Feb. 21, 2023
Two local firefighters put their skills to the test during Lego Masters
Twenty years ago, if you had told then-University of Calgary students Stephen Joo and Stephen Cassley that they’d wind up being firefighters, they’d have rolled their eyes and laughed. Back then, Joo was aspiring to become a marine biologist and Cassley was heading for an office job in international finance.
If, for some bizarre reason, you’d also predicted they’d wind up on a reality TV show, watched all over the world, and that they’d nab second place for remarkable creations made out of tiny moulded-plastic bricks, they’d have tossed you out of the Den.
But — we live in strange times.
Both Joo (also known as Yoyo), BSc’97, and Cassley (who answers to Crash), BA’06, are indeed now Calgary firefighters and were among the most recent stars of Lego Masters on the U.S. Fox network, where they came in second after 13 episodes of feel-good camaraderie and outrageous creativity.
After living in Atlanta, Ga., for the seven-week shoot in 2022, the duo returned to their regular lives in Calgary, where we caught up with them recently in Joo’s basement. With rooms of clear plastic bins full of colour-coded bricks and shelf upon shelf of full Lego creations — from the yellow castle that Joo made as a five-year-old to the house from the animated classic, Up!, that he designed for his kids — some might call it his “escape room.” And they wouldn’t be far off.
For Joo, who claims that, when he’s in this space, he is not, “a firefighter, a dad or a husband; I am just a person with a hobby. And, when you get to explore a hobby to that level, the mental-health rewards are beyond therapeutic.”
He adds this is precisely why he needed to be convinced to even entertain the notion of auditioning for the show in which teams of AFOLs (adult fans of Lego) compete for a US$100,000 prize.
How did the two of you first meet? “It was Jan. 1, 2010,” recalls Cassley. “There was a Lego store in Chinook and I raced down there as soon as my shift was over and got in line at 7:45 a.m. [Jan. 1 is the day the bulk of Lego’s premier sets are released.]
Soon after, Joo arrived, and we recognized each other because we were wearing our firefighter T-shirts. Of course, I let him join me in the line.”
How did you parlay a hobby into Lego stardom? “Frankly, I was reluctant,” admits Joo. “After working in the fire service for 21 years, I have seen unspeakable things. Part of my cathartic ability to recover is in this room. It’s where I get my joy and release and I didn’t want to lose that by entering a high-stakes competition so initially I said no.
But they [the recruiters from producers Plan B Entertainment; co-founder Brad Pitt is an executive producer of the show] were persuasive and were super-excited that I was a firefighter.
Eventually, I said I’d consider auditioning if Crash said yes.” [Their 20-minute initial meeting lasted two hours, packed with so many laughs they threw their hats into the ring.]
How many people auditioned? “I’ve heard reports that 4,000 to 7,000 people applied,” says Cassley. “This was the first time the American series wanted to include some teams from Canada and Latin America, so we had an edge there. A short list is made based on skill set and marketability, and then another meeting is arranged between you and a story producer.
If they like you at that point, you are given two challenges to complete in a day and access to 10,000 bricks. That’s when they want to see how you interact with other teams.”
How demanding were those seven weeks of shooting? “We were on a production set for 16 to 18 hours a day, six days a week, and had a 24-hour handler in the lobby of our hotel who took care of most of our needs,” says Joo.
“Due to COVID, we were locked down, meaning we wore masks, except when we were on set, and even then, we had to take a COVID test three times a week.”
How long did each of the 13, one-hour episodes take to shoot? “About two to three days,” says Cassley. “The challenge might just take eight to 13 hours [in total] to build, but hair and makeup took a couple of hours each day and then sets had to be rebuilt, and the lighting reworked, plus they had 35 cameras on us all the time . . . that takes a lot of co-ordination.”
Was it stressful? “Our jobs as firefighters gave us a huge advantage as we could capitalize on downtime,” says Joo. “If I had to crawl onto a concrete pad and sleep for 20 minutes, I could, and did do exactly that. The other team of two doctors (Justin and Austin of Albuquerque, N.M.) could also do this, because of their jobs.
We discovered that much of a team’s success is based on your ability to reset. As for stress, first responders know all about ‘acute moments of situational stress,’ . . . such as a housefire. You deal with the problem, you tackle it, adapt, overcome and persevere. By comparison, this was not stressful.”
Tell us about your first challenge — building a space station — which you won? Says Cassley: “We built a Maltese Cross (a symbol of protection worn as a crest by firefighters) and docked it to a large Lego space station which is currently sitting in Cape Canaveral in Florida. [It was put on display there after the season aired.] In fact, fans have been sending us photos of it with our names on a little plaque.
Sadly, you don’t get to see our reaction to winning this challenge [on TV] as it was our first and we were so excited that. . . let’s just say our language was a little on the adult side, so much of the footage couldn’t be used!”
What were some of the other challenges? Joo and Cassley remember building a bull rider on a mechanical bull; sculpting a life-size dog after choosing a real “live” dog (of course, theirs was a Dalmatian); recreating a university (yes, UCalgary is featured in Episode 4) — in a tree. They also built a dinosaur scene to toast the release of the film Jurassic World Domination, a mini-golf course, a working water fountain and others.
For the finale, their master build was the Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise, complete with the shimmering glacial lake, the classic boat house and the castle-like hotel set in front of a backdrop of northern lights.
What’s in the Lego pit? “Six million different Lego elements,” says Joo. “Each team is given a spreadsheet of what is where, which you try to commit to memory. But if another team uses a certain block, it may not be restocked for your purposes, so you have to be flexible.”
What are some official acronyms that serious Lego builders use? AFOL: Adult Fan of Lego; LUG: Lego User Group (like a bucket of AFOLs); and MOC: My Own Creation (Joo is an MOC builder, often working from scratch, while Cassley is a set builder who works with pre-developed kits of Lego that often involve thousands of pieces.)
Besides having Lego skills, what else do you need to be a Lego Master? “Big personalities are great on TV,” says Cassley, who happens to be 6 ft. 3 and weighs 300 lbs. “Your ability to tell a story or make people laugh goes a long way to being marketable.”
Although you didn’t win the $100,000 grand prize, you did come in second, but were there any other victories? “After seven weeks of being confined to a set and a hotel, we were free . . . so we went to a baseball game. That freedom felt so good,” says Cassley.
“And the sense of community we helped build on the set was tremendous. Plus, we had achieved our goals: 1) Try not to make asses out of ourselves . . . we may have failed at that spectacularly, but most of it was favourably edited; 2) Let’s not be the first to get eliminated; 3) Let’s try to make it to the fourth episode. That's kind of where you've proven you're a decent builder and/or a great personality for the show to move forward with you.”
Watch Joo and Cassely in action on Lego Masters.