Everything is Aesthetic: Realism and Abstraction in The Lego Movie

jumpingjacks

Juho Lee

The Lego Movie (2014) is a parody on so many levels. The story follows Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces outline to a tee. Almost every character is unabashedly an archetype or parody of something, be it The Matrix, the Dark Knight trilogy, or Morgan Freeman. But it’s all intentional. The superficial plot is as contrived and derivative as a child’s imaginary adventures with plastic representations of pop culture properties are expected to be. Once The Lego Movie establishes that the story is a fabricated metaphor of deeper conflict at the heart of the film, the perpetual parody becomes meaningful and easier to swallow.

The film’s aesthetic plays a similar game. It’s a parody of stop motion animation, a computer animated film in disguise as a stop motion film, and while that in itself includes elements of realism (as stop motion consists of still photographs of real objects), a stop motion film composed entirely of Legos ultimately implies a level of absurdity and abstraction that’s unmatched by anything live action. The elaborate camera and lighting techniques, the distinct movement of its characters, and the consistency of its Lego aesthetic all indicate that The Lego Movie isn’t a movie about just Legos or even a movie made with just Legos, but a movie that is the sum of Legos and a boy’s imagination.

Realism

Several facets of The Lego Movie’s stop motion aesthetic are completely realistic, because its object of parody involves actual photographs of actual things.

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For example, it’s easy to describe the virtual camera’s lens in realistic terms. Its focal length is consistently small, usually with a narrow depth of field. This serves several purposes. For one, it enlarges the film’s scale by donning the illusion that the distances between foreground and background elements are longer than they appear. In the extreme close-up above, Bad Cop’s head (despite presumably being about a cubic centimeter in volume) appears almost life-sized, in part due to his helmet and the sides of his face being out of focus. The shot below it shows more of the questioning room and divides itself into three layers of depth, with Emmet in the foreground, Bad Cop in the middle, and gray metallic walls in the background. With only Bad Cop in focus, the shot feels deeper than it actually is. The room feels like an actual room, instead of a minuscule chamber of only a few square inches in floorspace. But more importantly, the film’s virtual lens behaves exactly like a real one.

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Realistic analyses can also apply to the film’s lighting. The entire questioning scene is bathed in a harsh top light and the objects on-screen are illuminated as expected. Emmet’s hair and Bad Cop’s helmet reflect the light source, but they both have the surface texture of a matte plastic. The light striking the two would have to be extremely bright and concentrated to achieve such an effect. The darkness of the background as well as the shadows cast on their faces and bodies all imply hard top lighting as well.

The Stop Motion Aesthetic

However, committing to the stop motion aesthetic requires unrealistic abstractions that aren’t present in live action. For example, The Lego Movie will supplant traditional effects with Lego-only replacements wherever possible. One such effect is the motion blur, as shown below:

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Here, Bad Cop/Good Cop alternates back and forth between his two personas, causing his head to spin quickly and erratically. While it’s hard to see in motion, a still frame of his face mid-spin shows motion lines and gestures painted on the head itself with the sharpness of a still object.

Another example is when Benny the Spaceman assembles a spaceship. Instead of his velocity translating on screen to blurry streaks, still frames show that Benny becomes a long strip of linear Lego blocks without any of the distortion indicative of motion blur.

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So why does Bad Cop’s face change completely as he shifts personalities? Why does Benny dissolve into Lego strips as he skirts around? Once again, stop motion animation is essentially a sequence of photographs of still scenes. During the recording process, the camera never actually captures motion, like a video recorded with infinitely short shutter speed. Thus, motion blur or light streaks are rarely present. Instead, to convey speed, the animators incorporate artificial motion blur that is both motionless during capture and consistent with the Lego aesthetic.

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Particle effects such as smoke, water, and mud splatter are also replaced by their Lego counterparts. These aesthetic decisions stem from similar reasons as above. Effects such as smoke, running and splashing water, and splatters are rarely seen in their natural form in stop motion, as they’re impossible to manipulate frame by frame. Thus, they’re usually choppily and messily animated with alternatives such as tissue or gelatin. The Lego Movie recreates these effects with Lego for not only a more authentic stop motion aesthetic, but also a more consistent Lego world.

Computer Abstraction

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So far, all discussion of The Lego Movie’s aesthetic is consistent with that of traditional stop motion animation. However, being a computer animated film, The Lego Movie accomplishes feats that are either impossible or impossibly difficult in both traditional stop motion and live action footage. The introductory shot that sweeps around Cloud Cuckoo Land as shown above would be almost impossible to capture with a physical camera, stop motion or not, due to the irregular, airborne path of the camera track and the countless legion of onscreen characters that must be manipulated. Computer animation makes this shot—among the many other hypermobile shots in the film—possible. These shots evoke a sense of grandeur and dynamic action that rarely grace live action films, which instead rely on quick cuts and shaky camera handling to convey motion. They build the fantastic aesthetic that is characteristic of a child’s imagination.

Aesthetic and Story

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Imagine what The Lego Movie could have looked like in lazier hands. If it had been another  generic computer animated film, with each character being smoothly animated, slickly designed, polished representations of the toys that they were engineered to sell. Without the realism offered by the stop motion aesthetic to cement their identities as plastic toys, the story loses its charm and intelligence. But the larger than life abstractions of computer animation are also essential; they reinforce the creative spirit of this imaginary world, thereby validating the movie’s message of individual expression. The Lego Movie is a cheeky homage to stop motion animation that retains the cinematic grandeur of computer animation. Its aesthetic is just like its story, a stylish vehicle that portrays and enhances its themes and philosophy, and that’s exactly what an aesthetic should be.

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