25 January 2021

LEGO® 71741 NINJAGO® City Gardens interview: designer Markus Rollbühler

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The newest LEGO® NINJAGO® set, 71741 Ninjago City Gardens, has been one of the most anticipated sets in recent memory. To learn more about the process of creating the set, Ben Davies spoke to its designer Markus Rollbühler who discusses its design, new elements, secret references and shares a look at several sketch models! Buying this set? Consider using our affiliate links: UK LEGO Shop | USA LEGO Shop | Australia LEGO Shop, for other countries 'Change Region'. New Elementary may get a commission.

New Elementary:
Hello Markus, congratulations on the set! The previous two LEGO® NINJAGO® City sets (70620 Ninjago City and 70657 Ninjago City Docks) both also received considerable praise upon release. Was there a sense of pressure when it came to creating a successor to these sets?

Markus: The LEGO® NINJAGO® City set was a phenomenon. When it came out, my friends were so excited for it that we all bought one each and met up and built them together, ending up with 5 or 6 cities on the same table. There are very few sets that have created similar universal excitement, so getting to design the third in this beloved line of modular sets was of course amazing and at the same time very daunting. Naturally, there are high expectations from both NINJAGO fans and the AFOL community on a set of this calibre. Wanting to make sure I designed a worthy addition to this world we had been building, I put quite a lot of pressure on myself. My amazing design team made that disappear quickly though and now I look back on designing 71741 LEGO NINJAGO City Gardens as an extremely joyful time. Getting to work on it was a dream come true!

Both previous NINJAGO City sets were part of THE LEGO® NINJAGO® MOVIE™ line, while this latest set is part of the NINJAGO Legacy line. Did the theme change have any effect on the set, or how it was approached?

With 2021 marking the 10 year anniversary of LEGO® NINJAGO®, 71741 LEGO NINJAGO City Gardens was designed specifically to celebrate the stories and the rich history we have created within the world of NINJAGO over the years. THE LEGO® NINJAGO® MOVIE™ of course is part of this despite telling its own story and interpreting the characters in its own way. Naturally, a lot of it carries on and inspires us to this day, and of course 71741 LEGO NINJAGO Gardens was designed to sit alongside 70620 LEGO NINJAGO City and 70657 LEGO NINJAGO City Docks. However, considering the fact that both products have retired long ago, it was also important that the product could stand on its own.

Moving onto the development of the set, would you mind walking us through the process of bringing the model from idea to final product?

Designing 71741 LEGO® NINJAGO® City Gardens was a very interesting experience. Due to its size and the amount of detail it differs a bit from a standard product development process. At the same time, the standard of the first two sets also has to be matched.

The brief that I first received, when I needed to begin the process, asked for a corner module set filled with amazing references to the 10 years of LEGO NINJAGO. I started working on a sketch model and sat down with Michael Svane Knap, one of our design managers. He happens to be a walking encyclopaedia of all things NINJAGO and together we came up with a lot of different ideas of what could fit into the model in regards to locations or characters.

Initially, I started out by creating microscale models to determine a footprint and silhouette. I found that to be very helpful as it allowed cycling through ideas rapidly without having to build a massive model. One of the ideas I found myself returning to featured a tree as the centrepiece with an arched opening behind it. That ended up being the carrying idea for my first sketch.

When we work on sketch models, there is often a tendency to haphazardly throw them together. However, since this was a very complex set I made sure early on that things were in System before committing to something that would haunt me later. Most of the modules required an angled wall to create the opening behind the tree, and as we all know angles can get complex very quickly. My model coach Henk van der Does was very helpful with that and measured a lot of different builds for me to assure everything fit properly.

The initial sketch featured a lot of things that ended up in the final set. Places like the museum or Chen's noodle shop, and even details like the roof made from minifig cleavers. Other locations we replaced or moved, the best example being the tiny temple on the back that changed multiple times throughout the design process and ended up on a separate baseplate, becoming a much more imposing structure in the end.

Thankfully, this first sketch received a lot of love and I got the go-ahead and suddenly found myself debating pavement element choices, experimenting with wonky roof techniques, and clearing out our internal stock of 1x2 tiles in trans-light blue multiple times. I also got myself a copy of LEGO NINJAGO City Docks that I built to see if I could learn something, which proved quite helpful.

Different development stages of the model, with the final set on the right, shown from the front.

Rear side of the development models, with the final set on the right.

Looking back at the sketch models, a lot of features were figured out early on. Therefore, I could spend a good amount of time on refining details. Most of the time really goes into those details, and its work you cannot really visualize but have to try out. When building a set like this, a great deal of it is a collaborative process. I am grateful that I have a great design team, where everyone is happy to spar or help or even leave little sketches on my desk. Nick Vás stopped by regularly to share his expertise from developing the first LEGO NINJAGO City. Theo Bonner basically showed up every single day with a new little idea for me to include in the model. For instance, he suggested using the Nexo wedges on the tower in rotation and made the little spigot you can spot on the front of the box.

Here are a few sketches created in collaboration with both Nick Vás and Theo Bonner, and Jme Wheeler deserves credit for some of them.

Throughout the process, you build the whole set multiple times with your model coach and a building instructions specialist. Imagine locking yourself into a room for three to four days while scrutinising every single part of the build, making changes as you go and then having to do it all over again a month later. Morten Odgaard made the building instructions, and I am still in awe of the solutions he came up with to transform what was originally complicated builds into a nice experience. Sadly, the building instruction work often ends up getting overlooked but I can't stress enough how much it impacts the final experience!

Are there any exciting building techniques that we should pay attention to when building the set?

When designing the set, I thought a lot about the flow of the build. It was important to me that every single bag contained a bit of an aha-moment, something that makes you consider the many ways LEGO bricks can be used, something that hopefully inspires you to build your own creations. As a result, there is a copious amount of details that are hidden throughout the set and you will find everything from micro models of iconic Ninjago sets to appliances or furniture.

Early on, I had a good chat with Chris Stamp, who worked on the first two sets, and he told me that when he was designing the LEGO NINJAGO City Docks set, he challenged himself not to repeat a single roof technique throughout the set. Naturally, I had to follow his lead and one of my favourite examples is the use of minifig cleavers on the roof of the ice cream shop. It was quite the puzzle to get it into the right angle, but it was all worth it when looking at the final result.

I am quite proud of the number of different techniques in the build, that are used to achieve various angles. For instance, on the bottom floors it's a sideways-building technique, on the walkway levels it's a studs-up approach. Finally, the museum has a whole wall that is built at a 45-degree angle.

The LEGO NINJAGO City sets were also known for their small functions capturing real-life appliances such as the ATM in the first set. For 71741 LEGO NINJAGO City Gardens I wanted something similar and ended up designing a little arcade, having had a bit of a fascination with those growing up. The joystick is actually a little lever that moves a decorated tile behind a screen, making it the first working arcade in a LEGO set. The ninjas seem to have made it to the final level of the first stage, where Kai is fighting against the Great Devourer, a small flashback to the first season of the LEGO NINJAGO TV show.

Finally, I need to highlight the small cleaning robot that was inspired by the Exo-Force theme of the early 2000s. I really wanted to include a new helper bot to go with Sweep that is included in 70620 LEGO NINJAGO City and while I was stuck one afternoon I ended up walking past a desk in the Superheroes team area that was littered with cool mechs. 

Carter Baldwin had built a little army of awesome Exo-Force drones for fun and kindly donated his design to the LEGO NINJAGO City Gardens project. Of course I had to shrink it down to fit the scale. Hopefully, he ends up sharing his MOC online as he deserves all the praise. His creation is on the right if you had any doubts.

We're obliged to ask about new elements in the set. Do you have any favourite recolours in the set that you'd like to highlight?

Most builders will likely be excited about the leaf elements in two new colours: Bright Yellowish Green and Spring Yellowish Green are new for this set. Personally, I'm more a fan of the claws that now come in Dark Green that are used in the little bonsai tree on the back, as they will be perfect for creating vegetation. Another interesting element is the Bright Green family mould of ninja swords that are also in 71735 Tournament of Elements. Chen's Noodle Shop finally comes with 1x1 bricks, 1x2 bricks and 1x2 plates in Nougat, which is mostly used in LEGO Star Wars Landspeeders and minifigures.

I think there are some interesting elements for  everyone. There are a lot of other details to discover, but I will leave those to the building experience.  

The previous Ninjago City sets featured a number of references to older LEGO themes/characters. I can already see references to Ice Planet 2002 and Rock Raiders— any other inclusions you'd like to point out?

A lot of stickers in this set are references to the rich history of LEGO® NINJAGO®, as the set is a celebration of the 10 years. Our graphic design team: Michael Patton, Angel Grau Bullón and Kjeld Walther Sørensen, did an amazing job on all of those and were also kind enough to work on my requests for obscure references. 

Similarly to the posters and banners included in the first two sets, this one includes three different movie posters. One features Space Police 3 (designed by the talented Madison O'Neil of LEGO Star Wars fame), one re-imagines Aquasharks as a big-bang action movie, and one throws fan-favourite Johnny Thunder into peril with upcoming NINJAGO characters (designed by Andre Sang-Tae Stenbryggen, who worked on the original Rock Raiders amongst other things).

You will also find references to beloved LEGO themes such as Model Team, Clikits and Znap, and characters from Pharaoh's Quest have sent postcards to the NINJAGO Museum of History. 

Ultimately though, while it's not an official LEGO theme, my personal favourite must be the small penguin mascot of Ice Planet, the ice cream shop. It is based on an adorable concept that one of my friends and colleagues, Chris Perron, came up with years ago: The Ice Penguins, who are fearlessly exploring frozen worlds in the far future, were the perfect fit for an ice cream advertisement. They might also be plastered across various walls at the office now, but I can neither confirm or deny that.

Another notable aspect of the set is the massive, 20-minifigure selection. Was there any methodology for choosing which minifigures to include?

With the set celebrating 10 years of LEGO® NINJAGO®, it had to include all the ninjas. The first two sets included some of them in costume and some in civil clothing, so we happily continued that idea for this set as well. Kai and Zane get to suit up while Jay and Nya are on a date, Cole is hanging out, playing video games as per usual and with Lloyd we decided to turn back time and include him as a kid - just like how he appears in Season 1.

Personally, I was always a fan of the Mechanic, who has been a recurring villain in the LEGO NINJAGO TV show. He never appeared as a minifigure before, and it seemed like a great fit to have him causing havoc in the city and stealing artifacts from the museum. 

Ronin has moved his pawn shop into the city, which was another nice way of adding references to past seasons. Misako and famous explorer Clutch Powers were natural additions due to the inclusion of the NINJAGO Museum of History. Finally, Chen's Noodle Shop required the man himself as a winking mascot atop the door. Less of a minifigure since it becomes part of the building, but I was happy that we were able to include Master Chen's public personality for once.

Much like in LEGO NINJAGO City and LEGO NINJAGO City Docks, the rest of the line-up is made up of a variety of civilians that bring life to the city and that work and live there, representing NINJAGO fans, ice cream lovers, businessmen or shop owners. It is really important to have these characters, as they allow you to tell stories and create little scenes within the set, from the NINJAGO fan swooshing around her toys to an art student painting in her apartment.  

To top it all off, you will get Golden Wu! Together with the other golden ninjas we have included him in other sets this year; he celebrates the anniversary in a very cool way.  

Yes, I enjoyed that while writing my recent article about 10 years of NINJAGO elements. Thanks so much for talking to us today  Markus! 

I really hope people will enjoy building this set as much as I enjoyed working on it! There are a lot of little details to discover so I would love to hear what everyone likes and notices the most.

71741 Ninjago City Gardens is available now. Consider using our affiliate links: UK LEGO Shop | USA LEGO Shop | Australia LEGO Shop, for other countries 'Change Region'. New Elementary may get a commission.

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  1. Thanks for this article! It's great to see a screenshot from LDD; Did Markus happen to mention what version he uses?

    1. The version would most likely be LEGO Digital Designer Pro. It’s is the successor to LEGO Digital Designer Hollywood Edition, which was used for production on the LEGO movies.

    2. I thought that was a joke, but what, there IS such a thing as an LDD Hollywood Edition?

  2. Thank you for this interview! It's all incredibly interesting.

    The use of microscale for early concepts of the overall structure of the set is quite neat and something that I will have to keep in mind for my own MOCs in the future.

    Seeing the different development stages of the overall set is enlightening too. The designer video implied that the set had not changed much from the early concepts, which may be true on a macro scale, but the details evolved significantly from those early versions!

    And the evolution of "Scoop" the robot is interesting as well. One of the few areas that feels less authentic to the original is the legs, but seeing the early concept he was based on, it makes sense that they had to be reduced in size significantly even at the expense of the chunky legs the original robots had.

  3. Can someone hit me up with a good copy of LDD Pro im tired of going to studio for new pieces

    1. Check out Eurobricks' LDD forum, there's an ongoing project to add parts. Does require a smidgen of technical know-how to install, but it works well.

    2. i think i tried that once but the only thing that added was the teal color, will def try it out again later

    3. +1, the community really revived the good old LDD, most of the recent parts are in there now.

  4. Wow, great interview and development pictures!

    It's fascinating to realize that the structure that became the Ninja Control Tower was originally very overtly based on Borg Tower, tech magnate and recurring ninja ally Cyrus Borg's headquarters from the Ninjago TV series. On the one hand, it's kind of a shame that changing it to its own structure means there is still no LEGO set version of this important location — but on the other, the more geometrically complex structure, more vibrant colors, and prodigious height of the ninja control tower in the final set make it MUCH more visually impressive.

    Moreover, this leaves the opportunity open for Borg Tower to appear in a future Ninjago set — perhaps a future Legacy playset in which it can be the main focus of the set, and thus offer more detailed and show-inspired interior and exterior features than a heavily condensed version like the one in this sketch model would have had room for.

    The police station in the original sketch model would have also been a neat callback to both the NCPD officer minifigs in The LEGO Ninjago Movie sets (including Ninjago City) and to the role of the NCPD in various seasons of the TV series, most notably Season 6, "Skybound". That said, I think it was a good choice to omit it here. Not only would a police station feel a little bit less original considering that the latest Modular Buildings Collection set focuses on one, but the Ice Planet ice cream shop also feels a lot more fun and whimsical (even if it is another food vendor in a set that already includes two). Not to mention that I've become much less comfortable with heroic media portrayals of police, given a lot of what's been going on in the United States lately.

    There are many other praiseworthy improvements visible between the sketch models in this article and the final set as well. For instance, the use of the curved roller coaster track as a scaffold for holding additional posters or billboards was certainly clever, but the more colorful and artistic use of that part in the final set helps to reinforce the elegance of the Ninjago City Museum that appears behind it, rather than obscuring it. The museum itself also benefits greatly from its wider frontage in the final set.

    The tree that forms the model's visual centerpiece clearly became larger and more impressive in each incarnation as well. And moving the temple island to its own base is also a big improvement since it allows more room for foliage as well as a bigger pagoda and the Titanium Ninja memorial. The back side of the model further benefits benefits from having its walkways weave around both the front and the back, adding both play value and visual interest to the back of the buildings themselves.

    Some of the unused collaborative sketches as well as the insights into how Markus began the design process by working in microscale will be great inspiration next time I decide to try coming up with my own Ninjago City expansion ideas! And I greatly appreciate Markus's explanations of a lot of the set's easter eggs, including the confirmation that Scoop originated as an Exo-Force callback (as widely suspected) and that the ice cream shop poster was inspired by Chris Perron's ADORABLE Ice Penguin MOCs!

    All in all, it's easy to look at a set like this and recognize how much brainstorming and creative effort went into it, but at the same time, it's utterly fascinating to see images of the development process and hear directly from the designer just what a lot of that process actually entailed, and how much can change from the beginning of the process to the final outcome! Thank you to both Ben and Markus for taking the time to have this discussion and share it with all of us New Elementary readers!