LEGO star

How David Pickett, AB’07, built his dream career, brick by brick.

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David Pickett, AB’07, can’t remember a time when he didn’t play with LEGO. “It’s kind my native language,” he says. “It’s just always felt incredibly natural to me. I learned to build before I learned English, probably.”

In the past decade, Pickett has emerged as something of a star in the LEGO online fan community thanks to his YouTube channel, Brick 101, where he posts LEGO reviews, tutorials, and episodes of his LEGO animation series Nightly News at Nine. His videos became so popular that last year Pickett was able to quit his day job and work with LEGO full time—a childhood dream fulfilled. (Full disclosure: David and I worked together at the University of Chicago News Office for two years. During that time he introduced me to the acronym “AFOL”—that’s “adult fan of LEGO.” Who knew?)

Now he’s written a book, The LEGO Animation Book (No Starch Press, 2016), in hopes of helping other aspiring LEGO filmmakers. “I really wish I had a time machine so I could go back and give it to my eight-year-old self when I started making movies,” Pickett says. “Because that’s really who I wrote it for.”

Pickett spoke to the Magazine about his early experiments with LEGO animation, his frustrations with gendered marketing, and what it’s like to be a YouTube celebrity. His comments below have been condensed and edited.

Why do you think LEGO has remained so popular for so long?

LEGO is really unique in that it’s an incredibly accessible but also powerful creative medium. What other low-cost, simple 3-D construction medium is there? With LEGO, because of the limitations and the fact that there’s instructions for everything, it’s actually really possible for someone to make something look good out of LEGO. I think it taps into something basic—it’s almost like a language in terms of its usability. It’s flexible, accessible, and beautiful.

When did you get interested in LEGO animation?

When I was about eight years old, my family got one of those old-school video cameras where you actually had to put a VHS tape into it to record. I instantly started making movies with that. Of course the thing that I wanted to videotape was LEGO, because you can do so much imaginative filmmaking. If you want to do a car chase with live-action, you need actual cars, as opposed to a car chase in LEGO, where you just need two little LEGO cars—and if they crash, you don’t have to worry about people getting injured. And you can add in a dragon and a robot. I think people naturally tell stories when they’re playing with LEGO, so making the leap to filmmaking is not really that different.

Did you bring LEGO with you to college?

A little bit. In the “adult fan of LEGO” community, we have this term called “the dark age.” The idea is, most people play with LEGO when they’re kids and, usually, when they’re a teenager. They go through puberty and are more interested in pursuing romantic options than playing with LEGO. That period where you don’t play with LEGO is referred to as a “dark age.” I had more of a dim age. When I went to college I didn’t bring my entire basement room full of LEGO with me, but I was making LEGO movies using Fire Escape Films and things like that. I used the Festival of the Arts to buy LEGO—I had an art display on campus where there were huge bins of LEGO that people could play with, and then I got to keep the LEGO afterward. After college I was able to move all the LEGO from my parent’s basement to my living room.

At what point did you start to realize that you could make a career out of LEGO?

I’ve been publishing videos on YouTube for 10 years. It certainly wasn’t an overnight success. It was probably about a year and a half ago that it really started to seem like this could get to the point where I could quit my day job. That’s just because I was able to find the right formula for making YouTube videos that were easy to produce but also popular enough to bring in the ad revenue. There’s a lot of work and luck that goes into creating a YouTube channel that’s successful enough to support a person and staff.

In 2012 you wrote an essay about the gendered marketing of LEGO. Has the LEGO gender gap gotten any better since then?

It’s been interesting. It was back in 2012 that LEGO started its latest push into marketing a new line of products specifically towards girls. That started with the LEGO Friends line, which led to the LEGO Disney Princess line, and the LEGO Elves, and now the LEGO DC Super Hero Girls line. So it’s obviously been incredibly successful for them, and they now have a whole range of products, which I think is really great, because it used to be that LEGO would have one line of sets for girls. It’s really broadened. At the same time, I still have disappointments with the figures that they’re using in those lines. They have less articulation than the regular mini figure, and that seems to have some kind of coded message about the importance of physical activity for boys versus girls.

LEGO is a company that has to exist in the market environment that it’s in. It’s not like it’s ever going to go back to the halcyon days of the of the ’60s and ’70s where gender-neutral toys were “in” and that was the thing and there were just LEGO sets for everyone. At this point, it’s really highly competitive niche marketing that they’re doing. But compared to some of the things that were done in the past—like LEGO Jewelry that was the only thing marketed towards girls—the place they’re in now is objectively less limiting and more open than it ever has been. And if you don’t want the gendered sets, there’s always just regular LEGO blocks. That’s still a product they offer.

What is it like to be a LEGO celebrity?

It’s really bizarre. Three hundred sixty days out of the year, my celebrity is totally digital. There’s nothing about my day-to-day life where I feel like a celebrity walking down the street. But when I go to a LEGO convention, I’ll have my table set up, and kids will say, “I know you! You’re brick101!” or they’ll come up and be like, “OH MY GOD, I’m your biggest fan.” Seeing in person these kids who can recite my videos better than I could—it’s really inspiring and also humbling. I feel like I have a responsibility to be a good presence in these kids’ lives and feel that my content is something that helps them access their own creativity, rather than just being some silly YouTube video.

Has doing LEGO full time made it feel less fun and more like work?

Parts of my job are work. I have bills to pay, spreadsheets to fill out. But I can’t really complain about being able to get up, go to work, and play with LEGO. That is literally my dream job.

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