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1:18 am
Wed April 4, 2012

College Student Pieces His Way To Lego Mastery

Only four people in the United States carry the official designation of Lego Master Model Builder. And 23-year-old Andrew Johnson of Illinois is the newest — and youngest — to earn the title.

Legos are robots in disguise for Johnson, as in a 4 1/2-foot replica of the Transformer Optimus Prime made only from those tiny bricks.

"Number of bricks was definitely in the tens of thousands," Johnson says. "It took about two weeks on and off. The head itself, which was the most detailed, took me around eight to 10 hours."

But all that Lego building doesn't make Johnson an antisocial recluse.

"I have a social life," Johnson says. "I don't think that that's lacking in any way. I have a girlfriend, so I'm not just some loner who plays with Lego."

He's just a regular guy who happens to make a living playing with Lego. His office is the Legoland Discovery Center in Schaumburg, Ill., which is part museum, part amusement park.

This was the first time that Legoland in Illinois had to replace a master model builder. And it wasn't the average job search.

Instead of filling out an employment application, Johnson submitted a stop-animation video featuring a Lego catapult firing a boulder at a dragon. On the basis of that video, he was chosen to battle other candidates in a three-round build-off in front of an audience of kids and parents.

There were complicated models like a life-size harp and French horn.

Johnson impressed the judges during the Chicago-themed round with his re-creation of the iconic Picasso sculpture that stands 50 feet tall in the city's Daley Plaza.

Legoland Operations Manager Dave Specha says the competition was brutal. "It's a bit like Highlander," Specha says, referring to the fantasy action film. "There can only be one."

Johnson didn't receive any formal training to get to this level. He played with his Legos like any other kid and only reconnected with the bricks just a few years ago when he worked as a summer camp counselor.

This spring, Johnson will graduate from DePaul University in Chicago with a degree in history and a minor in digital cinema.

"I think the history and also the cinema aspects kind of broadened my perspectives," he says. "And it's really good to have more than one viewpoint when working with Lego."

Johnson hopes to build on his background in digital cinema to introduce new programs including stop-motion animation. That's an exciting prospect for his bosses, given the explosion in and popularity of stop-motion animation videos online. The YouTube videos feature Lego re-creations of everything from OK Go music videos to scenes from Star Wars.

"That was really probably the renaissance of Lego becoming a real pop culture thing," Specha says. "Not just sort of a toy that when you turn 12 and start playing football, you never touch. It became cool."

"I'm going to be able to go out on the floor every day and see myself in every child that's out there," Johnson says. "So they're going to be a constant reminder of why I'm here and how I got here, especially. So I don't think I'm ever going to lose that passion."

Even now that his hobby has become a full-time job.

Copyright 2012 Chicago Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.chicagopublicradio.org.

Transcript

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

And here in America, one 23-year-old has landed himself a dream job using some highly technical skills. Andrew Johnson is one of only four people in the United States who can officially call themselves a Lego Master Model Builder. He's the newest and the youngest to earn that title. From WBEZ in Chicago, Susie An reports.

SUSIE AN, BYLINE: Legos are robots in disguise for Andrew Johnson, as in a four and a half foot replica of the Transformer Optimus Prime made only from those tiny bricks.

How long and how many bricks did that take?

ANDREW JOHNSON: Number of bricks was definitely in the tens of thousands. It took about two weeks on and off. The head itself, which was the most detailed, took me around eight to ten hours.

AN: People kind of think of Legos or a Master Model Builder, they might think of kids or someone who just spends too much time with Legos...

JOHNSON: Well, I have a social life. I don't think that that's lacking in anyway. I have a girlfriend, so I'm not just some loner that plays with Legos.

AN: He's just a regular guy who happens to make a living playing with Legos. His office? The Legoland Discovery Center in Schaumburg, Illinois. It's part museum, part amusement park. Instead of filling out an employment application, Andrew submitted a stop-animation video featuring a Lego catapult firing a boulder at a dragon. Johnson was chosen to battle other candidates in a three-round build-off in front of an audience of kids and parents.

There were complicated models, like a life-size harp and French horn. Johnson impressed the judges during the Chicago-themed round with his recreation of the iconic Picasso sculpture that stands 50 feet tall in the city's Daley Plaza. Legoland operations manager Dave Specha says the competition was brutal.

DAVE SPECHA: It's a bit like Highlander. There can only be one.

AN: Johnson didn't receive any formal training to get to this level. He played with his Legos like any other kid and only reconnected with the bricks just a few years ago when he worked as a summer camp counselor.

This spring, Johnson will graduate from DePaul University in Chicago with a degree in history and a minor in digital cinema.

JOHNSON: And the history and also the cinema aspects broadened my perspectives. And it's really good to have more than one viewpoint when working with Lego.

AN: Johnson hopes to build on his background in digital cinema to introduce new programs, including stop motion animation. That's an exciting prospect for his bosses, given the explosion in and popularity of stop motion animation videos online. The YouTube videos feature Lego recreations of everything from OK Go music videos to scenes from "Star Wars."

JOHNSON: I'm going to be able to go out on the floor every day and see myself in every child that's out there. So they're going to be a constant reminder of why I'm here and how I got here, especially. So I don't think I'm ever going to lose that passion.

AN: Even now that his hobby has become a full-time job.

For NPR News, I'm Susie An in Chicago. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.