Chris Wharfe

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LEGO Life: Animasaurus

Chris Wharfe gets to know the folks behind one of the most ambitious and impressive brickfilms the world has ever seen

“It was the movie that made me want to make movies.” Steven Spielberg’s 1993 epic has lived long in the minds of all those who saw it: the phenomenal effects were game-changing, and lifelong LEGO fan Paul Hollingsworth took it as inspiration for a career that has culminated, thus far, in his own, plastic version of Jurassic Park.

It’s a micro version of the film in all senses of the word, running at a grand total of three minutes and forty seconds. But in that short runtime, Paul – along with fellow builders and animators Sean Willets, Forrest Whaley, James Banks, Garrett Barati, David Kelly and his daughter Hailee – has managed to cram in every single pivotal moment of the original adventure, from the awe-inspiring first reveal of the dinosaurs to the rainy T-rex encounter.

That it took a combined collection of bricks worth over $100,000 is testament to the scale of the production, but for Paul and his company Digital Wizards, Jurassic Park is a zenith only reached through years of experience. “Every movie [we’ve made] has been a vital step to getting us to LEGO Jurassic Park,” Paul says. “I’ve been editing for 15 years – everything from feature films to TV shows to documentaries.

“I’ve learned a lot about story, comedic timing and driving emotion. These technical skills and resources translate very well to VFX [visual effects], storytelling and brickfilming.” Paul started using LEGO as a storytelling medium back in 2011 with the musical ‘Wookiee Wonderland’, an entry for the LEGO Star Wars ‘Spread Holiday Cheer’ challenge. Victory there scooped him a three-foot tall brick-built Yoda, which became the subject of his next film, ‘Yoda’s Valentine’ – a project which proved stop-motion was not the only form a LEGO film could take on.

“With Yoda’s Valentine I wanted to treat Yoda like a giant brick-built puppet, then animate faces afterwards,” Paul says. The film was shot in live action, in order to take advantage of a smoke machine to add visual effects. It was a primitive form of VFX; one far-flung from the greenscreens employed three years later in Jurassic Park – but it was the journey of Digital Wizards’ projects from those early days of live action and practical effects which gave Paul and his team the knowledge to execute Jurassic Park.

After Yoda’s Valentine, the team embarked on a two-minute adaptation of Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers. “In true Peter Jackson fashion, we made it the extended version, so it’s actually five minutes,” Paul jokes. “That was the first film with which we started using a stop-motion capture software, called Dragonframe. That was a game changer, because it forced me to think of animating at a constant frame rate.

“The other important lesson we learned on Lord of the Rings was for our faces. Until that point we shot regular faces, then erased them, but we found it was adding so much work.” A natural solution emerged – filming blank LEGO heads and adding the faces afterwards. “Brent [McDonald, 3D animator] would use Maya and create the same lighting conditions so that it composites beautifully.”

Indeed, the lessons didn’t just come from Paul’s films, but from the people who helped him make them. “What’s always been interesting to me in stop-motion animation is that we’ve all been learning in our own little caves, locked away. But over the course of the last year and a half I’ve been coming into contact with more brickfilmers. They’re all great people and all very talented, and they want to share their knowledge. There’s always some way to build and grow while you’re doing this.

“I’ve been working with Garrett Barati on a show for LEGO’s YouTube channel called Mixels. This was a huge deal for me – he’s a classically trained animator and has a very keen eye for detail. He was able to share a lot of his experience and give me some great tips.

“You need many people to make a film, and what’s fantastic about Digital Wizards is that we can get the best talent pool of builders, musicians, composers, voice actors and VFX artists. We wouldn’t be able to make the movies we make without the incredibly talented team of artists.”

Key to Jurassic Park in particular was Paul’s daughter, Hailee. In fact, without her, Paul may never have followed the stop-motion path at all. “I shot some LEGO movies in my 20s but then I stopped brickfilming and moved to Los Angeles,” Paul recalls. “I had a second dark age for a few years, but once Hailee was born we both really got back into it, and our collection grew exponentially. We build for hours.

“During the Christmas break in 2014, Hailee and I were watching Jurassic Park and I asked her if she wanted to recreate it with LEGO and she thought it would be fun.” The pair began straight away, building the visitor’s centre that very day. That, of course, led to the realisation that such a mammoth project would take more than any one person’s LEGO collection – and thus, Paul turned to his fellow builders, including James Banks and Damon Corso, through the LA fan group LUGOLA (LEGO User Group of Los Angeles).

LUGOLA has been a particularly useful resource for many builders out in LA. “The thing I enjoy most about the LUGOLA meetings is the diversity of ideas and thought being applied via LEGO,” says James. “At a typical meeting you’ll have a person who builds tanks, somebody with a Doctor Who mosaic, a Bionicle cosplay outfit, and a spaceship that’s big enough to sleep on!”

Damon agrees: “It’s been a great learning and eye-opening experience to attend monthly meetings and see some amazing MOCs from our members – and also to see some of the unreal LEGO studios some of our members own.” But what does $100,000 of LEGO actually look like? For collectors on limited budgets, it’s hard to imagine such vast quantities, beyond wild visions of Smaug the Dragon rolling around in piles of bricks rather than gold. The images on these pages give some idea, but even for Paul and the gang, it was a monster to be grappled with.

“The craziest part of that collection is that the majority of it is sorted,” says Paul. “We can find pieces by colour, by type – ‘oh, you need a bunch of tan plates? No problem, here’s hundreds of them.’ We were able to build massive sets because of the pooled collection.” Those behemoth sets are a sight to behold: take, for instance, the opening shot of the helicopter flying towards Isla Nublar, which is recreated through thousands of sloping green, grey and brown bricks, with hundreds more trans-blue parts giving the water below a shimmering effect.

The vast quantities also allowed the team to experiment – as seen in the superb rippling water effect, achieved through the use of 1×1 studs and a series of increasingly large dishes. “I wanted to get everything in the movie to be LEGO. The challenge with the cup [with the rippling effect] was whether to build the entire thing – any cup for the minifigures would be too small,” says Paul.

“I didn’t want to play it off for laughs, because we were about to reveal the T-rex. I remembered when I was a teenager watching Jurassic Park for the first time; seeing the ripples in the cup, you knew something bad was coming.” The team eventually took inspiration directly from the original film, using a real life plastic cup filled with trans-blue studs – going against Paul’s original wish to make the entire film out of LEGO, but for a specific reason.

“The cup itself is memorable because [in the film] they spare no expense, and they’re all concerned about electric cars and not polluting, but they have disposable cups,” Paul explains. Aside from that brief departure, of course, everything else in the film is one hundred percent true to the original vision. “I think people appreciate how LEGO everything is, from the ripples in the cup and Mr DNA to the dino poop and the vast ocean. It’s just so much LEGO, and LEGO fans are so detail orientated that they pick up on those tiny details.”

Not least of those fans is a name no doubt familiar to many: Phil Lord, director of The LEGO Movie. “He watched it and he said he loved it,” Paul remembers fondly. “That’s about as inspiring as it gets for me. I’m humbled.”

And with, for Paul, the highest appraisal going, he has no intention of calling it a day: “We’ve made around 25 brickfilms and we’re not stopping now, especially when you get the positive feedback that we’ve gotten. When you have the director of The LEGO Movie telling you what you’re doing is awesome, you know you’re on the right track!”

Paul says the team are thinking of recreating sci-fi classics Terminator 2 and Back to the Future in their “funny, quirky style” in the near future, so there’s plenty more to come. In the meantime, you can prep for this summer’s Jurassic World by watching Digital Wizards’ ‘LEGO Jurassic Park’ at tinyurl.com/kc6ax24.

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This entry was posted on November 30, 2015 by in Uncategorized.

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