Navigation Bar - Text Links at Bottom of Page

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 suggests, a 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 accepted 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 apart; 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 not-so-secret crush, Nya...

"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 these characters 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 elaborates. "Everyone knows, when you have a kid you'll do anything to make them laugh. He's a tough 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 with all these talented people, some of them comedy writers, and they're just hopping in there and showing off their dance moves. It was like trying to get into a game of double jump-rope."

ZANE / ICE NINJA

From fire to ice, Zach Woods stars as Zane, the super-cool Ice Ninja, a half-human, halfrobot 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 treads."

"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 his robotic thinking process foils him constantly."

High school is tough enough without being that different. But even if he circulates Freon instead of blood, and houses computer circuitry where his heart should be, the ever-logical and 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 massive mech.

"The movie focuses on these kids who are students during the day and lead normal lives, 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 them." "Every ninja knows when to fight and when to blend in."

Bean cannot enthuse enough about the cast, saying, "Everyone was so great and funny, so charming, and brought so much of themselves to the project. Many of them are writers. When 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 difficult thing was not blowing takes by laughing, or falling out of character because of something surprising that someone else just said."

Some physical pairings were coordinated, such as Franco and Theroux, whose tandem 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 M.O. for animation. Sessions were logged over approximately 18 months as the animation grew increasingly refined, with the performances informing the visual art, and vice versa.

"Charlie was so communicative and collaborative," says Munn. "Doing an animated film 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 right emotion. 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 group 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 on poignant moments in a different way.

"Everyone was in character and able to improvise in any given situation, and the scenes were constructed around that. it was a very cool process," Nanjiani recalls.

The film's supporting cast includes Robin Roberts and Michael Strahan, voicing LEGO minifigure characters who wake up the city on the popular show "Good Morning NINJAGO." Ali 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 cheerleaders; Chris Hardwick is the local radio DJ; and Bobby Lee is a Pilates studio owner whose place was 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 Chan.

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 more hands-on 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 everything 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 began 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 surrounding mountains, 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 new or something a kid would have had for a long time. We went as far as to do a high-resolution scan 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 unique species of plant life-is what most differentiates "The LEGO NINJAGO Movie" visually. "We wanted to take another step in expanding the look of the LEGO universe," says 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 plastic elements."

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 photography to 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 there."

Above moss-level, the long view of NINJAGO City offers a modern, dazzling, Pan-Asian metropolis bustling with activity and color-57 official LEGO colors, to be exact. Says Lin, "NINJAGO is a mystical island, a world unlike any other. It's not one specific 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, NINJAGO 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 reign supreme, is its tallest building: NINJAGO Tower, standing over 22 feet tall in human terms. Matt Everitt, who oversaw the animation direction, explains, "You need to maintain the 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 their faces."

Indeed, Taylor remarks, "Charlie wanted to approach everything with two camera crews: 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 unique 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 secret identity.

"You have to think more old-school," says McKay. "You can't squash and stretch. You 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, emotional animation."

The actors' performances also figured significantly. Since it's such a small canvas, Taylor 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 Dave Franco's expressions, like that half-smile of his, which is different from all the others."

Subtlety was not an issue for the mechs. For this, the animators tag-teamed with LEGO designers for creations that are not only big, fearsome and beautiful, richly articulated, and 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, proved the 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 monster action."

To give the martial arts its Jackie Chan flavor, animators first studied the Bruce Leemeets-Buster 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 he moves 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 stage each 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: "We do 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 sausages. There 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, playful-and naturally 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 digital beast.

"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 mechs would fall apart when batted around. "Because of its disproportionate size in the LEGO world, the 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 creative collaboration with Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, following the first LEGO feature. "The movie weaves together elements of the real world and the mind of a young boy, who 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 instruments, but, 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 child's imagination or small and intimate, depending upon what the scene requires," he adds, as the movie moves through light-hearted slapstick humor to action beats, and to tender moments of introspection.

Mothersbaugh employed a full orchestra, which he feels helps bring life and humanity to "these little plastic dudes." Vocals were also important, as "the sound of human voices makes 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 want 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 exciting 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 ultimately, I 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."

TOP

Home | Theaters | Video | TV

Your Comments and Suggestions are Always Welcome.
Contact CinemaReview.com

2018 6,  All Rights Reserved.

Google

Find:  HELP!

Google