Wanting to make a show about Lego is one thing. Actually making a show about Lego is something else. You’d need an expert. Someone to make sure you were doing things right and had everything you need. You’d need someone like Nathan Sawaya.
Sawaya is the only person in the world to hold both the titles of “Lego Certified Professional” and “Lego Master Builder.” He’s done worldwide art exhibitions and TED Talks, he has four Lego-centric Guinness World Records, and starting next week, he’s adding a new title to his resume: Consulting Producer. Sawaya helped the team behind the scenes of Lego Masters US, Fox’s remake of the UK hit that takes the creativity and unpredictability behind popular cooking shows and brings it to Lego building. Plus, it’s hosted by Lego Batman himself, Will Arnett.
“The thing about Lego is it’s very universal,” Sawaya told Gizmodo recently. “Anyone can do it. Everyone can build with Lego. You don’t have to speak the same language, but you can speak that Lego language, and that’s what makes it so, so accessible.”
For the show, Sawaya mainly helped behind the scenes, building some of the set dressing and various props. “I really was just an artist in residence where I was building what was needed as fast as I could do it,” he said. But what was needed even more was his expertise in helping with the challenges, which run the gamut from “Theme Park” and “Mega City” to “Good vs. Evil” and “Star Wars.”
“I worked with the challenge team a lot, talking about like, what’s it gonna take for the contestants to get it done? How much time are they going to need?” Sawaya said. “Time was a big thing. If we’re challenging them to do X or Y, how long is that gonna take? Is that gonna take 10 hours? Is that going to take 15 hours? Kind of estimating that and figuring it out.”
And while, yes, that sounds like a lot of time, if you’ve ever built any of the significant Lego sets, you’d know it takes way longer than you’d think.
Host Will Arnett and the cast of Lego Masters US. Photo: Ray Mickshaw (FOX)
Gizmodo spoke to Sawaya in his North Hollywood studio, which is filled with about a million individual bricks and tons of sculptures of all shapes and sizes. Some were done just for fun, others for various art exhibitions or commissions. And all of them make you think, “How the hell did this guy become a professional Lego builder?”
“I was practicing law in New York and I would come home at night and need some sort of creative outlet,” Sawaya said. “I drew or painted or sculpted and one day I just thought, ‘What about this toy from my childhood? Could I use it to sculpt?’ And I started doing pieces, put a little website together for a virtual gallery, started getting commission requests. I was working full days at the law firm, I’d come home and have like four to six hours of work on commissions. Eventually, I just left the law firm behind and became a full-time artist.”
The impressive-sounding titles of “Lego Certified Professional” and “Lego Master Builder” were given to him years later thanks to a professional relationship he developed with the Danish company. But to this day, he still has to buy all of his own Lego bricks. “The difference is I have a great business relationship with Lego so I can buy directly from Lego,” he said. “I buy hundreds of thousands every month to keep an inventory. [I have] about a million bricks here and I keep another 10 million in a warehouse off-site.”
Here are a bunch of photos I took in Sawaya’s workshop. They’re self-explanatory:
As for those Guinness World Records, they’re kind of amazing. “One is for the largest dinosaur skeleton made from interlocking plastic toy bricks, one is for the largest Lego Batmobile, one is for the largest Lego superhero exhibition, and one is for the largest Lego bricks stage set replica of Central Perk from Friends,” Sawaya explained. Those builds also mark some personal records for him, such as most bricks he ever used for a single piece (950,000 for the Friends set), longest time for a build (an entire summer for the dinosaur) and biggest build he’s ever done (the dinosaur was about 20 feet long).
Building Batmobiles, famous coffee shops, and dinosaurs all sounds like fun and games. And it is. But Sawaya thinks time, practice, and passion are also key elements.
The record-breaking Lego dinosaur. Photo: Nathan Sawaya
“I think everyone has [the ability to do this],” he said. “It’s just spending the time to do it. A lot of this is just practice, hours and hours. This is my full-time gig. I’m with these bricks 12 hours a day. And that really helps you get time to experiment.”
“When I talk to young kids, they say, ‘What should I study to become a Lego artist?’” Sawaya continued. “Engineering and maths are important, but also art. You have to have that creativity and imagination. And if you combine those two things, which is kind of both sides of the brain, you can go for it and make it happen.”
There’s no doubt Sawaya’s story of becoming a Lego Master is a fun one. And it’s that element – story – that he thinks will be the key to Lego Masters. “What you want to see that creativity,” he said. “You want to see people using elements in ways we’ve never seen before. You want to be able to tell a story as well. And that’s something that can be really challenging for folks. They can build a whale, right. Here’s a whale. This whale doesn’t say much alone. Having that story was a key element as well.”