Brick talk: Master Builder Nathan Sawaya on art, life, and TV’s Lego Masters

With the enduring popularity of Lego bricks, it’s no surprise that the Fox competition series Lego Masters received a warm welcome when the series premiered in February 2020 and brought teams of clever Lego builders together to compete for the title of Lego Master.

Hosted by The Lego Batman Movie star Will Arnett, the series asks amateur Lego builders to craft complicated, entertaining creations based on various challenges posed by Arnett along with Lego design managers Amy Corbett and Jamie Berard, who serve as judges on the series. Assisting in both the development of these challenges and the brightly colored, Lego-fueled design of the show’s set is artist Nathan Sawaya, a consulting producer on the show and the only person in the world to hold the Lego-endorsed titles of Lego Certified Professional and Lego Master Builder.

With season 2 of Lego Masters returning from its Olympic hiatus on August 10, Digital Trends spoke to Sawaya about his work on the series, as well as his world-famous exhibit The Art of the Brick and whether he finds stepping on Legos as painful as everyone else does.

An image of the set from season 2, episode 3 of the Lego Masters series.

Digital Trends: In addition to creating amazing art, you’re a consulting producer on Lego Masters. I’m told you play a role in developing the challenges for the show, but what else does that position entail?

Nathan Sawaya: Well, it’s a lot of building, actually. When the contestants need to build off of something in a challenge, we have to build that base for them. For example, in the first episode of season 2, there was a parade of Lego floats that the contestants built. But you can’t have that parade just anywhere, right? You need a whole Lego city for the parade to go through.

So my team and I built an entire Lego city — and when I say “my team” and I, that’s just me and one other person, Brandon Griffith. It’s just the two of us. That’s one part of it, and then building set pieces, too. The camera doesn’t always focus on the background, so a lot of people don’t realize that most things on the set are built out of Lego. All of the signage is built out of Legos, for example.

Well, before I get to what I assure you are more thoughtful questions, I have to ask: Do your fingers hurt as much as mine do during long Lego building sessions? 

[Laughs] Well, they’re used to it, but there are a few calluses built up, too. My fingers have been doing this for almost 20 years now, so they’re used to it.

A parade scene made out of Lego from the season 2 premiere of Lego Masters.

Good to know! So how does your approach to creating elements for the series differ from your approach to creating art on your own?

It’s a different approach on the show because I have a boss. Well, it’s not really a “boss,” but I have producers that come up with ideas that need to be created in Lego for the show. Whereas when I’m creating art, it’s generally just for me. Yes, I do work for clients from time to time, but it’s more of a creative process in that environment. With the show, it’s more of, “We need this in this amount of time.” It’s that deadline that makes it so much different.

Working in television is very different than working on your own time, because when you work on your own, you can make a mistake and chisel it apart if it doesn’t look right. On the show, it’s nonstop. And this year was extra challenging, too. Season 1 was shot in Los Angeles, where my art studio is located. It was just a few minutes to drive from the set to my studio and back. But Season 2 was shot in Atlanta. My art studio stayed in Los Angeles, so … a much longer drive.

The challenges in Lego Masters are always so clever in the way they blend art and engineering. Can you shed some light on what goes on behind the scenes when new challenges are being developed?

There are challenge producers who come up with the ideas and we have a testing team as well. The challenge producers come up with a concept, and then it goes to the testing team to see if we can pull it off. And then there’s a conference to figure out how much time we should give the contestants for that particular challenge. We want them to be under pressure, but we also want it to look cool. So it’s this delicate balance that can be tough to maintain sometimes, because the contestants build at different rates and we want everyone to have something that’s visually cool to look at when they’re done. But we can’t give them too much time, because then there’s no pressure — no dramatic element.

That’s a balance I consult a lot on. I do the math in my head of what it would take to build something to fit the challenge and then reduce it by a few hours to put that pressure on them.

Nathan Sawaya working on his art exhibit The Art of the Brick.

Creating with Lego bricks is clearly your passion, but it’s also your profession. How does that shape your approach to the work you do and the art you create? 

There is some compartmentalization that goes on, for sure. I mean, I don’t have any Lego in my home.

Wait, what? You’re saying I have more Lego in my home than you — the most famous Lego artist in the world — have in your home?

Yeah! It’s true! It’s not that I don’t build Lego sets for fun. I still build sets from time to time. People still gift me sets. Every birthday, I get some Lego from my parents. I bring them to the studio.

When I’m building a set for fun, it is nice, though. It’s therapeutic in that I don’t have to think, and I can just follow someone else’s instructions. But when it comes to my home, I don’t keep much Lego there. So yeah, I do separate it a little bit. All my Lego is here at the studio.

When I’m building with my kids, we each have our favorite types of things to build with Lego. I love spaceships and aircraft and such, and my daughter loves building scenes from shows and movies, for example. Is there a particular type of build you really enjoy working on? 

I suppose so. I’ve been bouncing around a little lately. Lego has this Lego Ideas line, and they’re just really phenomenal projects. They had a miniature grand piano, and it was a great set to build. But I do tend to lean on my roots as a child. So the Star Wars sets are always fun. It’s whatever catches my eye, really. They did a bouquet of flowers recently, which I thought was a very nice set, so I built it.

It’s also good for me to see how they’re using different elements and techniques, because they’re always coming up with new elements. When I was a kid, it was just mostly rectangular bricks, but these days, there are so many different elements you can use.

On that note, what is your favorite Lego element to use? What’s the block you couldn’t do what you do without?

Probably a one-by-two jumper.

That’s a block that’s two studs long, but with just one stud centered on the top, right?

Exactly. It lets you get a lot more detail in builds. If you’re trying to create a stair-step curve, for example, you can get so much more detail by going a half-stud at a time instead of a full stud as you create the shape you’re going for.

Well, one more very important question for you: The rest of the world lives in fear of stepping on Legos without shoes on, but is that even a concern for you? Have you evolved past that particular fear?

Well, it is definitely a thing to worry about, but I’ve stepped on so many bricks, I don’t even feel it anymore. When I hire an assistant, though, I make them walk barefoot through a carpet of loose Lego bricks to see how they do. [Laughs] No, I don’t actually do that. But seriously, I’ve had so many bricks under my feet, I really don’t feel it anymore.

So, in addition to Lego Masters on Fox, where can we see your work? 

Along with Lego Masters, I have The Art of the Brick, which is on exhibition right now at the California Science Center in Los Angeles. It will be there through the end of the year. And you can always go to Instagram to see some of my latest pieces.

Season 2 of Lego Masters returns Tuesday, August 10, on Fox. 

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