21 September 2021

LEGO® Super Heroes: interview with the design team

Posted by Admin

At Fan Media Days in May 2021, Francesco Spreafico and Zach Hill from New Elementary spoke online with the LEGO® Super Heroes team – a whole lot of them! – to find out more about their work and the elements they have designed.

Hello everyone! Can you briefly introduce yourselves, so we know who you are?

Mark Stafford: I'm Mark. I design LEGO® sets. My latest ones are the Bugle and the Black Panther dragon flyer. 

Justin Ramsden: My Name is Justin. I'm a LEGO designer, I make toys for kids. My most recent products have been in the Monkey Kid line or the Chinese Traditional Festival, but Super Heroes has always been my home for the past six and a half years.

Adam Grabowski: I'm Adam. My latest thing is the 1966 Batmobile. And also the Venom and Carnage. 

Ashwin Visser: My name is Ashwin, I'm one of the graphic designers for Super Heroes, so I usually do the stickers and decorated elements. I work together with the guys on their products.

Jesper C. Nielsen: I’m Jesper and I'm the creative lead on Super Heroes. I used to be cool and build toys for kids. 

Are there two different teams, one DC and one Marvel, or do you all do everything?

Adam: We do everything. But that's where PR comes in, because I feel that we are in a lucky situation where the models we were working on are chosen according to our preferences. I don't think that they went to anyone else to ask if they can go with the ‘66 Batmobile but me. And this way you get the best world possible because people care for the stuff now. 

Are there any new cool elements in your latest wave of sets that you liked particularly?

Justin: I want to bring up two things; the first one is this amazing new big head [Thanos, Bigfig Head from 76192 Avengers: Endgame Final Battle]. So not only can you get a screen-accurate Thanos, but you can also now, for the first time in history, turn a giant minifig head, so he can look at you and say hello! 

For the second thing, at New Elementary you wrote an article about the Monkey King, 80012, and how you love drum lacquered elements. Well, actually, Super Heroes took my crown off me with 153 elements they released in the Infinity Gauntlet, and that's insane! So I'll just have to find another record to beat.

About the Infinity Gauntlet... There are lots of gold parts, as you said, but also some dark tan parts. How did you decide where to use each colour?

Adam: In this case it was like painting miniatures a little bit. If you paint, you will know that shadows are darker, and highlights are lighter, because it's a sculpt and the light falls differently, and that was the same thing we tried to do this one, it was basically just to create the shadows. It was actually Carter [Baldwin] and I helped him a little bit with it. It's also because we are limited in the palette, but it's also a molding thing, and so on. For example, we try to avoid elements with studs to be drum lacquered because drum lacquering is of course a coating that might come off. In this case it was a necessity, but we try to avoid it. So that's why, for example in silver, I think we have right now only elements that don't have studs on them.

Since we're talking about the gauntlet, did you try and experiment with different sizes, or maybe even with an actually wearable one?

Jesper: Oh, we've got different sizes that we've been looking at.

Adam: I think, in this case, we were trying to have the same scale as the helmets. We never tried to make it wearable though. It sounds insanely dangerous to me. 

There’s that one in the LEGO Movie 2 that you could actually wear, though.

Adam: Yes, the one that's like a spaceship. You're holding on to it and you don't have to move your hands or snap your fingers.

Now that the Infinity Saga has been completed, would it be possible for you to go back to some licenses that you didn't get back then? We’re not asking you if you're going to do it, because we know that you can answer that, but could it be a possibility?

Jesper: The question is: “Is there a potential to go back?” Of course there's a potential to go back; there's a potential to tie into coming movies or other types of content, and it's always a part of the equation when we're trying to figure out where to lean. Does this mean we will do it? I can’t answer that, of course!

Moving on to the Daily Bugle. There are a lot of stacked 2x2 panels in that model! How challenging was it to design?

Mark: It was tough. I mean, I could have made it simpler by using three-module-high windows which would have meant fewer parts, but it didn't look right to the source material, the comic book stuff. So I went with the smaller windows. I know there's a x16 in there, which it's not like in Star Wars, turning the page and seeing a x28, but it's not that far off, so I apologize to the thumbs for that one. But I knew it would be repetitive, because it's a skyscraper. Anybody who's ever built a MOC of one knows that there is an awful lot of repetitive building. I was trying to make sure that this had nice interiors and each floor was different enough that you never felt like it was being repetitive. So, beyond that, it's just building a tall building. It's making sure that if it falls over, it's not going to crush somebody's cat, making it stable enough for that.

The Daily Bugle and this year's modular Police Station both have this green newsstand on the side; was that kind of an Easter egg, a nod to the modular or not?

Mark: I had no idea till I saw the models come out. With COVID we don't have as many chances to walk around the office and see what other people are doing. I don't know if I would have changed ours to be more like theirs, had I known, but it's good there's competition out there. I'm sure they look nice on the street next to each other.

For the designers: are there any techniques you're particularly proud of in the latest sets you designed for Super Heroes?

Justin: I can always do better, although I'm proud in the moment. I can always improve my skills and keep constantly learning, so you know, what I thought was cool back then is not cool now because I've discovered new elements or new techniques... or just got better at building, right?

Adam: I'm quite happy to have snuck in some upside-down stuff in the ‘66 Batmobile. That was actually quite fun. We have a colleague here, Bjarke and he builds so clean. He just puts like one 2x2... and it's a table! I was trying to aspire to him; instead of trying to make it a creative mess, I tried to make it as clean as possible. Also, to be honest, since my kid got into all this stuff I'm thinking about how to make it so that he can build it.

Ashwin: I'm always surprised by how these guys can build. I'm a graphic designer so I don't build very much. I get the chance to build the sets when I go through the building instructions, of course, and then I'm, building the Batmobile and I don't know where it's going, but in a way then it clicks together, and I'm like ‘Wow, how much work goes into this to figure this out’ and sometimes Adam says like “Yeah I did this in an afternoon” and then I'm like what?, how can you do this? So I'm always super-surprised by the guys and the amazing details that we can do.

Adam: It's also different how each of us work, you know like when you have like John, who's sitting next to me you know he would have hundreds of prototypes of the same thing. And he chooses the best one and while I'm sitting there and thinking and discarding 98 and building just two of them that I think are most possible and then go from there.

: In 76186 Black Panther’s Dragon Flyer I've got a row of 11 transparent light blue cheese wedges on each side, which help to give that ‘feathered technology’ look to the tail section. And the fact that I've got that in a 8+ set, with the angle on and everything… I'm glad with the way it looks on the final model and that it's appropriate to the age; that sort of technique, you generally can't get in that age range, it would be an adult set. 

Creating new LEGO elements

Aside from minifigures and decorated elements, are there any elements that are limited for use with one specific character or one specific license?

Jesper: We try to make things that are genuinely usable. Generally we do try to find a design that is close enough [to the source material] and far enough from it so it is actually more a thing that is generally usable. There are exceptions, of course.

And generally speaking, when you design a set and you feel like you need a new part, how does that work in your department? Who decides if you can have that part or you have to make do with what you already have?

LDraw renders, via Rebrickable

Adam: We start doing it with what we already have, and it's super rare that we actually need a specific part. I think that the last one was the front window for the Batmobile, the big one. [Windscreen 12 x 12 x 2 Curved, Design IDs 56074 or 51116 released in 2019.] It took forever to even start on that element, because we tried to make it out of normal windows. There’s an older eight-wide window, do you remember - you're New Elementary, of course you remember. That was the starting point, we tried to build it with that one. And it took a super long time. So, we generally try as much as possible to use the current system.

[Editor's Note: Well, it did take a little remembering but the New E team believe Adam is referring to Windscreen 5x8x2 (62576) or possibly even the Windscreen 5x8x3 (2826) discontinued in 1998.]  

Mark: There are things like Chima where you might want to create some elements that signify this theme. Like with Nexo Knights, we were making a lot of pointed elements because TLG hadn't done any elements that came to a point before, and it gave those themes a unique look. With Super Heroes, if we need new elements they generally go towards making new superheroes rather than building elements. So, it's rare that we do a building element.

Justin: The 'pill plate' – the 1x2 with two holes through – was developed in Super Heroes. The super jumper, which is a one by three with two studs, that's a Super Hero element. Also the power bursts, the power blasts, Doc Ock's tentacles... [Everyone chimes in naming lots of cool elements!]

Adam: I think we are generally quite reasonable with our elements and try to make super-universal stuff, unless we have to make minifig gear. But there’s also the minifigure holder...

Image: Elspeth De Montes © New Elementary

: … the 1x1 with a 3.2 shaft coming off it.[Part 25893, Plate Round 1 x 1 with Open Stud and Bar on Underside.] I think we first put it in the Spider-Man Ultimate Bridge Battle, 76057, and that's at least five years old. But we do tend to make universal stuff.

What was the 1x3 jumper made for originally?

Justin: That was for the Justice League movie; when they first came out they wanted two characters to sit side by side. 

So your theme is one of the themes that actually do get new elements when needed. Sometimes we can’t tell what was created for you because things don't always come out in order.

Mark: The 1x5 plate is coming out in LEGO VIDIYO now. I wish it existed as an element in time for me to use it in the Bugle, because there are places where I'm using 1x3s and 1x2s where a 1x5 would have been a simpler build. So, like you say, sometimes you won't be able to tell which one is first.

Do you think that it's important for you, every year, to add a few new elements in your sets, or do you do it just because you need them?

Justin: I think that obviously variety is the spice of life, but yes, if we can make the set to do without creating new elements, then yeah, why not, let's do it and then have some fun with it. 

Mark: We still have like all Super Heroes, if we're not making building elements.That's one of the things that we do. But at the same time, sometimes it's nice to make a lovely element.

Justin: Especially if it's universal, because then I can use it in other themes that we're working on so I tend to shop around. 

Thanks to the LEGO Super Heroes team for their time, and to the AFOLET department for creating the opportunity.

READ MORE: Our review of the Infinity Gauntlet runs through all its new Metallilc Gold parts

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  1. Great interview!

    The new bigfig design is a wonderful innovation and I can only hope it expands to other characters soon (including ones with hair or other headgear). I wish it could have been used for a physical fig of "Strong Spider" from the Monkie Kid TV series—they wouldn't even have needed to change the head color, since the spider minions from that theme also have medium lavender skin!

    It's interesting to hear of some of the few "general purpose" parts that come out of the Super Heroes theme. I'd known about the minifigure holder they describe and the similar "stand" from the DC Collectible Minifigures, but it's interesting to hear that the 1x3 jumper also was their responsibility. It's an extremely useful part that I'm glad now exists for other themes!

    1. A part constructed for a single purpose but flexible enough for general usage elsewhere, would probably be more likely to become produced than a more limited part.

    2. And yeah, that new bigfig looks quite interesting. Probably a good template for a two-digit number of Marvel and DC characters, at least...

  2. Dutch and Belgian readers might also remember Justin from his appearance as guest judge on the Dutch/Flemish edition of LEGO Masters.

    I like this interview!

  3. One of the things I like about the Bugle is that the hole in the front with all the bits falling off, it actually includes every piece you would need to build it without the hole in the front and just have it as a regular building.

  4. "What was the 1x3 jumper made for originally?

    Justin: That was for the Justice League movie; when they first came out they wanted two characters to sit side by side."

    I can't seem to find the set(s) he's referring to?

    1. I guess the plans were cancelled, but at least, the part remained.