THE LEGO MOVIE
Brick by Brick
As Lord and Miller envisioned, "The LEGO Movie" would look and play like an
action film, and that guided every creative decision, from the earliest stages.
Production designer Grant Freckelton states, "There were dozens and dozens of
sketches made before anyone actually put two bricks together. Every animated
movie has to be created from scratch but this one had to be created from scratch
out of LEGO pieces, so we had to translate all our ideas into that form."
Freckelton and his team downloaded free, publicly available software called
LEGO Digital Designer. "We were able to start designing and building from our
using virtual LEGO bricks," he says. "In addition, they provided us with a parts
wall, with every single available part and part number so, as we built, we could
refer back to the individual pieces, take photos, and get a sense of the shape
and all the fine detailing. There was a lot of macro-photography of real bricks,
because what Chris and Phil were striving for was absolute photo-realism and the
feeling that we are actually inside a real LEGO set."
The bricks themselves, separately modeled, were made to show subtle signs of
wear, as if they had been tossed around in the normal course of play, rather
than out-of-the-box shiny and identical, then presented in such a way as to
ensure those gradients were visible on screen. Lighting Department Supervisor
Craig Welsh, of Animal Logic, worked closely with Freckelton to achieve this
effect. "We did a lot of photographic reference in different lighting
conditions, with different constructions, to develop the shaders, the surfacing
and texturing," he says. "The default shading was fairly bland and we knew we'd
need to work little incongruities like scratches and divots in the plastic into
our surfacing work to make the light react in realistic ways, as it would if you
were holding a LEGO brick very close. Then, we rigged lights for the sets, props
and characters to make them look as if they're positioned in a miniature set and
lit with actual light fittings.
"If you want photo realism it's often not so much a sense of what you
perceive as what you'd miss if it wasn't there," Welsh adds. "One mistake can
take someone out of the feeling that they're watching something real, so that's
why we put so much effort and attention into it."
That was true of every aspect of the project. Says Dan Lin, "Every single
detail had to be right and exactly as it was envisioned. Chris and Phil really
cared about both the big picture and the minutiae. Their approach inspired the
rest of the team to do the same. Even a scene as deceptively simple as the
opening in Emmet's apartment, we spent hours on end discussing, going back and
forth with different iterations."
"The LEGO Movie" contains 3,863,484 unique LEGO bricks. Some are reused and
reconfigured in multiple scenes, making up sets, characters and props, for a
total of 15,080,330 bricks-the number that a person would need if he or she
wanted to recreate the entire film by hand.
The film also features 183 unique minifigures, many of which are particularly
special to the directors. On an early visit to LEGOLAND Billund in Denmark,
Phil Lord saw a host of new minifigures and was delightfully re-acquainted with
some of his childhood favorites, which he wanted to include. He recalls,
"Whether something was new
to me, or a classic that I had forgotten, I took pictures and sent them to
Chris, and said, 'Is there any way we can work this into the movie, maybe have
this guy just walking in the background?' The space-themed pieces from the late
'70s, early '80s, have a big part in the movie because we grew up with that, and
a lot of adult LEGO fans have a deep nostalgia for that era."
Cinematographer and Animal Logic layout supervisor Pablo Plaisted further
defined the live-action sense the filmmakers wanted to give the animation by
embracing the unique challenges of filming in a LEGO world. The most important
of these, he says, "was finding a visual language that audiences would instantly
recognize as stop-motion whilst allowing us the freedom to embrace what is great
about CG. We needed audiences to believe they were looking at something real and
tiny whilst also making that tiny thing feel grand and cinematic. Not only that,
the unique proportions of the characters meant rethinking even basic assumptions
about framing. The end result is a very unique and exciting look."
"You have the ability to be The Special
because I believe in you."
Audiences may be amazed at how much they come to care about the fate of
little, yellow, plastic characters with painted-on faces, for which Phil Lord
and Christopher Miller credit the Animal Logic animators and the commitment of
Chris McKay. "It's incredible to see how much humanity Chris and his team were
able to give these characters, in tandem with the actors performances, based on
just our ideas and some drawings," Lord attests.
McKay took on dual roles for the film, serving first as an editor while the
story and storyboards were being developed and then moving to Australia to
oversee the animation. Best known for his work on the acclaimed Cartoon Network
series "Robot Chicken," his stop-motion/claymation background proved an asset to
"The LEGO Movie," which, while not filmed in stop-motion, was meant to have a
The intent, McKay says, was not to make the minifigures' actions fluid but to
work with them as they really are. "There are only so many moves they can
technically make, to bend and turn, so we had to think all of that through.
Sometimes we walk or hop them, and other times it literally looks as if a hand
has picked a character up and propelled him forward."
It all comes down to details, offers Story Department co-producer Igor Khait.
"If you're trying to create an illusion of life using little bits of plastic it
requires a tremendous attention to detail. There are no simple shots. Even a
shot that has Emmet moving across his room and picking a book off the shelf can
take many revisions and edits just to sell the believability of it. It means a
lot of very nuanced movement."
In maintaining the integrity of the LEGO minifigure, the characters' features
had to remain flat, like 2D stickers. As Animal Logic Animation Department
Supervisor Alfie Olivier explains, "It's a 2D face on a 3D character." It was a
painstaking process of producing a catalogue of eyes, mouths and brows that were
then projected onto the characters to help make Emmet charming, Wyldstyle
intriguing, Bad Cop threatening and Lord Business, well, just plain nuts.
"Chris McKay is phenomenal," Olivier continues. "I don't think I've ever
worked with an animation director who was so vocal in acting out every single
little emotion as though he was the character himself. There was no mistaking
what we needed to do."
McKay encouraged the animators to imagine what their creations were
experiencing and how that could be conveyed not only in their expressions but
their body language. "It was about authentic behavior," he says. "I wanted
everything to feel as real as possible and that meant understanding what these
characters were thinking and feeling. How sympathetic and relatable can we make
There were a variety of ways Phil Lord and Christopher Miller could have
approached a LEGO movie, traditional animation being one of them, but that would
not have honored the LEGO experience for them, or its intrinsic charm. From the
project's inception, the only way they imagined a big-screen LEGO action
adventure was the way "The LEGO Movie" was ultimately conceived and produced:
inviting audiences into a LEGO universe both fantastic and familiar, with the
promise that any one of them might be able to do the same.
Says Lord, "People talk a lot about how we're living in a time when a lot of
creativity is outsourced to somebody else. But LEGO bricks bring creativity into
everybody's home, and that's what really appealed to us as filmmakers-to make a
film that's not only entertaining but celebrates innovation and imagination and
maybe inspires other people to do original work. So it was a good marriage of an
idea with our agenda to make people more creative. That's our evil master plan,"
"We think of it not as a brand but as a medium, like clay," says Miller, who,
like Lord and like countless people the world over, has priceless memories of
immersed in other worlds of their own making. "It's like clay for telling
stories, when you dump out those bricks and try to build a castle or a space
station, or whatever you want. And anyone can do it. The possibilities are
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