Talking Animation with David Pagano and David Pickett

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David Pickett and David Pagano are two names synonymous with the art of brick filming and LEGO animation. They are also the co-authors of The LEGO Animation Book. Earlier this year they joined me to discuss how the book came about, their work and the future of LEGO animation.

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We started our conversation by digging into both of the Davids’ pasts, searching for that elusive moment that got them hooked on animation.

David Pagano: When I was a kid my dad had a video camera; this was before everybody had a camera in their telephone.  It was a shoulder mounted VHS model with a tripod that could be attached to it.  My Dad used it to record home movies and birthday parties.  At some point, I don’t remember exactly when it was, he and I watched a stop motion documentary together – a behind the scenes type of thing.   I have a clear memory of me asking him if he could explain how you do “that thing where characters move but you don’t see your hands.”

I also had a friend whose dad did puppetry shows for children.  As a result, he had some experience with video cameras.  One day, when I was around 9 or 10 years old, we were hanging out in my bedroom where I had a long layout of a LEGO city.  He said “hey, why don’t we make a LEGO animation with your city set up here.” So he arranged my dad’s camera: he was the photographer and I was the animator. I’d used LEGO as a way to facilitate storytelling and make up little worlds before, so putting them on video was a very natural next step.

David Pickett:  Seeing as how similar mine and David’s stories are, my joke was going to be to just say “ditto” after all of his answers.  My family also had a video camera.  I actually have some video footage of me as a seven-year old kid who when they got a camera immediately wanted to use it to film everything.

The earliest LEGO film I made used the set 60506 Dragon Wagon to make a movie about a dragon.  It wasn’t animated, in fact in most of my early films I literally moved the characters around like little puppets, doing their voices as I recorded.   It’s actually something I’ve started doing again, as a lot of the content on my Youtube channel is simply me playing with the toys as opposed to professional animation.  The VHS tape of these early pieces is probably still in my parents’ basement –  there is a terrible Power Rangers rip off on it, which I know would be right up David Pagano’s alley!

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Things moved on when I made my first LEGO film for a school project.   Anytime in school I could justify using a video to fulfil the requirement of an assignment I would, sometimes with LEGO, sometimes not.  At the time it was still rare for anyone to have video technology at home.  So I was the video guy as much as I was the LEGO guy at school.  It just seemed very natural to me that these two things I liked doing should combine.

My first animation probably wasn’t until I was around thirteen in middle school.  And then in college I had this epic animation that was 60 minutes long.  I realised when I screened it that I was becoming THE LEGO guy.  I made a very decisive choice at that point not to pursue live action filmmaking and focus instead on the LEGO niche.   So far it has worked out pretty well for me.

Having established the formative moments of both Davids careers we traced the journey from their early projects into professional practice.

David Pagano:  When LEGO Studios – the official LEGO line of filming sets – was released, they also ran a film competition to promote it.  By that point I had a capture card that I could use to tie my VHS camera into my computer, which finally let me do legit stop-motion animation.  My film was called Haunted and earned me a semi-finalist place, as well as a trip to New York City.  Which ironically is where I grew up.  My mum got a phone call from the LEGO Company: “You are never going to believe this, you and your family are going to New York City”… and my mum was like: “We are in Queens right now!” That was definitely the first time that I felt like this animation thing could be a career.

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I actually didn’t go to college with the intention of doing animation.  I wanted to do live action work: the real ‘pro’ way to make films.  What I quickly learned was that live action involves a lot of cutting your teeth on other peoples’ projects, which you may have little to no interest in.  Whereas if I made an animated film, I could lock myself in a room for a couple of months and do all the work myself.

So I ended up taking the animation track.  In my senior year, I decided to make a LEGO film as my thesis. The thought was “I’m in college and I’m spending all this money to be here, so I might as well make the LEGO film now, because after I graduate no one is going to hire me to do this.”

The film I made was called Little Guys, and it has been unintentionally responsible for every stop-motion gig I’ve been hired for.  Most specifically, I brought it to the Brickworld Chicago fan event, which is the largest in North American.  (It’s where Dave Pickett and I first met too.) There I met a crew from the LEGO Company who liked my film and asked me to do some work for their in-house agency.  That’s how my weird hobby become a weird career making films with LEGO.

David Pickett:  I initially went to college to study biology and creative writing at the University of Chicago, mainly because it’s a cool liberal arts college and I knew I would get a broad education.  I spent all my free time in the student film group making LEGO movies and other stop-motion stuff for fun.   I made some really long convoluted movies, which I called LEGO Movie 2 and LEGO Movie 2 Vol. 2, which received positive responses.  But I wanted to reconceptualise what I could do, make it more friendly for the emerging trend of internet video sites such as YouTube.

So I came up with the idea of a LEGO web series; this became The Nightly News at Nine.  I spent a lot of time building up characters and a world in the summer of 2006; a short teaser with a few of the characters followed in 2007.  I then spent a further two years revising scripts for what would become Chapters 1 and 2.

I was in a screenwriting circle with some people I met in college.  We’d read each other’s scripts and give feedback.  I always like to emphasise how much time and effort it takes to make something funny and good.  For example, the original scripts had a war between the colours regular green and lime green. This original idea was more conceptual – the war between two gods to decide the official colour of jealousy – which I rejected in favour of the more direct opposition between orange and green.  The final 24-minute piece was cut up into smaller chunks of 5 minutes, which was small back then, but nowadays this is long even for YouTube.

This project ultimately became the basis for my YouTube channel BRICK 101. As of a year ago it has become my main job. The site has moved away from the animation work; it’s a mix of tutorial videos and reviews of LEGO products and other brands.  This helps me to be more profitable.  I have an office now, and a part-time employee.  This has really become my career path now, but it has gotten me away from animation.  I consider myself more of a construction block filmmaker nowadays.

This revelation brought the conversation round to how the LEGO Animation Book bought the two of them together to focus on an animation project.

David Pickett:  It was after the Nightly News at Nine Chapter 1 that we really started talking about writing a book together.

David Pagano: Dave and I have been teaching a LEGO stop-motion animation workshop for a decade.  When we first started, Dave and I would also sell DVDs of our animated films.  People would point to these and they would say “oh is that a DVD about how to make LEGO animations?”, and we would both sort of blush and say “No”. We just looked at each other one day and said we should make a how to book so people stop asking us for it.

David Pickett: As David mentioned we met in Chicago, where we were the only two people involved in making animations.  There was one other guy from Brick Films but he has moved on.  Repeatedly, we have been the only two brickfilmers at this event for the past decade.  The LEGO fan community hasn’t really seen many brick filmmakers, compared to any other sub-genre of LEGO fandom. With the book we really are just trying to create the next generation of LEGO filmmakers and hopefully get current adult fans to try something they didn’t do as a kid.

David Pagano: One of the stated goals of our book is to be the kind of book we would have wanted to read when we first got into brickfilming.  We wanted to answer the common questions and condense the first steps of brick filming into a digestible form.  Being a co-authored book it also offers our two differing perspectives.  We often finish each other’s – [David Pickett interjects] “sandwiches” – … hahah!  If we had written this book on our own we would mostly have focussed on our individual approaches to filmmaking. By writing it together it became more about us exploring the ways in which film making is possible based on our combined experiences.

David Pickett:  This is most pronounced in section 7 of the book where we talk about pre-production. I am all ‘play’ with only the minimum amount of planning.  The Magic Picnic is the most planned project I’ve ever done, because it was planned for a book, but also because I was working with David who has the most amazing spreadsheets.

David Pagano: I tend to plan out my films to a large extent, so that when I am on set I am ready to play, without having to worry where the lighting is etc.  I’ve started over the past 5-6 years, bringing other people into the fold to help me on my films, so I don’t have to keep all the details in my brain or on a spreadsheet. This lets me focus on the fun parts of animation.

David Pickett:  One of the best things about the reception of the book is hearing anecdotes about how it is helping kids’ creativity.  A couple of home schoolers have told us that the book has become a project for their summer curriculum.  Another reason why we made the book was that it was something that simply needed to exist in the universe.

A discussion followed as to how the book was practically written.

David Pagano: One year, after the Brickworld event, we hung out at Dave’s apartment and knocked out a very broad outline for what we thought the book would be.  Some of this came from the workshops we had been teaching together. We started to figure out what the key points and most asked questions were and went from there.

David Pickett:  In late 2010, David contacted me to write a ‘How to Animate’ article for Brick Journal Issue 14.   After that was released in April 2011, we talked again at Brickworld, and that’s when Dave stayed over at my apartment.  One of the key things we decided at that point was whether the content would make more sense as a series of videos or a book.  We decided that a book and an animation developed together would be the best option. We started a website, now known as the Set Bump, originally Brick Animation, to support the project.

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Between 2011 and 2013 we did lots of pre-production work.  I think we officially started writing the book when the LEGO Movie came out in 2014.  We saw it together and went back to my hotel room to start work. David lives in New York and I live in Chicago, so a lot of the creative stuff was done when we were together.

David Pagano: Trying to make the Magic Picnic at the same time as writing the book was a hilarious and insane idea.  One can’t exist without the other—the photography from the book is directly from the set of the Magic Picnic, and these images, to some extent, dictated the text.  The difficulty came in juggling the interrelation of the two projects and meeting deadlines.

David Pickett: It was hard to write a draft of the book with zero photos in it. Our publisher couldn’t comprehend it without seeing the photos.  Having an animation tie in with the book was a huge interlocking puzzle, which at times was extremely frustrating.  Chapter three specifically will make David whimper.

We divided up the work for the book and the animation.  Each of us took the lead for different chapters and passed these back and forth to review.  Similarly, we split the Magic Picnic up, I did town, castle, and pirate and David did space and the robot battle. Having a story about inter-dimensional travel hid the differences between our cameras and was also a shout out to the classic brickfilm, the Magic Portal. It also contains references to the history of LEGO themes, Power Rangers and the 1980s LEGO Idea books.

David Pagano:  Our goal was to make sure that you could not see which parts of the film are me or Dave Pickett. We wanted it to feel cohesive. But if you pay close attention, it should be possible to see which parts were made by each David.

David and David moved on to discuss their respective animation styles.

David Pickett:  Let me talk about David Pagano in terms of a throughline in his work: his PaganoPuppet, which debuted in Playback. These are large scale brick built figures, but not as large as those in Little Guys.  They have human articulations and brick-built mouths.  They feature in his finest commissioned work Country Buildin’; a country music video with the two cowboys live lip syncing to the song of the same name.  It is probably the perfect blend of the needs of the client and David’s personal style.

In addition to the way David has refined his animation and his production process he has also refined the actual LEGO build over the years.  The original version of the character in Playback is not as refined as those in Country Buildin’.  The PaganoPuppet was then revised again, based on the availability of new pieces, when we did the instructions for our book.  It has also shown up in other animators’ works.  Also, non-animators have used it in their work. Monster Brick (Matt Armstrong), for example, has made lots of different interpretations of that base model.

In addition, David’s walk cycle diagram is part of an internal official LEGO document for how the minifigure can be used in any stop-motion animation they produce, whether it’s made by Paganomation or one of their other contractors.

When I was working on the book, I spent a lot of time looking at David’s work, and deconstructing what he does in his animations.  My favourite example is the arm nod, as a way of showing consent or a “yeah that is a great idea!”

David Pagano: What I admire in Dave’s work, especially in his animation, is something I don’t have as much experience with: writing.  So when Dave talks about how long he spent writing the Nightly News at Nine, I’m both impressed and envious.  I just haven’t made the time to develop my own stuff in the way he has.

However, there is an additional artistic l element to Dave’s work that is very important too.  I work in a building with Sean Kenney – the brick artist – and one argument that comes up over and over again is the idea that there are certain LEGO artworks or LEGO artists where the work is made of LEGO bricks but it doesn’t go beyond that.  One nice thing about the Nightly News at Nine is that it is made of LEGO and is a technically proficient build, but it also says stuff about Dave and gets his ideas into the world.  At my studio, the way we describe great works of LEGO art is that “LEGO can be the beginning of the conversation but it shouldn’t be the end.”

This idea turned the conversation around to the theme of what makes a LEGO artwork, and how storytelling and narrative forms are essential to LEGO animation.

David Pagano:  Accessibility is a word that comes up often when we have this conversation.  Anyone can go to a LEGO sculpture show or a fan convention, see how a piece is built, and can go home and try it themselves.  More so than say when you see a watercolour painting in an exhibition. Because LEGO is a toy first and art medium second, there is a lower barrier to entry.

David Pickett:  One thing that elevates great brickfilms is that there is more to them than just technique. A 4K video of a minifigure walking across the floor is not art, nor is it interesting.   I wrote an article about this that looked at the dangers of hyper-reality.  It analysed the mania for technical perfection that prevented film makers from finishing their work or telling meaningful stories.  So much LEGO animation is focused on spectacle.  Spectacle is always a part of entertainment, and art to a certain extent, but pure spectacle seems empty.

I have much more compassion and interest in technically terrible brickfilms made by a kid trying to say something.  A kid doing a poorly animated film about her family is way more interesting than a shot by shot recreation of the latest Star Wars trailer. I hate that the latter is all some people think of when they think of LEGO animation.

David Pagano:  It was important that the Magic Picnic embodied these ideas.  In Chapter 6 of our book we talk about how important play is in the development of a brickfilm.

When I started doing videos for the LEGO Group back in 2008, the company was coming back from near bankruptcy, trying to figure out what they needed to do to be vibrant and profitable again.  Back then they were more willing to take a chance on a video starring a talking mailbox or lumberjacks with magic powers than they are now. Some of the playfulness has gone out of the company’s recent adverts.

This opened up a conversation around the recent LEGO films.

David PaganoThe LEGO Movie is interesting for us because we both have an encyclopaedic knowledge of the rubbish put out by the LEGO group over the years.  If you look at LEGO Friends as a lifelong fan, it is such an improvement over Belville and Scala, but if you look at it from outside the lens of LEGO fandom, it appears as if all of a sudden LEGO is catering to girls.  The LEGO Movie is kind of the same thing – “LEGO has started to get into the film business and got it right the first time.”  Well not quite!  There were a lot of failures before the hit.

David Pickett:  There is this really excellent Henry Selick quote: “Every kid has a toy that they believe is their best friend, that they believe communicates with them, and they imagine it being alive, their toy horse or car or whatever it is. Stop-motion is the only medium where we literally can make a toy come to life, an actual object.” I’ve printed this out and put it on my wall.  When I think of the connection between toys and storytelling, stop-motion animation is just the playing without the hand present. The LEGO Movie embodies this idea even more than most current current LEGO products.  It communicates something deep about creativity.  The fact that you build the thing on the box, or the 3 things that there are instructions for; vs the idea that you can build anything you want to.  It’s a weird paradox and the conflict between LEGO as a concept and a product that is sold, and what it means culturally.

But I also wonder about this from a story telling perspective, what does it mean to be a ‘LEGO’ story.  So I think about all the LEGO themes (Star Wars, Batman, etc.) that reinvent these properties.  The key theme I see between these is a self-aware ability to poke fun at something that is generally dramatic.  For instance what the LEGO Company did with the Travellers Tales Star Wars games and TV shows; these are pretty irreverent. The LEGO Movie is like The ‘LEGO LEGO’ movie, in that it both celebrates and parodies the LEGO brand itself.

On this note we ended our discussion, with a nod to the power of humour and parody in LEGO animation, and a timely reminder to just what makes both David Pickett and David Pagano’s animations so much fun to watch.

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