(Pocket-lint) - As regular Pocket-lint readers will know, we do like to cover Lego here on the site. We were lucky enough to speak to Lego's vice president of design Matthew Ashton about various brick-related topics including keeping Lego relevant for the future, Lego Movie 2 and his favourite set (it's the Ewok Village).
Matthew is also one of the lead judges on the second series of the Lego Masters TV series on Channel 4 in the UK. He says the bar has been raised from the first run: "The format of the show is pretty much the same, but we are upping the stakes of the challenges," says Ashton. "Things are getting a little bit more complicated, and there's a little bit more jeopardy as well. We are seeing a few more smashes this year than last year."
"But we're also really pushing the boundaries on creativity and getting them to do some unexpected things out of Lego."
Ashton says that one of the reasons why he loves doing the show is that this is one of his only interactions with fans that actually build models. "Being able to put a million bricks in their hands and see what they come up with and what each of the different teams creates from the same brief is really exciting," he says.
"The variety within the challenges are really different, and that makes this really exciting week by week, because you expect certain contestants to be good at something, but then if the challenges don't match their abilities and things, then that's where everything gets a little bit fraught and a little more emotional as well."
The Second Part
Even more excitingly, Ashton is an executive producer on Lego Movie 2: The Second Part which will be released on 8 February 2019. "My role is working on the look of the movie. What characters look like and everything. I work directly with the animation studio called Animal Logic that works with Warner Bros."
"The design team is based in Denmark at [Lego] headquarters, the story and director teams are based in LA and animation's based in Vancouver, so there are a lot of late night video conferences and travelling backwards and forwards."
"I also coordinate toy development from our side. When we're reviewing the scripts and the storyboards and animatics … we're like, 'Actually this would make a really good toy,' and then we co-develop that with the animation and art teams at the studio to make sure we create something that does everything that it needs to do, be as action packed as it needs to be in the movie and then also makes a really good playable, buildable toy at the same time."
Ashton has been working on the movie for the last 3 years from the original pitch right up until Christmas. "It's a lot of hard work, but it's also really rewarding because at the end of the day when you get to see something that you've helped create in the cinema and the toy line on shelves."
We ask if the movie-related sets talk longer to develop. "The movie is pretty much in development for ... from a visual perspective, probably like two, two and half years ... usually, we'd lock a product anything between 18 months and 12 months before it's launched. There's much more reiterating that we do with the movie product, because a story develops and you realise, 'Oh this car that we've designed for the movie, it may actually need different functions than what we originally planned,' so things need revising."
The future of the brick
It's the 60th anniversary of the Lego brick this year so we asked Matthew about what makes Lego stand out as a toy and what direction Lego could take in the future. "The Lego play promise in itself is something that's very different to a lot of toys in the first place because I think what Lego gives the kid is a real pride of creation."
"Obviously if you play with an action figure or different types of toys, then you're just role-playing, but the fact with Lego that you actually build something yourself, whether it's following instructions or something that's completely out of your imagination. Once you have completed that you have a real sense of pride that not a lot of other toys give."
"I think that's the one thing that we really want to make sure that we hold on to, with whichever products we develop in the future, is this open-ended creativity, it's always gonna be about construction, but you can add different storytelling elements to that, you can add different technologies to it and things, to make it all seem very up-to-date and to keep it relevant for kids of today."
"It may be adding a digital layer to things that we do, or to add different storytelling components or something. It's a bit difficult for me to talk about without going into specifics that I'm not allowed to!"
"I think building and creating is something that's inherent to a lot of kids, and they're going the want to do whether it's physically or digitally, and that's just one of the things that we really want to hold on to with all of our toys."
We were keen to find out from Matthew what his day-to-day role looks like. "I have an advisory role across the whole portfolio of toys that we create. I think we do something like 320 toys a year. I have to go in and check with each of those different teams. A lot of the teams are self-sufficient, so it's only real new initiatives that I'm really involved in."
"I do product reviews where I meet with one of the design managers who's overseeing one of the product lines, whether that's Star Wars, or Harry Potter or something, and then review what the designers have been working on. That's pretty much the closest thing to what my judging is like on the TV … see what's working well, and then come with any advice."
"If we're trying to push new initiatives across the portfolio, like introducing new colours, or effects or technologies, we have meetings on that."
We were also keen to ask Matthew how he got into his role at Lego. "When I was a kid, I remember playing with my brother's Lego thinking, 'I want to be a toy designer when I grow up'."
"But back then, I didn't know any toy designers, I didn't really think it was a real thing, it was just like, 'Oh that's Tom Hanks does in Big,' or that's what Santa's little helpers do and it's not actually a real job. I then went to art college and then decided to go in a different direction, and did fashion design at Brighton University, and then when I graduated we had to do our runway show at graduate fashion week."
"You only get a really tiny space to display your work, so fashion designers either hanged up one garment or a mood board and then had their portfolio there."
"And because I was a bit indecisive and couldn't decide what to do, I did a miniature version of my entire collection on Barbie dolls and had them in a glass case at this exhibition."
"Somebody from Lego was talent scouting there, and happened to walk past my stand completely by accident and really liked it."
"They needed somebody to work in the girl's department with a bit more of a fashion angle. My little dream as a 7- or 8-year-old, whatever it was, came true just by being in the right place at the right time with the right stuff."
On a related note we asked Matthew about the thorny issue of Lego made for girls versus girls actually being able to play with any Lego they choose. "Lego was all over the place when I first started. When I first started I was working on an arts and crafts line that was called Clikits, which was snap together jewellery and picture frame and décor system."
"Everything was very fragmented whereas now we're really trying to create much more of a holistic portfolio where we have stuff that is just free creativity for boys or girls, whoever wants to play with it."
Adults vs kids
We move onto talk about the differences between adults and children and how Lego appeals to each. One of the interesting things about Lego Masters is that it showcases the creativity of both. "Obviously the adults in the show have got really great building skills and they know every brick inside out," says Matthew.
"But as they've got older, they've maybe lost a little bit of their imagination and creative spark, whereas you can put the same brief in front of a kid, and they just go crazy, and everything makes sense in their head."
"If you brief an adult to do something, you know pretty much what you're gonna get out of them, whereas if you ask a child to do something, they can go off at a tangent and come up with something completely unexpected that only makes sense in their brain."
We also ask Matthew about the trend for larger sets such as the 7,541 piece Millennium Falcon (which we have built, below) and the 4,634 piece Ghostbusters Firehouse (which Matthew worked on and we haven't built but we want to) - do these larger sets cater more for the adult Lego fan rather than the growing-up child?
"Yes, I think we've acknowledged how important our adult playing community are, and we're probably one of the only toys that has gone on through generation after generation."
"The grandparents played with Lego, and now it's parents and kids. It's just something that goes right the way across the board, and there's such a really nice, nostalgic feel to that."
It's also the 10th anniversary of Lego Ideas this year, the website where fans can submit their own designs and others vote on them. The very best make it into bricks, such as the new pop-up book or the Beatles' Yellow Submarine and Back to the Future DeLorean (which are our two favourites). "We've seen a lot of success with Lego Ideas," says Ashton. "We're definitely carrying on with that."
Adult fans are also "such great advocates for our brand," he continues, "if you go to some of these exhibitions, and see what they set up, and they've spent their entire life collecting Lego and creating either giant train sets or replicas of architectural pieces, or their favourite movies and things. It's really incredible to see what they can do when they get all those bricks in their hands."
"They're very important to us, and we're going to continue making interlocking brick products for them too, not toys!"