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Lights, Camera, Lego Action

November 23, 2000|AARON CURTISS |

Were it not for the lavish salaries and glitzy lifestyles synonymous with daily newspapering, I might have gone into the movie business. The Lego & Steven Spielberg Moviemaker Set recently resurrected a forgotten passion for homemade stop-action animation.

So when global audiences tire of watching Harrison Ford in some over-produced action flick and hunger instead for grainy, poorly lighted, often out-of-focus vignettes about Lego people doing nothing in particular--man, that's when my ship comes in.

In terms of pure inventiveness and creativity, Moviemaker is one of the coolest things to come around in a long time. Users can make, edit and premiere their own movies on the family PC and then export them to QuickTime files for transfer over the Internet.

Moviemaker uses a PC camera in a casing that allows builders to incorporate it right into their Lego creations. Studs on the top and bottom snap perfectly onto standard bricks, and the holes on the side match those on Technic elements.

It's possible to cobble together all of the hardware in the $180 Moviemaker and maybe save a few bucks, but the do-it-yourself version would lack all of the Lego touches that unite hands-on building with virtual movie-making--including a Steven Spielberg Lego minifig, a small Lego figure with a cylindrical head. Parents who have--or are--Lego maniacs should shell out the extra cash.

I had some trouble installing Moviemaker on my PC, which well exceeded the program's minimum system requirements. Even though I followed every direction to the letter, Lego's filming and editing software could not recognize the camera on the first two installations. I couldn't get it up at all on my machine running Windows ME, but it worked for some inexplicable reason the third time on a PC running Windows 98 Second Edition.

The whole process took two hours, but I never could figure out what went wrong. And the scrawny product support provided with the kit means parents who have trouble getting Moviemaker to work right can count on calling Lego's customer service center--never a good way to spend the weekend. Once up and running, though, Moviemaker worked perfectly and, most important, never crashed.

The camera connects to the PC's USB port, but the 15-foot cord is long enough that young auteurs can build their set across the room and not junk up the area around the PC. The interface is easy to use, even for younger kids. Three main menus--film, edit and show--guide users through the steps of film production.

The film menu includes a screen that shows what the camera sees as well as sliders that allow manipulation of brightness, contrast, color saturation and sound volume. Focusing is done at the camera itself. Users can either run the camera live or use stop-action to capture one frame at a time and make small Lego figures come alive.

After capturing the scene, users can choose from a variety of options, including laying down a soundtrack and music or inserting smooth transitions between scenes. Despite the ease of use, Moviemaker includes some fairly sophisticated editing features.

It made me wish I were back in high school. During the summer between my junior and senior years, a buddy and I turned my garage into a mini studio. Using a borrowed Super 8 camera, we churned out a trilogy of stop-action films featuring stars and sets entirely of Lego. Our hero was a minifig named Ferd, who over the course of the three films had his house burned down, ran over his best friend, got abducted by a UFO and ultimately learned to fly a star fighter and saved Earth from an alien onslaught.

My more recent projects with Lego are tamer, more documentary in nature. In fact, they are a sort of Lego homage to the Lumiere brothers' experimental "Workers Leaving a Factory." I make cars drive by and minifigs walk down the street. No one dies. No one gets hurt. And no one gets the girl.

The potential of Moviemaker is revealed on the CD-ROM, which includes three professionally done Lego spoofs of Steven Spielberg's "Jaws," "Jurassic Park" and "Raiders of the Lost Ark." In addition, helpful videos show aspiring directors how to use lighting and camera angles to create mood and suspense.


Aaron Curtiss is editor of Tech Times.


Lego & Steven Spielberg Moviemaker Set

What it does: Turns a PC and a box of Lego into a home movie studio

Price: $180

Ages: 8 to 16

Manufacturer: Lego Group

System requirements: Pentium 233 MMX with 32 MB of RAM, 100 MB of available hard disk space, a graphics card with 4 MB of video RAM and a free USB port

The good: Powerful but easy to use

The bad: Finicky setup

Bottom line: Well worth the money

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