On the 28th January, the Lego group celebrated 60 years since the invention of the iconic toy which led to their worldwide fame, the Lego Brick. So uniquely designed was the Lego brick that one off the very first production line back in 1958 is still usable with Lego systems of today. That is, of course, as long as it hasn’t been misshapen by your younger sibling chewing on it or has a lost mini-figures hand peskily wedged into one of the tubes!
The Lego system is a piece of unparalleled and unrivalled design while ever imitated it has never been bested and the company continues to innovate constantly. Producing brilliant new play and construction sets on a near monthly basis and with the launch of LegoIdeas, a while back, they’ve tapped into the imagination of Lego fans allowing them to design and potentially produce their own sets for production. Meaning the limit to their ideas well is quite literally limitless.
As a child Lego was the lifeblood of my house. My brothers and I rivalled for sets, pieces and mini-figures on a daily basis and birthday’s were a whole other world of competitive collecting. To say time spent huddled around our giant box of lego was a placid and enjoyable bloodbath would be something of an understatement but seems the best articulation I can muster of those times. Those times spent hand in hand and arm wrapped around the others head in a desperate struggle to find that single flat sided 1×4 yellow piece before the other. Outside of the survival and negotiation tactics the time around the Lego box taught me I also found something else. Something that would snowball into a love affair and eventually into a life trajectory. Filmmaking.
I had loved film ever since I could dress my older brother which came at a very early age so basically like when someone says since they could walk or talk or whatever the turn of phrase is. But making a film was a whole other beast that required actors and lights and a script and god knows what else. But take a Lego set, some white tac and a film camera and the world of movie making was your goddam oyster! A Batman/Indiana Jones crossover adventure… Done! A car chase through Atlantis… yeah that’s right physics! Done! Aliens vs Dinosaurs vs Cowboys and Ninjas in Mecha-suits… who needs a budget!! Done! Anything was possible as long as you could build it and imagine it.
Before we go any further a quick crash course in Stop-motion animation at a basic level is likely needed for the rest of this post. Now not to patronise anyone but I don’t want anyone getting lost. Please feel free to skip this next little bit if you think you already know everything.
Stop-motion animation works by manipulating a marionette or rigid puppet into various poses to convey movement. At each change of position a photograph is taken and when they are played in quick succession the marionette appears to move. Film is projected at 24 frames a second so in order to create a single second of stop-motion footage the marionette would have to be photographed and repositioned 24 times. So a minute of stop-motion animated film would consist of doing this 1,440 times. It’s a long an arduous process but creates stunning results, e.g. Wallace and Gromit and the Curse of the Were-Rabbit, Coraline and Fantastic Mr. Fox.
The Lego systems were a poor mans entire Hollywood, there were sound stages, vehicles and stars (aka mini-figures). On top of this it was perfect for stop-motion as it was so easy to manipulate and sturdy enough to keep it’s shape for photography. Plasticine without a wire frame would droop and collapse at a moments notice and action figures didn’t have the flexibility and depending on their make and condition rarely stood resolutely in place. Lego was the perfect.
My first foray began with my dad’s old home movie camcorder which near enough resembled a brick with a hole in it. I loaded in the DV tape and captured the epic tale of a mini-figure being eaten by a giant orange dinosaur (a Pachycephalosaurs to be precise, which yes, is technically a herbivore but as a kid a dinosaur is a dinosaur and when it has horns on it’s head…). The film was complete with an adventuring doctor, a damsel in distress and paper title cards and it was all crude and terrible! The DV tape didn’t capture single frames or maybe I hadn’t quite figured out how everything worked from the art form to the camera. So instead I would record one full second of a still frame, as this was the lowest possible recording time, and then have to play it back at triple fast forward. Even then it was still slightly too slow but it was enough, it was a starting point and an igniting spark for what would come.
What came next were flamboyant westerns and high octane adventures complete with hand to hand combat atop of rampaging trucks. Soon my younger brother was drawn into the fold and with him came moving backgrounds, explosions, focus pulls and high wire stunts (thanks to that trusty white tac). Also by this point we had figured out stills worked better than sped up tape footage. We had also just been granted use of the family’s digital camera – a godsend if there ever was one! We photographed and plotted and posed and problem solved for hours on end. How can we crash and explode this truck into that one? How can we make it look like their flying? Or better yet how can we send their heads spinning through the air? What we produced may have been crude and simple but the ability to create, film and imagine was all that mattered. However I do feel sorry for my mother though as we put her through viewing after viewing of our rough make-do movies with us explaining the story and what was to come next over her shoulder. Like any good mother though she watched them all with faux enjoyment and fascination. I guess she was just happy we weren’t beating one another with tree branches for 5 minutes.
As the way is in life we were producing these films in our own self-contained bubble simply riffing off of what we saw on the big screen and what we had at our dispense (Lego wise). Little did we know, as is often the case, that we were even barely scrapping the surface of possibilities, enter Youtube. There was a community of talented individuals producing epic war stories and pitch perfect comedy skit and trailer recreations and completely original cohesive stories. It revolutionised our world and simultaneously crushed everything we had done. But that’s the way ‘art’ works so we just had to go bigger and better. Before we knew it we were striking out on our own, my younger brother becoming far more accomplished unhindered by my perfectionist ways. Meanwhile I was entering into competitions and in the next instant off to film school. No not because of the competition, I never heard back about that. But Lego had built the path.
If I have in any way intrigued you about the world of Stop-motion Lego animation I would have to implore you to watch the holy grail of Lego-animation, The Magic Portal. It’s a barmy and brilliantly humorous sci-fi epic that blends the world of lego and claymation and real life into one bonkers experience. Now to seasoned film-goer that may seem familiar, why? Well, it is widely speculated that The Magic Portal had a hand in shaping the Lego Movie by Lord and Miller which would be produced nearly 20 years later in 2014. Both are perfect love letters to the history of both lego and lego-animation and a perfect representation of the evolution of the mediums.
Who would have believed that in 1958 a simple plastic brick wouldn’t just allow generation after generation to use their imagination but to unleash it and fully indulge it. Meanwhile inspiring thousands in completely unexpected ways from becoming artists to filmmakers to designers and engineers. Who would of believed that all that would come from one small simple red brick.