It’s moviemaking made micro and for the masses. At least that’s the central premise behind brick filmmaking, a form of stop-motion animation that primarily uses LEGO pieces. Since the Danish toy company first burst on to the scene in the 1950s, the colourful and interlocking building bricks have fascinated children and adults alike. They also inspired the creation of an entirely new subgenre of movie: brick films. With origins dating back to the 1970s, the first known brick film was created by Danish kids Lars C. Hassing and Henrik Hassing for their grandparents wedding anniversary. Titled En rejse til månen (Journey to the Moon) (1973), the creators even used colouring pens to make their own detailed storyboards like fully-fledged directors so as not to waste a millimetre of the expensive and precious film stock they had been able to get their hands on. The six-minute short was eventually shown to LEGO’s CEO at the time – Godtfred Kirk Christiansen – who loved it so much, he had a personal copy made. It would be another 40 years before the rest of the world had the opportunity to see this movie, with the brick film uploaded on to YouTube in 2013.
While the internet would bring brick films to the world and connect creators globally, the 1970s and 80s saw brick filmmakers isolated from each other as they continued to create their own stories with the tools at their disposal. Often recorded on Super 8 film, early brick films varied in quality, but they did inspire advertisements by LEGO, who incorporated various brick filmmaking techniques into their campaigns.
One of the most important brick films was made in the late 80s in Perth, Western Australia. The Magic Portal (1989) was filmed on a Bolex 16mm camera by Lindsay Fleay, who also combined live action, plasticine and mixed-media objects with the LEGO stop-motion animation. Partially funded by the Australian Film Commission (now known as Screen Australia), it had a budget considerably larger than most brick films at the time and was high-concept in its storytelling, with Fleay breaking the fourth wall to feature himself as The Animator.
It’s a beat The Lego Movie (2014) would recreate 25 years later with Will Ferrell appearing as The Man Upstairs. Coincidentally Fleay himself later worked in visual effects on blockbusters such as The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (2001), Moulin Rouge! (2001) and The Matrix (1999) with Animal Logic, the groundbreaking Australian company who would help bring both Lego Movie features to life.
With the 90s came the golden age of brick films, a term that was created by Jason Rowoldt who founded the website Brickfilms.com. Launched in March 2001, it was designed as “the leading resource for all Brickfilmers, from beginners to experts” and also functions as an archive of past, present, and in-production brick films. Digital cameras and the internet meant brick films were easier to make than ever before and by the late 90s, they were able to reach a larger audience. LEGO also leaned into the phenomenon with the release of a range that was aimed at helping aspiring brick filmmakers in the creation of their art – LEGO Studios. Forums that shared and compared techniques exploded, with the polish of the productions improving as well. By the 2000s, brick films like Lego Star Wars: Revenge of the Brick (2005) and Camelot Song (2006) (a brick film take on the Monty Python tune) would often feature as DVD extras on high-profile films.
The medium also began crossing media platforms thanks to brick films that recreated popular music videos. Canadian brick filmmaker Dylan Woodley made a name for himself by doing brick film video clips of songs by Foster The People (‘Houdini’) and Coldplay (‘Viva La Vida’). Garnering millions of views on YouTube, Ed Sheeran eventually commissioned him to do an official brick film remake of his clip Lego House (2013), which initially starred Rupert Grint. Several of his most recent creations have all been commissioned by The LEGO Company, with the brand now often working with brick filmmakers on projects.
Academy Award-winning filmmaker Michel Gondry also directed a brick film for the White Stripes music video Fell In Love With A Girl (2009), which was released a full 20 years after UK dance act Etheral made a brick film for the music video of their song Zap in 1989 – which is considered one of the first.
There have been critically acclaimed brick short films like Jericho: The Promise Fulfilled (2009) and Rick & Steve: The Happiest Gay Couple in All the World (2007), which played at Sundance. The success of The Lego Movie (2014) – it earned more than $468 million at the global box-office – meant the brick film had gone mainstream, at least aesthetically, as the action was brought to life with a type of digital animation that recreates the visuals of a classic brick film but with more mobility. The Lego Batman Movie (2017), The Lego Ninjago Movie (2017), and The Lego Movie 2: The Second Part (2019) are just three of LEGO’s more recent releases, alongside a slew of videogames like Lego City: Undercover (2013) and Lego Marvel Super Heroes (2013). Meanwhile a documentary about brick filmmaking - Bricks in Motion – was released in 2015 and applauded by the sub-genre’s community.
Like the blocks that have entertained and enchanted people for over 70 years, brick films and Lego videogames show no signs of being forgotten.
– Maria Lewis