The Lego Movie directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller find themselves showing the same clip at awards presentations: the wacky one where Emmet falls through the hole and discovers the world beyond the world of Bricksburg and Legos. It’s a summary of everything that this Oscar frontrunner is about — looking inside and outside at the same time and taking tremendous risks for an emotional payoff. I spoke with the directors about the making of the scene along with Chris McKay (co-director/animation supervisor), Rob Coleman (Animal Logic animation head), and Grant Freckelton (production designer, also based at Animal Logic in Sydney, Australia).
Immersed in Movies: A Roundtable Discussion of ‘Lego’s’ Emmet Falling Down the Rabbit Hole
Immersed in Movies: A Roundtable Discussion of 'Lego's' Emmet Falling Down the Rabbit Hole
Bill Desowitz: What makes this special scene work so well?
Phil Lord: What I liked about that is it’s this very immersive thing where you’re emotionally involved and he sees the girl and he takes a step and then he falls. And then suddenly it becomes the most cartoony diagrammatic thing you could ever think of and then you’re right back into an immersive, experiential, first person feeling. And then it goes into a psychedelic flash cut sequence, which is like everything we’ve always wanted to do in movies in a two-minute sequence.
BD: It’s the entire movie wrapped up in one sequence.
Chris Miller: Oh yeah, and he sees the girl and they do this iconic she takes her hood off, revealing her hair and because it’s an imitation of Lego, it’s just swiveling the hair on the head and it’s staying stiff. So you’re embracing the limitations and making a joke out of what they can and can’t do in that iconic version of the hair moment.
PL: You’re also with the main character witnessing this and it’s still beautifully lit. You’re also at the same time engaged in the storytelling. That’s what we wanted to do: tickle you inside and outside of the movie.
CM: Also in that scene, when you’re on Emmet, we used to have a very complicated city built behind him out of Lego bricks and CG. It looked so busy and not as if you were doing the scene yourself.
PL: It looked kind of blah and like, of course, we could do that in CG.
CM: And then to alleviate our fears, Grant Freckelton built a miniature version of the city out of Lego in his office, took it outside, put some blinking Christmas lights on it, filmed it, and then used it as like a matte painting matched into the rest of the rest of the thing. We did that in a few places where we incorporated real Lego in with the CG Lego. Hopefully, you didn’t know what was real and what wasn’t.
PL: But it felt like a choice a model maker would make.
Grant Freckelton: What’s cool about the scene when Emmet lands at the bottom is the glowing, crystal Craggle set that’s down below. We actually ended up modeling with silicon gel and real glue and creating physical models of what that goopy glue might look like. And so one of the artists in the art department ended up creating this model and photographing it from different angles and that became the basis for the actual mock CG model that we created in this particular set. And the other cool thing about the sequence is the side view, planar view of Emmet falling through all those different tunnels and wacking into things. That was a case where previs and layout came up with this fun gag with simple polygons and we had to figure out a way of making that work specifically for that angle. It was a standalone location.
Rob Coleman: It was a fun piece of animation to do and was actually the first time that we split Emmet apart, and I remember having discussions about whether we were allowed to do that or not allowed to do that. So what was the world that we had defined for our audience in terms of: Can a mini-fig lose its head and arms and rejoin and still be OK? So obviously since it’s in the movie, they decided that that’s totally fine. I guess it was along the lines of cartoons that we’ve seen like Wile E. Coyote having a piano dropped on its head. Animated characters live in their own defined world of what they can sustain and can’t sustain. He gets down there and finds the cap to the Crazy Glue, called Craggle in the film.
As written on the page, he touches this, which is then this idol, which lets him see a vision that most mini-figs never do, which is the man upstairs and the world beyond the world of Bricksburg. In the early storyboards, it alludes to what he actually sees there. And there were a series of cuts and tests put together, including live-action snippets of the real boy that we see later in the movie, and images of Bricksburg from vantage points that a mini-fig wouldn’t see, as well as a kaleidoscope of color that for the adults in the audience was a psychedelic experience. And the animators were inspired by Chris McKay to do all kinds of wacky replacement gags. So if you step-frame through that, you’ll see some disembodied Emmets, you’ll see some Emmets with different colored heads and limbs, you’ll see heads in the place of arms and shoulders, all just helping to create this psychedelic, strange, almost electrical impulse that goes through Emmet and then ultimately knocks him out.
Chris McKay: We got to explore visually, micro-scale, macro-scale, and we were always looking to do stuff unique visually. I also think there were a lot of filmmakers and art that we were inspired by like Wes Anderson movies where he would do cut outs in Life Aquatic, so when we approached a scene like this, the idea came along that we do it as a cut out and have Emmet fall through there and have fun with the look of the place. There’s one of those jokes about how far you can stretch the premise until it breaks. And it’s not funny and it becomes funny again.
So, editorially, when we were dong the animatic, it was fun to time out the hits and the efforts and Chris Pratt’s absolutely wonderful dialogue, and imagine how it would go and then have it stop for a second, hit that point where he kind of cracks his back and think that it’s over and then it keeps going. One of the things that was neat once we actually started laying it out was you need to physically find a way to move the character and camera through three-dimensional space in a way that feels realistic because you can’t cheat and that’s what the audience expects. So our assumptions about what was funny based on storyboard panels started to not feel as funny and feel forced and stretchy and cheaty when we applied the camera to it. So we had to do a lot of trial and error. You’re riding a fine line with something that’s a stylistic choice and something that breaks the photo-reality of it because of that choice.
CM: You’re mixing weird shots that we did during our live-action shoot with: Make your own version of Emmet’s head trip contest that we had in the office. We gave them a shot that we had animated in the CG pipeline with melting faces and weird things, and other people made their own little stop-motion shots that we also incorporated as a greatest hits into the final psychedelic trip. Editors made some and board artists made some and some of the animators in Sydney made some.
PL: One of the editors made one where we reversed the film and he went all the way back to the beginning of the film and started it over.
CM: It was crazy…
PL: Really awesome. And then in the DI we added the cat poster at the last second. So it’s also, finally, a fun example of how we were able to work in the studio part where everyone got to contribute creatively.