Dan Steininger’s electrifying passion and enthusiasm for LEGO is the first thing that caught my attention when I spoke to him over the phone. Despite being over 800 kilometres away in Sydney, Dan’s energy and fervor for LEGO made it feel like he was in the same room as me, happily chatting about LEGO bricks and giant models.
It was immediately evident why Dan is 1 of only 7 official Master Builders in the world employed by The LEGO Group. Dan has the envious job of travelling around the world, building incredible giant-sized LEGO models and inspiring both kids and adults to build beyond their instruction manuals.
Dan is in Sydney this weekend for a very special LEGO Star Wars Day event in Westfield Penrith to help construct the world’s tallest LEGO Darth Vader model. On the 3rd and 4th of May, you can help assemble a massive 4-metre LEGO Darth Vader out of over 250,000 LEGO bricks. The event is free and open to the public so if you’re in Sydney, be sure to head down to Penrith and be a part of Australian LEGO history.
I recently had the opportunity to chat with Dan about life as a Master Builder, Star Wars and his lifelong love for LEGO.
Most of us would only dream of having a job like yours. How did you become a Master Builder?
I was 37 and working at a sales job. I had 4 children and one day, a buddy of mine who worked at LEGO mentioned that there was an opening in the model shop. He said that they were a bunch of creative people and he thought I’d fit right in. He knew I had a background in art and sculpting so he figured it would be a great fit for me and it surely was, it was a terrific fit. This May, it’ll have been 21 years that I’ve been with LEGO and I love every moment of it.
Is there a super secret ceremony that takes place when you become a Master Builder?
(laughs) Not really, but I had to go through a pretty unusual hiring process. I wasn’t hired as a Master Builder. I became a Master Builder. It was a highly sought after position and I was going after Master Model Builder ever since I knew about it. I was very lucky that it took me a year and a half after I was hired to become Master Builder. When I got promoted to Master Builder, it was very similar to other companies where you meet the HR person, get congratulated from your teammates in a meeting where your promotion is announced and then it goes out in a companywide email. That was really exciting!
One of the more interesting things before I was hired was during the interview process where I had to build a trophy out of LEGO. They had a tray of different yellow elements, no instructions and they told me that I had an hour to build a trophy about a foot high. They left me alone and they came back about 20 minutes later where I was almost done and I got the job! It was 3 hours of interviews at that time for the entry level minimum wage position as a Model Floor trainee – that was my official title, then I became Model Gluer, followed by Model Builder before finally becoming a Model Master Builder.
What’s your typical work day like and what is your favourite thing about working with LEGO?
My typical work day is full of meetings like any other company! (laughs). I like the brainstorms, coming up with new ideas to promote certain lines of product. We work closely with brand managers to generate ideas on how to promote Star Wars (in this case), City or any other line. We also figure out how to get LEGO into the hands of kids using the Model Shop.
I have expense reports which are not very fun for all the times I spend travelling. I’ll often sit at my desk which is precious to me and build a model. I’ll actually spend all day on the model. Even after 21 years, I still enjoy that a lot although I don’t get to do that as often as I’d like. As you move up you kinda move away from the actual building stuff. At the events I get a chance to build but in the office they got me doing a lot of project management stuff.
Are you a big Star Wars fan? How excited are you to build the world’s largest LEGO Darth Vader here in Australia?
I enjoyed Star Wars. I saw the first 3 movies in the theatres and it shows that I’m both old and a Star Wars fan! (laughs). I’ve got 4 kids and they’ve all seen the Star Wars movies. We have a guy in the shop who is on top of the hill as far as Star Wars fans go. I generally go to him if I have any Star Wars questions. Last year, I was building a Tie Fighter and I wanted to know what colour the Tie Fighter’s lasers were. They were green, I think. He’s the go-to Star Wars guy in the shop. Master Builders have their own specialties; mine is more on the events side and building large models!
How much planning and preparation goes into designing and coming up with the concept for these large scale models?
We were talking about this project (4m high Darth Vader) almost a year ago since LEGO Australia proposed the idea of doing something a bigger build in a shopping mall and wanted to tie it in to May the 4th to promote LEGO Star Wars. It takes quite a bit of planning. It takes about 3 months on the design side and about 1 month to build the prototype. As you build the prototype, you’re constantly redesigning it. It’s a fairly long process.
Do you use any special tools or programs, or do you work out the designs and elements in your head like how we saw the Master Builders do it in The LEGO Movie?
When I first started we didn’t have computers and they barely had any technology 21 years ago. Today, they design models in Maya, a 3D modeling program. We then import the 3D image into a program called Brick Builder which converts the entire 3D image into 1 X 1 bricks or 1 X 1 plates. 1 X 1 plates give you a more tapered look.
With the Darth Vader in Sydney, it’s a brick model because the kids are actually helping me build it. The prototype model is mainly made out of 2 X 4 bricks. The kids will create bricks 4 times larger than a 2 X 4. It makes for a blocker model but we want to get the kids involved and have a hand in building the model, as opposed to a demonstration build. We worked on Darth Vader in Brick Builder for awhile and I actually try to build all the prototypes whenever I’m at an event – so I know what it’s going to look like and what the challenges are going to be.
Who is your favourite Star Wars character?
My favourite Star Wars character is probably Yoda. He’s probably everybody’s favourite. I do like Jar Jar Binks (laughs) and he gets a bad rep. Nobody likes Jar Jar Binks, but I do.
I like Yoda’s lack of size, but he has wisdom and he’s a very powerful user of the Force. Right from the beginning when the movies first came out, you see this tiny old character who doesn’t look like a whole lot and he then turns out to be very wise and powerful. I think that’s a good metaphor for people and for life.
I also like General Grievous – but they killed him off way too fast. He’s a really cool bad guy. Of course I also like Vader and Darth Maul. I once built a 3 metre tall bust of Darth Maul, which was only his head and shoulders. That was very creepy.
If you had to choose, would you pick the Light or Dark side of the Force?
I like to think myself as a good guy and even though I like Yoda, I tend to gravitate to the Dark side a little bit (laughs). I think that it would be awfully boring if Yoda had nobody to go up against and there was no Dark side. Life in the universe wouldn’t be as exciting.
How would you describe your building style?
I like big. I love going big with my builds. This 4 metre tall Darth Vader is a perfect example of a challenge that I like. Last year, they did a life sized X-wing in New York. I was there in Times Square for the unveiling and it was just unbelievable. I’ve built LEGO for almost half my life and I was just amazed by it.
The X-Wing was built in the Czech Republic and I was there to talk to the press and do some repair work on the model. That thing was just sick, unbelievable. I like big things and how you can easily scale things up with LEGO.
If you could build a distinctly Australian LEGO creation, what would it be and why?
I don’t know, I’ll have to talk to folks around here. My perspective as someone from the States is that Australia is all about koalas, the Outback, kangaroos and Crocodile Dundee. I would think that it would be great to make a Didgeridoo out of LEGO. One that works and that you can produce sound with. I think that would be fun.
You build giant-sized LEGO models around the world. What happens after the model is completed and where do they go?
The X-Wing at Times Square eventually ended up in Legoland California. For this Darth Vader that I’m building, it’s going to stay in the Westfield shopping complex for a week or so – then it’s going to be taken down, sorted by size and colour, put back into boxes and that’ll go to LEGO’s Sydney headquarters where it can be used for future events.
Just last weekend I was in Las Vegas and I built a 3 metre tall R2D2. That one was broken down that very night after I finished. A lot of these models are constantly rebuilt over and over again – that’s the life of them. It’s interactive and is one of the ways we get bricks into the hands of kids and adults who may not have had the opportunity to play with LEGO.
The glued models that we build, like the ones for Comic-Con and Toy Fairs are usually to show off new product lines. Those usually have steel on the inside and all the pieces are glued together so it doesn’t fall apart in transit. That’s their life, they travel around to different shows. Eventually, they come back to Connecticut where I work and they’ll be around the office. Some of them may never come back because they’re licensed models and we no longer have the license anymore!
You work with a lot of kids at various building events. What do you tell them when they ask you about how to become a Master Builder?
It’s hard because there’s so few of us in the world. In fact there’s only 7 of us that have that title of Master Builder. There are a lot of model builders, a lot of LEGO designers but as far as Master Builders, there’s only 7 of us employed by The LEGO Group. There’s no university or college that offer a LEGO degree.
I usually tell parents that engineering and architecture are good starting points. I have a background in art and 3D design. Just try and get a foot in the door. Get a job somewhere at LEGO and work your way into the Model Shop.
I’ve been here 21 years and they’ve never hired anybody as a Master Builder. You always have to work your way up the ranks.
What’s your favourite LEGO theme of all time?
(laughs) There are so many themes, they’re like children to me. You can’t have favourites! I don’t know why I like it so much but it has a warm place in my heart and that was the Statue of Liberty set. When it came out, the bricks were sand green which was a cool colour at that time because it was the only set that contained it.
It was a really nice model and I remember building it early on in my career and you know what, I never bought it. I kick myself that I never bought that set. That was probably one of my favourite sets.
I was also a big fan of old school Aquazone. I got into Divers and other themes, but Aquazone was always cool with the crystals and everything. There are a lot of yellow elements and different ships and I really enjoyed playing with them.
A wizard has turned you into a single LEGO piece. What piece would it be, and why?
I would be a 2 X 4 red brick. I’m not very flashy guy, I’m kind of a regular guy. The 2 X 4 is really iconic for LEGO and is really just a basic building block, the cornerstone of all builds.
There are a lot of really cool pieces like jumper plates and cheese wedges, but a basic 2 X 4 will always be my favourite.
Lastly, what advice do you have to give to builders who want to get better at building their own creations?
Eventually, you gotta put your instructions away and take your sets apart. To be really creative, you need to get out of your comfort zone and start building what you want to build. One way to do that is to go to LEGO.com and download the LEGO Digital Designer. Another good start are the Master Builder Academy sets (Editor’s note: unfortunately not available in Australia) which teach you basic to advanced building techniques.
We want to see kids building with just LEGO. If you remember The LEGO Movie, it’s really important to build whatever you want out of LEGO and not worry whether it’s right or wrong. Most fans have a pile or bucket of LEGO in their house which is a fantastic place to start. It’s important to keep building and learning.
Thanks a ton to LEGO Australia for this fantastic opportunity to speak to Dan. If you’re in Sydney this coming weekend, come celebrate Star Wars day by heading down to Centre Court, Westfield Penrith on Saturday and Sunday to help Dan construct the world’s largest LEGO Darth Vader.
May the 4th be with you!