The LEGO Movie (Feb. 7, 2014) was best summed up by directors Phil Lord, Chris Miller, and Chris McKay at Comic-Con as an organic stop-motion vibe, as though LEGOs had really come to life. Imagine if Michael Bay had kidnapped Henry Selick and forced him to make the movie he saw in his brain.
Meanwhile, their power-house DC superhero lineup of LEGO all-stars just got better with the announcement that Channing Tatum, Jonah Hill, and Cobie Smulders would be voicing Superman, Green Lantern, and Wonder Woman. They join Will Arnett as Batman.
It’s about the pure joy of creativity and embracing their LEGOness and the charm of these plastic characters, with arms popping off and so forth. So they found a way to use CG animation (done by Animal Logic in Australia) to simulate a very rough stop-motion style that best represents the look and movement of these iconic toy characters.
Lord explained the process: “McKay built a creativity machine that was the production, and he did it in a way that was flat and allowed for a lot of dialogue in between departments without a lot of layers so that the editors could talk to the storyboard artists and request some drawings and trying things out without showing us first so that you get everybody [involved]. So it became a very fluid and iterative process, which was great.”
Miller added that it was inspired by brick films online that are funny and demonstrate the limitations of the figures: “Also, there are some photographers that photograph the little LEGO people and try to make it look really epic, just from the lighting. And we thought that was pretty cool when they tried to marry a cinematic lighting style with a brick film aesthetic.”
But even though it was initially difficult as a proof of concept, McKay and his team managed to convey a lot of expressiveness and humanity “out of the dorkiest-looking things in the whole universe.” They took encouragement, for instance, from the way Kermit’s eyes don’t move but you accomplish so much emotion from his limitations.
“The mandate these guys had from the beginning was to make this feel like a big, adult movie,” McKay suggested. “I don’t want it to feel like a soft, bullshit film. I want it to be something that feels real. I went to the animators and said, ‘I want to see the guys do Parker stuff.’ We have people that come from different disciplines as far as 2D, 3D, and stop-motion, and these guys really attacked it madly with a lot of love.”
“One of the things that would happen — that happens on every animated production — is that sometimes initially you get a lot of stock stuff that feels like a classic move that you saw Frank & Ollie draw… and it’s wonderful but it doesn’t pertain to that moment,” Lord offered. “It’s not an interpretation of that voice performance.
“Another thing is that with stop-motion there’s no motion blur because every frame is its own little thing. We found out if a character is moving really fast across the screen, it was going to get a little bit jumpy. And we developed this brick-built motion blur of the characters when they’re moving really fast, and we have these really clever solves for things like that.”
Sometimes there was an innocence and charm they were after; occasionally it was just puppeted; and sometimes they would literally make it look like a hand was walking the figure.
“Make it dumber — it’s way too sophisticated,” Lord underscored about their notes.
As far as working with the voice actors, they’d try and pair them whenever possible, but with Will Ferrell (President Business) and Liam Neeson (Bad Cop), they got them together over the phone in New York and LA, respectively.
“It was awkward and first but then it became amazing,” Miller said.