LEGO has been an amazing tool for amateur filmakers. The pieces are cheap, infinitely combineable, and the human figures are all at the same size and are easily posable. Anyone wanting to do a little stop-motion animation need only get a bucket of LEGOs and a camera, and they’re in business.
There’s a whole genre of these “brickfilms”, with its own support communities and festivals. Given the time-consuming nature of the technique, most of them qualify as “shorts”. (The LEGO Movie and its sequels were made using computer animation, but were careful to follow the brickfilm style.)
Back in 2011, Joseph DeRose started making one of these brickfilms. His 20 minute short quickly grew to the point where it got away from him, and became a full-length feature film. He worked on it with friends and family over the years, doing it in segments and uploading them to YouTube as each one was completed.
He finished it in August, and uploaded the entire thing to YouTube.
A man wakes up in an alley, with no memory of who he is or how he got there. He’s soon picked up by the police, because they have reason to believe he’s one of the people behind PAIRD – Practical Artificial Intelligence Research and Development. PAIRD used to be a government contractor working on autonomous drones; for some reason they very suddenly had their funding cut off. But now, PAIRD drones are appearing around the world, attacking people and places for no apparent reason. So the authorities are hoping that he can help – if he can remember. Otherwise, he’s going on trial for the destruction the drones have caused.
However, he’s quickly busted out of the holding facility by another man who also woke up in a weird place with most of his memory gone. Their only lead is a series of enigmatic notes that set them off on an action-filled adventure around the world to find out who they are and just what the heck is going on.
DeRose has done an amazing job with this story. It’s set in the near future (there’s a reference to the funeral of former president Donald Trump setting an attendance record with four people), but a lot of the background worldbuilding is not done via an exposition dump. Instead, there’s a TV news report on riots in Berlin, and billboards encouraging conservation even to the point of “two children only” for a family. It’s pretty clear, then, that the combination of overpopulation and resource scarcity has created a crisis point.
If you managed to miss the hints, it’s clarified when our protagonists are stuck in Tripoli for a while. That’s the only real “info dump” before the final scene, and it comes right when you need things to slow down so you can catch your breath.
There are a few weaknesses with the story (How do our protagonists travel so easily without being stopped at airports or train stations? Shouldn’t the authorities have sent out alerts to stop them?), and unfortunately, all of the questions posed by the initial plot provoker (who are these guys, and what do they have to do with PAIRD?) are only answered in one huge bit of dialogue in the final scene. But we can be kind and excuse them as novice mistakes, especially given the production history of the film.
And it’s more than made up for by the incredible direction, especially in the action sequences. Everything is handled so well. The animation is surprisingly smooth, the “special effects” are great, and there are some cool camera angles. Even the music works.
DeRose asks an interesting question, one that in movies goes back to at least Colossus: The Forbin Project. If we asked an AI or supercomputer to solve humanity’s problems, would we like the answer? It’s one we should start thinking about, as we grant more and more machines their own quasi-autonomy. For example, what are the ethical considerations guiding self-driving cars?
I found myself getting completely lost in the movie. It’s something that could have easily come out of one of the major studios. Give it a look; it’s well worth your time.
By the way, back when he started work on this eight years ago, Joseph DeRose was twelve years old. What did you do in your teenage years?