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Making Minifigures Come to Life: An Interview with Rob Coleman






Feb 28, 2017 2:33 am
by Joe Meno
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Rob Coleman

Rob Coleman served as the Animation Supervisor on The LEGO Batman Movie. Before that, he worked at Industrial Light and Magic and Lucasfilm Animation for 14 years doing visual effects for Dragonheart and the Star Wars prequels and Men in Black. For The LEGO Batman Movie, he was responsible for the animation staff. You could regard this movie as one big computer art effect, and Rob was the one that kept the art running. BrickJournal talked to him by phone about the movie and LEGO.

It's not too often that an interviewee is as candid and informative as Rob was, so this talk (in the space of 45 minutes) was not only educational, but also fun! Unfortunately, this also meant that the interview is longer than the pages assigned to it in the magazine. As a result, the initial part of the interview will be in BrickJournal 46, due out in April. The entire interview was by editor Joe Meno, who was interested in not only how The LEGO Batman Movie was made, but also Rob and his staff’s contributions.

When I asked about the sequence from The LEGO Batman Movie that he is most satisfied about, Rob’s answer is accented by a laugh. He starts, “Aw, that's like asking who your favorite child is, I think…I don't know...okay, just don't tell the other kids... It's always great when the big action sequences come together. The opening heist was in various stages of production for probably six months. I won't give you any spoilers, but it's the opening heist in the energy facility. It’s so frenetic and there’s so much action and detail in the background. I was very happy when that came together and we finished it off.”

There is a short pause and another chuckle. “Then there's some great interaction with Batman and Robin which still cracks me up. Michael Cera's Robin just makes me so happy, we loved animating him. And Zach Galifianakis just created this crazy Joker which the animators loved animating. He could turn on a dime - he could be understated and then be wobbly over the top, so he was a lot of fun to animate.”



kitchenLEGO® minifigure Batman (voiced by WILL ARNETT) in the 3D computer animated adventure “The LEGO® Batman Movie,” from Warner Bros. Pictures and Ratpac-Dune Entertainment. A Warner Bros. Pictures release.
BATMAN and all related characters and elements ™ & © DC Comics Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures.

The mention of Zach’s characterization quickly led me to another question: Did Animal Logic animate to the actor’s voice? Rob’s answer became an outline of the entire process of filmmaking at the studio: “Yes, so what we get, and this is typical of all animated films, is that we start with what is called scratch tracks, which tends to be people like in the editorial department here recording the lines. We also might get early recordings of some of the actors but not all the actors, and that goes in as a placeholder for the edits. The edits start the storyboards and it evolves into what we call previz (visualization) and layout before it comes into animation. Ideally, we are animating to the actual production dialogue but in many cases, we must start animating to the scratch.”

In pointing out that Disney animators film the actors while they are acting their dialogue for reference, Rob quickly agrees. “Yep, same here. We shoot video of the actors, who are usually at a lectern in a sound booth. The actors are different in terms of how much they emote at the lectern - some are very animated themselves; they’re talking with their hands and they’re really expressing with their faces and that can be very valuable to inspire the animators to use, especially if an actor has a certain tic, like let’s say Galifianakis would say a word a certain way and pushed his head forward and then shoulders up when he said the word. “

Rob continues, “We would try to emulate that in animation because it would feel like the voice is really coming out of his minifig, because that is the challenge: I am trying to trick the audience and make them believe that the voice they are hearing is coming out of a little plastic minifig. Anything I can have the animators put in there, whether it be let’s say, the character has a little bit of a lisp and they are doing something with their tongue, then we would add that into the facial animation so the sounds and the visual tie together. The challenge is always the nonverbal acting because you need to keep your character alive. It’s the same for live-action or animation, so nonverbal can be incredibly valuable if you’re watching one of the actors at the lectern - what are they doing, because they are usually listening to the other character who may or may not be in the room with them. Most of the time they are not and they are listening to other characters on their headphones. What are they doing? Are they paying attention? Are they not? Are they staying in character? If they are, then that’s really valuable to us - were they squinting? What’s Joker’s face doing when Batman is putting him down or ignoring him or being rude to him? What’s Joker’s reaction, because the director and the editor will choose to be on Joker at that moment while we are hearing Batman. What’s appropriate for that character at that time?”

The level of attention needed to animate at this level is astounding and fascinating. When I mention this to Rob, his answer is quick and full of pride: “I’m lucky in that I love what I do!”

It was also there that it struck me that I never really thought of the characters in The LEGO Movie as minifigures - they were characters that happened to be a LEGO-sized character.  Rob’s gracious reply? “Thank you! Thank you! That’s the goal! That is certainly what we are hoping—that the audiences get swept away for ninety minutes into the world of LEGO and they do exactly what you did: you didn’t think of it as a plastic character, that you believed in it as a thinking, emoting person.”

Making the minifigures act as real, breathing, emotive characters is one of the things that makes The LEGO Movie and The LEGO Batman Movie work, but there are other films that Rob and Animal Logic are working on. I asked about what Rob would want to see happen for those movies. He explains an example of not only what happens after a movie, but what is planned for the next as a result: “We already have The LEGO Ninjago Movie in production and we have The LEGO Movie Sequel in preproduction. We learn something new every time and so we stand on the shoulders of where we were before. We learnt a tremendous amount off The LEGO Movie. After it was completed, we went back and we sat with the heads of departments and asked, what did we learn? Technically, was the software fast enough? Are our artists able to do the best work they could within the time we thought we were going to have?

“So after The LEGO Movie we realized that the facial system that we had developed for the minifigs wasn’t fast enough and wasn’t robust enough. It was completely rewritten for LEGO Batman. LEGO Ninjago is taking benefit of that and so will The Sequel so that was a big thing we learned. We also learnt the efficiency we could get by getting runs and walks and actions and putting them into what we call a clip library that animators could pull from so that we can get the animation blocked in faster than if we were starting from scratch in every single shot.“

Rob then continues on the artistic aspects he is working on at Animal Logic: “I’m trying to get our animators to think about being in the headspace of the minifigs and really studying acting. They’ve been doing really well in staying in character and coming up with ideas that are appropriate for an actor, a character, a minifig at this moment in time and their journey in this film and where we are in the movie. So, how would Joker react to that line? What is an honest reaction from him given what we know about him, his backstory, beyond even the movie we are in, what has he already experienced in the movie, and what is in his headspace and what does he want at this moment?  Getting everyone to think about the subtext - why is the scene in the movie and what do we want the audience to take away from this? How do we want them to react? We put a lot of thought into it, and it started with the writing and then the editing and then the director directing the voice talent and then the director directing the animators and then myself working with the animators because you may have or I may have, I definitely had 40 animators on any given day all animating Batman and every animator has a different understanding of who Batman is. As an Animation Supervisor, I have to make sure that we’re producing a consistent performance so that when the audience sees all these various 40 shots in different parts of the movie, that it all feels like the same Batman.”

“It will sound like the same Batman because it’s all performed by Will Arnett. But I also have to make sure his acting, he’s moving in the same way, his facial expressions are similar, the way his head is moving is consistent, so all those things are going on behind the scenes on an animated movie.”

Gotham CityArt and Design Schematic: Part of Gotham City

Doing all of this is a challenging process, so I asked, how do you train an animator to do that? It’s been observed that animators are basically actors on paper, or in this case an actor behind a screen. How do you project the acting to a minifigure from a person who essentially behind a keyboard and a drawing tablet? Rob got me really curious because I know Disney animators have mirrors and look at themselves and draw themselves for reference and to make sequences. Rob confirmed that with a short “Yes!” but when I continued and pointed out his animators didn’t have that luxury with computer animation, Rob was quick to answer:
“Yes we do! We do! We do the same thing. Many of the animators have mirrors on their desks. Many of the animators will get up and act out the action. Some of them will videotape themselves so they can go back and look at what were their physical choices of when they raise their hand or tilt their head or turn away. Then the challenge is: (and they are listening to the voice actor the entire time) where are the intonations and the accents in the voice performance? Then the challenge becomes “okay, I’m seeing everything on ones (meaning at real time) now I have to take that performance that’s smooth and I need to put it into a stepped animating on twos or threes or fours or sixes that looks like it’s done in stop-motion. That is a challenge and it takes some animators more time to get into the style of the animation.”

“In terms of how they approach a non-verbal shot, again, a thinking shot, it’s the same process whether you are a live actor on set, you’re a hand-drawn animator, or you’re a computer animator. It’s the same process: What is going on in the facial performance and the body attitudes of your character at that moment? Do they believe in what they are hearing? Are they thinking about something else? Do they want to leave the room? Are they upset but are trying to hold it in?  All of those things inform how the performance will progress so in terms of me working with a multitude of animators who are all animating the same character, we of course have sessions where we sit and we talk about who is Bruce Wayne, who is Batman, what is he motivated by, what is he thinking at this time. He holds his cards pretty tight. He doesn’t want to show emotion so what is appropriate for him at that time? All of those things will produce a more believable human performance and that’s what we’re trying to get to in animation.”

I commented, “And you do it well.” Rob answered, “Thank you, Thank you very much.”

Gotham City
Art and Design Schematic: Part of Gotham City

I remarked that the best humor that I saw in The LEGO Movie was when bad Cop kicks the chair and it flies off the screen and then it lands a few moments later. This gag is repeated in The LEGO Batman Movie with Robin and his clothes (at this point I had only seen the trailers). The gag of him stripping his pants off and throwing it at Batman is just genius. It cracks me up to no end because the animators are playing with the LEGO as it is and making a nice cute point about how goofy it can be. Rob concurred: “Exactly.”

As a builder, I have been known to switch pants and things like that and leaving legs happens!
Rob follows up: ”Yes, so you’ve got a LEGO joke that about the legs being able to be swapped but you also have a joke that references the 1966 Robin costume with his little panties and his bare legs, right?  They have that joke and then you realize in LEGO it actually takes on double humor for a percentage of the audience like yourself. You’re thinking, of course, you can absolutely do that in LEGO.

Gotham CityArt and Design: Concepts Painted Over Model of Gotham City

With that, I wrapped up the interview with the following question to Rob: Who is your favorite Batman? He was a little surprised: “Oh, who’s my favorite Batman…Oh wow, I hadn’t - no one has really asked that before. When I was little, I remember on my fifth birthday my parents screened the 1966 Batman movie in our living room on a 16 mm projector, and I still remember that vividly - the color of that and everything and I watched the TV series and so I love that Batman a lot, just the campiness of it. My other favorite Batman — I really like Will Arnett Batman! That just sounds silly, but it’s true! Will Arnett Batman from The LEGO Movie just cracked me up! It was a great thing and of course it was obvious that they would make a Batman spinoff. I’m too close to this movie to not try to do our very, very best, but those would be the ones that pop up for me.

I explained that Adam West is my favorite Batman for pretty much the same reason as his. As I got older, I realize I liked it for an entirely different reason than before. When I was a kid, it was all this great color and action and then I just realized it’s just too goofy and campy.

Rob commented; “Yeah. Look, I like some of the dark Batmans but I also like a lot of the villains in those films as well. I like Christopher Nolan’s films and I like his version of the Batman. That Batman isn’t exactly my favorite batman, but the film and the look of those films I love those films. Every Batman has a different take on it and I read Batman comic books and seen the Batman animated series and things like that.” I mentioned that the animated series is another hallmark for me, and Rob agreed.

After that, the interview was wrapped up. I haven’t seen the movie yet, as the release date is a couple of days away. One thing I do know is that Rob Coleman and the staff of Animal Logic put hearts and souls into The LEGO Batman Movie …and it’ll show.

You can go to Animal Logic's website here. Many thanks to Warner Brothers and Animal Logic for arranging the interview and providing photos and art.