A new genre in film-making is becoming increasingly popular - "brick"-films. These short movies are made with a historic companion in children's play rooms: Lego.
There is more to lego than building bricks
A new art form is attracting increasing attention – the art of animated bricks. What may at first sound like a rather strange way of using these otherwise rather lifeless objects, is in fact becoming a popular pastime with youngsters and adults alike.
Brick animation, or rather "brickfilms" are stop-motion movies made with lego bricks, and of course, the delightful lego figures. More and more of these short, often amusing films are turning up on the internet and at short film festivals all over the world.
One of the makers of these colourful films is the German Marcel Belledin. In 1999, the Lego fan dug around in a heap of old play things and came across the colourful bricks. Less than a month later, he made his first film, then the 2nd, 3rd, and now the 5th is due to come out this spring. According to the 23-year-old, using the brightly coloured plastic blocks are a great way of materializing ideas that would otherwise need huge effort.
Bringing bricks to life
The stars of the show in brickfilms are of course, not highly paid hollywood actors, but those little plastic figures with the black dots for eyes and dark yellow skin. Whether taken from Star Wars, Belville of Western Train Station, the various Lego editions make the perfect sets for a smalle-scale film.
The film producers, such as the group brickfilms, generally use the traditional technique of stop-motion animation, shooting the film frame-by frame and moving the figures between shots to create the illusion of motion.
Most of the films do not last much longer than five minutes, but some are as long as half an hour. A large number of the films on the internet are persiflages of well-known Hollywood movies such as Star Wars, "2001: A Space Odysee", Matrix - or Monty Python’s "Holy Grail". However, there are also numerous Lego movie directors who conceive their films using an original storyline and self-written film script.
Michael Balladin’s films are all exclusive: his last film was done in black and white and included a mad professor who uses a beggar as a guinea-pig for his laboratory research and makes a zombie out of the peaceful, poor old gentleman. Despite the happy ending, the story is a horrorfilm.
The company Lego systems is becoming increasingly aware of brickfilms. Last year it released an elementary filmmaking kit called the Lego & Steven Spielberg Movie Maker Set. But it did not foresee the circumstances its minifigs – or lego-speak for mini figures – would find themselves in.
One film, which was even shown at the world-famous Sundance Film Festival last year was a sexually explicit series called "Rick Steve: The Happiest Gay Couple in all the World". Other films have shown young mothers snorting cocaine.
As the company’s motto is to promote creativity and skills in children, these themes do not fit Lego’s intentions. Company spokesman Ulrike Griffiths, in a German daily newspaper, recently called for a more responsible handling of Lego-products. Apparently the company has only taken legal action against one genre of brickfilm it adamantly rejects – porno films.
Bricks with a social conscious
As the awareness of the minifig movies rises, so does the niveau of the films.
Various brickfilms cover political and environmental subjects, making use of the minifigs to send messages to their viewers.
US student Russ Jensen for example addressed racism in his short film "Black vs. Yellow". In the film, two minifigs declare their mutual hatred of one another. A third comes along, chops them up in pieces and reassembles them so that the figures are eventually, in the lego sense, bi-racial. The usage of the colour yellow – the "skin"- in the title, as opposed to "white" brings the figures closer to the political context.
Economic woes for brick makers
The trend of minifig films comes at a time when Lego suffers from problems which affect numerous large toy makers across the world - the demand for ever more sophisticated toys for ever younger children and an increase in liscensing costs connected with toys linked to books and films, such as the recently launched Lego set "Harry Potter".
Combining electronics with simple toys has not turned out as successful as many large toy makers hoped it to be. The transformation caused unease among Lego traditionalists.
Lego – originally a a system of brightly coloured blocks which needed a helping hand before being turned into a recognizable object – started procucing more and more ready-to-use products, like the Star Wars figures it released in 1999 under license from Lucasfilm.
Despite revenues rising to 1,24 billion dollars in 1999, especially from eastern Europe, Lego Systems reported losses of around $105 million in 2000, only the second in the company’s history.
Toys makers’ current troubles are in part connected to these new challenges. But also to last year’s terrorist attacks which have cast a shadow across economies all over the world. The overall weakness is making it increasingly harder for toy makers to match children’s and adults’ desires.
The last years have seen an increase in Lego brand products, such as watches and children’s apparel, and of course the film-making kit complete with easy to handle camera technology.
With the introduction of this kit, Lego has, on the one hand, violated its values without actually realizing the consequences, values which include the promise not to make its toys look like 21st century weapons and avoiding means of violent play. But on the other hand, fans of the moviemaker sets say the kit reflects Lego’s goals of promoting imagination.
Imagination is a value clearly reflected in the brickfilms made by Lego fans all over the world. The trailer of Michael Balladin’s most recent Lego films begins with the words "alien species in captivity....".
Brickfilms are proof that engrossing storylines and exciting film content do not necessarily need expensive Hollywood sets and spectacular special effects. A heap of plastic bricks and two or three small yellow figures will do nicely, too.