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Lego addicts chase their dream

Twenty fans compete in San Francisco for a chance to become a master model builder at Legoland California. Photos: L'ego my Legos

SAN FRANCISCO--In a third-floor art school classroom here, lifelong Lego fan Robin Dodd pitted his prodigious building skills against the rest of the best in Northern California.

Dodd, an 18-year-old from Salinas, Calif., was one of 20 contestants at Thursday's San Francisco stop of Legoland California's seven-city search for a new master model builder. In each city, the Legoland judges are picking several finalists, each of whom will be invited to the May 23 finals at the Carlsbad, Calif., theme park.

And at that certain-to-be pressure packed event, at least one person will walk away with a dream job.

For Dodd, however, the ascent to master model builder status ended Thursday. Although his model of a parrot--complete with flapping wings--impressed the judges and most of a crowd of observers, he just missed making the cut. Yet he seemed thrilled to simply have had the chance to compete.

"This was the most intense Lego moment of my life," Dodd said, "and there have been many intense Lego moments."

The Legoland search was precipitated by the park's planned summer 2006 opening of a new area, known as Pirate Shores, and the fact that this necessitates the hiring of at least one new master model builder.

Thus, each contestant on the tour is being asked to build a model with a pirate theme. So it wasn't surprising that Dodd's parrot was hardly the only one the judges saw Thursday.

In fact, one of the three finalists picked by the judges, Jeff Cross of Berkeley, Calif., built a parrot head.

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Video: One Lego at a time
On the lookout for a new master model builder, Legoland sent judges to San Francisco. Vincent Tremblay reports alongside Daniel Terdiman.

Jarad Barkdoll, a 21-year-old student at the Art Institute of California in San Francisco, was chosen after building an octopus prying open a treasure chest full of gold. Bryan Blanco of Castro Valley, Calif., also made the cut with his model of a skull.

Each of the seven regional competitions--except the first at Legoland--is at a campus of the Art Institute. The other cities with competitions are Los Angeles, Phoenix, New York, Dallas and Chicago.

Although these contests are focused on a traditional approach to Legos, the building blocks are also being incorporated into more high-tech creations.

But for anyone who's ever played with standard Legos, the competition here may have felt familiar. In part, that's because the sound of people digging through bins of the iconic bricks is entirely distinctive. It is a loud shuffling and clicking sound, and it could be heard constantly throughout the event.

Each contestant's methods were different. Some used a giant metal scoop to load their bins with as many bricks as possible, while others were more meticulous, picking bricks almost piece by piece.

Similarly, some poured their piles of bricks in front of them, while others chose the left or right sides.

Regardless of which contestant or which city, the format of the test never varies: Each person is given an hour to build his model, as well as an unlimited number of Lego bricks from six tubs. But those approaching the competition as they would an evening of playing with Legos at home probably won't make it far.

"We're not playing; this is a job," said Kristi Klein, one of the judges. Some people "say, 'You're building with Lego. What kind of a job is that?' No, this is a job."

Of course, that's not to say that those trying out shouldn't have fun with it.

"We're kind of looking for something sculptural, but of course we want them to be creative," Klein said. "So if it's creative, they're in."

As the judges pick finalists, they're considering several factors: a resume, a portfolio and the model they build. And Klein said there's no doubt that contestants should treat each element as they would any part of a hiring process.

Still, she said, the one-hour building test is "absolutely the most important step."

Klein should know. She was one of three master model builders chosen after a similar national search in 2003 and 2004. And as such, she feels as though she has some unique insights to offer contestants.

"I definitely feel for them," she said. "I know how nervous they are, and how much pressure they're under."

Yet on Thursday, the pressure didn't seem to bother many of the contestants.

Even as many of them dealt with as many as six photographers jamming cameras in their faces as they worked, they often seemed able to tune out every potential distraction.

"With everyone building with you (and the crowd of observers), it kind of puts you in this Lego zone," Dodd said. "You just don't think about anything else."

Barkdoll, whose octopus and treasure chest won him a spot in the finals, agreed.

"I enjoyed it," Barkdoll said. "It wasn't pressure. Having the cameras all around me--it was cool."

While there was little doubt that Barkdoll's model was good enough on its own merits to get him to the finals, Klein admitted that she had had a soft spot in her heart for him.

That's because the model was reminiscent of her octopus garden model, which finally won her the job at Legoland in January 2004.

"It reminded me of mine," she said. "But there's definitely no doubt: He's got talent."

Asked how it would feel if he ended up winning the whole competition and getting a job as a master model builder, Barkdoll grinned widely.

"I think that would be sweet," he said. "I would leave (San Francisco) in a minute to go and build Legos and get paid...It would be awesome."