Minifigs Meet the Big Screen

How direc­tors Phil Lord and Chris Miller teamed up with Aussie stu­dio An­i­mal Logic to con­struct The LEGO Movie. by Mercedes Mil­li­gan

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How direc­tors Phil Lord and Chris Miller teamed up with Aussie stu­dio An­i­mal Logic to con­struct The LEGO Movie. by Mercedes Mil­li­gan

R“When we started the project, they didn’t think we could get any emo­tion or get au­di­ences to care about these lit­tle brick char­ac­ters. They thought that was crazy … You don’t need to make an­i­ma­tion any more com­pli­cated. You can do a

stripped down thing — raw, pure and vis­ceral.”

emem­ber back in the dis­mal days of 1980s an­i­ma­tion, when many car­toons were lit­tle more than hastily slapped to­gether 20-minute toy com­mer­cials? It seems like lately the trend has been flipped on its head, as o ne af­ter an­other block­buster spec­ta­cle based on fa­mil­iar brands hits the­aters. But as an an­ti­dote to all the smash­ing, crash­ing and ex­plod­ing of Trans­form­ers or Bat­tle­ship, this month of­fers some­thing a lit­tle dif­fer­ent as Warner Bros. re­leases the cre­ative, col­or­ful and com­edy-packed The LEGO Movie.

Writ­ten and di­rected by Phil Lord and Chris Miller ( Cloudy with a Chance of Meat­balls, 21 Jump Street), the film cen­ters on an un­re­mark­able minifig­ure (those lit­tle plas­tic dudes with the snap-on heads) named Em­met who is mis­taken for a proph­e­sied hero and ends up drafted into a fel­low­ship of od­dball strangers on a quest to de­feat an evil tyrant. The direc­tors worked with writ­ing part­ners Dan and Kevin Hage­man to come up with an ad­ven­tur­ous story that would al­low their re­luc­tant plas­tic hero to visit a va­ri­ety of LEGOin­spired worlds.

The CG-an­i­mated epic fea­tures the voices of Chris Pratt as Em­met, Will Fer­rell as the schem­ing con­trol freak Pres­i­dent Busi­ness, Liam Nee­son as hench­man Good Cop/ Bad Cap, Mor­gan Free­man as the mys­tic Vitruvius, El­iz­a­beth Banks as tough-as-nails Wyldstyle, Will Ar­nett as the mys- teri­ous Bat­man, Nick Of­fer­man as venge­ful pi­rate Metal Beard, Ali­son Brie as the lov­able Unikitty and Char­lie Day as Benny, the 1980-some­thing Space­man.

— An­i­ma­tion di­rec­tor Chris McKay

“We were in­spired by the in­ven­tive, clever and adorable fan-made stop-mo­tion films LEGO fans were mak­ing and putting on the In­ter­net,” says Miller, who ad­mits he was “ob­sessed” with LEGO’s Clas­sic Space line as a kid. “We thought it would be awe­some to make some­thing which had the same spirit — but on a much larger scale with a larger bud­get, of course. That was part of what we in­sisted on do­ing from the get-to.”

“I think it’s re­ally easy to dis­miss a project that ob­vi­ously has a big com­mer­cial tie-in. You can just tell a few jokes and it doesn’t have to make sense, be­cause peo­ple al­ready like the brand,” says co-di­rec­tor Lord. “But that wasn’t the kind of movie we wanted to make. We wanted to take this brand and find mean­ing in it. Our goal was to find a big­ger story, oth­er­wise

“[Phil Lord and I] come from a 2D an­i­ma­tion back­ground.

We wanted to prove that we could get real sub­tlety of emo­tion, the seven points of ar­tic­u­la­tion, and our an­i­ma­tion di­rec­tor Chris McKay and his team re­ally got an amaz­ing

range of emo­tion out of these very sim­ple de­signs.”

— Di­rec­tor/writer Chris Miller

it wouldn’t hold up. We had to have a movie that was com­pelling and had a real story to tell.”

The project was cre­ated un­der near-con­cur­rent pro­duc­tion at three lo­ca­tions. Lord and Miller were chiefly kept in Los An­ge­les, where the film’s con­cept, story, char­ac­ters and de­sign scheme took shape. Af­ter ini­tial work with the story and an­i­matic, an­i­ma­tion di­rec­tor Chris McKay re­lo­cated from Santa Mon­ica to Aus­tralia for the an­i­ma­tion pro­duc­tion at An­i­mal Logic. And at LEGO head­quar­ters in Den­mark, top de­sign­ers un­der the di­rec­tion of de­sign VP Matthew Ash­ton (also an exec pro­ducer on the film) used their hands-on con­struc­tion know-how to come up with re­al­is­tic, func­tional de­signs for the char­ac­ters, ve­hi­cles and props dreamed up by the film­mak­ers. (Hey, you try build­ing a pi­rate ship that turns into a sub­ma­rine made of lit­tle plas­tic chunks on your own!)

If You Build It…

To carry over the hand-crafted look of stop­mo­tion shorts, the film­mak­ers opted to digitally create mil­lions of LEGO bricks mod­eled on real-world pieces which were used to con­struct ev­ery­thing in the film’s world. “We broke one of the car­di­nal rules of our CG an­i­ma­tion world. We never liked things to look photo-real—that’s what we es­pe­cially avoided in Cloudy with a Chance of Meat­balls,” says Lord. “We wanted our char­ac­ters to look ex­actly like LEGO bricks. The light­ing was also su­per-duper re­al­is­tic. We were go­ing for the clev­er­ness of rep­re­sented ob­jects.” The fi­nal tally was 3,863,484 unique bricks, reused and re­com­bined so that the film re­quired more than 15 mil­lion in all — that’s in ad­di­tion to 183 unique minifig­ures, some of them clas­sic LEGO char­ac­ters and some brand new.

By build­ing each scene lit­er­ally brick-by-brick, the film­mak­ers were able to tweak things like sur­face dam­age (scuff marks, fin­ger­prints) and ir­reg­u­lar­ity in how the bricks were put to­gether to create a more life­like look. A lot of R&D time and light­ing de­sign­ers’ headaches went into bal­anc­ing the shiny plas­tic qual­ity of LEGO bricks with re­al­is­tic wear and tear. Since a key part of the film’s story are the Master Builders — minifig­ures with the power (and cre­ativ­ity) to dis­as­sem­ble struc­tures and re­use the pieces to create some­thing new — us­ing in­di­vid­u­ally mod­eled com­po­nents rather than flat back­grounds was in­valu­able for the film’s de- and re­con­struc­tion se­quences.

“We worked with in­cred­i­ble sen­si­tiv­ity to make the CG feel like it was step-by-step, stop-mo­tion an­i­ma­tion,” says McKay, who also served as co-ed­i­tor and head of story on the film. “Our team re­ally delved deep into ob­serv­ing the lit­tle mis­takes and idio­syn­cra­sies of stop-mo­tion an­i­ma­tion.” Best known for his work on hit stop-mo­tion TV se­ries Ro­bot Chicken and Moral Orel, McKay was the ideal per­son to guide the de­sign, light­ing and an­i­ma­tion teams to­ward a hand-crafted feel.

In fact, the crew got so into the idea of us­ing LEGO pieces to create ev­ery­thing in this unique uni­verse that even ef­fects el­e­ments like smoke, wa­ter, rock for­ma­tions and fire are made up of them. “One of the spe­cial stylis­tic touches we added to the movie was that we stayed away from mo­tion blur,” says Miller. “We de­vel­oped a way to create the blur made up of LEGO bricks which were the same color as the char­ac­ters’ bod­ies. We’d al­low those bricks to be on the screen for a few sec­onds [to create the effect].”

Em­met’s un­wel­come quest takes him and his com­pany of ad­ven­tur­ers across many dif­fer­ent land­scapes made up of these pe­cu­liar pieces. The direc­tors say that each quirky lo­ca­tion was in­spired by clas­sic movies—an oater-influenced Western town, a cas­tle rem­i­nis­cent of Lord of the Rings, the no-rules won­der­land of Cloud Cuckoo Land that takes cues from Yel­low Sub­ma­rine. And many of the film’s de­signs and char­ac­ters were taken from well-known LEGO prod­ucts.

Meet the Minifigs

One of the big chal­lenges for the an­i­ma­tion depart­ment was how to keep the flat, printed-on look of minifig­ures’ faces while al­low­ing for the range of emo­tion and per­son­al­ity needed to con­nect an au­di­ence with a char­ac­ter. In fact, un­til the stu­dio hon­chos saw the orig­i­nal test an­i­matic, they were not con­vinced CG was the way to go.

“When we started the project, they didn’t think we could get any emo­tion or get au­di­ences to care about these lit­tle brick char­ac­ters,” McKay says. “They thought that was crazy. But we were able to show them a test, show them you could em­pathize with this guy. You don’t need to make an­i­ma­tion any more com­pli­cated. You can do a stripped down thing—raw, pure and vis­ceral.” McKay en­cour­aged his an­i­ma­tors to act out as the char­ac­ters to re­ally dig in to the emo­tions needed, which were then as­sem­bled from a mas­sive li­brary of eyes, brows and mouths for the di­verse char­ac­ters.

Other lim­i­ta­tions of the char­ac­ters add to the film’s hand­made aes­thetic, de­spite us­ing high­end pro­pri­etary CG so­lu­tions at An­i­mal Logic. The film­mak­ers wanted to avoid mak­ing the minifig­ures move in ways they can not in real life, so char­ac­ters some­times walk, some­times hop and

some­times seem to have been picked up by an in­vis­i­ble hand and pro­pelled for­ward.

“Our an­i­ma­tors were su­per nerdy about mak­ing it feel like stop mo­tion,” says McKay. The crew even made a point of not us­ing any CG rig­ging cheats — only the kinds of tricks you would use on a stop-mo­tion set. “When I want a char­ac­ter to scratch their eye, there are things that you can do—break the arm off, pup­pet the arm. We did all kinds of lit­tle cheats, the things you do on set. If you slow the movie down frame by frame, you can see when we pull a leg off a char­ac­ter he hits the ground and we an­tic­i­pate the leg hit­ting the ground, we re­lease on the way down and the body goes ahead of the leg. When it’s up to speed, it looks like squash-and-stretch and ric­o­chets.”

In ad­di­tion to the chal­lenges of cre­at­ing en­gag­ing expressions and fig­ur­ing out how to move both the minifigs and brick-built char­ac­ters like Unikitty and Metal Beard (who, af­ter a vi­cious bat­tle with Pres­i­dent Busi­ness, has been forced to re­place most of his body parts with a Swiss Army Knife-like col­lec­tion of tools and bits), the team also had to find ways to bring the gritty, real-world feel of the rest of the LEGO world to the char­ac­ters. Benny the Space­man, who along with Bat­man is based on a real LEGO fig­ure, had a spe­cial place in the direc­tors’ hearts.

As a fa­vorite from their 1980s child­hoods, they wanted Benny to look well worn by time and trial, so the de­sign­ers and CG team gave him a bro­ken hel­met and a plas­tic body rid­dled

with teeth marks, scratches and dust.

One Brick at a Time

On top of the dig­i­tal wiz­ardry and the del­i­cate bal­anc­ing act needed to create a stun­ning, mod­ern CG epic that felt like some­thing a very de­ter­mined kid could shoot frame-by-frame in his base­ment, the prin­ci­pals note that the big­gest chal­lenge was find­ing their way to a story that would en­tice au­di­ences and take full ad­van­tage of the pos­si­bil­i­ties of a LEGO-built world.

“The tough­est part was find­ing a clear, emo­tional story that would track all the way through,” Miller says. “It had to be funny and fun and full of imag­i­na­tion. Our teams in Syd­ney and Los An­ge­les and even the LEGO stu­dios in Den­mark worked very well to­gether to de­liver the movie. We did the an­i­matic and, if we found out that the story didn’t work, we just tore it down and built

“We broke one of the car­di­nal rules of our CG an­i­ma­tion

world. We never liked things to look photo-real … We wanted our char­ac­ters to look ex­actly like LEGO bricks. The light­ing was also su­per-duper re­al­is­tic. We were go­ing for

the clev­er­ness of rep­re­sented ob­jects.”

— Di­rec­tor/writer Phil Lord

ev­ery­thing all over again. We did dou­ble time and no­body ever slept!”

The col­lat­eral dam­age of sleep with­drawal and se­vere caf­feine ad­dic­tions aside, the team thinks they found just the right com­bi­na­tion of build­ing blocks to create some­thing truly orig­i­nal out of a well-known brand.

“We’re re­ally happy that, al­though it goes to so many dif­fer­ent worlds, the movie holds to­gether and ac­tu­ally keeps you re­ally in­volved with the char­ac­ters’ jour­neys,” says Lord. “We broke so many rules and were still able to tell a story that kids can re­late to. It also has a bit of a mes­sage about cre­ativ­ity, in­no­va­tion and in­ge­nu­ity — things that you can prob­a­bly write a col­lege pa­per about!”

“I am re­ally psyched about this movie be­cause we wanted to make this movie to feel like the way kids play,” adds McKay. “When they play, they lose them­selves in these se­ri­ous and epic worlds, as ab­surd as it all seems. Imagine [ The LEGO Movie] is what Henry Selick and Michael Bay would make if they got to­gether and de­cided to do a big movie to­gether!” Warner Bros. re­leased The LEGO Movie tion­wide on Fe­bru­ary 7.

Play­ing Nice with Oth­ers: Brand-new minifigs like hero Em­met and vil­lain Pres­i­dent Busi­ness (be­low) ap­pear with fa­vorites like Bat­man.

The New Old-school: De­sign­ers used dig­i­tal mod­els of real LEGO pieces to con­struct ev­ery el­e­ment of the film’s worlds, in­clud­ing ef­fects.

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