So unless you’ve been asleep, hiding in a darkened room, or dead for the last few months you’re probably aware that we’ve been rather busy working on a LEGO stop motion animation for the National House Building Council, it’s been a great challenge (in many ways) but we’re incredibly proud of the results and we hope you all enjoy it too – after all, who doesn’t love LEGO?
Rewind to the start of this year to where this all began with a tender to pitch ideas to the NHBC for a creative film production that will encourage young people to take up careers within the house building industry. After bashing a few ideas around and generally ending up where we began (with nothing) we hit upon the idea of using LEGO to tell the story.
We figured that LEGO is pretty universally loved, crosses generations and makes pretty great stop motion figures. The general concept was to create a LEGO world based on a real life housing estate. We would graphic match a real house to a LEGO version of it and explore different career paths within this new LEGO world. This got us a little bit over excited and we started fleshing out the ideas to include spot gags using the physical quirks of LEGO for comedy effect. We also hit on the idea of having a dolls house style central set to showcase the various trades involved in building new houses. It was a pretty bold concept and we knew it would take a brave client to give it the go-ahead – Luckily the NHBC had their brave boots on…
After meeting with the team at NHBC we started the crucial job of storyboarding and scripting the entire film. It was important to have every aspect meticulously mapped out to ensure the client knew exactly what to expect. With stop motion animation, every second matters and the phrase “another take” is certainly not music to an animators ears!
At the same time we began discussions with our LEGO builder – Gary Davis – a man who would become our hero during production. We consulted him about what was possible in LEGO (pretty much anything it transpired) and what we could create within our production budget and timescale. With the storyboards signed off the build could begin and Gary certainly didn’t disappoint.
The film is bookended by 2 live action scenes on real active contraction site. The NHBC sourced us a suitable location near to their Milton Keynes office where there was the mix of fully completed new houses alongside active construction. We enlisted the help of Papercut Media to shoot the aerial drone footage. They did a great job to bring the drone down from a sweeping aerial shot of the building site into a perfect view of the star house that transforms into it’s LEGO counterpart. It makes for a really dynamic opening shot and helps kick us into our LEGO world perfectly.
With the builds in place we began the very slow job of stop motion animation. We decided to use the specialist animation software dragonframe to handle the processing of the still images. It allowed us to hook our camera directly into the Mac and control all the exposure controls as well as being able to organise takes, block out actions and match shots using the brillant onion skin feature to ensure the motion is perfectly matched to the preceding shot. We used a Canon 5d MKIII for the production coupled with 2 Samyang Cine lenses which gave use the all important manual iris and focus rings. We used a 35mm lens for a couple of wides but the workhorse of the production was a 100mm macro lens – you really couldn’t ask for a better lens for stop motion work at this scale and we highly recommend looking at the Samyang glass if you’re a Canon user.
After a few camera and after effects tests, principle photography began and took around 7 days to complete (7 very longs days we should add!). Most of the scenes are shot at 12 fps and on average we could complete 3-4 seconds per hour but some scenes took 14 hours for 10 secs of finished product! We eased ourself in with some of the simpler office based shots, there was a lot of green screen involved with some of these scenes so we could add in additional backgrounds and elements, such as the bird falling past the architects window! This took 3 takes to get right, initially we wanted to shoot through the glass windows in the office set but reflections at this small scale were very difficult to control to a level we were happy with so we removed the glass – hopefully you can’t tell. One of the most challenging aspects to get right was group walking. Despite successful tests, they didn’t look natural in some of the shots. Arm movement became a deciding factor and we became experts in how LEGO minifigs walk – we spent longer than we care to admit walking around the office arguing over how people actually walk!
We wanted the effects in the film to be as authentic as possible and as many of the camera moves as possible are created for real by moving the camera (2mm per frame if you care) along a lockable camera slider. Many of the scenes also involve manual stop motion focus pulls. So in the main building site scene where the camera moves across from the site manager past the diggers and ends at the site manger getting back into the car was a single scene, shot in one take, with at times 7 actions per frame (camera move, focus pull, 3 figures, 2 props) and no room for a mistake!
We made a decision early on in the pre production that we wanted the LEGO characters to be able to express themselves and react to situation with facial expressions. To enable this we shot all the characters with blank heads and then added all the faces in post production with After Effects. Although this added to the production schedule it gave us greater flexibility to adapt the scenes after the scenes were shot but also produced a far more engaging film and takes the entire production up to the next level.
The music and sound design was created by Clear Audio Media in Lincoln. They were really great to work with, adapting to our endless list of requirements! VO was recorded in London at The Voiceover Gallery, it’s a well known celebrity artist (which for boring contractual reasons we can’t name) who was a pleasure to work with and a total pro, he had the perfect voice to speak out to our target demographic of young people deciding on their career path.
We could go on forever about this project, but we’ll save you from that. It’s been a great project to work on, we’re never ones to be scared of a new challenge, and this was certainly up there! We’ve learnt so much during the process and have conceived what we hope will be ongoing partnerships with new providers. The NHBC is very happy with the production and we appreciate the risk they were willing to take with such an ambitious proposal from us. The public reaction has been outstanding and we don’t think this will be the last LEGO film we create !