Holly Jolly Conifers

Last year I wanted to build something for Christmas in LEGO Worlds. As visions of sugarplums began to dance through my head, I started to ponder on some design ideas. However, at the beginning of November the LEGO Worlds team launched another contest, and the theme was Winter Wonderland. Perfect timing! Now... What kind of winter wonderland? What is a winter wonderland anyway? Winter wonderland doesn’t have a very solid definition; we use it commonly to describe places and scenes yet we all seem to have a differing definition of it.

What is wonder? The dictionary describes wonder as “a feeling of surprise mingled with admiration, caused by something beautiful, unexpected, unfamiliar, or inexplicable.” Initially when most people think of wonder they think of magical fantasy, but according to the definition, ‘wonder’ has sort of a realistic element to it. Wonder could be a snowy forest, or a skiing resort, or a candy land, or a frozen lake, or maybe a combination of these. What if you’re in a different hemisphere? That could make a tropical vacation a winter wonderland too. The contest was going to get a lot of entries like sled rides and snowy forests, and those are fun to make, but I wanted to build something different that would stand out. I’ve been studying architecture, and I like Christmas trees... What could combine the two? I pondered this for a week or so and then it hit me. A Christmas tree farm!

Farms are places of a lot of dirty work, and yet they strike something at the core of us that says, home; which is beautiful. When you’re entering a contest you want your entry to be very beautiful. Farms have their own beauty about them, but they may not always strike beauty to begin with. I have to take something that isn’t always pretty and find the beautiful and wondrous elements in it. Capturing that sense of wonder is the challenge. Albrect Dürer was a master at this and maybe even the greatest of all time. Dürer would study realism and detail in great depth so that he could later bring that element to his work. It was especially effective when he wanted to depict scenes from scripture in a realistic way; scenes that he obviously was not a first person witness to. I try to digest as many tips from him as possible. 

Where to start? What is the central part of a farm? It’s the Barn. That is the hub of where all work begins and ends so that is the place to start. Let’s build a barn. Sounds simple right? But just think about how many barns you could make... The barn could be two-stories, or it could be a different color from the traditional red, or you could make a rectangular barn, or a square barn, or even an octagonal barn (yes that really does exist). There are roof styles, door styles and window styles. The list goes on and on. My next step was to figure out which combination would best describe a Christmas tree farm barn.

Prototyping plays a large role in any building project, and before you start prototyping you need input and research. It’s your friend in prototyping. I personally love to use the website Pinterest for my input and research. Pinterest is a website where people upload pictures of all sorts of creative things, from food to Christmas tree farms and everything in-between. It’s great tool because it allows me to see designs all around the world in a very short amount of time. I looked at a ton of barns on Pinterest. This allowed me to study real barns before building mine, which was a lot quicker and easier than driving around the country looking for barns. Prototyping is a lot like rough drafts. You don’t know the perfect way to do it, but you have to build or write something in order to improve it. Prototyping also saves a ton on time and materials. By making a bunch of small tests you can easily see what is the right path and what isn’t. In my case it saved time, but if you’re doing a real world project it can save you a ton of materials too. Prototyping in previous projects can even help with later ones. For example, before building the barn I had already built a gambrel roof on my watermill, so building the gambrel roof for the barn went a lot faster since I already spent time testing the proportions of that roof style. 

Many times you end up with multiple prototypes that work in your project, which is difficult in its own sense because then you have to choose. When prototyping the shutters on the windows, I ended up with three designs that all looked really nice. It was hard to choose just one. But now there are three variants of shutters that I can use as assets on future models. That is a little bit about one of my projects and the process that I go through to get started.

Building the model was one challenge, but to really tell the story I wanted to tell I had to dig into the power of lighting and photography. In this project I learned how to use the sound of light. Light is like an instrument of art; it can be used to completely change the tempo and rhythm of any scene. Lighting was key all throughout the making of this model. Everything from the Christmas lights, to the candles in the windows, to the stars, to the lamps on the path, to even the position of the moon made a huge difference in how the pictures looked. If the moon were in the wrong spot, the barn would be too dark. If the candles weren’t in the windows, they would be too dark and lifeless. Everything had to work together. With all the lighting techniques put together, it successfully captured the silence and calm in the air of a cold, snowy winter night. And by the end I felt that I could even hear different Christmas songs in each photo.

Welcome to Holly Jolly Conifers! Let’s take a walk through the farm.

This picture is my favorite. I love the lighting elements in this scene; even the stars played a huge role. I wanted to create the feeling of hundreds of fairy lights, but there aren’t many lights in LEGO Worlds and if I decorated all the trees with light up bricks your eye would be distracted from the focal point of the barn. The stars fill that gap perfectly. They almost give the effect of falling snow too. Now the stars were working beautifully, but then–oh no, the barn door was pitch-black. This was definitely going to be a problem; after all, dark doors aren’t very welcoming. (Unless you are Batman.) I placed a spotlight underground to cast light on the doors and bring them to life. Fortunately light goes through bricks in LEGO Worlds so I was able to bury it under the snow bricks without any problems. The spotlight used is actually from a completely different LEGO theme, the Classic Space theme. It would look really weird in this scene if it weren’t nestled underground. If you watch the picture long enough, you can almost hear “Believe” by Glen Ballard and Alan Silvestri, sung by Josh Groban for The Polar Express movie soundtrack.

After reviewing pictures, I realized that there weren’t any shots capturing the side of the barn. On the right side of the barn the roof was so dark it lost its texture. However, the moon beautifully lit the left side of the barn. Now we were getting somewhere, but the picture had to be taken at the right time or else the moon would cast creepy shadows from the trees. It should be noted that LEGO Worlds has a day/night schedule. Fortunately it didn’t take long to find the perfect moment because there’s a handy tool you can use to change the time of day; although you still end up stalking the light like a photographer in real life.

The roof had texture again, but sadly the windows were still lifeless. At that moment I got an idea, why not place candles in the windows? After putting candles in the windows the barn’s eyes came to life, like the scene in Frosty the Snowman when Frosty comes to life and announces, “Happy Birthday!” Makes me want to peek inside to see the dancers dancing to Tchaikovsky’s “Russian Dance” from The Nutcracker.

In this picture the soft light from the lamps pull your eyes into the scene, and makes you feel like you’re walking through a frozen zen garden. The shadows and lights cast just enough texture on the stone, to the point that you can almost hear stone and ice crushing under each footstep.

The key to this one was the light from the lamps. Without them, you wouldn’t feel immediately welcomed into the scene or get the feeling like you can hear the sounds around the scene. When viewing this photo some people say they feel like the landscape lights skip through the gesture of the driveway to Tchaikovsky’s, “Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy” from The Nutcracker. I tend to hear “Seeing Is Believing” by Alan Silvestri, from The Polar Express. The opening chimes twinkle with the wonder of lights and stars, then the percussion marches in with the heaviness and mystery of the darkness.

This image walks you through a doorway into frosty pre Christmas day pulling a freshly cut conifer, tired with fingers and nose nipping. Then the sight of the barn rushes in, warming like hot cocoa as thick and rich as melted chocolate bars, with tiny lights swirling around like mini marshmallows. This picture is just prior to golden hour, and the crisp chill is still in the winter air, drawing you to the warmth of the festive barn. I had to wait for the perfect moment to grab the shot. If the sun were too high in the sky the barn would feel cold, but if the sun were too far into golden hour the warmth in the air would melt the frostiness of the picture. Getting the mix between daytime and golden hour was well worth the wait. If you look closely at the roof, you can notice there’s a lot of texture on it. In LEGO Worlds there’s a thing called ‘color palettes’ which will paint textures on bricks rather than just a solid color. This enhances the painterly feel of the model with a Monet type effect. Knowing how to work with this tool elevates a model of plastic bricks to a scene that you feel you could actually walk into.

The composition of this picture gives a sense of wonder, rhythm, and excitement. You can almost hear “Sleigh Ride” by The Carpenters playing in the background, right at the moment they sing, “There’s a Christmas party at the home of farmer Gray, it’ll be the perfect ending of a perfect day...”The diagonal composition of the scene offers an energy and flow unlike the others. And the trees’ intersecting angles raise the volume of the scene. The wagon trails flow into the open door, leading you into the picture. All of these together give the picture a beat that reminds me of “Sleigh Ride”. Oh, and there’s also a farmer. This picture was taken at the last minute and I only realized how good it was later on. I even tried to recreate the same picture again, but I couldn’t get the same lighting as in this one. Sometimes you just get really lucky.

After finishing and literally taking a step back to look at my photos, I learned so much more about what actually inspires me to turn a feeling into something you can see in a model or on a page. Movies, music, and other artists have influenced my building without me realizing it. While writing this paper, I noticed that the third picture has an extremely similar composition to the scene when the Polar Express first appears in the movie. The Polar Express scene wasn’t in my mind when creating the barn or taking the pictures, but it happened. In future projects I plan to more consciously include those things in my project process, and continue to use the power of lighting to tell any story. 


Bibliography & Resources

  • Artist of the Reformation, The Story of Albrecht Dürerby Joyce Mcpherson
  • Believeby Glen Ballard and Alan Silvestri, sung by Josh Groban
  • Close to You: Remembering The Carpenters (documentary) MPI Home Video, PBS
  • The Creative Habit, Learn it and Use it for Life: A Practical Guide by Twyla Tharp
  • Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky
  • Geometry of Design: Studies in Proportion and Composition by Kimberly Elam
  • Johann Sebastian Bach by Rick Marschall
  • New Oxford American Dictionary by Angus Stevenson & Christine A. Lindberg
  • The Polar Express by Chris Van Allsburg
  • The Polar Express (film)
  • Russian Dance by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky
  • Seeing Is Believing by Alan Silvestri

Big thanks to:

  • TT Games for creating LEGO Worlds
  • Chris Rose
  • And the entire TT Games development team.