When I first met Ryan “The Brickman” McNaught a decade ago, I had my two bug-eyed sons (7 and 5, respectively) in tow. He was – and remains – the only Lego-certified professional in the southern hemisphere, and they were Lego-crazy back then. It was their first glimpse of what was at the time McNaught’s most complex commission: an intricate cross-sectioned model of the Roman Colosseum, rendered in more than 200,000 Lego blocks and installed in the University of Sydney’s Nicholson Museum.
A year later, we met again, this time in his immaculately organized garage in Pascoe Vale South in Melbourne, not far from Essendon Football Club’s Windy Hill.
He was deep into the making of an even bigger archeology inspired model: Lego Pompeii, now on display in the University of Sydney’s Chau Chak Wing Museum. My boys – no less bug-eyed than before – contributed two mini-figures of themselves eating a pre-eruption ice-cream in the town stadium.
“Yeah, the old place,” McNaught reminisces, when we speak for a third time this week. “Just me in the garage, right? Like all good businesses, that’s where it starts. Now I have 25 staff and a whole workshop. A lot has changed.”
It sure has. McNaught has risen from cultish obscurity to co-star of the top-rating TV show, Lego Masters. His latest project – Jurassic World by Brickman – is on show at the Australian Museum: a movie series-inspired exhibition built by his team with more than 6m bricks, featuring a 400kg, 4.8-metre-long model of a Baryonyx, a baby dinosaur enclosure, models of movie props and vehicles and a building area where visitors can make models of their own from a pile of 2.5m pieces.
It’s here where he’s also giving a series of three Lego masterclasses.
When Guardian Australia attends the first, he’s on the mic, working the crowd of mostly middle-aged men who identify as Afols, or Adult Fans of Lego. “Put your hands in the air if you think Lego Masters is better than MAFS!” he offers, before prompting: “Yes it is!”
Bouncing around in Nike sneakers in Lego-like colors – bright green, yellow, red – and a short-sleeved shirt in a block-like pattern, McNaught, 49, talks quickly and emphatically as he guides guests through the exhibit. Lots of energy. Heaps of enthusiasm. Lots of “nerding out” with facts and figures: “The T-rex has 400,000 Lego bricks. How do we measure that? We know what we started with and then count what’s left over.”
The Lego dinosaurs are internally braced with steel and the bricks cemented together for safety, he tells us. “We don’t want it to collapse if a small child hugs the dinosaur.”
The solvent is also used in the manufacture of methamphetamine, he adds. “So don’t lick the dinosaurs.” This is one of many dad jokes.
“I love to laugh,” he tells Guardian Australia. “But I’m also a thinker. I love to solve problems.”
My boys – now 17 and 15 – don’t play with Lego any more. It’s all in a pile of plastic tubs in the garage collecting dust and spiders.
“Don’t get rid of it!” McNaught says. “All kids around 14 stop playing Lego. They want to let go of their toys. Even I did. I pretty much packed it away for cricket, footy and BMX bikes.”
McNaught, who grew up in regional Victoria, didn’t get back into Lego until just before he had kids of my own. “My mum said, you’d better have all your junk back – she never threw anything out – and with all that came a couple of milk crates of Lego.”
That reunion with his childhood passion sparked a slow career change: from solidly established travel industry IT manager with a wife, mortgage and twin boys to being headhunted by Lego execs after McNaught designed a software package that allowed Lego Mindstorms engineering to be controlled via an iPad .
You can sense it wasn’t a seamless transition. “I got to a stage where I was working eight hours a day in IT, building Lego for eight hours when I got home, and raising a family for the other eight hours. Something’s gotta give, right?”
When I met McNaught in his garage in 2012, his wife, Melinda, brought tea and biscuits. He now lives in Essendon with his new partner, Tracy Britten. “We run marathons,” he says.
“We’ve done 12 now and we try to do them in unusual places. We did the Moscow Marathon in 2018 – won’t be doing that again – and we did one in North Korea. We did the Falkland Islands, a Disney marathon in America … I ran with Mickey Mouse!”
I wouldn’t have picked him for a long-distance runner back in 2012.
“Well, when you’re a middle-aged man you have to look after yourself a bit better,” he says. When your doctor says, ‘mate, take a look at your cholesterol’, you have to take it seriously.”
In 2019, McNaught signed on as judge and resident expert on Nine’s Lego Masters. A sizeable ratings hit, the show is now into its third season.
Even now, he still doesn’t feel like a media figure. “Most of the time I don’t get recognized unless it’s in context at some kind of Lego event,” he says. “Hamish [Blake, his Lego Masters co-star] can take all that stuff to be honest.
“Apart from the TV stuff, I still do pretty much the same thing – make interesting stuff out of Lego. What has changed is the popularity of it. Lego was never what you’d call niche but it was relatively obscure compared to what it’s become today.”
He says more than two years and 10,000 build hours went into the Jurassic World project. “It got us through that Covid period when all the exhibition work dried up. I woke up every day thinking about what the kids’ experience will be when they first see it. It made me think about what I would have wanted to see if I was a kid.
“When I was young, I wanted to open the batting for Australia,” says McNaught, a handy cricketer who played for South Yarra in the 1990s. “But there’s a point where you realize that some things aren’t achievable. But with Lego, you don’t have that barrier. It’s a thing everyone can achieve something in. It’s relatable, as dreams go. Now I feel I have a position to be a role model in that way, for other kids with dreams.”