Interview: Jason Miller, Master Model Builder
Where: Legoland, Orlando, Florida, USA
They say find what you love and do that for a living, but most people take a while to work it out. Having your professional path take shape by the time you’re, say, five years old could seem precocious. How many of us can say we were laying out our career trajectory during primary school play time?
Jason Miller can, with some confidence. At five years old he was knee-deep in Lego bricks and already building worlds. Twenty-odd years later, he may now only be ankle-deep, but he has taken those play sessions to their ultimate professional conclusion: he is now a Master Model Builder at Legoland Florida in Winter Haven, FL. And yes, those worlds are looking slightly more impressive.
I caught up with Miller in the nondescript hut behind a couple of fences at the theme park in Winter Haven, just outside Orlando. It’s next to the dog kennels. “Some days are noisier than others,” he tells me as he lets me into his lair. He's a big, confident guy with ready wit and, one imagines, endless patience.
The Lego workshop at the Winter Haven location has 11 employees. Two are responsible for all the animated models, three focus entirely on Mini Land – the expansive model version of several US cities, three are Master Model Builders and two are associates, assisting in the design, construction and maintenance of the models. Add a departmental manager and that’s the full team.
A couple of his colleagues are hunched over desks arranging bricks. A couple of others scoot between the shelves, picking odd bricks from the countless bins.
I ask Miller how it all began for him. “After University, I found myself working as a model display maker in the Florida Lego store,” he says. “A chance meeting in Mini Land at the sister park in California lead to interest in my skills, a seven month stint on the West Coast followed and then this, my current position in Florida since January 2011.”
I wonder if that’s a typical route for someone in his position. As I ask, we sit down and he begins to show me how to build a model of Yoda from Star Wars from scratch. “There isn’t one set of qualifications that leads people here,” Miller says. “We have engineers, architects, artists…people from myriad backgrounds.”
But every kid that comes through the door must ask you how they get to become you. What do you tell them?
“If kids ask me what they need to do to become a model maker, I tell them to focus on maths, science, art and social studies. These seem to me to be the most important ingredients.”
Our models don’t yet look anything like Yoda but I have full confidence in Miller’s methods. After all, the team seem to be doing a pretty good job of maintaining a park where it seems like everything that CAN be made of Lego IS made of Lego.
There’s a huge Einstein head overlooking one small part of one area of the park. Miller tells me that this one piece alone took roughly three to four months for a six to ten person crew, working in sections. The head is made up of 1.25 million bricks.
I ask Miller to describe the creation process.
“We design it. Then we build it.”
That’s that ready wit I mentioned.
“OK, a department has an idea, and brings it to us along with time limitations and other criteria,” he says. “We’ll then work on prototypes and ideas and depending on what it is, make scale models – half, quarter or smaller sizes. If the department like it, we’ll then work up the plans to make the full size model.”
Some models exist in every Lego park across the world, and all the departments have access to the same 3-D rendered file, but most of the models in the park are original and specific to Winter Haven.
As Yoda takes shape, Miller ducks into the stacks and shelves, lined with bucket upon bin upon container of every imaginable Lego piece. Miller says that the stock level at any one time is hard to guess at but the entire warehouse houses pieces numbering in the millions. Out front alone there are, he estimates, over 250,000 at their disposal.
Their imaginations are limited by what actually exists, though. “Pretty much we can only use what’s available from the main Lego inventory every month,” he says. “We have to plan well in advance and be prepared.”
Miller concedes that its this consummate familiarity, this deep understanding of Lego that is essential to model building on this scale. “It’s knowing which pieces we actually make, then having the maths to apply that knowledge.”
For the newest theme park area, World of Chima, the team made a 20th scale model of the initial concept, first from drawings and then building upwards.
“It was a challenging project but I’m proud of the outcome,” Miller says. “For the actual attraction, some of the models were made in California and shipped over. It was exciting seeing the land take shape especially having worked on the replica. We also had some original design elements to add after construction and brand new models that we had done here.”
Now we have Yodas in front of us, just a couple of single-square green tiles to add and his floppy ears are complete. Even though I have been baby-stepped through the whole thing, I still feel like I accomplished something here today. I tell Jason I can’t imagine the level of satisfaction he and the team must get out of their larger projects if this is how I feel after making something six inches tall.
“It’s true, but by far my biggest joy is sneaking personal references into my work,” he says. “My sister in law and my nieces are figures in Grand Central Station (in Mini Land), and there’s also a secret nod to the day I met my wife. I myself am standing on a boat that sails around the Statue of Liberty all day.”
I leave to go and try and spot his personal flourishes, Yoda in my hand, more excited than perhaps a 40-odd year old man should be about having put something basic together from plastic bricks under comprehensive instruction. Let's not dwell too long on that last part, maybe?