Mike Rayahwk LEGO Playthemes
Knights Kingdom 2004 Trading Cards
Knights Kingdom™ 2004 Trading Cards - 2003
Knights Kingdom™ and associated images and characters Copyright LEGO ©2003-2005


In 2003 LEGO was looking to explore the trading-card market, I suspect because Pokémon was taking off in LEGO's target age group the way Magic: The Gathering had already conquered kids a few years older. Following up on trading card promotions for Bionicle and Johnny Thunder, they decided to develop some cards for the upcoming Knights Kingdom sets as well.

The trading card illustrations for Knights Kingdom 2004 were unexpectedly the craziest job of my career to date. The schedule and budget didn't look too bad on first glance, but I'd be in New Zealand for the final two weeks of the project, so I knew I wasn't going to be able to do these on my own. To pick up the slack, I hired a design agency here in Los Angeles to provide backup art-production support.

I'd worked with this agency before, and they had a pretty solid client list and project history, so I had no real worries going in to the project. As the first couple of weeks went by, I was happily drawing away and briefing the team on how the coloring and finishing work would need to go, as soon as they were released from their other "priority" projects. But as time dragged on, I started to get worried - rather than finally getting designers assigned to my project, the agency was pulling them out of even receiving briefings. With two weeks left before my flight, it finally became clear that the seven man-hours they'd provided so far were all they were going to be able to give me. They understood what a bind I was in, they just weren't able to spare any designers -- "but do let us know when LEGO sends the check!"


Card 79 Card 57 Card 59
Card 79: Shield of Ages Card 57: Shadow Knight Card 59: Shadow Knight


So now I was in pretty bad shape. On my own and back to square one, I had two weeks to come up with eighty trading card illustrations - several hundred hours' work no matter how you sliced it.

Fortunately I went to Art Center, so I wasn't sweating it too much. If anybody can pack a hundred work-hours into a day it's us.

First off I called my friend Jessica Lo, who networks like nobody I've ever seen, to find out who was hungry for two weeks of hard labor. She gave me a pretty good list. I picked up Peter Lam and Eugenia Chen to do coloring and finishing work, and my good buddy Jeff Nentrup to take charge of seeing the project to completion after I'd left the country. (I'm surprised he still speaks to me after I stuck him with this project, the poor guy.)


Card 40 Card 73 Card 42
Card 40: Vladek Card 73: The Citadel Card 42: Vladek


The next week was seven long days of bringing Eugi and Peter up to speed and pumping out line art as fast as possible for them to get colored. The second week was prepping Jeff to take over, pumping out more line art for Eugi and Peter, and doing final cleanup and effects on the pictures they'd already colored.

At the beginning of the second week Eugi and I started competing to see which of us could keep working the longest. I finally had to give up and catch some sleep on Friday after a one-hundred-twenty-seven hour shift. (No, that's not an exaggeration.You have to work really really hard to outwork Eugi.) We went through a lot of Red Bulls.

By the time I had to get on the plane and hand the work over to Jeff, we had 50 cards done and 30 in various stages of almost-finished. From a standing start, Jeff hit the ground running and did an unbelievable job. In fact, in 2004, wherever you saw artwork up on LEGO's Knights website it was almost twice as likely to be one of Jeff's pieces as one of mine.


Card 22 Card 31 (version 1) Card 31
Card 22: Santis Card 31: Rascus (version 1) Card 31: Rascus (final version)


Forty paintings a week wouldn't normally be such a tough rate, but in 2003 the LEGO project flow was just not organized for this kind of work. I had no fewer than six managers in different departments exercising direct editorial control, and not one of them had the same ideas about the backstory, culture, or even time period for the Knights' universe.

Fortunately we've made giant improvements to the process since then - LEGO takes "best management practices" pretty seriously. By the time we got to doing the trading cards for 2005, the process was a breeze; our team was on two other LEGO projects at the same time and never even broke a sweat. But for these cards in 2003, under management without any organized art-production experience to draw from, the overlapping authority and conflicting instructions from all the overseeing departments meant that we often had to draw pictures five times that we already didn't have enough time to draw once.

Usually when the revisions lists came down, we could keep most of an image intact, just replacing a detail here and there - in card 22 (above), Santis was first carrying a pallet of bricks, then lumber, then a stack of logs, then squared hay bales, then the round bales of the final version, depending on who in Denmark had expressed their worldview most recently. (That was early in the project, no way did I let them get away with stuff like that later on.)

Other times I had to get more creative. We had a finished version of Rascus performing on stage for card 31, when Denmark decided that a theater stage was too late-medieval for the Knights' society. They needed him entertaining people in a tavern - no stage, no curtains. Without time to redraw the scene, I did the next best thing: I changed the stage to a bar countertop. As an unexpected side benefit, the final picture ended up being a lot more appropriate to Rascus's zany personality.


Eugenia's cards (coloring)
Card 13 Card 19 Card 47
Card 13: Danju Card 19: Santis Card 47: King Mathias


While Eugi had a hand in coloring almost every card in the deck, it's hard to find cards that are hers alone. Because of the way we were working over the internet, it was usually fastest for us to send files back and forth a half-dozen times, adding layers of color refinement with each pass. It worked so well in fact that that's how we still do most of the Knights Kingdom art today.

Eugi was such an unbelievable workhorse on these 2004 cards that I kept bringing her back in for each new project that came up. After a couple of months we hired her into LEGO Concept Lab, where she continues to express her unique toy-obsessed viewpoint by beating the rest of us up at every opportunity.

Eugenia Chen Entertainment Design


Peter's cards (coloring)
Card 6 Card 52 Card 33
Card 6: Jayko Card 52: The Guardian Card 33: Rascus


When we started this project, poor Peter was so fresh out of school that he didn't even have internet access yet. While I was uploading drafts back and forth with Eugi and instant-messaging up a storm, Peter had to drive across town at the end of every day with his files on CD, and I'd pass him a CD full of new drawings to color. It made giving feedback a little tricky, but in the end it all came out all right.

I haven't kept up with Peter as well as I have with Eugi and Jeff, but I hear he's gone on to pick up concept jobs all over the video game industry.

Studio222.net: Peter Lam


Jeff's cards (drawing and coloring)
Card 2 Card 71 Card 61
Card 2: Jayko Card 71: Tournament Arena Card 61: The Sorceror


I knew the characters would be tough, so I tried to take care of all the most character-heavy cards before I left. As a result, Jeff ended up doing a lot of the location and prop art that eventually became the basis for LEGO's Book of Morcia. But as it turned out, Jeff didn't have much trouble with the characters - I hope that not everyone's able to pick up drawing and coloring LEGO characters as fast as Jeff is, or my job's a lot less secure than I think.

Since this project, Jeff's done healthy portions of movie and rockstar art, as befit his personality. But like a victim doomed to repeat past traumas, he's back in trading cards again lately - this time with Wizards of the Coast. And he never lets me forget it, either, the bastard. He knows how jealous I am.

Jeff Nentrup.com


Mike Rayahwk
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