Lego building deals in minutiae: The individual bricks and other design pieces used to create works of art or pieces of play are physically small and often required to be stacked on top of each other by the dozen in intricate architecture to resemble anything from a structure to a vehicle to an animal. It requires discipline, focus, a good sense of time management and a lot of creativity. A final product is always a feat of art and engineering, combining innovation with functionality in a way that can be fun for the whole family to enjoy. And, despite positioning builders against each other, that is the exact vibe “Lego Masters” sets out to capture.
“It’s about imagination, it’s about art, it’s about aspiration,” says Sharon Levy, president, unscripted/scripted programming, Endemol Shine North America. “I have experienced firsthand as a parent what Lego actually means to kids’ brains. I think we’re all fighting how we get them off screens. But I can watch [my son] sit and replicate the entire set of ‘The Office’ out of Legos.”
“Lego Masters” started as a reality competition series in the U.K. and then expanded to Australia with a slightly adjusted format before Fox snapped up the rights for a U.S. version. The U.S. version is modeled more on the Australian show than the U.K. one, says Rob Wade, president, alternative entertainment and specials, Fox Entertainment. But it comes with its own twists, too.
“I think the show itself is like the ‘Deadpool’ of reality shows,” he says. “You’ve got the competition with the best Lego builders in America, but then you have this whole other layer of comedy and production value that elevate it into a show that I think is very, very special.”
Premiering on Feb. 5, the U.S. installment of the format will pit 10 teams of two against each other in design challenges that only feature Legos as the allowed building materials but often requires elements of movement.
“You want to use what Lego provides because then if a young fan is inspired to build, they can go to the store and buy the same things used,” says brick artist and model builder Nathan Sawaya, who consulted on the show. “There are some weird constraints — you are constrained by a color palette in a way another artist would not be because a painter can take yellow paint and blue paint and make green paint, but I can’t take a yellow brick and a blue brick and make a green brick. But I like those constraints. It forces creativity in a different direction.”
On the line in “Lego Masters” is a cash prize, a trophy and the titular title, which naturally comes with a lot of bragging rights. Lego Creator Expert design manager Jamie Berard and senior design manager Amy Corbett serve as judges on the show alongside a rotation of celebrity guest judges that includes Mayim Bialik, Nicole Byer and Terry Crews.
“Anything you can imagine, Lego can become — you can make it. How do we make the most out of that? That’s baked into the movies and the brand, so it’s what we try to do with the show as well,” says showrunner Anthony Dominici.
The weekly challenges each have a theme to them, and they are a mix of “engineering, designing, just building, characters and stories,” Dominici continues. “Our internal mantra was sort of, ‘All of our builds will be bigger. We’ll give them more time to build.’ We wanted to elevate the challenges; we’re doing things that no one has done before.”
Some of the challenges that became early favorites for the production team were the “Star Wars” challenge, the bridge challenge, in which the design had to be striking visually but also able to hold “a significant amount of” weight, as well as a challenge that asks the teams to collaborate with each other.
“Lego comes from the Danish for ‘play well,’ so let’s see how well these teams can play together as part of a challenge,” says Dominici.
Casting became key for “Lego Masters,” not only in finding the right host (Will Arnett, who voices Batman in “The Lego Movie” franchise, is in that role), but also in finding the artists themselves.
“You’re playing in a smaller pool” of possible contestants just because “you’re looking for someone who uses a very specific medium to create art,” Levy says. But within that pool, diversity became important — in contestants’ background as well as their building style.
“We wanted a cross-section of the country,” Dominici says. “Any artist has their style, and to see some of these blend is really cool. Some people like to build on mini fig scale, which is smaller, but we wanted some builds to be bigger, and some are really outside of the box creative with twists along the way. Sort of like within ‘The Lego Movie,’ some of the characters look like the Unikitty, which is the kid level, but then you have the Batmobile, which is more slick. Ours is similar to that where things get mixed up. There’s not one way to approach it — it’s as unique as you are, and that’s what we try to show with the series.”
The challenges averaged 15 to 18 hours of building, during which some builders could become very “heady,” Dominici notes. It became Arnett’s job to draw them out of their bubble not to break their focus but to have them explain what they’re doing for story purposes.
“People aren’t used to talking it through as you do stuff, so you’re trying to coax that out of them, but it’s a fine line because I also don’t want to interrupt them. The stakes for them are high: They want to win,” Arnett says. “Sometimes I feel like I’m intruding a little bit, and I want to make sure I’m not ruining their chance to win. They really exceeded what I thought was capable. I have a relatively vivid imagination so I could imagine some cool builds, but seeing them do what they’re doing with the time constraints that they have, or to watch them build for eight hours going in a certain direction and then we’ll give them a twist and they’ll have to switch directions, that part is pretty remarkable.”
Although Levy admits the production team “knew the designs themselves would be the eye-candy” of the show, the workspace was built to also embody Lego’s specific aesthetic. The way the contestants’ tables connect to each other, for example, is an important element borrowed from the Australian version of the show, although Levy notes they “put our own spin on it.” Danish architect Bjarke Engalls, who designed the three-acre Lego House in Denmark, was brought in to consult on the doorway, while Sawaya’s pieces were used as inspiration and examples for what the contestants would be asked to do.
Sawaya may be best known for designing, building and placing life-size Lego statues of people on park benches around the country, as well as for his “hugger” series of smaller human statues that were specifically placed around trees in New York City, is no stranger to working within Hollywood: he recently worked with Warner Bros. to recreate the Central Perk set in life-size Lego as part of the studio’s 25th anniversary celebration for “Friends.” But working on “Lego Masters” came with new challenges, even for someone who is already seen as a master in that art form.
“When I’m making something, I can take weeks and weeks to get it just the way I want it, but the show was like, ‘Hey we need this by tomorrow morning,'” Sawaya says.
He also had to create all of his pieces in his North Hollywood, Calif. studio (usually making multiples in case one didn’t look right on camera or got damaged) and then transport them to the soundstage on which the show was shot, about half a dozen miles away. Sawaya notes that he usually glues each brick in the pieces he sends to museum installations to further protect them against handling and wear. But the contestants on the show had to rely on their engineering skills to ensure their designs were sturdy.
Asking Sawaya to turn around the pieces quickly and carefully, in part, to ensure the contestants would be able to do the same within their challenges. One specific challenge even sees them building something just to attempt to wreck it, to see which pieces are structurally sound and which are not.
The weekly themes came from the show’s production team, and Sawaya would build pieces that the contestants would work off of, but also consult on how long he thought each one would take.
“I got to do what I do and watch contestants take it from there,” he says. “The contestants are going to be judged on detail, and there are some details in there that are amazing, but if we’re doing a building challenge, doing little townhouses isn’t going to cut it; we need skyscrapers. So the contestants had to think about everything.”