Three months ago, seven visual effects students from Staffordshire University uploaded 2 minutes and 23 seconds of video to the Web. The clip, a computer-generated homage to Inception, represented the group's final semester project. Though proud of their work, not one of them suspected that within a matter of days, LEGO Inception would go viral — and become an absolute Internet sensation.
Recently, I had the opportunity to speak with the talented artists behind LEGO Inception (Pedrom Dadgostar, Hollie Price, Jack Milton, Simon Stirrup, Sam Serridge, Jack Bosworth and Sidney Thibault) and get the inside scoop on the project, their career plans, and what it feels like to be Internet rock stars.
So, tell me — how did LEGO Inception come to be? Whose idea was it?
SAM (STORYBOARDS/MODELING/TEXTURES): "The LEGO video is kind of a tradition at our university...before us, there were some great ones already done by students, such as LEGO Topgun, LEGO 007 and LEGO Matrix. So when it was our turn to make a LEGO video, we had to come up with the subject."
HOLLIE (MATTE LEAD/TEXTURES): "I think it was around the summer before when I came up with the idea of doing Inception. I'd just gotten into Matte Painting and was sitting next to Bos (Jack Bosworth) who has a completely different skillset to me... he is great with the 3D side and was doing some dynamics work around that time. I mentioned it to him straight away, and he loved it. We started to think about how we would use our individual skills to create it. Although I hadn't thought about it at first, creating the movie out of LEGO — when LEGO is about building worlds — fit perfectly!"
SAM: "As soon as they said Inception, my eyes lit up like a fat kid on sweets . . . I'm a huge fan of Inception and class it as one of my favorite films of all time."
Did the team have a leader? How did you coordinate production?
JACK (LIGHTING/DYNAMICS/MODELING): "We all decided from the beginning that we would not have a 'team leader' as such. We didn't think it fair to have all the pressure on one person's shoulders. Instead we decided that each member of the group would be in charge of a different area of the production. Of course, we all had input for the look and feel of the film. All major decisions were discussed by the whole group to make sure we all had our voices and opinions heard."
HOLLIE: "What was great about this project . . . we all had a say in every stage. Although we didn't always agree! From viewing the film together as soon as our group had been decided, to pre-vis to post production, we all got together as much as we could."
JACK: "I think it would probably be either the stairs or the mirror. The stairs because making the paradox was a lot of fun, and the mirror because seeing the film crew freak out when they are shown always makes me laugh. Especially since the film crew is actually each of us, made in LEGO. Each of our reactions fits our personalities which is a nice personal touch."
HOLLIE: "Haha, you know what? Me and Bos were talking about this — and our favorite changed everytime we did a new scene! It's so funny. Is it bad if I say the Inception logo? It's so epic!!! Although seeing ourselves in LEGO was funny. I changed my texture . . . I was wearing those leggings that day!"
SAM: "I dont know if I can boil it down to one favorite shot . . . but I remember being really excited when I saw the falling building scene (with the snowman), as I hadnt seen any of the rendering stages . . . it was one of those nightmare shots that we didn't think would make the final video."
HOLLIE: "It's so nice to read a review on Yahoo [where they've] specifically chosen a scene you worked on for their article. We did sometimes prefer ones other people worked on though."
Tell me about the fanfare that followed your video becoming a Web sensation.
SAM: "I don't know about fanfare . . . I'm still waiting on fan mail if that's the case. But yeah, it was a dream come true when it went viral. It astonished me how fast it grew in just under a week. The main thing I loved were the comments from the Oscar winners themselves (Paul Franklin, Chris Courbould). It was just a huge honor that they took their time to see our hard work."
JACK: "It was quite surreal really, we never expected it to become so big. Especially since it was just a piece of course work. It was so great reading some of the comments and articles that were written. After it we got 60,000 views in one day we just couldn't believe it. And it was so fitting when we hit one million hits during the opening ceremony of our degree show at the university."
HOLLIE: "We had to upload it as a module requirement to Vimeo, and a day or so after, I remember posting it to a couple of sites (just to get feedback more than anything). I hadn't heard from them and decided just to check . . . and there it was on the main page with an awesome review. I remember thinking two days in, when we'd reached about 400 hits — 'that's it now, we've peaked.. it can't get any bigger than that surely?!' — and by the end of the week, we were on a million hits. As a group we'd ring each other up at ridiculous times.. I remember ringing Bos at the three in the morning saying 'The Oscars have tweeted us!!!! THE ACTUAL OSCARS!!!' I think we found out Yahoo Movies wanted to do a review the next day. I walked up to uni and saw some of the guys just by chance — we went and told our lecturer how big it had become, and of course he already knew!"
When did you first realize that you wanted to study VFX?
JACK: "I come from a more technical background rather than artistic. I've always been interested in computers and design. But I never really knew where it could take me during High school. Toy Story was always a massive influence for me but it wasn't until college when I really discovered visual effects and how large an industry it was. Once I first looked at Maya and what you could do with it, I realised that this is what wanted to do. From then on, every film I watched I started noticing the effects, trying to work out how they did each one and always wanting to learn more about the programs used."
SAM: "Well, my whole life I did nothing except draw and do doodles in the back of my maths books. I remember the day I was watching the DVD bonus disc on Star Wars: Episode 3 and some guy was in a room with about 10-12 artists and they were all drawing things like aliens, robots and monsters . . . later on George Lucas comes in and starts chatting to them like they're best friends, and I thought... they get PAID for doing that? So since then I have worked my hardest to build my portfolio and improve my skills to hopefully one day end up in the same room as those guys."
HOLLIE: "VFX for me ties the two things I love which are art and films. I used to game a lot more than I do now, and of course there are TV shows that I like, but really my love is for films. We've been to FMX the last two years . . . and meeting these amazingly talented people who make what we like to watch is so strange. I met an art director from Disney this year, and he asked to keep a book I'd created myself with some concept art in. Somebody from Disney liked my work . . . CRAZY!!!"
Collapsing building from LEGO Inception
Is there one company in particular that you'd like to work for?
HOLLIE: "I'd love to become a runner somewhere like Framestore or MPC. Ideally I'd like to become a matte painter working for one of the companies in London. I'm working on my portfolio and showreel now actually . . . fingers crossed!"
SAM: "I always grew up thinking the companies I dreamed of working for were Stan Winston Studios, ILM, LucasFilm etc., because my dream was to work with the best people like Cameron and Spielberg, but companies like Double Negative and MPC have proven that you don't need a huge department to get great results. As of now, my dream company would be The Third Floor Previz in LA. They are a small company, yet they have worked on some amazing films with the best people in that field . . . and more importantly, they are both 2D and 3D friendly."
Do you have any advice for aspiring FX artists?
JACK: "Something that really helped me was trying lots of different areas of visual effects whilst I was in a learning environment such as university. By having a go at each one, I could see where my strengths lay and I could also understand the jobs in the rest of the pipeline. If I'm giving a UV map to a texture artist for example, having tried texturing myself, I can understand how the UV layout needs to be from their point of view. I would also say have a look at the Digital Tutors website. There are many tutorials out there on the internet, but none are as good as Digital Tutors."
HOLLIE: "I think what helped me a lot was making contacts and asking for feedback. People are often more than willing to help; it's just making that first step and putting your work out there. Also, you have to love what you do. You have to be able to see the light at the end of the tunnel and know that your hard work will pay off eventually!"
SAM: "The best advice I could give to anybody is never lose sight of what you want. Everyday comforts such as going on Facebook and working at a local shop to pay rent might be what you need to do now, but its too easy to let all that become the norm. I know because I've been there. If you let it happen for too long you might be there for another 20 years, look back and think . . . what the hell was that degree for? So no matter what is you have going on in your life right now, make sure you set yourself a project. Even if you spend only an hour or so on it a day, make sure you are doing something proactive . . . and most importantly - something that makes you happy."
Connect with the LEGO Inception team and see more of their work:
Sam Serridge: www.samserridge.com
Jack Bosworth: www.jbos3d.co.uk
Hollie Price: twitter.com/Dolly_Nice
Simon Stirrup: www.simonstirrup.com
Pedrom Dadgostars: www.pedfolio.co.uk
Sidney Thibault: www.vimeo.com/45196458
Get more information on Staffordshire University's Visual Effects Program
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