From the Stands: Leila Chieko combines love of LEGO with love of Thorns FC

PORTLAND, Ore. – You may have seen Leila Chieko's work.

In her spare time, the avid Portland Thorns FC fan and Hawaii native arranges and photographs scenes using LEGO bricks, depicting everything from camping trips to Thorns FC television commentator Ann Schatz working in front of Providence Park.

While Chieko has always enjoyed creating with LEGO bricks, she only recently discovered her passion for toy photography.

“I found this huge community of toy photographers on Instagram and it instantly clicked like, 'Wow, that's what I could be doing. I could do that!'” Chieko said. “I just love LEGO and I love photography.”

One thing that Chieko hadn't always been interested in was soccer.

In 2011, that all changed when Chieko—who admits that she “didn't care about sports at all”—was recovering at home from a broken leg. Chieko's partner, Cindy Dockter, convinced her to start watching the 2011 FIFA Women's World Cup.

“I was like, 'Oh my God this is great!'” recalled Dockter. “'You broke your leg but we can watch all this soccer!' She was like, 'I hate team sports. I hate sports! What are you doing?' I'm like, 'But it's women's soccer. It's the World Cup! This is great!'”

And, like countless other fans around the world, after only a few games Chieko was hooked.

“We watched it and she watched it and the next thing you know she became this super fan,” said Dockter.

When the Thorns began playing in 2013, Dockter came to Providence Park for some of the first few regular season games. After seeing the crowd, the atmosphere, and the players, she knew that she had to bring Chieko along with her.

“'There's a girl on the team that's from Hawaii,” Dockter told her. “'Come. It's going to be like the World Cup. It's fun. The atmosphere's great.'”

Everything about the game impressed Chieko, from the players on the pitch—“Mana Shim? She's from Hawaii! That's my girl!”—to the atmosphere in the stands. She and Dockter came away from the first season ready for more.

Photo: Leila Chieko


It almost seems like a natural progression, then, that Chieko and Dockter would start filming LEGO Thorns scenes.

The idea, however, began with Dockter, a professional graphic designer, who first wanted to customize the LEGO figurines “to create little LEGO Thorns players.”

“I was trying to figure out: how can I customize these LEGOs to be whatever we want them to be?” Dockter said. “It just seemed like a fun mix of let's put the actual Thorns shirts on the [LEGO] players and make them run around.”

Chieko does the photography.

“I think about each shot probably takes about an hour to conceptualize and setup,” she said. “I have to make the scarves a certain way. Put a couple of players here. Put some fans in the background. Just compose it.”

While the average LEGO project—from conception to realization—can take a few hours, Chieko's latest project, a one and a half minute stop-motion rendering of Michelle Betos's goal against FC Kansas City (above), took several long weekends and thousands of painstakingly taken photographs.

“It took a lot of time. I learned a lot,” said Chieko. “I wanted to make the stadium in the video look like Providence Park...I didn't realize how much time it would take to assemble all that. I had to build the stadium and make it to size. I put out all the clay to be the field and built my own custom goal which took two or three hours.”

Chieko had to make sure that all of her materials would be sturdy enough to hold up under constant movement and reconfiguring. She also had to special order parts: figurine pieces, hairstyles, faces, arts and crafts. She even used a feather boa to stand in for the Riveters' trademark red smoke.

“I really wanted to animate the red smoke,” she said. “I saw that red feather boa and thought that looked cool.”

The countless hours of work—“I would start at 11 in the morning and I'd be up to two or three in the morning”—pay off in the satisfaction she takes from a job well done and the recognition she receives for the quality of her work.

But it helps that it's also an absolute blast.

“Who doesn't want a Tobin Heath action figure, right? It just comes down to having fun.”

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