February 13, 2014


Modelers and animators piece together a CG feature film with LEGO-styled imagery, adhering to the look and spirit of the beloved toy.

Ask just about any child over the age of three, and chances are have already played with LEGOs, those little, plastic, colorful bricks that help build magic.

Now, that LEGO magic is captivating children's imaginations like never before with the first full-length theatrical LEGO adventure: The LEGO Movie.

Lego movie

Copyright 2014 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. Courtesy Warner Bros. Pictures.

Directed by Phil Lord and Christopher Miller ("Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs") the movie follows Emmet, an ordinary, rules-following, perfectly average LEGO mini-figure who is mistakenly identified as "The Special," the most extraordinary person and the key to saving the world. He is drafted into a fellowship of strangers on an epic quest to stop an evil tyrant, a journey for which Emmet is underprepared.

The attraction for LEGOs spans the world. There is an entire park dedicated to the toy. There are even short films created with LEGO bricks and mini-figures. There's a site so that the public can submit ideas for products, and sites were people can share their LEGO creations. Kids can't get enough of them. Adults can't either. And, special LEGO theme kits have made the bricks more popular than ever.

"[Christopher Miller] and I both thought, Wouldn't it be amazing to make a big, fun, action-packed LEGO adventure that captures the feeling of being a kid putting these pieces together, but on a truly epic scale?" says Phil Lord, who wrote and directed the movie with Miller. "And what if it could retain that handmade quality these little films have that's so engaging. Because part of the appeal of LEGO bricks is how accessible they are as an art form, we wanted to make a film that felt like something anyone could do in their own basement, provided they had a gigantic basement and a few million bricks!"

Actually, closer to 15 million, if you count each brick, character, set piece, and prop needed, as the filmmakers ultimately realized their vision for the film.

There are two different ways people play with LEGO bricks. One is to follow the instructions on the kit and put together this awesome thing, whatever it is, which you then set on your shelf and never use so it doesn't break, and the other is to take a pile of random pieces and make something from your own imagination, then take it apart and make something else, Miller explains. The LEGO Movie uses these two different approaches as the basis for its story, which is really about innovation and creativity and the importance of change.

Lego movie

Copyright 2014 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. Courtesy Warner Bros. Pictures.

Building Blocks

Visually, Lord and Miller sought a photoreal, non-traditional computer animation style resembling stop-motion to give their characters and settings the endearing homemade aesthetic that defines LEGO construction. Rather than cheat the images with seamless CG backgrounds and drawn bricks, the animators created each individual component and virtually built every scene brick by brick-a technique that proved especially useful when the story called for buildings and other objects to be blasted to pieces and then re-assembled, on the fly, into weapons or high-speed escape vehicles.

"It's easy to make straight lines with CGI, but the look we wanted was tactile and organic," says Lord. "It's more complicated to do it that way but it elevates the quality of the film, and it's more in line with the values of the story. We spent a fair amount of R&D on working in the scuffs and fingerprint smudges, and trying to achieve a realistic amount of variation and irregularity in how the bricks are put together and come apart."

To execute these concepts, the filmmakers worked with animation studio Animal Logic, based in Australia, and welcomed Chris McKay of Robot Chicken fame as animation co-director. McKay orchestrated the efforts of hundreds of artists while also serving as one of the film's editors, maintaining a constant flow of communication and invention between the directors, storyboarders, animators and editors.

As McKay recalls, "Phil and Chris fostered an almost playful environment within and between all the various departments, so we could run with our ideas and see how far we could take them. It was a very organic, creative flow, from the time we set up the storyboards, to the animation and layout and through the entire process."

For the filmmakers, the physical limitation of LEGO mini-figures is their charm, so there was no question of altering that in adapting them to a big-screen adventure. In the movie, the characters move and interact authentically, often as if being puppeted by an unseen hand. Even in their expressions, the mandate was not to stray from the standard mini-figure repertoire: flat painted eyes, brows, and mouths. But within those guidelines, McKay and his team mined a range of emotion.

What's groundbreaking in The LEGO Movie is its ambitious scale and the extent to which it uses LEGO bricks as a medium to achieve depth, richness and action. "Everything audiences see-whether smoke or water, rock formations, fire or even explosions-is made of LEGO pieces. We wanted to depict natural elements built out of bricks as they've never been seen before on the big screen," says producer Dan Lin, one of the architects of the project.

"When you see the LEGO ocean with its waves of undulating bricks, the storm crashing down on the pirate ship and the vastness all around, it's wild," says Miller. "We used lighting and camera angles you'd expect on a big-budget action movie, to make it as cinematic as possible."

"My favorite thing is how the story crosses through different LEGO worlds," offers Lord. "We started by storyboarding an action chase that starts in the city and spills out into the Old West. It turns into a kind of barroom brawl until the cops from the city break into it and then it's like some '70s cop movie, like Bullitt, and it's fun to see the elements combine and collide without anyone missing a beat."

"Then Batman shows up and it gets even crazier," adds Miller.

In addition to favorites like the LEGO Batwing, the movie rolls out an arsenal of fantastical new vehicles, enabling Emmet and his friends to evade or face their enemies on the city streets, on the sea, underthe sea, or in outer space. It also introduces a cast of brand new heroes and villains, who interact with a diverse group of existing LEGO mini-figures drawn from years of history and pop culture.

During the three years of development and production, the directors often relied upon their private stash for inspiration. "Our offices were filled with LEGO bricks and we were always trying to figure out silly ways to put them together or use them to illustrate a plot point. I'm actually wearing LEGO pants right now," Miller claims, prompting Lord to add, "I built my desk chair out of LEGO bricks. And these shoes. They're not the most comfortable shoes, but you get used to it. The trick is, you have to break them in."

Lego movie

Copyright 2014 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. Courtesy Warner Bros. Pictures.

Assembly Required

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 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 LA. 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," 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."

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.

Lego movie

Copyright 2014 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. Courtesy Warner Bros. Pictures.

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 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."

Lego movie

Copyright 2014 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. Courtesy Warner Bros. Pictures.

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 re-create the entire film by hand.

The film also features 183 unique mini-figures, many of which are particularly special to the directors. On an early visit to LEGOLAND Billund in Denmark, Lord saw a host of new mini-figures 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."

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 mini-figures' 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 mini-figure, 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 Lord and 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."