The Lego Movie: How Moving Pieces Make Movies that Move


Every story has objects—persons, places, and other things, or more appropriately, characters, settings, actions, dialogue and props—that it uses to embody the abstract concepts and arguments within the story.

Which means one of the ways to build rising tension in your story is to use those objects as “building blocks” that can be arranged, and re-arranged in different ways so as to explore the different perspectives of a thematic issue.  The more you can explore an argument from different perspectives, the better your argument will hold up to challenges.

In order to use these building blocks then, the key is to take a “block” from one point of your story, and show it in a different context at a later point.  These shifting contexts transform the meaning, value, importance and/or impact of an object—they “flip the script” on the object to flip the expectations of the premise.  For example, a necklace that is around a character’s neck at the beginning of a scene turns out to have the clue to solve a murder at the turning or climax.

Incidentally, this technique also helps to create a dynamic of set-ups and pay-offs that engage and reward your audience’s interest.  Such is the case with the film, The Lego Movie, a rather fun romp that is especially rife with examples of this dynamic.

The plot of the Lego Movie is rather derivative in one way: the main character, Emmet Joe Brickowski, an average Joe of a lego, is recruited by an underground resistance movement, the Master Builders, who see him as the prophesied “Special” who will stop the evil plan of Lord Business to permanently freeze the Lego World (The Matrix, anybody?).

At the same time, however, the filmmakers (Phil Lord and Christopher Miller) take many liberties with the vast array of lego toys to shift and shape our preconceptions in a way that brought new life to the little blocks of plastic.  They pay off this and a lot of other cliché’s with a bevy of new twists.

Some of the switch-ups include: a Good Cop-Bad Cop lego who has a head that spins around depending on which cop is doing the talking, a Lincoln toy with a propulsion jet chair; and a version of Batman who thinks he’s way cooler than he is, especially when he’s trying to impress his girlfriend.

By the way, if you haven’t noticed, all the movies this month are animated films. That’s because animation (including CG combined with live action) allow storytellers to bend reality in a way where one moment a lego block is a bed and in the next moment it’s a couch (or at least that’s what I remember doing when I was playing with legos as a kid).

Emmet relaxing at home living his boring life with awesome gusto.

Which is what happens at a couple of critical moments in The Lego Movie:  in one earlier scene Emmett builds a double-decker couch in order to prove his gift of MasterBuilding genius (pictured above). However, the other characters think it’s just dumb.  But then in a later scene, Emmet’s super-couch becomes the means for surviving an explosion of their lego submarine.

Then there’s the other critical story object, the “Piece of Resistance” which only the Special can use against the evil of the Kragle—which turns out to be nothing more than the cap to the tube of Krazy Glue.

Both of those examples highlight a story’s ability to take an issue or problem and look at it from differing perspectives.

For example, if I say that you should honor your father and your mother—all someone has to do is show me a father who tells his children to steal, and I’ll have to take “honor your father” to a deeper level of meaning beyond the words—something that  Jesus does when he says “even you who are evil give your children gifts…” (Jesus, by the way, was a master of taking a “block” and shifting the context to show a deeper meaning. No surprise since he himself was the cornerstone that the builder’s rejected.)

So back to speaking of fathers and gifts, the big context shift in The Lego Moviecomes when it is revealed that the story events are playing out in the imagination of a young boy, Finn, whose father believes the best thing to do with lego sets is to krazy glue them together after putting them together per the package instructions.  It’s only when Finn’s father sees his son’s unhindered creativity—including Lord Business, which is based on Finn’s father—that he changes his mind and allows Finn to play with the legos as he sees fit.  This of course, then plays out in the Lego world when Emmet helps Lord Business unfreeze all the legos and Emmet achieves his destiny as the Special.

So in piecing your own story, scene or performance together, take a look at the building blocks—the persons, places, actions, things, and even dialogue—and see if you can rearrange the contexts so that the audience sees those same parts from a different perspective.

This is something that happens in many art forms—music where notes and chords are combined to form harmonies one moment and discordance the next; lines and colors in painting create shape and proportion, or distortion; poetry where words rhyme and repeat; cuisine where ingredients can be savory in one dish and sweet in the next; or chess, where a piece suddenly gains power after moving to a different square.

And of course this also happens in life, which is why life can be so interesting.

This classic optical illusion illustrates how shifting perspective can change context and vice versa. Is this a vessel or is it two faces? Depends on what part of the story you’re at.


It’s easy to decide where bodies can go or what emotional landscape can be explored when the objects of a scene are mapped in a way that shifts audience perceptions.

Here’s a question both directors and actors can raise while exploring scenes in order to focus in on this aspect of storytelling:

How can you set up the story objects (persons, places or things) in the Beginning so that their initial position is clearly expressed, so that when the context of the scene changes in the Turning (Middle), it will highlight the perceived or real shift in the objects’ importance, meaning, value or impact?

A good way to contrast the two contexts is to have one context be the commonly preconceived context and the other an out-of-context context—like with the Krazy Glue Cap that is initially seen as a special object that can change the universe (not something most people think of when they think of a plastic cap) but then is seen in it’s regular context—on the end of a tube of Krazy Glue. You can also start with the usual context and shift to the out-of-context one, such as happened with the double-decker couch.

This revelation or shifting of contexts should then be the dynamic then that helps brings clarity and resolution to the final climax (End) of the scene.

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