Building a Career, (Lego) Brick by Brick
Monday, Oct. 2, 2006 | Eric Hunter sees life in Lego.
“I’ll be driving down the freeway, and I’ll see the taillight from the new Nissan Altima, and I’ll think, ‘How would I build that?'” he says.
“I think in Lego, I really do,” he says. “Sometimes it gets annoying, but you can’t really get away from it. It’s so much fun.”
Hunter is a builder, but not a typical one. Instead of working with steel, wood and glass, Hunter builds with bricks — Lego bricks. And while the projects he’s worked on have been large in scope — like his current venture, a replica of Las Vegas’s Excalibur Hotel — they’ve been smaller in scale, about one-twentieth of the buildings’ actual size.
Hunter is one of six full-time model builders at the Legoland amusement park in Carlsbad. They are hired to build and maintain the park’s 15,000-plus Lego models that use more than 30 million bricks. They’ve worked on almost everything: a life-sized animated elephant that squirts water from its trunk, symphony musicians playing miniature violins, Volvo station wagons, and even an alien in a holding cell in a replica of the NASA space training center in Cape Canaveral, Fla.
But spending 40 hours a week for the last year-and-a-half with thousands of bricks hasn’t turned Hunter off of working with Lego on his own time. He doesn’t think of himself as bringing his work home. Instead, it’s the other way around.
“I’m taking my fun to work,” he says. “I’m going to work to have fun.”
‘Hey, We Are Working in Lego’
On a sunny morning at Legoland, I follow the winding path that leads through Miniland, where models have been constructed out of millions of Lego bricks to mimic national landmarks like the Washington Monument, the Golden Gate Bridge and the Hollywood Bowl. Soon I reach the big gray building called the Model Shop, which proves a bastion of activity amid the stillness of an off-season weekday.
The shop’s walls are lined, floor to ceiling, with red, yellow and blue bins filled with Lego pieces. Each bin has a piece glued to the front identifying its contents. In the main part of the room, each builder has a “desk” — more like a large table — surrounded by even more bins of Lego bricks. Completed and partially completed Lego projects perch on shelves and table edges around the room — a bottle of champagne here, a pirate ship there, a “Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas” sign replica over there.
Hunter’s work area occupies a back corner of the room. The edge of his desk is crowned with turret prototypes for the castles of the Excalibur project. The Las Vegas section of Miniland is due to be completed in March or April next year. A few members of the team actually went to Vegas, took pictures of the landmarks they would build and are now constructing the models based on those photographs.
Hunter has already popped open a can of Mountain Dew by the time I arrive, just after 9:00 a.m. “I don’t drink coffee,” he says. “Never have, never will.” He’s dressed in an army green Legoland polo shirt, jeans and beige-and-black Vans. The park’s employees — called “Model Citizens” when at work — can wear jeans on Tuesdays and Wednesdays in the off-season, because the park is closed to visitors. Usually, they have to wear khakis, black shoes, black socks and a black belt with one of five different-colored polo shirts, he tells me.
A spirited talker, Hunter’s eyes light up as he shows me tens of photos of the different angles of the turrets at the Excalibur, and then shows me the way his prototypes follow the photos exactly. Well, almost exactly.
“We have to realize sometimes, hey, we are working in Lego. We’re not going to get it perfect,” he says. But that doesn’t stop them from trying. They’re making more than buildings for the Vegas project. Hunter showed me a shelf where they’ve started to make different kinds of Elvises, some Tropicana dancers, even “feeble old lady-types.”
‘Don’t Feed the Model Builders’
Hunter sometimes calls the model shop, a warehouse-like room with no natural light, the “Carlsbad cavern.” A large window from the hallway allows visitors to the park to watch the builders at work.
“We’re an attraction,” he says. “They should have a sign up, ‘Don’t feed the model builders.'”
Despite being divided along gender lines into “Team Boy” and “Team Girl,” the six builders work cooperatively, Hunter says.
“We learn more from other people and share,” he says. “You’ve got to pretty much check your ego at the door.”
With his technological savvy from working as a graphic designer for 10 years, Hunter and some of the other builders use CAD — computer-assisted design — to draft their plans. CAD is usually used by engineers and architects, but Hunter doesn’t view his job any different. They’ve adapted a one-to-one Lego-sized grid that can be laid over plans for a new project.
So, for the Vegas project — a six-month, $950,000 endeavor — the builders downloaded an aerial photograph of the Strip in Las Vegas from Google Earth, a satellite photo imaging program, and overlaid a Lego grid that allows them to scale each of the buildings more or less proportionally.
“We kind of let the Lego dictate how it goes,” he says. “It’s amazing how they click together, it really is.”
When the builders are working on large-scale projects, it can get tempting to rely on the glue that will hold the pieces together later. Some Lego designers, not at Legoland, even use saws, hammers or lighters to mold the bricks into what they need.
“My goal is to make whatever I’m building work with no glue,” he says.
“I’m a Lego purist,” he adds. “If it can’t be done with the pieces as they are in their natural state, then I’ll find another way to do it.”
Hunter says he shies away from any job promotions that would take time away from his hands-on time.
“I’m here to build,” he says. “I want to be the guy who sits in the shop and builds. I don’t want to make schedules, that’s too much like a job. I’ve had many, many jobs in my life, and this is the least job-like.”
‘It’s Not like I’m a Closet Builder’
Hunter was 3 or 4 when he started building with Lego. He remembers starting to experiment with his own designs a couple of years after that. He used to tell his parents or siblings, “Tell me something to build,” and then he’d do it, accomplishing such pieces as a Porsche 911 and a castle.
Hunter says most Lego aficionados go through a period of denial after childhood. It’s usually during high school, he says, when people don’t want others to know they still build with Lego — “I don’t build with Lego, what are you talking about?” He referred to that period as the “dark ages.”
“My dark ages didn’t last very long,” he says.
In fact, it was when he was 21 that he told his girlfriend at the time that one day he’d find a way to make building with Lego a real job. That relationship ended — in fact, Hunter just went to her wedding last summer — but he says she’s excited that he’s living his dream.
After two years of studying 3-D design at Colorado State University — “It wasn’t for me,” he says — Hunter moved to San Clemente in April 1999. He didn’t know it until 2003, but the Carlsbad Legoland had opened just one month before he moved to the state.
He worked for a golf company in San Clemente for a while, but after being laid off and beginning to collect unemployment insurance, he considered moving home, to Colorado.
“I was going to dog the whole California thing,” he says.
And then Hunter heard about a competition to find the next Legoland model builder, held in 2003. He clinched a spot as a finalist, but didn’t win. He submitted a resume anyway, and when a position as a gluer came up, he jumped at the chance to start working for the park. The gluer’s job is to solidify the builders’ projects so they won’t fall apart when exposed to the elements — weather and children alike — in the park.
He started working on a model of the Freedom Tower in the New York City part of Miniland, which, at 28 feet tall, is the tallest Lego skyscraper in the world. On his first day, he made suggestions to the team and they actually changed what they’d been doing.
Hunter eventually moved his way up to model builder, the position he holds now. He says his parents are “kind of in disbelief” about what their son is paid a full-time wage to do. They’ve never been to Legoland, so Hunter understands that they can’t quite picture what he does all day.
He says he’s not ashamed to tell people about his obsession. Within the first few weeks of his most recent relationship, Hunter sat his girlfriend down and showed her one of his Lego projects.
“It’s not like I’m a closet builder,” he says.
Hunter lives in Carlsbad now, less than four miles away from Legoland. He drives an electric scooter. He boasts it only takes him five minutes longer to get to work on the scooter than to drive his Jeep.
‘I Embrace My Geekiness’
Adults’ fixation with Lego has spawned groups like AFOL — Adult Fans of Lego — and chapters called LUGs — Lego User Groups. But Lego can become an all-encompassing hobby for some people. “It takes over their lives,” he says.
Hunter mentioned an AFOL who has built a Lego robot that can solve a Rubik’s cube. Other fans have crafted dot matrix printers from the plastic bricks. Still another has built a stegosaurus that takes up his entire living room.
“There are some serious Lego enthusiasts out there,” he says. And Hunter doesn’t pretend to be any different. He estimates his home collection has between 100,000 and 200,000 bricks in it.
“I embrace my geekiness,” he says. “It’s my hobby, it always has been.”
Hunter said he doesn’t get stuck very often when working on a project.
“Sometimes I just need to step away from something,” he says. “A lot of times I’ll bark up the wrong tree for a couple of hours.”
In the rest of his life, Hunter says he sees characteristics in himself that are symptomatic of attention-deficit disorder.
“I always have 14 to 25 things going on at once,” he says. “I’ll go sit on my balcony and then two minutes later, I’ll say, ‘All right, did that, what now?'”
But when he’s working with Lego, you would never know. He says he could probably spend nine or 10 hours working on a single small part of a project.
“I think that’s why I like it so much,” he says. “It helps me get past that. I don’t like to stare at a screen; I like to use my hands.”
What’s next for the model builder? Could he ever leave a job where he gets paid to play?
“I’ve thought about that a lot, actually,” he says. “When I think, ‘What’s my next job?’ Nothing comes to mind.”
“It’s the coolest job,” he continues. “I get to do what I love. The pay could be better, but money’s not a concern of mine. I’ve got a great apartment with an ocean view, I’ve got my new iPod so I can listen to music on my scooter on my way to work, and my e-mail address is … @legoland.com — how cool is that?”
“At night I’m laying in bed and I get an idea and I can’t go to sleep, and I just want to come to work,” he says. “Sometimes you’ve just got to get it out. It’s stupid, but there are worse problems I suppose.”