Birdie

All of the major models for the film
All of the major models for the film

When I decided to enter the EASTER contest on a whim, I knew I didn’t want to make an explicitly Easter-themed entry. Many of the entries into past EASTER contests focused on the Resurrection of Jesus and I didn’t think I could bring anything new to that story, especially within 30 seconds (the time limit of the contest). The contest did allow for non-Easter-themed entries, as long as they kept to the spirit of spring. With a 30-second time limit, I knew I had to limit myself to a single-gag film. The pun of bird and birdie (the golf term) came into my head, and I decided to structure my film around that.

The cardinal, perched on a branch, is held in place with a LEGO rig
The cardinal, perched on a branch, is held in place with a LEGO rig

I knew minifig-scale birds wouldn’t work, so I opted for life-size bird models built from LEGO. The model-making took most of the week, averaging one model a day (3 birds, egg/nest, and golf club). I chose a cardinal, bluejay and canary because their shapes are very recognizable, even in stylized LEGO form, and they were different bright colors. The egg turned out to be significantly larger than the size I was hoping for (a chicken egg), but the larger sizes was necessary to better approximate the shape of an egg in LEGO. As I continued to build the set, I added a branch for the cardinal to stand on so it could be raised higher than the canary in the foreground. Originally I intended to use a printed-out backdrop to simulate the sky, but in the end I went with a plain blue background supplemented with flat LEGO trees and clouds.

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Filming the swing of the club

Animation took place in one day, in one take. Originally, I wanted to animate the cardinal flying in and landing on the branch at the very start of the film, but I didn’t have a strong enough rig to support the bird model, and I was already pressed for time. Animation was straightforward, but the swinging club proved to be a bit of a challenge. When blocking the shot, I didn’t account for the angle of the swing, and it quickly became apparent that the shaft of the club would smack into the neck of the bluejay. There was no real way to get around the problem without completely redoing the composition of the shot, so I shrugged and just allowed the shaft to pass through the bluebird. The club is only onscreen for a few frames, so I hoped it would go unnoticed.

When I meet people for the first time and they ask me what I do for fun, I show them Birdie. It’s quick, amusing, and showcases both my stop-motion and LEGO passions succinctly.

30 Years: The Story of the Minifigure

The first shot animated: Ancient Egypt
The first shot animated: Ancient Egypt

It was the end of spring 2008. I was wrapping up my semester at community college and preparing to go to San Jose State University in the fall. I knew my LEGO wouldn’t fit in my dorm room and I was preparing myself for several years without regular contact with my LEGO. I had just won the fourth Twenty-four Hour Animation Contest with Unsound, and I didn’t expect to make another brickfilm until well after college.

And then the LEGO Company contacted me out of the blue, asking if I was interested in making a short promotional brickfilm. I was floored. This was a huge break for me, and very exciting opportunity. I was also worried. They needed the video near the end of summer, and starting in August I was moving to go to college, so I had two very real deadlines to meet. One conference call with other animators (including David Pagano) and LEGO representatives later, I was ready to go. I was to make a short, 1 to 5 minute video that celebrating the life of the LEGO minifigure, which was turning 30 in 2008. As long as I kept within LEGO’s core values (no inappropriate violence, etc), I had complete creative freedom. The LEGO company sent me a box full of minifigure parts and $500, and then I was on my own.

Because I wanted to appeal to the widest audience, I decided to go with a simple historical montage video with no dialogue that featured important events throughout history. Because of the atypical nature of the “story,” I didn’t write an actual script. Instead, I listed out the events I wanted to depict onscreen, and

Beast

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Filming one of the many scenes at the cafe

This version of Beast is almost nothing like the original concept. I first thought up the idea of Beast in March of 2006. I had just heard about the new movie The Omen, and that it was going to be released on sixth day of sixth month of the sixth year of the new millennium, or 06/06/06. 666 is, of course, the Number of the Beast mentioned in the Book of Revelation. I thought it would be cool to release a quick brickfilm on 06/06/06 with a “beast” theme as a little joke. The story idea: 06/06/06 a demonic creature rises from hell and the world ends. Original, huh?

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The Beast tries to escape the rooftop

The direction of this project quickly changed when the Brickfilms.com “Fame, Infamy and Glory” Contest was announced. I threw out the old story and began a new one. The basic premise was a retelling of the werewolf and Frankenstein stories with a modern twist. I tweaked the story several times to fit more in with the Fame, Infamy and Glory theme required by the contest, and I added the crime scene investigation theme as well. The end result was a massive 15-page script. I began filming the key scenes, but I quickly realized the project was too large and I wouldn’t be able to complete it in time. I cut out two major subplots and half the characters. This left me with a manageable film, albeit weakened and watered down. I finished filming, but I was struck with another roadblock when I began editing. Films submitted in the contest had to be ten minutes or shorter. I have over twelve minutes of footage. I grit my teeth and removed every excess shot, and cut words out of sentences to trim the dialogue down. Beast is the result. It’s skeletal and diluted, but it had to be done.

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The Quickcam rotates inside the tape roll while it pulls back on a track to achieve the “spinning bird’s eye look”

Originally, I planned on releasing a director’s cut of Beast, but I quickly got distracted with new, more interesting projects, and bit by bit I lost most of the leftover material that originally got cut. I still have some of the discarded footage, but all of the extra lines my voice actors recorded for me are gone. A director’s cut that restores Beast‘s complete story is never going to happen, but for Beast‘s 10 year anniversary I released a video that features all of the shots cut from the final film. Also available is the original scanned version of the script, complete with director’s notes.

Looking back 10 years later, Beast still has a special place in my heart. It is my longest brickfilm and it was my first attempt at more complex storytelling, even though it doesn’t really come through in the final product. Something about it still clearly speaks to other people, since it still is my most popular brickfilm.

 

Alex and Derrick: Five Years Later

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Alex and Derrick’s classic red apartment was (partially) rebuilt for the opening scene.

While it wasn’t really my first brickfilm in five years, Alex and Derrick: Five Years Later was intended to be my – and Alex and Derrick’s – big return. The story was primarily designed to explain why I had been absent for five years, told through the lens of Alex and Derrick. Everything that happens to Alex and Derrick except for living homeless in a car actually happened to me.

Instead of using an actual mirror, two figures were filmed at once, with their movements mirrored
Instead of using an actual mirror, two figures were filmed at once, with their movements mirrored

Filming took place in roughly chronological order, though all scenes that featured the same set (such as Alex and Derrick’s new apartment and the college quad) were filmed together. I also redressed several sets to represent passages of time (such as the fancy restaurant) or multiple uses of the same type of room (such as the same basic room being used for three different faculty offices. 34 different sets were built for this 2 minute, 54 second film: two versions of Alex and Derrick’s apartment, 28 sets for Alex’s montage, and 4 for Derrick’s montage. That’s an average of a new set every 5 seconds, though most of the montage sets appear for even less!

The ring is suspended by a transparent LEGO rig, which was erased, frame by frame, in post-production
The ring is suspended by a transparent LEGO rig, which was erased, frame by frame, in post-production

Halfway through the production, I took a break to purchase a Canon T3i camera and Dragonframe, and made Derricking Ball as a test. While most of Five Years Later was filmed with a Quickcam Pro 9000, all of the video game and new apartment shots were shot with the Canon T3i. The differences in image quality were surprisingly minor, especially since my final outputted video file was just 1920×1080. Later during the production I took another break to make The Meek and the Bold.

No rigs were used to hold up the cereal - I was worried so many rigs will just clog up the shot. So every piece of cereal was stuck directly to a prop
No rigs were used to hold up the cereal – I was worried so many rigs will just clog up the shot. So every piece of cereal was stuck directly to a prop

Originally, the film only contained Alex’s side of the story, with Derrick only vaguely mentioning video games. However, as I put the film together as I filmed it, I realized the rapid, visual nature of Alex’s montage leading up to the punchline needed to be mirrored by a similar – but shorter –  montage from Derrick’s perspective. All of the games featured – Oregon Trail, Half-Life, Team Fortress 2 and Minecraft – are all games I enjoyed in my life. Other games like Left 4 Dead and Portal were considered, but were ultimately dropped from being in the montage (though you do hear Derrick playing Left 4 Dead in the beginning).

During editing, shots that were originally five or more seconds long got trimmed down even more to keep up with the tempo of Alex’s monologue. It took several weeks of edits and re-edits to find the rhythm I liked and to get it to match with satisfactory music. The only shot that I think suffered from this was the shot of Alex’s fiancée breaking up with him in the restaurant. The final shot only features the tail end of the animation – in the original shot, the fiancée throws the ring at Alex. It bounces off Alex’s head and then falls to the floor, spinning to a stop.

The new apartment set
The new apartment set

The time skip in Five Years Later allowed me to do one final thing that I’ve wanted to do for a long time – redesign Alex and Derrick’s apartment. When the apartment was first made for Material Possessions, I never expected to continue to make Alex and Derrick films for a decade. I used the parts that I had available to me: primarily bright colors and simple shapes. As the years progressed, my skills in set design and LEGO modelmaking improved, but I was adverse to changing their apartment because a sense of continuity was important to me. Thanks to the timeskip, I finally had the opportunity to update the set to my current design aesthetics.

First, the red wall had to go, replaced with the more neutral tan color. Brown trim helps transition the wall to the dark tan floor. Tiles were favored over studs because I don’t like the look of wide patches of studs – it creates too much visual noise on camera It also allows for greater freedom in animating. The original green couch had one major flaw: it was four plates high, and any minifig sitting on it towered over standing figures, making shot composition difficult. The new couch, while not as colorful, is only two plates high. Because the figures don’t sit nearly as high, the back wall was more visible, and looked rather plain, so I added some new abstract art. The blue in the art is also mirrored in the blues in the rug, and help balance out the overall warmth of the apartment.

The original apartment
The original apartment

The doors were updated to the new 6-brick high doors that have become the standard in LEGO sets, and the right wall passageway that lead to the kitchen was given a door so that I could actually show that wall without having to build the kitchen. Light switches were also added. The computer desk was replaced with a short bookshelf and phone because the computer didn’t feel right in the living room. The brown side table became a white coffee table to help break up the large open space in the middle of the room, and the plant in the corner was replaced with a narrow shelving unit. Lamps were updated to reflect modern trends, and Derrick’s rare Charizard card and case were removed – don’t worry, they’re somewhere safe!

Alex and Derrick: Five Years Later was greeted warmly when it was released and I’m very proud of it. It helped propel me back into stop-motion, and it’s a good film to show people who are curious about the stuff I make.