A Visit to Creative Capers
Wednesday, September 17th, 2003 at 12:01am by Kelly, BZPower Co-Owner
Making The Mask of Light
The first version of this story appeared on BZPower in three parts, May 2003. We've updated it with new information and images. Yes, there will be a quiz in a few weeks, so take your time and read it carefully!
Bright California sunshine bounces off the anonymous single-story building, hiding in plain site just off a busy Glendale thoroughfare. In the shady recessed entrance, wind bursts form tiny siroccos in the warm March air. This unassuming facade certainly doesn't appear to be a likely home for the future of the LEGO Company's Bionicle product line.
Inside is a different story, quite literally. 8-foot Bohrok and Toa banners hang before the windows of the tiny reception area, and face a vintage jukebox with a "Please Don't Touch!" handwritten sign propped on the front. The place is filled with toys some relatively modern, but most are apparently well-cared-for vintage playthings. Skylights provide a subdued glow throughout the office space, which is remarkably free of fluorescent lights, jangling phones, and other paraphernalia expected of a major Los Angeles-area production facility. Welcome to Creative Capers Entertainment.
For the past year, these offices have played host to the next phase of LEGO's Bionicle phenomenon. Under LEGO's guidance, BIONICLE™: Mask of Light, the venerable toy company's first full-length movie project (recently released on DVD and video), was designed and produced within these brick walls. Storyboards and color palettes from the film lean invitingly against the walls, bright and somber watercolors begging for a closer look at Toa, Matoran, Rahkshi, and location backgrounds. Above the storyboards, large framed posters grace the walls, trophies of the company's previous work Thumbelina, The Land Before Time, An American Tail, The Pagemaster. In the center of the building is a large open space, a conference table directly beneath the skylights and rafters. A blue-and-red toy robot, Mr. Atomic, sits in the middle of the table near a maskless Toa Onua.
It seems the ideal atmosphere to create LEGO's first movie.
For those who've been under a rock for the last two years, LEGO launched what was to become one of the company's most successful lines in 2001. A European ad blitz was followed shortly by a worldwide campaign the largest ad campaign LEGO had ever attempted. It worked: Bionicle became the company's top seller in 2001, and was the most popular of the company's product lines for 2002, beating out Harry Potter and Star Wars licensed themes (both of which already had their own movies to spur toy sales). 17 million Bionicle cans (Toa and Bohrok) were sold in 2002 in the US alone - that's more than $135 million worth of construction toys.
First came bricks, then came directions, then came a storyline to tie it all together...
Powerful heroes are summoned to the island of Mata Nui to help protect the villagers from the insidious plots of Makuta, a dark force with a knack for infecting things with his evil influence. The biomechanical protagonists must collect masks, Kanohi, to gain powers to defeat Makuta's naughty tricks. The kanohi are sold separately in several colors and are collectibles in themselves, especially some rare "misprints" available only in Europe in early 2001.
Six color-coded Toa, each with their own personalities and tools, six Turaga (village elders), and assorted villager characters (Matoran) defend their island home against the depredations of Rahi, creatures with infected masks controlled by Makuta. The storyline progressed from introduction to first act throughout 2001, aided by support on nearly two dozen platforms: comics, web sites, LEGO sets, accessories, card games, board games, video games, fast food tie-ins, and so on helped spur awareness of the brand.
In the detailed and multifaceted storyline, baddie Makuta was defeated by our valiant heroes (or was he?) and new foes introduced, the Bohrok Swarms. 2002 Bionicle began with the Bohrok, continued with some new goodies for our heroes (the Exo-Toa and Boxor), introduced some more bad guys (the Bahrag twins, Cahdok and Gahdok), and saw the heroes converted by "protodermis" into the Toa Nuva. Now, in early 2003, we see the Return of the Bohrok in the form of Bohrok-Kal, essentially the same sets but with a different paint job and story role. Oh, and let's not forget the Krana, a rubbery collectible carried and flung by the Bohrok. This coming summer we've seen more villagers, some critters, a new-n-improved Makuta his own bad self, and the Rahkshi the best new sets since the Toa.
And then there's the BIONICLE: Mask of Light release in September.
A warm breeze from the direction of the lobby is closely followed by Bob Thompson, one of the executive producers of Mask of Light. He's one of the driving forces behind the movie, indeed one of the key players behind the whole story of Bionicle. This tall, genial Brit is finishing up his latest two-week west coast stay before jetting back to London for a fortnight. Then he'll turn around and do it again. Later in the day, he'll meet with the producer of the film, the scriptwriter, and the two directors - one of whom has just returned from his own exhausting overseas trip. And he'll manage to squeeze in a few hours talking with the media. (Is a single member of the media a "medium"?) All without losing his easygoing smile.
Settling into a comfy chair, Thompson shares some of the history of how Bionicle came into existence. Far from having a single genesis, the concept for Bionicle grew from a variety of people: several LEGO employees came up with various concepts, banged thoughts around for a while, and started the juggernaut that was to become Bionicle. Soon, they drove the concept toward implementation, managing the creative machine within LEGO and adding to the concept using the company's external creative partners. But first came the focus group studies, focusing on two groups of boys: those who bought LEGO products, and those who didn't.
Click to Enlarge
In the late '90s, LEGO studies realized there was a growing divide between the types of products they were offering, especially within the Technic range. One type of LEGO builder bought complex kits and spent up to 80 hours constructing them and displaying the final build. The second type of builder wanted something to play with, and shorter build times were important. The result of one study was a short videotape that described what LEGO kids were interested in: skateboarding, action, adventure. Extreme sports. In a nutshell, a high-energy lifestyle. Thompson referred to this target audience as the "Bionicle boy" and they enjoy chasing things, they multi-task, they want to build and display but also want to play with their creations physical role playing, as in creating situations with models and not just posing them. LEGO understood it needed an easy-to-build product with a strong story and well-developed characters.
Once LEGO execs recognized the need to add more of a story element to their products, they created a new role: Character and Story Development. They found their first story person at the BBC, working in the acquisitions department. Bob Thompson, a graduate of University of Wales College in Cardiff, spent seven years with the British Broadcasting Company, in international rights acquisition for youth programs, drama, and animation. Some of the projects he worked on include securing international TV rights for a Dr. Who film with Paul McGann, and developing the original S Club 7 for the BBC. Late in 1999 LEGO approached him with an offer to develop and design stories that could be used in international toy campaigns and other media, and Thompson took it for two reasons: to be able to play with LEGO products, and to be in a position to create something kids would talk about.
Talk they did. More than a million posts on BZPower.com and nearly a hundred thousand Google hits on the word "Bionicle" prove just how successful LEGO has been so far, with fan activity slowing not at all.
Bionicle wasn't the only project Thompson worked on. Jack Stone, Racers, Belville, and other projects were adding background and storylines to the products. But the first project he started in November of '99 was Bionicle, which now takes up most of his time. Today, a full character and story development team works alongside Thompson while he concentrates on shepherding Bionicle through development and production.
Martin Riber Anderson, a Design Manager at LEGO, first approached Thompson with an idea he'd been kicking around. Riber Anderson basically took a Technic product design, Slizers, and ended up with the concept of the Toa. Meanwhile, Christian Faber, the Art Director for Advance Advertising (one of LEGO's ad agencies) came up with the idea of setting a story on a tropical island. Erik Kramer, a Director at LEGO Technic, wanted to develop a story and pretend it was a film. Pretty soon there were 14 people sitting around a table brainstorming this concept when somebody hit on a title of "Biomechanical Chronicle" (also referred to as "Biological Chronicle") and its abbreviation, "Bionicle," which resonated with everyone. "Quick, get the domain name!" someone said... and within half an hour "Bionicle.com" had been registered. That was that.
A complex and detailed background "story bible" was then written by Alastair Swinnerton, at the time a principal of Skryptonite. The original 60-page document has since tripled in size. Each character had a page, each region had two or three pages, and special places like Kini-Nui had its own entry. By Easter of 2000, the document was in "pretty good shape," says Thompson.
Bionicle reflects the interests of the team, for example:
- Set designer Christoffer Raundahl was a baker-turned-designer who is into performance sports cars
- Martin Riber Anderson is interested in action games (especially on his PlayStation 2) and science fiction movies
- Bob Thompson is partial to SF, adventure stories, and extreme sports
- Christian Faber is fascinated with settings, expanses, wide vistas like desert, ice, etc.
- Alastair Swinnerton's interests lie in Manga animation and mythology
- ... and so on
Pohatu, Tahu and Gali from Bionicle: Mask of Light
The Toa emerged as heroic, smart-thinking action heroes. They use their brains rather than brute force to solve problems. Their tools are symbolic of empowerment, rather than being weapons of destruction. Once the idea of Toa wielding "environmental powers" was added to the mix, it seemed obvious to have those powers flow through their tools.
One of the key concepts for the story was the ability to tell standalone tales with the characters, each of which is self-contained and satisfying in itself. The character and story development team worked with Danish LEGO designers and learned new techniques on how to create a story that could be put together almost like a LEGO brick creation piece by piece, interlocking yet distinct, each building to a whole. Stories on different platforms should build the overall theme, but no one presentation (e.g. comic book, online game, video game, etc.) should give you the entire story. "That would be a disservice," according to Thompson. "Kids are a lot smarter than adults sometimes think they are."
Thompson is characteristic of LEGO's culture with his obvious respect for the people he's writing for; the company takes its responsibilities and customers seriously. "People tend to treat children as being not as smart as they are. My experience is that children (particularly the age group into Bionicle) are probably a little bit smarter than someone 20 years before would have been. They are more accepting." Of course, there are also quite a few adults mesmerized with Bionicle's story and sets.
The complete story outline for Bionicle includes at least seven story cycles. The first story is composed of three 12-month acts, which will culminate toward the end of 2003, roughly coinciding with the release of the Mask of Light video. Thompson is understandably close-lipped about the story past that, wanting to focus on the immediate future. (See Mask of Light DVD Extras for more of a clue to 2004 and beyond.)
There appears to be no end in sight for the phenomenally successful product line, which in 2001 was one of the top-selling action figures in the U.S.
Wind once again rattles the exhaust fan in the ceiling of Creative Capers Entertainment's office in downtown Glendale, California. Clouds running across the blue sky create a slow-motion strobing effect through the skylights, first dimming the offices, then letting bright reflections cascade off the many movie posters and framed art adorning the high walls.
Bob Thompson, one of the executive producers and a driving force behind LEGO's first full-length motion picture, BIONICLE™: Mask of Light, takes another sip of his bottled water. Discussing the movie itself is a bit more tricky than chatting about Bionicle's history, since it's still relatively early in the film's production and Thompson is playing a game of how much to release, how much to tease. Rumors, theories, speculation, kudos, criticisms, and more have floated around the online Bionicle community since the movie was announced more than a year ago, and LEGO staff members are apparently following as much of the chatter as they can.
The initial concept of Bionicle was to treat it as if it were a movie that didn't yet exist. The original campaign started from there, and it grew. Several movie posters were even produced and sold. The underlying thought at the time was, "Wouldn't it be great if we could make a full-length movie about this?"
Evidently that attitude was contagious. In the middle of 2001, when Bionicle was becoming the surprise hit of the summer, LEGO started receiving inquiries from people in the filmmaking community. "We actually got quite a few emails asking when the movie was coming out," says Thompson. Then some major film companies began asking about film rights and distribution.
Rather than get into a licensing deal, LEGO decided to retain full control over the Bionicle property and started discussions with several potential partners about a Bionicle feature film. Knowing time was a factor in keeping Bionicle in the public consciousness, LEGO decided the first step was to commission a movie to premier on DVD and video. The next was finding a scriptwriter, then an animation house.
They found four writers. Thompson and the man who wrote the Bionicle "bible," Alastair Swinnerton, along with Hollywood veterans Greg Weisman and Henry Gilroy, penned the first two drafts of the script. The team was happy with the direction the script was taking; draft in hand, LEGO set out to find just the right animation partner.
Supplying a computer wireframe model and some reference material, LEGO knocked on the doors of numerous animation companies to find a partner that would be able to handle not only the technical and story details, but would also be able to produce it in record time: a 12-month production cycle. Two LEGO global vice presidents, Conny Kalcher and Stig Blicher, worked closely with Thompson during LEGO's quest for an animation partner. (Blicher is a producer, and Thompson and Kalcher executive producers of Mask of Light.) Working with several other people within LEGO, the team narrowed the search down to two companies who then produced animation tests. Once they saw the sample from Creative Capers Entertainment, the search was over. "Creative Capers got it. Got what it was all about," says Thompson.
Jeffrey Tahler of Miramax (left), Conny Kalcher (LEGO), and Charles Layton (Executive
Vice President, Office of the Co-Chairman for Miramax Films) shiver in front of the 2003 BIONICLE 7th Toa van.
Shortly after announcing the $5 million "Mask of Light" deal with Creative Capers in May 2002, LEGO cinched a deal with Miramax to produce a separate, full-length theatrical movie. Thompson, Kalcher and Blicher continue to work with high-profile Miramax co-chairman Harvey Weinstein; Jeffrey Tahler, Miramax vice president of acquisitions; and Kevin Kasha of Miramax, on both this year's DVD/video distribution and on the separate theatrical release.
LEGO appears delighted with the partnership. "We've had a great relationship with Miramax, I can't speak highly enough about them asking the right editorial questions without dominating the production," says Thompson. "They've been a very good collaborative partner, which is what we're looking for. And they're enthusiastic."
Jaller and Takua poster from Mask of Light
The overall story focuses on the mysterious Mask of Light. A young hero and his brave companions must overcome powerful forces and dangerous obstacles in their struggle to save their world and fulfill ancient prophesies. LEGO bills it as "an epic thrill ride filled with good and evil, darkness and light, heroes and villains, BIONICLE: MASK OF LIGHT features action-packed adventure and brings the exciting BIONICLE characters to life for the first time in an all-new, full-length CGI animated movie."
The story focuses more on Matoran than Toa, which may be a bit surprising to the uninitiated, considering the Toa are the big selling toys. But when the first Mata Nui Online Game (produced by Templar Studios under the direction of LEGO Sr. Producer Leah Weston) was released on Bionicle.com soon after the products went on the shelves, it became apparent that the web team was onto something: they concentrated on the villagers, the Matoran, rather than the Toa, to tell their story. The audience ate it up.
"(Weston and) Templar took some characters and added more life than we originally thought of," says Thompson. "The Toa are great at being heroic and strong, but not for leading you around the Bionicle universe. Matoran get the more 'human' characteristics, which are harder to ascribe to superheroes."
Adding voices to the 2003 DVD/video movie fell to casting director Kris Zimmerman, another film and animation veteran. The characters of the movie fall into distinct types, and the voice actors chosen reflect that. The Matoran villagers are voiced by young adults such as Jason Michas (Takua), Chiara Zanni (Hahli), and Andrew Francis (Jaller), while village elders (Turaga) are voiced by more mature actors like Chris Gaze (Vakama) and Dale Wilson (Onewa/Lewa). Of course, the heroes and villain sound like heroes and villains. All the voices are treated in postproduction, and Thompson confides that the voice of Makuta (Lee Tockar) on the first long trailer wasn't quite finished yet deeper tones were added.
Thompson smiles when asked if they sought voice talent inspiration from BZPower forums. "Oh yes," he laughs, "we had great fun reading them. But how could we afford some of the actors?"
Takua hitches a ride with Tahu in Mask of Light
The voice actors, especially the younger ones, bonded quite well both personally and during recording, according to Thompson. In fact, Jason Michas, who eventually voiced Takua, originally read for the part of Jaller. He came in a bit late, slightly disarrayed, a little distracted, and read the Jaller part. Andrew Francis, who was punctual and precise, came in to read for Takua. After consultation, they were asked to switch roles and it clicked.
Most of the dialogue was recorded in 2002, but as is normal with animated projects, some dialogue is being redone during ADR (Additional Dialogue Recording). About 30 percent of the final dialogue was added during ADR.
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The man responsible for putting words in mouths (or more accurately, masks) of characters quietly enters the office, politely waiting for Thompson to finish his thought. Henry Gilroy is not exactly what one would picture of an accomplished Hollywood screenwriter in fact, he's quite the opposite of glitz and superficial Tinseltown glamour. Wearing a Bionicle hat, a denim jacket, and a few days worth of beard, Gilroy smiles warmly and settles in while Thompson takes the opportunity to make a few phone calls.
A veteran of more than a decade of story editing and scriptwriting, Gilroy is a thoroughly likable character himself. There's an unpretentious "real-life" quality about him as he describes his background. While he's understandably proud of having worked on dozens of Disney projects, and has done comic adaptions for Lucasfilm and Darkhorse Comics on the last two Star Wars movies, it doesn't seem to have gone to his head.
Gilroy is matter-of-fact about the volume of work he's done in the last decade. "I've written a bunch of scripts and also story edited a bunch for a variety of different shows," he said. "Story editing is like being the boss of the writers, so you work with a writer to develop the premise, outline and script, then get it in shape for the producers of the show. I've story edited and written over a hundred and fifty episodes that have been produced over the last 12 years." His enthusiasm is obvious with everything he discusses.
His resume is a veritable who's who of contemporary animation: from the charmingly eclectic The Tick to quintessential Disney Mouseworks and House of Mouse, Gilroy's done half hour episodes, 11 minute episodes, 7 minute shorts, and also movie-length scripts. Timon & Pumbaa, Teamo Supremo, Lilo & Stitch: the series, and the animated Batman series form just a part of his impressive resume. The latest is Atlantis 2: Milo's Return which he co-wrote, and was released in May on video and DVD.
Gilroy started by learning the mechanical side of making cartoons. "I was a film editor and I kept pitching story ideas to the producers, and eventually they gave me a chance to write. Luckily I've been doing it ever since. I've always had a great love for animation and the wonderful things it can achieve in storytelling. I'm still striving to write the perfect animation script!"
He's always loved the idea of heroes with a strict code of honor, protecting those who couldn't defend themselves from evil. "I grew up reading superhero comic books like Spiderman, The Flash, and Batman, all of which have qualities that remind me of the Toa," he says.
Takua from Mask of Light
Gilroy began writing Bionicle: Mask of Light in January 2002 with Thompson, Greg Weisman, and Alastair Swinnerton. "The second I got the assignment I fell in love with the Bionicle world," he says. "I wanted to get as many of the great characters, be they Matoran, Turaga or Toa as possible in to the story. I wanted to explore as many of the cool locations of the island of Mata Nui as we could. It had to combine moments of big action, with big fantasy like we've never seen it. Mask of Light would be the biggest story I'd ever written. But it had to be epic, large enough in scope to change the whole world of Bionicle forever, yet follow seemingly small characters, whose actions would determine the fate of the whole island. Why? Because Bionicle fans would accept no less!"
Less than four months later, he had something ready. The script eventually went through eight drafts, which he says is typical for this type of project. It's a far cry from working on Disney-like scripts, which are redrafted repeatedly. The typical Disney script goes through about 35 drafts, according to Gilroy, and scripts can even go as high as 60 drafts as in the case of Dreamworks SKG's Road to El Dorado.
"...If you know someone who's only thinking about getting into Bionicle - tell them to hop aboard now, because it only gets better!"
-- Henry Gilroy, Scriptwriter
This project was very collaborative, he says. "Bob is the George Lucas of LEGO he's one of the brightest guys I've met in big picture stuff." Gilroy also has kept up on the other aspects of Bionicle he avidly follows the comics (written by the prolific Greg Farshtey of LEGO), and cruises the BZPower forums daily. He's even a member, with a username taken from the script, although it seems no one has picked up on his identity quite yet even though he announced himself in at least one thread.
During the planning of the script, a lot of time was devoted to deciding how the characters talked and interacted with each other. For example, Lewa uses a lot of "treespeak" Le-Koronan slang of combining words, such as "highflying" for airborne, "lowduck" for crouch, etc. Kopaka never uses two words when one will do, and he's even more standoffish than in the comics or on the web. Tahu is overall a bit less stern than portrayed elsewhere. Essentially, their defining characteristics are being accentuated to help distinguish the Toa and flesh out their identities.
"I really wanted to make sure each one of the Toa had a great defining moment in the story, where he or she could shine. Why? Because every Bionicle fan has their favorite Toa. Some like Tahu. My nephew loves Pohatu. My favorite is Kopaka. So whoever your favorite Toa is, rest easy - there are plenty of heroic moments for all the Toa in Mask of Light!"
Another consideration was avoiding dated material. Gilroy and Thompson were emphatic about making the script as timeless as possible by not using popular references. The story is set on an island in the middle of an endless ocean the inhabitants aren't going to know about a phrase popularized by a commercial, or the latest Saturday Night Live skit. And recognizing the international appeal of Bionicle, the script needed to appeal to (and be restricted by) an international audience. Something relevant to the US audience might not be understood or appreciated by a Japanese or European audience, and vice versa.
Gilroy's background of reading and writing superheroes has prepared him well for Bionicle. "Spiderman is a bit similar to Lewa, flipping and gliding all over the place and always rushing into trouble, and Pohatu reminds me of The Flash, good-natured and super quick with his Kakama, while Kopaka makes me think of Batman, someone who's short on words, but big on action. So I jumped at the chance to write for Bionicle!" He's even been able to write for comic books last year he wrote the comic book adaptations for Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones for Dark Horse Comics.
He's very enthusiastic about the future of Bionicle, which is one of his favorite projects. "I just want to assure the fans that in my opinion the best is yet to come. Bob Thompson and the LEGO story team have plans for the Matoran, the Turaga and the Toa that are going to blow you all away! So if you know someone who's only thinking about getting into Bionicle - tell them to hop aboard now, because it only gets better!"
Toys. Toys on walls, on tables, on desks, on filing cabinets. Toys fill the office left to right, top to bottom. The workspace seems more a toy museum than an animation facility.
Directors Terry Shakespeare (left) and David Molina
It's exactly the kind of place one would expect to find LEGO's first feature-length movie being produced.
A quiet morning of discussion with producer Bob Thompson and scriptwriter Henry Gilroy begins to give way to hustle and bustle. Carts of movie equipment are rolled into nooks and crannies, and various people begin filtering through the increasingly narrow paths among storyboards, conference tables, chairs, and of course toys. Later in the day, filming is planned for some of the DVD "extras" with the film's movers and shakers. That explains why so many of them are in the same place at the same time.
Freshly returned from a trip to Taipei, Taiwan, one of the jetsetting BIONICLE™: Mask of Light directors, Terry Shakespeare, eases between the movie paraphernalia slowly infiltrating the building. The other director, David Molina, and producer Sue Shakespeare, Terry's wife, soon join him at the conference table. They seem to take the increasing activity around them in stride as well they should. They own the place.
All three worked with Don Bluth in the 1980s on such classic films as The Secret of NIMH, The Land Before Time and An American Tail, as well as groundbreaking video games like Space Ace and Dragon's Lair, the first traditionally-animated arcade video game. Terry and David, both trained artists, went on to work for The Walt Disney Co. as senior art directors when Bluth moved production to Ireland, and quickly found themselves drawn to the merchandising end of design. Sue moved to the business side of things first as assistant director, then production manager, and up to producer. Together, they formed Creative Capers Entertainment in 1989, and have been delivering a wide variety of services ever since. Including toys.
Alias|Wavefront Maya was used for the animation.
Pixar RenderMan was used for rendering.
Discreet Combustion was used for the effects and compositing.
Discreet 3D Studio Max was used for the opening and ending animation.
Director Terry stretches and settles back into the padded chair. Taipei is a long way from California, and he's been busy checking Mask of Light's third act. While Terry inspects his eyelids for leaks, Bob Thompson explains the intercontinental arrangements. LEGO partnered with Creative Capers, which is responsible for the mechanics of bringing the film to life Creative Capers does all the design work, storyboarding, and day-to-day production on the film under the supervision of LEGO, while Capers' production partners, Wang Film Productions and CGCG of Taiwan, create the wireframe models and physical animation. By spending considerable time at both places, the directors have managed to cut the production time in half. A project like this should normally take about 24 months to complete but production on Mask of Light, start to finish, will be done in slightly more than 12 months.
Animation test of Lewa Nuva speaking
In fact, their speed is part of what got them the Bionicle gig in the first place. LEGO shopped around for the right partner in early 2001, narrowing the search to two companies. They in turn provided sample animation based on wireframe character models provided by LEGO. Creative Capers actually provided two animations: a short test, no voices, of Lewa springing a trap on a gigantic version of himself; and the second, a speaking test animation of Lewa Nuva mouthing a classic line. All were delivered in just over two and a half weeks, from the animation to rendering in Taipei to the addition of sound effects.
The first test showed that Creative Capers understood the Bionicle "attitude," that the Toa solved problems with their brains rather than brute force. "Creative Capers got it, got what it was all about," says Thompson. The second test proved they could take a character and give it life. LEGO had themselves an animation partner.
Concept sketches for Disney's Toon Town
It seems a perfect fit. All three principals are avid toy collectors, with an interest in antique robots, and they're also big fans of classic SF films like Forbidden Planet and The Day the Earth Stood Still. And the company has impeccable credentials: they've created more than 50 interactive titles for Disney Interactive alone, and some of their individual experience is equally impressive. Terry and David, for example, created concept sketches for Disney's ToonTown (right) and the original Disney stores.
Once the contract ink was dry, the animation company went to "Bionicle school." The animators and principals took lessons from Danish modelmakers, and talked extensively with the people who were most closely associated with the creation of Bionicle. "We really got into Martin (Riber Anderson)'s head and figured out where it all started," says Molina.
Terry Shakespeare agrees. "This was a very collaborative project," and they worked very closely with the designers at LEGO. Unlike some clients, however, LEGO didn't dictate creative aspects to the team. They were available to answer questions, supply information, and make decisions about the direction Creative Capers wanted to take with the film, but other than that, stayed out of the way.
Nodding, Sue Shakespeare echoes his sentiments. "You can be creative, fast, and efficient. When you rework something a thousand times, you beat it until it's a pile of dust. That's the nice thing about working with LEGO. This has been the most synergistic, collaborative project I've ever worked on."
Executive Producer Thompson chuckles, "There's no point in employing creative people and then telling them what do to. Creative Capers has been great."
A team of about a dozen people formed the core design team, and twice as many were involved with preproduction: storyboards, previsualization, etc. Including animators and postproduction, more than 180 people have contributed their skills to the film.
After learning all they could about the Bionicle universe, the next step was figuring out how, precisely, to bring these plastic concoctions to life and tell a story. A few early tests used Toa models similar to what Ghost worked with, but the team soon discovered problems with a "faithful" rendering of the characters.
An updated design for Tahu Nuva in Mask of Light
A few new images from the DVD Extras
Storytelling uses all sorts of techniques to convey what the author or filmmaker is trying to say, and some parts of the toys simply couldn't be expressive enough as toys. So the team relied on the two guiding philosophies for the vision of Bionicle: the design should fit the medium, and the audience should instantly know what they're looking at. As a multimedia property, the Bionicle line has been reproduced as LEGO sets, comic books, Flash animation on the web, shoes, backpacks, pens, card games, and several other equally disparate media. Each of them follows the vision in a slightly different method, but in the end, the comic book Toa are instantly recognizable as the same sets on toy store shelves, and vice versa. In fact, Creative Capers shares concept art with companies working on other aspects of the Bionicle universe (like Argonaut PLC, responsible for the recent and upcoming video games), but the implementation is sufficiently different that they don't share wireframe computer models.
Results with the animating the unaltered characters were mixed. "When we first animated the Toa, it would get clunky," and too much movement resulted in the characters doing a "mobot" dance, Terry says. So they took the scary step of putting hands on the characters, reducing their size to be proportional. After the first samples came back, they knew they'd made the right decision. "Hands are such an expressive element," says Sue.
Digits were just the start. Animators as a rule tend to have some knowledge of human anatomy, and the characters were examined from several viewpoints. For example, the Toa hip joint was relatively close to a human's, but Creative Capers redesigned it based on human anatomy. Another problem area was the shoulder armor the range of motion was limited, and it was stiff. So the animators added shoulderblades and clavicle to the characters, who can now swing their arms through nearly a hundred and eighty degrees of movement. The distinctive feet were already pretty well designed, so the only change the animators made was to add a joint in the middle of the foot so it bends more realistically. "We've tried to add to what LEGO has created, not take away from it in the film," says Molina.
The signature kanohi masks were also revised only where necessary; the characters kept bumping into them.
During their inspection of what had been created previously, Molina and Shakespeare noticed that a lot of the emphasis has been placed on the "mechanical" aspect of Bionicle. "We decided it would be a good idea to get the idea of 'Biological' into the design, to give depth to it," according to Molina. Not content with just a surface makeover, the team rebuilt the Toa from the inside out so they would be more convincing on screen.
Shoulder enhancements allow much greater freedom of movement
They started with the skeleton, and reworked it (such as the hip joints) for greater freedom of movement and expressiveness. Onto the skeleton they added "muscle pods" areas of biological tissue where a human would have a muscle group, such as calf muscles, biceps, abdomen and neck. "It doesn't just have to look good, it has to work," explains Molina. They even ended up changing some things such as the "vertebrae" at the back of the neck, when the bits collided with each other during some movements. Over the tissue areas they added "shell" elements, armor or other robotic type of covering. There are several areas deliberately left open, to "enhance the visual performance of the film."
Molina smiles. "We went back and redesigned areas where it got too creepy."
During animation, one problem that became apparent was a strobing effect in characters with holes in their bodies. Several of the toys have see-through bits, but when they moved across a background, those holes in the movie characters would flicker against the background in a most annoying way. The distraction was enormous, so the animators plugged most of the problematic gaps.
The final addition on top of skeleton, muscle, and shell is the symbol of life force. This concept grew out of the windows of the soul, the characters' eyes, which initially had some problems. "If the character isn't facing you in just the right direction, you don't see the eyes at all," says Terry. A character's eyes are one of the animator's most vital tools of expression.
After some fiddling, they solved the issue by revising the eyes to become more like lenses, not quite flush with the mask. The final touch was a light source. By changing the shape of the light, animators adjusted the eye's expression: constrict it to a line and the character is squinting, switch it off and on quickly and the character blinks. Emotions are much easier to convey this way, says Terry. "You really look at the eyes."
Later, the team added a small light in the chest of each character, which completed the connection between the biological and mechanical. This "life force" concept tied everything together. "Everything laid in after that. The voice, the animation, the special effects," says Molina.
Light is used on some character's mouths as well, and Terry urges a closer look at the way the characters speak. Some use shapes in their kanohi (such as Vakama) to form words, others use light from behind their masks, but all use an articulated four-pronged "tongue" easily recognizable as the portion of the "head" on the toy that holds the mask in place. The added depth of animation makes for a richer and more expressive character, and ties them even more closely to their plastic counterparts.
The team was careful not to take the biological elements too far. There are still hydraulics in the character designs, along with muscles, and on close-ups you still hear faint mechanical sounds, so faint the audience might not even consciously notice them.
Sue hastens to add that the changes made to the characters, though fairly extensive, were always made in order to help Bionicle fans enjoy the movie and story. "If we had a choice, we would always do what's coolest." The fans were always at the forefront of the team's thoughts.
And speaking of cool...
The Toa needed to gain some mass, hints Terry, to be able to take on their new foes.
The Rahkshi are built: scary, formidable, hunched and mean-looking. The Toa need to look like they could stand up against them.
Quite a number of people seem to have been involved in the creation of these new movie bad guys. From screenwriter to executive producer, modelmakers and comic book writers, a lot of hands went into designing the Rahkshi. Alastair Swinnerton, who penned the original Bionicle "bible," helped with the Rahkshi story and character development, and Alan Grant of "Judge Dredd" and "Batman" fame assisted in developing the Rahkshi characters.
They're lean, they're mean. They bear more than a passing resemblance to the eponymous "Alien" movie critters, and the artwork of the celebrated biomechanical scenarist H.R. Giger. In fact, several Bionicle elements appear to have been inspired by Giger's vision of technology mixed with biology, including Bohrok and krana, and the Rahkshi even more so. It's no coincidence, according to Thompson, who says one of the Rahkshi designers trained under Giger. "And Martin is a big 'Alien' fan," he adds.
Key Creative Capers Players
Directors: David Molina and Terry Shakespeare - Involved in every aspect of production. In essence, they provide the overall creative direction and take the movie from start to finish. Key responsibilities include:
- The look, feel, color, and mood of CGI animation
- Creation and development of the original CGI characters and all the backgrounds for CGI sets
- Selection of voiceover cast, and supervision of recording sessions
- Selection of the composer and guidance on creative direction of musical score
- Supervision of all post-production services, such as editing and sound mixing
Producer: Sue Shakespeare - Oversees all aspects of the production. Most importantly, keeps the production on schedule and within budget. Has a hand in hiring all full-time and freelance staff including artists, designers, post production engineers, sound designers, etc. She provides critical insight to the creative team to help find answers to design challenges that are cost-effective and yet still visually stunning. This has enabled Creative Capers to deliver very high production quality on this project, on a very economical budget. Provides creative input from scripting to post-production. Responsible for legal deals and contracts both domestic and overseas, including insuring the production and complying with all talent guild requirements. Oversees the daily operation of the studio, ranging from human resources to building maintenance.
Associate Producer: Danica Katz - Assists in the hiring of key talent such as Composer, Voice Director, Voice Actors, etc. Negotiates contracts and oversees guild compliance. Provides support to creative team from scripting through to post production. Acts as liaison between Creative Capers, LEGO, Miramax and their many production partners, vendors, agents and representatives.
Line Producer: Bobbi Swartzendruber - Manages the production on a daily basis, coordinating all the different aspects of production and making sure they all work together. Works with the directors, producers, artists and editors to keep the animation production moving forward and on deadline.
Overseas Animation Supervisor, Art Department Manager: Ward Makielski - As overseas animation supervisor, relocated to Taiwan for seven months to work as a liaison between Creative Capers and CGCG, the CGI studio producing the actual footage on computers. Manages the animation process from Creative Capers' perspective to ensure that the directors' vision is being realized at CGCG. Prior to moving to Taiwan, served as art department manager, working closely with the environment and character designers on the overall design process.
Head of Storyboard & Environmental Design: Dan Fausett - As head of storyboard design, interprets the action and dialogue of the script into images. As head of environmental design, determines the look of the environments and landscapes (i.e. what the villages look like) through sketches and architectural drawings.
Color Art Director & CG Design Painter: Michael Rose - As color art director, determines the color palettes for the characters and backgrounds. As CG design painter, designs the mood by creating hundreds of paintings that CGCG can then interpret using texture and lighting techniques on the computer.
The buzz of activity increases as lights are set up for the filming of material for the DVD "extra" section. Extraneous people are bribed to clear the area with lunch in the back, as the directors take center stage. They even dig up a Bionicle "fan expert" and suffer through his muttered replies as he sits blinking under the bright lights, cameras rolling. (To nobody's surprise, my minute of fame remains safely on the cutting room floor, and wasn't included in the final cut.)
Finally, the office approaches the activity level more normally expected of the fast-lane Hollywood production studio. Despite the sometimes intense pressure, Sue says the directors never scream or shout. It's a believable statement; both men appear laid back and easy-going, although with Terry it's hard to tell if some of that's due to jet lag his eyes are closed again. The presence of all those toys must have a soothing effect.
As the afternoon wanes and the wind scatters dust bunnies in the parking lot, one surprising thought comes to mind. Not once during the day was there a mention of how many toys the movie will sell. Certainly moving product is one reason for the film, but the overall attitude appears to be focused on how the fans will receive their vision of the Toa, Matoran, and their life on Mata Nui. Thompson left a parting comment, which seems to sum it up. "The movie is being made to keep Bionicle at the forefront of people's attention."
With the movie's release, they appear to have succeeded.
One of the many cool toys in Creative Capers' offices
BZPower would like to thank the following people for the generous donation of their time and resources in producing this story: Leah Weston, LEGO Sr. Producer, for her coordination; Jill Swartz and Alison Hill of CurrentPR for making trip arrangements; Bob Thompson, Create TV & Film Ltd., for his time and candor; Henry Gilroy for his time, enthusiasm, and followups; and Sue Shakespeare, Terry Shakespeare, and David Molina for taking time and effort from their busy schedules, and the use of their wonderful facilities for conducting these interviews.
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