Steve Gerling works in the LEGO model shop, where his job is to design and build large-scale LEGO models that will surprise and amaze us. To put it simply, his goal is to demonstrate the unlimited potential that lies in any given pile of LEGO bricks. As a LEGO Master Builder, he has one of the most coveted occupations in the world.
I was first introduced to Steve a couple months ago when I took my son to a LEGO KidsFest. There, he was teaching a room full of children (and their attentive parents) some building techniques that they could use to make their LEGO models stronger and more interesting (if you don’t get a chance to attend one of these events, many of his favorite techniques are covered in LEGO’s excellent series of Master Builder Academy sets). I was really impressed with his passion for what he does, and I was fascinated by the idea of building LEGO models all day at work.
Steve agreed to talk to me more about who he is, what he does, and why he loves to do it. He also has some great advice for kids who dream of being a Master Builder (or any other kind of artist) when they grow up. Our conversation is below.
Kevin Spence: You’re a LEGO Master Builder.
Steve Gerling: I am indeed.
KS: Can you explain to me exactly what that means?
SG: Our job is to design and create LEGO models and LEGO experiences. It’s a way of inspiring LEGO fans. It’s a combination of supporting the sales, marketing, and public relations initiatives of the company by encouraging and hopefully inspiring our LEGO fans out there. We design and create big models; we design and create building events — anything that’s going to enhance the LEGO experience for consumers.
KS: If I understand correctly, when you started working at LEGO, you were working in a warehouse. Is that right?
SG: Yes. The longer story is – this was seventeen years ago, actually – I was forced to admit that I could no longer afford to be a self-unemployed artist /craftsman.
I came to LEGO during one of the few times they advertised outside of the company for this position. They were looking for a model designer. When I showed up at the door, the position had already been filled, but I thought it looked like a good company, so I thought I’d either keep showing up on their doorstep until they hired me for something, or took out a restraining order against me.
Eventually they called and said, ‘hey, look, if you’re still looking for work somewhere, we do have a six week second shift job for you. We see you have some woodworking skills, so this would just be building packing crates on the second shift.’ So that got me in the door. At that point, my sculpture portfolio came tagging along. Eventually, it found its way into the hands of the woman who was running the model shop at that time, which was my evil plan. And she said ‘hey, I think you’re in the wrong place.’ So here I am.
KS: What was your background before that?
Steve’s LEGO tiger on display at the Bronx Zoo
SG: My background is as a sculptor. I have a Bachelor’s Degree in Fine Arts from the University of Connecticut. I spent quite a few years after that attempting to make a living in the arts. What I really did was relief carving. It was very realistic relief wood carving, mostly having to do with human and wildlife themes and so forth. So it was basically the sculpture background that got me in here.
KS: Did you find that a lot of that translated?
SG: Oh, it all translated. Absolutely. Despite the fact that I worked primarily in relief, the sculpture principles were all still there. They were trying to upgrade their models that had human and wildlife themes at that point. They were trying to get something more realistic.
KS: Had you ever worked with LEGO as a kid? Or had you ever tried to do anything with it before?
SG: I had not. They did not have LEGO sets in the US market when I was a kid. I had not played with LEGO Bricks until I walked in the door here, but it’s pretty obvious how it works. I mean, everything about interlocking the bricks and so on is completely intuitive, so that wasn’t hard to figure out at all.
My biggest thing when I started designing these models was catching up on all the millions of specialty bricks we have. Initially, coming in, it was a new sculptural medium. We had little pieces of clay that happened to be square. It was very interesting, and fairly problematic from a sculptural standpoint. It was very intriguing to do it. Creating sculpture layer by layer like a pile of odd shaped pancakes was a little odd to get the hang of.
KS: So they brought you in to work specifically on humanoid type models.
SG: Yes, mostly human or animal models. The LEGO Company was looking for more realism in these genres; up until that point there wasn’t much formal art background in the Model Shop, and without that these models tended to be a bit awkward or cartoony—they were fine in a lot of situations but not where a higher level of realism was called for.
KS: Do most of the master builders specialize in a particular type of form?
SG: Yes. We all have strengths and weaknesses. But that being said, we can hold our own with pretty much any project. Most of us who design models have more of an art background now, which really makes perfect sense for a job like this. Everybody in this shop builds. Whether they do the actual design or not, they primarily have art backgrounds.
KS: When you’re starting a new project, how do you design it? Do you use software?
SG: Software is a tool. I’ll walk you through the whole process. Usually it starts with a request from one of our customers, who are almost all within the company – from our sales department, or our marketing department. They usually have an idea for a model that would support some initiative they’re taking, and they ask us to develop that a little further. We’ll knock around some ideas on paper and pencil for a while, just staying old school.
Now we have the ability – the company developed a computer tool to speed the process way up. A few years after I started they developed some proprietary software. What it does is it takes a computer model, and it will turn it into a virtual LEGO brick model.
So the first thing we have to do is come up with a computer model – either we acquire it, or we model it ourselves. We primarily use Maya for that. We get the computer model as close as we can to what we want this LEGO model to look like.
We then take that model, and import it into this software that we developed. What it does, is it gives us a model that is virtually built entirely out of 1×1 bricks. Now, we know that’s impossible to do, but this is what it gives us on the screen. Then we can go ahead and edit that anyway we want.
First we determine the scale that we want this model to be, turn it into a virtual LEGO model, and then we start editing. We can add bricks to it, we can remove bricks from it, change the color – it’s reached the point now where we can intake areas that use something other than basic bricks.
This tool is a production tool so it works primarily in basic 1×1 bricks or 1×1 plates. We try to do as much of our model that way as we can, but it also has provisions where we can indicate other types of bricks in some areas. It’s almost like a notation that goes in there.
This gives us a virtual prototype of the model, and we can look at that layer by layer when it’s time to start building. It doesn’t tell us, use a 2×4 brick here, use a 1×8 brick there – that depends on the skill of whoever is building a model off of this. But this serves as an on-screen virtual prototype of the model we’re building. The actual building process is still, pick up a brick, put glue on the brick, put it on another brick. Pick up another brick, put glue on it – repeat 30 or 40 or a 100,000 times.
KS: I took my son to the LEGO KidsFest when it was here, and just the scale of some of these…how many people do you who are working on just constructing these projects?
SG: It varies. Right now I’m doing some small models where I’m doing everything on them. They’re things that I’ll actually do by hand rather than on computer. And then I’m working on a couple others that are very simplistic models that we’re trying to use for a possible in-store promotion, where we have a team of other guys that we’ve brought in to work on them. It varies from model to model how many resources we’re throwing at them. Model to model, and deadline to deadline.
KS: Is there anything you’ve done that you’re especially proud of?
SG: I think like most people in here, there have just been hundreds and hundreds and hundreds models over the years. My own personal favorite is a sentimental little favorite actually. It’s this little model of an octopus about two feet long. Have you ever seen videos of how an octopus crawls across the ocean floor, with the its tentacles rolling like corkscrews? It wound up being one of my sentimental favorites over the years. It’s not one that brings screams and cheers from the crowd, it’s just this elegant little thing that’s sort of my ultimate ‘LEGO doesn’t have to look like little square pieces anymore’ model.
I think the biggest thing I’ve designed personally is a great white shark, 21 feet long. I’ve also done a lot of busts of people. One of the more difficult things we do is real good human likenesses of people. There are two of us who have done most of that, up until now. We have a couple more people who are doing more and more with it, but those are particularly difficult. If we are doing a model of a human figure and it has to be a specific likeness of a person, we automatically add about 30 hours of design time to the process just for that. We’ll spend an entire week just working on the likeness of a person. There are times when we can design all the rest of it in 40 hours, but need an additional 40 hours just to get the likeness down. That’s a wicked little devil to follow.
KS: For people like me – I enjoy playing with LEGO, my son loves playing LEGO – but we’re maybe not that good at it. Are there any tips that you could share?
SG: There are two things that I stress to people, and whenever I do a session at a Master Building Academy or any building event, the absolute most important thing that kids have to understand is interlocking bricks in a way that – whenever you’re putting a brick on, you’re always thinking of, how can this brick make the whole model stronger? Or how will the brick I put on top of this make the whole model stronger?
The frustrating thing for kids when they’re building is, they build and build and build and the model starts falling apart and falling apart. Then they just start slapping bricks to try to get it to hold together. The thing that I really push is encouraging kids to think about what is really going to hold these bricks together. Your models end up so much better if you aren’t wasting a lot of brick trying to reinforce it. Just bridging across a couple places here and there will just make your model seem enormously stronger.
Once they have that, the other thing I encourage is using all the bricks you can in different ways than they were intended. One of the examples I use is one of the guys in here created a series of songbirds that stood about 12 or 14 inches high, and these songbirds actually happened to be a jazz combo – they were all playing different instruments. There were so many things going on in this, like the birds feathers were made out of barn door elements, which was totally unexpected and it just wound up just a great effect with using different elements in new ways.
There were these little touches we did on life-size models a few years ago, of guys wearing a pair of jeans – and you know how jeans fray out? Well we used a bunch of those little gear shift pieces, and it looked like a pair of jeans that had been ripped wide open. Just think about using these different elements in new ways. Those two to me are absolutely the most important. The first one is absolutely necessary, and the second one is where you begin to bring your creations to greatness.
KS: Is there any advice that you would offer kids who might want to do what you do when you grow up?
First of all, a kid has to have a three-dimensional mind. Think about engineering, and take a lot of art courses. I encourage kids to draw. Just draw your brains out. That’s key to do with anything in design.
We’re also using computers so much now that computer skills – especially things like computer modeling – similar to things what a designer of video games would be using, are really important. Again, this is something that would be really interesting to a kid to start playing with. Those are really the directions that we steer kids in. It’s not exactly a wide open career path, but we do our best to encourage kids in a creative and productive direction for that. I think we do a good job of it.