The LEGO Movie is arguably the most widely known example of brickfilm, a style of animation that utilizes construction bricks (usually LEGOs) and stop motion to create on-screen movement.
This particular subset of animation is incredibly varied and has a rich history dating back to 1973. Its works span genres from fan recreations of movie trailers, to music videos, to sporting events, and even informational films about the environment. While the variety and creativity of the medium are nearly endless, the vast majority of this style of animation is unfortunately ignored in favor of the family friendly franchise, because, well, that’s where the money is.
But with adult animation becoming more popular and small studios more willing to experiment, will there be an explosion of brickfilm in the upcoming decade? It’s possible, but there’s a couple of considerations to take into account first.
One of the main barriers preventing full-on brickfilm mania may not even seem like an issue at first glance: the use of mini figures (minifigs.) These classic yellow-hued plastic characters create some unexpectedly tricky problems for creators, both when it comes to building out a world on screen, when navigating through intellectual property law so that this world can actually be seen, and with creating a world that, well, doesn’t look like a bunch of toys.
Minifigs, despite being customizable, do require either a certain amount of CGI or stop motion in order to accurately portray expressions, speech, and any defining character features that aren’t available in a LEGO box set. Computer generated facial expressions are by and far the most fluid, but also the most expensive, which is likely why this approach is reserved for Warner Bros. productions for the time being. Stop motion emotions, on the other hand, can provide more variety, but still manage to be labor intensive. Even using stickers to animate expressions on figurines, a la Stoopid Buddy Stoodios’ Robot Chicken, can require nearly a dozen animators and months of work. And as if these technical struggles aren’t enough, there’s the whole issue of avoiding stepping on the toes of various rights owners, whether that’s LEGO themselves, DC for LEGO Batman, LucasFilms for Star Wars, and so on. Sure, there’s a certain bit of leeway with parodies, but not everything can use that approach. Finally there’s the whole “toy” issue. While the best animation often appeals to all ages, sophisticated visuals go a long way towards helping the medium get taken seriously.
So what’s a small studio to do? Resign themselves to endless DIY grinding and copyright squabbles, or start playing the lottery in hopes of winning an actual budget? Interestingly, the most viable approach comes from what may be the second-most well known piece of brickfilm: the music video for “Fell in Love with a Girl” by The White Stripes.
By forgoing the minifig approach altogether in favor of more abstract brick-based versions of the band members, instruments, and various backgrounds, director Micheal Gondry (of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind fame) created a stylish sensation that both fit perfectly with the song and transcended it.
This “bricks only” approach can still bump up against intellectual property issues, as was the case when The Lego Group supposedly refused to create custom sets for listeners to build the likeness of Jack and Meg White since the target audience was adults and therefore outside of their marketing goals (although rumor has it they reached back out once the music video was popular.) But it’s a much safer approach to avoiding inaccurately portraying someone, while managing to leapfrog over the facial expression issue altogether. By focusing on the possibilities of the bricks themselves, and their ability to be stacked and shaped any way animators want or need, it springs the doors of creative potential wide open.
For brickfilm to appeal to adult audiences, this is key. New worlds can be created, and new stories within them, rather than relying solely on nostalgia and jokes. Even more exciting, the variety of movement within this particular medium can lend itself to unique viewing experiences and enhanced symbolism, if the situation calls for it. No other form of animation works with a material that can be flat when needed, or stacked into full three-dimensional forms, shaped into a person, and broken down into discrete parts, only to be reformed again. More solid than claymation, more grounded in reality than 8-bit, there’s a vast well of emotions and stories that would lend themselves to this medium just waiting to be unleashed.
In short, to see the full potential of brickfilm, studios will have to work from the ground up. It’s a tall order. But if creators are willing to take the risk, they stand poised to help build a new Golden Age of animation, brick by plastic brick.