25 March 2020

21322 Pirates of Barracuda Bay: Designer interview with Milan Madge & Austin William Carlson

The next LEGO® Ideas set, 21322 Pirates of Barracuda Bay, seems to be dividing opinion in the community. Regardless, you will be interested to hear what its designers, Milan Madge (set) and Austin William Carlson (graphics and minifigures) have to say about their adaptation of Pablo Jiménez's original design. And for this exclusive interview they've also shared the seven prototypes showing the model's development!


The first thing many people will say is that the final product diverges significantly from the original fan model. How did you come to the decision to make these changes, and was there much input from the fan designer?

Milan: The first step was building the fan designer Pablo’s model, but it became obvious early on that I was missing a lot of elements. Many of the pieces have been out of production for some time, so we had to get creative. The biggest hurdle was the raised baseplate, which meant a total redesign of the structure of the model, but even tiny changes such as the new boat hulls being wider than the ones in Pablo’s submission meant that all the proportions needed altering – a real headache!
Original fan design © 2019 by Pablo Jiménez (Bricky_Brick)
But I assume not all of the changes made were because of element availability? 

Milan: There’s a reason for every change, some - like the theming - are on an emotional design level, others are for more physical building reasons. Translating a digital build into the real world is always a challenge! I know some people may miss features such as the paneling and the back walls, but there are always trade-offs and these might not deliver the building experience we want, or might add a huge amount of cost which means we can’t deliver on something else. It’s a balancing act for sure!

The first sketch model of what became 21322 Pirates of Barracuda Bay. ©2020 The LEGO Group
The second sketch model of what became 21322 Pirates of Barracuda Bay. ©2020 The LEGO Group
What would you say are the major differences between his and your versions?

Milan: I’d say that the major difference is the theming of ‘classic’ LEGO Pirates. For me, it’s always really important to get the fan designer involved and, in chatting with Pablo, it was really clear that for him this wasn’t just a love of LEGO or of Pirates; this theme and this model represented his childhood and his relationship with his dad. It reminded me of my own experience with LEGO and as we made the first prototype, it became clear that the story was the same for so many people in the design team. We really wanted to capture those childhood memories that turned many of us into AFOLs – that’s where the classic Pirates theming came in. I made a very rough sketch model of Pirates of Barracuda Bay and called Pablo - he loved it.

The third prototype model of 21322 Pirates of Barracuda Bay. ©2020 The LEGO Group
The fourth prototype model of 21322 Pirates of Barracuda Bay. ©2020 The LEGO Group
While developing the set did you consult with any of the original Pirates designers who still work at The LEGO Group?

Milan: Niels Milan Pedersen, designer of the Black Seas Barracuda, sat only a few meters away from our desks - we made sure to talk to him about the 1989 launch to get some inspiration. He’s an incredible designer with an amazing portfolio of LEGO sets! And although you may not know it, we also turned to the fan community. We dug through the LEGO archives to take the stories from the back of the original boxes, the comics, the books, and the video games – to add another chapter in Redbeard’s story. However, all the LEGO lore, the websites, forums and discussions in the AFOL community also really brought this to life.

The fifth prototype model of 21322 Pirates of Barracuda Bay. ©2020 The LEGO Group
The sixth development model of 21322 Pirates of Barracuda Bay. ©2020 The LEGO Group
Did you browse forums and other online communities to see what fans wanted from the sets, and include such elements?

Milan: Absolutely, I took on every comment I could find and made sure to include everything I could. Not all were possible, but we managed many. The fan community was hugely helpful in creating the stories for the characters. We really wanted this to be a continuation of the LEGO Pirates story, so characters like Anne from the Golden Medallion comic could reappear. Others like Spinoza or Bo’sun Will are off on their own adventures, so aren’t included in this set. Maybe the fan community can inspire the next chapter in their story, too.

The seventh development model of 21322 Pirates of Barracuda Bay. ©2020 The LEGO Group

Indeed, this set is clearly heavily inspired by 6285 Black Seas Barracuda and we spotted many homages to old elements such as the shape built above the windows which references part 4088 decorative brick 1x4 – but which is your favourite? Are there homages to other old Pirates sets included?


Milan: You’re right, and some are pretty overt like the colour scheme or Enchanted Island statue; others are more subtle. The 4088 decorative brick is a really fun example of how the LEGO System has evolved. In terms of homages to old pirate sets, it’s very hard to say as there are so many. I think my absolute favourite isn’t an element or specific build at all, but the whole building experience. I was working on the base of this model with Carl Merriam, and we decided that the contemporary style of building large LEGO models was simply not working here. This model shouldn’t just look like classic LEGO Pirates, it should also feel like it. We really tried to ensure that as much of the build as possible was basic LEGO bricks with lots of little stories and accessories, and every piece you put down tells the story of the island, the coral reefs, the structures built by castaways. For me, it was important that the whole build was a process that reminded you of how LEGO was when you were a kid.


Similarly, the decorations and minifigures clearly reference classic Pirates sets. Austin, we got the reference to the sign from 6067 Guarded Inn but to whom does the name of the tavern, “Jose’s Inn”, refer to?

Austin: Jose is Pablo’s father in real life. Jose got Pablo into LEGO and one of their favorite lines to play with was the Pirates one. We wanted to honor him by placing his name on the sign. I love the personal story to this element as I know there’s plenty of other fans out there who also share fond memories of parents and loved ones playing LEGO with them while growing up.

Were there any challenges with designing these new minifigures?

Austin: Oh yes! I think the biggest challenge was living up to my own childhood memories of these characters. Haha, it was energizing though! I loved it, especially working on Redbeard’s design. I hope I did it justice and that fans will like the new look.





Which is more fun for you Austin: creating new graphics or redesigning ‘classic’ ones and giving them a fresh look?

Austin: It’s usually both for me, as long as they are original LEGO characters. There’s so many classic characters that I grew up with that I have been given a chance to give an updated look! Like Rocket Racer, Fright Knight, Johnny Thunder (he should have his original hat though), and some others I can’t currently talk about. I do love making original designs also, some of my current favorites are in the LEGO City Adventures TV show.


We know that each project is assigned a number of ‘frames’ which are what designers use for new elements, be they printed parts or recolours. By our reckoning, you used 12 of your frames to recolour elements for this set – but perhaps some already existed in other sets we’ve not yet seen?

Milan: It was actually much lower than that which made this a real challenge and no doubt influenced some of the changes we talked about earlier. Austin and I had to beg, borrow and steal in order to make it work – true pirates! Some, like the black barrel were generous ‘donations’ from friends and colleagues. Others were very much needed – I can tell you that the Black Seas Barracuda loses a lot of its pirate appeal with a Vibrant Coral hull.



Do you have a favourite recolour in this set?

Milan: I think my favourite is the rigging [new in Sand Yellow/ Dark Tan]. This element has not been in many colours and was ‘old’ brown in the original, so to get it in a suitable colour is great for ship builders!


The technique of the ladders on the ship’s sides works very well. Did you calculate to make sure it fitted or was it just trial and error?

Milan: That’s calculated, as are all the angles in the model. It works using ‘similar triangles’, a really fun technique that can add a lot to a model. I sit next to Mike Psiaki at work, which means there are a lot of triangles in the area!



Which technique in this set are you especially proud of, and which was the hardest to come up with?

Milan: Definitely the stern, or Captain’s cabin. The angles in this are so fun. When we first started on this problem it seemed impossible - finding a spot where several angled surfaces would all meet in the LEGO System. It was particularly fun because there were three of us working on the problem together: Mike Psiaki, Carl Merriam and myself. You start by bouncing ideas off each other, yelling over each other with solutions (not always better solutions), and before long you are all struggling to build on one model and it’s just getting better and better and you end up with an incredibly refined solution that no one person could have thought of on their own. In the final cabin there are ball joints, hinge plates, clips, upside-down builds - it’s madness!


When I saw the retro box packaging I instantly melted into my childhood! Can you talk us through its design development?

Milan: Sam [Johnson], our creative lead, sent me to find a brand-new-in-box 6285 Black Seas Barracuda. It took some hunting to get one, but we managed it. He placed it on the table in front of our packaging team and said “That, please”.

Okay, that was simpler than I expected!

Milan: What we really wanted to do here is translate Pablo’s experience with LEGO Pirates, our experience, and probably the experience of a lot of fans out there into a contemporary LEGO set. Redbeard was such a huge character for many LEGO kids that grew up in the 1990s, and this model was really to be a continuation of his story. It seemed fitting to get the packaging right.

So you were a Pirates fan in childhood? Did you actually work on any previous Pirates sets?

Milan: I have never worked on a pirates set before, but I have the all the 1989 sets at home! I spent hours as a kid building huge layouts, fortresses for the imperials, island hideouts for the pirates. So for me, this was a dream come true.

LEGO Designer Milan Madge's childhood imperial base



Did you also use existing pirate-related works of fiction (like R. L. Stevenson's Treasure Island, the PotC movies, or even One Piece) as an inspiration or to get in the mood to work on the project?

Milan: When working on a model I really like to get stuck into the culture surrounding it. I looked at a few fictional works, but most of my research was historical or technical. Apart from studying my fair share of ship cross-section books, I read The Buccaneers of America by Exquemelin, A General History of the Pyrates by Captain Charles Johnson and I have a beautiful old copy of William Dampier’s New Voyage Around the World here too. I listened to hours and hours of Matt Albers’ Pirate History Podcast, which I cannot recommend enough. Hey, you could even listen to it whilst building Pirates of Barracuda Bay. I also started studying period costuming, so when I wasn’t building LEGO I was hand sewing britches and frock coats.

So that explains the amazing pirate costume you are wearing in the photos in the instruction booklet!

I need to redo some parts as they were rushed out for Halloween at LEGO! I have no idea why, but this model enabled me to explore lots of things that I’ve wanted to do ever since I was a kid. I for sure don’t need a full Captain Redbeard costume in my life, but I feel much happier with one.

Prototype model Milan Madge
Anyway, I hope the sense of playfulness and creativity that I got from working on this set comes to many others too! From beginning to end, the model should take you back to the ‘90s and inspire you to create!

Sketchy model Austin William Carlson

Our thanks to Milan and Austin for their time, and to the AFOL Engagement department for setting this up. Come back tomorrow for the second part of Jonas Kramm's review of this set where he takes a detailed look at all the new recolours, printed pieces and minifigures. In the meantime... here are those prototypes gain, but in a GIF!




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11 comments:

  1. They didn't talk about the thing I'm most interested in - how did they arrive at the decision to make a modular ship that is embedded in the model?

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    1. As the model was always supposed to be built from the wreck of a ship, perhaps it was just the obvious thing to do?

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    2. Check out Beyond the Brick on YouTube. They also interviewed them and I think that was discussed although I admit I haven't yet watched it

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  2. Thanks for doing this interview! It's really clear that this was a labour of love from all involved, and I think the final set reflects that wonderfully!

    It's also very interesting to see the development of the model over time - I initially thought that this set was very different from the IDEAS submission, but seeing how it has changed, I now realise it's actually very close indeed - but the changes that have been made are all improvements in my opinion! The biggest change is probably the colour scheme, but it certainly makes the set feel more 'LEGO' and less like an MOC, so in my opinion it was a very good decision. I can see why some people are upset though, but I'm glad this has turned out the way it has!

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    1. I honestly believe there is a lot of realism in the chosen colours. But yes, a big change from the fan design.

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  3. It was great seeing the evolution of the design from the Ideas concept to the final product. For those that would rather see it more organic and brown without the yellow, white and black, there is nothing to stop people from modding it to those color schemes. It would be interesting to see people change it to their liking. I for one would like to see people taking this final product design and see others take it and running wild with it.

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    1. Agreed! What riles me is though, ships were painted in bright colours so not sure why there are comments (elsewhere) complaining about the yellow and red.

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  4. Such a lovely interview, and fascinating to see the evolution of the design. I don't know why I never got deeply into Pirates as a kid - I just had one of the smaller sets, and I guess I was more into Space, Castle and Town. But I remember seeing the Pirates stuff in Lego Club magazines and my friend had one of the ships. Also, my partner has been looking over my shoulder at this and is now imagining what an IDEAS take on the Yellow Castle would be like.,..

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    1. I too really hope this paves the way for more 'Classic Ideas' sets!

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