Interview: Erik Varszegi

August 10, 2005

FBTB: Hey Erik, first off, let’s get some basic info for you for our readers who may not be familiar with you already, stuff like your name, what division of LEGO you work for, how long have you been with the company, and a general background of what lead you to your position with the company.

EV: Alright, for the record my name is Erik Varszegi and I’m a Model designer or Lego Master Builder as we’re sometimes called for the Shows & Events Department here at the LEGO« Company. I’ve been designing and building models here for ten years now. S&E is located in LEGO’s United States corporate headquarters at Enfield CT.

I’ve always had a talent for art when I was younger, mostly 2D stuff though. But while in college I discovered sculpture and found I had a love for it, even if there was little chance of making any kind of career out of it. Imagine my surprise when looking through the classifieds when I found an ad for model builders at LEGO. At the time, I wasn’t even aware that the company was located not more than a half hour from where I lived. AFOLs hate it when I tell them this part of the story, because growing up I didn’t have any LEGO bricks. Sure, I was aware of LEGO. I had friends who had them and I played with them sometimes but I was more into comic books.

FBTB: This is the third time you’ve been intimately involved with the Star Wars Celebration events. Can you give us a brief perspective of what LEGO has done at the each of the other two events and how you were involved?

EV: At the time of the first Celebration in Denver in 1999, I was only a Model Builder, which meant I would glue together the other designer’s models from their prototypes. I was also creating small MOCs (some of them Star Wars models) on the side and that got me noticed by the department’s Art Director. I was asked if I would be able to travel and help Steve Gerling, another Master Builder, build a 10-foot long Naboo fighter during the three days of the event. Well I was seriously thinking of going to the show anyway so it was really a no-brainer. We had two separate areas in the venue; inside the hanger/museum where we showcased the Episode I product for the first time and we also had a tent outside where we were to build the model. Steve actually did the design work on the ship and we had very detailed drawings to guide us. But what we didn’t count on was the now legendary weather we had. It was raining all three days of the show and the interior of the tent now consisted of about a good eight inches of mud. It was freezing too. The poor weather did funny things to the bricks. The extreme humidity decreased the clutch power of them and the nose and engines wanted to peel off of the model. But at around 3:00 of the last day of the event the sun decided to come out and encouraged by it, Steve and I plowed through and finished the starfighter was an hour or so to spare. Then we tore it apart again.

For C2 in Indianapolis, once again Steve designed our event, the ten foot tall Yoda. But it was me that came up with the concept of our giant size bricks. By using just 2x6s and 2x10s we (Dan Steininger and me) could build a five times larger 2×4 brick. Steve’s life-size model of Yoda became a giant Jedi Master with an eight-foot long lightsaber. The cool part of this event was that we needed the help of the public to build the 2,005 giant sized bricks in Yoda. This time around we finished in plenty of time and there was much rejoicing. But…then we tore it apart again.

FBTB: How did the planning come about for your contribution to this year’s celebration? Did you have an idea to build that particular model; was it decided by a group? Was there a proposal process?

EV: Because we already had the ISD building tournament planned and in place, there would not be the space to have another interactive event like the 10-foot tall Yoda model or a demonstration build like the Naboo Starfighter. Still we wanted to have a big model presence. It was decided a group of us; the SW Brand Managers, Project Managers, Exhibit Designers, the Public Relations group and me to replicate the space battle over Coruscant in the opening of Episode III by stringing up dozens of the ARC fighters, tri-fighters and Jedi starfighter/vulture droids sets among unique large scale models of the Republic Star Destroyer, the Trade Federation battleship and General Grievous’ flagship, the Invisible Hand. Turns out that trying to build all of those at a scale of say 4 to 5 feet would blow our budget so we went instead for a single larger model.

FBTB: By now we’ve all seen pictures of your model. At the risk of sounding like an ignorant buffoon, what is it? Is it something that’s actually in Episode III? If so, did Lucasfilm Licensing pass along materials for you to build the model off of? If not, where did you draw the inspiration to build it? Is it something you made up in your head?

EV: It is in the film; in fact I didn’t know it at the time buts it’s the first thing you will see in Episode III. Pretty good product placement, huh?

I started gathering reference materials at the end of February it seems like then even Lucasfilm hadn’t settled on what to call it. I saw it referred to as Republic Cruiser, Jedi Attack Cruiser or Republic Star Destroyer. The latter is what I’ve been calling it.

It was an interesting contrast to see our space at C3 book-ended by my model of the prequel Star Destroyer on one side and the ISD building tournament on the other.

FBTB: Let’s get an idea of the scale of the model. Now I’ve actually stood next to it when it was on display at LEGOLand California during their Star Wars Weekend. If I had to guess on the dimensions, I would say it’s about 6 feet by 3 feet by 3 feet. Does that sound about right?

EV: Actually it’s a lot bigger than that. Stem to stern she’s a little over eight feet long and 44 inches wide. I never got a chance to throw it on a scale but it’s pretty close to 150 pounds and takes four people to take it out of its crate and mount it to the display stand; one person on the front, two on the sides and one underneath to guide the mounting point into the frame.

FBTB: I noticed on the underside, there is a launch bay with a launch arm on runners. That level of detail is truly mind blowing. Was building that feature which is hard to see and can easily be missed always part of the original plan?

EV: The hanger bay was the very first part that I prototyped and in the original concept of the model, the Star Destroyer was going to be hung from the ceiling of the exhibit hall during Celebration 3. There’s a steel armature that runs down the spine of the ship and we built in attachment points where we could run cables through. Later it was decided that instead of the ship flying over everyone’s heads we would bring it down to eye level where people could really enjoy it. That option is still in place, so I could still hang it depending on the strength of the ceiling beams.

FBTB: What scale is the model? Because that launch arm looks like a mini tie fighter could fit right on there and be to scale? Is the mini tie fighter too big in comparison?

EV: There’s an interesting story behind that question, my model actually shrunk from the time I finished it to when I pulled it out of its crate in Indianapolis.

The original reference renderings that the guys at Lucasfilm set me up with stated that the Star Destroyer had an over all length of 4,485 feet. That gives my model of a scale of about 1:561 or 14.5 feet per for each 1×1 LEGO brick. The mini TIE would be way too big. Just for laughs, I actually did make a TIE, an X-wing and Falcon to scale. I guess these would be micro, not mini-scale ships.

But all that changed when I picked up my copy of the Episode III Incredible Cross Sections book. It lists the length of the Venator-class at 3,730 feet. That means my model now has a scale of 1:466 and stud length of 12.11 feet per. The micro models should now be ever so slightly larger.

I was trying to get a hold of Hans Jenssen and Richard Chasemore the guys who illustrate the cross-section books for additional reference early on in my project. If I had I probably would have tried to make the ventral flight deck open up as they show in the book and the film. That and the landing gear too. Those features on the ship surprised me.

At C3, I did sit in on Jens and Richard’s talk and got a chance to meet them afterwards. Great guys both and LEGO fans to boot. I think they got a great kick of seeing the Star Destroyer in three dimensions.

FBTB: If you had to take a guess, what’s the total piece count?

EV: Well, it’s just a wild guess but I estimate that we used about 35,000 pieces, give or take a few thousand. All of them stock LEGO parts. It surprised me while I was at C3 that one of the most frequently asked question was if I had any parts molded special for this. This was often asked by people not too familiar with LEGO I guess and still think the only we make are 2×4 bricks.

FBTB: And how long did it take to build?

EV: The brickwork aspect of the ship went together in about five weeks with a little bit more time in front of that for part ordering and gathering my reference materials. My assistant and I worked a lot of overtime because of the shipping deadline I had to hit and the last day I had I pulled an all-nighter to finish her.

FBTB: Is it glued?

EV: Yes, nearly everything that leaves our shop is glued, especially a model like this that will see a lot of handling when we take it on and off the stand or hang it as the case may be.

Also, in this model if you look at some of the detail photos out there on the net you can see some screw heads showing. The screws were meant to be covered by 2×2 plates, must’ve missed a few. Anyway, I threw these in to help hold down the hull panels to the main framework of the ship. The screws weren’t absolutely necessary as every part on the ship has a true brick connection but better safe than sorry. Hey, on a ship of this size they’re a better answer than the magnets on the ISD set.

FBTB: Can you describe the general process of what you went through to build it?

EV: I drew my inspiration from our own ISD set. The construction is basically the same with an interior brick framework with plated panels attached to it. First I worked out the arrowhead shape of the frame using hinge bricks. After that was done I flipped the whole thing over and worked upside-down for three weeks on the dorsal surface, designing the panels and figuring out how to attach the hanger bay that I had already built. With that done, it was time to work right side up again. It took three of us to turn her over again.

After the bottom, the opposite surface was a piece of cake as I all ready had the hull panels worked out. A lot of my colleagues were probably worried that I wouldn’t finish in time but all of the sudden the model really started to come together.

FBTB: Did you build it behind closed doors to surprise everyone at the same time, or was it in an open building area?

EV: The Star Destroyer was too large to build at my desk so I had to move operations down the hall and construct it in the same room that we had built the Volvo XC90s in. The room is open to the hallway and I had my colleagues stopping by all the time and checking out my progress. Maybe it was a little too often. “C’mon guys I’ve got a deadline to meet!”

FBTB: I noticed that the name card on the model only credits you as the builder. Did you have people help you? Or was it solely your own pet project?

EV: I was the sole designer of the brick aspect of the model but I did have an assistant that was responsible for copying what I designed on one side and mirroring it for the other.

Also, some of the guys from NELUG were planning to come to our offices and I asked them if the would like to lend a hand on the model. But we all got to talking about other things, going to the company store and eating lunch, so ended up not doing too much for the model. Although, Jamie Berard did prototype a very small section of the midline greebles and that did become the basis for much of the rest of it. Thanks Jamie.

FBTB: I noticed that it was displayed on a metal arm that was extended up from a rolling base. Is the metal arm incorporated into the model for balance and stability? In other words, can you describe a little bit behind the process in making such a large model stable?

EV: David Gold our technical designer was invaluable in drawing up the plans for the steel frame and the rolling stand. Before we even picked up a brick we chose a point on the model just aft of the hanger bay where we thought the center of gravity would be. And we were pretty darn close. While resting on the stand it does dip just a bit in the nose but I’m very happy with how the stand turned out. It’s fantastic how we have supported the model from only one point. It really gives it the illusion of flight.

FBTB: What’s going to happen to it? More generally, what happens to all the models that come out of your division?

EV: After C3, the model went to LEGOLand California where you saw it. In July, we’ll take it just down the road from there to the San Diego Comic-Con. After that I just don’t know. I thought it would be really cool if it made its way to Skywalker Ranch for display there. From what I’m told GL was at our booth at something like 6:30 one morning during the Celebration and I’m told that he liked it.

FBTB: In a more general question, what kind of background would person have to have to be considered for a job as a Master Builder? I’ve always been curious about the Master Builders group, particularly with amazing models like the C3 Destroyer being built. My first question is, could you shed some light on how this job type is cultivated? Are there certain areas of industry or design in which LEGO actively recruits? Are they mostly culled from internal staff? Is there a development program to hone the skills of staff model makers or a cheat book for engineering ideas (Lego School?). Has LEGO learned anything about the process over the years? Is it best to sit in a giant tub of bricks until it all magically comes together?

EV: “I WANT YOUR JOB” That’s probably the number one question that we are asked. The reality is that Shows & Events is such a small group and the four of us each have between 9 to 14 years of experience, so we’re all pretty comfortable with where we are.

If we were to grow the department it would be helpful to have an art or architecture background like some of us here. Also these days, like most jobs, we are relying more and more on computer skills. We make use of 3D software like 3DStudiosMax, Maya and Poser. AutoCAD, we use that a lot and graphics programs like Photoshop.

There’s also an invisible skill that we try to develop here and that is you have got to be outgoing, be comfortable with the public. The media also we can’t freeze up when they stick that camera in your face. So sitting in your tub of bricks is helpful but like in my case not absolutely necessary and definitely not everything.

FBTB: Do you ever wish you could keep what you make? I figure for small stuff like the Vader statue given away at the ISD build competition, building a second model to keep for yourself might be easy to do, but for something like the RSD, building a second model just might make a man lose his sanity.

EV: As you could tell by my cluttered office I often do make prototypes of a lot of my models and keep them around in case we need to reproduce them at a latter date. I do have the original smal Vader statue and some of the bits a pieces of the Star Destroyer like the bridge, engines and turbolaser. Also I reference old models in case a paticular building trick could be used in a newer design and ya know it just looks cool with all that stuff hanging around.

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