THE LEGO NINJAGO MOVIE
About The Production (Continued)
JAY / LIGHTNING
Kumail Nanjiani is Jay, the Lightning Ninja, dressed in blue with the
contrast pop of an
orange muffler-just in case, y' know, it gets chilly later. Jay can be a little
overly cautious for
someone who flies around in a mech called the Lightning Jet and emits electric
current, but that's
just part of his outsider charm.
"Jay's courage is in the process of development throughout the story," Bean
point which Nanjiani finds "really relatable, and not only in high school. I
think it's something that
never goes away-wanting to be popular, wanting to fit in and be accepted. Jay is
among his ninja friends but not as much outside of them. These aren't the cool
kids in school.
Everybody loves the ninjas, but no one knows that these guys are the ninjas.
Lloyd is a pariah
because his father is Garmadon, and the others, I think, get the fallout from
that, just by hanging
out with him. If the other kids only knew the truth, it would be so great."
Even among his own crew, Jay's nervous nature and self-doubt set him slightly
when everyone else is gung-ho to go, Jay is right there with a positive "maybe."
But his friends
know that no matter what Jay may lack in outward bravado, he always comes
through when it
counts, with electrifying courage.
If only he could apply that courage toward sparking something with his
"It's a funny story, but actually quite moving as well," Nanjiani
acknowledges. "At its center
is the father and son relationship, but it also touches on the relationships all
have with each other, and themselves."
KAI / FIRE NINJA
Starring as Nya's brother, Kai, is Michael Pena. This Fire Ninja,
appropriately decked out
in red, shoots flame from his double-barreled Fire Mech and hopes one day to be
able to make
fire fly from his fingertips-as Master Wu has promised. If that's a trick Pena
himself could pull
off, it would increase his worth at home with his eight-year-old son, whom he
cites as one of the
prime reasons he took the role. "Now maybe I can be the cool dad," he says.
"I started watching animated movies with my kid, and he laughs so hard." Pena
"Everyone knows, when you have a kid you'll do anything to make them laugh. He's
customer, but he loves the whole LEGO universe. He talks about it like he just
came back from
a seminar, like there's a whole underworld of LEGO stories that only he knows
about. So, I
jumped at the chance to do this. Audiences are going to love it, but I already
hit it big at home."
Often described as a bit of a hothead, Kai may be a little impatient but, on
the plus side,
he's fiercely loyal and protective. First to leap into battle, he's often also
the first to offer a warm
hug when one of his friends is down.
For Pena, recording with his castmates was like "the Improv Olympics-working
these talented people, some of them comedy writers, and they're just hopping in
showing off their dance moves. It was like trying to get into a game of double
ZANE / ICE NINJA
From fire to ice, Zach Woods stars as Zane, the super-cool Ice Ninja, a
clad in bright white like an old-school fridge. Zane blasts a glacial stream
from his mech,
the Ice Tank, which, Woods says, "is built like an Arctic tractor with big
"Of all the roles I've ever played, this is probably the closest to me in
real life," Woods
jokes. "Zane wants to be seen as a genuine teenager like everyone else, though
thinking process foils him constantly."
High school is tough enough without being that different. But even if he
instead of blood, and houses computer circuitry where his heart should be, the
methodical Zane has an accurate read-out of emotions-with loyalty on the top of
the list. Above
all, his desire to fit in might be his most touchingly human trait. That, and
wanting to operate a
"The movie focuses on these kids who are students during the day and lead
and then suddenly transform into ninjas to battle the forces of evil," says
Woods. "I think a lot of
kids might have a fantasy about shedding the everyday drudgery of their lives to
go fight bad guys
with giant robot mechs. Who wouldn't? So, this is a wish fulfillment story for
"Every ninja knows when to fight and when to blend in."
Bean cannot enthuse enough about the cast, saying, "Everyone was so great and
so charming, and brought so much of themselves to the project. Many of them are
we got them together they were all interacting and improv'ing off each other,
and some of the
funniest material and my favorite moments came out of those recordings. The most
was not blowing takes by laughing, or falling out of character because of
that someone else just said."
Some physical pairings were coordinated, such as Franco and Theroux, whose
work helped capture the emotional depth of their father/son dynamic. But for the
most part, the
actors recorded individually, off Skyped cues and direction from Bean-a common
animation. Sessions were logged over approximately 18 months as the animation
increasingly refined, with the performances informing the visual art, and vice
"Charlie was so communicative and collaborative," says Munn. "Doing an
tests every acting sense you have. You have to get in there and make all the
moves, yell and
scream and jump around, and think of 15 ways to say something to convey the
Charlie would throw out a line and you could see his reaction as you tried it
different ways, and
you'd see the spark in his eye when you got it. He'd light up. It was fun to
make him laugh."
As a kind of bonus round, nearly the full main cast assembled for an extended
recording, fondly remembered by all. Taking a spin through much of the story,
they got to play
off each other's reactions like a live-action cast, spark the comedy and zero in
moments in a different way.
"Everyone was in character and able to improvise in any given situation, and
were constructed around that. it was a very cool process," Nanjiani recalls.
The film's supporting cast includes Robin Roberts and Michael Strahan,
minifigure characters who wake up the city on the popular show "Good Morning
Wong plays General Olivia, one of Garmadon's volcano-bound staff, and Charlyne
Yi is Terri, one
of his so-called IT Nerds. Among the citizens of NINJAGO, Laura Kightlinger
voices high school
teacher Ms. Laudita, while Randall Park and Retta play two of the school's
Hardwick is the local radio DJ; and Bobby Lee is a Pilates studio owner whose
destroyed by Garmadon. Constance Wu is the voice of NINJAGO City's Mayor, and,
in the film's
live-action segments, Kaan Gulder is the young boy appearing opposite Jackie
PUTTING THE PIECES TOGETHER
It took approximately four years to construct "The LEGO NINJAGO Movie," with
filmmakers, animators and designers working together from offices in Los
Angeles, at Animal
Logic in Sydney, Australia, and at LEGO headquarters in Billund, Denmark-much as
they did on
"The LEGO Movie" and "The LEGO Batman Movie."
For two of those years, U.S.-based director Bean lived in Australia for a
interaction with the animation team. "Animal Logic is a beacon for talented
people from all over
the world in animation and visuals effects. It's a very international
atmosphere," he says.
"What's incredible about Animal Logic is that they care so much about how
feels and looks," Dan Lin concurs. "They're constantly doing R&D to push it to
the next level."
To some extent, animators drew upon the massive digital brick library they
compiling on the first film-each piece individually rendered, shaded, textured
and customized to
reflect realistic wear and handling-and used to build the sets, props, vehicles
and population in
LEGO fashion. Additionally, 3,463 unique digital bricks were newly created, as
well as 350 unique
digital minifigure wardrobe designs and 100 unique digital rocks. More than 100
million grains of
sand appear on NINJAGO's beach in a single shot, while the city and its
are built from nearly 12.7 million bricks. In real-world measurement of
approximately 841 square
meters, that puts it just slightly smaller than the base of the Great Pyramid.
But much has changed since "The LEGO Movie" debuted in 2014. Visual effects
supervisor Gregory Jowle says, "We threw away most of the tech that we developed
on the first
one and ramped everything up. We wanted to go bigger and further, and add
complexity to a
higher degree. We increased our library and enhanced the detail on each of the
bricks so they
have as much physicality as any handheld brick you might find, whether they were
something a kid would have had for a long time. We went as far as to do a
of one of the minifigures to make sure all our angles were spot-on.
"We don't cheat anything," Jowle adds. "We don't physically alter the bricks.
Add to that
the natural assets like plants and rocks, and it really pushed our rendering
capabilities. The most
exciting thing, I believe, was the opportunity to do physically correct effects
like micro-scale water,
fire, sparks and explosions."
The integration of LEGO pieces with these real-world elements-including 254
species of plant life-is what most differentiates "The LEGO NINJAGO Movie"
"We wanted to take another step in expanding the look of the LEGO universe,"
McKay. "As kids, we used to take our toys outside to play in the yard, in the
sandbox, on camping
trip. This idea became vital to the story because our ninjas needed to go back
to their roots to
discover their elemental powers. This 'back to basics' journey meant both in
their training and
their adventure through the wild and dangerous jungle surrounding NINJAGO City.
So, it was
essential to use photo-real organic elements in addition to the photo-real
With that in mind, Kim Taylor, one of the film's two production designers,
says, "This film
is far more based on outdoor light, with real sky, real clouds and warm
sunshine. Getting the
minifig's perspective on the natural world was paramount. I took high-res, macro
see what a blade of grass or a bonsai tree would look like from a centimeter
away and found all
kinds of tiny plants hidden among the mosses; it's a whole different garden down
Above moss-level, the long view of NINJAGO City offers a modern, dazzling,
metropolis bustling with activity and color-57 official LEGO colors, to be
Says Lin, "NINJAGO is a mystical island, a world unlike any other. It's not one
country or culture, but a mash-up of different Asian influences from Thai to
Chinese to Japanese."
In that sense, again, it's patterned after the imagination of a child."
In contrast to the grid-based Bricksburg and the urban sprawl of Gotham City,
takes a layered vertical approach. "Not the safest place to live, but one of the
most fun, certainly,"
Taylor posits. "It's non-linear. There's not a straight line in the whole city.
We wanted to give it a
sense of history, so, near the bottom, next to the canals, it's all old
buildings and, further up, there
are huge skyscrapers built on top of other buildings."
The city's showpiece, and, of course, the site from which Garmadon intends to
supreme, is its tallest building: NINJAGO Tower, standing over 22 feet tall in
Matt Everitt, who oversaw the animation direction, explains, "You need to
scale of the world you're creating because a minifigure is just an inch and a
half high, and even
though they live in an epic world by their perspective, their tallest building
is no bigger than an
average room, to us. It helps to ground you, when you're animating shots, to
think that these are
teeny-tiny beings in this macro universe, with a camera just an inch away from
Indeed, Taylor remarks, "Charlie wanted to approach everything with two
one at human scale, for shots where we need to feel like we're looking at a LEGO
build, and one
that's literally at LEGO scale, as if it were being held by a minifigure."
The film's NINJAGO City is populated by no fewer than 315 characters, with 80
faces and a staggering 12,000 possible combinations of features through which
they convey a
surprisingly relatable range of emotion. The animators also fleshed out
personalities with addons
such as the bandage on Kai's forehead, indicating his tendency to leap into
things, and Lloyd's
green eyes, a non-standard LEGO shade developed for the movie, to hint of his
"You have to think more old-school," says McKay. "You can't squash and
can't use overly anatomical facial rigs. You might have to use a character's
entire body to express
an emotion or elicit a feeling, for instance. I love the way they look when we
shoot them. The
simplicity of the character design makes for incredibly sweet, sincere,
The actors' performances also figured significantly. Since it's such a small
says, "All it takes is something subtle, like the slightest change of width
between the eyes, to take
a character in a different direction. On Lloyd, for example, we used some of
expressions, like that half-smile of his, which is different from all the
Subtlety was not an issue for the mechs. For this, the animators tag-teamed
designers for creations that are not only big, fearsome and beautiful, richly
appropriate to each ninja's personality, but structurally sound. "We tried to
make all the mechs
seem huge," says Everitt. Kai's mech really stomps down the street and you feel
the weight of
every foot-plant. Cole's too, when he's ripping around corners on that giant
robo-wheel, tears up
the ground and has real impact. When Garmadon comes back with the most powerful
of all, the
Garma Mecha Man, it stands about as high as a small child if it were built out
of physical bricks.
And we know that because Simon Whiteley, one of our production designers,
actually built it."
The fact that LEGO minifigures don't bend at the knee and elbow, once again,
biggest, and most inspiring challenge, especially, as Lin points out, "There's a
lot of unique action
in the film-martial arts action, mech on mech, ninja on mech, and ninja on
To give the martial arts its Jackie Chan flavor, animators first studied the
Keaton fight scenes his films are famous for, noting the impact of each kick and
punch, and how he utilizes space as well as objects in the environment. Says
Everitt, "Jackie had
so much influence on how we animated Wu, not only the way he fights but the way
through a scene, the way he might raise an eyebrow or talk to the kids."
They then kicked it up a notch by hosting Chan's 15-member stunt team to
fight in the film, which the animators then broke into its component parts-from
the way they held
themselves before a fight to the way they would use a staff or sword. Bean
recalls how he and
Lin first broached the notion with Chan. "He was looking at the LEGO minifigure
and moving his
arm around and he said, 'Mmmm, I don't think that's going to work.' Then we
showed him the
clip we were working on and I said, 'Don't worry about the limitations of the
pieces. We'll figure
that out. Just choreograph it like you would any other film.'"
Sometimes it all comes down to...wagon wheels and sausages, Everitt concedes:
something called brick blur, choosing pieces from our brick library that create
a feeling of motion,
like windshield pieces, dinosaur horns, wagon wheels with a spinning effect, and
are sausages all over the place. When you watch it on the run you might not see
it, but if you
watch it slowly, you'll find them."
The final touch was an accidental villain in the form of an ordinary,
destructive-house cat. But, to the pocket-sized NINJAGO citizenry, says Lin,
"It's essentially a
monster." Shifting from one type of challenge to another, the CG team also took
on the film's fully
"That gave us license to watch cat videos on the internet," Everitt laughs.
They also staged
scenarios with real cats in the studio, interacting with LEGO models, to study
how they placed
their paws, blinked, or focused their gaze. Treats were attached to the mechs to
record the ways
in which the cats would approach, sniff, pounce or knock them over, and how the
fall apart when batted around. "Because of its disproportionate size in the LEGO
creature would appear mostly in extreme close-up, so everything had to be right,
from the ears
and whiskers to the tip of its tail."
"I think it might have as many hairs as a real cat," states Taylor. In fact,
the CG total was
6,493,248, an impressive technical achievement. "There's no way to cheat it: you
have to place
lots of hair on the virtual cat and then make it react to light correctly.
Charlie wanted the cat to be
cute, soft and playful, even though it's destroying the city."
"To understand your future, you have to go back to your ninja past."
Multi-media artist, musician and composer Mark Mothersbaugh continues his
collaboration with Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, following the first LEGO
"The movie weaves together elements of the real world and the mind of a young
has created a mashup of Chinese and Japanese traditional characters, and I
wanted the music
to reflect that," Mothersbaugh says. "You will hear both Chinese and Japanese
because he's a modern kid, there are also elements of electronic music. It's not
just the musical
content but the arrangements and orchestrations that can take you as big as a
or small and intimate, depending upon what the scene requires," he adds, as the
through light-hearted slapstick humor to action beats, and to tender moments of
Mothersbaugh employed a full orchestra, which he feels helps bring life and
"these little plastic dudes." Vocals were also important, as "the sound of human
that jump easier. There is more choir in this movie, and it really helps to
heighten the musical
effects we were going for, including a choir singing 'meow-meows' as Lloyd talks
to the monster."
"What we want to achieve with these LEGO movies is for people to feel joy. We
people to laugh," says Lin. At the same time, "We love to surprise them with the
emotion. For us,
the way these minifigures look and behave, they're just naturally funny, and if
we can offer the
fun and the laughs, and then undercut that with genuine emotion in a way that
people might not
be expecting that's the whole experience."
Bean concurs. "I hope audiences will enjoy the action and the humor, and the
journey these characters take," he says. "I hope they like the martial arts
scenes that are not like
anything they've ever seen before in a LEGO movie or a martial arts movie. But
believe what they'll take away is the heart of this film, which is in the
relationships between Lloyd
and his family, and his friends."
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