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Lego: Projects, Ideas and Inspiration

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Long before The Lego Movie was created, Lego nerds have been filming some amazing stop-motion projects. One of the best is David Pagano, who with collaborators runs Paganomation, his animation studio. Their work has appeared on Nickelodeon, ABC News, Lego.com, the Wall Street Journal, as well as BrickJournal.

I asked David what the brickfilm scene is all about:

JB: What’s a brickfilm?

DP: Brickfilms are a way for Lego fans to tell their stories through the use of film and animation techniques. These films can be in any style, and about any topic, but they all have one thing in common — the use of Lego bricks and elements!

JB: How long does it take to complete one of your projects, on average?

DP: The work we do at Paganomation is very unique — we have to balance the infinite possibilities of Lego bricks, stop-motion, and our imaginations with real world limitations like schedules, deadlines, and gravity.

For the majority of our minifigure-based projects, I try to allot a minimum of one month of production time per minute of screen time. That means if we’re making a film that’s 3 minutes long, it’s going to take at least 3 months to complete from start to finish.

That doesn’t even take into account the complexity of whatever it is we’re doing. Obviously, a 30-second scene of one guy standing around talking is not going to take as long to build or animate as a 30-second scene of a dozen characters flying around in robot spaceships, shooting lasers at each other as they explode.

And don’t even get me started on timelines for large-scale films. My college thesis film, “Little Guys!”, used giant brick-built characters and took eight months to complete… and it’s only two and a half minutes long.

JB: Say I want to get into brickfilms. What’s a great first step?

DP: The best first step for getting into brickfilming is to grab some Lego bricks and start playing. This may sound simple and obvious, but the Lego worlds I created as a kid through play led me into the career I have today. All it took was that one moment of “hmm … I’ve built these cool creations, and I’m making up my own stories about them … What if I made a video of those stories to share with my friends?”

JB: Can you suggest some websites with information on the topic?

DP: The main hub for the online Lego animation community is BricksInMotion.com. There, you can find all sorts of films to watch, tutorials, resources, and forums filled with people who are ready and willing to answer your questions.

I also co-curate a Lego animation blog called The Set Bump, along with David M. Pickett (of The Nightly News at Nine) and a variety of rotating guest bloggers. We cover Lego animation news, reviews, tools, tutorials, and so much more.

JB: What goes into designing and filming a typical scene?

DP: Before starting work on any given scene, we’ll already have a script and storyboards to reference in terms of what needs to happen story-wise. If time allows, I also like to put together mood boards, which are kind of like collages that help determine how the scene should feel in terms of color, layout, and tone.

From there, it’s on to building. Every film we make here at Paganomation has its own unique challenges: if the film is being made for TLG [The Lego Group] and needs to highlight a specific product, we’ll generally design the scene in a way that showcases that product as prominently as possible. Otherwise, if the film is for a different client (or an independent project), I’ll just try to build the coolest-looking thing that I can.

Once everything’s built, we light the scene in a way that’s both visually satisfying and practical. Lighting Lego film sets can be tricky, since the plastic is super-shiny and one wrong light angle can cause weird reflections or flickering issues. We shoot test images to try and expose all those problem areas before animation begins.

And then, animation. Stop-motion is a long, laborious process, and shots on our films can take anywhere from three to eight hours (or more) to shoot. Sometimes I animate by myself, but I try to have help from other people whenever possible. That way, I can focus on the sets and characters, and the other person can do what I call “driving”: handling the stop-motion software controls, checking the playback, and looking for set bumps or weird arcs in the animation.

After all, it doesn’t matter what I see on set while animating — all that matters is what the final shot looks like on-screen.

JB: Tell us about your Kickstarter-funded project, “Little Guys … in Space!”

DP: “Little Guys… In Space!” is a sequel to my aforementioned college thesis film, and has actually been in the works since 2011. I raised a bit of money for the film on Kickstarter in 2012, but because of the unpredictability of our commission workload, it’s only been in the past few months that actual animation on the film has begun. By hook or by crook, it will be released later this year.

Whereas “Little Guys!” was my homage to/parody of ‘80s toy commercials, “Little Guys … In Space!” takes the next logical step for a (fake) toy line — moving things INTO SPACE to make them more awesome. It’s got lots of fun gags and neat builds. You can follow the progress of the film (and check out some behind-the-scenes photos) on our Kickstarter and Facebook pages.

Speaking of which… I need to get back to work!

Want to see some of David’s work? Check out his picks of cool brickfilms he either collaborated on or just admires!

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John Baichtal

My interests include writing, electronics, RPGs, scifi, hackers & hackerspaces, 3D printing, building sets & toys. @johnbaichtal nerdage.net


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