Believe It...

This will be one of the longer webpages I've typed up to describe one of my LEGO experiences. It's appropriate, though, given the fact that this project was unlike any other so far.

The Proposal

During the Spring of 2003 I was contacted by the television show Ripley's Believe It Or Not!. They had heard of me through some channels, and I was initial approached because I fell into their category of 'incredible obsessions' or such. They were interested in doing a segment about me for their upcoming season of episodes.

While discussing the possibilities via email and telephone, one of their producers pointed out that they had an upcoming publicity push centered around various "unbelievable" stunts to be performed at their advertising billboard located on Sunset Boulevard in Hollywood. The discussions soon evolved into ideas about the ability to build a giant LEGO mosaic on this billboard.

"Sure, it's doable," I said. "If we have an image, the budget, and the time, we can build any mosaic we want."

Weeks of discussions followed, and finally it was decided that, yes, this would happen. The request was that I be able to build a 10 foot square mosaic of a portrait of the TV show's host: Dean Cain. I would go out to Los Angeles and build the mosaic on the billboard while they filmed the process. Not only would they be getting a publicity stunt, they'd be getting footage for their television show.

Of course, television producers are not mosaic builders, so they did not see any problem with requesting that I build a ten foot square mosaic in one day.

I told them that it was going to take much longer to actually build the thing, so even if they wanted to portray the whole project as being constructed live on Sunset, there was, in reality, going to have to be a lot of prebuilding. They didn't mind; through the magic of editing and creative script writing, they would give the illusion that it was all being built on site (another illusion they wanted to pull off: that this billboard was, like, 30 feet up in the air... it's not, it about 8 feet off the ground -- though that still put the top edge of my mosaic to nearly twenty feet up).

All of the fine points were discussed, a contract was signed, and, lo and behold, Ripley's actually convinced The LEGO Company into donating all of the needed pieces (I was willing to use some out of my supply, but of course that would have cost them more as I'd have to recover material costs).

Pre-production

The mosaic itself required 64 extra large gray baseplates (each 15 inches square) -- this would be a 'studs out' style mosaic. Furthermore, just under 37,000 2x2 bricks were needed (36,864, to be exact). I recommended using 2x2 bricks instread of smaller 1x1s for two reasons: first, since the mosaic would be seen primarily from a substantial distance (over 20' away), we wanted to be sure that people actually realized that I was using actual LEGO bricks -- 1x1s would have been too small... 2x2s would provide a blockier resolution. The other reason to use 2x2s: it would only take about one quarter the time to build the whole thing compared to using 1x1s.

With all of that settled, I awaited the arrival of the pieces. While I was doing some LEGO business down in Orlando a number of big boxes full of loose 2x2 bricks arrived from LEGO. The baseplates quickly followed.

Meanwhile, the folks at Ripley's provided me with a publicity headshot of Mr. Cain which I cropped down to a square.

It took me about two weeks to build the whole thing (here are shots of it laid out at my house in various stages of construction: about halfway done, done except for black pieces).

While building it, I purposely left out the black pieces. This is a trick I recommend to any LEGO mosaicist who is embarking upon a large 'studs out' mosaic. The reason to leave one color out while following instructions is mainly because once complete except for that single color, filling in the empty space is quick work. In this case, black was the most prominent color, so I left it out until the end. This is also a good tactic if you suspect you might need assistance in building from friends who have offered to help but may not be as experienced in LEGO building. Granted, following paint-by-numbers mosaic instructions is easy, but it's even easier to point to a partially built baseplate and say, "wherever it's empty, fill it with [whatever] color."

Since I was going to have to do something out at the billboard, I figured that I'd just haul the remaining black pieces out to Hollywood and fill in those spaces on site. That way I would not need to worry about what colors went where and such... if there was empty space... fill it with black bricks. Turns out, I ended up prebuilding the whole thing (black included) because the production schedule of the film shoot was still up in the air until the last days, so I figured I should be safe rather than sorry.

Once completed, I stacked up the 64 panels and shipped them out to the Ripley offices so they could begin figuring out exactly how it would get mounted on the billboard. Amazingly, that whole 10' square mosaic fit into two cardboard shipping boxes, 16"x16"x16". Granted each box weighed in at over 60 pounds, but it was still very easy to ship this thing across the country.

Production

The (television) production date for my segment of the billboard craziness was set for Monday, 4 August 2003. I was to be flown out on the day before.

A couple of days before leaving, I got a phone call asking if I could bring about 20 blank baseplates and a small mosaic (built on one baseplate) of some image. Ideas were still being tossed around as to how the script would run, and at some point the above items were thought to be needed. I chose to build a grayscale, 15" square, studs-out, mosaic of one of my cats, Qat (I figured, if there was a chance this thing was going to be on televison, why not try to give one of my cats her 15 minutes fame?)

So, along with my clothes, I packed over 20 baseplates into my carry-on duffel bag that I always use when travelling (20 baseplates, even when blank, weigh a lot).

I arrived at LAX about 1 o'clock PDT. Friend-in-LEGO Henry Lim met me at the airport, and after I check into my hotel (which was directly across the street from the billboard), we hung out, I picked up some unused plates that Henry had borrowed from me months ago (another 10 pounds of LEGO to be carried BACK to Auburn on the airplane), and then we met with AFOL Anne Carasik in Pasadena for a relaxing dinner.

The next day was Monday, the big day.

I was told to be on site around 1 o'clock. Still being on Central Time, and being one who usually gets up around 7am, I was awake rather early despite the exhaustion normally associated with flying the previous day. I spent a couple of hours walking about Sunset Blvd. and then returned to the billboard site about 11:30.

Some of the production crew was there already (accomplishing the bazillions of things associated with a televsion shoot... only a small fraction of which involved my LEGO mosaic). We located the two boxes of mosaic plates (which had already been opened and investigated weeks earlier at the production offices on Wilshire Blvd.)

"Hmm... you're missing the first plate," I stated as the top plate in the box was enumerated with a "2" in my handwriting.

"Oh," replied Brian of Ripley's, "it was probably put down at the bottom of the box. We'll get to it."

On the ground behind the billboard we laid out the complete mosaic over the course of about 15 minutes. But guess what? The upper left plate (#1) never materialized.

One hour before I was supposed to start mounting this thing on the billboard, we come to find out that they had lost the very first plate.

I hadn't brought any extra 2x2 bricks. I had, though, brought the schematics for the mosaic as well as all of those extra blank baseplates.

One thing can be said about Hollywood productions: whatever is lost through confusion or inefficiency, is generally made up for with money (or so it is attempted). A production assistant was immediately sent off to acquire a few LEGO buckets at a toy store.

Suddenly my perfectly pre-planned mosaic of exactly 36,864 2x2 bricks was discombobulated by the introduction of non-2x2s. I did not know if three buckets from a toy store was going to provide enough bricks to replace the lost ones, but I had to start right away; and if the supply ran short, I was assured that "we could always buy more."

I scrambled to rebuild the first panel using every brick and plate piece available from those three buckets. 1x1s were used, 1x2s, 2x2s, plates... everything except the slopes and such which were obviously of no help when trying to copy a 2x2-brick based pattern.

I did get it done by the scheduled 1 o'clock time (rebuilding even as I ate my lunch of Thai food), and then the process of actually mounting the thing started. Various cameramen were asking me to set up various shots, to act like I was placing pieces on baseplates (instead of actually placing prebuilt baseplates on a billboard), and so forth.

We had a 15' tall step ladder on a stage 8' off the ground. Standing on this we had to screw through the plates into the wood behind. That troublesome plate #1 proved to be the most difficult to mount since the stage of the billboard was not really long enough on the left side. We really had to stretch to reach that upper-left corner (all the while trying to make sure the panel was mounted squarely on the billboard).

I should, right now, give a big thanks to "Nick" who was a guy present who help out quite a bit with this mounting process. There were 64 baseplates to get up on the board, and by about the tenth one, Nick and I had found a rhythym whereby I would prepare the plates for mounting (by uncovering the predrilled screw holes), and he would actually climb the ladder and put the baseplate in its proper plate. Not once did we accidently mount a baseplate with an incorrect orientation.

Over the next six hours (yes, six) we managed to get the mosaic basically mounted.

We purposely left 9 of the central baseplate off the billboard so that the identity of the mosaic portrait was not obvious. This was to be a surprise 'reveal' during the taping of the television show.

I could go on and on about many more little "emergencies" that cropped up during the day, but I don't want to relive them all. Suffice it to say that before actual filming for the television segment began, just about every cardinal rule of a LEGO purist was broken: drilling holes in pieces, gluing pieces, painting pieces, and even [gasp!] clone (Mega-Bloks).

By 9 o'clock at night, though, we were ready, and filming began.

I wasn't alone on the stage of the billboard.

The "field correspondent" of the Ripley's Believe It Or Not TV show, Kelly Packard was up there.

Also, my mosaic was on the left side of the billboard; on the right side were a couple of very muscular body builders who were going to be breaking as many baseball bats over their thighs as possible in one minute (believe it or not!). My understanding was that over the next two days at this billboard they were going to have many more live acts, including guys putting live scorpions in their mouths, a "human syringe" (I didn't ask), and another guy spending 24 hours submerged in a tank of water.

For once in a long time, my LEGO fascination looked amazingly normal and well adjusted.

We zipped through a couple of quick rehearsals, and then the filming properly began.

During this whole time, I was supposed to remove some of the pieces from the mosaic and then replace them during the course of the filming. The goal was, of course, for me to put the very final pieces into the mosaic just as Kelly came over during our third subsegemnt of filming to ask me how I was doing.

Realizing that there are a lot of "cuts" and "holds" called during a film production, one might think that timing the completion of such a mosaic would be fairly easy.

Not so.

How many of these pieces should I take off beforehand? How many will I be able to put right back on in the timeframe allotted? And can we keep the whole thing obscure enough (at least from the camera's perspective) so that the identity of Mr. Dean Cain is kept secret until the end.

Actually, I guess that last question was more the corcern of the director than myself. I just had to be sure that piece 36,864 (or whatever it was now) clicked into place right as I turned to Kelly and said something like, "well, Kelly, I just put the final pieces in... are you ready to see who this is?"

What more can I say?

Somehow it worked.

I have not seen any of the hours and hours of actual footage that were shot. I can only hope that the director got what he was looking for. He must have, because we never did more than three takes of any particular scene.

By the way, one of the big guys snapped 23 bats over his leg in one minutes time -- a world record, I think.

The main shooting was completed by midnight.

By this time I was exhausted. I had been srambling about the site for 12 hours. Nonstop moving, building, disassembling, rebuilding, and so on.

After the main filming was completed, they had me stick around to get about twenty more minutes of shots of me at the mosaic supposedly doing more building, contemplating, and such.

Post-production

And still my night was not over.

The director no longer needed me for the cameras, so then I was escorted to the Hyatt on Sunset where I was interviewed in a sit-down area for a "background" segment that would be edited into the show.

This is where all of the usual questions were asked of me: how long have you been doing this? is this the coolest job, or what? what are some of the most unusual things you've built? what did you do before building LEGO? blah, blah, blah.

In spite of the fact that my body was quite aware that it was about 3 o'clock in the morning Central Time, I think I stayed awake during the whole interview.

When I finally got back to my hotel room, it was 1:42am.

It was time for bed. I had to fly back home the next day.

Despite the complete insanity of it all (or maybe because of the complete insanity of it all), I will say it was not an unenjoyable experience.

We never did need all of those 20 extra baseplates I hauled through the airports. We never did need the small cat mosaic I built a couple of days earlier, and we never did find out where the original plate #1 went. But, the experience was unique, I was well fed through the day, and I got a free trip to Hollywood out of the whole thing.

I was told that the footage would be used in an episode that would likely air in late September or early October of 2003.

I actually don't watch any television, so someone's gonna have to let me know how it turns out.

Epilogue

Unfortunately, I did not have time or opportunity to take as many pictures as I wanted. Most disappointing is the fact that I actually forgot to take a picture of the 100% completed mosaic as it was mounted on the billboard. I've tried to included links to many pictures in the text above, and below I present a few more for your perusal.
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