Animal Logic teamed up with Warner bros., Village Roadshow Pictures and Lin Pictures for The LEGO® Movie, the first-ever, full-length theatrical LEGO® adventure. The film tells the story of Emmet, an ordinary LEGO minifigure, mistakenly thought to be the extraordinary Master Builder, who is recruited to join a quest to stop an evil LEGO tyrant from glueing the universe together.
Working with Directors, Phil Lord and Chris Miller (Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs) and Co-Director, Chris McKay (Robot Chicken) through pre-production to final DI stages, Animal Logic’s team of over 350 artists, technicians and support staff spent 2+ years on the film.
Editor and animation co-director, Chris McKay relocated to the Animal Logic studios in Sydney, Australia, to work in-house with the Animal Logic team to execute the photo-real, non-traditional computer animation style that the directors sought, in order to achieve a seamless and organic stop-motion feel that best represented the look and movement of the iconic toy characters.
Animal Logic’s Production Designer, Grant Freckelton says, “from the beginning Chris and Phil wanted to embrace the limitation of LEGO bricks and minifigures and give the film a hand made, stop motion feel. We were tasked with creating a convincing miniature LEGO world that would feel rich and textured while being completely rendered in LEGO bricks.”
Animal Logic created each individual component and virtually built every scene brick by brick, rather than cheating the images with seamless CG backgrounds and drawn bricks. It was important that everything on screen could theoretically be assembled by hand with actual bricks.
“One of the most beautiful things about LEGO is its endless creative possibilities, and we really wanted this to shine through for everyone who worked on the film. Our mantra was ‘stay true to the medium’, for everything from animation style to pipeline design” says CG Supervisor, Aidan Sarsfield. “While that is easy to say, it certainly created a unique set of challenges. To overcome those challenges, we developed the most efficient brick rendering facility the world has ever seen and the result is an entirely brick built film. There are no cheats here, it’s all bricks…millions of them!”
3,863,484 unique LEGO bricks to be precise, though some are reused and reconfigured in multiple scenes to make up different characters, sets and props. A total of 15,080,330 bricks would be needed if one were to recreate the entire film with LEGO bricks by hand.
Initially, Production Designer Grant Freckelton and his team utilised LEGO Digital Designer, a free computer program which allows users to build models using virtual LEGO bricks, in a computer-aided design like manner. This allowed everyone, including the Animal Logic art department, to mock up highly accurate LEGO models from which they could calculate the required bricks and build them as subdivision surface assets.
The LEGO Digital Designer (LDD) files were then converted into a ‘shell’ of various types, however the shells were made of a single mesh to remove hidden geometry unlike the LDD models which consisted of unique bricks. These shells were then used to build sets, characters and environments, using Animal Logic’s proprietary geometry format called ‘bobject’.
The bricks themselves were separately modeled in Maya, with asset and layout builds achieved in Maya and XSI. LEGO builds came in at several stages of the production process, from the art department, the Asset Department, the animators and The LEGO Group themselves.
The cinematic style helped to achieve the sense that one was in a world where they were actually playing with real LEGO pieces. Cinematographer Pablo Plaisted and the Layout team researched many stop motion films and what made them look real, to deconstruct the kind of visual language that those films communicated and how they could be applied to the world of LEGO. The resulting cinematic style was one which would seem as if it could have been filmed with actual cameras in actual miniature environments.
When it came to camera movement Plaisted wanted to avoid the usual computer controlled and floating camera style, opting instead by using virtual Steadicam rigs which are all keyframe animated. “Rather than having a locked off camera where everything feels safe and ordered, the camera is moving and adjusting, giving off a kind of nervousness which the audience will subconsciously feel,” says Plaisted.
The bricks were also made to show subtle signs of wear, as if they had used in the normal course of play and thus having actual LEGO bricks as reference was crucial in the build process, allowing the team to add in details they observed in the real models. Animal Logic created over 2000 individual LEGO bricks, and surfaced them with scratches, fingerprints and imperfections that made the world feel tangible, detailed and well loved.
To further enhance this sense of wear and tear, macro photography of real bricks and a lot of photographic reference in different lighting conditions was done in order to develop the surfacing and texturing shaders. Lights were then rigged for the sets, props and characters to make them look like they were actually inside a real LEGO set, lit with real lighting equipment.