Not long ago, a movie about LEGO seemed ridiculous. The idea that a film about plastic bricks could be anything but a giant commercial was almost laughable. Thankfully, Warner Bros., Phil Lord & Chris Miller, and many talented people believed that a movie about LEGO could not only be good, but it could be awesome!
Released in 2014, The LEGO Movie immediately charmed kids, adults, and AFOLs. It used humor and compassion to tell the story of how one little construction worker named Emmet could make a difference. It took many people to bring the LEGO movie to life. One of them, Animation Director and AFOL Rob Coleman, shares his insight about how The LEGO Movie became the biggest brickfilm ever made.
Rob Coleman has had a long and distinguished career in animation, having been animation director for a wide range of characters from Yoda to dancing penguins. But he’s also a lifelong fan of LEGO, so it’s no wonder that The LEGO Movie holds a special place for him.
“For me, LEGO was the big Christmas present every year. I would spend the rest of the holiday sitting down either in my room or at the dining room table with a set. First it would be the excitement of building the main model, but then taking it apart and combining it with my other sets to make things that were my own ideas—that was pure joy. Getting down low and pretending I was the minifigure driving the submarine that I created was the thing I loved about LEGO. I could see it from every angle and it inspired me to shoot my own little brickfilms with my dad’s Super 8 camera. LEGO was where I got my start in animation.”
Ironically, Rob’s involvement on The LEGO Movie almost didn’t happen until, much like Emmet, fate stepped in.
He recalls how he was getting ready to leave Australia after finishing Happy Feet 2 when Animal Logic (the animation company responsible for The Lego Movie along with its sequel and spin-offs) came calling.
“They invited me to watch a test they made of Emmet on a pirate ship in a LEGO ocean with Star Wars figures. It was the most amazing thing! I got to read the script and I knew I had to get involved. It went right to the heart of being a LEGO fan and how we play with the real bricks. It was true to what I loved about LEGO.”
The movie’s pre-production work drove many of the key details that would make The LEGO Movie great. Rob points out the detailed work of Grant Freckelton, the production designer, and his crew.
“They were looking at LEGO with magnifying glasses and macrophotography, and what they realized right away was that the LEGO in someone’s collection has thumbprints, little knicks, and scratches in it.”
LEGO originally wanted all the brick to be pristine like it looks when it comes out of the package. But directors Lord & Miller and Animal Logic knew that every dent was vital for the audience to buy into the look of the film.
“Those imperfections become part of what we expect to see when we see LEGO on our tabletop. It’s LEGO that is loved.”
Lord & Miller were fans of brickfilms themselves and they wanted to replicate the feeling of those homemade movies. Their intention was to make the biggest brickfilm ever made. And as Rob recalls everything the film did was designed to be that way.
“Things like the LEGO ocean with Metalbeard’s pirate ship—most people couldn’t do that conceivably in stop-motion at home. But if you had that amount of LEGO and animated it frame by frame, you could do it, but good luck to you!”
It was Rob’s job to develop how the characters moved and interacted with their world. It was no easy task. But they had fun with their research.
“Things like walk tests meant we’d grab an actual minifig and see what it looks like when you tap it toe-to-toe along the table. We were a bunch of animators who liked LEGO, and our research was to remember what it was like to play with LEGO again!”
They had the full library of bricks at their disposal. Knowing that every brick could be animated, they came up with clever effects like having little parts fly off of Unikitty to show her range of emotion.
Rob explained how they dealt with another technical challenge that the brick presented. “Some animation uses what’s called squash and stretch. It’s when a character is squished down and up. Since we couldn’t stretch bricks, we would add a little extra brick to a character. If you watch a scene where Emmett is falling, you can see that we added extra orange bricks to his torso as he fell, and then removed them as he landed. This was our way to give squash and stretch to LEGO.”
And what about the limited range of motion that minifigs allowed for? Rob and his team had a creative solution for that one, too. “One of the few cheats we did was taken from minifig customizers. We virtually shaved down the minifig necks to make them cone shaped. Then we added ‘virtual plasticene’ to allow the heads to nod. We also slightly enlarged the shoulder joints to allow our ‘virtual plasticene’ to give the characters the ability to shrug and open their arms. It’s everything minifig customizers and brickfilmmakers do!”
As the production continued, fears about whether the movie could be more than just a commercial still lingered.
“One of the worries coming from Warner Bros. was would the movie be sustainable for 90 minutes? In particular, would the audience connect with Emmet on an emotional level? So, one of the first scenes we did was work on Emmet’s interrogation scene with Bad Cop. In that scene, the camera slowly pushes in on Emmet, whose face is literally two black dots and a line, and we had the animator give Emmet’s eyes a small motion as it’s dawning on him that his friends aren’t really his friends. You see him go from his happy self to deflated, and it was that sequence we showed the executives who said ‘ok we believe it.’”
“We love Emmet, we love his little flaws, and we love that he’s a little innocent guy in this big world. We root for him because many times it’s the nonverbal animation that sells the audience.”
The idea that The LEGO Movie is just a large-scale brickfilm also connects it to AFOLs and the fans who make brickfilms. For those people, Rob has some advice.
“If you’re doing a brickfilm for the first time, look online at the ones that have been done before. Look at live-action films in terms of how they are shot. Get interesting camera angles, copy a sequence you like so you can get a cinematic idea of what you want. It will make the film more interesting to look at if you’ve shot it from different angles. Above all, embrace the limitations of LEGO, that’s where the charm is.”
Rob’s love for LEGO came full circle when he went shopping with his daughter. “We were at a toy store when I suddenly noticed this huge AT-TE set with Coleman Trebor. I thought, well now I have to buy it! It was icing on the cake to become a LEGO Star Wars minifig.”
Now that is awesome.
The LEGO Movie images © 2014 Warner Bros. Pictures