These days most people are used to the idea of a movie made entirely with LEGO. We’ve had the LEGO Movie turn into a smash hit internationally, and LEGO Batman also did incredibly well. The truth is that fans of LEGO have been making their own home movies with LEGO for ages. The way they have been doing this is by using a film technique known as “stop motion”. It’s the same method used in classic films such as King Kong.
Basically, physical models are built to represent the characters and scenery of the film and then a still camera is used to photograph each frame of the action. After each photo is taken, the objects in the scene (including the characters) are moved just a little bit and then the next frame is snapped.
This is, of course, labor-intensive; getting just a few seconds of footage can take hours and hours of careful work, but the art of stop motion has a lot going for it, especially from a LEGO fan’s point of view. LEGO provides the perfect start to building scenes and characters. You don’t have to be an expert modeler or artist to make use of them, and you also learn a lot about film while you’re at it.
There’s a whole sub-genre of LEGO stop motion films on the internet. Entire sites are dedicated to the community and culture of LEGO stop motion. Some people even make a living from publishing these videos online and raking in the ad money or donations from fans through platforms such as Patreon.
The big Hollywood LEGO movies have certainly helped to lift the profile of these fan films but, ironically, they use very little stop motion. The LEGO movies we see on the big screen today are for the most part computer-generated. It’s just that the technology is now at the point where it can render LEGO in a photorealistic way.
This is largely irrelevant to LEGO fans who want to make films at home; if you think it’s tricky to make stop motion at home, wait until you try your hand at computer-generation! There is, however, a place for that technology in these movies too, since you’ll often want to add simple digital effects such as explosions to your home LEGO movie.
The Right Tools for the Job
This article is not about turning you into a stop motion LEGO expert; goodness knows I’m not and I wouldn’t actually publish the stop motion work I’ve done for fun. It’s about outlining how it works and what you need to get started. There are some really great resources out there if you really want to take it to the next level. In fact, under my list of the five best LEGO instructional books you’ll find one complete guide to the art of LEGO film making.
So let’s go over the basic tools that you need.
Room to Breathe
While you can make simple stop motion videos just about anywhere, it makes a huge different to have a permanent or semi-permanent space in which you can make your movies. Why? Because any project such as this is likely to run over multiple days, which means you need to have the luxury of leaving your stuff in place and coming back to it later to add more footage. A spare room, basement, or study are all good candidates.
Obviously, you need a camera. In principle, any camera will do, but you’ll get the best results with a DSLR – it lets you manually focus and has better optics than other types of camera. Stop motion requires a bit of photography savvy in order to get the really good results, but if you don’t know much about photography, don’t stress too much. You can use a normal digital camera or even your phone to get started.
It is, however, important that you have a way to mount the camera in a specific position from which it will not change. In other words, you need a tripod mount or some other solid mounting system. It’s very important that the frame you are photographing does not change, since this will affect the final product.
Now, this is not always true – there are many instances where we want to move the camera as part of the stop motion project. Panning shots, tracking, or zooming are a few possible effects. However, to start with I recommend just making single-frame scenes without camera movement. If you move the camera before finishing the scene, you may end up with unwanted motion that could be unusable.
One of the most important things in stop motion is precise control of the lighting in your scene. Any changes in the lighting level must be deliberate. If the light is fluctuating in every shot you take, you’ll see strobes and weird flickering when playing the video back.
What this means is, first of all, is that you need to have a way to block out natural light. Thick drapes over the windows are a good start. It also means you have to use lights in a specific way to get consistent results. I’ve used regular old LED lights with gooseneck lamps in the past to do desktop photography, with great results. But experimentation is the name of the game here. There are some great resources available online. For example, I suggest that you Google “3-point lighting” to begin with and go from there.
In the old days you had to do stop motion with an analogue camera, which made it even more niche than it is today when it came to home movie making. Now we wouldn’t even think about doing it with anything other than digital camera equipment. It’s not just the camera that’s digital now, either. We use software to edit videos too, but the good news is that there are software packages that are specifically meant to help you with stop motion.
The simplest of these are the ones that just stitch your still photos together quickly and easily, but there are also apps and programs that have stop motion features to help you make a better video. One of the easiest ways to get into it as one package is to use a stop-motion app on a phone or tablet. It means your camera and editor are all one device, and you can get started with a minimum of fuss.
The last bit of the puzzle is, of course, sound. With stop motion you can’t record live sound, obviously, so any music, sound effects, and vocal work will have to be recorded separately. While you can find music and sound effects online, to do decent voice work you’ll need a good USB condenser microphone.
I’ve always had a soft spot for the Samson Go Mic (which you can find here on Amazon), which is good enough for most people and is easy to move around and use.
If you’re going to publish your videos, be sure to use royalty-free content or get the right permissions first. You don’t want to get in trouble for copyright infringement.
The Big Steps
So, now that you have the list of basic equipment you need let’s outline the general steps that most projects like these follow. Obviously, you may develop your own workflow over time, but this is the vanilla template you can use to mold your own groove.
What’s The Story?
While you may start off just goofing around with some LEGO and a camera with no clear plan, if you’re going to make a coherent video you need to get your ducks in a row long before you touch a camera or a single piece of LEGO.
First you need to start with a concept, some main idea for what you want your film to be. This could mean crafting your own story, but often it means something else. A very popular project is to remake existing scenes from films, or their trailers, in LEGO. For example, here is a great remake of the 2017 Power Rangers movie trailer.
The advantage of this type of project is that you don’t have to worry about the sound element at all – you can just use the original track. Since this counts as a parody you also don’t have to worry about copyright issues either; in most countries parody material is protected. Just make sure this applies to your place of residence.
It also means you have the whole project planned out for you, since you are copying an existing piece of footage and remaking it. It’s not easy, but at least you don’t have to struggle with the concept. It’s certainly a great way to learn.
If you want to do something original, you have to start by coming up with the story concept and then write it out as a script.
If you need help with the story-writing aspect of the project, I suggest you Google for a guide on script writing. There are lots of great ones out on the web, but that’s not what this guide is about. Just know that you need to have a concept and/or script in place before you can go any further.
The next step is creating a storyboard. A storyboard is a series of sketches that guide you on how each scene in your film should look – how will it be framed, what happens, and in what order do things happen. If you are remaking something you can just have the video with you for reference, or if you are remaking and adapting it you may want to print out some still frames as a general guide to the look of things, without trying to match it frame-by-frame.
Don’t worry too much if you can’t draw or otherwise lack the skills you think you’d need to sketch a storyboard. There are lots of apps out there that help you put together a storyboard with pre-made assets and specialized tools.
Setting the Stage
Finally, you can actually start working with LEGO pieces. The LEGO building part of the process is, of course, not something I could dictate to you, but there are some differences between building as usual and building for the purpose of filming.
First of all, if your characters are minifigs it stands to reason that you’ll have to build at minifig scale. You also don’t have to build everything in complete detail. Refer to your storyboard to get an idea of what will actually show up in your video and only build the parts that are needed for this. There’s little point in building something you’ll never film.
It can be really useful to keep the camera on hand while building to periodically check the frame and see how close to the final product you are. Remember, all that matters is what the lens sees, so try to look through the lens as much as possible.
You don’t have to build it all before you begin the filming. If you are going to have multiple sets you can plan the shooting around the order in which you make the sets. This is especially important, given that most people won’t have enough bricks to build all their sets at once. So you’ll have to film the different scenes out of order, break down the set once you don’t need it anymore, and recycle the pieces for other scenes. This may sound counter-intuitive, but big-name Hollywood movies are also shot out of order to be as cost-effective and fast as possible.
While you can have lovely sets, if you want to tell a story you’ll need characters. While you’re free to use anything in your film on your LEGO set to stand in for characters, most people are going to use minifigs. To start with, it’s pretty easy to just make your own minifig characters by just mixing and matching parts from the various standard figures that are out there. If you want something special or specific you can paint them, make your own stickers, and much more.
You may also want to have multiple versions of the same character so that the character can go through changes during your film. Heads showing different expressions for example. If you want characters to have mouth movement you could even do little mouth stickers that have different shapes to match different vocal sounds. This is pretty advanced though, so don’t expect to do it straight away. The more detail you add to your film, the more time it will take to create and film each frame. So decide carefully how important those bits of polish are for your purposes.
Before you start snapping away with your camera, you’ll have to make sure that you have the right settings dialed in. If you don’t know much about photography, you’ll have to look up how to get the right exposure, aperture, and so on elsewhere. But there is one setting I can tell you about right here – resolution.
You should set the camera to one of the standard resolutions used in video today. A resolution of 1920×1080 is what I would recommend. That’s full HD, but you can always take it down for web uploads and such. If you are using a DSLR you may find that it won’t take stills at that resolution, but rather at something like 1920×1280. In that case you’ll have to crop 100 pixels from the top and bottom of the image to get a 16:9 widescreen picture that will fill a computer monitor or TV. Just adjust your frame with that in mind, should you need to.
Setting Things in Motion
Now that you have your sets and your characters, you can start making your stop motion movie. Set up the camera for the first frame and place your characters and props in their starting positions. If you are happy with the frame through the camera’s viewfinder, snap the first picture. If you want to be thorough, you can check the newly-snapped picture to see if the focus and settings are what you wanted. If all is well, move everything in the scene ever so slightly, advancing it in time. Take the next picture and repeat.
That’s it! Now you’re making your own stop motion film. If you want a full-motion cinematic animation you need to have 24 pictures for every second of footage – that’s 1440 still images for one minute of footage. I wasn’t kidding when I said stop motion could be labor-intensive. There is, however, a common trick that stop motion animators use to cut down on the work.
Ones and Twos
This trick is called “shooting on twos”. All this means is that you shoot two frames before moving anything in your scene. You are animating at 12 frames per second, but still creating 24 frames per second footage. Animators use this method to get things done more quickly. Animations that are shot on twos will of course look less smooth than those “shot on ones”, but often that has a charm all its own. You can also mix things up and reserve shooting on ones for action scenes or scenes that need smoother motion.
Once you have all the still images that make up the scene you had in mind, you need to convert it into video footage so that you can edit it in a video editing program. Many modern video editors are happy to import still images as an image series directly, but the way to do this differs depending on which specific editing software you use.
Cutting It Up
Once you have your image sequences loaded up in your video editor, you can get down to the job of actually editing your stop motion movie into the form you envisioned when you first created the storyboard. This is also where you’ll add in the sound, if you have any. Perhaps the original audio from a film you’re parodying or original audio that you have recorded yourself. If you need to adjust or otherwise modify the audio, you’ll usually want to do that in a separate audio editor such as Audacity.
Ready to Go?
So you’ve got your masterpiece all edited together and you’re happy with the final product. Now what? You could, of course, just keep it for yourself, but a lot of the fun in making little films like these is getting to share them with other fans like us. YouTube is a popular place to put LEGO stop motion vids, so if you feel up to it that’s the logical place to put it.
There are a few things you should remember before you hit that upload button. First of all, if you used any copyrighted audio, YouTube may flag your video. You won’t be able to monetize it and in some cases the audio will be removed unless you appeal to YouTube stating that you’ve made a parody.
If you haven’t actually made a parody, then you should consider using royalty-free music or sound effects to get around the issue completely. If you don’t have anything in your video that will flag YouTube’s copyright systems, you can even monetize your videos and earn a little money, if they end up being popular. Then you can use that to buy even more LEGO. So it’s all just like the circle of life, except with LEGO instead of singing animals.