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Legos, Politics, and Plains Heroism: Diverse American Narratives

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Lego film-maker Kristian Stenslie.
Lego film-maker Kristian Stenslie.

Show summary:

The world of Lego filmmaking is brought to life by Kristian Stenslie, who transforms his childhood passion for Legos into creating animated films, showcasing his intricate storytelling and animation skills at twistedbricks.com. ~~ The North Dakota Republican Party is gearing up for a pivotal Presidential Caucus on March 4, 2024, where candidates including Donald Trump, Nikki Haley, and others will compete for the state's 29 delegates under unique voting rules, emphasizing the grassroots nature of the nomination process.Additionally, the Plains Folk Essay highlights the heroism of Minnie Freeman during the 1888 Children's Blizzard, challenging perceptions of the Great Plains with a story of resilience and courage, symbolizing the enduring spirit of its inhabitants.

Interview Highlights: Kristian Stenslie, Film-maker: Full Transcript Below

As a kid, Kristian Stenslie adored Legos. As an adult, he makes Lego films. We visit about his creative process.

In this interview, Kristian Stenslie discusses his stop-motion animated film "The Void War: Gray Horizons" and its cinematic universe. He describes the influences behind his work, including sci-fi and monster movies like "Alien," "Starship Troopers," and "The Thing." Stenslie delves into the themes of his film, particularly exploring the concept of humanity in the face of adversity and conformity.

He reflects on his own experiences in high school and the tension between conformity and authenticity. Stenslie also shares insights into the production process of his film, discussing the technology and tools he uses, his collaborative team, and the challenges of stop-motion animation.

Ashley Thornberg

OK, it is such a bummer that this is radio. For our poor audience here, you have brought in a world that is comprised of LEGOs. Paint us a little picture here of what our audience is missing out on, sadly.

Kristian Stenslie

Yes, so the great thing about stop motion animation is it's a visual medium, but it's also like a physical medium in a very real way. So what I've got here on the table is a slice of the planet Hados, which is where part of the movie Grey Horizons takes place. It's this barren battlefield setting.

So on this kind of barren piece of rock here, I've got the Unum Vires military forces, which are basically the super space marines that are the last kind of hope against this alien, hive-minded entity that exists in this fictional universe. So I've got a couple of Afflictors, which are these military kind of mech suits. I've got a Piercer, which is something like a very large piece of artillery that stands on four legs and shoots concentrated beams of psychic energy.

And then I've got a Channeler, who's standing on top of what looks like some kind of technological throne. And she is a military psychic who protects the soldiers from mental and psychic attacks by this alien species. So it's quite an expansive thing we've got here just right on the table.

Ashley Thornberg

Dude, all of this came from your brain.

Kristian Stenslie

Well, we stand on the shoulders of giants in every aspect. It's constellated in my brain. But it came from all the sci-fi, the monster movies that I've watched throughout my childhood and throughout my life.

There's a lot of that that can be seen in the movie. This is just my own combination of elements and my own story that I wanted to tell.

Ashley Thornberg

Who have been some of your biggest influences?

Kristian Stenslie

I can really, I mean, as far as this movie goes, and I guess in the stories I tell in general, like I mentioned, I have loved monster movies. So some of the big ones that really impacted me were, of course, the Alien franchise, Alien, Aliens, all of those. Starship Troopers was a movie I loved.

When I first saw it, it just kind of blew my mind. And it had such a unique energy to it. But of course, my favorite movie of all, or horror movie of all time is The Thing by the John Carpenter version.

And Slag, which is the alien entity in this universe, is very much inspired by the creature, you know, the thing itself. It's this amorphous, shape-shifting thing that just consumes everything.

Ashley Thornberg

Yeah, that's such the beauty of science fiction that you actually, in a lot of ways, have a much better sense of what it means to be human, by creating a fictional world of people and entities that don't actually exist. What do you think it means to be a human?

Kristian Stenslie

Oh, that's a great question. And that is something, you know, with Grey Horizons, and, you know, when I think about, well, why did I make this story in particular? Why do I like creating and telling stories so much?

And it very much is a way of exploring self-expression, but also just exploring ideas in general. You know, what do I think about the world, feel about the world, and certain topics? And in this movie, a big question is, like, what is humanity?

And it's explored in part in this movie, but more so in the series, because in the Void War universe, the whole cinematic universe, humanity has rallied around this deity called Keo. And Keo is definitely not human. He is a very powerful being, and there's almost a religion around him.

But, you know, some people are really not sold on him, because, like, what's in it for him, or it? You know, it's a, this topic isn't as much explored in the first film. But, of course, the entire point of the movie is to fight against this creature that threatens to corrupt humanity.

You know, in some ways it eats humans, but it's more accurate to say it corrupts them. It takes them, their mind, it twists it, distorts it, contorts their bodies into this amorphous, gray mass of flesh that is all of one mind. In some ways, I compare Slag itself to just conformity.

You know, Slag is pretty much a visual representation of 100% conformity. And I think what it means to be human is to not give in to conformity entirely.

Ashley Thornberg

Did you like high school?

Kristian Stenslie

Yeah, it was all right.

Ashley Thornberg

Did you, do you feel like you conformed to the rigid high school hierarchy? And maybe that's a very generational question. I do feel like people of your generation, there's such a much different acceptance.

Like when I was growing up, you had to be a nerd or a jock, and like, I wasn't either.

Kristian Stenslie

Yeah, well, we're unpacking some deep stuff here.

Ashley Thornberg

Aren't all filmmakers?

Kristian Stenslie

Fair enough, yeah. You know, in high school, I feel I was lucky because in my family, we really celebrated weirdness. And I mean, we were unusual in all sorts of ways. We didn't do too much with television and video games. We didn't have much of that in the house. We did Norwegian folk dancing performatively. My mom is from Norway. We were really obsessed with bird watching.

So we had these things that we really identified with, even in high school, and it was kind of fun to be different. And yet I still recognize that there was this part of me that wanted so badly to be one of the cool kids, you know, to be part of that circle of people who seem to be at the top of the pyramid, you know? So it is, I suppose, a conflicting internal force I would imagine in most people, but I can definitely recognize it in my own adolescent self.

Ashley Thornberg

Have you always been this articulate?

Kristian Stenslie

I don't think so. I took speech in high school.

Ashley Thornberg

What does the phrase like one of the cool kids mean to you? Cause you're the one with the movie on Amazon.

Kristian Stenslie

Yeah, you know, it's weird because I feel like, you know, in high school, there was this, you have almost an internal sense of who is cool and who isn't, even if the people who are viewed as quote unquote cool aren't that well-liked. There's this weird, and I, you know, I don't know what it exactly is that determines it. Maybe it's athletics, charm, charisma, or just the circle.

It has an energy of its own, but, you know, I use the term cool in a very superficial sense. And I don't think cool is, I think it's a very, in some ways, childlike measure of what to aspire to. And ultimately I think there's nothing that trumps authenticity.

So that's, I'm grateful to have lived in a family that really kind of strived for that.

Ashley Thornberg

What does a word like authenticity mean to you?

Kristian Stenslie

I think we all have internal drives and intuitions about who we could be, what we could be, and what direction we should go. It's a very strange thing to make a stop motion Lego movie and to put, invest as much time into it as I have. But there's something about it that just always, it just resonated with me in such a fun way.

It was this form of play and discovery that felt very authentic to me. And it wasn't obvious at first. It was something I had to kind of tug of war with.twisted

And, you know, do I want to keep doing this? Like, or should I get a real job? You know, which I am employed, but there was an internal thing that had to happen.

And I think all of us have things, you know, things we experienced in childhood, this instant connection, this love of something that really just ignited us. And I think a lot of us kind of let that go as we grow older in order to conform to all sorts of things, to society, to, you know, what people expect, what our parents expect. But it's something that I think has to be revisited.

What is your intuition whispering to you, you know?

Ashley Thornberg

You have a film on Amazon, The Void War: Gray Horizons. How do you describe the film and the cinematic universe?

Kristian Stenslie

So the film takes place in the year 3044. It's this kind of distant future where humanity has been locked in this 1,000 year war against this alien entity called Slag. And when the film opens up, it starts with this soldier who's just, you know, he's a young man and he ends up wounding himself in combat to get out of it because war against this alien race is just an absolute nightmare.

It's terrifying. And so he ends up being reassigned to guard duty on an orbiting warship that's just right above the atmosphere in the planet. And it's there where he ends up working with a scientist who's rather self-absorbed and a channeler, a young apprentice channeler.

It's like an apprentice psychic who's not fully sure of her abilities. She hasn't discovered what her unique ability is. And the three of them are guarding this artifact, which turns out to be a human who has been unearthed, literally unearthed and discovered to be corrupted.

And yet it seems to retain its human personality. So it's infected by this alien race, but it seems to, it claims to be human. And so this leads to a whole bunch of ethical dilemmas between the three of them, because they all very much disagree on how to handle the situation.

And then that leads, eventually there's this catastrophe on the ship and it becomes this fight or flight, or this fight for survival, not only on the ship, but on the battlefield below. And they actually end up being very connected in their fates. And one aspect of the film that I think is unique that viewers will see right away is there is this, in this future, the military complex, this military force that defends humanity, they rally around this powerful deity called Keo.

And we don't know much about him, but we can tell that religion and humanity have changed completely. They're unrecognizable from what they were, when the war started. So there's a big mystery there that will be unveiled slowly.

Ashley Thornberg

Do you know the end of the mystery?

Kristian Stenslie

Most of it, I would say I know 90% of it. There are still, I still leave room and I still ruminate on like, well, how exactly should it unfold? And what is the fundamental truth?

You know, when you create a universe like this, you almost have to come up with your own metaphysics for the universe. Like what is the religious truth? Yeah, you know, but that's a lot of where the fun is in the project.

Ashley Thornberg

How many films do you envision?

Kristian Stenslie

So in my mind, it is a trilogy. I've just finished the final draft of the sequel, which will be called The Void War, The Hunger of Slag. And that will be a, it's gonna be a much grander project in every aspect.

So we're still in the pre-production phases of that.

Ashley Thornberg

Okay, who's we?

Kristian Stenslie

…There is a wonderful team that works with me.

You know, stop motion is weird because 90% of it is me in a small room, moving little plastic pieces and taking pictures, but there are collaborative elements. My brother, for example, he composes the score, the music to the movies.

I have some others who are, some other creators who are designing figures for the film. And so they'll be, you know, these, the bricks in this movie, the mini figures, the people, they are made using bricks from different Lego sets. But I have somebody who's commissioned to like 3D print, you know, unique armor, unique pieces to make it even more immersive, you know, more its own thing.

And of course there's voice actors. I have some friends who help with the casting process. So there is a, there are a few of us, the Twisted Bricks team, as I call it.

Ashley Thornberg

Do you have anything resembling an accurate number for how long it takes to make a stop motion Lego movie distributed on Amazon?

Kristian Stenslie

Yeah, so from conception to publication, Gray Horizons took two and a half years. It's difficult to express how the distribution of time because, you know, it involves a lot of evenings and off hours spent animating and then entire weekend days spent animating or editing. You know, I have a day job as a substitute teacher actually.

So that allows me to do stuff like write and edit in the classroom. So I'm able to kind of live two lives in a way. But, you know, people ask me like, how long does it take to animate a minute?

And it's tremendously difficult to answer because, okay, if it's a minute of dialogue, for example, where I just have to animate them raising and lowering their hands and turning their heads, it's pretty quick work. But if I'm animating a scene with like 10 figures who are moving around or shooting or in combat.

Ashley Thornberg

Right, and you're using rack focus and you must have those big macro lenses or something.

Kristian Stenslie

Oh yeah, yeah. You know, big DSLR camera with a longer lens, like right up against these plastic figures. And sometimes I try to involve camera movement as well.

So you have the figures moving, maybe the set is moving and the camera is moving and you have to check for continuity. Is the motion smooth? Do you have to reshoot anything?

So some of those, you know, a 10 second shot could take four hours, you know, if it's really complex. I animate at 15 frames per second. So I've calculated that, again, this is very hard to estimate because there are some frames that are repeated, but I believe that in Grey Horizons, I took at least 60,000 individual pictures.

But I haven't, it's hard to crunch the numbers specifically.

Ashley Thornberg

Rarely am I speechless in an interview, Kristian. Wow. Talk a little bit about the technology and the tools that you have at your disposal. I mean, no offense, but you don't look like you came from a great deal of money.

Kristian Stenslie

No, and this, you know, this whole movie is on a shoestring budget or even a fishing line budget. I mean, it's very, very slim. The stop motion program I use is called Dragon Frame.

And that is not a free program. It costs, I think, maybe $200 or something. So, you know, it's a little bit of change, but it's not a subscription service.

You have it forever. Very effective program. To edit my movies, I use two programs, HitFilm Express and DaVinci Resolve.

And I've largely used free versions of those. And those are great for stuff like special effects. You know, a lot of laser guns and psychic powers used in this movie.

And the vast majority of that I do with those programs. For the voice actors, I record on GarageBand, you know, comes standard with a Mac. I use Blender for the 3D animations, the computer generated animations, and Blender is free.

It's an incredible software. For the designing, the actual, you know, the production design, I design a lot of the builds and sets and vehicles and such before I purchase the bricks. And I do that on a program called MecaBricks, M-E-C-A bricks.

And that allows you to digitally design using the entire library of Lego bricks. And then you can import those into Blender. So I could design it on this website and then animate it, render it on Blender.

So I think that covers the major programs that I use.

Ashley Thornberg

So there's an element here to being a digital native, that even someone who has the same sort of artistic mindset maybe isn't able to perform at this level. Is that fair to say, do you think?

Kristian Stenslie

Maybe, you know, the weird thing about stop motion is I wear so many hats, you know, where generally in film productions, you have one or two jobs, you know. But I take on a whole lot of jobs, a whole lot of, you know, writer, editor, director, animator, production designer, you know, all that stuff. And so having some digital and technological know-how is incredibly useful.

And it's also something that I really have to be intentional about learning. I did so much learning in the making of this film. And I'm happy about it because it will just carry on.

I want to keep doing this forever. So those skills will build and snowball. So I have a big investment in them.

Ashley Thornberg

Is your goal to be hired by the Lego company or to be on your own? Are you allowed to call these Legos?

Kristian Stenslie

Yeah, they are, you know, they are what they are. They are Lego bricks and I'm not affiliated with Lego. It would sure be cool if one day that could happen.

The, you know, it's a very interesting time for stop motion animators who use Lego. I know I'm not the only one who is doing something like this. And there's another creator out there who has actually been in communication with Lego.

And they've said, okay, you can go ahead and do your thing and make your pitch for a TV series that would be animated with stop motion. So it seems to be kind of a time potentially of transition. So I'm very careful about, I don't want to step on the toes of anyone.

I'm not interested in getting in a legal dispute. But I do, you know, I animate with Lego bricks. And I, you know, the dream right now that I am enjoying pursuing is completing this trilogy.

I have this idea for this three film series to expand this universe that excites me tremendously. I get just like, when I'm thinking about the way that things will unfold and the arcs that the characters will go on, it just, you know, gets me going. It excites me so much.

And so that'll, you know, it could take a decade before that third film comes out. You know, it's just because we keep ramping up what we're trying to do. So completing the trilogy is the primary goal.

If I could somehow get, you know, if Lego was interested in making this a theme, for example, if it became like very popular and Lego was like, hey, you know, the Void War is a, it's a big thing. Yeah, maybe we should make it a theme. That would be cool.

That's like my pipe dream, you know, that's the castle in the sky where it's like who, but I've stopped thinking about what is and isn't possible because, you know, when I was in high school, I never would have dreamed that I'd be premiering a feature length Lego animated film in the Fargo Theater, you know, so I'm trying to be open-minded about what's possible and just continuing to go in the direction that I feel called to.

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