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Assembly Required
"Everything is awesome. Everything is cool when you're part of a team"

Work on "The LEGO Movie" exemplified the spirit of the film's fun and insanely catchy theme song, which proclaims, "Everything is cool when you're part of a team."

Production ran more-or-less concurrently in three locations: the Los Angeles hub, where the concepts, story, character and design scheme were developed and where directors Lord and Miller spent the bulk of their time; the physical production, at animation studio Animal Logic in Australia, where editor and animation co-director Chris McKay relocated to work with an in-house team of 250 to execute those ideas; and the LEGO headquarters in Denmark, where top designers under the direction of Design Vice President Matthew Ashton (also an executive producer on the film) offered their expertise to help craft some of the unique characters and props the filmmakers devised.

The process was more cyclical than linear, with ideas and artwork moving in a continuous flow. Filmmakers would travel to Denmark or Australia, and key artisans from Animal Logic and LEGO Group made the trip to L.A. Mainly, though, they relied on daily video conferencing and cineSync software, which enabled them to review and edit together in real time.

It was important that everything on screen was not only assembled out of individually rendered virtual bricks but could theoretically be assembled by hand with actual bricks, so some of the more complex set pieces were put to the test at LEGO HQ for structural integrity. Drawings, ideas and descriptions would go from the Los Angeles production office to the LEGO Denmark operation, where a model was sometimes built and photographed for the directors to review. Adjustments could then be made at both ends, often through multiple iterations, before the final design was given to the animators to create a computer model, which might then spark another round of adjustments.

"The LEGO Corporation was very hands-on," says Roy Lee. "We showed them what we wanted to do and they gave us a lot of great ideas on how to make it work or work better."

"We'd say, 'We need a spaceship, or we need a pirate ship that turns into a submarine,' and they would come back with something amazing that not only looked great but had humor in it," Dan Lin elaborates. "We'd share those models with the animators and figure out how to translate those designs to the movie."

In other instances, animators originated their own models using the vast library of bricks they had already assembled.

Upon initially reviewing the script with filmmakers, Matthew Ashton says, "There was a lot of work the animation team could do without our support, but there were some key things on which we felt we could offer some help. I have a team of 60 designers, all with different specializations. Some are really good at classic models; some are good at the futuristic space stuff; and others excel at functionality, trap doors, how to get weapons to pop out of a vehicle and those sorts of things. We took the reference material and executed it in a way that made sense from a building angle and would also look good on screen. The most important thing for us was the story and working with the filmmakers to ensure that when their ideas were translated into material for the screen it looked super-impressive."

"It's truly been a partnership with our film designers and the LEGO designers," Lin concurs, "because they know the capabilities and the restrictions of the bricks better than anyone but, at the same time, our team was thinking about things in a cinematic way, and they brought a different perspective in how to use a LEGO brick. So you had artists on both sides working together."

"Our core philosophies are in line with what they are trying to promote, as far as imagination and quality and fun, and they let us make the movie we wanted to make," says Miller of the LEGO contingent. "We all had the same goal: to make this movie the best it could possibly be. They've been very supportive."

The toymakers' input was especially invaluable for action sequences that required breaking down existing props and structures and re-assembling their parts into new objects, like a building remodeled as a truck, or a truck becoming a plane. CG Supervisor Aidan Sarsfield at Animal Logic explains, "In the story, a big part of the Master Builders' arsenal is that they can build something out of anything. The elements of an alleyway can be turned into a getaway car, and that posed some interesting challenges for the rigging guys and the designers who built the assets, the individual pieces and props. They had to think of how to build a car out of pieces that could also be used to form an alley set."

"They produced something like 24 different models based on our idea for a scene where coffee shops, cars, dump trucks and ice cream trucks on a city street are repurposed into incredible flying machines that could be used in a dogfight," offers Lord, as one example. "It was both a focused and an open-ended idea, and the LEGO designers came back with some fantastic things.

"Work like this requires the intelligence of so many different people," he concludes, "and it reflects what the movie is about, in fostering the kind of environment where creativity can flourish."

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