This is a 2000-year-old analog computing device reconstructed out of Lego. It predicts solar and lunar eclipses, accurate to within two hours — all using plastic gears. Andy Carol, its designer, builds mechanical computers out of Lego as a hobby. He made this device basically because Adam Rutherford, an editor and producer at Nature, dared him to. When Adam heard that Andy had actually built the device, he called me and said, “Well, clearly we have to make some sort of film about this thing now.”
That was almost a year ago. Here’s how we did it.
Adam asked me to come up with a few different ideas for the film, but my favorite concept was inspired by “exploded view” engineering diagrams — with their clean lines, isometric perspective, and clouds of floating parts. Since Andy is an engineer, and we had to explain the dizzying intricacy of his design anyway, I figured an “exploded view diagram come to life” would be the perfect visual conceit.
But how to actually execute that idea? Obviously some kind of animation would be necessary. Several people I consulted urged me to use computer graphics. But that felt wrong: Legos are wonderfully tactile, and I really wanted to highlight the machine’s intricate physical detail — to make you feel like you could literally reach out and touch the gears or turn the crank. CGI would feel too weightless and abstract — too perfect. Andy’s model was the quintessence of DIY hacking: he didn’t even diagram it out before starting to build it. I needed animation that was physical, craft-ey, and a little bit rough around the edges. Stop-motion was the clear choice.
The live-action bookends of the film came out of my desire to accentuate the “DIY feel” by literally showing the scaffolding of the film production itself: the studio, camera, lights, and cables. I wanted the Lego model to look like we were filming it in the middle of a raw, working studio space, but that as the camera peered closer, it would envelop us into a different, more wondrous world. (That’s pretty much how everyone actually reacted to seeing the model in real life anyway.)
This film literally wouldn’t have been possible without two things: the enthusiasm of Misha Klein, the animator; and Google Sketchup.
Misha is a world-class stop-motion animator in Portland, Oregon; he worked on Coraline and is currently co-directing a Super Bowl commercial. He was willing to cut his rate to the bone to join this project simply because he thought the science and the Lego device were awesome. He also brought along a crew of similarly world-class talents: Dan Ackerman, cinematographer and motion-control camera operator; Sarah Hall and Lars Larsen, riggers from Coraline; and Paul Golden, an experienced animation producer, editor and compositor.
Google Sketchup is free, powerful, intuitive 3D modeling software. 45 minutes after launching the program for the first time, I was mocking up shots for the film. It’s that easy. And that essential: I’m not an animator, so I needed a powerful way of visualizing complex objects and camera moves in 3D so I could plan my shots and communicate them effectively to Misha. Regular storyboards weren’t going to cut it — especially because in animation, there are no outtakes. You only shoot exactly what you need. So you have to previsualize and time out the whole film, shot by shot, in a frame-accurate animatic ahead of time.
Here’s the pre-vis I created for the first portion of the animation:
My original shot list for the animation was much more ambitious than what we ended up shooting: full of swooping camera moves and 3D “explosions” of various modules of the machine. Misha was game for anything, but he was also very helpful in telling me what was realistic for our budget and what wasn’t!
The Lego Model(s)
Stop-motion animation is rough work. Misha told me flat out that we’d need at least one full duplicate of the Lego machine to “destroy” during shooting — because in order to accomplish the shots I designed, he and his riggers would have to saw, glue, paint, and generally abuse the Legos. Luckily, Andy was willing to spend a few weekends cloning his precious creation for us. Not only that, he constructed duplicate close-up modules and extra gear racks (for the “floating” portion of the animation).
Andy was with us on the set for a whole week, building and rebuilding and offering structural recommendations to the animators and explaining the mathematics to me. Some of the best shots in the film were actually co-designed by all three of us on the day, putting our heads together to solve some unforeseen visual or physical problem.
In the end we shot with both machines: one as a “hero” version that would stay intact for reference during the animation process, and so we could film Andy turning the crank in the live-action bookends; another as a “destroyable” version that the crew could do whatever they needed to in order to achieve the camera moves and visual effects.
For the “floating rack” shot (above), Sarah and Lars designed a metal rig that lifted and pivoted the rack out of its frame while holding it perfectly still so that the rack could be swapped out with three other versions, each with a different set of yellow-painted gears. Paul Golden later painted out the rig in post.
Andy and I spent a week on-set in Portland with the crew, getting everything ready and shooting the live action dolly shots. Dan filmed those on a Canon 7D, then used software called Dragon Stop Motion to perfectly match the focal length and camera position on a motion-controlled Canon T1i to “hand off” the live action portion into the animation. The dolly shot is actually two shots married together.
My “director’s cameo” in the live action shots was Misha’s idea — originally I was just standing there to direct Andy and cue the dolly moves, but Misha played back the shots and the composition ended up looking better if I stayed in the frame for the real thing!
The stop-motion process took 40 days to generate approximately 80 seconds of footage — almost double what we’d originally budgeted for. (Luckily Misha isn’t the bean-counting type, and we didn’t break the bank.) I directed the crew remotely from New York via daily phone calls and emails: Misha would set up a shot per the animatic and my instructions, send me some key frames to review, I’d approve or make tweaks, he’d execute, send me a rough composite, I’d approve or make tweaks, and we’d start the process over again for the next shot.
During pre-production I decided to shoot the animation “on twos,” i.e., at 12 fps instead of 24. Not only would this save time (fewer frames for Misha to animate), it would also give the animation a more handmade look that matched Andy’s DIY approach to building the model. (Fantastic Mr. Fox and Wallace & Gromit were also shot on twos.)
However, for certain key scenes — like the first big camera move that swivels over the model, and the floating rack that spins backwards and forwards — we transitioned to “ones” to make sure the motion would render well on-camera. For example, if we had shot the floating rack on twos, the gears would have appeared to be jerking back and forth rather than spinning smoothly.
The camera moves were all executed via motion-control — a computer-assisted rig that can be programmed to repeat moves exactly. By synchronizing vertical camera motion with horizontal shifts and rotations of the table, we created the illusion of sweeping 3D camera moves around the Lego machine. This also allowed Misha to shoot multiple, perfectly-matched “plates” of certain shots, so that portions of the machine could be seamlessly dissolved in or out of frame during postproduction.
How they do this kind of intensely tedious work without going insane, I’ll never know.
I figured this would to be the easy part. Not so: Paul Golden spent hours upon hours painstakingly aligning and compositing shots together, color-correcting them, and painting out rods and rigging. Meanwhile, as I edited the rough cut I made the “mistake” of using Inception music as a temp track… and it synced up perfectly. Thus began a quixotic two-week attempt to get Christopher Nolan or Hans Zimmer to see our film and grant us permission to “borrow” the music. (I came decently close — I got it into the hands of Inception's cinematographer, who really enjoyed it and promised he’d show it to Nolan. But that’s as far as it went.)
I tested royalty-free music and even Gustav Holst’s “Mars, Bringer of War”, but nothing worked. So in the end I hired a talented composer in Chicago, Corey Wills, to create an original score. He banged it out in just a day or two, which is pretty damn impressive.
So that’s the epic tale of our ambitious little film. Andy Carol’s own Lego design process is fascinating as well — you can read all about it in an interview I did with him for Fast Company.
I hope the film awes you as much as it awed all of us while making it.
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