Since the creation of film, professionals and amateurs alike have experimented with the medium to create inventive animated works. One form of animation that's been around since nearly the beginning of the moving picture is stop-motion animation. The first stop-motion film we know of was "The Humpty Dumpty Circus," released in the late 1890s, depicting a toy circus coming to life.
To make a stop-motion film, the filmmaker photographs inanimate objects in various poses, moving them just a tiny bit for each successive image. When the photos are played quickly in a row, they create the illusion that the inanimate objects are moving around on their own.
Animators have used everything from household objects to paper cutouts to make stop-motion films. Claymation relies on, predictably, clay as the primary sculpting medium for the characters — think "Wallace and Gromit." Others, including "The Nightmare Before Christmas" and sequences with the titular character in the live-action 1933 film "King Kong," use poseable figures.
A newer, increasingly popular form of animation, usually created via stop-motion, is the brickfilm. Whereas claymation animators use clay as their main character building medium, brickfilm makers use bricks — Lego bricks, that is. Other brands of bricks and other materials are sometimes incorporated, but the form has taken off because of the fun building toy the Lego company pioneered, including an incredible variety of sets and miniature characters that cover all sorts of historical periods, professions and genres. Lego sets really are just little movie sets waiting to happen.
Lego and Competing Sets
The films get their name from the building-brick sets with which they are traditionally made. Lego didn't always make toy construction sets, but it's the invention for which they're most famous and which has dominated their business ever since. Lego was founded in 1932 in Billund, Denmark, by Ole Kirk Kristiansen, a carpenter who decided to make and sell wooden children's toys. The company name came from Danish phrase "leg godt," which means "play well."
The company branched out into injection-molded plastic in the 1940s and began making the forerunner to modern Lego brick building sets late in the decade, initially calling them Automatic Binding Bricks. In 1958, the interlocking bricks were redesigned into the form they still hold today, which made them lock together much better than before. In 1978, the company introduced minifigures, little toy people with moving arms and legs, to go along with the sets.
Lego has been putting out all sorts of themed sets for decades, packaged with detailed instructions for building what you see on the box. There are sets for buildings from various localities and time periods, from Medieval castles to Wild West towns to modern city blocks, and vehicles of all sorts, from pirate ships to automobiles to spaceships. Lego also makes high-end architecture sets for famous buildings such as the Sydney Opera House and London's Tower Bridge. And Lego sets now also include a great many licensed franchises including "Star Wars," "Indiana Jones," "The Lord of the Rings," "Ghostbusters," "Harry Potter," "The Simpsons" and Marvel superheroes. The popular video game "Minecraft" even has a few sets, which is entirely appropriate given that the game involves constructing buildings and other items out of virtual blocks.
Not only do the sets give children (and adults) the ability to build lots of cool buildings and vehicles out of Lego bricks, connectors and other construction necessities, but they also come with appropriate props and minifigures. You can build based on the instructions, or piece together whatever you like from one or more sets. The bricks and other construction pieces come in multiple colors and sizes, and you can buy the ones you need if you have your own special design in mind.
Since Lego's brick design patents expired in 1978, other companies have gotten into the building-brick business, including Best-Lock and Mega Bloks, which both make cheaper bricks that are mostly compatible with Lego bricks. Mega Bloks has the rights to make building sets for several franchises including the video games "Halo," "Call of Duty" and "Assassin's Creed," as well as the Barbie and Hello Kitty toy franchises.
But building sets are no longer used just for everyday play. The sturdy interlocking bricks and their accessories are perfect for making small movie sets for brickfilms — starring minifigures, of course.
Making a Brickfilm
To make a brickfilm, you need a story, some bricks, camera equipment and some way to edit — plus lots and lots of time.
The most common method of creating a brickfilm is stop-motion photography, but some filmmakers use other methods, like filming actual moving props and figures (held by wires, hands or the like), and some throw in other elements like live-action human actors, claymation and computer-generated imagery (CGI) for special effects.
All filmmaking takes lots of work, but stop-motion is a particularly time-intensive process. It requires creating and setting up set pieces and characters, moving them in tiny increments and photographing them after each miniscule change. The resulting series of still images is strung together and played in quick succession as a movie, creating the illusion that the characters and other objects are in motion.
Traditional live-action films are made up of still images, as well. "Movie" is short for moving picture, after all. But in the case of traditional live action, the photographic images are taken on moving film of subjects who are actually in motion. The film is capturing reality. With stop-motion, a lot of thought and work has to go into making changes to the position of each little moving piece or body part in a way that will mimic realistic movement in objects that, on their own, would otherwise just lie still.
It also takes a lot of these individual pictures to make a stop-motion film. A film's speed is given in frames per second (fps), which is the number of still images that flash before your eyes in one second. A typical speed for a theatrical film is 24 fps. That is 24 pictures flashing before your eyes in a single second of time. At that speed, making a five-minute film takes 7,200 individual photographs. Even a one-minute, 24-fps film takes 1,440 pictures. As you can imagine, these take quite a while to stage and film, and likely even longer to get them looking the way you want.
You can reduce or increase the number of frames per second. Reducing gets the number of pictures down, but also makes the movement jerkier. Using 24 fps (the film standard) or 30 fps (the video standard) makes for much smoother motion, but 12 or 15 fps are common for brickfilms and other stop-motion animation. And a lower fps setting is fine if you're going for a jerkier look. One common technique in animation is to shoot 12 different frames for one second of film but to double them up, using two identical photos consecutively to make the playback speed 24 fps. Of course, the more pictures you take for each movement, the smoother the end result.
Building your sets piece by piece, or brick by brick, before the shoot can also take a lot of time. Most brickfilms employ set items built with Lego or similar bricks, with Lego minifigures or similar toy figures as the characters. You can include non-brick objects, non-minifig characters, painted backgrounds, papier-mâché set pieces or anything else to augment your brickfilm. You can even film against a special green or blue backdrop if you want to use color keying to composite in new backgrounds during editing. But Legos, or their competitors' similar pieces, will need to figure prominently in order for it to be considered a brickfilm.
Lighting Brickfilm Sets
After your sets are constructed, but before you start shooting your scene, you'll want to set up lighting. Proper lighting will let the viewer see more clearly what's going on in each scene, help you simulate different types of settings (such as daytime, nighttime, indoor, outdoor, sunny or cloudy) and prevent shot-to-shot light changes that can cause unwanted flickering effects in your final film.
Ideally, you want to either film in a room with no windows or somehow block the windows to keep natural light or other external light from coming into the room. You can use blackout shades, blankets or anything that will fully block out any outside light. You will probably also want to keep doors to other rooms shut to keep out other household light. It might help to inform roommates or family members that you're shooting so that they don't walk in on you. Also be sure to wear dark clothing, preferably black, since light will reflect off of white or light clothing onto your set.
You'll probably want to light your sets and characters with multiple lights to get the brightness and shadow just right. You generally want two or three lamps you can position on or near your set, at least one for front (or key) lighting and one for backlighting. To add fill lighting to reduce shadows, you can use another light, or something white, like a piece of paper, to bounce light onto the scene where needed. You might also want to place a diffuser (again, maybe a handy sheet of paper) over the lamp bulbs to soften and spread out the light and prevent harsh shadows.
You can alter the lighting by changing your brightness and contrast settings of the camera or software. You should feel free to play around and take test footage to see what works for your goals. There are plenty of online tutorials for lighting stop-motion, or specifically brickfilm shoots, to help you get started and avoid pitfalls.
Still, film is an art form and there are few hard and fast rules. Filming in natural (i.e., outdoor) light is usually considered a stop-motion no-no since it changes constantly (causing the dreaded flicker), but people have successfully incorporated outdoor shots into their brickfilms.
Filming Equipment and Techniques
There are no hard-and-fast rules about the equipment you need for a brickfilm besides Lego or other bricks, a light source, something to capture the images and some method of putting them together into a playable movie. But there are things you can do (and equipment you can use) to make the process easier or to increase the quality of the final movie.
You can use a fancy camera with expensive lenses, a webcam or even the camera on your cellphone. The camera (whether meant for capturing still or moving images) will just need to allow you to take still shots and export them for editing.
The expensive, high-end options will usually yield more professional-looking results, but not all of them are well-suited for stop-motion photography. It's preferable to have a camera with manual rather than auto or fixed focus, as this gives you control over what's in focus in each shot. Autofocus will often change when you don't want it to, or focus on the wrong element in the shot. In fact, the more manual control you have, the better. Anything that changes automatically might cause variations from picture to picture, causing oddly uneven or flickering effects on playback.
Cameras with optical rather than digital zoom are better because digital zoom decreases image quality and, therefore, would change your film quality from shot to shot. You can still use these cameras to capture shots, but you may not want to use the zoom function if you do. Since you're taking a series of still shots, you can try incrementally moving the camera toward whatever you want to zoom in on instead.
Whether your camera is moving or stationary, you'll want to keep it steady with a tripod or other stable base. Some brickfilm makers have even built camera bases out of Legos themselves [sources: Dechiaro, Hurlinger]. A camera with remote capture capabilities might help you avoid having to touch it constantly (reducing the likelihood of it accidentally moving out of place). Even a tiny bump can cause a big difference in the final shot.
The sets need to be similarly secure, on a stable surface with set items taped down or otherwise locked into place in case someone bumps into them. You can intentionally move pieces in front of the still camera for effect, but taping and otherwise securing them will help you avoid unintentional changes.
You'll probably want to study stop-motion techniques to make things move as realistically as possible, although brickfilm motion differs in some ways from most other stop motion. For one thing, typical Lego minifigures don't have many points of articulation. The head will turn, and the arms and legs will swing forward and backward, but that's about it. There are lots of tutorials online for things like how to make Lego figures walk or run via stop motion that can help.
The figures also have their faces painted on, so you have to get creative to make them appear expressive. They have removable heads, so you can swap them out for similar heads with different facial expressions for changes in emotion. Some even have two faces, one on the front and one on the back, only requiring a turn. And there are companies that will customize minifigures for you if you have the money. You can even get fancy with CGI — but viewers aren't likely expecting realistic, fully articulated characters with tons of expression changes when they watch a brickfilm. Other elements, such as the voice acting and dialogue, can convey character emotion, as well.
Speaking of dialogue, sound is important, too — unless you're making a silent film. But you can record it at any time, and most sound effects and music are added in during post-production. It would be useful, however, to have some idea of the dialogue in each scene so that you know how long to make the shots. And it will help your final film to invest in sound equipment, including a good microphone, and find some good tutorials on sound recording.
Computers and digital cameras have made stop-motion photography much easier. You no longer have to take photos on film, send them for development and hope they turn out. With digital, you can have the instant gratification of seeing your shots right away, and you can easily transfer the images to your computer to animate them with software.
You'll need an animation or film-editing program, preferably one made for stop motion. Dedicated stop-motion software often allows you to connect your camera to your computer and run the software while you take your shots (although you might need to check your camera compatibility). But even multipurpose animation software like Adobe Flash will do.
Aside from just allowing you to string the images together and export them as a film, animation software has other features you can use to improve your film. Most software has a handy feature called "onion skinning" that lets you see transparent versions of previous frames on the screen with your current image. You can use it to see how the motion in a scene is progressing and change course if necessary. Animation software also lets you tweak lighting and colors and add other special effects. If you shot using a blue or green screen, you can use the software to knock out that color and add a new image in its place. This is referred to as color keying, chroma keying, or blue- or green-screening. You can even add fancy details like a lightsaber glow, for instance, using the rotoscope technique.
CGI takes some practice and skill, so you can also just use the software for the basics: getting your images imported and in order, setting the frame rate so the software knows how fast to play back the images, adding in your sound and exporting your film in a playable video format. But if you have the patience for stop motion, you might also have the patience to develop other filmmaking skills.
You might want to use sound editing software, such as Audacity, for recording and editing your dialogue and other sounds. You can also find some pre-recorded sound effects online or in software packages. Once you have your sound recorded, pull it into whatever software you're using to edit the video.
There are lots of software packages to choose from, some free and some for a price, including:
- Windows Movie Maker
- Sony Vegas
- Anasazi Stop Motion Animator
- Adobe Flash
- Adobe After Effects
- Apple iMovie
- Final Cut
In some cases you might want or need to use multiple software packages; for instance, you might pick one for capturing and animating the images, another for capturing sound and a third for editing all the elements into the final film. You will just need to research what each one can do and whether it suits your needs.
Lego itself has even gotten into the game with their free app, Lego Movie Maker, which lets you create stop-motion animations right on your phone or tablet. You could conceivably use this or other stop-motion apps to shoot and edit an entire brickfilm on your phone.
People of all ages and from all over the world have made lots of brickfilms over the years, from action to comedy, and from entirely original creations to parodies or recreations of movies, video games and anything else you can imagine. There are more than 600 collected on the Internet Archive in a spot dedicated to brickfilms, and many more can be found elsewhere online [sources: Brookes, Internet Archive]. YouTube has entire channels dedicated to the art form, and there are studios that churn them out. Anyone with a little equipment, time and imagination can make one.
The first brickfilm (as far as we know as of this writing) was called "Journey to the Moon" (or "En rejse til månen"), made in 1973 by young cousins Lars and Henrik Hassing on Super 8 film for their grandparents' anniversary. The kids used stop motion, props on wires and one live-action shot of a foot to depict a rocket launch, journey and moon landing. It didn't have any sound and employed papier-mache and Lego-built sets and props (as well as a globe for the Earth). The movable minifigures didn't come out until 1978, so the characters were also built with Lego bricks. Although it's the first known, the brickfilm wasn't actually widely available until Lars Hassing posted it to YouTube in 2013.
The first widely viewed brickfilm was "The Magic Portal," created on 16 mm film and released in 1989 by Lindsay Fleay while he was a film student. It depicted the shenanigans of a few characters on a spaceship who go through a portal that takes them to various places where they encounter aliens, robots and other characters. Fleay received a grant from the Australian Film Commission for the production and used lots of donated Lego sets. It took several years to complete, including nearly a year for photography. Many of the set pieces were constructed of Lego bricks, and several characters were stop-motion animated minifigures, but the film also incorporated other stop-motion animated objects, some live-action shots of the animator, outdoor scenes and claymation. Its graphics are especially impressive given that it was shot and edited on film, and it no doubt inspired many later brickfilm makers.
There are too many great brickfilms out there to name them all, but a few other notable ones include:
- "Go Miniman Go - 30 Years: The Story of the Minifigure," created for Lego by brickfilm maker Nathan Wells and showing Lego figures in various time periods to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the minifigure [source: Nathan Wells]
- "Monty Python and the Holy Grail," a recreation of the Camelot song and dance number as a brickfilm for Lego and Python Pictures by Spite Your Face Productions [source: Spite Your Face Productions]
- "Star Wars: The Han Solo Affair," a parody for Lego and Lucasfilm by Spite Your Face Productions [source: Spite Your Face Productions]
- "Lego Shopping," a comedy by Michael Hickox that has more than 40 million views on YouTube [source: Michael Hickox Films]
- "The Dandelion," a comedic short by Daniel Utecht that has more than 6 million hits on YouTube [source: Plastic Planet Productions]
- "The Dark Knight Rises Trailer 3: In Lego," a trailer recreation by ParanickFilmz with more than 2 million YouTube hits [source: ParanickFilmz]
- The official music video for the White Stripes song "Fell in Love with a Girl," directed by Michel Gondry, who used Lego bricks to create the characters as a sort of pixel animation [source: The White Stripes]
It's debated whether the 2014 Warner Brothers film "The Lego Movie" can be considered a brickfilm because most of the Legos and minifigures were computer generated. But it definitely caught the spirit of the genre; it contained some homages to brickfilms, and some fan-created brickfilms even made it into the movie, such as BrotherhoodWorkshops' "Gorgy Wants a Horse," winner of the Rebrick Lego Movie Competition (an official Lego brickfilm competition) [source: BrotherhoodWorkshop].
As long as Legos and similar toys are around, and people still have the desire to make animated films, there will likely be brickfilm. There are even a bunch of annual festivals and filmmaking competitions dedicated to them. And since Lego itself has hosted a competition, sponsored some brickfilms and created a brickfilm-making app, it's clear they've embraced the art form.
Anyone with the time and equipment can join in on the fun. The only thing you have to lose is, well, lots and lots of time. Productions can be as complicated or simple as you want to make them. You can do nearly professional-level animation with everything planned out via storyboards and a script, or you can start with a loose idea and shoot from the hip.
Of course, the more planning you do in pre-production, the more high-end your equipment and the more honed your skills, the more polished your brickfilm will be. But many amateur efforts out there have a lot of charm. So if you have the will, and some Lego or similar brick building sets, you might want to give making a brickfilm a go. And if that sounds like too much bother, you can just enjoy them online like the rest of us.
Author's Note: How Brickfilm Works
I've always loved Legos, although they are expensive, and as a child I usually had to settle for hand-me-down or off-brand building toys. I have a few movie franchise Lego sets now, sitting on a shelf waiting to be used. The idea of taking my childhood toys and making them dance across the screen is appealing, and I can't say I haven't thought of doing it before. Film and animation, and especially stop motion, have always been fascinating to me, so brickfilms are sort of a win-win.
Making them is also more doable than ever. I have an app on my phone that will let me take a series of quickie photos and animate them. And now (after researching this article) I have Lego's animation app, too. Maybe I'll attempt one someday. Working on this article exposed me to lots of really cool and fun brickfilms, and I hope more and more people continue to use Legos to get their creative ideas out there on film.
More Great Links
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- Zoot101. "Let's Learn With Lego! Basic Lighting." Oct. 21, 2011. (March 8, 2015) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=P3dwXGaUvvs