Don’t watch my first-ever LEGO video on Instagram if you want to avoid being nauseous. That’s right. It’ll make you want to toss your cookies.
You’d think I’d learned my lesson after making Vomit Video (not really; it’s about a SCUBA diver’s underwater adventure, not puke). Unfortunately, after reading 3 books on how to make LEGO stop motion animation videos, called “brickfilms,” and working on several brickfilm projects, I still made all the classic mistakes and more on my latest video entitled, “Pandemic!”
First, let me explain . . .
What is stop motion animation?
Stop motion animation is a technique for animating, i.e. seemingly bringing to life, inanimate objects. In this case, making a little plastic doll look like it’s alive.
The technique is simple. Pose your doll, then take a picture. Move the doll a tiny bit, then take a picture. Keep going until your doll has done what you wanted it to do. Eat a pizza. Rob a bank. Save a shark from hunters.
Use video-editing or animation-specific software to make a really fast slide-show of those pictures, and your eye and brain will magically fill in the gaps so that it looks like the doll is moving.
Remember that you can animate anything, not just LEGO or other construction-type toys. Sculptures. Wads of toilet paper. Vitamins. Coins. Other toys. Stickie notes. There are no limits.
If you’re wondering how to be LEGO animation star, let me point you in the right direction by showing you what you should avoid. Ready?
Classic LEGO stop motion animation mistakes
These are the newbie brickfilming mistakes:
not stabilizing the camera
Vomit Video is the result of your camera and/or your baseplate moving. A tiny distance for humans is a huge distance for LEGO people, called “minifigures.” So if your camera moves even a tiny bit, that will translate into your minifig’s entire world suddenly and inexplicably moving as well.
In a perfect world, my camera would be on a very steady tripod, and I would press the shutter using a remote control, just in case.
Alas, my world isn’t perfect. Is yours? I put my camera down and try my best to remember to always put pressure on the same spot on the side of the camera. Then I press the shutter.
Yes, Gentle Reader, I use hope to steady the camera.
not securing the baseplate
The other thing that could move a tiny bit and cause a less than tiny filmmaking disaster is securing the baseplate where all the action is taking place. It shouldn’t move at all.
I use clear packing tape and/or the putty used to attach posters to the wall. Since my studio is a little over 3 square feet of the counter in my bathroom, I don’t have many options. If I had a table, I’d look into clamps. Although I wonder if they would damage the baseplates.
For “Pandemic!” I remembered to tape down the baseplates most of the time. Where I went wrong on this specific project was the scene with the music in the park. I didn’t make sure that the stage I built on a small baseplate was securely fastened to the large baseplate.
As a result, the entire stage moved when I adjusted the musicians.
To make matters worse, when I don’t take enough photos, I often copy what I have and paste the images in reverse order. So if the saxophone player was bending backwards, now she can also bend forwards. No extra photos are required. I love that!
In this case, it means that the entire stage moved twice as much.
If anyone asks, I’ll say I did it on purpose, okay? The music was so great that the earth moved. Later on in the brickfilm, the frontline workers are standing still while the police officer lowers a weapon. I’ll say it was the gravity of the moment that made the characters feel like the earth was moving under their feet.
not taking enough photos
In a perfect world, you take at least 10 pictures for every second of video. If you want to make a LEGO short film that’s 1 minute long, you’re going to need 600 photos! Otherwise your brickfilm will not be smooth.
A number of times I only took 3 photos of a particular shot. That’s nothing, useless. Why would I do such a thing? How is that possible? For many people, it’s inexperience. In this case, it was fatigue. I didn’t take enough breaks and didn’t just go to sleep to continue the next day with a fresh mind.
In a perfect world, you have at least 600 pictures for each minute of video. Personally, I don’t pay attention to the number of photos.
I didn’t have time to reshoot the vomit-video sections, so I just left them. I wonder if my viewers even noticed. Hopefully, the story and storytelling are enough for the audience to be distracted and/or forgive the brickfilmer.
When I really wanted a shot and didn’t have enough photos, I stopped the movement by setting the duration of that photo at an entire second instead of 3 frames. Think of it as emphasizing a shot or idea.
How do you know if you’re taking enough photos? Assuming you shoot like I did, without special animation software, I suggest making something very short and very simple as a test. You’ll know right away if you have enough photos and whether your camera/baseplate is moving.
It’s all part of the stop motion journey!
No minifig warm-up
Each minifigure should do a warm-up before he or she has to start acting. In other words, you need to twist the head, arms, and hands, and push the legs back and forth. That tells you how stiff they will be and therefore how hard it will be to move them just a teensy bit before you take a photo.
If a body part is too stiff, when you try to move it, you’ll have to make more of an effort. The extra effort might mean that you accidentally knock something over or move the body part too much. In this case, the musicians were stiff, and in trying to move them, I moved the entire stage.
No access to the minifig
I put the first responder minifigs too close together, so when I wanted to move a head, arm, or hand, I couldn’t reach it without knocking something down or moving the vehicles. You guessed it: I didn’t clamp down the vehicles. But I won’t embarrass myself further by turning that into a separate bullet point of humiliation.
Dual-Sided Minifig Head
I love dual-sided minifg heads because it’s two for the price of one. One side of the head has a smiling face while the other side has a frowning face. Or perhaps one face has a scream and the other has a smirk.
The problem arises when you take a photo of the back of the minifig’s head, and the other face is visible under the character’s wig. Embarrassing! Hopefully, it goes by too fast for anyone to see. Fingers crossed.
When you take that many photos, it’s easy to forget to triple-check that what you want is in focus. I have at least one shot that’s slightly blurry. Again, fingers crossed that the shot goes by too quickly for anyone to notice, that my other filmmaking skills disguise that mistake or that no one cares about it.
Poor communication with actors
There are four different voices in “Pandemic: a cinematographic masterpiece by Elizeth Labega.”
One of the corresponding voiceover actors was my sister. She had 10 minutes’ notice when there were several things going on in her household. I shoved her into a small, dark, clothes closet and made her improvise. More warning would’ve been helpful.
I didn’t give the other actors a properly formatted script, and I gave them no direction. One of them, whom I didn’t know, asked me if I wanted a cartoony sound or a natural sound. I hadn’t even thought about that. One of them clearly didn’t have time to carefully read the script, so the intonation of some of her lines would’ve caused confusion. One of them sent her recorded file in a format I couldn’t open.
“Pandemic!” was my entry to a LEGO video contest taking place during the COVID-19 pandemic of 2020. Specifically, it was immediately after George Floyd’s death, and Black Lives Matter protests were taking place around the country and the world. One actor was trying to travel and another was distracted by the news of rioting in our city.
Given this situation that was new to us all, I should’ve been even more clear in my communication. Which part was whose, what the context was, which type of file to send, and, yes, I really did mean “Carrot Dancer.”
Not resting enough
The creative process is a mysterious thing. Where do the solutions to problems come from? It seems like they just pop into my head. Sometimes. Other times you have to systematically go looking for them. That’s how I found myself trying to find royalty-free and cost-free sound files of machines . . . at 3 o’clock in the morning.
What will the final brickfilm look like? You’re curious. Sometimes you’re in the flow of things and don’t want to stop because it might be hard to get started again. Sometimes you just want the thing to be over and done with.
In my case, I didn’t take enough breaks, stayed up into the wee hours of the night, and convinced myself that ice cream really was a vegetable. On the second day, I didn’t get dressed or comb my hair until 7:00 PM, when I wanted to go for a walk.
LEGO stop motion animation videos are created when you take many photos of inanimate objects, moving those objects just a tiny bit between taking those photos, and then using software to play all the photos back quickly enough so that your eye and brain think the objects are actually moving on their own.
I’ve written a post around a collection of YouTube tutorials on LEGO stop motion for beginners. The short version is:
- keep your camera and baseplate from moving
- move all the joints on your LEGO minifigures before you start photographing them
- take plenty of photos
- carefully plan your shots as best you can so that you can physically reach whatever it is you need to move without touching another part of your scene
- check if a minifig’s hair will cover a face on the back of its head if you’re using a dual-sided head
- triple-check for clear photos
- communicate with your voice-over actors if there’s dialogue in your cinematographic masterpiece
- get enough rest and exercise so your body doesn’t rebel in the middle of a shot
- slow down enough to enjoy the process.
FYI: I won!
Yes, Gentle Reader, “Pandemic!” won first prize in the contest held by Virgeo Studios. Here it is, in all its 2-minute glory.