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10K Club Interview: Meet Mark Smiley and James Garrett of Rolling BB-8 !!

Today we have the unique pleasure of introducing two fan designers Mark Smiley (mjsmiley) and James Garrett (artbot138) who make up the creative partnership behind Rolling BB-8 !!, the little astromech droid that rolled into our hearts in Star Wars: The Force Awakens. They are this weeks' combined LEGO Ideas 10K Club members. 

Mark and James' passion for Star Wars and LEGO made BB-8 the perfect candidate for a LEGO model but it didn't come without its challenges. In fact they had to use all of their engineering chops to overcome some tough obstacles when building this little fella. Mark and James share their journey of creating what has already become a very iconic Star Wars character.  

Help us congratulate Mark and James on becoming a part of the LEGO Ideas 10K Club!


About Yourself

  1. Where are you from?
    MS: I’m from the Chicago suburbs, went to college in North Carolina, and currently live in Plano, Texas.

    JG: I live in Dallas, Texas.


  1. How old are you?
    MS: I’m clocking in at 34 these days.

    JG: I'm 42. 


  1. What do you study or do for a living?
    MS: I’m an engineer at Texas Instruments. I work at one of TI’s semiconductor plants and focus on the DLP product line. DLP is a chip that has millions of microscopic mirrors sitting on millions of microscopic hinges that each have electrodes that cause the mirror to see-saw. This is used to create projected images by bouncing colored light off of the flipping mirrors, which each correspond to a pixel on the screen. I saw the LEGO Movie at a theatre that used DLP projection!

    JG: I’m an instructional designer working in the Bio-Tech and Pharma industries. I create educational materials used to train scientists, doctors, researchers, and technicians. I’m able to combine my interests in education, science, and graphic design into my work.


  1. What hobbies do you have?
    MS: I play guitar and sing in a band. I started a "build your own mini golf club" with some other guys (we are building a mini golf course for the kiddos). I dabble a bit in videography and graphic arts. I’ve written some songs. I obviously collect and play with LEGO quite a bit. I have a 1 year old now so baby raising is a bit more than a hobby. I used to draw comics for the NCSU school newspaper and continue to draw and sketch. And I used to be on a performance swing dance team for some reason. I like the little quadcopter RC toys quite a bit.  Oh, and we like to travel. So far we’ve managed to visit each continent except one.

    JG:  I’m an artist. I paint, sculpt, mold/cast, design apparel, illustrate, and 3D print. My work involves scifi and pop culture themes.  I’m very interested/active in the “art” toy scene. I collect art, vintage Star Wars toys, LEGO, and vinyl records. I love the cinema and going to galleries.

^ Mark and James show the importance of having fun!

  1. How and when did your interest for LEGO come about?
    MS: Childhood, prior to memory more than likely. I had a lot of LEGO bricks as a kid - back then they came in 5 colors or so. I think things slowed down some, but then my mom started bringing me Star Wars sets as surprises. My step brother and I spent a lot of our time building LEGO together. In high school we got snowed in and had a week off. I spent the week trying to make a stop motion LEGO video using a video camera, and a computer peripheral that would take screen scrapes from the video signal. It took forever and most of the pictures were destroyed by a computer virus. I picked the addiction back up again about a year ago and have been catching up for lost LEGO time.

    JG: I have fond memories of playing with LEGO as a child. I loved the openness of the platform – I could make it into anything. My interest was reignited when LEGO obtained the Star Wars license. It seemed like an organic fit. 


  1. What is your favourite official LEGO set? Why?
    MS: I really liked my LEGO Car Wash set. I liked how the bristle brushes moved out of the way when the car rolled through. My current day favorites though are the Star Wars microfighters. The Millennium Falcon is perhaps the best. I think they are great. I like how they are small enough that you can pretty much bring them with you and they are affordable so you can buy them on impulse.

    JG: I really love the large 10225 R2-D2. The scale and likeness are great. I smile every time I see one.   


  1. What is your favourite LEGO element? Why?
    MS: The minifigure probably doesn’t count as an element, but it is the focus of my current collection these days.

    JG: The minifig is an iconic piece of design. The form factor can have almost any character laid over it – but I love them even in a blank state. 

^ Mark shows off a part of his minifig collection. We're glad he snuck Wall-E into the shot!

  1. Is there a LEGO designer (official LEGO designer or fan designer) who you are inspired by and look up to? Who and why?
    MS: I am not tapped in enough to exactly follow other designers. If I kept up with official LEGO designers, I would more than likely keel over with jealousy over how much I would love to have their job. If LEGO would have me, I’d sign up today!

    JG: While not all of it is for me, I tend to find some of the work by Citizen Brick interesting. I also pay a lot of attention to large and life scale work (like the X-Wing). I have aspirations to work at that scale.


  1.  Is there one or more particular LEGO related websites (not official LEGO websites) that you visit often and/or are inspired by?
    MS: I frequent these two sites to get some daily LEGO news: The Brick Fan and Toys N Bricks.

    JG: Brick Nerd and From Bricks to Bothans.  


About Your Project

  1. Where did your interest in this particular model come from?
    MS: I actually really just wanted to have a passive BB-8 toy. The only options on the market were either solid form statues or electronic and I was hoping to have something that could move, but not use batteries. I had some LEGO planets on my desk and I got hooked on the idea of trying to build the BB-8 myself.

    JG: Mark and I are both Star Wars fans and I was particularly taken by the design of BB-8. He feels very modern, while honoring the design sensibilities of classic astromech droids. BB-8’s ability to roll seems integral to the character. So when Mark suggested that we could use the Star Wars planet sphere as BB-8’s body, I felt we had something that could represent the character and have a high degree of playability.


  1. What special challenges did you face creating the model? What was the most difficult part to recreate?
    MS: This turned out to be a very challenging project. It literally was a balancing act between weight, size, friction, and magnetic attraction. For instance, the heavier the head, the more counterweight that was needed in the body, which is space limited. To get the head to stay on firmly, more magnets would be ideal, but the more magnetic strength lead to more friction which made it so the head would not be able to move quickly enough when the body was rolled. I resolved to use tiny wheels to reduce friction and prevent paint scratches, but those add height to the head which leads to needing more counterweight and magnetic strength. As you can see, everything was a balancing act.

    I ultimately bought one of every dome shaped and ball shaped LEGO element that LEGO has made since the 80s. I also ordered dozens of different parts and brackets just to see if they could be used to tweak the design and try out new possible part combinations. I tried using the planet sphere and the geosphere balls from the Jurassic World sets. I loved the JW Geosphere because it offered more buildability, but they were too small to fit in more than one boat weight.

    On top of all that, my original attempts were to make this model omnidirectional. I ordered some pricey steel ball rollers that were from LEGO Mindstorms sets. The rollers provided weight, and I came up with a really clever way to get four into a perfect formation to roll on the bottom of the inside of the sphere, but, the rollers had too much internal inertia and friction that the BB-8 body would not roll sprightly enough. This is why I converted it to a single axle design. I am of course presenting the project as an idea, and would be thrilled if LEGO's designers figured out how to make it omnidirectional.

    The overall hardest part was likely the head. Getting a head design that could be as light as possible, house important features like the BB-8 “eyes”, room for two magnets and wheels was a tricky testimony of persistence. I tried countless configurations.  

    JG: We debated the dome the most. Ultimately we selected one that we felt best matched the proportions of the ball. Ideally we would have liked to use a dome with pegs that would have allowed us to attach BB-8’s antennas. However, those domes seemed out of proportion. 

    Prototypes showing the various iterations that Mark and James's Rolling BB-8 went through
  1. How long did it take to complete the model?
    MS: I spent a long time fidgeting and trying out different pieces and combinations. Overall I spent hours here and there for about 3 months to get it to the point that it was in when it was submitted. After submitting, I kept fidgeting. I worked to add in more play features like the pop up monster and the data drive carriers. I also continued to work on the omnidirectional and head designs.

    JG: We worked on the project off and on over a course of about three months. Most of that time was waiting for different domes that we had sourced to arrive.


  1. How did it feel when you reached the magic 10,000 votes?
    MS: It was of course a mighty fine feeling. Friends and family were texting me with minute by minute updates and posting to Facebook and of course the commenters on LEGO Ideas were running wild. It felt like a bit of a little party even though we were all spaced out across the country/world.

    JG: It took 31 days to reach 10,000 votes. I’ve loved LEGO and Star Wars since I was a child, so I was very excited that the project was well received. I felt like we had a good design and campaign plan, but frankly I was blown away by the reaction and how fast we reached 10K.


  1. Approximately how many LEGO bricks did you use to create your model?
    MS & JG: The BB-8 is currently about 111 parts and the base station is about 13 parts. Total is roughly 244 parts.

About LEGO Ideas

  1. Do you have any useful advice about creating a successful LEGO Ideas project?
    MS: I’ll focus not on the popularity of BB-8 but more so the power of having a unique approach to a very popular LEGO idea. In our case, there were quite a few LEGO BB-8 models already submitted so we started out a little late to the game. I think what brought ours to 10K was the unique functionality of it. Not only that, I think people appreciate the low part count which would generally indicate the set will be easier to afford.

    Other contributors (in my opinion) and things I like in other ideas are:
    • Affordable
    • Built with physical bricks and not virtual
    • Functional
    • Creative

    The Campaign: Internet campaigning is one of the biggest parts to a successful LEGO Ideas project I think. We scoured for lots of sites to post the idea to and then hoped it would get picked up by at least one popular site. We were lucky to have Gizmodo write about our set. From that point on, dozens of other sites picked up the story. The brick wall turns out to be the login. Getting people to create a log in was difficult. I even had family turn down at that point. We had hundreds of thousands of people exposed to our project but only a small fraction made logins. At that point, the most important people to a project’s success are people already with LEGO Ideas profiles. Since there is no way to campaign to people with an Ideas login, the most vital part of the campaign becomes the weekly email that gets sent out. We saw a huge boost every week when that email came out. So you absolutely have to make it onto the popular list or Staff Picks to get momentum going. To stay on the list, you have to scrounge for more and more outsiders to keep your numbers up to stay listed. As long as we were on that list, we saw solid momentum.

    JG: Create a “media package” beforehand. It should contain well lit (high res) photos, a compelling video, and copy (tweet, few sentences, and paragraph) that can be used on social media and websites.   

    Also be social media savvy. Always post with a call to action. Engage with supporters when they like, share and comment. Be prepared for negative comments and handle them in a constructive way.


  1. What is your favourite LEGO Ideas project (besides your own of course)?
    MS: I really like the Tiny Adventure set (super creative), the Space Balls (Was thinking of building that one myself), and the Physics set (love marble roller coasters).

    JG: I think the Wall-E project is amazing. The functional treads and the eyes’ ability to emote really captures the spirit and functionality of the character. I thought about this model a lot as we tried to capture BB-8’s character/functionality in our model.


  1. What is it about the platform that attracts you? What tips would you give to anyone who is thinking about uploading an idea?
    MS: I currently don’t have any other ideas up, but I have several works in progress and finished ideas at home. I sort of didn’t want to jinxs the BB-8 project by uploading other ideas. I love the concept of LEGO Ideas. Obviously there are triumphantly creative and talented builders out there, so it’s a wonderful way to inspire and bring such ideas to possible fruition.

    JG: In my experience the LEGO Ideas community is made up of a positive group of people and I enjoy interacting with them. LEGO Ideas is a great platform to share and inspire builders. As far as tips, I’d encourage builders to not be discouraged if their first project does not reach 10K votes. Good design often involves redesign. Learn what you can from the process and keep working.
  • lego ideas
  • 10k club
  • mark smiley
  • james garrett
  • rolling bb-8 !!

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