“This is a fun, helpful book. I want it,” turned into “My life will be incomplete without this book, and I must have it,” when I saw the “Body Language” section of this book, and especially the “dejected foot kick.”
The Book’s Promise
The LEGO Animation Book promises that you will be able to make your own LEGO movies. “No experience required!” It vows to show you how to make your first LEGO animation and dive into the full filmmaking process, from brainstorming ideas to making your film to sharing it with the world.
Do co-authors David Pagano and David Pickett keep that promise? Yes, indeed!
You can certainly find much of the basic information in this book online in articles and blog posts as well as YouTube videos, but you won’t find the details, refinements, tips, and wonderful layout, all in one place.
They’ll take you from brainstorming to organizing what you need before you start taking photos. There’re chapters on the actual photography process. What about when you’re done taking photos? The Davids have got you covered there, too, with same careful attention to detail.
It’s true that there are more advanced techniques for making brickfilms, which are LEGO stop motion animation films. However, mastering the methods in this book can keep you busy for a blissfully long time, and you can make beautiful films without needing those more advanced tips.
This book is for
The top Amazon reviews for “The LEGO Animation Book” would have you believe that this is a book for children since they are all written by adults who bought it for children and grandchildren ages 9 to 13 or so. Those kids apparently had no trouble following along and were quite happy with it.
It’s okay that these buyers were short-sighted and didn’t see the potential for creativity and self-expression that brickfilming brings to adults.
The book’s introduction makes it clear that the co-authors wanted to create a “definitive reference” for anyone interested in making LEGO stop motion animation regardless of age or skill level. The designated reading level is 7 and up.
Unboxing the book
This book is a joy to flip through. The colors are bright, the instructions are clear, and the photos are beautiful as well as helpful.
The book lies flat, which is wonderful when you don’t want memorize steps of a technique you’re practicing.
The tone is informal and full of humor. The funny factor is obvious from the introduction, where there’s a photo of the book on a plate between a fork and knife. “It only gets stranger—and more fun—from here,” the co-authors promise.
A sampling of Things I enjoyed
All the descriptions of equipment (camera, lights, software) and suggestions for scale come with bullet points indicating strengths, weaknesses, examples, and specific suggestions.
Even better, the bullet points often include who that specific option is for: beginner, intermediate, or advanced, so it’s easy to quickly skip to what’s most important to you. For example, webcams are inexpensive, but the quality of their pictures isn’t as good. They are a good option if you’re a “mid-level animator looking for more control than a smartphone.”
Finally, instead of something like, “DSLRs are good,” the section will suggest a Canon 7D, for example. Sometimes it’s difficult to know where to start because there’re too many options. I love specific suggestions.
People, not robots
Here’s another detail I really appreciated: how to have a character walk at an angle. I grind my teeth just a little bit when I see a human character walk straight ahead and then abruptly turn to the left or right, military-style and continue to walk.
I understand why that happens: the animator is obviously following the studs on a baseplate. But that also pulls me out of the story, because the human character is moving like a robot. After all, in most instances, a real human would walk diagonally.
The fabulous authors give you a solution for that: having the minifigure walk on a diagonal plate. Genius.
A number of times I found myself saying aloud, “Oh! THAT’s what you call that!” For example, “set bump,” is when you accidentally move your entire Lego build. The tiniest move will seem huge in your movie, and multiple moves like that might make your viewer want to vomit.
Another term: purist replacement facial animation. I love that one. After you take all your photos, you could add faces in software during the editing process. You could also have a collection of heads not produced by LEGO since there are many minifigure customization services that will print whatever you like on a LEGO person. With either of those two options, you wouldn’t be a purist.
One more term: animatic. When you have drawings you’ve made, perhaps some photos as well, as part of the planning process for your cinematographic masterpiece, you can edit them together into a video, possibly with temporary dialogue and music. That’s called an animatic.
Further below, I’ve embedded a short film for you to watch that accompanies the book. Here’s the very early version used in the planning of that short film.
I recommend that you watch maybe 30 seconds of it, then move on to the full film!
If you go to No Starch Press’ page for The LEGO Animation Book, you can download a zip file with instructions for making a minifig walk and run, a template for keeping tracking of your photos and corresponding camera settings, two storyboard templates, and PNG files of mouths you can add to your actors’ faces during the editing process. There’s also a full list of parts for the Pagano puppets (I mention below, i.e. larger actors for your movie) including the part numbers, which aren’t in the book and simplify the buying process on something like BrickLink.
Things that made me pee-in-my pants happy
What sold me on this book was the section on body language. You can only do so much with facial expressions, especially when you’re starting out making LEGO animations. Furthermore, if you don’t include dialogue, there’s no voice inflection to help with expression.
If you have patience and experience with Photoshop or similar software and want to change faces after you’ve taken all your photos, you’re a better person than I. Also, I don’t want a hand-drawn look on my minifigures’ faces. That’s a suggestion I get from non-filmmaker friends, one that would make my work look (even more, depending on who’s watching) amateurish.
Instead, you can express a surprisingly wide range of emotion with combinations of arm lifts and hand twists before you even get to the other articulation points of a minifig. One of my favorite techniques is the “dejected foot kick.”
Anna and Matt
Two characters with names, Matt and Anna, appear throughout the book to illustrate the ideas being presented. There are even robot versions of them: Mattron and Annabot.
Matt and Anna are also the stars of a short film: The Magic Picnic. The authors encourage you to watch the film before reading the book. That way, you can refer back to the film when they explain specific technique they used in the animation.
Here’s the film in question. See all the credits at the end? This wasn’t just one person making a brickfilm!
Never before had I seen information on having LEGO actors of different sizes. This book has an entire chapter on scale.
The easiest scale, especially for beginners, is the minifigure scale. There’s an endless number of sets you can buy so that your minifigure can move around any landscape or building you can imagine. If you can’t find what you’re looking for, you can easily build something appropriate.
However, this book shows you 4 other scales you can work with. A “Little Guys Scale” puppet can hold two minifigures in one hand.
There are instructions for a customizable “Pagano Puppet” with a list of parts to making it that much easier to gather the pieces.
Besides Matt and Anna, two figures reappear throughout the book to give additional tips and insights: the signature minifigures or “sig-figs” of the authors themselves, David Pagano and David Pickett.
Sometimes the two Davids agree. For example, they both prefer brick-built special effects over CGI. Sometimes they don’t. For example, David Pagano talks about practicing and improving the way you make a minifigure walk while David Pickett avoids walk cycles if he can.
Their sig-figs voice these thoughts with cartoon speech balloons. It’s just one of many delightful touches you’ll discover in this book.
As a side note, both authors are named “David Michael.” They were destined to co-author this book, methinks.
I made a number of LEGO animation projects before using animation software. I called it “using The Force instead of technology” and kept thinking it was an inefficient, wrong way of doing things.
On Page 133 of the book, David Pickett’s sig-fig tells me that this is a valid option. I now also have terminology for this technique: animating blind. Yay!
Here’s David Pickett.
Reviews on Amazon and YouTube
TheBricksFamily on YouTube notes that the book was a good for primer for any sort of animation, not just LEGO.
MinilifeTV on YouTube reminds us that it’s difficult to light minfigures because they are very small and very reflective. To make filming even more interesting, since they don’t have as many joints as humans, it’s harder for them to convey emotions as human actors would. He states that The LEGO Animation Book helps you with all those problems and many more.
On Amazon, the top review described as critical review gave the book three out of five stars with the comment: “like it.” That just shows that there’s nothing to dislike. But I tried to find something anyway, just for you.
What I didn’t like
Do you hear the sound of crickets? I had to think very hard to find something I disliked, and here it is: The LEGO Animation Book could be a bit overwhelming for a newbie. The book is so cool that you’ll keep reading instead of making your first brickfilm. You’ll be tempted to try too many techniques at once.
Furthermore, you really don’t need to know how to create your makeshift sound-recording booth or master the squash-and-stretch technique in the beginning.
Be careful about having to learn too much at once.
See? That was weak.
I think this book is best for someone who’s already made a couple of short animations and can now can better understand and appreciate how glorious this book is.
Here’s David Pagano.
The LEGO Animation Book is delightful, practical, and encouraging. In addition to techniques specific to animating LEGO, it teaches principles of filmmaking from start to finish.
The descriptions are clear and include many illustrations in the form of beautiful photos.
The book lies flat for easy reference.
It’s written in informal, friendly language suitable for young LEGO animators and grown-up filmmakers, too.
The companion short film is fun and is used as a reference for techniques in the book.
While it can be used by raw beginners, the book is best appreciated by those who’ve completed one or two short LEGO animation projects.