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.

One thought on “The LEGO Movie (1994)

  1. Alex Furer

    Very nice article Julian! I do vividly remember the days where we waited 45 minutes for a scene to open in Strata and over an hour for the program to advance in the time line to where we wanted to continue to work on. Also I remember sitting in the computer a lot to watch another great tool we used: QuicKeys.

    We saved the sequences in the filmstrip format from Premiere. 75 images was the most filmstrip would support. Unfortunately we didn’t know about AfterEffects at the time and software was also very expensive and hard to get in Switzerland… So we opened the filmstrip in Photoshop and applied various effects on each single image. For instance the “Animagica-Blur-Effect”. And on top, since Photoshop at the time did not support layers we had to copy a frame, create a new document, apply filters and scale it and then cut and paste it back to the filmstrip. This entire process was recorded with QuicKeys and then played as a sequence. Even the size of the window had to be 100% exact because we used the “page-down” button to advance to the next frame.

    And yeah, prices of hardware at the time were extraordinary. I remember ordering a 1.6 GB hard-disc for $3000. I also remember sweating a lot on the hard work CA and I did as stagehands on rock concerts to pay for it 🙂 And I remember dreaming about working on real computers (SGI’s) where the work would be in real time and easy. How wrong we were. Still, this was one of the best projects to work on, when we were independent and doing what we dreamed off.

    The journey continued in Denmark. Believe it or not, when we started the project we thought that LEGO was an American company. We were quite surprised to learn that LEGO is a Danish company and we got to know a country we never expected to get to know. We had a great time in Denmark, loads of “hyggelig” and very good Pizzas from our beloved Lars Joern – God bless him! Loads of nights we worked through and loads of fun playing one of the first networked fps-games called “Marathon” with friends at related departments. Also the beers we drank at the “Biografen” with everybody. And the bakery that newly opened in Vejle where we used to drink coffee and eat the over-sized croissants in the morning before carpooling to work. I married and had my first kid in Denmark. All in all an adventure we will never forget!

    If you watch the movie, mind the flight through the spaceship at about 2/3 into the movie. Especially the funny messages in the HUD. We actually pretty much repainted the entire sequence in Photoshop because we were not able to fix the Z-flickering in Strata Studio (Pro) despite fiddling with the near/far distance on the camera.

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