Bricklayers: The Making of The LEGO Movie

Trevor Hogg chats with Rob Coleman, Grant Freckelton, Damien Gray and Max Liani from Animal Logic about bringing the iconic LEGO bricks to the big screen… 

“Lin Pictures and Warner Bros had seen our in house directed work on LEGO® Star Wars® The Padawan Menace [2011] which was the TV short that we worked on with Lucas Films and LEGO; they were impressed by the level of detail in that episode and that coupled with our long standing relationship with Warner Bros. helped us land the project,” explains Animal Logic Head of Animation Rob Coleman as to how the Australian visual effects facility became involved with The LEGO Movie (2014).  “Animal Logic created an animated test that was screened to the Warner Bros. studio executives and that is what fundamentally led to the film being greenlit and awarded to Animal Logic.”  The duo behind Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs (2009), Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, helmed the CG animated adventure about a construction worker with a habit of using the word “awesome” discovering he has the ability to change the world.  “Lord and Miller had a clear vision for the film; they wanted to create the biggest Brick Film ever made. They told us to imagine a kid, in his or her basement, with unlimited LEGO and unlimited time. What kind of film could they make? A critical aspect to their vision was that they wanted us to remain true to the physical limitations of the bricks and the Minifigures – no bending limbs for example. The bricks, although created in computer animation, had to look absolutely real; if we could achieve that, the directors felt that we would have a great connection with our audience.”
“Chris McKay’s [Robot Chicken] background in stop motion animation and his skills as a filmmaker had a tremendous effect on The LEGO Movie,” remarks Rob Coleman.  “McKay was always focused on telling the best, most engaging story possible. All production decisions, whether for camera, character action or editing, kept that in mind. As the sequences evolved there were editorial and animation revisions which went hand in hand.”   Animal Logic Production Designer Grant Freckelton states, “Lord, Miller and McKay’s process involved a lot of story exploration. Every story idea had to be tested against alternate versions to ‘kick the tires’, as they called it. To accommodate this process, the movie was boarded from beginning to end several times over. We had a tight knit team of story artists and editors who worked at an insanely fast pace; their focus was on nutting out story beats and injecting the movie with gags, doing a large quantity of simple drawings rather than noodling specific details. Within three months we had a completely boarded version of the film. It was hilarious, full of energy but also far too long and chaotic. It also revealed issues with some of the characters and their motivations.  Major characters were dropped, new characters were created, and the movie was boarded over and over, until the story became tighter. There was an overlapping process where we started doing layout work using CG assets, and there came a point in the process where the storyboard team wrapped, and story ideas were explored by the layout department. Although the boarding team wrapped 12 months before delivery, we were still making adjustments to the story right up until the last days of production.”
“We drew influences from everywhere,” remarks Animal Logic Production Designer Grant Freckelton.  “Our reviews with Lord, Miller and McKay were 30% design feedback and 70% talking about things we loved from the world around us. One moment we would be talking about 70’s sci-fi movies, the next we’d be talking about Noel Fielding or LEGO mathematics or George Pal’s puppetoons or the architecture of William Pereria. Some worlds were straightforward to research and design while others required a lot of creative interpretation. The Old West was born out of studying photos of old ghost towns, screen captures from Wild West movies, Maurice Noble animation art and real western landscapes. Cloud Cuckoo Land was more obscure; we mixed influences from Mary Blair, Peter Max through to Enter the Void [2009] and Lindsay Fleay’s brick film classic, The Magic Portal [1989].  On top of that, everything had to be interpreted into LEGO, which meant we researched a lot of different LEGO websites, LEGO build styles and learnt a lot of LEGO acronyms. There’s AFOLs [Adult Fans of LEGO], SNOT [Studs Not On Top], and BURPs [Big Ugly Rock Pieces]. We felt an obligation to create a movie with LEGO designs that honoured some of the amazing work that is created by LEGO fans around the world.”
“LEGO was very involved with the visual design of the movie,” states Animal Logic CG Supervisor Damien Gray.  “Animal Logic and LEGO produced many design iterations of key characters and set pieces called for in the script.  LEGO’s designs were often in the form of actual models which really inspired us with the thought and sophistication of their real brick ‘build style’.  Some set pieces, like Benny’s spaceship for example, were entirely designed by LEGO.  Their familiarity and expertise with classic space themed LEGO is unmatched.  Other key designs from LEGO included The Flying Flusher, Ice Cream Machine, Trash Chomper, Castle Cavalry, Creative Ambush, Rescue Reinforcements and many others. Some designs were quite collaborative like the Super Cycle Chase while some were entirely developed at Animal Logic, like the Masterbuilder’s Submarine and most environments.”  Gray notes, “We heavily referenced actual LEGO bricks for visual inspiration.  We found that a meticulous attention to the visual complexity and detail was part of the appeal – particularly when LEGO is seen through macro photography.  Taking a literal approach to constructing models from individual 3D bricks simplified the creation of assets to a certain extent but also complicated others.  These efficiencies in the creation of assets were only possible after the careful modelling and surfacing of more than two thousand unique bricks required for the film – many of which needed multiple surfacing variations to avoid obvious repetition of scratches, dents, roughness, and warping.”
“We wanted our film to feel grounded and cinematic regardless of the fact that it was built out of LEGO bricks,” remarks Grant Freckelton.  “Sometimes it made a scene funnier if we contrasted slick lighting design with goofy LEGO stop motion. Avanaut’s toy photography served as a great example of how sophisticated and beautiful imagery could be created in a scene that was only a few inches wide and populated by moulded plastic figures.  As we developed the look of the film, we referenced techniques used by Avanaut and FX artists like Douglas Trumbull [2001: A Space Odyssey], such as shooting in cloud tanks to create dense atmosphere on a small scale and embracing a shallow depth of field look to heighten the macroscopic nature of our subject. We set up a photography studio in our office where we could photograph real LEGO kits and study how lighting behaves at that smaller scale which served as a basis for the lighting and surfacing look development.”
“LDD [LEGO® Digital Designer] was our key tool for LEGO asset design and modelling,” reveals Grant Freckelton.  “Despite its user friendly interface [it ostensibly appears to be designed for children] it is a fairly powerful piece of software when it comes to building virtual LEGO creations.  We wanted to build all of our assets as if they were legitimate LEGO constructions, giving us the freedom to pull them apart, rearrange or blow them up at a moment’s notice; that meant we needed a way to construct models that adhered to the LEGO ‘rules’ of construction, as well as a way of sending those models through the rest of our pipeline. LDD is based on the LEGO parts database, each LEGO piece has a number associated with its colour and shape. You see these numbers sometimes listed on the back of LEGO instruction books. LEGO provided us with their parts database including CAD [Computer –aided Design] data for each piece. The modelling team had to painstakingly reconstruct thousands of bricks into what we called Render Bricks [geometry which could be efficiently rendered and shaded].  We designed our pipeline so that anything we created adhered to the LEGO database’s naming convention, which meant whatever assets we built in LDD, would work in the rest of our pipeline. What makes LDD really powerful is the way it utilised connectivity data for each piece. Each LEGO piece can connect to other pieces, but only in certain ways. A stud on one brick can slot into a tube on another, a Technic pin only fits with Technic tubes, etcetera. Each piece in the LDD database contained this connectivity information, which meant you could build LEGO models in LDD by snapping together each brick, as you would do if you were constructing LEGO in reality. Once the hard work of building the Render Bricks and setting up the database was complete, it was an incredibly fast turn around to turn an asset from an LDD file into a completely photo real rendered turntable.”
“Most of the sets were designed and built as we were developing the story, so we would estimate how extensive each set would need to be, based on the story reels at any given time,” explains Grant Freckelton.  “For instance, we knew that the Old West would have a fair amount of screen time, including a chase scene, and we knew that we wanted to make the location seem ramshackle and organic.  We built an extensive backlot that gave everyone a lot of freedom to shoot from different angles. On the other hand, the freeway location had a design that lent itself to repetition so we only built a small section of the elevated freeway and shot the bike chase on that small section, looping the action and swapping out background signage to create the impression that the location was larger than it actually was. The Cloud Cuckoo Land and Octan Tower exteriors were originally conceived as complex large scale builds, but as various deadlines loomed, we realised it would be funnier, quicker and more creative to build them as micro scale sets. Micro scale LEGO builds take large scale objects and reinterpret them in a super simple, super impressionistic form with as few bricks as possible. This was a case where production pressures forced us to find creative solutions, and the movie benefited from it.”
“The colour pallet for the movie is a combination of lighting choices working in unison with colour choices for our characters, props and locations,” states Grant Freckelton.  “When designing our LEGO assets we limited ourselves to the available LEGO brick colours, more than 50 different colours including various transparent and metallic effects. From that palette, we chose key colours for each location.  President Business’s [Will Ferrell] office was meant to be clean, sterile, but also a little bit scary, so we built it from whites, greys and black bricks accented with red feature walls. We wanted downtown Bricksburg to be bland and repetitive, except for the advertising, so the architecture was all whites, blues and grey, except the billboards which were all primary colours. The Wild West was a wink to archetypal Westerns so everything was earth toned and covered in dust, contrasting with broad blue skies. To explore lighting options, we created a colour script using a mixture of painted colour sketches and reference stills from movies. We would discuss the colour script and make changes according to how each scene worked in context with every other scene. We would ask ourselves if each world was distinct enough. Is there enough variety of colours throughout the movie? Are we supporting key story points with colour choices? Sometimes we would embrace a lighting direction right away, because it looked cool and felt right for that moment in the story. Other times we altered the lighting and colour right up until the completion of DI [Digital Intermediate] process.”
“We researched how LEGO bricks age over time, including photographing our own childhood toys and taking a trip to LEGOLAND to see how large scale models weather in the outdoors,” states Grant Freckelton.  “We noted fingerprints, scratches, worn decals, bite marks, dust and dirt and even oxidisation on the outdoor models. The surfacing team would then use this reference to meticulously texture our digital assets on multiple levels. Each LEGO piece had what we call ‘brick level’ surfacing, where things like mould lines, serial numbers and basic warping were applied. We’d review this detailing by comparing what was on screen with the real brick under a magnifying glass. Depending on how common that brick might be, we might do a handful of surfacing variations to eliminate any repetition.  A clean new City car for instance, might only require brick level surfacing. We would call this ‘out of the box’ surfacing because the pipeline was set up in such a way that each asset would automatically receive brick level surfacing and look pretty convincing without additional work. If we wanted to apply more detailing, we could layer more texturing via various techniques. We developed procedural ways of applying dirt and grunge, as well as oxidisation and edge chipping to the assets. Anything in the Old West location had dirt and oxidisation and grunge applied by default. We could also hand paint detailing onto the assets, including additional wear and tear, and fingerprints.” 
“There were a sizable amount of shading, lighting and rendering challenges to overcome on The LEGO Movie,” remarks Damien Gray.  “Shading was challenging in that the key visual features of a LEGO brick are numerous and demanded a high degree of detail.  Features such as the plastic warping, roughness, scratches, embossed print detail, dents, injection mould lines, jitter [the uneven separation of individual bricks in a model], fingerprints, grime, aging, printed decals and stickers all needed to hold up to extreme macro photography without any hint of CG duplication.  Once brick look development was approved, all models, colours, textures and shaders needed to be implemented in a ‘brick library’ for use across the movie.  A specialised pipeline had to be constructed to deliver final renderable assets to the Lighting department.”  Animal Logic Lighting Technology Lead Max Liani states, “The LEGO Movie was a toxic combination of everything that makes that engine [RenderMan] suffer.  I’m talking about raytracing without radiosity caching [specular and glossy reflections and refractions], subsurface scattering and dense geometry, all of it, everywhere.  Traditional CG lighting tricks won’t work. Some approximate global illumination won’t cut it. The last thing we wanted was this movie to look like…well ‘CG’.”  Gray adds, “This necessitated the development of a brute force raytracing solution that was called ‘Glimpse’ to augment our existing rendering pipeline.  In compositing, many macro photography characteristics were enhanced or created such as depth of field, chromatic aberration, lens ‘breathing’ on focus pulls, distortion, anamorphic compensation, bokeh and flares. In addition to this, removing flicker and noise in the image, due to render quality/time trade-offs, became necessary and time consuming.”
“The animation style evolved from the Minifigure rotation limitations,” states Rob Coleman.  “Each real LEGO character is able to rotate at the neck, arms, wrists, waist and legs. No rotation at the elbows or knees. We knew that we wanted the movement to look like it was animated by hand with stop motion, so the animators experimented with animating on twos and threes [the number of frame exposures per pose] to achieve that look. Additionally, it was decided early on that there would be no motion blur, as would be the case if someone was animating real Minifigures on a LEGO table top set.”  The lack of mobility became a creative asset.  “The physical limitations of the LEGO characters actually added to the charm of the animation. The animators had to come up with creative solutions for acting problems which presented themselves. A LEGO character can’t clap their hands, or shrug their shoulders, but the animators were able to find ways to get those ideas across.”  A 2D face was placed upon a 3D character.  If there was one concern at the outset of production, it was that the facial animation was going to be a challenge. The worry was not technically how we were going to approach it.   It was whether the audience would engage with the limited facial features. Our hero, Emmet [Chris Pratt], does not even have highlights in his eyes. However, as soon as the animators started working with the facial animation we immediately felt the emotions coming out of the little LEGO Minifigure faces. It was amazing and very moving.”
“Every character in the film was run through some animation tests,” states Rob Coleman.  “The desire was to create distinctive styles of movement for our hero characters so that they moved differently from each other. They were all Minifigures [except for Metal Beard] but Wyldstyle [Elizabeth Banks] moved differently from Vitruvius [Morgan Freeman], Emmet moved differently from Bad Cop [Liam Neeson].  A library of walks, runs and actions was animated. Everything that could be animated, like vehicles and props, was tested first before being animated in a shot. Wyldstyle building her Super Cycle in the alley was the first test sequence that was done. It helped inform the animation style of a ‘master build’ as well as the desired look and lighting for the film. The sequence was completely re-animated and lit for the movie later on.”  Coleman notes, “The voice actors bring a tremendous amount to the characters.  The animators listen to the dialogue repeatedly while they are animating; they listened for accents and emphasised words. The obvious goal is to make it seem like that voice is coming out of the LEGO Minifigure. Having the amazing voice talents of Chris Pratt [Zero Dark Thirty], Elizabeth Banks [The Hunger Games], Will Ferrell [Stranger Than Fiction], Morgan Freeman [Driving Miss Daisy], Liam Neeson [Schindler’s List], and many more, was such a treat for us.” 
There were many challenges involved in the production of LEGO,” explains Rob Coleman.  “Some of the most difficult challenges were related to the sheer scale and size of the film.  Massive sets had to appear like they were built from LEGO bricks, like Bricksburg and the brick filled canyons of the Wild West. The research and development team at Animal Logic created some amazing tools and technical solutions for handling the many issues.  From an animation point of view, it was terrific to watch the development of the Effects Department’s work. They created LEGO solutions for explosions, fire, smoke and water. It was always a pleasure to go to their reviews to see what they had come up with.”  Damien Gray remarks, “Creating water, smoke and fire FX from LEGO bricks was a challenge set from the beginning.  We tried ‘traditional’ FX simulations initially but found they lacked the charm and inventiveness of the ‘brick films’ that inspired us.  I wouldn’t say brick based FX complicated things any more than traditional FX.  It was certainly a lot of fun and to a certain extent made things easier, in that with any given set of brick FX iterations [different brick types, different size, shape, colour and speed] there was usually one stand out version that brought a smile to everyone’s face.”  Coleman notes,  “The Art Direction and Lighting teams did an astonishing job. The finished shots look like they are made out of real LEGO bricks. It is their attention to detail that has made this film look so awesome. As always, a film of this size is a massive team effort.”

The LEGO Movie images © 2013 Warner Bros. All rights reserved. Courtesy of Warner Bros. and Animal Logic.

Many thanks to Rob Coleman, Grant Freckelton, Damien Gray and Max Liani for taking the time to be interviewed.

To learn more make sure to visit the official websites for The LEGO Movie and Animal Logic.

Trevor Hogg is a freelance video editor and writer who currently resides in Canada.

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