Following on from The LEGO Movie and The LEGO Batman Movie, the Animal Logic team worked closely with Director Charlie Bean to bring the popular Ninjago TV series to the big screen in The LEGO Ninjago Movie.
With 2 LEGO films under their belt, the Animal Logic crews were armed with the knowledge and know-how on how to bring the film to life using the endearing stop motion style that has become the hallmark of the LEGO feature franchise.
Despite coming into the project well prepared, The LEGO Ninjago Movie offered up its own set of creative challenges which kept the team on their toes. Some of the challenges included animating the fluid and impromptu Kung Fu style of Jackie Chan and his stunt team, rendering and bringing naturalistic elements to the movie as well as creating a convincing CG cat!
The film is set on the vast Island of Ninjago (nearly 12.7 million virtual LEGO blocks!), which in itself proved to be a huge design challenge. Having to create a fantastical Asian-inspired world, the Animal Logic team worked closely with the LEGO team in Denmark to come up with characters that were unlike anything from its previous installments. Making sure no brick was left unturned, Animal Logic Art Director, Felicity Coonan even came up with a language for the Ninjago world – Ninjagan.
The LEGO Ninjago Movie takes a stylistic departure from its predecessors. While the environments in The LEGO Movie and The LEGO Batman Movie were mostly built by CG bricks, The LEGO Ninjago Movie sees the integration of natural environments and elements –water, trees, leaves, sand, fire, rocks and more, within the CG world. According to CG Supervisor, Greg Jowle, “the film had to feel akin to a child playing in the backyard at a macro level with their little LEGO pieces.” To make this believable, a lot of attention had to be placed on scale. For example, a leaf which was smaller than a human hand would in fact be bigger than a LEGO Minifigure!
With the world created, the LEGO inhabitants also had to interact with the naturalistic elements convincingly. This challenging task was thrust upon the FX team. In order to achieve the most realistic result, the team not only relied upon internet research and prior experience, but also doing actual physical tests! For example, the team would dip LEGO pieces into tanks of water, even going so far as to spend a day at the beach with Minifigures just to observe how water and sand would interact with the bricks (disclaimer: some Minifigs may or may not have been washed away at Bondi Beach)!
As with all LEGO films, the team adhered to the LEGO rule book, as Felicity confirms, “we only use the limited Lego colour palette and we never stray from that. We ensure no bricks are intersecting so that nothing we put onscreen couldn’t be done in real life with real bricks. They’re the challenges that ultimately give the LEGO films their charm.” Working with Jackie Chan and his stunt team seriously threatened to throw the rule book out the window. According to Animation Director, Matt Everitt, “we’d watch the way Jackie Chan is in the middle of a fight, has an idea, looks at an object, looks at an opponent, looks back at the object and then figures out how to use the object.” Needless to say, the Animation team had to be as agile as the stunt team and make changes on the fly.
Another challenge was conveying all the rich and fluid movements of the stunt team into Minifigs who couldn’t even bend their elbows. In trying to remain as faithful as possible to LEGO, the team used ‘brick blur’ – adding a trail of LEGO brick pieces to exaggerate a move – to give the feeling of movement, and thus solve the ‘bent elbow’ dilemma.
Perhaps one of the biggest (literally), challenges of the film was bringing Meowthra, a full sized cat to life. After several tests were done with real cats against a bluescreen, and even finding 2 cats from a casting agency in Sydney, it soon became clear that integrating a real cat into a CG world would prove to be all but impossible. With deadlines looming, the team headed by CG supervisor, Greg Jowle made the decision to build a CG cat from scratch. According to Greg, “it was definitely one of the more challenging creatures I’ve had to create up until this point,” further adding, “I think it’s the familiarity that people have with them. It’s almost like the uncanny valley when [VFX artists] create digital humans. We’re more likely to notice a digital human if there’s something a little bit wrong or off, because we’re just so attuned to looking at people. I think the cat was almost like the creature version of that.” It’s good to know then, that numerous reviews, and in fact, many movie goers believe the cat to be a real live-action cat, a testament to the stellar work produced by the Animal Logic team.