NINJAGO has achieved enormous success since the theme was introduced in 2011, perhaps the greatest testament to which has been the release of The LEGO NINJAGO Movie this year. Brickset was kindly invited to the Fan Media Days event in Billund during the summer and we were very excited to be able to interview Chris Stamp from the NINJAGO design team.
Chris has designed many recent NINJAGO sets, including the fantastic 70618 Destiny’s Bounty and 70620 NINJAGO City. Please note that the interview was conducted on the 1st of June, some time before most sets based upon the film were revealed. Nevertheless, we were able to discuss 70618 and the development of the movie, as well as the standard sets and the animated series!
How did you become involved with LEGO and NINJAGO?
Like the majority of set designers I have been a LEGO fan from a young age and studied industrial design at university. I was first able to work on sets based upon The LEGO Movie including 70815 Super Secret Police Dropship as well as some of the 3-in-1 sets and the Micro Manager for 70810 Metalbeard’s Sea Cow. From there I joined the NINJAGO team so I have not been working on it from the very beginning in 2011. I designed 70621 The Vermillion Attack, 70622 Desert Lightning and 70625 Samurai VXL from the most recent Hands of Time subtheme and am also the designer of 70618 Destiny’s Bounty!
How has NINJAGO changed since its introduction in 2011?
The fundamental principles of NINJAGO remain the same but we are consistently expanding upon the world and its inhabitants by exploring new regions and different mythologies. We would never try to force a big change which alters our outlook upon the universe as doing so may risk alienating our core audience: children. It can be difficult to appreciate from an adult point of view but the kids playing with the products and watching NINJAGO really believe in the characters and the world. We must remain consistent in our portrayal of each ninja and their environment as children will notice any irregularity.
I think the organic growth of the characters and the world, both of which have an obvious impact upon the sets, has therefore been the most significant change. Perhaps the single biggest decision was to introduce a more conventional technological aspect as the ninja possessed little advanced technology in early seasons of the television series. We initially intended to remain reasonably true to a historical setting, albeit one that includes some fantastical elements, but later decided that we could introduce more technology without having a detrimental impact upon the characters.
Are these gradual changes useful in the development of new sets?
Absolutely. Introducing new characters with each season allows us to keep innovating where the sets are concerned as designers can create vehicles and scenery with a fresh twist. For instance, we frequently produce a set containing two bikes as they are very popular with children during testing. This might become repetitive were it not for the fact that new villains emerge to challenge the ninja so we can design distinctive vehicles to suit their owners which look unlike any previous model. This is sometimes more difficult for the ninja as their fundamental design remains fairly consistent but I think we find ways around that by assigning different kinds of vehicles to each team member.
NINJAGO: Masters of Spinjitzu has proven very successful and will soon be entering its eighth season. In what ways does the television series influence the sets and vice versa?
We are very fortunate to have the animated series running alongside the product line. It gives the characters a lot more depth and allows the designers to delve into a story far more than would be possible for a theme not supported by a television series, video game or comic. In some respects it is similar to the running of a licensed theme, although we have much greater freedom as the NINJAGO team construct the fundamental framework of the storyline. We think about interesting scenarios and environments, around which we can then establish an entire story.
Moreover, we consider how to expand the world of NINJAGO and explore new areas. The sewers beneath the city could be an interesting environment to visit and have great potential for unique products so we might decide to send the ninja to retrieve an artifact from the sewers. Alternatively, we could construct an enormous snake mech and wonder how we can incorporate that into a story. Our relationship with the production company is fantastic so we often bounce ideas back and forth, ultimately resulting in a wave of sets which follows the storyline closely but has also had some influence upon that story during the design phase.
Have you enjoyed a similar relationship with Warner Bros. and Animal Logic during the development of The LEGO NINJAGO Movie?
The process is quite different as the writers and director of The LEGO NINJAGO Movie definitely had the majority of influence upon the storyline but we were careful to ensure that the depictions of the characters remained true to the television series. We also emphasised the importance of specialised vehicles for each of the ninja, not only because they look great on screen but also because they are a lot of fun to build and play with as a physical toy. For instance, Warner Bros. actually suggested that Kai should pilot a mech in the movie and gave some indication of how it might look before a LEGO designer was able to create a set to be released in conjunction with the film.
However, there are also many advantages to working on a movie, perhaps most significant of which is the sheer scale of the associated sets. The vehicles and buildings depicted on screen are huge so we had to construct the sets at a slightly smaller scale but without losing the high level of detail visible in the film. This allowed us to use more advanced building techniques than we might in the standard theme and I think we have set an impressive precedent once we return to designing sets based upon the animated series.
Some NINJAGO fans were a little concerned when it was revealed that the movie would be diverging from the storyline established in the television series. Why was this decision taken?
The LEGO NINJAGO Movie will reach a far broader audience than NINJAGO: Masters of Spinjitzu so we had to assume that the majority of viewers would have no knowledge of the existing plot. We therefore had an opportunity to adjust the scenario to better fit a feature film by increasing the stakes and the scale of the environment. Concurrently, we were very much aware that established characters had to retain their personalities and act as they would in the animated series, hopefully satisfying both new and existing fans.
You mention having recently created 70618 Destiny’s Bounty, one of the largest sets from The LEGO NINJAGO Movie. What can you tell us about the set and its design?
Designing a rendition of Destiny's Bounty comes with quite a lot of responsibility as the vessel has been at the forefront of NINJAGO for many years. It has been depicted at a large scale twice before but I was very pleased to be able to construct an even larger model on this occasion, particularly since it is being sold at retail rather than as a direct-to-consumer product. I really wanted to match 10210 Imperial Flagship in scale and splendour so tried to ensure that the exterior was as detailed as possible. I think the interior space has also been used quite effectively and I have even included some references to the animated series which I hope children familiar with the show will appreciate.
In fact, I think it’s really interesting to view the sets we produce from the perspective of a child. We involve kids throughout the design process not only to see how they will play with the product but also how they handle it. For larger products this is a significant consideration and with the Destiny’s Bounty in particular we found that children often tried to pick it up from beneath the figureheads. The base of the hull is much sturdier so we installed a breaking point using hinges to demonstrate that a child should lift the model from underneath rather than from two flimsier points at the front and back. We rarely have an opportunity to highlight details and considerations like this one so I am glad of the chance to do so!
You have also worked on the Hands of Time subtheme where the Vermillion were introduced. How did you ensure that the Vermillion remained distinct from existing snake-themed villains such as the Serpentine?
It definitely felt different as we approached the 2017 range. The Serpentine were, of course, snakes themselves on par with the size of a minifigure whereas the Vermillion are groups of many snakes which twist themselves into human form. Snakes are fundamental to NINJAGO and it felt totally natural to create another villain based around snakes. Having said that, we did spend some time considering how they would be distinguished from the Serpentine and this was part of the reason that red was chosen as their primary colour. The Serpentine are more often associated with lime green so we made sure to omit that shade from the Hands of Time sets.
In addition, the plot of the latest season is primarily focused upon time travel rather than upon the nature of the Vermillion. They are really a means to an end for Krux and Acronix rather than being the main antagonists as the Serpentine were during season two. I think we were fairly successful overall, distinguishing the Vermillion in their appearance as well as in their role within NINJAGO.
Many thanks for speaking with us!
Thanks to James from Jedi News for assisting in the NINJAGO interview.