Posted on Tuesday, February 4th, 2014 by Germain Lussier
The Lego Movie is the third film Phil Lord and Chris Miller have directed. In each, they’ve blown low expectations out of the water. How could a movie about falling food be funny? Why would anyone remake 21 Jump Street? And how the heck do you make an interesting movie about Lego? The answer: make an adventure that’s exciting and funny, but also deeply rooted in the essence of what we all love about toys themselves.
To create The Lego Movie, Lord and Miller co-wrote a compelling screenplay and also gave the film an incredibly intricate and realistic look. It’s a blend of CG with stop motion using actual Legos; every single structure in the film was literally built piece by piece, be it in the computer or in Denmark at Lego headquarters. That gives the film an incredibly authentic feel.
Speaking to the directors, I interrogated them about that process, asking if there were limitations to the Lego construct and about pressure from toy manufacturers. This is part one of our interview. It’s spoiler-free, so feel free to read ahead. Check back Friday for part two where we talk about some of the film’s biggest, most interesting spoilers.
/Film: Briefly take me through some of the mechanics of the film. I read you wanted computer animators to build each individual brick and then put the characters together in the computer like they were actual Legos.
Phil Lord: Well we thought it was gonna be really cute to do it in a synthetic and computerized way. And looking at the other stuff that’s been done with Lego, a way to stand out was to make it really hard. Make it look like it was really difficult to put together. To make it look really imperfect. No one had really tried that look before and for a big feature on the big screen, we wanted it to look spectacular and what we discovered is that making it look imperfect and homemade was the way to make it look slick and spectacular. If we had just made it look shiny, I think it would have seemed fake.
That probably added a lot more work for the animators.
Lord: Exactly. But I’m sure most of those guys would tell you embracing those limitations, you know, it’s gotta be real bricks. We have to use real colors. We have to. We can’t make up a bunch of pretend pieces. We can’t bend the characters at the elbow or do them like squish cheeks or whatever. That made for a much more fun challenge and much more expressive animation. We’d always talk about the Muppets and how they have very few dimensions of movement and yet they’re really expressive. Most of their eyes don’t move; their mouths are trying to move. But they don’t have a million different points of articulation. And if they did, I don’t think they would be as appealing. So there’s something about taking something really simple and trying to animate it with as much emotion as possible that is really appealing and seemed to be at the core of what was inspiring us about Lego in the first place.
I think almost everything that gets built in the movie, except for one or two things, is wholly original. Again, I read when you guys were coming up with that stuff, you actually had to send drawings and ideas to the Lego engineers asking ‘Can we build this?’ So not only did it have to be built in the computer, it literally had to be built in real life too, right?
Lord: Yeah, I mean, I was being deferential. We definitely wanted it to feel like it was something you could make in your basement. We wanted it to feel that the whole movie was sort of homemade. And because it was going to be a hybrid, there’s gonna be stop motion, there’s gonna be real photography popped in, we wanted to basically blur the difference between what was in the computer and what we actually photographed.
Was there anything you imagined that Lego literally couldn’t build?
Chris Miller: You know, they’re pretty clever and we had a great design team in Sydney as well who would go through everything that was on Lego Digital Designer. They’d look for pieces to represent things. And between the team in Sydney and the team in Denmark, everything that we could think of they were able to get. Like small props of food were kind of the probably the hardest thing to do. And we didn’t want to cheat in any way. So maybe running around, you know, for a few things. But really that’s the great thing about Legos that it can be whatever you want it to be.
Lord: But there were things we couldn’t figure out how to represent, like a chicken wing, that we couldn’t represent as like a turkey leg could represent. That’s why there’s a lot of references to sausages in the movie because as a European toy, the food that they have in their library is like sausages, turkey legs…
Miller: And croissants and that’s pretty much it.
Lord: And croissants. Yeah, that’s basically all they eat in the Lego world.
And yet they all seem relatively healthy.
Miller: [Laughs] Right.
Your primary job is to tell a good story, but you’re making a movie about toys, that wants to sell toys. At what point in the process does somebody — a producer, an executive, Lego themselves — say “Oh yeah, we can build that and sell that” or “No, we can’t build that and sell that?” Like how much does that hinder your creativity?
Miller: Well, we were very clear up front that the only way this movie was gonna succeed was if it didn’t come from the top down. It didn’t feel like it was a corporate commercial. It didn’t feel like Lego was saying, “We wanna sell these toys, tell a story around them.” It had to feel like it was coming from outside the company. It was filmmaker and story driven and that it was using Lego as a medium. Now obviously, you know, they’re gonna wanna sell toys based on the movie. And we said, obviously if we’re making something that doesn’t have cool vehicles in it and interesting characters, then we’re not doing our job anyway. We’re not gonna make a Lego movie that isn’t about cool Lego stuff. And we went to Denmark to visit and see the type of things that they make there and it definitely inspired us from what Lego’s core values are about and the type of things. But we were thankfully not in a situation where they were dictating anything to us as far as what we were doing. And sort of reacted to the things we made and thought “Oh yeah, we can sell toys based on this, this and this.”
Lord: Yeah, that’s right. It was a pretty organic process. I’d say the one bone of contention was we wanted everything to be huge because we’re like “It’s gotta be something you could only see in a movie theater. It can’t just be the size that you can buy in a store.” And so it took a while to convince everybody that the version that’s in the movie can be bigger and crazier than the version you manufacture. And so that’s why like that Pirate ship that’s in the movie is like, I mean, I hope some day somebody builds it, but it’s gotta be like 10 thousand feet, but… And there’s, I think, two other sizes of them that are gonna come out. One of which is like something like 2000 pieces or something ridiculous like that.
Check back later this week for part two where we talk about all the various licenses in the film, some surprising cameos and the heartwarming ending.