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Immersed in Movies: Master Building ‘The LEGO Movie’ with Phil Lord and Chris Miller

Immersed in Movies: Master Building 'The LEGO Movie' with Phil Lord and Chris Miller

There’s more than meets the eye in The LEGO Movie. It’s not only smart and witty but it also explores the essence of LEGO and Master Building and, finally, storytelling in a Pirandello-like way. I spoke with directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller (at LEGOLAND, of course) about making a subversive movie at Warner Bros. that pokes fun of studios, franchises, and safe storytelling.

You’ve managed to make a subversive studio movie with an anti-commercial message. And as long as it’s a big hit, it’s win-win.

Phil Lord: Yeah, everybody wins.

And it reminded me of a bigger Clone High.

Chris Miller: Yeah, for sure. It’s like bringing in a lot of weird characters that don’t belong.

PL: If you think about it, we haven’t evolved at all as filmmakers — we’re just doing the same bit.

But this is a lot more complicated with so much detail.

PL: Yes, we were mixing the movie and we would go…

CM: I didn’t remember seeing this in the background and I must’ve approved it 10 times.

PL: Wasn’t it like a pig falls off of the train and then lands on the ground and then explodes into a bunch of sausages.

How many gags are there?

CM: I don’t know how many gags per minute there are.

PL: You encourage people to add stuff from their own lives and you just get this big grab bag and everybody’s in the pool. And then it really messes you up at the mix because you have to decide what’s important.

CM: As long as your eye isn’t so distracted, you don’t know where to look. But you’re definitely rewarded on multiple viewings.

It also reminded me of Blazing Saddles, especially when you open it up as a meta story.

PL: I take that as a compliment. That movie did it better than anybody. Somehow you cared so much about that duo that you were willing to go on that ride. And it had to go there — it was the only thing that could happen with them winding up watching themselves at the Chinese. In this movie we felt similarly. You had to tell a coherent and immersive, emotional story about a person. And if you did that, everything else could be insane.

CM: The thing about LEGOs is there are infinite possibilities. You could tell any story with LEGO and it was such a challenge to find one story to tell and then pack the edges with extra stuff.

It becomes this fascinating meta story about creativity and Master Building and individuality and collaboration and fathers and sons.

CM: Exactly.

PL: I’m glad that all came through.

And it’s the first warm up for The Justice League.

PL: Proto-Justice League.

CM: Before they all joined up as a team.

PL: Yeah, it’s kind of an origin story. 

CM: But because there are all of these licensed properties that we wanted to fold into this movie, that was another obvious challenge. And both legally [Marvel was not included] and also practically when you’re trying to tell a story about one person [Emmet, the Everyman] and a small group of people, one that has forward momentum and a clear emotional arc, there’s only so much room for wacky side gags.

But you managed to sneak Star Wars in there. Was that a problem given the Disney deal?

PL: If I could talk about it, I would tell you that it all happened before and it was hard.

CM: If there happened to be any characters from a beloved space movie, they were delightful to work with. But you’re allowed to talk about it. 

It was a delightful send up.

PL: Don’t go into space without a hyper-drive, guys. It’ll only lead to disaster and ruin.

Like Star Wars, this quest is very Joseph Campbell: starting from a single block…

PL: And growing. I don’t know why, for some reason, it had to be a classic story. Everything we tried deviated too far from that and got hammered back to that classic hero’s journey.

CM: We wanted to subvert the idea of the hero’s journey. We do at the end a little bit with twisting the idea of a chosen one.

PL: Yeah, our big idea was that he’s not allowed to be remotely special at all to start the movie. He’s not Neo…he’s literally plucked at random. That’s interesting to me. Make the chosen one not at all stealth. And so that meant that everything else had to follow that structure.

And the meta story when the world turns on itself?

PL: That was there from the start…

CM: And there was plenty of anxiety. That the look of it would be jarring, that you’re following a whole new story and how are you supposed to care about that?

PL: It had to be essential. 

CM: It had to answer a lot of questions and it miraculously worked out.

And what was it like working with the Master Builders at Animal Logic?

PL: They’re great. They really took this on. We said this has to be lit differently than any movie you’ve ever worked on. It has to look more photoreal than you’ve ever made anything. We’re going to mix real stop-motion footage with computer-animated footage, and you’re not allowed to tell the difference.

What was stop-motion?

PL: We don’t want anyone to know.

CM: It’s mostly CG and there are some parts in shots that are actually real LEGO that are stop-motion.

PL: They shot that in a basement. And a lot of matte paintings and stuff were builds.

CM: And the end credits were all stop-motion.

PL: And there’s crowd sourced material in the movie that people made in their homes and we pulled it in.

I love the look of the ocean.

PL: It’s so cool… and hard, and it was hard to decide on the frame rate: Should it be on 2s or 3s? It got really chattery, ’cause obviously they did a fluid dynamics model of an ocean and then figured out how to interpret that…

CM: Through replacement animation.

PL: They wrote all this software because otherwise it would’ve taken a thousand people and a thousand days to animate that.

What are the frame rates?

CM: It’s very fluid but everything’s on 1s, 2s, and 3s. It mostly lives in the 1s and 2s.

PL: We said we should make the choices that a stop-motion animator would make. And even the kinds of choices that an amateur would make. There should be a hiccup every once in a while.

CM: There were issues with strobing because we didn’t want any motion blur so we solved it by creating this “brick blur,” where, if a character is moving very quickly, they had a brick-built trail of the color of their body around them that was like a dry brush effect. But built out of actual bricks. So that was a solve that a clever stop-motion person would do. The idea came from Chris McKay, our animation supervisor. He said they did this thing on Robot Chicken and we developed how to do that. There’s a lot of little details like that in the movie and I think audiences can tell when it’s lovingly crafted rather than throwing it together cynically.

What was the toughest scene?

PL: The boring answer is the building of the submarine while the world is crashing down. It’s Hellzapoppin!

CM: The tricky one was getting any emotion out of these characters that have seven points of articulation and really feel something for them. That’s where some of the real subtlety was.

PL: That scene at the grate between Emmet and Lucy where she’s flashing back, there’s something so satisfying about watching the animators trying to interpret their voice performance. It’s so nice and so rare that you really get to do that in a movie that’s this manic.

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