“A core concept was creative organised chaos”
Kim taylor, Animal Logic, the Lego Ninjago Movie production designer
“We had a couple of very core underlying concepts behind the city,” outlines Taylor. “One of them was creative organised chaos, the idea that despite the complexity and mayhem you might get from a six-year-old’s idea of city planning, everything still makes an organic kind of sense.”
“Another idea,” notes Taylor, “was elements of conceptual contrast, where you juxtapose something like a really old temple sitting on top of a skyscraper, or position things in unexpected places – the old and the new living side by side at the same time. There’d be a modern skyscraper with businessmen inside next to a rooftop temple garden with people doing Tai Chi.”
Animal Logic also ensured that Ninjago City was believable and functional. Coonan says that establishing civic rules informed the city’s architecture and layout. “It was things like which side of the road did they drive on, putting in an overhead canal system and multiple rail systems. We then designed police, train conductors, vendors and other characters who inhabited the city. Ninjago City was always being destroyed and rebuilt, so there were plenty of construction workers too.”
Animal Logic’s artists created pencil drawings, paintings and a raft of digital artwork to flesh out the city. They also created quick 3D mock-ups utilising bricks out of Lego Digital Designer and brought into Maya. Designers would sometimes sketch over initial 3D builds to keep iterating.
Another tool that came into play was VR; Taylor used Tilt Brush to draw broad strokes in virtual space and then export the geometry into modelling, particularly for the jungle environments. “Part of the reason for using Tilt Brush was that these jungle locations were labourintensive to build and we had to find ways to maximise the use of each environment so we could really finesse it. First I placed the storyboards around me on floating cards inside the environment and then sketched a rough layout, checking as I went that the same environment would work from the various angles needed in the storyboards. What was really cool with this setup was that I could
then get our director, Charlie Bean, to walk around and give general feedback before the first asset was even placed in a set.”
The production design of Ninjago City extended to the crafting of a unique language for signage, shops and even building shapes. “We had the idea that a cipher would be fun for kids to learn and translate,” says Coonan. “My starting point was shooting some unusually shaped bricks in silhouette, and then going through a process of abstraction and hand-drawing until I came up with a set of logograms that looked like simplified Chinese characters. I then created different fonts from those symbols that can be made to look like Korean, Chinese calligraphy, Kanji or even Arabic. When detailing the world at this level I feel we are like digital anthropologists, creating a culture with history, a belief system and social rules, and part of that culture is language.”
The name of a film can be a pretty great indicator of the challenges inherent in production design. Case in point: Luc Besson’s Valerian and
the City of a Thousand Planets, in which the central characters visit a wealth of locations in one massive outer-space city, plus several others around the galaxy. Helping to build out several of these worlds was senior concept designer and art director Ben Mauro.
One location the artist worked on extensively was a place called Big Market where the title character, Valerian (Dane Dehaan), is able to visit a sprawling interdimensional merchant world while actually being somewhere else. “For Big Market,” recounts Mauro, “there were reference points of souks, various middle easterntype markets and bazaars that had a lot of colour and variety to them, mixed with New York City’s Times Square.”
Big Market had to be distinguishable from the other alien worlds, but the location itself was full of tens of thousands of aliens from all over the galaxy in a variety of shops selling a multitude of items. Says Mauro: “It went all the way starting with things like little alien toys/trinkets sold by a giant squid alien, to things like a shop where all your cells are completely rejuvenated by a energy-based creature as some sort
Ben Mauro’s concept designs for Big Market in Valerian. Big Market had to look as if it was cut into rock, but also had to include a diverse amount of stalls, shacks and inhabitants
“there were hundreds of individual Areas to design” Ben Mauro, senior concept designer and art director, Valerian
of funky ‘alien spa’. There were also a few funnier ones as Easter eggs like a french graphic novel shop full of Moebius and Meziere books.”
To ensure design consistency those aspects were integrated into an organic rock structure – reds, oranges and warm colours were key colour choices – since the market exists deep in the earth.
Meanwhile, Mauro also contributed designs for Alpha, the mega space station that’s inhabited by millions of species from thousands of planets. Using storyboard artist Eric Gandois’ boards as a jumping-off point, Mauro implemented Besson’s further brief of a “messy cluttered/ dense/massive look to things.” In contrast to Big Market, the colour palette here followed blues, purples and cool colours.
“A few things in particular Luc wanted to see were long bridgelike structures along with glowing, blue ball-type structures to break up some of the shots with bigger elements to look at,” adds Mauro. “Once the overall messy/cluttered look of Alpha was set there were hundreds of smaller individual areas to design that all had very different looks to them.” Mauro’s approach to the
Valerian concepts involved both 2D and 3D. “For Alpha, because it was so massive and messy I used some 3D experiments as a base to paint over to try to get a better sense of scale and depth in the images – something along the lines of MODO replicator-type experiments to get some interesting bases to use for paintovers were some things I did, using Zbrush for modelling and Keyshot to render. I took it as far as I could with the time that I had in the concept art; the VFX guys really did the heavy lifting on all this stuff, they all did an incredible job making those places come to life in the film.”
above: This design includes some of the original ‘language’ and characters established to cover buildings and use for signage right (top to bottom): early colour designs established a whimsical aesthetic to ninjago city production concepts were aimed at establishing a sprawling city full of life concepts were taken to the level of nearfinals to help show the mixing of old and new in the city
Top: “i created an alien language or alphabet that can be seen all over the signs and architecture of alpha,” notes Mauro, “along with a series of advertisements for various alien products and services in the universe to help give more colour and life to the world”
above: a final shot of Big Market fromValerian, as part of a massive fly-through of the location