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 was produced by Animagica Productions, which was later acquired by LEGO.