We present an exclusive interview with Amber Naismith and Grant Freckelton, producer and production designer for Animal Logic on The Lego Batman Movie.
We would like you to introduce yourselves to our readers for those who don’t know about your work.
My name is Amber Naismith and I am a producer at Animal Logic for the Lego Batman movie. Before that, I was a producer for The Lego Movie as well, and prior to that Happy Feet, and Legend of the Guardians. I worked in Animal Logic for a long time, over a decade. Yep, that’s it.
My name is Grant Freckelton and I am the production designer on the Lego Batman Movie. I’ve worked as production designer and art director in Animal Logic for 19 years. Seventeen actually, just went away for a couple of years and then I came back. I also worked on The Lego Movie, Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga’Hoole, and prior to that I was the Visual Effects Art Director on 300. I had smaller roles on Matrix Reloaded, Moulin Rouge and a bunch of other films.
So, Grant, how did you approach your work as a production designer? You said you also worked on the Lego Movie: is there any difference in what you did on that movie compared to this one?
G: First, we were able to approach everything with the greatest sense of comfort, because we had already done it once before. In the Lego Movie we stepped into the project trying to figure out exactly how we were going to approach the movie, which then meant we could walk into The Lego Batman Movie sort of asking ourselves how to expand the scope and scale of the film to feel appropriate for Chris’s [McKay] and Batman’s vision of how the film should be. We wanted everything to match the size of Batman’s ego in this film.
Okay. So, how much did your work last on this movie? How many people were involved in the team? It seems like a huge work, right?
A: Yeah, we started the project in August 2014 officially, so 28 months to make the movie, which was less time than we originally had planned for because the release date was brought from May to February. We had holed up in the company, that would have been around 450 people that worked on the project… and that ranges from storyboard artists, art department, effects, all the production, all the staff from the company…
G: R&D department… In the Lego film we still went away and built aspects to deal with how big everything was. We really tried to find a way to make things more…
You mentioned that your work was moved a bit forward because the release of the movie was anticipated. First of all, does that happen often? How do you tackle those kind of changes in the project?
G: Well… I mean, the release date of the film shifted a few times… it was brought forward at one stage, but prior to that, it was Ninjago, then Lego 2, then Lego Batman. McKay was actually attached to work on Lego 2, and we were developing Lego 2 with the Art Department here at Animal and McKay. Simultaneously he was just kind of getting us off to the side to also draw a bunch of materials for this thing that they thought about, called Lego Batman… which I thought might also be a good idea. You know, Batman is such a popular character in the Lego Movie and also sort of iconic in popular culture. So McKay and Seth Grahame-Smith… they went off and workshopped story ideas, while they also figured out how to tackle Lego Movie 2… there was a point where they determine the initial treatment… which is similar, but different to where we ended up with the final version of the Lego Batman. The initial treatment was kind of strong enough that they wanted to swap the release dates for Batman and Lego 2. So for Batman we had to change priorities and become much more versed with Gotham City and Batman lore than we did for general characters in Lego and Lego 2. Later they swapped release dates with Ninjago and Batman, so the release was brought forward again and at that stage we weren’t entirely shocked, but we had to re-plan.
A: Generally we look at whether we bring more on more crew or we just have less time to do things, we have to move things into production earlier. The film took a lot of rendering power to make, we had some funny statistics on the rendering. With a single CPU it would have taken 6,560 years to render the film… so it was a big job to render.
Grant: It’s usual for a release date to change. Generally, they try to find a slot in the calendar and then they have to make sure that when the film is released it has maximum impact.
You mentioned director Chris McKay. You worked with him on different projects. What did you discuss with him, in particular for this project? Were there some aspects that he wanted you to discuss on?
G: More Batman! Yeah… I mean, we had all sorts of philosophical discussions and ultimately it was a love letter/roasting of Batman as a figure in popular culture. That was diving in and watching Batman films, we organized a trip to DC with the key crew, went to the head-office, we met Geoff Johns, went to the toy room and got free toys! You always hear the line that it’s About a Boy as directed by Michael Mann. In the beginning we watched a whole bunch of films about relationships, like The Millionaire, Scrooged, with Bill Curry, It’s a wonderful Life, About a Boy, Jerry Maguire which is referenced in the film. We wanted to make sure to borrow as much as possible from the Batman lore, we sort of designed the movie to put a bunch of nerdy references as well. The nerdiest reference I could think of, and this could be a spoiler, there’s a flag hanging, not at Wayne Manor… at the gala! In the background there’s a red flag, that’s based on the imagined design of the city seal based on an Alan Moore’s story, where it was suggested that Gotham City was founded by Norwegian settlers. We put it there as a flying reference in the city scene, the flag almost has the same colors and pattern as the Norwegian flag.
We had to populate the city with business names, sings, characters, finding names and characters from Batman lore, rental stores. The magazine Batman holds up in the gala scene, it’s again a reference to George Barris, the creator of the Batmobile in 60s TV-series. He did a lot of custom car work in that… in the 50s-70s for films.
You can watch the movie as a Batman fan and pick up all the nerdy references that we put in there. It’s helpful that a lot of people in Animal Logic are nerds! Because you know, we love comics, we do enjoy reading them and there were people with a lot of background knowledge already, which is great.
A: As well as the visual references to the history of Batman, it’s also very self-referential about the myth of Batman.
G: Batman… he’s very self-aware. Which, you know, because he’s made out of Lego, it kinda gives you a license. When you are made out of Lego, you get a license to be a lot of crazier in the approach than other live action Batman films.
As a production designer, your work is basically bringing a vision to reality. How challenging was Lego Batman in this sense?
G: It was as challenging as every other film, even though we were already going with a greater confidence in terms of technical approach, you still essentially have to design the film from the ground up with the benefit of knowing, at least for the most iconic characters, how to design them. The biggest challenge, I think, was defining what Gotham City would look like, because it has been interpreted in so many different ways, in so many different films. At first I was designing Wayne Manor but simultaneously doing Gotham City. We were doing reference pictures with McKay, we were doing a presentation of the history of Gotham City as seen in various films and comic book adaptations and as well as “how do we interpret it in our particular film”. And McKay sort of wanted to have a wink to them, to the various incarnations of Gotham, but he also wanted to make it into this unique creation. We went into the Fortress of Solitude, which was 98% inspired by the Richard Donner version.
Gotham City was more like playing with an expensive city with infinite lego bricks… where we sort of picked and chose various things in the United States. McKay is from Chicago and we really loved the sort of Chicago river-y area, with multiple bridges. You see it in The Dark Knight where they shot those scenes in Chicago. We also picked New York, Times Square, and Philadelphia as reference points. We watched Taxi Driver, films like French Connection. We looked at photographs of New York, Chicago and the East Coast from the 70s to get the feeling of those cities at that time. They were crime ridden, dirty and worn down. Now if you look at Times Square in the 70s or 80s, it was way more interesting then neon signs and Disney Stores. We wanted to catch that feeling.
Gotham City is a timeless city and when you watch Tim Burton’s version, Gotham City is a mish-mash of 1950s costumes and 1930s architecture, but people still have cellphones. It’s a mishmash of different design styles from different time periods. Because we were trying to pay homage to as much DC lore as possible, we also researched the history of the Phantom Zone, of the Fortress of Solitude, and tried to put many little winks to those environments and the way they were portrayed in different incarnations. The front door of the Fortress of Solitude – the whole thing is mostly based off the Richard Donner version, from the Superman movie of the 70s – but the door is based on the comic book version with a big old door and a giant keyhole and a giant key.
One thing that I appreciated as a fan of the comics is that there are a lot of references, it’s even difficult to find them all. The flag one was lost on me completely, but other things I managed to see. Another thing I wanted to ask is that this is a big movie, a huge franchise, and a lot of people go to watch the movie and not all of them may be nerds, unfortunately. So what I want to ask is how do you find that kind of balance between putting all these references and still making it accessible to someone who doesn’t really know about them beforehand?
G: Being a compelling story with universal themes helped. Test screens also helped. Not everyone in the building was a comic book fan when we watched it internally. When we play it to the studio, when they do test screenings, the whole point of that process is to keep us honest as filmmakers and make sure we’re not disappearing up our own asses in terms of telling a story that’s only going to appeal to a very small number of people.
A: We had to ensure we wouldn’t to alienate people, but I mean, everyone knows that his parents died when he was young and about the diatribe between Batman and Joker. We really enjoyed telling another Batman story that wasn’t already told before, a story that shouldn’t need the history of Batman to understand. You should work on the project on a number of levels.
G: As a filmmaker, if you try to reach an audience that is as broad as possible, you have to look pretty clear at what you are doing. Dedicating 10 seconds of precious time for an inside joke that only you and the crew get…
You just have to find a way to be self-indulgent and yet not doing that where possible. With this process, you come up with a gag that you think it’s funny… for six months. Then you don’t find it funny anymore and you end up cutting them. But whether or not that’s the right choice, that process helps you to avoid making the Bible of unknown references. There are some jokes from day 1, we call them “evergreen jokes”.
What would your advice be to someone thinking of working in your field?
A: That’s a hard question. It’s a lot of hard work and you have really ready set to doing that. It is very enjoyable, though.
G: I would say that if you’re a comic fan or you are a movie fan and you just love movies, then you need to expand your interests to the rest of the world and observe reality, observe the people within it. The best fantastical stories that I might like, as a sci-fi or a comic book fan, are the ones that are also about the real world. Humanity, the motivations of people. You will need to understand how to use imagination and fantasy in a way that helps us all sort of understand each other. I think that would be a really good way to approach the field. Someone once gave me a good advice, if you want to do filmmaking, don’t go to film school. Get a thousand of dollars to travel around the world. Don’t give up your passions for the fantastical.
A: I think those are really good points. Sometimes when we are doing a movie we reach a juncture where all have to sit down in a room, talk about our experiences and share stories that we might not feel comfortable sharing with each other. Ultimately it breaks down barriers and you start to feel emotion towards a character that is in the same situation, to identify with the emotional core of the story. It’s not just about that movie. This is part of the process as well, working in a big team of people who rely on each other. The part where we try to understand each other on a more emotional level as an individual. It’s not something people necessarily think would happen behind the scenes.
G: It’s part of how you figure out how to work in a team. GO, TEAM!
As you mentioned before, you will still be involved in the Lego Movie franchise. Can you tell us about your next projects?
G: About Ninjago? Lego 2?
A: We’re going to be working on the next two, three Lego Movies. We’ll be working on Ninjago here in Sydney… so Ninjago, the next Lego Movie, which is a sequel to the first one, and then there’s going to be two more Lego Movies as well.
G: Which we are not sure it’s even there, but… It’s potentially gonna happen!
A: Then Animal Logic is working on Peter Rabbit at the moment. It’s an animated live action film.
G: So… we are going to work on some pretty cool nerd-friendly films.