Directed by Charlie Bean, Paul Fisher and Bob Logan, The LEGO Ninjago Movie is a hilariously funny and heartwarmingly sweet look at what happens when your dad is the evil warlord Garmadon (voiced by Justin Theroux), aka The Worst Guy Ever, and you’re just a teenager trying to get through high school as unscathed as possible. Master Builder Lloyd (voiced by Dave Franco), aka the Green Ninja, and his group of friends (voiced by Michael Peña, Fred Armisen, Kumail Nanjiani, Abbi Jacobson and Zach Woods) are secret ninja warriors who must do the impossible – fight to save Ninjago from destruction, either at the hands of his power-hungry father or Meowthra, who’s taking it apart one LEGO brick at a time.
While at the LEGOLAND California Resort for the film’s press junket, Collider got the opportunity to sit down with director Charlie Bean to talk about directing his first feature film, the challenges in making sure that everything works as it would for a LEGO, having Jackie Chan be so heavily involved (as the voice of Master Wu and in helping choreograph the fight sequences), casting Justin Theroux as the villain, how the cat got involved, and which of the ninjas he most identifies with. He also talked about where the animated series Tron: Uprising would have gone, if they’d gotten the chance to continue, being intrigued by live-action, and why he’ll likely always be involved in animation.
Collider: This is your first feature, and you really took on a big one. How did you come to The LEGO Ninjago Movie?
CHARLIE BEAN: It was intense. That doesn’t mean there weren’t a lot of really smart people helping me, like Chris [Miller] and Phil [Lord] and Chris McKay. It was a big undertaking. I’ve worked in animation for a long time – for about 30 years – but it is my first feature. How it came about was that Lord and Miller were working on the first film and they were thinking about the next films that they would do, and them and Dan [Lin] wanted to do Ninjago. I guess they saw a show I had directed, Tron: Uprising, and they thought I might be right for it, so we met and talked about it. The film hadn’t come out yet, so they showed me what they were doing with the first film, and I was like, “Oh, my god, this is the best! I wanna do this! Please!” It was just so interesting. We’ve seen a lot of LEGO stuff out there, but for it to look like LEGO and for it to look like the fan films on YouTube, that are all stop-motion, it lined up perfectly with my taste.
What are the biggest challenges in making sure that everything works, as it would for a LEGO?
BEAN: Not to get too technical about the way we make these films, but the way we make these films is that we make each individual brick. We design all the bricks to be exactly like the real bricks, including the serial numbers and the logos, down to the plastic seams. It’s crazy! These are all used bricks that we’re creating, so they have scratches, nicks, fingerprints and dirt. And then, they all fit together in the way that LEGO fits together. It’s not like we’re designing a building and what we want it to look like, and then surfacing it to look like LEGO. We’re building a building out of LEGO, virtually, so it all has to work and fit. In fact, not everything fits together. Everything that we make in the film has to be “in system,” as they call it, at LEGO. It has to work. It’s great to have that limitations because we’re bound by the restrictions that LEGO has. The limitations are your friend. You want the limitations. The problem-solving is what makes it interesting. How do we make these figures that have no knees and no elbows do real choreographed kung fu?
The way we discovered how to do that, after a lot of development, was by using other bricks to simulate different pieces and we dislocate pieces. To swing an arm back, you have to dislocate a piece completely. It’s away from camera, so you don’t see that it’s not in the place it is. And then, you swing forward really fast and use a sausage piece to make the motion of it because it looks like that. We don’t have motion blur because it’s stop-motion, so we use other pieces to simulate the motion blur. We really utilized old techniques that Rod Scribner and Bob Clampett, and those guys, developed back in the Looney Tunes days. They would do smears, and we do the same thing, but with bricks. We call it “brick blur.” If a character is moving across really fast, we’ll have several of the same character, and it looks like a blur. That kind of problem-solving and those challenges are the most fun, really. Everyone is pushing each other and challenging each other, seeing what the other person did. As these movies have progressed, there’s been more and more of figuring out how to do things in brick.