May 2015

The Nation Reviewed

Digital bricklayers

By Darryn King
In Sydney, Animal Logic is building a Lego animation empire

On display in the office of Zareh Nalbandian, the CEO of Sydney animation studio Animal Logic, is a handsome chalkboard from a French monastery. When he purchased the chalkboard in a vintage sale 20 years ago, Nalbandian was attracted to the drawing on it: a detailed numerical and pictorial formula for making pigs fly.

“That’s what you have to do in this business,” says Nalbandian.

For more than 20 years, Animal Logic has specialised in realising spectacular screen fantasies as implausible as porcine aeronautics. In three unassuming buildings on Fox Studios Australia’s Moore Park backlot, animators and visual effects artists have slaved to create the superheroics and pyrotechnics of Avengers: Age of Ultron and X-Men: Days of Future Past, the vertiginous bacchanalia of Baz Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge! and The Great Gatsby, and the colony of shimmying penguins in Australia’s first computer graphics (CG) animated feature, the Academy Award–winning Happy Feet. And they did make a pig fly, sort of, in two Babe movies.

Lately, though, they’ve spent a lot of time fiddling with little bits of plastic. Since animating the 2011 television special Lego Star Wars: The Padawan Menace and 2014’s blockbuster hit The Lego Movie, the studio has turned into Sydney’s own Lego factory. Approximately 150 staffers are in the process of assembling Lego Ninjago and The Lego Batman Movie. (Another spin-off, The Billion Brick Race, has recently been announced.)

Compared to the studio’s flashier cinematic feats, chucking a pile of Lego bricks on the screen may seem like child’s play. But bringing vast quantities of computer-generated plastic to life is a complex undertaking.

“It’s easy to make things that aren’t meant to look plastic look plastic,” says production designer Grant Freckelton. “It’s not so easy to make things that are plastic look plastic.”

“Everyone has this reptilian memory of having Lego when they were seven,” says industrial designer turned CG supervisor Aidan Sarsfield. “You know when it doesn’t look right.”

Actual Lego elements undergo intensive quality-assurance inspection in the company’s factories: they are machine-tested for torque, tension, compression and impact, and moulded with a precision tolerance of as little as 0.002 millimetres. Animal Logic’s standards for its virtual Lego are similarly rigorous.

There’s the modelling of the dense geometric complexity of each individual brick: external details like the logo-stamped studs as well as the less obvious internal indentations like tubes, mould lines and serial numbers. To re-create the specific look of Lego’s dyed thermoplastic polymer – acrylonitrile butadiene styrene, for those playing at home – normal shading considerations such as how a surface reflects light give way to more complicated issues to do with, for instance, how light penetrates and scatters beneath the surface of a translucent or semi-translucent non-metallic object.

To avoid the common CG scourge of obvious repetition, each brick is made to be macroscopically different to its brick brethren, its flat surfaces ever so subtly warped and displaced. A wall, for example, will not be a perfectly flat surface, but feature varied highlights and reflections across each and every brick, as if to mimic the “jittery”, not-quite-perfect human hand behind any real-world Lego structure.

Then there are the telltale textural signs of abuse suffered by a well-loved Lego set: scratches, dents, chipped edges, dirt, grunge, fingerprints, teeth marks, worn decals, fading and oxidisation.

“We all dug out our Lego,” says Freckelton. “I had a bunch from my childhood covered in dust and hair and teeth, and labelled with bandaids. So we tried to capture disgusting stuff like that. [It] makes it look like it’s been through a lot of play.”

These are the kinds of considerations that go into each Lego brick – one atom in the Lego universe. Whole buildings, streets, cities and canyons, as well as Lego water, fire and smoke, are constructed with that same attention to detail. The studio had to develop its own rendering software to manage the vast accumulations of complex Lego data.

“We wanted to make it look like you could make it yourself,” says Nalbandian, “if you had a million Lego bricks in your basement.” So the studio was overjoyed when the trailer for The Lego Movie was released and viewers everywhere wondered if it had been shot in stop-motion with real Lego.

Initial fears that the film would be a 101-minute toy commercial were also comprehensively dispelled. The film picked up BAFTA and New York Film Critics Circle awards for Best Animated Film, among its accolades. It was overlooked for an Academy Award nomination in that category; the presence of several Lego statuettes at the ceremony seemed to hint at the Academy’s egregious oversight.

The film made US$468.7 million worldwide in 2014. In an underwhelming year at the Australian box office, with local films generating a combined domestic total of $26 million, The Lego Movie made $29.8 million on its own.

“The Australian film industry is doing it tough,” says Nalbandian. “We could have moved offshore years ago and probably been more successful in some regards. But we remain committed to being in Australia, and we see that as being a real win because there’s so much talent here.”

The Lego Movie has been a massive boost for Animal Logic too. The studio has recently entered a new phase in its evolution, developing its own feature animation, visual effects–driven, and hybrid live-action and animation projects. In the past 12 months it has acquired the film rights to two beloved animated characters, Betty Boop and Astro Boy, and there have been whispers about collaboration with author Neil Gaiman.

“We’re no longer reliant on external forces to give us the opportunities to innovate and tell great stories – we’re going to tell them ourselves,” says Nalbandian, his comment sounding suspiciously like the message of unbridled creativity celebrated in The Lego Movie.

It appears those little bits of plastic will be inescapable at the studio for some time. The artists insist, though, that they are always looking to challenge themselves.

“We tend to tear everything down to make things different and harder for ourselves,” says Sarsfield.

“What if we had more bricks?” Freckelton wonders aloud.

Darryn King

Darryn King is a freelance journalist based in New York.

@DarrynKing

Cover image

May 2015

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