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

Material Possessions

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Material Possessions was filmed directly on my crowded computer desktop

Material Possessions was my first “real” brickfilm. When I was younger, I used the LEGO Movie Maker set to make some very basic “movies,” but I generally don’t consider those. Material Possessions was animated with the Logitech Quickcam Pro 4000 and the freeware program Stop Motion Animator. I didn’t have a separate table to animate on, so I animated directly on my computer desktop, which made seeing the screen difficult. The set was lit with a single lamp, but I did use paper to diffuse and reflect the light.

Filming an overhead shot
Filming an overhead shot

I used a mediocre old Mac mic to record the sounds, and mixed them in Audacity. The footage was edited together with Windows Movie Maker 2, and it shows.

Material Possessions was one of my first steps into filmmaking, and it’s fascinating to look back and see how I progressed and changed. It may be rough in pretty much every aspect, but I remember being very proud of it when I may it back in 2005.

 

 

Blinders

Day 1: Most of the significant set pieces and props have been built.
Day 1: Most of the significant set pieces and props have been built.

Blinders was an entry into the 2014 Brickfilm Rapidly All Week Long contest, and ultimately won first place. BRAWL entrants have one week to make a film from scratch. I decided to enter BRAWL on a whim. Because of my full-time job, I only had a few hours each night to work on my entry, so I had to utilize my time very efficiently.

Day 2: the storyboards are drawn
Day 2: the storyboards are drawn

I knew my time would be limited, so when I decided to enter BRAWL, I came up with some personal rules to help guide my production. First, unless absolutely necessarily, my film would have no dialog. Recording and animating dialog would only slow me down. Second, I could only have one or two sets, and I couldn’t spend more than a day building them. Third, I shouldn’t wait until the last minute for post-production. I should be done animating by day five so I would have enough time to give the editing and sound design the attention it deserved.

Day 3: The first shot is animated
Day 3: The first shot is animated

BRAWL2014 started on a Sunday, which gave me plenty of time to brainstorm and rough out the story idea while I built the essential sets and props. On Monday, day 2, I finalized the script, drew some rough storyboards, and set up my first shot. On Tuesday, day 3, I was only able to get a single shot animated. It turned out I was a bit rusty with animating, and it took several attempts to get back into the groove.

On Wednesday, day 4, I had to design the various billboards seen throughout the film. I shot most of the figures and props seen on the billboards on a white background and cut out in Photoshop. The final billboard designs were made in Illustrator and printed on an Epson Stylus Photo R2000 printer on luster paper.

Shooting the elements for the billboards
Shooting the elements for the billboards

Thursday through Friday, I animated multiple shots a night. The only reason I finished Blinders in time was thanks to careful planning, going all the way back to the script-writing. I knew I wouldn’t be able to animate long, complex shots in only a week and still have a comprehensive film, and wrote my film to complement that limitation. Thus, all of the animation in Blinders is very simple: a car driving by, a scissor lift rising, a man looking back and forth. I even got away with shots that had no stop-motion animation, but still felt alive, like the opening shot with the blinking road construction sign. There are also several shots where there is no movement whatsoever, but the sound design keeps the film from stalling.

You can see the handle where I pushed the vehicle to create motion blur
You can see the handle where I pushed the vehicle to create motion blur

One particular element that brought life to otherwise static shots were the moving vehicles. Several vehicle models were used, including a police car borrowed from Appetite Lost, and the camper van from LEGO set 60057. To get the angle just right, the camper van actually had to be raised up on a second set of wheels. Motion blur on the vehicles was done in-camera (not in post production), and was achieved by quickly pushing or pulling the vehicles while I captured a second-long exposure.

I edited as I filmed, but I really didn’t double down and truly start post-production until Saturday, the day before the end of the BRAWL2014. Like my film Infinity Squared (which was made in 10 days), I wanted Blinders to have strong sound design. Because there was no dialog (besides what is heard over the radio), I knew sound design would really have to help drive the story with the visuals. Some of the particular choices in sound design came by accidentally. I knew I wanted the film to end on a creepy note, and when I was searching for sound effects, I came across a recording of a Russian number station. It was the perfect level of mysterious, so I added the sound in over the credits.

A shallow depth of field helped mask the details of the microscale buildings in the background
A shallow depth of field helped mask the details of the microscale buildings in the background

DM means “Direct Message” Click on @BestTux or @Burrowdizzy’s profile, then click on “Message” under their profile

Ultimately I am very happy with how Blinders turned out. It feels like a spiritual successor to my earlier film Unsound, both in tone and construction. I think I managed to achieve a good balance between hinting at what really happened without giving too much away. Plus, it’s been fun seeing everyone’s interpretations of the film. If you came to the behind the scenes hoping to learn about “what really happens” in Blinders, you’re out of luck. I don’t even know what happens to the billboard technician, or what disaster effects the city. Sometimes it’s more interesting not knowing.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.