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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 drawings, 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 similar rhythm.

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 them?"

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," he jokes.

"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 lost afternoons 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 infinite."


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