Filmmakers Phil Lord and Chris Miller have made it their business to turn seemingly tired properties (a children’s book about giant food, an eighties television show about cops masquerading as kids) into intelligent and incredibly funny feature films that appeal to kids and adults alike, and their latest outing, ‘The LEGO Movie,’ is no different – it just comes with the added caveat of centering its action on tiny plastic things. If anyone could make a film about LEGOs work, it’s Lord and Miller, and that’s just what they’ve done with their witty and inspired take on the classic toys – but how did they actually make it, well, work?

Despite looking curiously as if the entire thing was made from actual LEGOs, ‘The LEGO Movie’ is a mostly traditionally-animated affair with some special touches.

Though the film is not a stop-motion endeavor, Miller and Lord did draw their initial inspirations from fan-made “brick films” that utilize actual LEGOs to build out their settings and characters. Using real LEGOs for the film was, quite simply, extremely cost prohibitive, as the New York Times notes that “it would have cost millions of dollars for the bricks alone,” and considering that even a relatively small ‘LEGO Movie’ branded playset will cost you a cool thirteen dollars for just over one hundred pieces, that estimate is right on the money.

Instead of going full-LEGO, Miller and Lord went for CG animation that mixes in real LEGO sets for some added veracity. Co-director Chris Miller addressed some questions about the film’s animation technique directly on Twitter, saying:

Using computer-drawn 3D animation allowed ‘The LEGO Movie’ team to utilize the same techniques of other animated films. The process for crafting ‘The LEGO Film’ by way was relatively standard – the animation team started with a fully hand-drawn version of the script, before moving into what is known as “layout” (a rough animation that centers on imagining both character and “camera” placement), followed by actual animation, and then lighting and grading (which turns flat animation into something nuanced and very real-looking). They also used a modeling program that approximated the experience of snapping LEGOs together, one so intelligent that it would reject brick combinations that wouldn’t work in real life.

Of course, the ‘LEGO’ team also spent plenty of time playing with actual LEGOs, including building models of vehicles like Bad Cop/Good Cop’s police vehicle, and even a larger-scale piece like Metalbeard’s giant pirate ship.

LEGO Pirate Ship
The actual LEGO model for Metalbeard's pirate ship alongside the computerized rendering.

The animation team didn’t just mix it up with big LEGO set pieces though, they actually put whole batches of LEGO minifigs under a microscope to examine them, to encourage their maximum understanding of how they are put together, how they move, and what they really look like.

Perhaps some of the confusion regarding the realism of the LEGOs in the film is due to, well, the seemingly very realistic look of the Legos in the film – animated or actual. As the Times notes:

Research went into exploring how many digital smudges and thumbprints would go on the figures and even how much virtual dandruff should be in the shot.

Virtual dandruff! The aim was to make the pieces look as if they had been played with out in the real world, not to make them pristine and perfect. A prime example? The Charlie Day-voiced Benny, an eighties-era spaceman, looks like he’s been well-loved, buried in a sandbox, stepped on, bit and shot out into actual space – he even has a cracked helmet to complete the look.

LEGO Movie Benny
A close-up of Benny and his many cracks, chips, fades and bite marks.

As is the case with similar projects, the team behind ‘The LEGO Movie’ also made it a point to capture the various facial expressions of the film’s stars so that those could be translated into their animated character – no, ‘The LEGO Movie’ doesn’t just use standard LEGO faces, and it shows.

LEGO Movie Faces
The various emotions of Emmet, played by Chris Pratt

Star Chris Pratt joked to that the looks came “mostly from the eyebrows.” He also shared, “when you’re doing the voicework, and you’re doing the recording sessions, they did have cameras set up all around, just to capture maybe some of my gestures or my facial expressions, and then they were able to put that into the character.”

The result? Awesome.

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