Local teens win international Lego movie competition

MIDDLEBURY — Sixteen-year-old Jack Nop has always been a huge fan of Lego toys and stop-motion film classics like “Wallace & Gromit” and “James & the Giant Peach.”
He decided to combine his two passions a few years ago under the banner of NopFilms to produce several stop-motion Lego videos that have become a fixture on YouTube. Jack’s older brother, Jake, and friend Peter Dickerson also collaborated on the fun filmmaking — which this week paid some big dividends.
NopFilms’ 60-second short film “Master of Shadows” has won the top prize in an international Lego video contest in which participants were challenged to create “The Baddest Bad Guy” using the iconic, plastic interlocking bricks and minifigures. Lego is rewarding Nop and his collaborator, Dickerson, with a trip to LEGOLAND in the toy manufacturers’ headquarters in Billund, Denmark.
“Master of Shadows” can be seen online at http://tinyurl.com/h5sw49c.
“I am still in shock that we won,” Dickerson said on Thursday. “I don’t know if it will set in until we are at the airport that it is actually happening.”
The Lego Group began making its toys in 1949. The company currently produces around 36 billion Lego bricks per year. It has become the second-largest toy company in the world, behind Mattell. Lego Group has branched out into different products and building kits — including “Ninjago,” embracing such themes as ninjas, martial arts and dragons. It was in the Ninjago category that NopFilms produced and entered its “Master of Shadows” short.
Contest participants were asked to submit videos of 15 to 60 seconds — with, or without sound effects. Ninjago action and fighting scenes were allowed, though not with extreme violence and/or blood.
“Master of Shadows” was picked as one of six semi-finalists for the top prize, and on-line voting by viewers pushed the NopFilms video to the top.
Stop-action animation, according to Nop, essentially involves taking a picture of a figure, moving it slightly, and then taking another photo. That process is repeated many times over many hours, with the photos then strung together and shown in rapid sequence — around 24 per second — to produce action scenes.
“Master of Shadows” features a temple backdrop in which ninjas are challenged by some bad-guy invaders unleashed from thin air by a mysterious, dark villain. Dickerson’s masterful building of the temple sets, along with Nop’s dexterous choreography of the dueling minifigures, creates a visual delight that leaves the viewer yearning for a full-length version of the story.
Nop downloaded his soundtrack from a website that offers free music, and he matched it up quite well to the action in the video. Special effects included flying spears — manipulated by narrow wire both under and above the camera frame — and bad guys mysteriously materializing from the ground up.
The young creators spent a combined total of more than 40 hours on the painstakingly precise animation sequences, with an additional five hours for editing. They put together a story board prior to filming, in order to map out the specific scenes and actions their characters would complete. And they used desk lamps, lanterns, multi-colored bulbs and other improvised lighting to give their ninja world the right ambiance.
“I love lighting; it’s so much fun,” Nop said.
Last week the Middlebury resident spoke to an inquisitive class of Middlebury Union Middle School 8th graders about his process.
   JACK NOP, 16, of Middlebury describes how he made his contest-winning animated Lego movie during a visit to Middlebury Union Middle School last Thursday.
Independent photo/Trent Campbell
He encouraged the students in Eileen Sears’ and Martha Santa Maria’s classes to make their own stop-motion shorts, noting the low-cost nature of the endeavor. A web cam, Lego set, basic computer software and some rudimentary household supplies are all that’s needed to become a stop-motion animator, Nop explained.
“You don’t need professional equipment to make something that looks cool,” Nop said, adding, “masking tape is basically my best friend.
“The only time I feel limitations is when I don’t have enough Lego pieces.”
Stop motion filming can also be a great exercise in problem solving, Nop told the students. He recalled the appearance of black lines across the screen in one of his earlier video productions. He ultimately found that the lines were caused by lights being too close to the camera.
“It’s a great way to exercise your mind,” Nop said of troubleshooting.
Nop hopes to further refine his filmmaking skills in college. He is currently checking out several schools — including the Rochester Institute of Technology’s much-celebrated School of Film and Animation.
“Now is the time to learn, so I can get better in the future,” he said.
Dickerson and Jake Nop are already off at college.
“I love designing Lego creations, and building a movie set is fun because you can make it as detailed as possible on one side and it doesn’t need to look good on the other, opening up options for design that aren’t possible in normal creations,” Dickerson, who is at St. Michael’s College, said in an email to the Independent.
He is enthralled about the success of “Master of Shadows.”
“As for winning, we were both ecstatic to be chosen as one of the six finalists, as that was an honor on its own, but as friends and family posted about the competition we saw our votes quickly pull ahead,” he said. “The whole time I was trying not to get my hopes up, but by the last day I was almost shaking with excitement.”
Needless to say, Jack’s mother, Susan Nop, was impressed.
“We are so proud of Jack and Peter for their accomplishment in this,” she said. “It was really fun to watch their collaboration this summer from developing the initial concept and troubleshooting technical challenges to completing the project. It was also very rewarding to get so many encouraging notes (and votes) from friends and family throughout Middlebury and beyond. If support from a community is an indicator of success, Jack and Peter are well on their way.”
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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