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CGIFeature FilmIdeas/Commentary

Let’s Talk About the Animation in “The Lego Movie”

Attempting to predict box office results is a fool’s errand, but it’s safe to say at this point that The Lego Movie, which opens this Friday in the U.S., will be a big hit. And I mean, huge. The box office will be much bigger than I imagine most industry observers are anticipating. Its distributor Warner Bros. knows they’ve got a hit of some sort on their hands, so much so that they’re already started laying the groundwork for a sequel.

The studio has released loads of clips ahead of the film’s release, perhaps to make clear that this is not standard-fare family CGI. The film’s humor skews older than the typical PG animated movie, and I expect it will attract neglected teen audiences who have aged out of the stream of tonally indistinguishable CG pics pumped out by other studios.

The quirky visual approach to such unquirky material as Legos can be attributed to the film’s directing duo, Phil Lord and Chris Miller, who have carved out a unique niche in Hollywood without being identified for any single project. Unlike animation creators like South Park’s Trey Park and Matt Stone, or the ubiquitous Seth MacFarlane, Lord and Miller aren’t known for any particular style. In fact, their two most significant animated projects prior to The Lego Movie could not be more different: the Teletoon/MTV series Clone High and Sony Picture Animation’s Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs. In between those, they’ve also worked as writers and exec producers on the TV series How I Met Your Mother and directed the successful live-action feature-based-on-the-TV-series 21 Jump Street. The Lego Movie may be the clearest expression yet of Lord and Miller’s stil-evolving voice as animation filmmakers.

Celebrity voices, franchise cross-overs, rapid-fire jokes, and Legos-this film has it all, but what has been lost in the discussion is the film’s exuberantly original animation style. Many films have attempted to break the Pixar-by-way-of-Disney animation mold by suggesting a more stylized approach to animated movement, among them the Madagascar series, Wreck-It Ralph, and Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs 2. Lego Movie pushes further than any of those films with a consistently inventive style of movement (the key word being consistent).

The clip below shows what I’m talking about. I especially love the workout scene with its staccato movements that are accented with held poses. The acting is funny and goofy because of the way it moves, which is something that almost never happens in feature animation nowadays.

Even though the film was computer animated, the filmmakers treated the articulation of characters as if they were actual plastic Lego pieces. “Those kinds of limitations are fun,” Miller told Film Journal International, “because you’ve got to find creative ways to solve them—like, there’s only seven points of articulation on a mini-figure, so how do you choreograph a fight sequence with a character who can’t wind up to punch someone? We were really inspired by a lot of the short films that people make in their basements and post online where they come up with such clever solutions to those limitations.”

Limiting the articulation of characters had the counterintuitive effect of opening up new creative possibilities. It allowed for an animation style—naive, imperfect—that aspires to the charm of stop motion animation more than the mechanical flawlessness of CG. Not surprisingly then, the film’s animation director, Chris McKay, is a veteran stop motion director of the TV series Robot Chicken and Moral Orel. He was the director stationed alongside the animators at the Australian animation studio Animal Logic (which also produced the animation for Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga’Hoole and the Happy Feet movies). From what I’ve been able to discover about the film, McKay played an important in following through on Lord and Miller’s concept and maintaining the film’s stylized approach to animation.

Lord, Miller, and McKay deserve massive credit for conceiving an original, expressive vision for computer animation, and more importantly, managing to push it through the conservative studio system. Yes, they had the benefit of working with a unique source material—Legos—but it’s easy to imagine the animation in this film going in any number of less interesting directions.

Other studios will try to dissect the successful elements of The Lego Movie, things like its toy-based origins, off-beat voice casting, and cross-branding. Hopefully they won’t overlook one of the major components that distinguishes this film from the pack: its funny and unconventional approach to animation.

  • Mister Twister

    CGI? Doesn’t it have stop motion in it? ARE YOU SURE?

    • Adrian vom Baur

      I’m pretty sure I’ve read a couple of times that it has at least SOME stop motion animation in it, albeit not a lot.

      • Kyle_Maloney

        Any source for this? That’s the first I’ve heard any of it could be stop motion.

      • There’s a tiny bit of stop-mo, but they haven’t shown it in any clips or trailers yet.

  • Bob Harper

    Well written Amid. I agree 100% This is the type of thing I’ve been wanting to do for a while. The success of this movie it will open the door for those of us who are trying to do something different for features.

  • Jonah Sidhom

    I’ve been watching the RottenTomatoes score for a few days now, still 100% with 30 reviews at the time of writing this. I’m pretty excited to see it this weekend!

  • antonia

    I was not very excited to see this one, but now I am!
    The animation reminds me of A town called panic, which was also funny because of the limitations of the toy figures.

  • Caitlin Cadieux

    This movie looks like incredibly good fun, the animation style is infectiously pleasing to look at it and the humor is great. I think this movie is definitely going to be a massive hit. So exciting.

  • JodyMorgan

    One doesn’t have to “imagine the animation in this film going in any number of less interesting directions”; one simply has to watch Ninjago or Chima on Cartoon Network. (Not saying those shows are bad, per se, just that their animation isn’t very interesting.)

    • SMC

      Although Ninjago & Chima are based on Lego’s, there animation is completely different. They are bending the figures and exaggerating the movements contrary to rigidity of actual Lego’s, but The Lego Movie is purposely limited the movement to mimic stop motion. Two different concepts entirely.

      … on that note, I am looking forward to The Lego Movie a lot.

      • Mike

        That’s exactly what Jody was saying….

    • El Hueso

      Agreed. When I first heard of this movie, I thought we would get a full feature with the ‘flexible-LEGO’ style of animation that they use in videogames. Glad to see them taking a different direction.

      An example:

  • George Comerci

    I can’t wait to see it! I agree, I love the visual style. When I first saw the trailer, I honestly thought it was stop-motion. But yeah, this will be fantastic.

  • I have to admit, I was initially put off by the film by how much the marketing was skewed toward boys. But these clips are undeniably exciting. Even with the jerky movement created by the imposed limitation of Lego pieces, this animation manages to bring warmth that you can’t find in most CGI films. That’s something I never thought I’d say about a movie based on plastic toys.

    Also, impressive is how they pay homage to plenty of old school Lego pieces that aren’t even manufactured anymore. I get the feeling that watching this will be a sort of “I Spy:Lego Nostalgia Edition” experience.

    • bencee

      trying on a whole bunch of outfits in the morning is skewed towards boys?

    • tredlow

      Well, it’s got two original female characters, and one of them is a unicorn cat made of Lego bricks. It’s not much, but the movie is already less boy-centric than how Lego usually markets its main toyline.

      Would be nice to have more female minifigs, though.

      • JodyMorgan

        Is it wrong that, as a boy, I’m interested in that unicorn cat just because of how silly a concept that is?

        • tredlow

          I’m more interested in how she moves considering she’s made of Lego bricks.

  • The moment I saw the first trailer, I immediately fell in love with the stop motion aesthetic of the animation. It’s hard to believe that it took for a movie based on a licensed product to be so experimental with CG animation, but it’s a move I welcome with open arms. It just goes to show that CG can be more expansive of a medium that we give it credit for.

    Hopefully this will pave the way for more experimentation in the future.

  • Roberto Severino

    That trailer was pretty cool and I couldn’t even tell it was CGI at all. It did have sort of that Robot Chicken feel to it.

  • Kris Åsard

    I believe the key to success here is that the animators have successfully managed to emulate what a talking, moving Lego character looks and feels like *when imagined by kids playing whith their toys* – which is a fast track to both nostalgia and suspension of disbelief.
    The trailer hit me right in the childhood, anyway.
    Lego has been churning out their own direct-to-DVD movies for quite some time, but with a radically different approach: those characters move like “real people” with extra articulation etc, and that actually just spoils it.

    • white vader

      To be upfront, I worked on this too, but wanted to say that the fact they were going with all the restraints as an innately humourous and appropriate approach was one of the main things that hooked me when coming on board. The games to me mostly don’t have much to do with Lego, and I’m not big on them being all twisty and warpy either.

      You’ll notice that just like a stop-mo brickfilm, there’s no motion blur on the characters (and bite marks, lint and ripped stickers – but in cinemascope aspect ratio with lush lighting as part of the joke). And like replacement animation things like sparks are actually regular magic wand or pot plant lego pieces swapped out frame by frame so that persistence of vision carries you through.

      • Myst AnimatorX

        Lucky dog! Because of people like you this film turned out so fantastic!

      • Just wanted to so thanks for working on such an awesome film! People like you are what made it actually happen for the rest of us to enjoy!

        • white vader

          Thanks Annie/guys for the comments and upvotes.

          For me the best thing about it was that it was true to the idea of the toy and creative play/lateral problem solving carried through the whole thing – it wasn’t just an ad, and for once the original characters actually held up. Fun stuff.

  • Kelly

    Great article! You forgot to mention one INCREDIBLY animated recent movie, though: Hotel Transylvania. That blew my mind and gave me so much hope for something different in computer animation. Something much more fun and creative.

    • CG Animator

      I loved ‘Hotel Transylvania’ for the animation alone. Story, to me, was so-so but it was just so visually entertaining that I could overlook that (I feel the same way about movies like Corpse Bride… not very strong story-wise, but incredibly entertaining because of the visuals).

      Sony is doing amazing cartoony CG animation work that throwss every “CG animation can never be as fun or cartoony as hand-drawn” theory out the window.

      • Funkybat

        I believe Genndy is a big part of that, though we can thank Lord & Miller on the original Cloudy With A Chance of Meatballs. Genndy gave a talk at the 2012 CTN where he discussed how when he came on board, the animators were style trying to animate the characters according the typical 3D conventions. Genndy didn’t know a lot about the technical side of 3D but insisted that they needed to push the models past their current “breaking points” and drew loose gesture poses over the still frames of the blocking shots, and it was up to the modelers and animators to somehow make the characters do it without (apparently) breaking the models. If I recall correctly, a lot of stuff was cheated to such an extent that if you looked at the source files, there would be all kinds of “errors” but they made each shot work from the particular angle of the camera in a given shot, which is all that matters on screen. He also mentioned that it helped that Drac’s outfit was so dark and between dark costumes and dark lighting they could get away with a lot.

  • Lucky Jim

    Phil and Chris have great taste in design. I’ve been watching “Clone High” again recently and it’s a such a gorgeous-looking show. Dexter Smith, Mike Moon, Carey Yost and all the folks at Nelvana did an amazing job making pretty much every shot fun to look at.

    Not surprisingly “Lego” looks beautiful as well, and in a completely different way.

    • Funkybat

      I’ve wanted to watch Clone High for years, I kept hearing good things but it wasn’t on in the U.S. for very long. Is it on any streaming services? There’s a DVD on Amazon but it’s like $35 bucks, a bit high for a single season TV series.

      • Crispy Walker

        The original comment of this got me interested in Clone High. I vaguely remembered it from when I was younger, but I dont think I was old enough to really get it. But, all the episodes are posted on Youtube, and after watching the first 5, I gotta say, it’s great! Give it a shot.

  • tril

    This looks like it will be much better than the upcoming Batman vs. Superman/Justice League movies.

    • Strong Enough


      • adam

        i actually agree, batman vs superman is nothing new or original, the lego movie however, is completely new and original, just like how we played with lego as kids (or still as adults) and make up our own epics. while batman/superman are just rehashing some old super heros, super villains and adding unneeded “gritty angst” where there doesnt need to be any while having far too much cgi. (yes i know TLM is also cgi but it honestly looks like its real lego.)

        • white vader

          That argument gets complicated when you remember that Batman and Superman are also in this movie!


  • I’m 28 and this is literally the most excited I’ve been for a movie in years.

  • Animator606432

    The more I see about this movie the more excited I am to see it. And I’m usually one those “modern Hollywood animation all looks the same” but this just looks so different and humor so up my alley that I know i’ll enjoy it.

  • Chris

    The success this will be started with the script. I read half of it and if you didn’t read the cover page you would hardly know it was “that lego movie.” It just reads like a fantastic and witty film. And the read itself was fun. The amount of good times Lord and Miller clearly had writing the script came through in every page. They make it look easy, that’s for sure.

  • Gee-dub

    Nice write-up Amid, I guess I have to go read the filmjournal link now.

    Yuck though, please don’t write it as “LEGOS”! Stick to “LEGO pieces”, bricks, figures and so on.

  • Googamp32

    If they just went with stop-motion and not lied to us by trying to make CGI look like stop-motion, I would go see it!

    • Strong Enough

      they lied? when? lol

    • Kris Kail

      buddy if you feel lied to going to the movies then i got a few choice words for you

    • tredlow

      They never hid the fact that it’s CGI, though.

    • white vader

      To be fair Googamp, have you even looked at the trailers? You’ve obviously got a bee in your bonnet here, because even a quick look at a trailer will show you procedurally animated oceans and explosions and physics-based stuff that couldn’t possibly be done unless you had hundreds of animators working for decades.

  • rubberonion

    Very good things to keep in mind before the release this weekend. Well done, Amid!

  • Adrian C.

    I’m also on board with film’s look and animation. It works because of the film’s tone (it’s clear that it’s a comedy) and, more significantly, it uses LEGOs (well, CG versions of them). A stop-motion film using actual LEGOs might look something this so the audience probably doesn’t think twice about it. In a sense, you could almost consider the animation to be “realistic,” though obviously not in the way most people think of the term.

    If Entertainment Weekly’s review of the film is any indication, I think most critics will at least acknowledge the unique visual presentation of the film, if only briefly. Some reviews may give the visuals a bit more attention than others, but I strongly doubt any of them will cover them to the extent that Amid’s post does.

  • white vader

    I’d argue stop motion in the last couple of decades is thriving more than in its “heyday”! 2d hand-drawn, notsomuch.

    • Strong Enough

      online 2D is still alive. the main form of animation people use.

  • white vader

    What about the horses? NO points of articulation!

    • Kyle_Maloney

      I have some Lego horses, it has one point of articulation in its neck.. Not sure if theres a different one in the movie, haven’t seen it yet.

  • Víctor

    Thank you for the info. I just watched the movie and was wondering about that.

  • white vader

    She’s a major character in the movie proper though. And a hell of a lot more intelligent than the “hero”! Hopefully you’ll be pleased. The lusting (actually just being smitten) is more a comment on the male character. There was a joke on feminism/Lego Friends, but I don’t know that that survived.

  • Funkybat

    I have been looking forward to the Lego Movie precisely because it doesn’t strive for fluid animation, but retains the look of a homebrew pixelation-style Lego animated short. I also love what Lord & Miller have done so far, so I knew the comedy would be strong as well. There is an additional reason this movie makes me smile, and it’s a reason I suspect not too many other people share (but I would love to be proven wrong.) That is; the (inadvertant?) skewering of the sheer number of “licensed” Lego characters and playsets.

    For the past decade or two, I have looked on with a mix of disappointment and, well, *disdain* is too strong a word, but I suppose, disapproval, as the Lego company seemed to become less and less about those little colored bricks, challenging kids and adults to use their imagination with them, and more and more about licensed sets with customized, pre-fab elements. I admire Lego creations that use pretty much ONLY the traditional, ubiquitous blocks and elements that are included in pretty much any Lego set, more than I do the purpose-built stuff. (The Lego Genie and Lego Maleficent at Downtown Disney in Anaheim are AMAZING examples of what I’m talking about.) I feel like there are so many brand-driven Lego sets, what Lego was originally about is lost. In the 70s and 80s, any Lego kit was pretty much generic “pirate ship” or “space adventure” and wasn’t attached to whatever new film was coming out.

    In a way, I feel like the Lego Movie is coming full circle on this, using the huge universe of licensed AND generic Lego people and places to create a world to play in on film. The premise excites me because it is an opportunity to mock some elements of what Lego has become which simultaneously honoring what a big part of childhood Legos are for many people. This movie should be a lot of fun.

  • Funkybat

    I thought Hotel Transylvania was a lot of fun, it was a MUCH better film than I was expecting. In still frame promo images, the character designs didn’t seem all that special, but in motion, they really popped. There was also more emotional resonance in the story than I expected. Easily Sandler’s best performance in years – (kind of like how Nic Cage’s best performance in years was as the dad in The Croods.) I am looking forward to what Genndy does next, and I hope whatever it is has accompanying 2D animated shorts/titles/extras, as Hotel Transylvania did!

  • Funkybat

    I doubt too many of the same decisionmakers at Warner’s marketing are the same people in charge back in the late 90s when they couldn’t market either good (Iron Giant, Cat’s Don’t Dance) or bad (Quest for Camelot) animated films. The marketing for this film seems to have been pretty solid, but then, so does the film itself.

  • cam

    I was never into legos as much, but I AM NOW! THIS MOVIE LOOKS HILARIOUS!

  • Ian

    Here’s an in-depth look at Animal Logic’s work behind the film:

    • Crispy Walker

      Thanks for this link!

  • Crispy Walker

    I thought the same thing. Hotel Transylvania was a lot of fun — the story was sorta problematic, as I felt it lagged a lot in the middle, but I loved the character designs, and the animation felt like it retained a lot of the very extreme pose-iness that was existant in Gendy’s Cartoon Network shows. As much as I loved the film, I don’t think a sequel is necessary, but it’s cool to see Gendy getting the support from a bigger studio that he deserves again.

  • Lukas S.

    Still very different in my opinion though. The lighting is not as consistent for example, due to having to take several pictures at different times. But it’s a damn great stop motion short anyway :D Was he comissioned by LEGO themselves to make it? Or was it a personal project?