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Behind the Scenes of Daedalus and Icarus

On these pages I hope to tell you a thing or two about the production process at YellowHead Studios. Please do not read this before you've seen the film, because it is filled with spoilers! Technically I believe this film was our biggest challenge - and our biggest success - yet. New equipment, such as the Panasonic NV-DS29 MiniDV camera (first used for Great Inventors 2), a tripod (first used for this film) and capture software supporting frame averaging (MonkeyJam 3.0b) helped me realising scenes with zoom, focus pulls and camera viewpoints that were very hard to achieve when I only had Lego to support the cam.

But naturally it didn't start with that. Here's what I did first.

  • I wrote the story. As research material I used, apart from my memory, the Greek Mythology Link and a Dutch book "Goden- en Heldensagen" by Ernst Hoffmann, Groningen, 1978. The words are all my own, and I tried at times to put some of the way of writing of the Greek into it (e.g. "One of these he fitted onto his son's, the other onto his own back").

  • I tried to find a narrator. English is not my native language, and as the story would be conveyed only by visuals and narration, a good narrator was essential. I have been lucky in getting Mark Butler to act as narrator - he did an excellent job on it! Moreover, he delivered his lines very fast (only to have them sitting idle on my harddisk for months).

  • I drew storyboards to get an idea of what the film was going to look like. These storyboards can be viewed here.

On hindsight, this was not the smartest thing to do. Of course, I had some images in my head, but for many of the scenes I had to make up something that fit the text only then. This is why the text sometimes stops for a long time, only to deliver one short sentence after that. Next time I will try a more graphical approach while creating the storyline. I will probably end up with something in between this take and what I did for Great Inventors 2 (storyboards only; see them here and here - images are fairly large!).

  • I composed the music. The main theme was something I hummed into my phone's voice recorder while walking to class. I had thought it up while bicycling to university. I really wanted a flute, but I can only play Trumpet, and any attempts to use a computer program made the song sound very flat and unemotional. I'm still unsure on what to do for my next movie - but I'll take that hurdle when I get there.

  • I edited together the stills from the storyboards and a rough audio track. This gave me an idea of the timing and the length of the scenes. I wrote down the number of frames per scene, sometimes a few key moments, and went into production.

  • I spent some time finding the right Greek words. The only word from New-Greek is the translation of "Studios" - all other words are in Classical Greek. I used Ibycus 4, a LaTeX package, to typeset the Greek text with the proper accents.

My dictionary Greek - Dutch. An old friend taken back into action after almost 4 years' rest.

The first scene filmed was the one where Icarus hears of the arrival of the ship and runs to meet his father. This scene made me realise what the production process would be like: build a set, shoot about 10 seconds on it, and tear it down for the next set. For quite a few of these sets I spent nearly a day building them (often with the camera turned on to see what would be in view, and how things would look). After that there were about 3 hours of animating, and then I'd go to bed. My bed, at that time, would look like this:

Mess in my room

Mess on my bed, to be cleaned up and recreated daily

Naturally, the sound of Lego bricks being shoved into boxes is not something that pleases your parents, who sleep in the next room, particularly at 1am. As I couldn't bring myself to sorting all pieces after tearing down, the mess in my room grew larger and larger as I progressed.

The first scene also learned me something that would haunt me throughout production: whenever I used the tripod, I was confronted with the fact that my table is not very stable. Stretching my leg in the wrong direction would immediately result in a jump in the result. Careful repositioning can lessen the effect, but several bumps are still noticeable in the result.

A few scenes later my first big challenge arrived: the opening shot with the ship filmed from above. It doesn't look half as good as I would have liked - I think the choice for the water material (reflective foil) was not a wise one in this case. The solution I used for the scene where Icarus spirals towards the sun - a blue sheet of paper with plastic wrap over it - would have looked much better. But the deadline drew nearer, so there was no time for reshoots. The record player was stored away in a distant corner of the attic, so I built my own turntable. I can assure you that the position I had to animate from was by far the most uncomfortable I've ever been in during my filmmaking career.

Custom turntable. Construction and baseplate were turned over to support the sea and the ship

Overview of the setup. The blue paper was there to make the water reflect a better colour. This was only partially successful.

A note about the skies: for these I took a series of slides with my old analog 35mm photo camera. A slide projector would project them behind my set. There are a few advantages to this approach, such as

  • Low cost. 36 slides cost me less than 10 euros

  • Larger backdrops allow for larger sets. This is particularly noticeable in land- and seascapes.

However, some disadvantages surfaced during production

  • The lighting can be difficult: your set should not block the beam from the projector, because it would cast a shadow and it would be lit badly. With reflective foil this is doubly important as you'll get an ugly reflection on the sky as well (noticeable in the scene where Theseus and Ariadne depart).

  • Another lighting complication is that your other lights may not shine onto the screen. If they do, the sky looks washed out in your result.

  • If the sky is properly lit, all kinds of dust specks show up.

  • The projector will shut itself off if it gets too hot. The only thing to do is to wait for it to cool down (about 15 minutes' delay - and sometimes It'd shut down every hour)

To conclude, I will pay some more to have real backdrops printed next time, and only resort to slides when all else fails. A static matte may also be an option if the scene is framed carefully.

An ancient Braun Paximat slide projector

Another scene which required me to build more than just the set was the walk through the maze, ending with the encounter with the Minotaur. The maze was very modular: I had separate walls and floors that could be combined into hallways. The floors were made to fit into tracks, on which they could slide towards the camera and rotate. This created the illusion of walking through the maze.

The minotaur was a custom head made out of clay. At first he looked cute rather than menacing, so I took my set of CD pens (4 colours) and made the eyes and line on his head darker. It looked much better right away! The horns are normal Lego. I forgot to add a nose ring, but it's good enough this way for the few seconds that it appears on screen.

One hallway element

Several bits of wall together

The rotating support for the sliding hallways

A hallway installed on the support. It has slid all the way to the end and is ready to rotate.

A cute Minotaur

A menacing Minotaur

The set showing the entrance to the labyrinth is one I'm particularly proud of. I bought a piece of what train hobbyists use for grass, which looks great, but leaves a track of tiny, hairy bits when you cut it. Originally I wanted the door to slide open upwards, but while building the set I realised that it was either that or the base of the giant temple in clear view - both wouldn't fit on screen. And I liked these huge columns, so I went for the option you see in the film.

A side view of the set, showing the way the grass is integrated with the Lego.

Now we can finally make Daedalus and Icarus fly. The wings were actually the wings of 2 christmas tree decoration birds. They are still lying on my desk wingless (and tail-less). The wings were actually one piece (3 synthetic feathers glued together), and the ideal size for this film. I used a piece of wire to be able to animate them. The wire was obtained by removing the plastic from twist ties. It was thin enough to allow easy animation. The wire you get from paperclips is too tough. The ties, wings and minifig are held together by Pritt Poster Buddies, the Dutch equivalent of Blue Tack, which is coloured white. This colour made it easier to pretend it was actually wax.

Twist ties with the plastic still on them

Daedalus (who doesn't quite have a yellow back), twist ties and wings

The wire applied to the back

Daedalus and Icarus attached to the supports used for their animation

I will conclude with several "before and after" shots that will hopefully give an idea of the masking process. I used BSOL to remove all supports from the pictures manually.

I hope I have inspired you with this "behind the scenes" feature to create your own brickfilms. Happy filming!

YellowHead Studios have no affiliation with The Lego Company, and do not make any profit out of this project. Films are for personal use only and should not be redistributed or changed without permission.