David M Pickett | Animator Rotating Header Image

How To Animate with LEGO (Brickfilm)

*UPDATE* – Don’t miss the new blog David Pagano and I are writing about LEGO animation! It’s got a lot of great content about animation techniques.

Want to learn about how I make my awesome animations, so you can make some of your own? You came to the right place! In conjunction with my article “How to Animate: An Introduction” in April 2011 issue of Brickjournal, this part of my website is geared towards helping someone who is brand new to stop-motion animation create their very first animation, and helping those who have made a few make their animations even better.

If you’re brand new to animating, I recommend reading my Brickjounral article first, it will get you started making your first animation. Here I’ll will show you what you need to take your animations to the next level. I’ll discuss my creative process, explain the technical aspects of animation, and show some examples. Throughout I will link to past animations of mine (and a few other people’s) to explain some of my points. I hope you find it useful!

Table of Contents:
My Creative Process
Have an Idea
Put it on Paper
Share it
Refine it
Make it happen
Technical Stuff
Cameras
Lighting
Sound
Editing
Software
Examples

My Creative Process

Every person has their own unique creative process; discovering yours will help you make art of any kind, not just animations. What follows is an outline of the steps I go through when creating my animations, your process may be very different than mine, but hopefully reading about my process will give you ideas about your own. My process is something I developed over many years of animating. When I first started making videos with LEGO bricks when I was 8 years old, I didn’t have a process, I just put stuff in front of the camera and hit record. That is an excellent approach too.

Step 1: Have an idea

Every piece of art ever created started out as an idea in someone’s head. Your idea can be a grand vision (The Owl and The Octopus: A Tale of Star-crossed Lovers) or a very small detail (the way a tiger licks its paw), the most important thing about your idea is that you think it’s cool and want to make something out of it. If you’re having trouble coming up with ideas, I always find my best ideas come when I am riding my bike or doing the dishes. Or you could try a random idea generator, my favorite is “They Fight Crime!” Anything can be a source of inspiration.

Step 2: Put the idea on paper

Ignore the stuff up topIt can be tempting to try and keep your ideas in your head, but if you’re serious about making them come to life they’ve got to come out of there at some point, and the sooner the better. I have a little notebook I keep with me at all times so that whenever I have an idea I can jot it down for later. This may take the form of sketches or simply little notes to myself. Even if I forget about the idea, I can always rediscover it when I’m flipping through the notebook.

Once I have enough ideas and sketches to make something out of I will start to write something more formal like a script or a storyboard to guide the animation. Scripts are very helpful for animations with lots of words, be the from talking characters or a voiceover. But for animations without talking having strong storyboards and/or a piece of music to follow is a much bigger concern.

Of course, you don’t have to do this on physical paper. I use Celtx for drafting scripts and even my hand-drawn storyboards eventually get scanned into a computer . When it comes to characters in my animations, I often skip right to building them out of LEGO bricks without sketching. For instance, in this photoset you can see some of my early models for the Pinchbots as well as the final versions.

Step 3: Share the idea with trusted friends

Now that you’ve got your idea written/drawn out, you should share it with some people whose opinions you value and trust and see what they think.  This could be a family member, your best friend, a classmate, a mentor, or other important person in your life. The idea is to get feedback about your idea from the people who will be seeing your final product. What will they enjoy watching?

For critical feedback on my idea I go to: my Alma Mater’s screenwriting circle, who has vetted all my scripts and made me a much better writer; my voice actors, who give feedback on their characters’ lines as we record them and often improvise new ones; the online LEGO fan community, who give me important design criticism on my character and set designs; and my close friends, who I can always trust to tell me which jokes made them laugh the most and which of my ideas are too ridiculous.

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the amazing online community of LEGO animators: Bricks in Motion. They are a great bunch of people to share ideas with as they all understand what goes into making a LEGO animation.

Step 4: Refine and Ruminate

Based on my friends’ feedback I revise my ideas to make the good ones even better and ditch the unsalvageable ones. This isn’t an instantaneous process, I often have to spend a lot of time brainstorming new ideas to fix a problem. Then I make a new draft of the script and take it back to my friends for another round of review. I repeat this process as many times as necessary. For me, it’s most important that my creative works be of the highest quality possible, not that they be finished quickly. That’s one of the reasons it took me almost 4 years to finish NNN Chapter 1 after I first came up with the idea for NNN, I spent almost 3 years refining the concept and doing drafts of the script.

You might be in more of a hurry than that, so I can understand if you want to skip this step. Like I said, putting things in front of a camera and pressing record is an excellent approach too.

Step 5: Make it happen

Once your idea is as good as you can make it, then it’s time for the really fun part – creating the final product! Here are the steps I go through once I’m ready to begin production on an animation:

1 – Record voices & sounds
2 – Edit together the soundtrack
3 – Create an animatic
4 – Take detailed timing notes
5 – Build characters and sets
6 – Set up the studio
7 – Animate!
8 – Create graphics / special effects
9 – Edit everything together
10 – Finished! Upload to the internet

Not all the steps happen exactly in this order every time. As I pointed out earlier, building characters often happens much earlier in the process, and occasionally I animate first and then record voices to match, but in general, this is the order I do things in. This is also the basic procedure that professional animation studios follow for making their animations, so if you’re serious about doing animation it’s a process you should at least try out.

Technical Details

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Every art has specialized tools: painters have brushes and canvases of all shapes and sizes, quilters have needles and thimbles and sewing machines, and animators have cameras, lights, microphones, editing software, animating software and more. Mastering these tools is essential to become a do-it-yourself animator.

Cameras

If you’ve read my BrickJournal article, you know that choosing the right camera is one of the most important decisions an animator makes. Here are a few types of cameras you might consider and their pros and cons.

Camera Phone (e.g. iPhone)
Pros: portable, inexpensive, can use stop-motion Apps
Cons: bad picture quality, no manual control over focus, exposure or white balance
Example: Atlantis

Webcams (e.g. QuickCam pro 9000)
Pros: inexpensive, can easily use with stop motion software, many can shoot HD resolutions
Cons: moderate picture quality, no interchangeable lenses, limited macro functionality
Some, but not all, webcams have manual controls for focus, exposure and white balance. Make sure the one you buy does.
Examples: Hero Factory, Orange Beats Binary

Digital Camera (Point and Shoot)
Pros: high resolution, good picture quality, many have manual mode for full control
Cons: many are battery powered, most cannot be connected to animation software
Point and shoot camera range greatly in price and features. The cameras with more useful features tend to be more expensive. Make sure you get one with manual controls, a remote control (so you can take pictures without bumping the camera) and an AC adapter.
Examples: Rock Monsters, Color City Hide and Seek

Digital Camera (DSLR or Micro 4/3)
Pros: highest resolution, best picture quality, most can shoot HD video, can use many different lenses
Cons: very expensive, can have complicated interfaces, not for beginners
DSLRs have a physical shutter that can wear out after 30,000 exposures (which is about how many pictures you’d take making a 30 minute animation) Micro 4/3 cameras get around this problem because they have no mechanical shutter, but because Micro 4/3 is a relatively new standard there are not nearly as many lenses available.
Example: Robots! Robots! Robots!

Video Camera
Pros: manual controls, good resolution, good picture quality, some have a “frame record” mode
Cons: more expensive, not all can take individual frames
ExampleFood Fight, “Lego Movie 2″

Film Camera
Pros: you get the “film look”
Cons: film is expensive, analog and very sensitive to light
Example: The Magic Portal animated by Lindsay Fleay

Lighting

Lighting sets the mood for a scene. For general lighting I just use a few desk lamps. My personal lighting style tends to be very bright and shadowless. For example, take this typical shot from the NNN news desk:

To achieve this look I typically use 2-3 desk lamps. I cover them with scrap paper to diffuse the light.

However, this super bright look isn’t always appropriate, but just by rearranging the lights you can can achieve lots of great looks. This shot that takes place under some bleachers used 2 lamps – one was uncovered to imitate the bright sunlight coming from the sports field, the other one is covered with paper to provide enough light so the character is still visible.

Sometimes just one light is enough. For instance in this scene the harsh directional shadows help give the feel of a dark alley.

Adding colored light can greatly change the mood. I used some red PowerFunctions lights to add an otherworldly feel to Steve Deepsea’s interview with a three-headed singing prophet:

I also have used LifeLites to add small feature lights to scenes. LifeLites are perfect because they are made to be compatible with LEGO bricks. If you need to change their color, you can just snap a transparent 1×1 round plate on the end.

Sound

It is a widely known fact that sound is just as important, if not more important, than visuals in videos. Audiences will overlook bad visuals if the audio is good, but audiences quickly get frustrated with videos that have bad sound or no sound. However, it doesn’t take much to record good sound, a simple USB microphone and the free program Audacity have filled all my needs. When you are recording, make sure to shut off any sources of extraneous noise; turn off fans, phones, and other noisy devices and close the doors and windows to keep outside sounds out. In addition to recording voices, you can also make your own sound effects using household objects and record your own music using programs like Garage Band. There are lots of places online that offer royalty-free sound effects and music but making your own is always more fun.

Editing

Editing is one of my favorite parts of the whole process, it’s the part where everything comes together. The point of editing is to put all the sound and video clips together in the right order. Sometimes you have to shorten or length or rearrange them until everything looks exactly the way you want it. Non-linear, multi-track editing programs are the most flexible, but  you can use any editing program. I now use Final Cut Pro, but my first videos were edited in-camera or with Windows Movie Maker. Here’s what a typical editing timeline for one of my animations looks like. As you can see, as you add multiple video layers, voices, sound effects and music it can get very cluttered.

In my process there are two distinct editing phases. The first phase is the preliminary edit, which I do before I do any animating. Once the sounds have been recorded I edit them together to set the soundtrack. Then I edit in my scanned images of my storyboards to create an animatic. I use the animatic to determine where each shot will start and end. Then I take detailed timing notes on how many frames of animation I will need for each point of emphasis in the soundtrack. All this preliminary editing prepares me so that when I go to animate I already know exactly what I need to do. The last phase of editing is adding the animated scenes into the editing program and syncing them up with the soundtrack and then adding any special effects or graphics.

Software

There are lots of different programs for making animations out there and having an exhaustive guide to all of the different options would be impossible. My basic recommendation is to start using whatever you already have or can get for free.

Examples

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Here are a few short, silent animations I made using a variety of equipment and programs to demonstrate that even with limited resources you can make a cool animation.

Example 1: Atlantis

This video was shot on an iPhone 3G with the stop motion animation app “iMotion.” Unfortunately iMotion seems to be discontinued, but there are others you can try like Stop Motion Recorder and iTimeLapse Pro. I used my normal lighting set-up for this animation, but because the camera does auto exposure and auto white balance there is a lot of light flicker.

Example 2: Rock Monsters

This video was shot on a Sony CyberShot DSC-W80. I made the settings as manual as possible, unfortunately the focus was still auto, so I had to take some frames a few times until the camera and I agreed on what to focus on. I compiled the frames on my PC using VirtualDub.

Example 3: Hero Factory

This video was shot using a Quickcam Pro 9000 connected to a PC laptop running Helium Frog stop motion animation software. Hero Factory and Bionicle characters are great to animate because they are extremely pose-able.

For more pictures of the set-ups I used for these videos and other behind the scenes pictures, check out this picture gallery:

Still want to learn more about how I make my animations? Check out all my posts in the “How To Animate” category.