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INTERVIEW: RYAN McNAUGHT – The Brick Man Experience, Lego Certified Professional

| 8 April 2016 | Reply

INTERVIEW: RYAN McNAUGHT – The Brick Man Experience, Lego Certified Professional
By Shane Pinnegar

Brick Man Experience - Ryan McNaught 01

Proving that LEGO is definitely not just for kids is Ryan McNaught, one of only 13 LEGO Certified Professionals in the world (and the only one in the Southern hemisphere), who brings his celebrated Brick Man Experience Exhibition to Perth’s Elizabeth Quay from 7 April through to the 20th.

Featuring over 60 exhibits, including Ryan’s biggest ever Star Wars LEGO build, a Qantas A380 jet, a LEGO Ferrari one quarter on actual size, the world’s largest LEGO flower, as well as works centred around the theme of ‘transport’ from other LEGO Certified Professionals around the world, the exhibition features over five million LEGO bricks.

“You know your numbers,” says McNaught, “that’s three big double semi-trailers worth. It’s about 6 or 7 years worth of work, so hopefully it doesn’t break on the way!”

McNaught says that whilst the exhibits are transportable, there’s always a little patch-up work to do at their destination.

“Well, there’s a little bit. These models basically are from things that I’ve done from the last six or seven years all around the world. So I might have done a model for an art gallery or a museum in Italy, or I’ve done some things for somewhere in America. And what we’ve done is we’ve got them all back together again to travel as one show. So most of these models are designed to travel secure in transport, so as a whole they’re pretty, I guess, fundamentally solid, if that makes any sense.”

I’d imagine the odd piece here or there falls off when they’re being bounced around in the back of a semi-trailer or the hold of a plane?

“Oh yeah,” McNaught confirms, “but that’s the good thing about Lego – you can just put them back together pretty easily. To give you an idea, it takes two of us about four days to put it all back together.”

LEGO launched its plastic bricks in 1949 to instant acclaim. To what does The Brick man ascribe the fascination?

“The thing for me is, I mean I loved LEGO as a kid and didn’t get back into it until our kids came along, but for me LEGO is one of these things where a brick can one minute be in a car and the next minute be in a house and then it’s in a space ship and it’s in whatever – and it’s the same Lego brick. So as kids tastes evolve, you know, one minute they’re building houses and the next minute they’re into racing cars so as their tastes evolve, LEGO can adapt and evolve with them. So it kind of becomes this thing that, I guess, withstands trends, if that makes any sense.”

Brick Man Experience - logo

McNaught has his Grandmother to thank for giving him his first LEGO set.

“It was, yep. I was three years old and the only main reason I remember, it wasn’t so much the LEGO, but I sat at my Grandfather’s chair – you know, Grandad always used to have HIS chair, and I remember it was pouring rain outside, a typical crappy Melbourne day and I remember sitting at the foot of his chair and I was just so content and happy in my little world and that’s kind of why it sticks in my brain.”

Therein lies one of the great appeals of LEGO. It’s a toy kids can play with and show off to their parents, and also play with their parents, as much as the ability to build anything with it. That family connection should never be undervalued – they were some of our most special memories.

“You’re exactly right,” agrees McNaught. “My kids come up and say, ‘Dad, Dad! Look what I’ve made!’ And they’ve got this pride in what they’ve built, you know. And then they want to tell you the story about it and all of that kind of stuff. It’s an outlet for imagination that’s really simple and parents can understand just as well as kids.”

So how does one manage to parley that fascination or obsession with LEGO into a career and become a LEGO certified professional?

“Well, luck is the short answer,” he laughs. “There’s 13 of us around the world and we each got our title in an entirely different way. So there’s not a LEGO University or anything like that so you can’t go somewhere to study the LEGO arts, you know? But how I got it was, about six years ago LEGO had just released these things called LEGO Mindstorms, which they use in schools when teaching about engineering and robotics and stuff like that.

“Anyway, I used to be in IT and what I did was, I wrote a piece of software that allowed kids to control the robots that they made with this Mindstorm via the iPad, which was just brand new as well. Some guys from LEGO saw what I was doing and then we kind of chatted and it went from there. So luck is the answer; right place at the right time.”

One thing everyone wants to know is how closely do LEGO watch over what The Brick Man builds. Does he need approval from them in advance of exhibiting a new model?

“Look, it depends on what it is,” McNaught explains. “If it’s something like… well, my normal day job is, I’m the guy that builds all the store displays, so things you might find in Myers or David Jones or Toy’s R Us, you know. So that’s kind of my bread and butter. When I’m doing those models, for example, say, a life sized Darth Vader or whatever the case happens to be, usually the license holders, like Disney or Lucas or whatever, they’ll want to have a look at it first and make sure that it meets their brand and guide lines and that kind of stuff.

“But when I’m doing something that’s not licensed, I’m good to go. I’ve got a few rules of course, like no sex and violence and drugs and all those kinds of things. It’s a children’s toy after all, but as a rule, they’re okay and on you go.”

We’d assume anything ‘adults only’ would be out of bound!

“You know, there’s ‘adults only’ and then there’s ‘Adults Only’!” declares McNaught. “For example from what’s coming over to Perth is I’ve done The Love Boat from the ‘80s TV show. Now there are kids who don’t really know what The Love Boat is, but I’ve got in there all the ‘80s washed-up stars. I’ve got the Hoff and all these kinds of people. It’s an adult joke, but it’s presented in a family friendly kind of way. So, within reason.”

Brick Man Experience - The Love Boat

How does a new model get designed? Is it a computerised process or is it done by hand with pen and paper?

“It really depends on what it is,” says McNaught. “Again, if I’m doing stuff like Darth Vader or whatever, the license holders will want to look at it first. Then we’ll need to do it in computer first ‘cos they’ll want sign off and make sure it’s 100% accurate. You know, things like Darth Vader, ‘you’re missing the third stud on his belt off to the left.’ That kind of level of detail, you know?

“Whereas when we do our own models,” he continues, “usually, 99% of the time, we’ll do some drawings and some calculations first. Some of the models are so big that we have to go to the point of getting an engineer to sign them off or we need to do work on the inside of them. So often, we’ll do quite a lot of sketches and drawings. Excel is our friend. We’ll work out all the brick math and all that kind of stuff and then basically go from there. But the good bit about Lego is, if you make a mistake, you can take the brick off and then put it in another spot. It’s not like you’re building concrete slabs or something!”

My daughter Tia, who is eight, desperately wanted to know how can they make models so tall and have them remain structurally sound?

“Well, a good example is Australia’s tallest LEGO model, which is coming to Perth,” McNaught says, happy to explain, “which is a Saturn 5 Rocket, which is the one that took man to the moon back in the late ‘60s. So it’s six-and-a-half meters tall.

“So we have to use a cherry picker to put that one together – you can’t get up a ladder that high. So whilst the model is all LEGO, on the inside of the rocket, the LEGO doesn’t touch it, but we have a steel pole that goes up the middle and that is only there for safety. Say for example, like if someone came up and tried to push it over, it wouldn’t fall over. But it’s all LEGO bricks.”

LEGO being such a hands-on toy, does he get kids wanting to touch and play with and possibly dismantle the exhibits or potentially mess things up?

“I guess I’ll take a step back,” says McNaught. “The thing about our exhibition is, whilst we’ve got 60 [exhibits] set up, all sorts of various LEGO models, there’s a good dozen or so models where we actually need their help in helping us build them. So not only is it awesome stuff to look at, it’s also very hands-on as well. So we’ve got a whole range of things for them to be involved in to help us build some of those models too. So yes we’ve got some stuff where we don’t particularly want kids climbing all over and that kind of stuff, but we make up for that with all the activities and things they can do too. So it’s not just an exhibition, it’s a bit more than that.

“Well I don’t know about you, but if I took my kids to a place where I tell them not to touch, you’re asking for a wee bit of trouble. So, yeah, we try and make sure we’ve got all the kids covered. There’s more hands-on than there’s not hands-on.”

Building a model with a couple hundred thousand LEGO bricks is one fantastic achievement, but is it a heartbreaking moment when you finally have to break that model down?

“Yes and no,” McNaught admits. “It is, but it’s a new beginning, because you can use those bricks to make something else. I mentioned before The Love Boat. So that Love Boat, most of the bricks in that used to be an airplane, so you’re kind of re-purposing and you’re making something new, which people can admire, if that makes any sense. There’s a bit of karma there maybe.”

Brick Man Experience - Ryan McNaught at work on The Colliseum

Is building Lego, then, more than just pure entertainment and a job for The Brick Man? Is there something deeper and more existential in the process for him?

“It really depends on what I’m making,” McNaught ponders. “A good example is the Colosseum from Rome and we split it in half. So I’ve got half of it in 100AD when it was in its prime and had gladiators and all that kind of stuff and the other half is the ruin as it is today. So, when I’m designing and thinking about the model, there’s not only a research element in trying to figure out what life was like back in those days, and then as it is today. So I can kind of use it as a bit of a sneaky way of educating children about history and that sort of stuff, right? So it’s a little bit sly, it’s a little bit sneaky, but we’re trying to get across messages in a subtle way they’ll enjoy.”

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