10K Club Interview: Tong Xin Jun, creator of Spongebob Squarepants - The Krusty Krab
This week we meet the Malaysian wunderkind builder Tong Xin Jun (aka ExeSandbox), who over the years has become known for his wild creations submitted to many LEGO Ideas/Rebrick contests. After several years of participating in contests, he finally took the leap and submitted his first Product Idea, Spongebob Squarepants - The Krusty Krab, which landed him 10,000 supporters in just 43 days.
Be sure to congratulate Tong in the comments as per usual, down below!
- Who are you?
My name is Tong Xin Jun.
- Where are you from?
- How old are you?
17 years old.
- What do you do for a living?
I specialize in digital arts.
- What hobbies do you have?
I absolutely love listening to music whenever I can, cooking (because I love food), and of course, LEGO! (But I’m aspiring to make it into more than just a hobby.)
- Do you have a personal LEGO portfolio website that you can share with us?
Yes, my LEGO creations can be found at my Flickr, as well as on Instagram where I post other LEGO related stuff too.
- Have you created any LEGO MOCs (my own creations) that you’re particularly proud of? What is it, why are you proud it and do you have a photo of it?
Among all of my LEGO creations, I’m most proud of a modular building that I built a year back which I named the “Doughnut Shop”. It’s not my biggest or flashiest MOC, but it’s the one that I put the most thought and effort into. It took me half a year to build (which was the longest time I ever spent designing a MOC) because I wanted everything to be as perfect as possible. Modular Buildings means a lot me, so I really poured all my LEGO and design skills into that 32x32 baseplate.
- How and when did your interest for LEGO come about?
It started from my older brother’s interest in Bionicle back in the late 2000s. (We were always into cool robot stuff) But it wasn’t until 2010 that he got his first Bionicle sets, out of curiosity, I decided to get a couple sets as well and the rest was history. We would later jump to other themes where we have spent countless hours building our own MOCs with those parts.
What got me to start building MOCs in a more serious way was when I participated in a Bionicle contest back in 2016 on Rebrick. I realized that I had to up my game 1,000% to stand a chance. I didn’t win, but it was one heck of an experience and I wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for that contest!
- What is LEGO for you? What does it mean for you? How does it fit in your life? E.g. build, display, meetups, play the games.. or 'just' watch the cartoons.
I’d say LEGO has impacted my life in a big way. It has shaped a lot of my interests and taught me valuable skills and lessons from all of my experiences in building MOCs, contests, etc. LEGO does sit on quite the chunk of my life, I’d build sets and MOCs, look at what others have built, play the games, watch the cartoons/movies. Even so, there’s still so much more that I have yet to do with LEGO.
- What is your favourite LEGO theme (current or past)? Why? And has any theme inspired your building style or preference in any particular way?
Hero Factory! Mostly due to nostalgia because it’s a big chunk of my childhood. The theme as a whole is incredibly unique when it came out especially with the new building system, along with the super cool character designs. I don’t think there’ll be anything that can replace Hero Factory.
For themes that have inspired my building style, it has to be Creator (3in1 and Expert) and the LEGO Ideas theme. I find myself adopting a lot of the building techniques and details from those sets. The quality and styles of those themes are outstanding and they really shows me that there is no limit to what LEGO bricks can do.
- What is your favourite official LEGO set? Why?
That has to go to the LEGO Creator Expert Ford Mustang. I can go on all day about why it’s my favorite set ever. It’s truly a perfect symphony of bricks, every time I look at it I always think, “I can’t believe it’s made of LEGO bricks!” The building techniques and parts usage are so effective and efficient, I don’t think I can even do something half as brilliant. As a MOC builder the Ford Mustang set has been such an incredible source of inspiration!
- What is your favourite LEGO element? Why?
My favorite element(s) are the family of Roof Tiles (or Roof Bricks/Sloped Bricks). I can’t pick a singular element because I always use different kinds of Roof Tiles together. I didn’t really pay any mind to those elements in the past, I just use them when I need to. But over time, I find that I was actually depending on them way too much. They’re so versatile that they can be used for basically anything and everything. Right now, I can’t live without them. (As you can also see, the roof tiles play a crucial part in the Krusty Krab’s arches.)
- Is there a LEGO designer (official LEGO designer or fan designer) who you are inspired by and look up to? Who and why?
There are many official LEGO designers I look up to because of their amazing skills, but the one that inspired me the most would be Mike Psiaki. He has designed many of my favorite sets, and the building techniques he uses are always jaw-dropping. I like to use building techniques I’ve learned from the sets he designed when I’m building my own MOCs. The techniques he uses are practical and I learned a lot about LEGO geometry from them. I’ve also got huge respects for fan designers Anthony Wilson, Simon Hundsbichler and Timofey Tkachev. (to name a few) The quality of their work has consistently blown my mind and I really hope to be able to reach their level someday.
- Is there one or more particular LEGO related websites (not official LEGO websites) that you visit often and/or are inspired by?
I frequently visit Eurobricks and Flickr to check up on the latest MOCs of fellow builders. New Elementary is also a site I visit often to read up on their amazing articles.
About Your Project
- Where did your interest in this particular model come from?
I was a fan of Spongebob ever since I was a kid, and would watch the cartoons all the time and talk about it. I have always enjoyed episodes with the Krusty Krab as the main setting. Making Spongebob stuff with LEGO was also something that sat in the back of my head for a while. I was also thinking about what to build as a Product Idea for some time, and seeing that a “UCS” Krusty Krab hasn’t been realized in LEGO form before, along with the Spongebob license being open, I thought it was the perfect opportunity to build one.
- How long was the process of making the project did, and what did you have to research as well. What kind of prep, research and design phases did you go through to produce your creation?
The process took nearly 3 months in total. There wasn’t much prep and research to do aside from getting as many reference images as possible. Since the Krusty Krab already existed and I just had to recreate it as faithfully as possible, I didn’t have to make any major creative decisions which negated the need for planning/sketching and I could just go straight to building. (Admittedly I had trouble figuring out where to start building.) The rest was just one long trial and error phase of building until the model was completed. Then comes designing the decals and rendering, which still took quite some time.
- What special challenges did you face creating the model? What was the most difficult part to recreate?
There were so many challenges I had to face that I consider this to be the most difficult model I’ve ever built. The biggest challenge was the size of the furniture/objects. They were always too big, and I constantly had to shrink them down, and doing so would mean compromising on detail and accuracy.
LEGO doors and windows only come at different fixed sizes, so I also had to scale every furniture based on them. Coupled with the 3,000 parts limit, it was a real headache.
Throughout the building process, I had to keep on shrinking everything down, and then some. The size eventually got so tight, that if I were to change one thing I would have to make massive sacrifices to another part. An example of a furniture that suffered the most from the scaling would be the boat where the cash register is.
In the end, everything turned out to be alright. I managed to preserve many details at such a small size (of course, I had to resort to decals for many of them), but I’d say that all the restrictions was beneficial in forcing me to think of the most effective and efficient ways of building with as little bricks as possible. The whole model even sits on a flush 32x48 baseplate size, which was a real blessing!
The most difficult part to recreate was the detachable roof. The angle of the curve had to line up at very specific points, and then there was the horizontal and vertical gaps that goes in between the planks. I also needed to make it really neat and compact so that it won’t look ugly from the inside. I thought hinges was the way to go at first, but it wasn’t sturdy and could move around, which would mean adding more parts to brace it, and then it wouldn’t be neat and compact anymore and would also exceed 3,000 pieces. I then turned to using technic parts which immediately solved the sturdiness, but there was still so many other problems like the gaps, the curves, etc, etc. I just had to keep trying and trying until I eventually got it. To this day, I’m still baffled that I managed to do it though.
- If you could talk to yourself before you started on this project, what would you tell him? What do you know now that you wish you knew then?
I wish I knew just how difficult it is to build the Krusty Krab. There was a time during the development phase of the project where it got so difficult that I questioned if I was even able to complete the model, much less be of quality standards. Thankfully I didn’t throw in the towel, and I managed to complete the project with a sense of satisfaction. Next time I should really analyse what I plan on building to know what I’m really getting myself into.
- How long did it take to complete the model? Did you finish it fairly quickly, or did it take a long time? And how did the build time compare to the time you spent promoting your Product Idea to reach 10,000 supporters?
It took roughly 2 and ½ (almost 3 months if I’m counting the prep work plus rendering.) The amount of time I spent promoting was around 2-3 weeks, which is measly compared to the time I spent developing, mostly because I didn’t know how to promote my project further. Thankfully it was able to gain enough momentum to take it to 10K.
- How did it feel when you reached the magic 10,000 votes and how long did it take?
It took just 43 days to reach 10,000 supporters which I couldn’t have imagined considering this was just my first try! When it reached 10,000 votes though, I wasn’t overtaken with overwhelming happiness or anything, because the slow burn of constantly checking for supporters multiple times a day for 43 days and after a certain time I could tell it would undoubtedly reach 10k. Although I felt really grateful and proud that I finally achieved it, and a tiny hint of sadness that the journey of gaining supporters is over.
- Approximately how many LEGO bricks did you use to create your model?
2,996 bricks. If my calculations are correct.
- What is your favourite building technique or part/section that you’ve incorporated into your Product Idea?
My favourite part are the ship doors on the inside. It has a curved shape, a round window, and also has to be able to open/close. That was something that went through the most trial and error, especially because I had to scale down the interior so many times. One time when they were still too big and shrinking them seemed impossible.
The final construction I used for the doors was possible when I tried out a building technique used in the front seats of the 10252 Volkswagen Beetle set, and it’s amazing just how perfectly it worked. There is also a gap just wide enough for the door to open too, sounds funny because doors should always be able to open but I remember making a version that couldn’t open/close because it compromised on the looks. Thankfully I managed to make it look good and still function in the end.
- If you built your model digitally, what software did you use to build and render your model?
I built the model using LEGO Digital Designer, I like using it due to how quickly you can prototype models with it, but it doesn’t have some of the newer pieces, and that is where Mecabricks comes in, which is where I would add the missing pieces and do final touches. For rendering, I use Blender.
- If you used custom stickers or prints for your design, how did you create them or where did you get them?
I drew all the decals in Photoshop, using shapes tools and/or by hand. I had to go off of references for them, but for stuff like text and minifigure prints, I had to trace it from whatever images I could find. There turned out to be a lot of decals needed though.
About LEGO Ideas
- Do you have any useful advice about creating a successful LEGO Ideas project?
I still have tons more to learn about creating a successful LEGO Ideas project. But I always stick to a couple of guidelines to increase the chances of success.
The first is to have a strong idea and a really good build to support that idea. Take as much time and thought to design and build your model. What makes a great build is very subjective, I normally lean towards aesthetics over function when I build my models, but that would depend on the nature of your project.
The second tip is to present your model well. Especially for the thumbnail image. Out of all the images you submit, the main image in the thumbnail will single-handedly decide your projects fate. You’ll most likely be using the thumbnail image for promotion as well, and it’s also what everybody would see when they browse LEGO Ideas. Chose the best possible angle of your model for the thumbnail image, I can spend hours just searching for the best angle, it really is that important. It helps to think about the presentation as early as the building phase so that you can refine the model to be as camera-friendly as possible.
- What (if any) methods did you use to advertise and attract support to your Product Idea?
I promoted my Product Idea on various social media platforms like Flikcr, Reddit, Instagram, Facebook and Twitter. Oddly enough, from what I observed, it was other people sharing my project instead that brought more supporters. Factors outside my control like getting Staff Picked has helped tremendously too.
- What is your favourite LEGO Ideas Product Idea (besides your own of course)? Are there any Product Ideas you think have been overlooked?
My favorite so far has to be “Workshop in the Woods” by LEGOTREE. It’s so well built and I absolutely love the vibe and aesthetics. At the time of writing this, the project doesn’t seem to be that popular, so if you’re reading this, give that Product Idea some love, it’s truly beautiful.
- What is it about the platform that attracts you? What tips would you give to anyone who is thinking about uploading an idea
I was attracted to this platform 3 years ago exclusively for the contests, and still do, but have since opened up to the world of Product Ideas and it’s been amazing looking at what ideas fellow builders have created plus also being able to submit my own idea and being able to support/interact with each other. Not to mention all the other good stuff the platform has in store.
As for a tip, I’d say is to be genuine and passionate about your idea. No matter what the subject/idea is, it will really show through in the way you build/present your Product Idea and it’s a lot more compelling for people to support your project.
- Do you have plans to submit any other Product Ideas in the future? If yes, can you give us a hint what that might be?
Yes definitely, after the success of this project I’m quite excited to try out another Product Idea. Something a lot riskier and also not based off a license. I’m looking forward to seeing how it goes!
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