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Immersed in Movies: Talking ‘The LEGO Movie’ with Chris McKay

Immersed in Movies: Talking 'The LEGO Movie' with Chris McKay

Now that The LEGO Movie is already a hit going into its second weekend and “Everything Is Awesome” (with a likely sequel in the works), let’s chat with Chris McKay, the animation supervisor. He worked with Animal Logic on a particularly fitting stop-motion vibe in CG (what they called seven points of articulation).

Quite an interesting mix of animation techniques. Let’s talk about that.

Obviously what we wanted was to make it look as much as the brick films as possible. And so we wanted to find a way to express that. And the majority of the film is CG and trying to make it look like stop-motion and trying to get it to have that sense of being imperfect and not slick. It grounds it something that’s real and something that has a charm and an innocence and naivete… the epic vision of what a child could dream up.

What did that mean in terms of working with Animal Logic?

They make things that look big and they make things that look epic and ambitious, so we knew they had that ability. Trying to make it look photoreal was another thing but everybody in the modeling and rigging team was super nerdy about LEGO with a passion. They found ways to hide bricks when you’re doing it in the computer and it’s CG and it’s not so fat in the pipeline. They came up with stuff just to do this movie.

And then doing stop-motion when needed in the basement.

Exactly. The thing is, this isn’t a big budget movie from an animation standpoint. But LEGO was really smart about making those video games because that reached the brand out to people who maybe thought it was a toy and was simple or dumb. 

But the great thing is that it’s a movie about Master Building and discovering your talent.

Which is what a lot of people go through. When you’re being a creative person and you’re first discovering a little bit of a rise in your dexterity and then you hit a plateau and then you drop down. You see somebody with a new idea and that sparks something. And that’s a great story progression too with obstacles and reversals and his hold world is blown open when he meets all these superheroes. 

It’s a delightful anti-Hollywood/Hollywood movie.

Yeah, it goes back to the Sam Fuller B-movie days with these little mind bombs that they snuck inside the A-story. That to me what was really fun about this and the fact that Warner Bros. and LEGO were on board.

What were some of the difficult challenges? The ocean, for instance.

There are images that we wanted to try and achieve that everyone was initially afraid of. When you’re talking about millions and millions of bricks, and waves and all of interaction, that is a daunting challenge from every perspective. But everyone wanted it to be able to work so we developed tools to do that.

Brick fluid sim?

Right. I think all those little details add up, and there were all sorts of things going on in the background for one or two frames that are just trying to show all of the creativity it takes to tell a story with the medium of LEGO.

I hear you came up with solution from Robot Chicken?

Yeah, often times we’d do little gags where you’d break an arm off, so I’m facing you with my right shoulder away from you and we’re going to throw a punch. Well, these guys don’t twist their bodies, so we would bust the arm off for one frame and let the arm do the work and then the body caught up with it. And what’s fun about this seven points of articulation is that you can do these insane things that your body can’t do. You can spin your arm all the way around and grab a chair and throw your body weight over it and land on a guy and then turn that movement into something else. For us, we were trying to create life inside the face, with the way that a guy’s posed within the environment, showing that there’s an inner life in these characters and trying to bring that out.

For the faces, you created a library of 2D poses?

Yeah and then let the animators look at it and then added extra lines or under lids that really squeezed up really high. We would let them cut loose with their own sense of how to present an idea. We constantly had to come up with new things in a way to get you to care about Emmet.

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