insight - Paula Laughton

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Occupation - Model Maker

As far as dream jobs go, building models out of LEGO bricks all day has to be quite high on the list. LEGOLAND model maker Paula Laughton talks to Oryx about the ‘best job in the world’, and how she got there.

“I wanted to go into furniture design, but I had a friend who worked here at LEGOLAND Windsor in a different de-partment and I found out they were recruiting for model-makers so I thought I’d give it a go,” says Paula. “That was 14 years ago and I’ve been here ever since!

“I started off as a model-maker and then moved up to team leader, and now I’m one of the model-maker managers. My role at the moment is co-ordinating the team as well as building, and every day is different. We have a list of tasks that we have to do each day, so we come in at 7am to do all the repairs, maintenance, and cleaning of the models, until 10am when the park opens, and then we go on to project work, which can be anything from creating a ‘piratey’ theme for the Pirates Landing area that we’ve got at the moment, right through to doing LEGOLAND Discovery Centres. So although every day starts off the same, every day is different.”

With 150 acres of parkland featuring millions of LEGO bricks, creating all the models for the park is not always a smooth process. “Every project that we do always comes with different challenges, and it depends on the size and scale that you’re working on,” explains Paula. “The projects that are extremely large are obviously challenging, as they might be five or six metres tall, and if you’re working on a smaller scale, it comes with different challenges, like trying to make sure the bricks fit that scale.

“But the most challenging project that I’ve worked on was when we did the Boeing 747 aeroplane model at 80% size, which is in our Creation Centre, and that was because the sponsor changed the colour scheme while we were building the model – so we had to start the project again, which shortened the completion time, meaning that we only had ten weeks to complete it. But it was rewarding at the end of it as well, it’s a fantastic model. The pros always outweigh the cons.”

Paula and the other model-makers are closely involved with each project, from concept to completion. “We get quite a lot of creative input into things,” she says. “Some things we’re given briefs for, but most of the time we have a lot of input into the design of the area that we’re recreating, because obviously we know what fits into that area and what works well for the guests to view things.”

Indeed, it takes a logical mind as well as a creative one to cut it as a LEGOLAND model maker. “One of the first things we do when training new model-makers is to get them to build a globe out of LEGO,” says Paula. “That’s the hardest thing you can do – making something round out of rectangle bricks. It normally takes a week or two to master that, and then you can more or less do anything!

“As far as the actual process goes, we do everything by hand,” she adds. “It’s drawn up using a special graph paper that we use, so we sketch onto that and follow the plans from there. We do a lot of research beforehand – on the Internet as well as going to places and taking dimensions of buildings – so that we can accurately recreate what we’re trying to do.

“If it’s a mechanical or electrical model then we have a brainstorming session with our animators, who create every-thing for the moving parts and interactive models, and we see what could work inside the LEGO, be it motors, lights, or audio, to see which concept is going to work better.

“From there, we finalise the concept and the budget and we calculate how many hours it’s going to take. Then we do a test piece, testing for a week or so, just to make sure all the moving parts are working properly, and then it gets installed.

“We build everything very much like a brick wall, so in theory you shouldn’t need to glue it together, but we have 1.5 million guests coming to the park every year so we just have to make sure it is all glued together. Some of the larger models have a steel structure inside them, and these larger models are made in sections, obviously just to get it out of the workshop as much as anything else! And then it’s bolted together onsite.”

Thanks to its model-makers, LEGOLAND Windsor is a constantly evolving attraction, staying current and constantly improving. “We’ve got at least two projects coming up in the next year or so, for the park in particular,” says Paula. “For 2012 there’s a LEGOLAND hotel going in the park. The building itself we’ll start building in the next couple of months. The rooms are going to be themed – some are going to be castle rooms, princess rooms, all sorts. We know we’re going to have a new ride area too and we’re designing and planning that at the moment. We’re also doing LEGOLAND Discovery Centres, which are like a small snippet of a Miniland inside an attraction. So our production is fully booked up for the next couple of years; it’s quite an exciting time for us at the moment.”

And the best thing about the job? “We’re actually based in the park, and when you’re creating things there’s nothing more thrilling than when you go out in the park and you hear somebody in awe of one of the models. So for me it’s the instant reaction you get to something that you’ve built in the park. In any other design job, it may take six or seven months for something to go into production, so here we get an immediate response to things and I really like that, it’s brilliant.”

Of course, being surrounded by LEGO at work can’t be bad either. “People ask me if I have LEGO at home, and I can honestly say I don’t!” says Paula. “But in our workshop we’ve got lots of models and prototypes, it’s almost like a wacky professor’s workshop – we’ve got things dotted around the place, working and moving…for some people that may seem surreal but to us that’s quite normal!”

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