March 10, 2006 5:27 AM PST

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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."

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