Brickfilms Interviews: Tim Drage and Tony Mines

Tell us a little about yourself. Where are you from? How old are you? What do you for a living to afford expensive editing equipment? 
Tim: 
I’m 23, and am from Newcastle (in the North East of England). I don’t have a Geordie accent though, which puzzles most people. I’m now in horrible Newport in South Wales, where Tony and I studied Animation at the 
‘University of Wales College Newport’. Most of our equipment was purchased with student loans to make up for our college’s lack of decent facilities! But now we have graduated, and some good paid animation commissions are in the works!

Tony: 
My name is Tony. I’m a 34 Leg, 32 waist. I come originally from the womb of Mrs Anne Mines, but expanded my living space during my first year to a small corner of the English speaking world called Leighton Buzzard, a town famous for the great train robbery, Bob Monkhouse, and having a stupid name. You can all wish me a happy 23rd birthday on the eighth of July, or send me money. In fact no. Just send me money.

Ask strangers to send me money. No. Spite Your Face Productions (SYF) is what we do for a living. Its an independent film and animation company set up by myself and Tim to showcase and distribute our own work and the work of a select few close associates. We work on a commission basis and do everything from short films to music videos, live action or animated. At the moment most of our equipment is either stolen from the homeless, or built from scratch in our Korean sweat shop. But with a few big contracts in the pipeline we are soon going to have a lot of new professional stuff.

How is Spite Your Face productions coming? Any projects in the pipeline?

Tim: 
Things are going well! After a false start which many of you probably read about on the discussion board, we managed to sort out permission from Lego to show ‘ONE’ at festivals… it’s had a few high profile screenings so far, and has led to some proper animation work for us! So we’re happy!

Tony: 
ONE: A Space Odyssey has gathered an alarming amount of kudos for the company very quickly and has led to some new contracts and a lot of new opportunities. We can’t expand on that for legal reasons. Aside from the commercial stuff for other people, we also always have our own projects on the go. We are currently working towards the development of an idea we have for an animated (ie. cel) featurette. Again, I don’t want to talk about it too much, but when it happens you will know 
about it. I am also building a ‘Weather Gun’.

How is it to work together on projects? Are there moments of creative difference? Who does what?

Tim: 
We both work on most aspects of our filmmaking, although we do specialize [ed. - that's specialize for us Americans] in certain areas; for example Tony is better at drawing than me, and does storyboards and the like. I’m the more stop-motion obsessed, so I do the greater part of that! There are sometimes minor creative 
differences. Long periods spent in a dark room moving tiny models around can lead to a deranged state of mind in which we argue about incredibly trivial details which will be completely unnoticeable in the finished film! But generally we get on well and agree on nearly all animation issues!

Tony: 
Tim is the brains behind the operation, and I’m the brains in front of the operation. We work very well together because we always balance each other out. On ONE’ for example, there were lots of things that I was really perfectionist about that Tim couldn’t be bothered with, and there were also things that Tim was really perfectionist about that I couldn’t be bothered with. So between us we made perfection! No, perhaps not. Argue? We never argue. Balance you see. I tell him to shut up. He tells me to shut up. No argument.

ONE’ is a good example of a SYF film. Our respective personalities come out evenly. My work looks like the work of ‘pop culture’, but on closer inspection is very very ANTI a lot of what is going on in the commercial field. Tims work is ostensibly just surrealism and anarchy, but on closer inspection owes a lot to pop culture and genre. Neither of us seem to fit individually at either end of the spectrum. I get accused of being too ‘art’ to be commercial, while Tim is often told he’s too ‘sci-fi’ or too ‘pop’ to be art. Which of course is cobblers and nonsense. So what we end up with together is something like ONE’, a film which stems from our mutual desire to (A) Make deconstructive non-narrative anti-cinema while (B) arsing around with Lego, playing with spaceships, animating prat falls and taking the piss out of Kubrick.

What do you like about brick animation? What do you find frustrating? What other mediums do you work in?

Tim: 
Well for a start it’s really easy to stop Lego from falling over, which makes life a lot easier compared to trying to tie down large stop motion puppets and sets! Really, the main attraction to Lego movie making is the aesthetic. Minifigs are so cute and iconic that they lend themselves very well to any kind of parody and subversion. A film being made from Lego is in most cases almost enough of a joke in itself, especially if it’s a parody of something really unlikely! There are technical drawbacks, such as the limited movement of minifigs and the tiny scale of 
everything which makes focusing difficult, especially when shooting on film (check out our shameful lack of focus in most of ‘All of the Dead’ – we didn’t put much effort into measuring the focal distances on that one!) Thankfully, people don’t expect a great deal from a Lego movie, so if it looks fairly decent people think you’re great ;-) ! And of course it’s great fun!

I’ve used all sorts of different media in my previous animated films, but am most interested in stop motion. My work tends to be extremely surreal, so Lego movies are a welcome chance to do something that everyone can understand and follow! It’s nice to make something that’s amusing and simple from time to time. We do have some ideas for some 2D cartoons, so I’m learning to use Macromedia Flash.

Tony: 
Lego is to animation, what Logs are to the falling-over industry. Its indestructible. It doesn’t lose its shape. The men are hinged and stick to the floor. The colours are bright and even. The audience already recognize the minifigs as ‘people’. Its almost too easy. The only thing negative I can think of about animating with Lego is the limited movement and expression of the minifig, but this just presents a challenge. We work in all the mediums there are, and a few that haven’t been invented yet. My medium of choice is good old drawn animation. I will let 
Tim tell you what he does.

If you could have any LEGO set, what would it be?

Tim:
I would like actual 2001 official Lego to be made, with big sets of all the scenes and spaceships we didn’t have the time or the bricks to build! In terms of reality, I always vaguely wanted the old Space Monorail, but it was WAY too expensive!

Tony: 
I don’t think my ideal Lego set exists. I have always been most into the historical stuff, like Pirate and Castle, but have always been disappointed when it gets a bit too colorful and silly. I get annoyed by stuff like the hang gliders in the Samurai range. What I would like to see is a new range, but a really realistic educational and historically accurate one, maybe Roman or something. Or a proper ‘Holy Grail’ style revamp of Castle, but without the dragons and witches. Python Lego, that’s what we want. ‘Grail’ Lego and ‘Brian’ Lego. It sounds silly when you put it like that, but I think Lego have a certain responsibility towards education, and shouldn’t go around letting children think that Samurai hang-glided everywhere. That said, I wouldn’t say no to a minifig scale Super Star Destroyer. [ed. - whaddya think of that, Tony?]

Let’s talk about your films a bit. In “All of the Dead”, you have a shot where a character is rolling toward some zombies like a bowling ball, and at the same time the soundtrack slows down. Was this a difficult effect?

Tim: 
Like most of our best sound design, this happened more or less by chance… we recorded loads of our own half-baked ‘scratching’ attempts with suitably old records, and that bit just fit quite nicely!! That  gag is stolen from Bugs Bunny by the way…there’s one cartoon where he’s playing baseball, and someone gets hit by a very fast ball and is hammered into the ground which then becomes their grave!

Tony: 
I might be wrong, Tim will correct me, but I think that was completely by accident. Most of our films have at least one instance of the soundtrack doing something completely amazing by pure coincidence, and I think this is one of them. To make the All of the Dead soundtrack, we got a collection of appropriate vinyl and scratched it willy nilly. We then pieced together the score using the best bits. My favorite instance of this is on ‘meanwhile later’ when we pan down to the graveyard and the record just crawls to a halt.

Can you tell us any other “behind the scenes” info that cannot already be found on your website? ONEAOTD

Tim: 
I can tell you that at one point during the shooting of ‘ONE’ Tony and I had been animating for so long that we’d gone quite insane. We took a short break during which we discovered that a Lego monkey riding a Lego motorbike was the funniest thing we’d ever seen in our life… we tried to animate him driving around, but we were in such hysterics that I couldn’t operate the frame capture software properly.

Most actual information we can think of that is useful or interesting is on the ‘Making of’ pages. Some people don’t seem to have read them properly before emailing us, which is perhaps understandable, as they’re not exactly the most concise and informative pieces of writing! I think in future we need to take more production photos, as we never seem to have as many as we thought.

One thing a few people have asked about is the Lego Pod model… it’s a complex construction and our pictures don’t really do it justice. However, I’ve now added a few views of different segments, which should make it a bit clearer if anyone wants to have a go at making one! If anyone reading this does try, let us know. You could probably improve on our design no end! It would also be nice to make a larger and more detailed version, free from the constraints of minifig scale…

Tony: 
I cant remember what is and isn’t on the site. One thing few people realize is that the graveyard scene is filmed 
using specially imported monkeys wearing paper mache minifig costumes. The monkeys were diseased, and imported quite illegally, so it didn’t much matter when we let them at one another with knives. We tried filming the scene in a real graveyard but the monkeys kept knocking over headstones which caused continuity problems. In the end we built a mock graveyard in a confined gas chamber, and gassed the monkeys when we had finished. ONE’ uses a real foetus which we filmed through the stomach of a remarkable transparent woman who is related to Tim.

Premiering ONE: A Space Odyssey with the other films must have been an interesting experience. Can you tell us about the other independent filmmakers there?

Tim: 
It was great to get an audience reaction from real live people, it made it all worthwhile! It also made us want to stick to comedy; some of the other films were quite serious, and thus it was hard to tell how much people liked them. It’s very satisfying to get a laugh! The other films were good, a very varied and interesting selection. Some of them were only very tenuously related to 2001, but that’s only to be expected in this kind of project! There were some really nice ones anyway, including a couple of great little segments from some Australian installation artists who’d made realistic clips of futuristic spacemen at work.. they’d built really nice sets, relatively low budget but very convincing. There was quite a funny Flash animation about the ‘Dawn of 
Time’ Monkeys too…

Tony: 
I could tell you stories about those filmmakers you wouldn’t believe, so I’ll just talk about the films. It was a while ago now, so I cant much remember. There was quite a funny one about the apes, using flash. And one lot had built these very impressive space station interiors, with people dangling about on string upside down and everything. A lot of the other films had approached the project a little more seriously than we at SYF, and I think that the hilarity which ensued during ONE’ (which was on first) may have lowered the audience tone a bit for the more serious contenders. There is very little in life as wonderful as being able to make a whole room of people laugh out loud at a joke you made without even opening your mouth.

The film has some great effects, such as the blinking lights and animated faces. Can you tell us how this was done? How long did this take to accomplish? Can you take us through a few details?

Tim: 
All effects involving superimposing of lights and matting different elements were done using Adobe After Effects, although most of them could also have been done in any basic editing program. Making 2001 is easy (‘tell that to Stanley Kubrick’ I hear you say) because there are practically no camera movements, and everyone stays pretty much still when talking. This made aligning the faces and computer displays very simple! The faces were drawn by Tony and scanned, alpha channels and effects were added in Photoshop. If we were filming a more kinetic movie, it would probably be easier to use replacement heads with different expressions physically drawn on instead.

Tony: 
The blinking lights were generated, digitally, by a Kray 2000 and projected using a digital laser projector into a 2x scale model of the pod interior built from balsa wood, digitally. Dave’s face is digitally manipulated footage from the original Kubrick film back-projected onto the surface of a seven foot mock up of the lego head, which was then mixed, digitally, with the footage from the pod interior and front projected, digitally, back over its self to make the digital monitor effects transparent. The colour is added later, digitally.

Actually, the film was basically made using Adobe systems, and captured through a digital-8 camera. Most of the shots have either some matte work involved or at least heavy colour adjustment, which was all done in After-effects. Most of the effects work is basic but clever stuff, we have a very hands on ‘eighties’ approach to effects. Even though the software can do so much more, we wanted it to look fairly analog, which I think it does. Most effects are done using either basic split screen effects, traveling mattes, and layers of different types used in much the same way as chemical photography. The pod is just on a digitally removed stick. The Hotel Room, which is mostly cardboard, is on a lightbox, the slitscan was done (believe it or not) in Bryce, and of course there’s that transparent lady.

What are some of your favorite brick-animated films that you have seen (besides your own, of course)?

Tim: 
I haven’t seen as many as I’d like due to lack of time and slowness of downloading, but I’ve enjoyed all of them! ’2001: A Lego Odyssey’ is really good (great minds think alike!) It’s really interesting to see how Marc Atkin has come up with such a different approach to the same basic premise! And his ‘slitscan’ sequence with it’s incredibly spot-on 3D bricks is much better than ours! My favorite Legomovies of all time are Tony’s trilogy of sci-fi parodies which he made long before I met him… they barely qualify as Legomovies, being made largely of other toys, cardboard, towels etc as well as Minifigs, and they’re shockingly haphazard but hilariously silly and offensive!…pure punk filmmaking. I doubt they’ll ever appear online though, so I won’t tantalize you with further details!

Tony: 
I must confess to having seen next to none, this is due to (A) a fairly slow connection (B) most peoples movie files being much bigger than necessary, and (C) a desire to spend as little time around my computer as possible. The only one I think I’ve seen is the other 2001 film, which has much better slitscan than ours.

What other tricks and tips can you give directors and film makers out there?

Tim: 
Cheat! Use plasticine, blu-tak, polystyrene, cardboard, Photoshop, whatever else you need to get the joke/story across! Also, don’t worry about animation technique too much… sometimes it’s just funnier to have a Legoman being pushed along on a stick in realtime! Really, the best way to learn animation is to just play around until it looks good! Lego is of course ideal for this sort of experimentation! Use as high a frame rate as you can (or can be bothered to!) for smoother motion, but there’s no real need to go above 24/25 frames per second. Between 12 and 18 will do quite nicely in most cases. Oh, and try to recompress movies as few times as possible (ideally not at all) for maximum image quality! Above all, watch lots of animation of all styles and genres! Animation production and technique is all about cutting corners and saving money, so even the most expensive film will be full of inspiring and useful tricks which you can put to good use on a smaller scale!

Tony: 
Always shake the yogurt before you eat it, or all the consistency goes to the top and sticks to the lid.

Any parting words or thoughts?

Tim: 
Thanks for setting up Brickfilms! It’s great to have a place for so many Lego moviemakers to come together and get their work seen!! Keep making Legomovies people! They are the future of cinema! Pure, unfettered creativity… why bother making dull, overlong, expensive live-action films when you can produce a more entertaining movie by staying at home and playing with Lego! :-)

Tony: 
You’ve got the touch. 
You’ve got the power. 
Yeah. 
And I bloody well mean that as well.