This interview is proof that my college adviser lied to me in high school. Writing for Geekadelphia has given me the chance to interview some pretty cool and interesting people over the last year, and this interview is no exception.
Pete Donner, is a Master Builder for Lego. What does that mean exactly? Well it means that while we are filing our TPS reports, Pete is creating things out of Lego for a living. In a job that seems to go right up there with the guy who reads Megan Fox her lines off camera, this guy has a job worthy of some serious envy. He was in town for the Toy Story event I wrote about earlier this week and was nice enough to tell me what its like not only to work for Lego, but how you end up with an awesome title like Master Builder.
Could you tell us a little bit about how one becomes a Lego Master Builder? What’s the path one takes for that sort of career?
It’s been kind of been a unique path for everybody that’s currently a Master Builder, that works for Lego. I began working in the company in 1997, as an intern right out of high school. I was working on gluing together the kits you can buy in the store, and they were then put into the display cases in Toys R Us. That assignment came to an end, but they wanted to keep a few people around to work on the first Lego Imagination Center, which is the Orlando downtown Disney brand store. That’s what its current incarnation is. I stayed on for that, and the first model I ever built that was a three dimensional model. It was one of the mini figures blown up to fifty times it regular size.
I guess I was just kind of a good fit for the company. I was familiar with Lego, and I always have always been involved in the arts. That’s one of the main keys if you are trying to get into this field, is to study art, mathematics, architecture; anything in that vein would really help out. My luck was I got the experience right out of high school, so I was able to get my feet wet with the company, and then tailor my college education to fit the needs of the department at the time. So I actually have a degree in Fine Arts, and a focus on computer technology, graphic design, 3-d modeling that kind of stuff.
Thirteen years of training and apprenticing on some level, just like any other field, has gotten me the title of Master Builder.
You said their was an apprenticeship and you had to work under that, and eventually earned the title of Master Builder? How does that work? Can you tell us about the levels?
When I first started with Lego, you would start as a model gluer and that would encompass really basic stuff. You would do mass productions of models, or you would do glued sets to go into the malls, and stuff like that. If you stayed on, and you were good at what you did, then you could go on to be a model builder and you would continue to grow your skill set with each step.
Model builders would then be responsible to take on more of the responsibilities involved with translating designs. As a model builder designs would be handed over to you, and you would be charged with making it complete, without having somebody to supervise you through the process. Then you would move up from there to Senior Model Builder.
Senior Model Builders would do some designs on the fly. They would also fix models because of an error in the design, or an error in the build. As you take on more experience and more responsibility it kind of increases your title as you go along.
Finally you reach Master Model Builder, which now for us encompasses the ability to design full models. To make models that are really sound, so that it can support it’s own weight, and will not be hazardous to the public, and understanding how that all works. Also, it helps to have a public persona, to do stuff like this, have interviews and go and do an event, and work with the kids like we are going to be doing tonight at the Boys and Girls Club at Wilson Park.
So it changes and evolves, it’s a living thing. When I first started you did what you were classed to do. Now I do everything from just glue together a set, or to sit down and work on something like John Lasseter, to doing what I’m doing right now.
What’s the day in the life of a Lego Master Builder?
Sometimes you come in and you will know for a week what you will be working on. We just finished wrapping up a life sized Buzz Lightyear, and a life sized Woody. If you haven’t seen them, you should do a Google search for them, they are probably some of the best models we have ever put out. Or you might come in one day and you are putting out little fires here and there, or you are working on smaller projects.
I might do an alternate model that will be used in a club magazine. To do this I take a set that you can purchase in the store, and I’ll redesign it, and then I’ll generate and create building steps. Which will either be available in print in the magazine, or online for download. All free of charge really. It’s just a method of increasing the value of what you get when you purchase the set really.
I’m trying to think of last thing I had to do, we do gift models sometimes. I did a gift model for somebody that was kind of small, just a couple hour project. So you might do something like that as well. It really changes day to day. I might be designing, might be packing up a show, doing shipping and handling responsibilities. I might be traveling, doing and event like tonight’s. It changes so fast, it really is a living thing, you think you know what you are doing on Monday and Tuesday, and then you are in Chicago.
What are some of the things that help you be a better Lego Master Builder?
I think one thing that always helps, is to always stay current. So every year when a new line of product comes out, there’s additional pieces that are added as well. It might just even be a piece that was just available this year, next year it might be available in purple, so it’s knowing that kind of stuff. Because every new piece introduced offers a new opportunity for a design.
So you have to stay on top of that, because that is one thing that the community of adult fans are really good at. You need to be inspired, and have your finger on the pulse of what’s going on in the Lego community. It keeps you fresh. What really helps me personally is that I’m a big art fan, and I love comic books, I love all things that are contemporary art as I see it.
I think for the most part just staying loose and being willing to change, as the technology has changed so dramatically from I first started. Somebody once sat a desk with bins of brick, and built a model and then somebody would take that and glue it together. Now we use Maia, which is the same software that’s utilized by animation studios to create movies like Toy Story, and we’ll create a 3-d model and then we use a piece of software that was created by the Lego company to take that and turn it into a brick model. It’s not like it’s a magic, but it gives you a really good base to start with, and it saves you things like the fragility of a brick built model that you have to move around.
Tell us what brings you to our fair city of Philadelphia today.
I’m in town to help out. Disney and Pixar are releasing the combo pack of Toy Story 1 & 2 on Blu-Ray and DVD. So they have asked Lego to help them out this launch and create kind of a visual backdrop for it. So in six different cities they are having a Master Builder come out help kids at the local Boys and Girls Club – this one is at Wilson’s Park in Philadelphia to create a mosaic specifically 2 feet by three feet in diameter.
What we’ve done is printed a image on there, and then the kids are kind of painting by numbers sort of, with 1×1 bricks creating a mosaic. They actually received it about a week ago and they were 65-75% done with it now. I’ll arrive today at the Boys and Girls club, and I will help them complete that, as well as provide some brick that is being donated to the Boys and Girls club, cause we don’t just want to create this visual and leave. We want to continue to encourage the kids to grow, and be creative and be inventive. So we’re going to leave behind some bricks that are not not just 1×1, so that the kids can continue to create and do all that kind of stuff.
We’ll finish the mosaic, then I’ll spend some time answering some questions, and working with the kids to inspire them. Which is kind of a farce, because I get as much inspiration from working them, as they are going to get from me. I’m always amazed, every time I go out on the road, I’ve been doing this since 97, so thirteen years roughly I’ve been working with the company and I’ve got hands on the product for 40 hours a week. I’ll go out on the road, and a young kid will come over to me and show me something, and I’ll say “I never thought of doing that”. I think every time I go out on the road I get to have that experience and really, there is nothing better than that, that’s fresh eyes on the world as I see it.
Could you tell us a bit about some of your larger builds, like the race car and the life sized Mark Twain? How much planning goes into something like that and how long does it take to accomplish?
I’ll start with the racecar. That was actually done, as what I’d like to describe as an old school technique. I would design it by sitting at a desk and putting pieces together. The racecar was an F1 race car, that was done I believe in conjunction with Target. But we had to come up with a solution for shipping that one, so this one had a lot of really upfront considerations.
How do you make it so it’s supportable with how it goes together? It also has to be stable and sturdy? So I don’t remember exactly how we figured it out, it was about ten years ago. But what we came up with was it broke into six pieces, and the coolest part was you could link it all together, and then you would turn the steering wheel and it would lock the car together. It was a really cool project, I’m sure it’s on the Internet, so if you wanted to find a picture of it, I’m sure you could find it. I believe that one took two teams of two, and it took us three months to build, with 40 hours a week.
If you look at something like Mark Twain, now with the new technology, what would taken something like a designer maybe two weeks to sit down at a desk and conceive. I think we were able to turn that one around in about 30 hours for the design, because the digital technology gives you a really good base. I want to say that it took about 110 hours to build, which is kind of fast, different builders in the shop have different proficiencies, some are faster than others. So the average time for a human figure is about 150 to 200 hours depending on how complex.
I think Woody took us roughly 100-120 hours depending on who was building, and Buzz Lightyear for instance took us 220 hours because it’s got so much color and is so much bigger. In the conception of something like Buzz Lightyear, you have more levels to conception because we design it, and then it has to be approved by Pixar and Disney. But if need be we have the capability of turning something like a Buzz Lightyear out to completion in a week, if the deadline calls for it.
What’s your longest project that you’ve taken to completion? What was your longest build?
For me it was probably that F1 racecar. Some other long builds were in 2002, Lego built two Volvo XC90’s. That project took four or five people a couple of months to complete.
A few years ago we did a Batman, he was standing on the corner of a building. There was also a big gargoyle, and he had his foot up on it. From the building, to the tip of his batarang he held, I think it was 16 feet. That probably took four or five us two or three weeks, so that was a long one for a figure. You could probably find pictures of that on the Internet, that’s a great, great model.
So what are some of your most memorable projects?
I’d say some of the ones that I recently really liked were Woody and Buzz. Because for those designs, before you turn them into brick the design element is so strong and it translates so well to brick. Those are probably two of my favorite models I’ve worked on recently.
But from the old times I really like the first minifigure I built, because it was the first one that I built, that was on display and it was really cool.
So how has your trip to Philly been so far?
I am a huge Rocky fan, and I got taken on the quick Rocky tour on the way in yesterday. I got to see the statue, and all that fun stuff. For me, that was great. I also drove by the Liberty Bell, I saw the Free Library, and city hall. It’s great stuff, how do you not love architecture, and buildings like that.