Bricks in Motion: A Documentary about LEGO Filmmaking

BRICKS IN MOTION is a feature length documentary that explores the lives of individuals involved in the hobby of creating stop-motion animated films with LEGO® bricks and other building toys. Filmed in five countries around the world, the film is a journey through the creative life and struggles of a diverse community of storytellers as they bring their spectacular visions to life. I served as producer, stop-motion animator, LEGO model and set designer, and I also in charge of fulfilling backer rewards for the Kickstarter campaign.

In 2014, my friend Philip Heinrich began seriously discussing making a feature-length documentary film focusing on the lives on people who make stop-motion films with LEGO (called "brickfilms"). This idea had been rattling around in his brain for several years, but now he was ready to commit and actually get the film done. We both were a part of the brickfilming community, and both were a part of running the site BricksInMotion.com. I was eager to participate, so Philip and I, along with other producers Zach Macias and Doug Vandegrift, drew up a plan on how to make the film happen.

 A frame from one of the animated segments in the documentary

A frame from one of the animated segments in the documentary

In September of 2014, we launched our project on Kickstarter. Ultimately 270 people pledged $12,800, which was about as successful as we could hope for, considering the niche subject matter of the film.

While Philip and Zach focused on filming the interview subjects, and Doug worked on producing one of the rewards for the Kickstarter, I was in charge of fulfilling the rest of the Kickstarter rewards, including packing and shipping out several different unique LEGO models I had designed.

packing up Some of the kickstarter rewards

I was also in charge of designing and building the LEGO sets and characters for the animated segments of the documentary. We knew we wanted animated segments in the documentary, but we weren't entirely clear on the details until Philip started to edit the documentary footage together. Eventually we came up with simple story that we could tell without dialog, about a woman who is dissatisfied with the world around her, and escapes to a new world of mystery and wonder. The idea was to have the story vaguely parallel the interview portions of the documentary, with themes and images from the animated segments mirroring the stories told by the documentary interviewees.

 The film studio (my kitchen), the night before animation began

The film studio (my kitchen), the night before animation began

One of the interviewees, Steffen Troeger, talked in depth about a tape recorder his father used to record Steffen's moments as a child. Philip wanted to make the tape recorder a recurring motif in the documentary, so I built a life-size replica of a classic cassette tape recorder out of LEGO. It shows up at the very beginning and end of the documentary, neatly book-ending the film. The opening scene is in a black void, and features a single LEGO brick floating down before being discovered by the woman, who Philip and I named Sophie. The brick then assembles itself into the tape recorder, and effect achieved by taking apart the model a few parts at a time, and running the footage in reverse. I became very familiar with reassembling the LEGO model for subsequent shots.

 Philip animates the LEGo tape recorder assembling itself

Philip animates the LEGo tape recorder assembling itself

 Zach and Philip plan the first shoot

Zach and Philip plan the first shoot

The audience properly meets Sophie in the second animated segment, which opens on children playing in a park. Sophie goes through her mundane day: working, shopping, commuting, numbly watching TV. Finally, she looks longingly at a forest through her window. Zach was only available to animate on the two weekends of the two weeks the shoot was scheduled, so we shot the most complex shots during those two weekends. The first weekend, Zach animated the entirety of the playground scene.

The shot where she looks the window featured a long, sweeping camera movement. Since we had no motion control system, we opted to instead place the entire set on a jury-rigged turntable, and carefully moved the whole set (including the microscale background) instead. The shot was stabilized further in post production.

 The entire living room set on a turntable

The entire living room set on a turntable

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The biggest sets were in the forest scenes, where Sophie meets a mysterious elk in a redwood forest. The foggy, hazy look of the forest was achieved by separating the foreground, midground and background with large sheets of plastic painted with diluted white paint and careful lighting. Several detailed half-trees were built, and the forest floor was designed so the large trees could be easily moved around, depending on the requirements of the particular shot.

 Zach animates sophie in the forest

Zach animates sophie in the forest

The animation of the walking elk was achieved with replacement animation. 10 different models of the elk body were built, each with the legs in a slightly different position. Swapped out frame-by-frame and repeated, the 10 bodies created a walk cycle.

 All 10 bodies of the elk

All 10 bodies of the elk

The final big set was the crazy-colored imagination world, which was dubbed "Chihulyland," after artist Dale Chihuly, known for his intricate glass sculptures. Thousands of transparent LEGO parts were ordered from Bricklink, a LEGO marketplace, and were layered with a solidly-colored brick base to create the undulating rainbow landscape.

 The "chihulyland" set being built

The "chihulyland" set being built

To expand the size of the set in some shots, we placed mirrors (some of which we accidentally broke during the filming process) around three sides of the set and shot several "plates" (reference images). During post production, Philip moved around select elements in Photoshop to help mask the seams of the real and mirrored set, and to reduce the obviousness of the mirrored parts.

 Mirroring the set to make it appear bigger

Mirroring the set to make it appear bigger

Besides the animated segmented of the documentary, we also created LEGO models of various video-playing devices, including TVs, computers and an iPod. These models were overlaid with footage of the interviewees for the end credits.

 Models were lit up with small LEDs so that "screens" lit up properly

Models were lit up with small LEDs so that "screens" lit up properly

Months after Philip and Zach had gone home and most of the mess from the two-week production was cleaned up, Philip asked me to build one more set for a non-animated shot he needed for the documentary. It is a shot of a movie drive-in at sunset, and it is one of my favorite LEGO shots in the documentary. It was also the last LEGO shot I made for the documentary.

 Setting up the drive-in

Setting up the drive-in

In the end, it only two about two weeks of actual production to create the animation for the documentary, but at least two years of preproduction, planning, post production and a thousand other details. It was challenging work, but ultimately quite rewarding. It also lead to many new collaborations between Philip and Zach.

 The cassette tape recorder takes shape

The cassette tape recorder takes shape

 The life-size LEGO tape recorder, complete with cassette tape.

The life-size LEGO tape recorder, complete with cassette tape.

 One of the rotating sets, complete with dusk lighting

One of the rotating sets, complete with dusk lighting

 The playground set, with microscale buildings in the background

The playground set, with microscale buildings in the background

 Filming the floating bricks underwater for the opening and closing credits

Filming the floating bricks underwater for the opening and closing credits

 you never really think about the posterboard, boardgames and cans of peaches needed to hold a set together.

you never really think about the posterboard, boardgames and cans of peaches needed to hold a set together.

 The supermarket set, with Sophie and her cart attached directly to the camera

The supermarket set, with Sophie and her cart attached directly to the camera

 The light rail car set

The light rail car set

 Animating sophie interacting with the tape recorder

Animating sophie interacting with the tape recorder