Everything is awesome with animation director Trisha Gum’s collaboration on the long-awaited sequel with director Mike Mitchell, creative duo Phil Lord & Christopher Miller, and animation studio Animal Logic.
Picking up from where The LEGO Movie left off, Warner Bros. has one again unleashed the creative juggernaut of Phil Lord & Christopher Miller with their long-awaited sequel, The LEGO Movie 2: The Second Part. Directed by veteran Mike Mitchell alongside animation director Trisha Gum, the film builds upon the original film’s design aesthetic and narrative, reuniting its eccentric ensemble of minifigures led by Emmet (Chris Pratt), Lucy (Elizabeth Banks) and LEGO Batman (Will Arnett) for another epic and equally awesome adventure. The filmmakers again brought Animal Logic on board, the studio behind the phenomenally innovative and entertaining animation on each of Warner Bros’ previous LEGO features.
As the film’s animation director, Gum worked closely with Mitchell, splitting her time as needed across all key areas of the production. “I watched over all the animation, but really, was Mike’s partner in everything,” she explains. “I worked hand-in-hand with Chris and Phil, and Mike, in the editing suite, with recording the actors, designing the worlds, as well as working with the animators, layout supervisors and different things like that. I was involved from the beginning, through story and all the way to the end of final production, color, and sound.”
Gum spent considerable time early on in Los Angeles, working with Mitchell, Lord & Miller, and the editing team, before working almost fulltime the last six months of the production with Animal Logic in Vancouver, where the animation was being produced. “I was up in Vancouver just as much as down in L.A., going back and forth all the time. I was a real jet-setter on this one and certainly racked up a lot of airline miles.”
As if often the case with big studio animated features, story development and refinement is a battle fought almost to the end of production. For Gum, while her duties involved oversight of significant areas of the animation production, she stayed focused as well on story development up until the film was almost completed. “I worked with the story team and storyboarding all the way up to a few months before release,” she notes. “We were really making sure the story was just as resonant, emotional and funny as we could make it. I spent a lot of time early in story, then a lot of time in layout and animation. There was also a lot of time spent making sure the cameras were telling the right story, with the right emotion and comedy, at the right time. The same with the animation department. And then there was the production design… that was another big part of my role… working with our production designer, Patrick Hanenberger, to create these whole new worlds that our characters were visiting. As the film changed and grew, and as we shifted into the next major area of the production process, I found myself shifting from story, to production design, to layout and then into animation. There’s an organic handoff between all these areas. They all took big chunks of my time. But story always remained a key priority.”
The LEGO Movie 2 introduces audiences to 11 new worlds, including Apocalypseburg, the mysterious Systar System, Harmony Town and Planet DUPLO. Seventy-nine different LEGO colors, including the brand-new Vibrant Coral, are applied on 3,433 different brick types used to bring 523 different characters to life. As the story unfolds, Emmet, Lucy, Batman and Unikitty face a new threat in the form of DUPLO invaders from outer space -- our returning heroes lock horns with a new set of characters, led by Queen Watevra Wa’Nabi and General Mayhem, in a story that tests the ability of siblings to learn about cooperation and compromise. Specifically, battle is waged between the established and now upended LEGO world of a young boy and the disruptive and completely foreign world of his younger sister, whose idea of LEGO play brings complete devastation to the “everything is awesome” world of the original LEGO Movie.
For The LEGO Movie 2, new story arcs, characters and worlds couldn’t be written, designed and built until the development team first understood the young sister’s character herself. In addition, the filmmakers wanted more than one dynamic female character, and each had to be unique, with different goals, emotions, strengths and interests. “Coming up with new story ideas and characters was challenging but exciting at the same time,” Gum says. “But, we had to make up our minds, Chris and Phil, and Mike and I, who the little girl character was. We asked ourselves, ‘Well, how do we design her world?’ For us, getting the right story really started with figuring out the little sister… we had to decide who she was as a character. We decided she was musical, that she loved to sing and dance, but also loved multimedia and mixing media. We decided she would not only play with LEGO, but would incorporate paper, glitter, fabric, markers, crayons and all different kinds of multimedia. Then we decided she also loved space, so we’re like, ‘Now we’re going to set the story in space, because she’s someone who loves space and science.’ That’s where it became a musical space-themed, creative, crafty kind of world. From there it became easier to design the look and feel of the film. We knew who the character was that was creating these new worlds.”
For the film’s animation, the filmmakers one again relied upon the same minimalistic style of limited character movement used to such charming and hilarious effect in previous LEGO feature films. Every character, set, structure and vehicle was digitally constructed, brick by brick, within the film’s CG pipeline, as if human hands were snapping together real LEGO pieces.
According to Gum, “Everything that you see in the movie was actually physically built from a brick, but done in the computer. Everything was built with a LEGO brick that exists. There’s a brick library, which we used when we designed a set -- the art and modeling teams made that set from actual physical bricks in the computer. Every set had physical limitations, as well as the characters, who had certain hair molds and face rigs. There are a few new characters we designed, like the Queen and Sweet Mayhem, where we got to make new wigs and faces, things like that. We started with a base of bricks, minifigs and different characters that had been developed in the past, and springboard off of that.”
One of the most satisfying results of the filmmakers’ decision once again to base their characters on actual LEGO pieces is the manner in which important emotional energy is conveyed through such a small range of movement. Gum attributes that to the “less is more” LEGO filmmaking philosophy. “What we found with these minifigs is that because they’re so simple in their facial structure, less is really more, especially in the animation. A lot of times, you could get a lot of emoting and expression from simple eye darts, or simple furrowing of a brow.”
New DUPLO and minidoll-based characters brought with them their own unique design challenges. “Because we had singing and dancing numbers as well as new characters that were more complicated than the minifigs, we really had to explore how they were going to move differently,” Gum describes. “The minifigs are one thing, and, like I said, the simplicity of their movement and their limitation actually is what makes them super-charming. We also had what are called minidolls, which are from the Friends line and have never been seen in a LEGO movie before. They have similar limitations, but they’re different enough that, for example, their feet don’t separate, and their wrists don’t rotate. We had different limitations with them. When we were doing a musical number, we actually called in some choreographers who had dancers emulate how minifigs would move. They came up with dance moves for us, but the dancers were actually using the limitations of the minifigs. We found that because we’re working within the rules of how the figures would actually move, it made them more charming when it felt like they’re actually a dancing minifig.”
As Mitchell shared with AWN, the now infamous and hilarious end credits came about quite quickly, towards the end of production, with minimal input from the filmmakers. Gum refers to their creation as “a great collaboration between animation, music and lyrics.” She explains, “We assembled an amazing team. We gave a rough idea of the credits to Alma Mater, which is a visual design studio that does a lot of title sequences and has worked with Chris and Phil before. We put some Post-it Note sketches on the table when we were pitching to them. We said, ‘We really love the idea of driving home our theme, which is two imaginations are better than one, and bringing two people together.’”
“Then we were lucky enough that Beck was interested,” she continues. “He brought us an amazing song [the “Super Cool Song”]. We had very minimal notes. We were just like, ‘This song is really fantastic.’ Then we called our friends Lonely Island, and said, ‘Hey, why don’t you give us some fun raps like you guys always do for us and make them be about our theme?’ They took Beck’s song, and what we got back was them riffing on the credits, which was even better than we expected… it was a complete surprise. We loved it instantly. The entire credits came together so organically, with minimal iterations, because everybody was on the same page as we were.”
Ultimately, for Gum, while every aspect of her role was demanding, her biggest personal challenges were helping find a balanced, meaningful and enjoyable story to tell, and animating Queen Watevra Wa’Nabi. “Our story was a really challenging one to tell,” she says. “We wanted to introduce a lot more characters. We wanted really great, strong female characters. Early on, Chris and Phil wanted the story halfway through to switch to the little girl’s perspective, looking through the eyes of Lucy. For me the biggest challenge was to tell a story that was that ambitious but really resonated and felt authentic, with strong female characters that the audience would love. That was a big challenge, but I feel like we rose to that challenge.”
“The other one for me was just the Queen’s animation,” she adds. “She was made from just a handful of bricks that had really no rules and no rig. Like we were saying, the minifigs have limitations and you play within the rules of that world. Whereas, the Queen was a whole new character who was singing and dancing and had no one identifying shape. Making a shape shifting character feel really appealing and authentic through the animation process was a challenge. But those ended up being my favorite scenes in the movie.”
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Dan Sarto is Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of Animation World Network.