06 September 2018

LEGO® BrickHeadz: Marcos Bessa interview part 1

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LEGO® BrickHeadz first popped onto the scene as four exclusive sets, each containing two figures, for the San Diego Comic-Con in July 2016 but 22 more sets were added in 2017. Now, more than 70 different figures have been released and by the end of the year the number will be rapidly approaching 100, featuring figures from more external intellectual properties (IPs) than in any other LEGO product line. Are J. Heiseldal sat down with BrickHeadz design lead Marcos Bessa in Denmark to talk about the apparent smash hit.

BrickHeadz differ from a lot of other current LEGO lines in that it’s actually a new, in-house, brick-built concept, and you still deal with a lot of external IPs. What’s it like to be covering new ground like that?
Marcos: On a personal level, for me, it’s been a great challenge, because it’s a very different approach from any other product line that I’ve worked on. It has the similarity of dealing with IPs, which I have been doing for a while, but it’s in a whole different medium, with a whole different set of restrictions and challenges, and also with a whole different purpose. And my role in this product line as a creative lead has also allowed me to be much more involved in the strategy behind the line, the IPs that we bring on board, the character selection, the price point discussion, and so on. So it’s no longer just on the field, working as a designer and creating a model, I’m also more involved in other levels of discussion on the product line, which has been greatly appreciated from my side, as a growing professional. On the product line, in terms of challenges, it has been great to deal with all these different IPs, very challenging at times, there have been days and weeks when things seem to all be going south and wrong and then suddenly things get picked back up and go back on track. So it’s a fun journey. It doesn’t get boring.

“There’s a certain demographic that we’re trying to tap into, trying to fill a role in our portfolio”

Virtually every IP that LEGO has in its portfolio has now been covered by the BrickHeadz line… or feels like it’s going to be at some point. Do you pick freely? How does that work?
Marcos: Well, yes and no. We have all the different IPs that we have collaborated with as a starting point, those partnerships are already settled to some degree. But then we also have a certain mission with BrickHeadz, there’s a certain demographic that we’re trying to tap into, trying to fill a role in our portfolio, so we also want to make sure that that’s still relevant no matter what IP we bring in.

How come some of the licensed characters can be found only in BrickHeadz form and not as regular minifigures?
Marcos: When you’re talking about a product line where there’s nothing else beyond the character, you're able to tap into IPs that otherwise might be challenging if they were to be turned into a regular play theme. For a whole play theme based around minifigures we need to consider whether the kids are familiar with the theme or not. Do they recognise the play starters? Do they get engaged in their own play scenarios around those vehicles or sceneries or locations? Whereas when it comes to characters, it’s much more about whether the kids recognise them or not, and that’s it.

The IP owners are normally very particular about the LEGO sets representing the source material as accurately as possible, so with LEGO Minifigures you might get a new hair mould because the hair has to look recognisable. With BrickHeadz, the concept itself is limiting; you have to make do with square and slightly rounded bricks. Is this a challenge when working with the IP owners? Because what they get is essentially a caricature, instead of a close representation.
Marcos: More so in the beginning. We were establishing the form, and the recognition of the characters in BrickHeadz form was very important to us, but they weren’t as familiar with it as they are maybe now. Now as we approach new IPs, the brand is more established and it becomes easier and easier. I’m not saying that it’s always going to be easy; we might be facing a new IP in the future that might put their foot down and really be a nightmare to work with, hopefully not!
“Maybe in the future a new part gets developed that triggers that solution that we haven’t yet come up with”

Does it happen that you have an idea for a character that you eventually end up deciding just does not fit the BrickHeadz style?
Marcos: Yeah, we’ve had a couple that turned out to be a bit more challenging in execution, that we have paused and might then revisit to see if we find new solutions. Maybe in the future a new part gets developed that suddenly triggers that solution that we haven’t come up with. But there are also certain characters that just completely challenge the form, because BrickHeadz is primarily a small little square body with a huge head, and if you look at something like Blue, the raptor from Jurassic World, it challenges the whole form. That was a particularly hard one to execute. But we feel that we still managed to get a pretty recognisable and cool model that stays true to what the reference is, but also stays true to what BrickHeadz are.

The BrickHeadz concept is very specific in its limitations. Do you feel that this creative limitation actually forces you to be more creative with parts, to achieve the wanted results?
Marcos: Yeah. I’ve always been of the opinion that building with LEGO bricks was all about the limitations. You can build anything but at the same time there are shapes that you are limited to, or connecting points that you’re limited to; those rules are what make it fun. Because if you could just do literally anything, you could just as well use clay and sculpt it. So in that sense, BrickHeadz is just another layer in the game, another set of rules.

What determines whether you create a set consisting of one or two figures?
Marcos: We originally started the project with only single packs, except the Comic-Con exclusives which were a whole different extraordinary situation. And then at a certain point we were given the opportunity to introduce a few more sets, and we were eager to tap into more franchises and the opportunity – let’s say that we had 20 products to put out on the market. Doing 20 individual characters versus 10 individual characters plus 10 double packs (which would mean 30 characters) – we saw a lot of potential there. And then on top of that there was the fact that certain characters just go so well together that they enhance each other. That’s the case with Blue and Owen. If you had Blue on its own, it could still maybe be a strong product but it would be harder to decode, to identify where it comes from, whereas in that context it becomes immediately recognisable.

Do you find it easier or more difficult to work with a product line that has characters but not minifigures?
Marcos: Just different. I love character design, and I hadn’t been doing much character design with LEGO, because I was working with the models and the graphics are usually done by the graphic design team, so my input on the actual execution of the characters was always very limited. Here I actually have the chance to do character design.
“Even though I have graphic designers working with me, the majority of character design work is done through the bricks”

Even if it’s an IP?
Marcos: Yes. And even though I still have graphic designers working with me, to do the actual graphics, the majority of the work on the character design is done through the bricks, and that is extremely exciting and something that I was very passionate about, and that I’m very happy to have the opportunity to do.

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