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10K Club Interview: Mark Smiley of The Clockwork Aquarium!

Mark Smiley, aka mjsmiley on LEGO Ideas, has created a Clockwork Aquarium to dazzle "aquarists" (People who like keeping fish) and LEGO fans alike! His working aquarium build wowed 10,000 people here on LEGO Ideas and is  Be sure to congratulate him in the comments below too!

About Yourself

  1. Whats your name?
    Mark Smiley.
  2. Where are you from?
    I current live in Plano, Texas.  I grew up in Lombard, Illinois.  I went to some high school and 6 years of college in Raleigh, North Carolina.
  3. How old are you?
  4. What do you do for a living? 
    I am a Photolithography Engineer in a semiconductor fabrication plant at Texas Instruments.  I 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!
  5. What hobbies do you have?
    I do have less time for my hobbies now that I have two young children, but I dabble in a few.  Obviously Lego for both tinkering, design, ideas, contests, building with my kids, collecting minifigures, and I have made 3 stop motion “Legomation” videos.  The best one is Adventure Baby Squad. 

    I also continue to practice guitar and used to be in a band as a guitar player, singer and songwriter.  I have drawn quite a few comics that were published in my college’s news paper, and oddly enough, I was on a performing Swing Dance team for several years.  I enjoy video and graphic editing and make a rather edited Christmas Card each year.  Last year we were all Little Mermade Characters.  This year my children were puppeteers and my wife and I were marionettes.

  6. Do you have a personal LEGO portfolio website that you can share with us?
    I do have a personal website which is mostly about Lego:
  7. 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?
    This Rolling BB8 (that little guy was a puzzle I pushed hard to solve).

    The Little Rocket Ride was Great.  Doesn’t get much better than having your idea turned into a promotional set.  Of course having your Aquarium Idea turned into a full on retail set would possibly force me into retirement as I’ll have achieved my life’s goal.

    This Dusty Spaceship is something I thought was so awesome I haven’t taken it apart since building it as a kid. 

    I really like my 16x16 minifig displays (Particularly the mini Hogwarts, archam asylum, Zoo, and Disney Castle.

    Adventure Baby Squad is great because it is an expanding playset with lots of pocket sized baby vehicles: 

    I like how I made a “Escape Pod/Shuttle” for my Force Awakens Falcon. 

    I love my microfighter style Futurama Set with my personally hand crafted clay heads.  I of course tried to submit this to Ideas. 

    This mechanoid Dinosaur I made as a kid actually made it to our wedding.  We had a little display of “personal artifacts” on the side of the reception that it sat in. 


  8. How and when did your interest for LEGO come about?
    Childhood, prior to memory more than likely.  I had a lot of Legos 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 Legos 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 form 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 catching up for lost Lego time.
  9. 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 it a bit of an addiction.  I have a collector’s spirit so I am really into getting a lot of the minifigs.  I have done a lot of personal building and tinkering, and even moving making with Legos in the past.  Now that I have little kids, Lego, Duplo at first, is something we can do together. The kids are hooked on the toy, but honestly, I think they are just super happy to get some good dedicated Dad time.  I’m trying to teach my oldest (4.5yrs) how to use the instructions to build.  She is quick to dismantle things and use the parts for her own creations which I encourage…with her Lego.
  10. What is your favourite LEGO theme (current or past)? Why? And has any theme inspired your building style or preference in any particular way?
    My favorite store bought themes are Star Wars and Collectable Minifigs.  I rarely build star wars stuff though so I’d say I’m mostly inspired by Creator Expert.  I wish I had the shelf space for all those modulars and glorious amusement part sets.
  11. What is your favourite official LEGO set? Why?
    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.
  12. What is your favourite LEGO element? Why?
    The minifigure probably doesn’t count as an element, but it is the focus of my current collection these days.


About Your Project

  1. Where did your interest in this particular model come from?
    The idea to create the Clockwork Aquarium originated from my wife.  We had taken our little kids to the aquarium at the mall (across the hall from the Lego Discovery Center) and at some random point, I think we were approaching the underwater walk-through tube, she blurted out “You should make a Lego aquarium.”  I actually sort of dismissed the idea at first, then mulled it over, and maybe 10 minutes later finally responded and indicated that if I was to build a Lego Aquarium, it would have to have moving parts and fish that swim.  So, I give my wife credit for the idea, and the mall aquarium credit for the inspiration.  So for other people looking for ideas, go out, enjoy life, and see what inspiration crosses your path.
  2. 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?
    Basics: I didn’t start this project with the goal of putting it up on Ideas.   It was originally just going to be a personal challenge; but when it started to come together, I began to think I’d casually toss it up on Ideas for the fun of it. I then switched it to be my main project and the forefront of my Ideas focus.  I worked on numerous updates and subsequent themes for the aquarium along its journey to 10K.

    Design: It took a good while and several iterations to make the Clockwork Aquarium.  I don’t actually have a huge personal inventory of parts (especially in every color) so many delays occurred while I sourced parts, then I’d update my design, and needed to source more parts.  I like working with real bricks, so I did not use LDD or other software along the way for this Aquarium’s design, just good old fashion design through play and tinkering.

    I never quite sketched out what my end goal was.  I started with the mechanism.  Getting the fish to “swim” in an oval was the first goal.  Getting them to go in a circle would have been too easy so I wanted an oval to make it more interesting and challenging.  I tried Lego chains, treads, the super old style of Lego chain (with 2 studs per link), and even some attempts at using axles and joints to side the bottoms of the fish polls over some topography so the fish would go around and up and down.  Then I saw the link chain mechanism in the Ninjago City set (inspiration alert) and thought I could adapt that method with some tweaks to my aquarium.  It proved to be quite robust and a solid way to attach Lego system parts to moving Technic parts.  I then had a prototype of the mechanism for oval swimming and started on the tank design, how to get the fewest seems in the aquarium “glass”, the ornamentation (that’s not something I normally focus on but I determined that most approved Lego ideas are not presented with many exposed studs, so I put bit more effort into polishing this design.” I worked on coming up with ways to get more passive motion that was not directly attached to the crank and landed on starfish that would turn when the fish passed by.  I became obsessed with getting something to move in the middle of the tank.  I saw that I had inadvertently left a channel open in the middle that an axil could drop down through the chain mechanism and could be moved by the crank mechanism.  I came up with two main uses for that central movement, the ability to make something go up and down in the middle (like the crab), or the ability to lift and lower a treasure box lid.

  3. What special challenges did you face creating the model? What was the most difficult part to recreate?
    The main challenges were the gizmo at first, which required numerous failed attempts at first.  The main frustration was sourcing parts which adds up on Bricklink, especially the shipping.  I tinkered with it a lot, and deciding on the size was a compromise between having more “glass” seems, and more room for intricate features.  I wanted as few seems in the clear “glass” but also wanted a little more room for the fish the swim, and maybe room to make it so the fish could go up and down as they traveled.  If it turns out that a larger clear window piece is available, that would be amazing.

  4. If you could talk to yourself before you started on this project, what would you tell him/her? What do you know now that you wish you knew then?
    I’d let myself know about my final design updates, themes, and where the campaign was successful and where I spent time campaigning with no result.
  5. 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?
    Since I had to wait time in-between orders of parts, I probably worked on the initial proposed version for about 1.5 months as it came together, parts arrived, and my design was refined.  I was not able to spend much time promoting this project because I have little kids. So once it was out in the wild, I would occasionally inject new life into is campaign, but for the most part, it got to 10K on its own.
  6. How did it feel when you reached the magic 10,000 votes and how long did it take?
    It is of course incredible to have the support of 10000 Lego fans!  I felt very honored.  It hit 10K just before Christmas, so we were a bit distracted as my wife and I were packing up to take the kids to Chicago to see my family there.  I made sure my family knew and everyone is of course very optimistic that it will be selected and turned into a genuine Lego set (which would be a dream come true).
  7. Approximately how many LEGO bricks did you use to create your model?
    If you just consider the original primary theme, it has about 550 parts. The subsequent themes use different parts for decorations, and backgrounds, so having two themes in the box would increase the part count. 
    Topper  - 102 parts
    Tank & Background - 131 parts
    Base - 309 parts

    Grand Total - 542 Parts 
  8. What is your favourite building technique or part/section that you’ve incorporated into your Product Idea?
    I’m very happy with the Module build concept for the Aquarium.  The Topper, Tank, and Base are all separate builds.  Even better, the Tank’s background is designed to be easily removable as well so a Lego fan could pre build multiple background “cards” and interchange them for either just a new background or as part of an entire new theme.

    I was also happy with some of my mini builds.  The tiny “easter island head” caught a lot of peoples’ eyes.  That was made with some basic parts, a roller skate, and a pick axe. The tiny ship and tiny kraken are also some of my favorite mini builds.
  9. If you built your model digitally, what software did you use to build and render your model?
    I never built it digitally until I was getting super close to 10K as I anticipated the Lego Ideas team requesting instructions.  At that point, I used Bricklink’s Studio software.
  10. If you used custom stickers or prints for your design, how did you create them or where did you get them?
    My design does have a few “Prints”.  To make the little Prawn that lives in the helmet, I printed a prawn graphic onto a clear sheet, cut that out, and then wrapped the minifig head with it.

    For the fish, I meticulously hand painted the 3 fish to look like a clown fish, blue tang, and Moorish idol.  I painted them for pseudo realism, rather than cartoonish looks so they wouldn’t be forced to be associated to Finding Nemo, but could also work for that sub theme if desired.
  11. If Lego selects your design for production, do you have any ideas/hopes regarding the product design?
    If the set came with two themes, but a third theme was developed, I think it would be cool if the parts for the 3rd theme could be put into a promotional poly bag that would be given out with purchase during a limited period upon its debut.  Just an idea.

    Since there are currently no exclusive parts in my set as I built it from existing parts, I think it would be amazing if any or all of the following were possible:
    1. Make the two types of clips that connect the fish to the polls in trans clear.
    2. Print 3 or more different fish designs.  Those would make greatexclusive parts since there are no minifigs in this set.
    3. If there is a larger window piece on the horizon of Lego’s parts inventory, this set would be improved by not having a seam in the front main window.  I’m sure a larger window part would become a fan favorite too!
    4. It would be great if the product came with at least two themes in the box.  I made quite a few themes that were not 3rd party such as:
      1. Main theme
      2. Coral Reef theme
      3. Sunken Pirate Ship
      4. Kraken and Ship

About LEGO Ideas

  1. Do you have any useful advice about creating a successful LEGO Ideas project?
    My main advice would be to look for inspiration from your own life and what surrounds you. Then of course you have to find a way to make your idea stand out. That can either be done by making it look very polished, making it big, making it intricate, or making something that is already a popular theme. I like to mix mechanical features in; perhaps you have a personal strength or style to lean on. Mainly, make something you want, not just something you think others will vote for, and see how it goes.

  2. What (if any) methods did you use to advertise and attract support to your Product Idea?
    I posted links on facebook Lego groups and my main thing was my youtubevideos.  Many sites shun posting links to your own projects, so its hard to find ways to get noticed.
  3. 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 that made it was the Wall-E Set.   
    The Food Stand set was a great one that was not selected.  I of course wish my Adventure Baby Squad or my Arcade Game would have gotten more attention.  I really like this one set called Tiny Creatures or something, but it doesn’t seem to be on Ideas anymore.
  4. What is it about the platform that attracts you? What tips would you give to anyone who is thinking about uploading an idea
    I like the everyman concept.  That any of us can have a chance to make it to the Lego big leagues.  Many Lego fans consider working for Lego to be a dream, and since that’s not going to be possible for most of us, Lego ideas is a way to get a slice of that dream.  The idea of having Lego make one of your designs into a set would be such a high honor and incredible dream come true.
  5. 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?
    I still aim to revitalize my Handheld Arcade set.  I also might make some revisions to Adventure Baby Squad in hopes that it takes off with its second chance.
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