College Student Pieces His Way To Lego Mastery

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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.

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