The LEGO Movie (1994)

In late 1993 DDM had just put his son to bed and was musing through his toy basket. LEGO bricks were prominent. DDM tumbled bricks between his fingers and began to think of what could be done if they were digital, if they could be modeled and drawn using 3D computer graphics. In fact, he thought, it would make sense to have a database of such bricks, so he could build virtual LEGO models of any number and size. With a database of models, each brick would have to be created only once and then used repeatedly as needed. And what better way to show this than to make an animated movie!

With these thoughts in motion, DDM began to think about the story the movie would tell. He would also need a lot of computers, software, and, he soon realized, also some help. He soon found Claude Aebersold and Alex Furer and recruited them for the project.

In 1993/94 personal computers were significantly less powerful. Memory was very expensive, and disks still cost so much that everyone had to be careful about storing too much data.

They weren’t very fast, either. The LEGO Movie was animated for the most part with Strata Studio, and fixes and special effects were done by hand in Adobe Photoshop. DDM insisted on high quality imagery, so they firstly took a long time to render, and then the rendered images took a long time to load into Photoshop, sometimes as long as 45 minutes for one frame. It wasn’t all tedium, though. The studio was located on the ground floor of a chalet halfway up a Swiss alp, the Niederhorn, so while the computers were busy chunking away on tasks, the three of them could take breaks outside, admiring the tremendous view of Lake Thun and the Alps on the other side, occasionally punctuated by the Swiss Air Force flying F-16s, practicing below them.

After eight tedious months of animation the movie was taking shape. DDM brought an almost complete cut to SIGGRAPH 94. It was on a small portable digital media player. DDM also insisted on high quality sound, so the best way to appreciate the movie was to be carefully watch the video player’s screen, with headphones.

It could have been in the SIGGRAPH film show. It wasn’t the right time, though. DDM’s intent was to actually get LEGO involved, to make them understand that they HAD to do this, to make a database of 3D models of their bricks and model sets, and to start leveraging their other processes, such as building instructions, from that database. Even more, they needed to expand, to create LEGO movies and LEGO computer games, and have a digital LEGO presence on the brand new World Wide Web, which had just come out and was starting to get a fair amount of attention.

A few months later, with the movie complete, DDM went to LEGO headquarters in Billund, Denmark. He planted himself in the Legoland Hotel and refused to budge until he got an audience with LEGO’s owner, where he could show him the movie and tell him his visions. But this is a subject for another chapter.

You can watch the movie right here and read some additional commentary on Alex’s blog about the making of the movie. Make sure to watch it with headphones, and also watch for the little tidbit at the end.

Click on the picture to play the movie; for some reason the Play triangle isn’t showing.

The LEGO Movie

The LEGO Movie was produced by Animagica Productions, which was later acquired by LEGO.

LEGO – RubberDuck (8299) first ever digital CD-ROM

After working on the original LEGO movie I personally had the dream that LEGO would create full feature movies and that a well known fast food chain would give away LEGO figures with their meals when the film started showing at theaters and that LEGO would become a master player at digital movie production very early on.

When I arrived at LEGO with DDM and CA in 1995, we joined a group of LEGO designers for a six month feasibility phase. Those long term LEGO employees had the same vision within the company for quite a while already. I can only guess, but it seemed that our LEGO movie triggered the decision at LEGO management to go for it. But instead of starting to create feature films, we started drafting a production plan for the first LEGO box that would come out with a CD-ROM. This decision was taken because we were the true LEGO Digital company and we wanted to create products that are very close to the real LEGOs.

The main concept was to create 3D animated building instructions of the two main models. Plus many more 3D animated building instructions of smaller models and a lot of basic and advanced explanatory LEGO Technic concepts and much more.

I was mainly working on that project with BT as my director from June 1995 to August 1996. I started from zero and modeled all the bricks that were in the box in Softimage 2.6. It was quite an adventure because I had to learn Softimage and do the work at the same time. It later turned out that our expectation about SGI computers and stability of software running on them were a bit too high. The worst day of the entire project to date was when we had our own personal “black-friday”. I was assembling the submarine and we had to realize that Softimage would not render even half the assembled model. Before this happened I really tried to defend Softimage during this phase of the project. CA was using Alias PowerAnimator during the feasibility phase to evaluate it side by side with Softimage. We set this test phase up like a competition and I remember us arguing about pros and cons of all the features and tools for hours. We were even trying to play it out by playing tennis on the court that was at the house we were living in. One particular night I vividly remember when we both installed all available plugins to Softimage and were going through almost all of them for the next 24 hours straight. Unfortunately a lot of them didn’t work…

At the time Microsoft took over Softimage and they actually did a very good job at fixing it. At least version 2.65 was very functional but it didn’t fix the memory allocation issue. Softimage had to admit that our models were just too dense. That might have been our fault and we could have set up some sort of LOD system. But neither Softimage engineering nor we came up with a working solution and NURBS modeling only came out with v3 of Softimage.

What really hurt was that at this point all bricks needed were modeled. But, as said before, although we had great support from Softimage Engineering, we had to take a decision as presenting a working prototype to LEGO management by November 1995 was essential for the entire mission. That meant that we had to toss all the work in Softimage and we started over in Alias Power Animator v6.X. Luckily they also gave us access to early versions of their reworked v7 which had a completely different UI (pfweeeehhhh) and introduced the marking menus which allowed a very convenient and fast workflow. But the main reason to go with Power Animator was because of the NURBS modelling tools the software provided. With those we were able to build the models in a light fashion and subdivide the surfaces as needed for closer shots! Wohooo!!

At the beginning of 1996 we hired 2 more modelers and animators to join the production of the building instruction animations. I took the main model on, CA the secondary model and ST and JNC took over all the technical and smaller building instruction animations. With the help of Michael Lawson from Spike Ltd., our Alias trainer at the time, we were able to advance very fast and efficiently. Michael Lawson actually also produced a lot of models and animations for the interface and he directed and worked with CA on the intro animation (see below). We created models, materials, textures, workflows and naming conventions plus developed the guidelines on how those building instruction should communicated. To test our thinking we conducted a series of real-life tests with kids where we learned that they loved to play with LEGO bricks while sitting at the computer. One of the main concerns the management had at the time.

It was hard work. We drank a lot of bio-guarana apple drinks and ate a ton of pizzas. Our motto was: “If we can dream it, we can make it – Work hard, render fast, retire young”. (I know that this originally was the Electric Image’s slogan, but I think it’s synonym for the industry).

After finishing the animations I was designated to work with the CD-ROM authoring contractor in The Netherlands. From middle of May until August 1996 I spent almost three months ther as the liaison between the production at LEGO and the author of the CD-ROM, Christopher Yavelow. I mainly handled the communication between YAV and LEGO. And I was running the QuickTime movies I received from the headquarter in Billund through Chris’s compression algorithms. I retouched some of the sequences by hand or briefed the guys in Billund if and how they had to redo or re-render certain sequences. I worked with Chris on the interface. Tested the product on Mac and Windows 3.11 and Windows 95. During that phase I lived in a private pension one door down from Chris’s studio. I barely slept and worked a lot. Sometimes we went for walks on the beach which was one block down from the studio and we had very interesting discussions about technology, life, experience and many other things. It was the most intense phase of the project and I learned so much on a technical level about multimedia authoring and also on a personal level than working with Chris.

The production was finished right before SIGGRAPH that year. My big reward was to attend SIGGRAPH and even fly business class to New Orleans 😉

The product launched in early 1997 and was a big success. Kids loved it and we are all very proud that the CD-ROM won the “Danish Design Centre “ID98” Prize“, the “Best Scandinavian CD-ROM” Award from The Scandinavian Interactive Media Event (SIME) and we received a “Design Distinction” from the I.D. Design Magazine and were nominated for “Best Macro Media Product of the year”.

Here’s a very small excerpt of the building instructions for the Main model: The “Little Sub”.

Here you can see the intro animation of the CD-ROM!

Digital LEGO

In 1995 LEGO conducted a study to determine how to become “digital” – how to do it and what it would take. This study took place from May to October in a secret lab on the third floor of LEGO headquarters, Legocentret. At the end of the study LEGO management received a report detailing programs, people, and resources needed to move into the new paradigm. LEGO quickly approved the plan, and SPU-Darwin was set in motion at the beginning of the new year.

This website is the story of SPU-Darwin, of moving LEGO into the 21st century. I’m not sure yet how to tell that story, so it’s organized as a blog. This will allow me to present pieces of history as they come, without worrying about having to have everything set before presenting anything, and will allow me to experiment with presentations. Also, a great deal of leading edge science and engineering had to be developed, and those stories will require intense technical material, which might not appeal to everyone, and those entries will be separate from the general ones.


To Darwin members: the blog structure of this website is expressly designed to allow everyone to chime in with their memories. Please do that. Periodically I’ll go through the topics and concentrate them down into organized stories. It’s my hope that this path will eventually lead to an actual publication someday, like an interactive multimedia book, but we’ll worry about that later.

I’m not a designer, so if you’d like to contribute anything about this website design, PLEASE do so.

Note: only Darwin members (which is not just LEGO employees, it’s everyone who was intimately involved – this means you, SGI and Informix and DDE) will have editing access. Everyone else can email, which will be dealt with separately.

Julian E Gómez, PhD
(former) Director of the Advanced Technology Group
(former) Chief Scientist

begin legal;
! “The LEGO Group”);
// other than that everybody used to work there
end legal;