Today is International Lego Classics Day on Twitter, an annual occasion when classicists all over the world dive into their Lego collections to build models related to their research. We’re big Lego fans here at CREWS and every year we try and do a couple of things for ILCD. As this year will be the last when the Project is running, we wanted to pull out all the stops. This is the result, a short film telling the history of alphabetic writing through the medium of Lego stop-motion.

I’ve wanted to try my hand at a CREWS-related stop-motion video for a while but the timing has never worked out. Fortunately this year I had just sent off proofs for two forthcoming CREWS publications so had enough leeway in my diary to get stuck in to a little Lego project for a few days.

Although I’ve been playing with Lego my whole life, and have a rather large collection, I’ve never actually used it for stop-motion before. There is, however, a flourishing online community making Lego films in this way and YouTube is filled with tutorials on how to do it. The principle is simple: you create your scene out of Lego and take a photo. Then you move the thing you want to animate very slightly and take another one. When you run these frames together in sequence, it gives the impression that the Lego is moving. Most films have 24 frames per second, and some TV and video games have 60. For this video I was just using 15 frames per second to try and keep things manageable, which is why things have a slightly jerky look to them. Even so, I took more than 1200 separate photos for this project!

I also wanted to include a Lego map that the camera could fly over. While it’s easy enough to design things like this, I didn’t think I had the actual bricks I would need to build it – hundreds of 1×1 bricks or tiles in earth tones, which tend to be among the less common Lego colours. So I decided to make it in the computer instead. I’ve got a lot of experience using the free open-source 3D-modelling software Blender for various fun projects, and it’s surprisingly quick and easy to automatically convert a photo into a Lego mosaic. The lengthy part was actually rendering out the animations. That involved another 500 HD frames and took my poor ageing desktop computer 3 days to do.

Meanwhile, I converted our bedroom into studio. For stop-motion it’s important that you can control the lighting – if any natural light gets into the scene then you will see flickering as the lighting conditions change between shots. Our bedroom was the only room with thick enough curtains for me to be able to block out the daylight while I worked. For four days the room was taken over with a table full of Lego sets and tripods holding lights and the camera. As you can imagine, this wasn’t the most convenient set-up! To make things worse, the current lockdown has seen many of us working from home for a long time now, and my wife has been using the room where my Lego is as her office. This meant that actually building the sets and putting together my Lego actors had to be fitted in around her work-time. A lot of late nights and weekend building sessions.

Despite all the challenges, actually shooting went reasonably smoothly. It turns out it’s quite difficult to make Lego people look like they’re writing because they only have fairly limited articulation, but I think I definitely got better at it. If you compare the first writing scene I did – of the miner – with the last – the bearded Ugaritian scribe with his wax tablets – I think you can see an improvement. Even so, it was difficult to think of new things to do in each scene, especially working within the constraints of the Lego I had available. For example, I would have liked to have had something a bit more interesting for ancient Rome, but all my suitable bricks were tied up in other models. I had also planned to have something on the development of the alphabet in the east (a big gap in the finished film!), but time and lack of appropriate bricks meant I had to cut the scenes. Still, I’m happy with the end result, and I hope it tells some of the early history of the alphabet in a new and engaging way.

~ Philip Boyes (Research Associate on the CREWS project)

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