship. The photo session started off a bit sluggish, as we had to use my cheap Home Depot clamp lights, as neither of us owned any professional lighting equipment. The shoot also took a little longer than expected due to the mini ships being rickety and constantly falling over. Towards the end — as we shot photos of the inside of the cabin — the cabin roof snapped off suddenly when its support beam came loose. The violent jerk tore off the entire roof along with the whole left side of the stern, which also smashed the warp pipe and the light circuits. At this point, we didn’t shoot pictures of the illuminated stained-glass window just yet, so I had to quickly rig up the battery wired to the light bulb and prop it up in front of the fire flower window, to shoot a photo in the dark of the stained-glass being illuminated. After hours of processing the raw photos, I compiled them into a huge Tumblr post, and launched it on a Sunday morning.
To be honest, the initial reaction (like most of my monumental creations) was rather lukewarm at first — until I had to go out of my way to “sell myself.” I didn’t want to message some famous people on social media to ask them to re-post it for me, rather I tracked down some nerd culture sites and sent it directly to them for their submissions section. One of the Twitter accounts I followed — CNN Geekout — replied back to one of my Tweets and arranged an interview via e-mail. A few days later at the end of February, they published a huge article about my epic airship on their site as well as the regular CNN site! Although gaining traction (notably on Kotaku), I knew the airship needed some more acclaim and exposure: doing so would give me extra confidence in holding my own art gallery. After all, if no one liked the damn ship in the first place, what logical point would there be in wasting money for art gallery that no one would attend, anyway?
Now that March had approached, I was nearing the home stretch with Domaster’s completion. After working out the final tweaks of my transforming LEGO Game Boy, I unveiled it online in early March, and before the middle of the month, it was immediately getting published on multiple esteemed media sources and generating a lot of buzz — this buzz certainly helped bring attention to my recently-created but overshadowed airship! Now that lots of new people were drawn to my site and social media outlets as a result of Domaster, they were also taking notice of the Fireflower. With both the popularity of the LEGOformers and the Fireflower, I was soon contacted by Nintendo Power and offered to do an interview about video game fan art! The next is history: as many of you know, I was eventually given a two-page feature in one of the final issues of Nintendo Power in May 2012. . .
As a young boy with many strange dreams of building replica Super Mario aircraft, I could never seem to make my ships fly — but now as an adult, I accomplished my mission of getting my airships to “take off” and launch from the ground.
-Baron von Brunk