Lego is currently in a golden age with huge success with its franchise themed sets, video games and of course movies. Following the recent worldwide success of The Lego Movie, I was lucky enough to catch up with Matthew Ashton, Vice President of Design for the Lego Company and executive producer of The Lego Movie. I was absolutely honoured to chat with him, the wizard of all things Lego and an all round nice guy.
(Matthew with Uni Kitty Figure from ‘The Lego Movie’, wearing his Uni Kitty sweater that his super talented mum made)
- I’d love it if you could tell me a bit about yourself, your job at Lego and role with the Lego Movie. I understand your the VP of Design at Lego, how did you get to this fab position and how did you get started in the industry?
Pheeewww where should I start?
Ok, back when I was a kid, I was always doing little Arts and Crafts projects and would spend hours sewing, painting, drawing, making collages and sculpting characters out of FIMO. I remember sitting on my brother’s bedroom floor building a Classic Space model with him (all our LEGO Projects happened in his room for some reason), and I distinctively remember thinking ‘I want to be a toy designer when I grow up!’
I must have been about 7 or 8 at the time, but I never actually imagined it was a ‘real’ job, as you don’t often meet any ‘real-life’ toy designers – the only ones I knew at that age where Pinocchio’s dad ‘Geppetto’ and Tom Hanks’ character from the movie ‘BIG!’ and I knew neither of them were real.
As I grew up, I kind of forgot about my dream, and thought I needed to get a proper job, so I toyed around with ideas of being a graphic designer (because it sounded fancy) or an architect (as I knew that would be something my mum and dad would be proud of). I just knew deep down I wanted to do something creative.
After finishing High School, I studied an Art Foundation course for a year, where I basically tried out a range of different ‘Art’ disciplines, from Fine Art, to Graphics, Sculpture, Textile Design and Fashion. In all honesty I was a bit of an all-rounder and struggled deciding which path I should take. I loved almost everything that I tried.
In the end, I followed the advice of my tutors who thought a career in fashion was the place for me. I liked the sound of that and decided to study Fashion Design with Business Studies at the University of Brighton.
Four years later, including one year working in the industry, I graduated. After our runway show at Graduate Fashion Week in London, we had one more task; to display our work at an exhibition in Islington, London called ‘New Designers’. As space was limited, most fashion graduates either displayed one garment, or a photo or mood board of their collection. I decided to showcase miniature versions of my catwalk line-up on Barbie Dolls in a Perspex case.
As luck had it, some head-hunters for The LEGO Company were in the same building on the same day, viewing an industrial design exhibition. They happened to pass my stand on the way out. They spotted my stuff, loved it, left a business card and came back for a chat later.
I was offered little bits of freelance work for LEGO, which I of course jumped at, knowing I was one step closer to fulfilling the dream I’d had as little boy. It took a whole year before I was permanently employed and moved to Denmark. My first LEGO Project was on a click-together Arts and Craft line for girls called ‘Clikits’ , where I worked as the colourist, stylist and illustrator of the ‘Clikits’ Girl characters.
After Clikits, I moved on to Playthemes and IPs and worked on classic stuff like LEGO Castle, LEGO City, some of our space lines and LEGO Minifigure collectibles, as well as all the products we make based on TV shows and Movies like LEGO Star Wars, LEGO Indiana Jones, LEGO Harry Potter, and our DC and Marvel – LEGO Superheroes line, and of course your favourite LEGO Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles!
So my career progressed over the last 14 years, and I became involved in my most exciting project to date, helping to make a movie, The LEGO Movie. AWESOME!!!!!!!!!
- If you could design any Lego set in the world what would it be?
A few of these little dreams have already come true. Rather than specific sets, there have been specific characters that I wanted to bring to life as Minifigures – one in particular being Wonder Woman! I loved Wonder Woman so much as a kid (the Linda Carter TV show version), to the point that when I heard that they were screening the last ever episode of WW on TV, I was completely devastated at the thought that I would never see her again. As we didn’t have a VCR back then, I sat through the whole episode poised with my disposable Kodak Camera, snapping shots of her every time she came on screen. I never wanted to forget her! Unfortunately when I got the prints developed they all came back either blurred or with the flash bouncing off the TV screen. Cue WONDER TANTRUM! Lol!
Moving on to adulthood, during my second week at LEGO, I actually drew up a sketch of a load of licensed Minifigures I wanted to make. Wonder Woman was one of the headliners, among others like Indiana Jones and the Ghostbusters. Ha ha! It only took 12 years before we got to release her, but I didn’t give up!
- What is the best thing about working at The Lego the company?
Do you know what, and this is going to sound super cheesy, but it is actually the people at LEGO that make it such an incredible place to work. I never imagined working somewhere with such a great bunch of people, who are not only super talented, they are pretty much family to me now. Our design department at LEGO HQ in Billund is 193 strong (at our last count), with designers from all over the world. We have 27 different nationalities represented in our department, so the diversity of different backgrounds and cultures also makes it a super inspiring and creative place to be!
- What have been some of the highlights of your career?
Gosh! There are so many highlights I don’t know where to start. From a design point of view, seeing a product line through from the initial conceptual ideas to final production, and getting to see the products on shelf, or in the hands of a happy kids, is an amazing experience. Some projects can be extremely challenging and you sometimes wonder ‘Are we gonna pull this off and make it happen?’, so it is extremely satisfying knowing your team has worked so hard on something and to have it successfully launched.
From a personal standpoint, attending the Premiere of ‘The LEGO Movie’ has to be an all-time high! Never in my wildest dreams had I imagined that one day would I not only be a toy designer, but I would be involved in making a movie too. It had been such a long journey with so many ups and downs, but the sense of achievement, not only for me but for what we had all created together, was worth every second of hard work. We were all immensely proud!
- UniKitty is my spiritual animal. Who is your favourite character from the film and which character are you most like?
Ha, I’m happy to hear that! Of course Unikitty is extremely close to my heart as I was heavily involved in creating her, although I also have a real soft spot for Benny too. He is extremely special to me, because he evokes so many wonderful childhood memories. He is also an icon of what inspired me to pursue my career.
Personality-wise, I am probably the slightly odd combination of Unikitty mixed with a few President Business traits. Inside my head probably looks pretty similar to Cloud Cuckooland, in that it is bursting with bright colours, sparkles, adorable creatures all living happily to the beat of some trashy bubblegum pop music. Now combine that with a person who is a bit of a control freak and a stickler for details and you have pretty much me in a nutshell!
- The Lego games bridge the gap between adults and kids games. The humour, graphics, gameplay and franchises are great. Why do you think the collaboration between Lego and the franchises work so well in these games?
I think the LEGO games work as they are a fun, cute interpretation of franchises. They take properties that appeal to older kids, teens and adults and make them more kid and family friendly. As the LEGO design expression is so unique and distinctive in itself it allows to take characters, and to do silly things with them that they may not do in the Movies they appear in.
- We have seen so many awesome Lego DVD’s including Star Wars and Batman. How did the brilliant idea come about to make a Lego movie about Lego rather than a franchise? (Not sure if you can answer this)
Dan Lin (Producer) came to LEGO with an overall pitch to create a LEGO Movie, and from what I gather there were mixed reactions to this internally. Dan was then assigned the rights to go and develop a story, and come back to the LEGO Company with a more specific concept. This took several iterations before we were confident that we had a story that would truly reflect our brand, our values and encompass a true creative message that was unique to LEGO.
The great thing about LEGO is that we have decades of heritage, built upon different characters, universes and franchises. We all felt that an amalgamation of these would be extremely unique and would give us a little something in the movie for everyone: kids, adult fans, boys and girls of all ages. How many other movies do you get to see that feature cameos of Batman, Star Wars, TMNT, and Simpsons characters all together on screen?
- Working at Lego do you have your own mini figure?
Not yet :’(. Although both the cheerleaders launched in our Minifigure Collectibles line have my initials on them (and no this is not a coincidence. He he!) The blue cheerleader has an M for Matthew on her sweater and the red one has an A for AshtonJ That is as close as I have got so far.
- Can you explain what an AFOL is?
An AFOL is an Adult Fan of LEGO. We are so fortunate to have such a committed group of fans all over the world, many of whom are extremely talented. To many of them LEGO is their biggest passion in life, and they spend hours creating MOCs (My Own Creations) from the bricks they have collected over the years. Many of these guys and girls have loved LEGO since childhood and have never grown out of it. Others go through their ‘Dark Ages’ where they may feel that they have outgrown LEGO in their teenage years, only to realize later on that they are missing it and its actually OK to be part of the Fandom, so they come back to where they belong : )
Our fans are so enthusiastic and committed to our brand, they actually set up their own fan conventions, some of which are absolutely huge. They gather together in conventions centres, bringing their creations with them to exhibit. If you ever get the opportunity to go to one near you, I can highly recommend it. The models that many of our fans create are truly breath taking on an epic scale, and they really show case the power of the brick and how truly endless the possibilities are of what you can build… anything from replicas of famous landmarks, expansive train-layouts, modular space stations, intricate sculptures made from bricks, and huge dioramas based on their favourite movies.
- Working for lego would be super exciting, have you ever had a fanboy moment? What was it?
I have definitely had a few, and I would be lying if I didn’t say that on many occasions I have had to contain my sqeals of excitement!
As a lot of what I do is based on Intellectual Properties, were we create models and characters based on TV shows and movies. We have had the opportunity to attend script readings and also partake in set-visits while films are in production. So we have had the opportunity to see some amazing sneaks behind the scenes of certain movies, including visiting the set of ‘Thor 2’, and ‘Guardians of the Galaxy’, which was epic, and were taken on a tour through the make-up, prosthetics, costume and prop department. It’s super exciting to truly see how much painstaking work is put into creating every miniscule detail in a movie. We also attended set visits on several of the Harry Potter movies – getting to walk round the interior of the real Hogwarts was mind-blowing!
Of course, visiting the sets has also meant that I have had the opportunity to meet the odd movie star or two… I am not going to name drop, but when this happens I really have to do my best to suppress my fanboy excitement and behave like a professional.
One of the most exciting trips I was lucky to make was to PIXAR in San Fransisco to see ‘Toy Story 3’ in development. ‘Toy Story’ is probably my favourite movie franchise of all time, so getting to see it as a work in progress was immense. That was the one time I let my emotions get the better of me. By the end of watching the animatic (which is literally a black and white animated story board with preliminary sound and voice overs), I left the theatre in floods of tears – which I guess is what they were aiming for anyway!
- The mission statement of Lego is to ‘inspire and develop the builders of tomorrow’ and its purpose is to inspire and develop children to think creatively. I love this idea and think it relates to adults just as much as kids. I have seen some awesome creations inspired by this film, What is the craziest things you have seen people make in honour of the film? (Does not need to be related to the film)
Oh my G-O-S-H! the amount of Fan Creations have been overwhelming. We have actually had a competition running on line called ‘The Emmet Awards’ where people could submit different models for different categories – creating ‘Ordinary to Extraordinary’ models, where something mundane is transformed into something truly AWESOME, or a ‘Double Decker’ challenge, based on Emmet’s couch where you build a double-deckerfied version of something. Some of the results were hilarious!
We have also kept an eye on what people have built on fan sites. Some people have built replicas of set pieces from the LEGO Movie which were not released as toys, like ‘The Dog!’ from Cloud Cuckooland, or the Mis-matched Escape Sub. Others have expanded on the universe too. I’ve spotted a hilarious Unikitty Tank and a Unikitty Mech. The Fans have definitely gone to town!
But it’s not just brick-built creations that we are seeing. The movie seems to have also inspired the audience to get creative in many different ways. It seems to have really hit a chord with a whole host of creative types who have busied themselves interpreting The LEGO Movie through all sorts of mediums: baking, sewing, sculpting, knitting, writing, photographing, drawing – you name it, we’ve seen it! Emmet Birthday cakes, Wyldstyle Hairstyles, Benny fan-Art, Unikitty fashions, nail-art, balloon animals, tattoos and belly-art (who knew that was a thing!?!)…just search #Unikitty on Instagram and a whole new world will open before your eyes!
I also attended Comic Con this year and bumped into several families and groups of friends Cos-playing as the whole movie cast, including even some of the obscure characters like Mrs Scratchen-Post (the crazy cat lady). My favourite however were two little girls BFFs dressed as in costumes split down the middle, with Angry Kitty on one side and Unikitty on the other!
I’ve also seen you have dabbled in a bit of UniKitty Cosplay yourself! Yayyyyyyyy!!!!
- Can you share any insight to the future of Lego, especially gaming or sets?
Nope….it’s all top secret! 😛
But I promise we are working our hardest to make sure that with everything we do we just become more and more AWESOME!!
- Finally you have the best sweater in the world, Unikitty knit! I believe this was made for you by your mother? How did this come about?
My mum used to knit a lot when we were kids and hadn’t done it in a while, but had recently taken it up again. She had just knitted me a sweater for my Christmas Present and it was so good I asked her if she could quickly make another one with Unikitty on for the UK premiere (obvs it would have been way too hot to wear it in LA). So I grabbed the vector art, drew up the pattern for her and she knitted like crazy to get it done in time….it’s fab!
Next thing we knew, Dan Lin had told Alison Brie (Unikitty’s voice actor) about it. She saw the picture of me in it and loved it ….next thing we knew, my mum was clacking away with her knitting needles again to make one for Alison too!
My mum has been an absolute star… but I think she is giving knitting a little rest for a while after going into mass-production like that!
- Finish this sentence. Everything is awesome when……….. you are living your dreams!
The Force is Strong with Lego, with upcoming projects, including the sequel to The Lego Movie, the recipient of a BAFTA kids award this past week. The accolades continue for this fantastic film, Congratulations!