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Director Charlie Bean Assembles an Army of Animators for ‘The LEGO Ninjago Movie’

CG-animated feature directed by Charlie Bean, Paul Fisher and Bob Logan delivers a new perspective on the LEGO Universe.

‘The LEGO Ninjago Movie’ images courtesy of Warner Bros.

Opening this weekend, Warner Bros.’ The LEGO Ninjago Movie is the third installment in a growing franchise that found its original inspiration in fan-made stop-motion films using LEGO blocks. The original LEGO Movie (2014), directed by Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, dispensed with the laborious process of stop-motion, but tried to keep a similar aesthetic in 3D animation. The film met with widespread critical acclaim, earning $469 million at the world-wide box office. That was followed by The LEGO Batman Movie, released in February of this year, which grossed over $312 million at the box office, and now the third installment, The LEGO Ninjago Movie, directed by Charlie Bean, Paul Fisher and Bob Logan, is hitting theaters. A fourth installment, The LEGO Movie Sequel, is scheduled for release in early 2019.

Bean explained that even before the original film was released, the filmmakers realized the seemingly endless potential of creating a LEGO universe. He reported that producer Dan Lin spearheaded the idea of a film built around LEGO’s popular Ninjago line of LEGO blocks, released in late 2010 along with a TV series.

“As far as my involvement, I had met Chris and Phil briefly when they were making Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, and then when they were thinking about Ninjago, they had seen a TV show that I had worked on called Tron Uprising, and they were like, ‘Oh, we should talk to Charlie about doing this.’”

“So, I met with them [in 2013] and they showed me what they were doing, and the look of the film and how it had a stop-motion effect, and looked like real bricks,” Bean recounts. “It couldn’t have been more in tune with my tastes, and I was just like, ‘Yeah, sign me up.’”

Bean has been working on the film ever since. He explained that there was a long iterative process of developing the story and getting it ready to be greenlit. “It went through many evolutions, as these things often do, and ups and downs, and restarts. It’s a difficult process to get right. So I’ve been on it for four years now.”

The film tells the story of six teenage minifigs (LEGO characters) in the far-away land of Ninjago who are trained in the martial arts by an old ninja master in order to protect the capital city from monsters sent by Lord Garmadon, a warlord seeking to conquer Ninjago. Meanwhile, Lloyd Garmadon, the group’s leader, struggles to come to terms with the truth that Lord Garmadon is his father. But then, a new threat emerges to endanger Ninjago. It stars the voices of Dave Franco, Justin Theroux, Fred Armisen, Abbi Jacobson, Olivia Munn, Kumail Nanjiani, Michael Peña, Zach Woods and Jackie Chan.

Sydney-based animation studio Animal Logic has handled all of the animation for the LEGO franchise, and Bean relocated “Down Under” to work on the film. “[Director] Chris McKay was out there making LEGO Batman at the same time when we were working on this, then Chris came over onto Ninjago to help me.”

Bean explained that the work was split between Animal Logic facilities in Sydney and Vancouver, as well as L.A.

“We had a pretty deep team,” he says. “I think just from animation alone we had six different animation leads, and they each had a team from eight to twelve artists of animators. So, it’s a big team and that’s just animation. There’s also lighting and effects. There’s a huge army of people that make these films. They’re hugely collaborative films, and it takes a tremendous amount of talent. It’s a behemoth.”

Bean explained that he started working with animation director Matt Everitt early on to develop the film’s unique macro-zoom aesthetic. “Certainly, it starts with the original LEGO Movie, and the stop-motion aesthetic of that first film. But we went back to looking at some of the fan films on YouTube, where people make stop-motion films with LEGO,” he explains. “There’s something that’s so charming and innocent, and yet punk rock about the way that these fan films look. It starts there, but this film is a martial arts movie and, in many ways, it’s a big robot mech movie. The influences go broad from martial arts films, to giant robot films, to monster movies and this kind of thing. We reference the Muppets a lot. Matt Everitt and I talked a lot about the sort of spectrum of animation styles that we wanted in this film.”

“On the other side of the spectrum, it’s a very nuanced, subtle, emotional type of acting with a vérité type of acting -- performances that we got from the actors that we wanted to incorporate -- emotional stuff that we wanted to incorporate into the minifigs,” he continues. “A lot of that’s happening on those faces, and we’re really drawing from a 2D sensibility on the faces. They’re essentially a 2D animation on the face of the minifigs.”

He added that originally, Warner Bros had a difficult time believing that minifigs could emote. “Chris, Phil, and Chris McKay had to go through a lot of tests to prove that you could get a tremendous amount of emotion and nuance, and subtlety in acting from these seemingly limited faces.”

But the animators at Animal Logic set out to push the envelope on Ninjago with fully choreographed Kung Fu fight scenes, all within the limitations of LEGO block characters.

Working with a library of every type of LEGO block ever made, the animators had to find ways to deliver the performance, without bending, squishing or stretching any of the virtual blocks.

“There are a lot of techniques that we developed on these films, and continue to develop in the way that we use bricks,” says Bean. “All of the bricks are [supposed to be] solid plastic and we stay true to that rule that they don’t bend or squish, like you would normally in animation. So, we’ve got to separate the bricks, we’ve got to dislocate them, we’ve got to use other bricks.”

He added that to stay true to the stop-motion aesthetic, they couldn’t use motion blur to hide cheats.

For Bean, one of the most unique challenges was the fact that the film was set outside in the natural world, as though a kid were playing with his LEGO blocks in the back yard, with real world elements, like fire, water, plants and trees as well as a Godzilla-like tabby cat that threatens the minifig’s little world. All of it had to match the macro-zoom scale of LEGO characters that are about two inches high.

He explained that Animal Logic has relied on Softimage XSI to animate all of the LEGO movies, but with so much customization, that it’s basically a proprietary system at this point.

“Animal Logic is continually developing new technology, and new tools that we’re using for all the new challenges that we’re facing with each of these films,” he says. “For this one, in particular, with the natural, real world, there’s some pretty spectacular technology they developed for all of the trees and fauna specifically that we were able to populate the world with plant life that all felt alive and was able to be internally rigged so that they could move in the slight breeze, and it always felt alive.”

Bean credits his crew, who “never said no to all the crazy ideas that I had that just seemed bananas,” including animation director Matt Everett, CG/VFX supervisor Greg Jowle, FX supervisor Miles Green, and production designer Kim Taylor. “There is an incredible team of people over there at Animal Logic,” he says. “It was relentless, the things that we were pushing for and trying to achieve, and pushing it to a new realm.”

But overall, Bean stressed that the “story is everything.”

“That’s the toughest nut to crack and we’re constantly in search of a deeper, truer, more emotional representation of the story,” he says. “It’s something that Chris McKay said once: the story is never locked. They’re never going to lock the story until we’re done with the mix. We’re continually tinkering with it, pushing it and trying new things to make it funnier, to make it more emotional, to make it resonate deeper with ourselves and with each other, and the audience.”

“I really want to emphasize that this is like a hugely collaborative medium and the life-blood of these films is collaboration and the way that we all work together. Every aspect of the film is working towards story, and trying to reveal the story,” concludes Bean. “It’s what we’re all doing in this giant army of people. We’re all storytellers, we’re all filmmakers, and we’re all pulling the rope the same direction to make this story work.”

Scott Lehane's picture

Scott Lehane is a Toronto-based journalist who has covered the film and TV industry for 30 years. He recently launched VRNation.tv -- an online community for VR enthusiasts.

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