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Stop-Motion Animation: It’s Not Just Plasticine Anymore...

First article of 4 about fun things to do with LEGO® play by freelance writer Rosie Tremlett.

Type ‘LEGO®’ into YouTube’s search engine and within seconds you will discover a plethora of clips of LEGO mini-figs dancing, singing, saving the world and even delivering soliloquies. LEGO stop motion animation has exploded; thanks to the internet, not only watching, but producing and sharing these films is becoming ever easier.

The range of animations that you find browsing the web is enormous. There is even an entire website -- www.brickfilms.com -- devoted entirely to LEGO animation, with a ratings system, director profiles and contests and tutorials for the more ambitious. Every genre has been explored, from horror to drama, but the animations which have earned well-deserved viral status tend towards humour and parody, such as the LEGO dramatisation of Eddie Izzard’s ‘Cake or Death’ rant, the Simpsons title sequence with LEGO mini-figs, or the impressively detailed LEGO Super Mario. Clearly seeing these iconic toys move and take on characters has an inherently comic appeal; any story has something funny about it when it is reproduced in colourful, knobbly plastic.

The angular geometry of LEGO bricks also makes them ideal for sci-fi; how better to render robots and spacemen than in a medium which already resembles the nostalgically cool computer graphics of the early 90s? Star Wars parodies are unsurprisingly popular, but what arguably got the ball rolling was a film taking on Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey” as part of a competition to make 1 minute-long films based on the movie. ‘ONE: A Space Odyssey’, a condensed version of the film in LEGO bricks, was the first solely LEGO production of Tony Mines and Tim Drage, the London-based animating duo SpiteYourFace; when given the brief, the pair did not even have to consider for a moment the form their animation would take. “We as film makers were given a brief to make a film to do with Stanley Kubrick’s ‘2001’- I don’t think it even crossed any of our minds to not do it that way, it was like, ‘Oh right, well LEGO bricks then!’”, explains Tony. “ ‘2001’ has a very specific iconic kind of late 60s-early 70s aesthetic to the design which just feels like classic space LEGO, so making this 1969 film using a 1979 spaceman just looked right.” Tim adds, “The more we thought about it and started trying to build things the more perfect it seemed- even just the monolith, it’s a brick, a block!”

The animation was a huge success and attracted the LEGO Group’s attention; they were preparing an animation-based range, ‘LEGO® Studios’, at the time. Suddenly SpiteYourFace were the LEGO animators, and produced hit after hit for various promotions and ventures. They began with their hilarious LEGO reproduction of the Camelot scene from Monty Python’s ‘The Holy Grail’ for the DVD extras, and went on to make ‘The Han Solo Affair’ and ‘The Peril of Doc Ock’. Translating such epic and intricate films into LEGO bricks cannot have been easy; I asked the pair how they got around all the limitations of animating with LEGO bricks and mini-figs to produce such smooth and professional films. “You sort of develop a different language system for representing things, you find yourself falling into using certain trappings of certain motion representing a certain thing: they don’t have knees, they don’t have elbows, they can’t clap...so you have to find ways around it and we’ve always very carefully crafted the stories to not conspicuously avoid the things you can’t do. It’s not just as literal as saying, ‘That man is dancing so we’ll animate this LEGO man dancing,’ because he doesn’t have as many joints as that human being, so let’s find a way around it.” In using LEGO bricks to animate, the SpiteYourFace team are very conscious of the potential gimmick factor of their chosen medium and so try to avoid drawing any more attention to it than is necessary. The viewer should become absorbed, be involved in the action and the characters, and feel that is not simply LEGO bricks for the sake of LEGO bricks. “I always think that in 30 seconds in you should sort of forget that it’s LEGO bricks. A lot of kids, when they’re trying it, seem satisfied to consciously remind you that it’s some toys on a table. I think if they can get past that step they’ll grow as filmmakers,” explains Tony.

So what is it that makes LEGO bricks such a popular animation medium? No other toy has experienced such a trend, one which seems set to continue and grow. It must, in part, be due simply to the ease of animating with LEGO bricks, as their infinite variability and the poseable, personisable mini-figs make constructing sets and characters possible for anyone; what was once seen as the domain of professional studios such as Aardman, with their complex models and wire-frames, has become an accessible and fun hobby for people of any age. But its success must be down to more than just convenience. The sheer novelty of creating characters and action using these familiar, stylized figures, with their iconic and instantly recognisable design, is in itself tantalizing and eye-catching. No matter whether you emphasise this or, like SpiteYourFace, downplay it, the charm of mini-figs acting out a story against a LEGO backdrop is what draws people to it.

If you would like to try animating with LEGO bricks, simply get hold of a camera or webcam, a stable surface that does not wobble (like a kitchen counter) on which to animate, some lights and the models you require. If you are using a webcam, some useful freeware for stop-motion animation is FrameByFrame for Macs and MonkeyJam for Windows. Windows Movie Maker and iMovie, both free with their respective operating systems, work well for editing footage and can be used just to arrange a lot of stills into an animation if necessary.

To produce your animation:
1. Cover the windows and pay attention to lighting. Natural light will change during filming and make your animation flicker, so it is best to use lamps in order to be able to alter the light’s direction and strength. Tim of SpiteYourFace also advises that any budding animator make themselves a reflector out of white paper or aluminium foil and point the light at this rather than the set itself, using the reflected light to illuminate the figures. The reflector diffuses the light and makes it less harsh and more cinematic.

2. Be patient and take it slowly. You will need to change the position of each moving object very slightly between each frame, and the smaller the changes you make the smoother and more professional the movement will look.

3. Check out the tutorials at Brickfilms for helpful advice on basic animation as well as more advanced techniques like giving your mini-figs moving mouths and facial expressions.
4. Post-production makes a huge difference; edit your video carefully, with timing and a snappy beginning and end in mind. Music and sound effects help give the film life and depth, and these can be made either at home with a microphone or downloaded online, free from sites like Soundsnap.

I asked SpiteYourFace if they had any tips for an aspiring LEGO animator. “Rule one: no stud flaws,” suggests Tony, talking about using the LEGO studs to make the mini-figs stand up and walk in an animation. “Because he can and because it’s there you shouldn’t. So that’s the number one rule, don’t use the convenience that other types of animation don’t have- their greatest challenge is how you actually make models stand up. LEGO mini-figs don’t have that challenge, you can just ‘plonk’ him on the little slots and the man will stand up, even if he’s on one leg - so you shouldn’t, and if you get past that that will set you on the path to actually thinking about filmmaking as opposed to just being satisfied making the guy move from A to B.” He also advises that animators make sure to present their figures as real characters in the story, as if they were actors playing a part: “You look at a LEGO man and go ‘Oh, that’s a soldier, that’s hilarious’, and the mind instantly puts the character onto it, so you have to be aware of that and try to sell the idea that this LEGO man is a real person throughout, in an actual world, and that will lead you on to make responsible choices in whatever you end up doing.”

As webcams and computers become more advanced and less expensive, amateur animations can only get better, and the potential LEGO products provide in this field is boundless; it is ideal not just for first-time animators but also for those more experienced. The LEGO animation community is made up of kids, teens and adults alike and everyone is encouraged to get involved and share what they produce. Who knows what may be achieved in this medium; maybe someday in the near future we might even be seeing the first ever full-length LEGO motion picture.

Rosie Tremlett is a freelance editor and writer. Currently, she is a student at Oxford University and is studying English Literature and German.