Justin Fong, better known to the AFOL world as the purveyor of Tin7 Creations, is a prolific minifig customizer who leaves no fictional universe untouched to bring us brickified versions our favorite characters. Whether it’s minifig versions of one’s favorite personalities from the Marvel Universe, the magical world of Harry Potter, or the ouevre of the Disney Studios, Justin’s on a mission to decal, sculpt, paint, and mix ‘n’ match his way to producing some rather creative works of art. Ka-GO got an exclusive look into how things work over at Tin7 Creations. There are tons of images to really get into the head of one of the most productive AFOLs out there, so click any image below to zoom in for a closer look.
How long have you been playing with LEGO? Do you remember what the first sets and/or minifigs you came across?
I’ve been playing with LEGO since I was 4. I’m 23 now; so I’ve been playing with LEGO for 19 years. The first LEGO set I owned was Set #1879, which is the blue bucket. The first minifigs I came across are, of course, from that set too.
When did you start customizing minifigs? (Not necessarily to the extent that you do now, but even just the early days of mixing and matching different parts.) Did you always try to recreate characters from different movies, comics, etc.? Either way, what sorts of minifigs were you creating in the beginning?
Well, if you put it that way, I’ve been customizing minifigs since I was 6; which was way back in 1994. I don’t really remember what the “first” minifigs I made were. However, back then I was pretty obsessed with the original “X-Men” animated series.
I began to mix and match official LEGO parts to make X-Men. I’ve always tried to recreate characters from popular culture; rarely creating my own characters. After all, it’s always easier to remake something that someone else has already made.
When did you move into doing custom minifig versions of popular characters? Why or how did you start? What were the first ones?
My customization skills have grown a long way since those original X-Men figs from back in the early 1990s. I first moved into “actual” customization (ie. decals, Sculpey, etc), when I was 15. I first started this type of customization when I came across some of Redbean and Armothe’s custom minifigs.
It was then that I realized all the possibilities that could come from custom parts. The first of these creations were Disney. If you look through my flickr thread, there are some photographs of old Disney figures. All of these creations are gone now though; I ran out of storage room for all my Sculpey customs, so the old (horribly made) ones had to go!
How many figures have you created? What do you do with them afterwards? Do you have copies of each or do you disassemble them for future figs?
I’ve created over 120 minifigs. I save up the minifigs, and try the hardest NOT to disassemble them. This is one reason why I mostly buy extra parts off BrickLink, and then use these parts in my creations. I do not disassemble official minifigs for parts unless I absolutely have to. However, sometimes I do go through a process I call “minifigure reclamation”, which involves taking back parts for future use. But this rarely, rarely happens.
How do you select a “theme” to do? Do you have certain “standards” you consider, like a general number of characters, current popularity, etc.? If so, what are they?
I mainly select a theme based on my current obsessions. However, sometimes I might come across a minifig online, and think to myself “I can make a better one”, and so I will try my hand at making the same fig.
I try to pick themes that have a vast amount of characters (ie. Marvel, Harry Potter, etc.) The thing is however, when I make these type of “vast universe” themes, I get countless people begging me to make certain characters; it gets really annoying. Therefore, recently, when selecting a theme, I have also begun planning out exactly how many minifigs I will make, just so those “demands” and “requests” don’t happen.
For many themes, like anime, Marvel, or DC, you see polls of the “Top 20 fan favorite characters”, etc. This is why I try to fill my series with 16-20 minifigs, which is usually more than enough to thoroughly represent a series/theme. This does not apply to my Marvel Cinematic Universe series though, which will continue to fill up as more Marvel related movies are released.
Your custom decal work is pretty impressive. Your designs always look pretty close to LEGO originals. Can you talk a little bit about how you’ve managed to bring LEGO’s general aesthetic to your own custom work?
First off, if you take a look at a lot of my decals, they are just “mixes” of previous decals. For example, take the new Ken minifig from my “Street Fighter” series: his eyes come from a previously made Bucky Barnes fig, his mouth is from the Charlie Weasley fig, the eyebrows are from one of my Last Airbender figs. See the trend?
I’m sort of like a police sketch artist this way: using already existing face decals and mixing and matching them into new face decals. The torso decals are the real pain though; I have to draw each torso from scratch in Photoshop. Here’s a picture of a work-in-progress Akuma minifig. As you can see I use the template to make sure the decals fit together after I re-size and print them out. I literally design into the template.
The torso and face are designed already. The face is a mix/match of the face from my Abomination fig and LEGO’s Lord Voldemort. I will use this template to draw the remainder of the belt and the decals on the legs.
I also try to keep as close to LEGO’s general style. First off, the template makes sure nothing comes out over-sized, and then I have a very strict personal policy about keeping everything to scale.
I’m curious about your use of Sculpey for custom accessories. How did you start using this material and why? What would you say are the advantages of using this medium for customization?
I read on some website that when Sculpey hardens, it has a “LEGO-like look”, so I decided to give it a try. Beginners to customization should begin with Sculpey, as Sculpey gives the user a lot of room for error. There are two ways to cure Sculpey. Boiling it in water gives it a lighter texture, and makes it much easier to manipulate. Baking Sculpey will make it extremely hard, and difficult to fix up any mistakes.
Usually, I make the piece over-scale, then I boil it, after words, I take a knife and I begin carving the piece to a smaller size, and adding fine details. Here’s a picture of the headpiece for my upcoming Balrog minifg. As you can see, the hairpiece is extra thick and round; once I boil it, I will take a knife and trim it. The second is a picture of the hairpiece for my upcoming Vega minifig; it is awaiting painting.
When you create custom minifigs, what’s the general process? What’s the research phase look like? Do you sketch at all?
I do sketches of hairpieces and torso designs first; then I design the decal on the computer. After that I print them out, stick the decals on the fig; and if everything looks good, I begin work on the hairpiece.
The research phase basically means that I will spend a few moments looking at photographs of the character I’m making; these may include screenshots, theatrical posters, or even watching the movie and pausing when the character shows up on screen.
Below are some of the sketches I’ve done for previous figs. You can see here how these figs have turned out and compare them to their original sketches.
What other characters do you want to do customs of? Do you ever solicit ideas from other folks?
I try not to take ideas from others. The characters I make customs of are already someone else’s idea; I’m remaking them, I don’t need other voices telling me how to improve upon them. Since, if I try to incorporate other people’s ideas, it tends to go overboard, because everyone thinks that their idea is the most important, and everyone believes that their idea needs to be included, so it will mess up the series.
It also doesn’t seem that I need to solicit ideas from other people; since in general, people have been happy with the minifigs that I make. I do take advice though. There are some other talented customizers out there who give me advice; what I should do more of, or how I can improve on certain techniques, and I take note of them. As long as it helps me improve, I’m all for it!
As for minifigs that I want to make…well, making minifigs is time consuming. My Marvel series is continuous (or until Marvel Studios stops making movies) and the “Street Fighter” series is still in progress, so I have no time to plan for other minifigs yet.
I have thought about making “Inception” minifigs, but the characters seem too generic; there’s no challenge in making characters who are all wearing the same suit. I’ve also thought about doing “Scooby Doo” and other Hanna Barbera characters (ie. “The Flintstones”, “The Jetsons”, etc). I’ve already designed the Flintstone decals, and made them available to the public. Maybe I’ll make actual figs of them in the future.
Outside of LEGO, do you have any other creative outlets? Do you sculpt outside of custom accessories? Do you draw or design outside of the decals?
LEGO is my only passion. It’s the only childhood toy that stuck to me like the plague. I used to draw comics and little sketches, but since I began drawing LEGO, it seems that I’ve forgotten how to draw anything else. Mostly, all I do now is design decals.