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Legoland champ triumphs in trial by fire--and ice

Search for new master builder ends with a fire-breathing snowman beating a dragon, a spaceship and three blind mice. Photos: Crowning the newest Lego master

CARLSBAD, Calif.--To most Lego fans, Jason Poland became one of the luckiest guys in the world Tuesday.

That's because Poland, a recent college graduate from Houston, won Legoland California's national search for a new master model builder, beating out 22 other finalists from throughout the country after two days of sometimes tense, stressful competition.

Legoland build-off

The 23 have come to Legoland for two days of skill tests and a build-off, all to determine who would be hired as the park's next master model builder.

A master model builder works in Legoland's model shop, crafting some of the thousands of models found throughout the theme park. And because Legoland had an open slot in its model shop, it conducted the national search.

Each of the finalists had been selected during regional events in seven cities around the United States. And on Monday, each had taken part in two skill tests--one in which they were given an hour to build a model of a face, and the other in which they had an hour to build an egg. They also had to do a personal interview.

But the bulk of the decision about who would get the master model builder job depended on who did best during Tuesday's build-off, when each finalist got two hours to craft a model of something they thought would be a good addition for Legoland.

Throughout the competition, one of the judges and several current master model builders walked among the finalists, watching them build and gauging their efficiency and creativity.

But before they even got to the build-off, there were many steps to go through.

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Video: The next Lego master
Check out the competition at Legoland's model builder search in Carlsbad, Calif. CNET News.com's Daniel Terdiman was on hand to talk with the winner, Jason Poland.

To begin, the finalists were brought to Legoland's "clubhouse," a store filled with dozens upon dozens of bins of bricks, and given an hour to fill a tub with as many bricks as they wanted. The idea was that they would be able to plan for the models they would build Tuesday.

And for some the opportunity to choose so many bricks from such a wide selection seemed like a once-in-a-lifetime chance.

"I think most of these guys were pretty pumped" about getting to pick the bricks, said Sarah Hall, a 23-year-old finalist from Louisville, Ky. "I think this is their heaven."

Indeed, some felt like they had entered a realm they didn't even know existed.

"It's like Lego heaven in here, man," said Jarad Barkdoll, an art student from San Francisco. "I never even knew they made so many different colors...I can imagine if, when I was a kid, you couldn't have gotten me out of here."

Later Monday, the finalists were broken into three groups and led off to their skill tests and interviews.

For Barkdoll, Hall, Poland and five others, the first skill test was to build a face at least 6 inches tall. They were given an hour to build their faces.

Their work is impressive, and each makes quick progress. Strangely enough, as the faces evolve, it is clear that most in the group had created impressive models and that several have chosen to give their faces the same kind of hair--short black curly dreds.

"They're all in the same gang," joked Barkdoll.

Later, the group moved onto its second skill test, which tasked them with building an egg, a variation on the sphere that most master model builder candidates are asked to create.

"You want to see if they can achieve a curve shape at all, because some people don't get it, and make it too blocky," said Mariann Asanuma, a Legoland master model designer. "We want the overall shape of an egg. We're also looking at overall approach."

Unlike with the faces, the group mostly fails at the egg test. Only two of them produce anything close to what the judges are looking for. But that doesn't necessarily mean they are out of the running for the job.

"Just because they don't do well here doesn't mean they won't get hired eventually," said Eli Da Silva, a current master model builder. "My sphere sucked, and I'm here now."

On Tuesday morning, the 23 finalists reconvened at Legoland for the final test--the two-hour build-off.

Now, each is wearing a red Legoland T-shirt and is standing at a table in front of the bins of Lego bricks they chose Monday and is waiting for the signal to begin building.

A crowd of Legoland visitors and finalists' family and friends shouts out a countdown, yells "build" and the build-off begins.

Quickly, it is all about business, as all 23 pour their bins of Lego bricks onto their tables. The sound of bricks being shuffled and sifted is everywhere, a sound that would be familiar to anyone who's ever played with the iconic plastic bricks.

Some focus their attention by blocking out all external distractions and listening to music. Thus, at least three of the finalists have iPod headphones in their ears and are rocking out as they build.

And as the build-off began, some of the current master model builders looked as though they were having flashbacks.

"It's exciting," said Da Silva, who took part in a similar national search in 2004. "It's really strange, because we were doing this on the other side. So I'm nervous."

And for Kristi Klein, another master model builder who went through the 2004 search and who had helped select all 23 finalists, the competition was nerve-racking.

"I'm rooting for almost everyone," Klein said. "So I'm having a really hard time."

As 30 minutes of the two hours went by, the judges were already beginning to look for specific elements from the finalists.

"A lot of it now is just about their process," said Patrick DeMaria, Legoland's model shop manager and a judge. "I'm looking for people who know what they're building, who got right in and started their constructions. And also good use of color. I'm looking for something with flair."

There was certainly no shortage of that in evidence Tuesday.

Among the 23 finalists' models, there was a gorgeous Chinese dragon, a complex pirate-themed "park," a spaceship, three blind mice, an underwater scene and many other notable projects.

Poland, meanwhile, was building a snowman that was breathing fire, something that was clearly an unusual take on what might fit in at Legoland.

Narrowing the field
And for Klein, who had been asked to help narrow the field to four choices, the talent on display was making life difficult.

"It's getting to the point where I'm getting a little confused here," Klein said, "and I'm having trouble narrowing it down."

She also said she was sad that some of her favorite finalists didn't look like they would make the cut.

"It's hard," she said. "Some of the people I was really rooting for aren't bringing it home."

Still, it's clear that there are a lot of great models to choose from, and the judges are going to have a hard time making their selection.

"I'm about to run for Mexico," said DeMaria. "I'm a victim of my own success. There's too many talented people. Trying to narrow it down is going to be very difficult."

As time begins to run out, the finalists' models are coming more and more into shape. And amazingly, even with just 15 minutes to go, as they rushed to finish, they're still mostly looking calm and collected.

As time is called, the finalists begin to get up and stretch and walk around and, for the first time, look at what their fellow competitors have built.

Several of them are more than a little impressed by the dragon.

"That Chinese dragon over there (is) pretty sweet," said Barkdoll.

"That dragon is awesome," echoed Mikhail Blokh, a 29-year-old finalist from Los Angeles. "I'm glad I'm not a judge."

The three real judges, however, were now faced with the task of choosing a winner. So they began a slow walk around the competition area, inspecting each model and sometimes asking the builder some questions.

Soon, the judges went off together to discuss the finalists' work.

DeMaria quickly goes through his list of the 23 and talks the other two judges into narrowing the group down to four possible choices. They settle on Poland's fire-breathing snowman, Barkdoll's underwater scene, Clay Hervey's police officer and Hall's model of Gulliver and the Lilliputians.

It is clear, though, that DeMaria is really most interested in Poland and Hervey, in large part because of their performance in the skill tests and in personal interviews.

"Artistically, I like (Polands's) model better," DeMaria said. "What could be more ironic than a snowman breathing fire?"

A few minutes later, all 23 finalists gathered, and were given a certificate, one by one, for their participation in the competition. Then the four final choices were called up on stage.

And then, finally, after months of searching the country, Poland was crowned as Legoland's newest master model builder.

"I feel awesome," Poland said minutes later. "I can breathe again."