When I first came across Shobrick‘s photography, I was blown away. Compared to most LEGO photographers, his overall aesthetic sensibility combined with the ability to create real drama and emotion using our favorite plastic toys are truly cut from a different cloth. To be precise, apparently these skills are cut from Parisian cloth, seeing as how the AFOL in question hails from Paris, France. I interviewed Shobrick quite a bit ago, but haven’t had the time to get this piece together until now. Luckily not much is out of date, so read on to get a privileged look into the process of a real LEGO artist. It’s been a while since there’s been a longer interview here on Ka-GO, so in case you’ve forgotten how things work around here, don’t forget to click the image thumbnails to zoom in for a much needed better look at Shobrick‘s work. You won’t be disappointed!
First thing’s first. Can you tell us how you first got into LEGO? What were your earliest sets?
Sorry I can’t remember how I got into LEGO. My first sets were like every kid’s sets, [I was just] building different things with the bricks…nothing special. What I remember is that I was creating stories with LEGO in a very cinematographic way. I mean, [I built] mostly action scenes. My eye was the camera trying to catch the best angle. [I'd] remake the scene if it wasn’t good. My face [would be] very close to the minifigs, not to keep an eagle’s view on the action [but instead something] almost like a movie director’s point of view. I remember being strongly influenced by movies or series and recreating scenes, and sometimes continuing the story where [a] movie [would] end.
Your cinematic approach to LEGO is very apparent in your work. Your images practically scream, “Feature film!” From conversations with different FOLs, many of us who create our own creations do so from a place of dissatisfaction with what TLG is offering at any given time. That’s not meant to be a “diss” to TLG; it’s just natural with any building toy that many of us start to want to build the things we’re into that just aren’t available. I remember trying to build Silverhawks and X-Men out of LEGO as a kid. Did you do the same sort of thing? What did you often find yourself building? Do these themes find their way into your current work at all?
Yeah sure, I remember building some WWII scenes, some sci-fi—mixing Star Wars and mecha—and some Middle Ages scenes. But it wasn’t about creating something very [pre-existing] like X-Men, [but instead] it was [about] making something new…mixing all kind of influences. I believe we are all strongly influenced by our childhood, so yeah, I assume these themes are visible in my current work.
You mentioned WWII, and I’ve also noticed that there’s a strong military streak in your MOCs and photos. Any particular reason? Going back to the last question, was it limiting to you that LEGO has never done much in terms of military themes or sets? Is this part of why we see so much of this in your work today?
It’s difficult to me to understand why most of my MOCs are all about military. If you look at the customization community, you have the choice between medieval military, WWII military, modern military and sci-fi military…so that’s partly why it’s all about military in my pics: you don’t really have [a] choice! Even LEGO sets are all about action…people fighting each other with swords or weapons.
Besides, I like realism. That’s why modern military is fine to me. The modern military figs are full of details, and none [of the] LEGO manufacturers are providing a lot of products for modern military. Not sure [if] it’s because of LEGO’s limitations on [such] themes, [but] I believe it’s good that they are not getting into it. It [seems] healthier this way. Kids can make their imagination work by creating some sci-fi MOCs [rather] than [just] recreating “Saving Private Ryan”.
There are a couple of photos on your Flickr stream that you warn are for mature viewers because of violent content. Is it hard to balance your own need to express adult-oriented themes with the fact that LEGO’s intended as a child’s toy?
Sometimes when you don’t feel good you have to express your darker sides. Besides it’s funny to experiment [by mixing] a child’s toy with violence or sexuality. It’s not hard cause when I made the ethnic cleansing MOC I didn’t balance it at all. Actually LEGO figs are just a means to achieve a result that has nothing to do with childhood. It’s just easier to make a scene with figs than real people. What I don’t like to do it’s to mix LEGO with sexuality, cause the minifigs are not sexualized…they don’t have shapes and that’s better this way.
Most of your work with LEGO seems mostly limited to minifigs. Do you do much building aside from working with custom figs?
There is a simple [reason] for that, I only have access to minifigs. All my [childhood] bricks remain at my parent’s home. I couldn’t and I wouldn’t want to clutter up my flat in Paris. Besides, if I consider adding some building work to my pics, it means a lot more work, and, sometimes, I really don’t have the time. At first it was just a hobby to spend some time, and I believe I want it to remain this way for the moment. [Maybe someday it will] become more than a hobby…maybe I’ll be able to earn something from it.
You seem to be a pretty visually-oriented person. Were you always drawn to the visual side of LEGO, even as a kid? More specifically, did you find yourself getting into the marketing photography from set boxes, instructions, and advertisements? I ask because your photos have an element about them that brings me back to the days when I’d stare at LEGO photos from product catalogs and boxes. Were they an influence at all?
I’m glad you talked about that, cause you made me realize this: indeed, I believe I’ve always been fascinated by the visual side of LEGO boxes! I remember spending a lot of time [looking at] the LEGO magazine, where you see the products in a realistic environment and the figs in action. I did stare [at] the catalogs and boxes a lot just like you. I believe I’m trying to recreate that. Thanks [for making] me realize it.
No problem. It was just something that came up for me while looking at your work and I just had to ask! Have you always been into photography? How did the two interests—photography and LEGO—come together?
Actually I came back to LEGO because I was bored. I always need to create by drawing, taking pictures, [or] making movies. At that time I was trying to find new and cheaper ways to express my creativity. So I realized toy photography was the best way. It’s easy, fast, and you can achieve impressive results. It’s really close to a movie without the animation and the sound. It’s a good way to improve your photography and editing skills. I learn quite a lot of things [from it] that I use for my [professional] work.
Quite a bit of your work is based on recreating or extending scenes from movies—Star Wars, The Boondock Saints, Inglourious Basterds, HEAT, etc. Aside from being the subject matter of your work, your photographs also have a visible cinematic influence, but I’m not sure how intentional that is. Aside from the films you focus on for their content—the story, characters, etc.—what sorts of films would you say have influenced your eye for setting up scenes and vignettes? You’ve already touched on the connection, but specifically I’d say your “set-up” is very reminiscent of how a director or cinematographer might think about mise-en-scène in a film. Is that something you’ve thought much about?
Yeah, I hope this is quite visible in my pics. I have an addiction to cinema. I’ve been in a cinema school, and I work mostly in audio-video (TV or Cinema). It’s hard to find a job, and I don’t fully earn [a living at it] yet. But I work hard so I can make a living as a movie or commercial director. I’ve made several shorts. I just finished a commercial and I’m working on a music clip.
Nice! It’s great to see this link between LEGO and other visual projects. On a more general note, how did your personal “style” of LEGO photography develop? For example, did you always work to create whole scenes or did that develop over time? Did you always incorporate the backdrops? How did you get to the point of favoring practical special effects—fire, lighting, backlit backgrounds via computer monitors—rather than digital compositing and photo editing?
I’ll start at the end. It’s well known that live effects are always better than editing. [For example,] it’s still true [that] nowadays, maybe [even for the last] 20 years, that the fire effect will be as good as the true one. Besides it’s really faster and easier; you don’t have to spend hours on your computer trying to achieve an effect. Even though most of my pics are edited retouched, some of them are not. [Take] “Stormtrooper RIP“, [where I] only resized the pic [without] touching the contrast or colors. That’s a real pleasure when you know you don’t have to retouch it. The background with the computer is a great idea. (Not mine…I got it from [Flickr user] Bleau Aquino). The result is a perfect integration without having to spend hours on [Photoshop]. Besides, you can adjust your background to match your live lighting.
In [the last pic above], you have a good example. I used a green filter on my desk lamp and made the sky from the pic on the computer screen match with it…a really easy and efficient technique. Or you can do [like they do] in the movies [and] put a green or blue screen behind your set. I’ve never tried this. I should…
You’ve got a pretty unique angle on this whole AFOL hobbyist thing. I don’t know of too many who are focusing on the photography side of things. You were even doing comics for a while and, more recently, you’ve branched off into selling high quality prints and t-shirts of your artwork. Can you share a little bit about what that’s like? For example, how did you end up deciding to set up shop? How do you get the word out there about the products you have available? Have you tried to reach out to customers outside of the AFOL circles?
I’ll start by [answering] your last question. I’ve tried to contact [desktop] wallpaper and laptop skin websites to sell my work without success. I’m not sure who can be interested outside of AFOLs. I think I’m gonna try to contact LEGO. Maybe I could make some commercials for them. Who knows?
The idea of selling prints was to help me win a bit of money so I could spend less for new creations. Actually I didn’t earn a dime yet with Red Bubble. I’ve seen some others AFOL artists selling prints like Alex Eylar aka Profound Whatever, so I said, “Why not?”
The only way to promote my shop is to put some links under new uploads in the comments.
Okay, last question. You seem to be a pretty visionary AFOL. I’d love to know what other directions you’d like to take LEGO into. Where would you like to see your work go in the next 10 years? Outside of your own type of work, in what other ways would you like to see the LEGO community expand this hobby?
In the next ten years? I’m not sure [if] in ten years I’ll continue to make [these] kinds of creations. I’d rather make some movies. You know, this hobby is just a way [for me] to be close to movie creation.
I think different builders and artist should work together to make huge and impressive vignettes. I mean I’d like to work with Pecovam, but I would love to take pictures of his figs [and put them] into great builds. For example, if I could put some custom figs on a giant destroyed city for a Weird War diorama, that would be cool. Maybe I’m gonna start to build…
The community should mix up the different skills a little bit more. Building, customizing, and lighting skills should be seen more often. But there is already some really talented guys working out there, making AFOLs a great and creative community [of people].