This new year marks a decade since our first commercial LEGO project, and more than ten years since we first released the movies that would go on to shape a major internet pastime and a whole movement in film making. I realised that no one concise record of our relationship with LEGO and the impact it has had, exists online until now – so over a series of two posts I will do my best to offer a comprehensive view. This first part outlines our history with LEGO, while the next will focus on the ‘brickfilm’ hobby as a whole.
No one person or group invented LEGO film making. Who could claim authorship over the animation of common objects, by means of traditional method? Yet for our sins, Spite Your Face Productions must concede to have pioneered this peculiar field. I myself had been toying with minifigs in films since 1996, and when we first publicly uploaded the experimental All of the Dead in the late nineties, it was one of only two LEGO stop-motion pieces to be found on the entire internet. It’s bold to make any certain claims about lady internet, but she was younger then and the video-hosting options for Joe Shmo much more limited. It seemed incredible more people weren’t experimenting with something so accessible, but the longest most thorough search (probably with Webcrawler in Netscape) only uncovered one singular other work, and not a man alive could tell you what that was now.
It’s hard to remember civilization, much less the internet, before Youtube. But in the first age of Spite Your Face, things were different. Video content was dominated by forgotten sites like AtomFilm and iFilm, which mostly featured commercial content and trailers, but would also host outsider materials that met a certain criteria. This was the age of Kevin Rubio’s Troops, Sandy Collora’s Batman: Dead End and it’s how this whole ‘lego thing’ came about…
Lego have been using moments of stop-motion in their advertising since at least the 1950s and the product has continued to lend itself to the craft since that time. In the early days, the most common sight was the progressive ‘magical’ build of models from brick to completion, then with the introduction of the minifig and other complex parts, attention turned more to character animation. LEGO is unique in the gifts it offers the stop-motion animator. It is small, light, affordable, available in great quantity and variety and the specific quality of it’s plastic (acrylonitrile butadiene styrene if you’re interested) ensures it as both durable to studio rigours, and that its various hinges and levers hold their pose. No other product outside the pro-armature market offers all of these properties together, so its role as a popular entry-level film tool should come as no surprise.
At the turn of the millenium, the democratisation of technology had come far enough that LEGO thought to incorporate film making tools in their product, thus developing the Steven Spielberg Movie Maker set. Around the same time we were following up the improvised madness of All of the Dead with the reductio ad absurdum ONE: A Space Odyssey, and both were proving popular online. This was a time of great change within The LEGO Group and the films we made for them were not only their first minifig-centric animations, but the company’s first foray into viraling, and to making commercials for platforms other than conventional broadcast. The work we did as distributors, as well as content providers, forges a path for many future campaigns.
The third piece of the puzzle came from no less than Terry Gilliam, who was interested in commissioning a short film from LEGO after finding some fan made Python models on a Japanese site. This unlikely trinity of circumstances is what lead LEGO to commission us with the legendary Monty Python and the Holy Grail in LEGO.
The Python Film as we call it, took off. Aside from its role as a popular special feature on a best selling DVD, it also topped the charts for animation and comedy on the leading video sites, holding on to those spots for many years. At one time you could tab between iFilm, AtomFilm, Yahoo Movies and Veoh (remember that?) to find The Python Film all at number one, while our Star Wars and Spider-Man films bounced around the rest of the top five. Which is perhaps where the story appropriately becomes less about SYF and more about everyone else, because that’s when we found ourselves the spearhead of a movement.
It is difficult I think, for a commercial animation company to negotiate the idea of having a fan base. Many artists, musicians for instance, go into what they do to deliberately accumulate such a thing. Animators, as a breed, do not. The hobby of ‘brickfilms’ has grown beyond us into one of the major pastimes of the internet and amongst the most ubiquitous forms of content on youtube, yet children and parents alike continue to let us know they have discovered our work and been inspired to join the club. That club as I understand it, is still centered around brickfilm.com, a site started to showcase one LEGO fans work, but which has long since evolved into its own self sustaining community of experimenting film makers, with their own competitions and sub-genres.
To know that you are inspiring people is enormously flattering and I remain hugely grateful for the positive messages we receive, but the matter of it is, this thing they call brickfilm has evolved into its own form of film making which is quite apart from anything we ourselves do. The currency within brickfilms seem to be the charm of their artifice, whereas for SYF our aspiration has always been to create ‘a lego reality’ within our films. Spider-Man: The Peril of Doc Ock for example, made the very first use of flesh tone minifigs instead of the traditional yellow, and would have been most viewers introduction to this evolutionary leap – yet we have never heard or read one comment in that regard. The conclusion this forces, is we must have been successful in creating a certain level of buy-in, that people have always taken the characters more human characteristics as granted.
Be that as it may, we have a responsibility to our protege, to offer the creative parenting they ask of us. So in the second part to this post I will be offering a critical study of brickfilms as a whole, providing our definitive take on a decade of community film making.