The Lego Baron: Inside the mind of expert Lego builder Baron Von Brunk
Lego blocks aren't just for kids anymore. If anything, adults may have cornered the market on its awesomeness. Here, people are constructing motorized wheelchairs from Lego blocks and Mindstorms NXT kits. There, people are making microscopes, supercomputers, fully functional go-karts, and giant NES controllers that can double as a coffee table if you're willing to risk an electrical malfunction of epic proportions.
Meet Julius “The Baron” Von Brunk.
Baron Von Brunk, whose work we've featured several times before, claims a life-long fondness for the popular line of construction toys (he even has a Lego minifig tattoo). "My first Lego sets were given to me around age 2 or 3 (to hell with those choking hazard warnings!) back in the mid-1980s when Lego models were simpler and didn’t have licensed tie-ins (like Star Wars or Harry Potter)," Von Brunk told GeekTech. "The word 'Lego' was actually the first word I learned how to spell—far before my own first name Julius."
Von Brunk says he's been building custom Lego models for as long as he can remember. However, it wasn't until late 2011—at a burlesque show, no less—that it occurred to him that he would need to build something special to catapult him into the public eye.
“Basically, my lack of feedback initially was discouraging me, and I needed to make one helluva massive creation to put my name in Lego history—thus the idea for the Fireflower airship was born!”
Months of work followed, and by February 2012, he was done with the massive re-creation of the Super Mario 3-inspired airship. Though impressive in its own right, it wasn't the Fireflower airship exactly that set the Internet's heart a-flutter.
As he built the airship, Von Brunk stumbled across the idea of crafting Mario- and Luigi-themed Transformers that could turn into life-sized NES controllers. It didn't quite work out. Logistical issues arose, thereafter leading Von Brunk into abandoning some of his initial plans. Though they were no longer styled after what is arguably the world's best loved plumbers, the Legoformers eventually came into being.
And that's when fame struck:
"Right after its initial hype, the airship was completed and photographed, and sure enough went viral—and received the same praise from the earlier websites, who said things like, 'Remember a few weeks back when we showed that awesome Nintendo Zapper Transformer? Well, the guy who built it finally outdid himself. . . Behold, The Fireflower!' Domaster was also a huge success when released in mid-March 2012; it lit up Reddit, Tumblr, and Twitter respectively! The result was a significant increase to my Facebook fanbase, more Twitter/Tumblr followers, and of course a personal e-mail from Nintendo Power and Nintendo Gamer magazines asking me to do interviews!"
Since then, Von Brunk has come up with a variety of impressive Lego models, the most recent of which is his giant, working (!) coffee table-sized NES controller. When asked about what possessed him to create it, Von Brunk explained that it was a "bastard byproduct of an aborted shot of achieving fame."
"Long story short: In June 2012, I was contacted by Ripley’s Believe it or Not! in Times Square to do a publicity stunt—to create a giant Lego statue from start to finish, nonstop, televised for the public—and the statue had to be a humorous or obscure monument for a random day in July.”
Von Brunk and the people behind Ripley's Believe it Or Not! bantered a few ideas back and forth. In the end, in spite of protests from Von Brunk, they came to an agreement: Von Brunk would build a massive Lego replica of the Batmobile for the event. He was then given a stipend with which he later purchased "thousands upon thousands of black and gray bricks."
Unfortunately, in the aftermath of the tragic theater shooting in Aurora, CO, the plan was called off, and Von Brunk was left with a veritable landslide of monochromatic bricks.
Negotiations began anew. After realizing that 25th anniversary of the North American release of Legend of Zelda was but a week away, he pitched the idea of developing a 5-foot-long replica of the original NES controller. Too impatient to wait for a response, he began drafting the blueprints in earnest. One way or another, he wanted to make the controller.
(Ripley's PR company said no and, at the time of this interview, it seems as though they're still talking things through.)
Although he isn't the first to create a giant NES controller, Von Brunk is the first to develop something like entirely out of Lego blocks. Approximately 5 feet long and a foot tall, the controller sports A and B buttons that are almost the size of compact discs.
Von Brunk explains:
“The mechanism for making the buttons retract when pressed is actually the result of using Lego Technic shock absorbers, and underneath each large button is a smaller Radio Shack push-button module that’ll eventually be soldered to the circuitry of an actual vintage NES controller from eBay.”
“If this makes any sense—since it sounds like an oxymoron—my mechanism of making the buttons work is both blatantly simple yet needlessly complicated! [...] The simple function is making a large button press down on a smaller button. You push a button that pushes another button! Simple? Then it’s a matter of measuring the proper clearance of buttons within their tracks, pull load of the springs, lining up the large buttons to be flush with the smaller buttons underneath, and of course making the system not too complicated so that repairs are easy and quick—but making the system too easy allows for weaker structure and enhanced probability of the large buttons collapsing from pressure!
With making the controller, the basic premise of buttons pushing other buttons is easy, yet the sheer mechanics require a sense of engineering in its own art form."
Did you get all that? Good.
Now that he completed his gargantuan masterpiece ode to 1980s gaming, Von Brunk has plans on making something even more impressive:
"I’m trying not to be a one-trick pony with the Legoformers, however I am acquiring pieces to make the ultimate robot of that caliber: a large transforming Nintendo 64 console with transforming controllers and small army of games! The completed N64 robot will resemble a Japanese mecha in terms of its design, and its minions will turn into various N64 titles that I enjoyed as a preteen—including Crusin’ USA, Pilotwings 64, Donkey Kong 64, San Francisco Rush, and maybe even Bomberman 64! For all we know, perhaps my dream of getting a public SoHo art exhibit devoted to Lego models will be a reality, and the NES controller would be the main draw rather than the Fireflower ship."
We wish him all the luck because, really, there can never be too much Lego.