The Oscar race kicks into high gear, and one of the top contenders for animated features is The Lego Movie from Warner Bros. and Animal Logic. In fact, Lego is the third highest grossing movie of the year domestically, grabbing $257, 760, 692 and $468 million worldwide. Warner Bros. recently announced three more movies: the Charlie Bean-directed Ninjago in 2016; The Lego Batman Movie in 2017 (with Will Arnett and directed by The Lego Movie animation supervisor Chris McKay); and The Lego Movie 2 in 2018. So everything is awesome for directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller, and we sat down for a more in-depth chat.
Bill Desowitz: So you must be thrilled at its great success, which is important because it was so ambitious and risky.
Phil Lord: What attracted us in the first place was it was a big, commercial idea and we only like doing things that seem really risk-taking and doing what felt like an audacious movie was such a challenge.
BD: You’re looking at it from the outside and inside, which is very tricky yet rewarding. And that’s what I’ve liked about all of your works.
Chris Miller: But there’s a line where you don’t want to cross where it stops being a real movie. And the reality of the universe has to remain intact otherwise you stop rooting for Emmet.
BD: And you had to cram so much universe.
CM: From the beginning we always talked about not talking down to an audience, especially in an animated film where they’re always afraid of it not being relatable to children.
BD: That’s the key — to craft jokes aimed at different people.
PL: But adults are deprived sometimes of that thing, having to infer what something means and having to watching something completely so you understand every second of it.
BD: You had two challenges here, storytelling and animation.
PL: One is can we replicate these tactile brick characters and their world and make it credible. Can you make it feel homemade and not generated in a computer. And then the other challenge was to tell an involving story with this crude style of animation.
CM: And will you always be reminded that this was made by people with thumbprints and dandruff and real world objects, and the animation is supposed to be intentionally irregular. And we’re playing with scale to remind you that this is what a person making this in a basement would do. But does that layer keep you from getting involved with the characters and the story?
PL: Most people in animation don’t have that problem. They’re used to crudeness. But it was definitely a challenge to prove this to our backers and say, “Look, this character doesn’t need realistic irisis to convey emotion, it can have dots for eyes.”
BD: It helps having all of these popular icons.
CM: Yes, but we really wanted it to look like a brick film and stop-motion, which wasn’t feasible because of time, money, and scale.
PL: Yeah, we never wanted it to feel small.
CM: And so wanted it to look like every single frame was something you could make. So if there’s supposed to be motion blur, we’re doing a motion blur effect built out of Lego bricks. We want all the effects to be made with replacement animation of Lego bricks like fire, water, smoke, and explosions. So we set up all these rules that if I freeze-frame any frame, there are no cheats — you have to solve it as if you were handling the real pieces in a fantastic basement sound stage with real lights.
PL: We just watched the George Pal Puppetoons. What solutions were they going for? Let’s try and replicate that inventiveness by creating these limitations.
CM: But selling this idea to everybody was difficult because they wanted it to be a slick CGI, family adventure.
PL: But one thing we were honest about, which turned out to be true, is the spectacle of seeing this many Lego bricks together and moving and creating such an immersive world and how it was going to put butts in seats.
BD: Which is why Warner Bros. has greenlit three more Lego movies. What can you tell me about Ninjago, Batman, and Lego 2?
PL: Well, they’re all incredibly different, we’re trying to make sure each of those movies has its own voice, and we’re empowering other people. We’re all working on the pitch for Batman together. Chris McKay really got into it.
CM: He’s a real comic book geek and he’s got a Captain America shield tattoo and a Catwoman tattoo and a Superman tattoo.
BD: Now that DC’s been unleashed, can you work in more of that?
CM: We’re trying to make it work as its own universe. With the first one we met with Zack Snyder and Christopher Nolan to make sure our Batman and our Superman didn’t tread on what they were doing.
PL: It’s a self-contained Batman story…
CM: But along the way, it will reference other things.
PL: It’s a Batman story but with unique things that you can only do in a Lego Batman universe. But it’s Gotham City with Will Arnett’s characterization that’s so unique and fun. It’s hilarious putting that Batman in a regular Batman story. And with Ninjago, there’s this very popular line of Lego Ninjas and wouldn’t it be fun to do a Kurosawa movie that’s a mash-up of kung-fu, samurai, ninja movies and use all of those tropes, taking it really seriously but also having fun with it in Lego.
BD: And Lego 2?
PL: There’s this whole existential crisis and now the meta narrative is going to be four years older. What’s it like to be that kid and how does it change this story?
BD: How many more characters can you add?
PL: Without exploding? About five.
CM: We said a lot about what it means to be a creative person and what is unique about Lego. So in doing a sequel it has to progress. There are new ideas, worlds and relationships to explore. The great thing about Lego is it really is an infinite bucket.
BD: And Animal Logic has this Lego pipeline that can be improved.
PL: They’ve already rewritten the software that they wrote for us to better optimize things, they’re a lot smarter about what tools the animators need and what the designers need.
CM: So as their abilities expand, so do the appetites for the movie itself.
BD: But you won’t direct Lego 2?
PL: We’ll see. I honestly think it’s more interesting if all the movies have a different author. What’s so fun about Lego is you can be infinitely inventive with this discreet toy. And so I hope the result of this period of creativity is that there are a lot of new approaches.