Jon Burton is the founder and director of Traveller’s Tales, which has been turning out video games popular with gamers and critics for over 20 years, working on titles as varied as the first Toy Story game (back when Pixar was an unknown company), two Crash Bandicoot games, and the massively successful LEGO video game franchises that parody popular movies such as Star Wars, Indiana Jones, and Harry Potter. LEGO Batman: The Movie marks Burton’s first time directing a feature film along with the tie-in video game.
Q: What were the different challenges of making a game and a movie?
JON BURTON: We approached it by making the movie first, so we went into the writer’s room, I came up with a storyline and we did a treatment on that. Then we went and hired a guy named David Goodman who is Executive Producer on Family Guy and a whole lot of stuff, so he’s had loads of experience. He wrote a really smart, funny script, so we did animatics and everything else. We approached it as making a film, and then we looked at the film and said, “How would we turn this into a video game?” which is what we traditionally would do. With the LEGO franchises, we look at a movie like Lord of the Rings and we turn it into a video game, so we tackled it the same way. So the movie came first, the video game came during, and obviously we put all our time and effort making the movie look as good as it could possibly be.
I think when you go and see it, what you’ve got to remember is that the movie is rendered using our game engine, so we wrote all the technology, all the rendering, all the post effects, everything that you see…everything is done with our game engine and it looks great. We can re-render the whole film in 4 days, if we need to, whereas Pixar takes 6 months. That allowed us to add new effects and make things look even better and re-render it really quickly. We got loads of advantages working with the game’s technology.
Q: Did you rely on Tim Burton’s movies, or the comic books, or the animated series…
JON BURTON: Tim Burton, I think, was the probably the biggest…I mean, namesakes — I’m Jon Burton (laughs). We had some fun with that, you’ll see at the start of the film in the title sequence. We had fun with that. But when I was growing up, Tim Burton’s Batman was very influential. The music, the style, the kind of shapes — you’ll see it all over our Gotham and all our different characters. But yeah, for sure the most influential.
Q: What’s the appeal of playing in the LEGO universe?
JON BURTON: I think to sum it up, it’s parody. It gives us permission to go into a well of characters and breathe new life into them. When we first made LEGO Star Wars, everybody was very familiar with Star Wars so we could take those characters and have fun with them, and play with it but in an official capacity. It was one of the first games, possibly even media of any kind, where Lucas allowed someone to play with them and have fun with them. That’s what we found is hugely appealing to kids, because they play it for fun; and to adults because they get to see their franchises played out in a different way. With the LEGO Batman movie, we got to take Batman and Superman and play off all the things about Batman being dark and grumpy and moody, and making Superman the ultimate Boy Scout, “I can do anything,” and making all of them larger than life. It just allows us to have really playful fun with the best characters in the world. We have permission to do that because of LEGO.
Q: Did Danny Elfman write any new music for this movie, or is it all used from the older stuff?
JON BURTON: What we did was we took the original scores from both the original Superman movies and the original Batman and Batman Returns, and we re-recorded it. We kept some tracks and we re-recorded a whole lot of the music, and then did music based on it as well, for when the other characters turn up from the Justice League and things like that. We just wanted the right characters and the right music, no expense spared, just like in Jurassic Park (laughs).
TOONZONE NEWS: For this movie, you have to answer to both LEGO and to DC Comics. Did that present any unusual challenges?
JON BURTON: The movie came first and foremost, so when we first pitched to DC, the whole concept of LEGO and having Batman and Superman acting larger than life like we just talked about, DC was saying, “Oh, you can’t do this, you can’t do this.” So we just sat down and took them through that process so that they understood that because of the playful LEGO humor, it was OK to make them larger than life. Once they bought into that, they were absolutely sold, and they were very supportive of everything we did. LEGO were really supportive as well. They’re actually really good partners. We’ve worked with LEGO now for 7 or 8 years. And obviously, Warners acquired our studio, and they also own DC, so we’re all one big happy family. We had a lot of fun with it.
TOONZONE NEWS: What was the strangest note you got back from them?
JON BURTON: We had to add a giant penny to the Batcave. (laughs) We had to have a sequence with a giant penny. This giant coin rolls after the characters. So that was the strangest note we got. Oh, and we had to include a giant T-Rex.
Q: What about structurally, with the LEGOs themselves. Are there moments when you go, “A LEGO figure cannot actually do that because they don’t have fingers.” Do you have to find workarounds for things?
JON BURTON: For sure, and LEGO’s got pretty strict guidelines about what you can and can’t do.
Q: Such as?
JON BURTON: A hand shape always has to be a symmetrical “C”. In the video game, you can bend it, but in the movie, we just have to make it look like that, so clapping becomes sort of…(demonstrates clapping with stiff C-shaped LEGO hands). It gives it it’s own charm, it’s own quirk. I always kind of worry when you cheat certain things, but we made the Toy Story video game, and we remember doing Buzz Lightyear when he was doing his laser gun, around his helmet, Pixar pointed out that one arm is twice as long to get around the helmet, and you never notice it. So we think, “Well, if Pixar can cheat, then we can cheat.”
Q: Any other like structural things that pop up in game, like specific things you had to work around with these figures in the LEGOverse?
JON BURTON: LEGO gives you certain things. There’s some huge vehicles that we built for the movie. Lex has got this great VTOL hovership, which if you made it out of LEGOs, it would be 4-foot long and 11,000 bricks. It’s twice as big as the biggest set they’ve ever made. That’s a whole lot of fun, and then when you break it, you get LEGO bricks everywhere. So you have a lot of fun. And you’ll see that Robin has a lot of fun with the physical bricks. We wanted to say, “Look, what does LEGO give you? Can we tell a story that relies on LEGO being part of it?” There’s lots of areas in the movie you’ll see that you just couldn’t do if it wasn’t LEGO.
TOONZONE NEWS: With young Jon Burton, who wins: LEGOs or Superhero Comic Books?
JON BURTON: You know, probably LEGO. Sorry about that (laughs). Probably not the answer you wanted, but when I was growing up, because I’m from England, I think comic books weren’t as big as in the US. It took longer, and we had different kinds of comic books. So I think that was the only reason. I think now, I’d be more 50/50.
Q: When I was a kid, the LEGOs that I had were really simple: no expressions and certainly no superheroes. If you were a LEGO kid, was there a moment where you were looking at something from this movie and saying, “Man, I wish I had this when I was a kid.”
JON BURTON: For sure, and I think the Star Wars characters as well. You sort of thought that Star Wars had always done LEGO toys, but they only came in…I think it was 1999, so I’d have been, like, 30 (laughs). But I remember playing with a LEGO X-Wing when I was little, so I must have just built it myself. But I’m so old, the little LEGO mini-figures weren’t even around when I was playing with LEGO. We had these big-headed LEGO figures that were nothing like them.