Being a child and playing with toys are pretty much synonymous. But when you see a child playing with toys, you don’t see what’s going on inside. To me, toys were my first form of storytelling.
My toys were always actors, performers in some larger play. Sometimes their roles had to be re-cast, such as when I couldn’t find an Ellie Sadler action figure to go with Dr. Grant to go hunt dinosaurs in Jurassic Park. Instead used a leggy, short-haired blonde look-alike from the Congo toyline to take her place (which I guess makes sense, since both movies were based on Michael Crichton books).
I would often set my toys up in a diorama on the coffee table, guns pointed at the massive T-Rex that was about to make a feast out of everyone on the table. These still freeze-frame stills of action told a whole story of their own, even when no one was moving. I would dig a cave in the snow in our front lawn and stick a toy in there, and go to bed imaging the struggles Robin would be going through to survive (meanwhile, Batman was chilling in his light-up Batmobile—no doubt grateful for the lack of company so he could brood alone in pace). I would freeze my toys in cups, pretending they were in cryostasis, waiting to be unthawed for a special event (usually a birthday or holiday). This was also how I learned that water expands when frozen, and can break said cups.
Even breaking my toys became part of a story. I don’t know what I was thinking—like, seriously, what was I thinking?—but my friend and I took some of my Mortal Kombat action figures and started chucking them into the air and watching them land on the sidewalk. The results were as expected. Lui Kang was beyond saving, Johnny Cage lost his legs, and Sonya Blade’s head and arm blew off. My Mom, graciously, repaired them for me. She fed copper wire through Johnny’s legs, so he could stand, but not bend them, so his fighting days were over. Sonya, meanwhile, had an entire arm transplant from Shang Tsung, which actually made her cooler since the transplanted arm was blue with golden gauntlets at the end, making it look like she had a bionic arm. So that became part of the story: she pretty much became a female Bionic Commando.
When I got the LEGO Studios Moviemaker set, I was quite literally telling stories in the form of movies. In fact its full title was the “Stephen Spielberg Moviemaker Set”. Growing up on Jurassic Park and Indiana Jones, I felt, in some way, connected to the acclaimed director, whose movies kickstarted my childhood imagination.
I remember reading through the guidebook, especially the intro written by Spielberg himself. “You may not even realize that when playing with your own toys, you were already telling stories. Now you have a chance to share with your friends the stories you have been telling all these years,” he wrote.
And let me say, what cooler gift could you possibly get for a sprouting teen with an overactive imagination? It was a giant LEGO set that came out around 2000. Sure, it came with a movie set, backdrops, actors and crew, oh wow the road splits apart?!, the buildings can totally topple over!, a cat! there’s a LEGO cat in here! and oh my God a T-Rex!
But that wasn’t the cool part.
The hallmark of the set was actually a small, boxy webcamera. You plugged the camera into the computer, installed the LEGO Studios program, and you made wonderful things happen.
Ok, granted, most of my “wonderful things” were minute-long videos, and usually revolved around people getting eaten by dinosaurs, insects, or toilets. But, you know what, that’s ok. Because for the next three years I had a blast doing it. I would buy new LEGO sets, bring them home and excitedly build them, then find a way to make a movie around it.
Even though they were crude, it kept my imagination firing on all cylinders. Animation was, to me, the most exciting part. It may not sound like it: it was stop-motion animation, after all, so it was basically move, click, move, click, move, click. But the uncertainty of how the scene would turn out when played back was thrilling, and there was nothing like seeing it work out—or seeing it fail and having to go back and do it again.
In addition to animation, the program allowed you to edit your movies, add transitions, sound effects, music, and (my second most favourite part) voice over. It was, literally, a Moviemaker Set.
I made LEGO movies for over three years, sometimes even with my friends. My friend Daimon was, by far, the most enthusiastic about coming over for a sleepover and making a movie together. The last one we made together was called Curse of the Ruby 2, and was our magnum opus, the best LEGO movie we ever made. Mostly because it actually had a comprehensible plot.
It took us six months to make, from filming, to editing, to sound effects, to music. In doing the voice-overs, we tried to get everyone we knew to do a part because we knew this was going to be big. We didn’t just use LEGO either, but a variety of other toys—the main villain, in fact, was the toy of Peter Puppy from Earthworm Jim. In the end it was 40 minutes long, and it was the pinnacle of our time telling stories with LEGO. There was also so many side-plots and side-characters that, years later, I was able to cut it down to 10 minutes and it actually made it better.
And now, of course, The LEGO Movie has come out, fulfilling my dream of seeing a full-length movie made of LEGO on the big screen—literally telling a story with toys. And I now have enough of those plastic bricks and minifigures to consider it an inheritance for my future children.
Looking back on my time with LEGO, and my toys in general, reminds me of just how fun it is to tell your own stories. As Spielberg wrote in the LEGO Studios guidebook:
“May the MovieMaker Set give you hours of enjoyment and, who knows, perhaps a desire to someday tell stories for a living.”