“Would you rather be Spider-Man or a Jedi Knight?”
This impossible question was once posed to me by a friend who knew that my geeky obsession with LEGO was rivaled only by similar obsessions with Star Wars and Spider-Man. So you can imagine the kind of loop-de-loops my brain did in 2003, when LEGO Spider-Man sets first appeared on the shelves next to LEGO Star Wars sets. While I treasure the few Spider-Man sets I was able to buy then, my favorite thing to come out of the LEGO Spider-Man license is “Spider-Man: The Peril of Doc Ock” by Spite Your Face Productions.
For those of you who can’t remember the internet before YouTube, brick animations used to be something of a rarity. Spite Your Face Productions was one of the early pioneers in this respect, and their work helped inspire a generation of aspiring young animators. In the summer of 2004, I had just finished my first major brick animation (an incoherent, 45-minute, pop culture mash-up), and was starting production on a longer, slightly more coherent sequel. With its buttery-smooth character animation, “Doc Ock” became the ideal to which I still aspire.
Doctor Octopus is terrorizing New York City until Spider-Man arrives to save the day. Somewhere in the middle, an elephant shows up. The “two characters fight” plot is, sadly, a very common one in brick animations. With no narrative arc to speak of, these films tend to live or die on the quality of their technical aspects and the popularity of the characters fighting. “Doc Ock” not only excels in both of these categories, but also manages to fit a good deal of humor in, making it enjoyable for a broad audience.
Since “Doc Ock” was commissioned by LEGO and Sony to promote the release of “Spider-Man 2” and the associated LEGO product line, it incorporates both the perpetual sunset of the movie posters and characters, vehicles, and buildings from the official LEGO sets.
After a few detailed establishing shots of New York City, the animation progresses to more simplistic sets that keep the focus on the action. By the final showdown, all traces of the skyline have vanished.
The orange and purple lighting schemes bring out some really nice hues in the tan and bley buildings, and are very flattering to Doctor Octopus. The lighting is not so kind to Spider-Man, who occasionally looks jaundiced. Occasional lens flares reinforce the connection to the movie poster.
Doctor Octopus’s tentacles are the real stars of this short, and four of the reasons I can watch it again and again. They are in near-constant motion and move with amazing speed and fluidity. Repeated viewings are necessary to appreciate the nuances of their movement (and to see all the humorous objects they grab).
Spider-Man is also well animated; his web-slinging in particular is as fluid as possible given the constraints of the minifigure’s joints. One of my favorite moments is when he scrambles behind the speeding train car.
There are a fair deal of special effects used in the short; many of the wide shots of the city are composites of multiple shots. Now that I have a keener eye, these shots look flatter and less impressive to me than they did eight years ago. However, they serve their purpose, and given the constraints this short was produced under, it is understandable why SYFP went this route as opposed to building a massive New York City set.
Since there is no dialogue, the music and sound effects do a lot of heavy lifting in this short. The score by Jason Graves responds perfectly to every action on screen, switching quickly and effortlessly between epic, antic, and frantic. The sound effects are similarly well-matched to the animation. This is a perfect example of what sound design should do — punctuate the animation without distracting from it.
Nearly a decade after it was released, “Doc Ock” is still one of the finest examples of the brick animation form. What it lacks in story, it makes up for in animation prowess. It blends action and humor in a way that has become characteristic of official LEGO animations, and remains popular in LEGO fan animations. It is also notable for its place in the history of brick animation, and well worth your viewing time.
And for those who would rather be a Jedi Knight than Spider-Man, don’t miss “Star Wars: The Han Solo Affair,” also by Spite Your Face Productions.