Inside the Mind of a Master Builder

By James Bagshawe on at

I have a lot of memories playing with LEGO as a boy. I had a tendency to up-end my barrel of bricks, trying my best to make whatever I could with the motley collection I had. My proudest moment was making the Phoenix from Battle of the Planets. That (a) dates me and (b) was a terrible interpretation that looked very little like the real thing. But hey, the wings didn’t fall off so I’m calling it a win.

Clearly, I am not a talented LEGO builder. That’s bad luck for me because if I’d had talent and vision I could have set up a company like Bright Bricks. These guys are all about making  professional LEGO models for proper businesses. They are the real-life Master Builders, and I spoke with their Creative Director Ed Diment to find out what it took to be the big dogs in a brick world:

Gizmodo: When did you decide to form Bright Bricks?

Ed Diment: We had an initial conversation with my business partner Duncan Titmarsh back in 2010. I bought half the company off him and we did it part-time alongside my day job until 2012. It’s one of those things that grew from an acorn.

Giz: How big has Bright Bricks become since it began in 2010?

Ed: Pretty big! We have around 30 full-time builders now. We are the largest independent building company in the world.

Giz: Impressive. How many bricks do you have, then?

Ed: Something in the order of about fifty million. More than LEGO have in some of their own workshops.

Giz: That is an insane amount of bricks. Where do you get them from? It’s not like you can just trawl eBay…

Ed: Well, from LEGO themselves obviously and from community sites like BrickLink. To be honest, we struggle to get the bricks we need. LEGO themselves are at full capacity trying to meet normal consumer demand. It seems the demand for LEGO seems to permanently outstrip supply.

Giz: Tell us about your creative process. How do you guide the models you make from conception to completion?

Ed: We have our own bespoke software that we’ve developed that we use to 3D model the creations…. We start with the 3D model as you might for a computer game or an animation and we have some very skilled designers who will put that model into 3D software and they will re-pose or re-sculpt it… Once we’re happy with that we export it into our own software that we’ve had written that essentially digitises it into 1 by 1 LEGO blocks. We can use that to run layer by layer through the model… and the designers will colour it in in that software as well.

It doesn’t show you which bricks to use, it just shows you the outline and then you have to work out which bricks to use… to knit the thing together securely, but essentially you are using your build skill to follow the pattern.

Giz: How come the software doesn’t go beyond that, to suggest a complete brick-by-brick building pattern?

Ed: It would require the software to be considerably more complex than it is now because it would require the software to think what brick it should use in any given position… These sorts of processes are complex. LEGO have their own piece of software. They are experimenting with that. We don’t feel the need to go to that level because the builders very quickly develop the skills to follow the pattern and make decisions that will make the model strong.

The larger models – because we are building them and shipping them all over the world – they have to be built around a steel frame for both safety reasons and common sense.

Giz: Isn’t that cheating?

Ed: If I was building it out of my own LEGO bricks I wouldn’t dream of doing that but this is a business at the end of the day. All the models in the Legoland parks are built around steel frames… Just like any LEGO model, if you drop it it’s just going to smash to pieces.

Giz: You make a fair point. Tell us a bit more about your Master Builders. How do you find them? What skills do you need to make the grade as a Master Builder?

Ed: Some of our Master Builders are experienced builders from a hobbyist background, or they come from an arts background. Different ones all specialise in different things. We’ve got one guy who’s really good on architectural stuff and will lean that way with his thinking. There’s one lady who is brilliant at detail work and can come up with things that look like gold leaf or jewellery… she’s fantastic at that creative way of combining LEGO parts to make really intricate detailed models. We’ve got another guy who’s brilliant at doing animals, like freehand small scale animals and human figures. There’s a whole range of different skills and they’ll bring their different styles to the table.

Giz: When you have that level of creativity within the company, how do you come up with the ideas? Is it you guys who pitch to clients or is it more the clients who are approaching you with what they’re looking for?

Ed: Yes, they can come to us with an incredibly specific thing like ‘here is a 3D model of a molecule. We want you to build a large 3D representation of this because we’re going to a pharmaceutical show and we want to present that.’ Or they could come to you with a concept or even just a general ‘we like LEGO, what can you do for us?’. Often it depends on the client. Zoos like animals. Sometimes, with clients like Land Rover, it’s a different process. We go back and forward with ideas and iterations. We’ll give our thoughts; tell them that this is good or that that might not work so well. In the end, they decided they wanted to use a UK landmark, but not just any landmark. They wanted it to be different. We settled on Tower Bridge so that you could drive an actual car over it. It was an insane project!

Giz: What are you working on right now?

Ed: At the moment we are building a life-size Tyrannosaurus Rex… We’ve got its head posed down in that Jurassic Park sort of way, roaring, so that when kids come in they can actually stand next to its head and be right down eye-to-eye, tooth-to-tooth with it. It’s a lot of fun.

Giz: That’s the key isn’t it? Engaging people in the models and having a good time with them.

Ed: At the end of the day it is a children’s toy and it’s meant for enjoyment and entertainment. If we’re not appealing to that target audience we’re not going to be successful, but that doesn’t mean we can’t do it without giving a bit of thought to what it is that children are learning. LEGO has long been known as an educational toy and it is teaching engineering and building skills but there is no reason why it can’t teach more beyond that.

LEGO work pretty closely with the autistic community because children often come out of their shells a lot when playing with LEGO bricks. I’ve experienced this myself at shows when children come up and talk to the Master Builders about what we do with LEGO. We won’t think anything of it and they’ll walk off. Two minutes later the parents will come over and go ‘Wow, that’s incredible! He never speaks like that to anybody. He has quite severe Asperger’s’. I think that’s incredible; it’s a way of connecting with people that you don’t necessarily get through other means.

Giz: I find that universal appeal to be the heart of what makes LEGO such an evergreen toy. Honestly, these days I look at the increasing commercialisation of LEGO and it saddens me. It feels like the inherent creativity has become secondary to the big licences.

Ed: I think it’s a bit of a Catch 22. Do they take on these licenses and do things like Star Wars and all the baggage of that or do they not and therefore be less successful? I mean, when I started playing with LEGO bricks they were a very different animal than what they are now, but that’s just an evolution with the times and I don’t think it’s a bad thing. If you’re creative you can use the range of parts they now have in a far more interesting way and do far more with them.

Giz: Do you see the rise of modern technologies as being a threat to LEGO? These days kids are more likely to be seen with a tablet than with LEGO bricks. Do you think it’s the end times for LEGO?

Ed: It goes in cycles. My nieces and nephews are computer game obsessed and they have no interest in LEGO, but my great nephew, he loves playing with LEGO bricks as well as playing football as well as doing computer games. But then children these days are multitasking and LEGO and other companies are finding ways to link these two together.

On the other hand, the skill level and creativity of LEGO builders is light years ahead of what it would have been if the internet didn’t exist. I look back on how I built then and compare it to today and it’s chalk and cheese. Now you’ve got access to pictures of models via Flckr, The Brothers Brick and Gizmodo. I’ve had my own stuff posted on Gizmodo in the past. I built a huge LEGO aircraft carrier of the USS Intrepid which is now on board the USS Intrepid in New York. I did that as a fan before I joined Bright Bricks.

Giz: Can you believe the success Bright Bricks has had? Did you ever expect it to grow into the company it has become today?

Ed: Not at all. It’s daunting and a bit hard to believe at times.

Gizmodo: Final question: as the Creative Director of Bright Bricks, you hire Master Builders. Does that make you the Master Master Builder?

Ed Diment: The Master of the Masters? I really don’t know, but… I suppose it does. Now that side of things has waned quite a lot because I’m running the creative part of the company… on a day to day basis I don’t do any building at the workshop at all, but I still build at home in my spare time.

Featured image: Bright Bricks/Instagram