George Maestri ventures into the story behind how LEGO brought its popular Bionicle franchise to cinematic life.
Bionicle: Mask of Light is the first feature in a planned series of movies based on the popular line of comics and toys created by the LEGO Co. Produced in association with Miramax, the film brings the legend of Bionicle to life in a full-length CG feature. The film was produced in record time using a combination of domestic and overseas animation studios.
The characters in the Bionicle universe had been well established in the past. In addition to the toys and comics, LEGO expanded the franchise into Flash-animated games on its Website. Bringing the Bionicle characters to the big screen, however, required that the characters become fully fleshed out entities that could carry a long form movie. To take Bionicle to the next level of entertainment, LEGO partnered with production entity Create TV & Film, which contracted with animation studio Creative Capers Entertainment and its three principals: directors David Molina and Terry Shakespeare and producer Sue Shakespeare.
Creative Capers has been in business for more than a decade, and has had very strong experience both in traditional animation as well as toy design. This gave them a distinct edge when bringing the LEGO products to life. In order to land the deal, though, they produced a short audition tape of Lewa, one of the characters, in brilliant CGI action. It was Lewa speaking, moving, and expressing emotions in ways we had never seen before, says exec producer Bob Thompson. After viewing that test, we knew we had found an animation partner with the talent and skills to take our characters from action figures to CGI action heroes.
Creative Capers first task was to redesign the characters for the big screen. The LEGO toys had previously been converted into CGI-animated characters for 30-second TV ads, adds Terry Shakespeare, but David and I knew we had to make major adjustments if the characters were going to be able to express emotion and move naturally on the screen for 70 minutes. To this effect, the Creative Capers team added such features as hands, muscles in the legs and arms, as well as custom texture maps to give each character a signature look and personality. The final addition to each character was a light in the chest, symbolizing a life force.
Once the bodies were done, the team went to work on the facial features of the characters. Molina and Terry Shakespeare spent many hours developing the way each characters mask would look when expressing various emotions, such as happiness and sadness. Particular emphasis was placed on eyebrows and lips; and because the movie marks the first time the characters speak, Molina and Terry Shakespeare took extra pains to ensure that each character had a fully functional mouth. Most notably, the animators created a four-prong, mechanical tongue to help with dialogue and make the characters look less puppet-like.
In addition to adapting the Bionicle toys for the big screen, the team also had to invent new characters. The most important was Makuta, the films villain, and a character that had only been glimpsed in the comic books. We applied our Frankenstein principle to the creation of Makuta onscreen, says Terry Shakespeare. We started taking parts from different Bionicle characters to create the ultimate biomechanical bad guy.
Molina and Terry Shakespeare applied their Frankenstein principle and worked with the LEGO Companys design team for the creation of brand-new characters, too. They include Pewku, a retired female racing crab, and a Gukko Bird, composed of Bionicle pieces large enough to transport two characters on her back.
As the CG characters were being developed, the team also worked on visual development. Backgrounds and conceptual art were created and developed by Creative Capers team of artists and designers. Backgrounds ranged from lush jungles to flowing rivers of molten lava. With every scene, the designers lavished the utmost care and attention to detail on the smallest elements of the landscape. We threw in some special features for the die-hard Bionicle fan, says Thompson. Close-up on the leaves, for example, show bits of circuitry, which is what you would expect in a biomechanical universe. The Bionicle written language also shows up inside the actual Mask of Light, inside a cave, on a highway sign and in the closing credits.
Once the characters were ready to go, the project expanded to a global scale. Creative Capers relied on Taipei-based studio CGCG to complete most of the animation, which was done in Maya. While overseas animation is very much part of the pipeline for cel-based animation, CG-based projects are still relatively new to the process. The project was also completed in a very fast timeframe.
Most projects of this quality and scale require 18-24 months to produce, explains Terry Shakespeare. But we knew the fans were anxious to see something soon, so we pushed the envelope and created Mask of Light in an amazing 13 months. We were able to do this in part because we had teams working in different time zones, allowing for a virtually seamless, round-the-clock production schedule.
As CGCG was modeling and setting up their pipeline, the story team back in LA was tasked with visualizing the film in storyboard form. The story team created storyboards for the film in only three months. And, while we were designing and storyboarding one sequence, adds Molina, CGCG was creating 3D computer models of the characters.
Creative Capers took the creative lead on the project managed by the overseas studio. On the visual side, Creative Capers provided conceptual art, color paintings, schematics, storyboards and color keys. For the 68 overseas animators, Creative Capers provided animatics.
The Taipei team produced the actual 70-minutes of CG animation, with direction coming from Creative Capers as well as LEGO. CGCGs physical production included: 3D computer character modeling in Maya, coloring and texturing, character set-ups, layouts, lighting, special effects and final rendering. Most of the overseas 3D animation was done in Maya because of its superiority in character and environmental animation as well as fluid dynamics. Compositing and effects were done in discreets combustion.
As with any overseas project, Creative Capers needed strong communication with their overseas partners. They relied on electronic communication to transfer files and data as well as good old-fashioned face-to-face time with the overseas staff. The Los Angeles team logged over a quarter of a million miles to Taipei and back.
While overseas production was in process, Creative Capers also took on some CG production of its own. They created the opening and closing sequences of the film in CG using 3ds max software. They also did editing of the final film as well as color correction using discreets edit, combustion, smoke and flame.
The final film looks terrific, by the way, and is set for DVD/VHS release on Sept. 16. Meanwhile, production is already in progress on the next two features, one of which is intended for theatrical release.
George Maestri is a writer, director and producer living in Los Angeles. He is currently president of Rubberbug, an animation studio specializing in character animation for broadcast and film.