Meet the Toy Makers: LEGO Master Builder
A conversation with LEGO Master Builder Erik Varszegi
Posted: 2010-10-01 08:55:56 By: by Stephanie Oppenheim
I'm always amazed by the super big LEGO builds that you see in stores. Are they hollow? I also have this child-like urge to touch them - will they fall over? Are they heavy? Here's my conversation with LEGO Master Builder Erik Varszegi. I think you'll agree he does have an amazingly cool job.
SO: Most people look at me twice when I tell them I play with toys for a living, I imagine you get much the same response?
EV: All the time. I have had hundreds of kids tell me that they want to have my job when they grow up and more than a few grown-ups tell me how envious they are as well.
SO: How did you become a Master LEGO builder?
EV: The old fashioned way really, I worked my way up from the bottom. I got my start with LEGO by simply answering a help wanted ad in May of '95 as a Model Gluer. Model Gluers are an entry level position, we'd assemble and glue LEGO sets for store displays. During that first summer I must have put together so many King Leo's Castles (LEGO set # 6098) that I still, after all these years don't need the instructions to put one together. After a summer of that I graduated to Model Builder, they take the Model Designers original large scale prototype creations to copy and glue together with LEGO brick as a finished piece.
But stepping back a bit, growing up I was always very interested in art, painting or drawing all the time. Later in college I discovered that I had an eye for sculpture and 3D design. That background served me well years later at LEGO. I was always tinkering with the bricks at my desk coming up with creations of my own. My Art Director at the time saw the potential in my work and eventually I worked my way into the Model Designer position.
SO: Did you build with LEGO as a kid?
EV: I might have had a set or two growing up and I played with my friend’s collection at his house but I didn’t really seriously get into it as a hobby or consider it as a career until I started to work in the Model Shop. Just goes to show you, I guess, that LEGO is for all ages.
SO: Did you prefer building the model as is—or did you build your own creations?
EV: I get that question all the time when parents meet me. They’ll tell me their kids want my job and ask how to prepare for the prospect. I’ll tell them that I enjoy building the sets right out of the box just to keep up on the new elements and building techniques, but I’ll often rip them down again, push aside the building instructions to discover what else I can make come up with on my own, sometimes also combining two completely different sets into one.
SO: This may be like asking a magician how he does it....but when you build a super large structure, do you start with a box in the middle that you build on? Or is it all Lego all the time?
EV: If you mean are they solid brick all the way through then the answer is no. That would be an unnecessary waste of brick and time used to construct it, not to mention it would make for a very heavy model. So we try to make a model as hollow as possible but still have it structurally sound. I view myself as an artist with LEGO bricks as my medium but there is also a fair amount of engineering that goes into figuring out how best to construct a model.
That said we also add steel armatures to most of the work that leaves our shop. We'll build the brick around the steel, capturing it and making the safe for rough handling it may see.
SO: Do you use glue?
EV: Most of the finished pieces that come out of our shop are glued together, simply because the sculptures might not stand up to the rigors of shipping not to mention being touched and admired by the thousand of LEGO fans that might see it over its life time to check if it really is all made of bricks. The steel adds to its strength as well.
SO: Do you have a favorite build? What's the biggest piece you've ever done? How long did it take?
EV: A favorite? That’s a tough question, I’ve built so many things over the years that it’s tough to choose just one. A recent favorite might be the “life-size” Buzz Lightyear model I designed late last Spring. He’s such a fun character and some interesting design challenges cropped up with the computer design and his fianl pose. I had to “study” the films a few times to get a sense of Buzz’s body language and figure out the best way to bend Pixar’s 3D model they provided into a shape we wanted. He also probably holds a personal record for the most colors I’ve designed into a LEGO model at 17.
The largest model that I’ve personally been involved with would probably have to be a 1 to 1 scale replica of a Volvo XC90. Volvo sponsored the driving school at the LEGOLand Park in California and they wanted a full scale model of their new (at the time) SUV. The auto maker sent to us a real car chassis fresh off the assembly lines in Sweden. It had the unibody frame, wheels, emergency brakes and steering assembly. The only thing missing was an engine and interior and electronics. We then cut away most of the frame structure to weld in our own right angle steel framework that was more compatable with the LEGO bricks. I spent 1 ½ months with two other designers just working with the computer model before we could pass it over to the builders. It then took 7 of us another 2 ½ months to complete.
SO: I hear you’re a fellow Star Wars fan---are creating large Star Wars characters even more fun than other assignments?
EV: Yeah I enjoy the films and working on the models and working with Lucasfilm is great fun. There were a few very enjoyable ones that I've worked on like Captain Rex from the Clone Wars series. Two models from the franchise that I'd love to take a crack at would be Luke in his X-Wing pilot's uniform and also Boba Fett. That could be a very cool model.
SO: How do you feel about the new pink bricks?
EV: Pink’s great! I always welcome an addition to our color pallet.
SO: What's your favorite ice cream flavor?
EV: I'm a Ben & Jerry's fan, with Cinnamon Buns being my weakness.