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May 29, 2011

‘Pirates of the Caribbean’ Lego: Brick heroes, pig-riding and rare gaming comedy

Posted in: Games

In the old days of Tinseltown, an actor knew they had made it when their caricature graced the walls of the Brown Derby. These days, a celebrity might feel the same way about the Lego video games TT Games. Since 2005, TT Games has converted some of Hollywood’s biggest properties — “Star Wars,” Indiana Jones, Harry Potter —into games that blend action and puzzles with a healthy sense of humor, and, yes, plenty of brick building. Now Disney’s “Pirates of the Caribbean” has joined the elite group. Hero Complex contributor Mike Winder caught up with Jonathan Smith, TT’s head of production in Knutsford, England, about giving Jack Sparrow and his cinematic crew a brickish makeover.

Lego Pirates of the Caribbean for the PSP (TT Games / Disney)

Lego Pirates of the Caribbean for the PSP (TT Games / Disney)

MW: Lego Pirates of the Caribbean includes the narratives for all four films and actually came out a few days prior to the release of “On Stranger Tides” in theaters. How early in the filmmaking process were you given access to what the filmmakers were doing?

JS: Right from the start. We’ve been working on this game for quite some time, and we had access to the initial concepts, the script, concept artwork for the sets, and of course we would see material as it was being filmed. The people at Disney and Jerry Bruckheimer’s group were both fantastic about keeping us absolutely bang up to date with what was going on in the movie, both with the plot and the creative execution.

MW: Was there a specific sequence from “On Stranger Tides” that your team immediately thought it’d be fun to riff on?

JS: The movie opens so strongly in London, and we’re a UK-based team, so that was immediately of interest for us. It very clearly moves through a couple of different scenes within the overall London setting, moving from the reception room to high above the streets and then through the street chase. And that immediately works very well for the variety of gameplay we like to have in a Lego game. So you have all that great action going on, and Jack Sparrow as the focus of it all. And like everyone else, we love Jack. So when he swings from a chandelier in a room filled with objects to mess around with, that’s perfect for a Lego game experience.

MW: What sets Lego Pirates apart from the previous Lego titles?

JS: There are lots of things that are completely new. It’s been great fun to work with these pirate characters that get themselves into deadly situations and live effortlessly. For example, they can climb high into the rigging of a ship and balance on the highest masts with no difficulty whatsoever. We like to make it easy for players feel cool, and these pirates are very well suited for that. Something a bit more specific that is fresh is Jack Sparrow’s use of his compass to find secret objects. A lot of the game’s puzzles are solved by Jack using his compass to discover hidden Lego objects, which he can then combine and build to create surprising solutions. With Jack’s ingenuity and incredible luck, there’s always a sense that an unpredictable way out of a difficult situation is just within reach.

MW: What was it like turning Jack Sparrow into a Lego?

JS: We are lucky enough to have a number of geniuses working at TT Games, and our lead animator, Jeremy Pardon, is amongst that selective band. With a few strokes of his virtual pen on his touchpad he can create magic. And it’s his talent and many years of experience now in animating and bringing characters to life in a fun and charming way that created the unmistakably personality of Capt. Jack Sparrow in Lego form, with all his swagger, style and ridiculous brilliance.

MW: There’s a lot of tongue-in-cheek humor in your games. Has there ever been anything you’ve proposed that hasn’t flown with the studios?

JS: We’re in a unique and incredibly privileged position, because everyone understands that a Lego world is naturally full of mischief. We can have characters behave in a way that would be unthinkable outside of the Lego world. We do work very closely with all the people who are interested, particularly on a studio level, because everyone is interested to see how we’re going to represent the characters. We take an attitude of caricature to the story, the action and the individual players and every time now, particularly since we’ve set some precedents in our earlier titles, we are able to convince people that it is a right and appropriate Lego treatment. Whenever we show the work that the team has created, all we get is smiles and laughter. And long may that continue!

MW: What’s an example from Lego Pirates of something that could only happen in the Lego world?

'Pirates': Jack Sparrow riding on a pig

'Pirates of the Caribbean' Lego: Jack Sparrow riding on a pig (Disney / TT Games)

JS: In many ways, I think it is shocking that this is the first Lego game in which you can ride on pigs. It’s a grave oversight that we never did that before, because as soon as you have that moment of getting Jack Sparrow to ride around Tortuga on a swine, you say, “This is what Lego games have been missing all these years.” We’re always looking for moments that are both utterly ridiculous but, at the same time, feel right in a Lego world. It feels right that Jack would ride a pig and have a brilliant time doing so.

MW: If you could adapt any film, regardless of its commercial viability, what movie that would you like to see converted into the Lego world?

JS: The truth is that whatever property we’re working on in Lego, with the close attention we have to give it in order to bring out every detail authentically, we always find ourselves falling in love with it in a way we hadn’t anticipated before. Sure there are movies that I love personally, but the experience I’ve had working on “Star Wars,” Indiana Jones, “Pirates of the Caribbean” and Harry Potter day in and day out, brings a level of appreciation, affinity and a knowledge which is at another level.

MW: What did your team discover about the “Pirates of the Caribbean” world that you didn’t expect?

JS: We knew they were fun family films. But we discovered depths of humor and mischief in the films, beyond what we had taken away as more casual filmgoers. There’s so much space for comical things to happen in that world, much more than we remembered. So we felt it was a perfect and natural fit for the Lego treatment.

Johnny Depp as Jack Sparrow. (Disney)

Johnny Depp as Jack Sparrow. (Disney)

MW: Can you give me an example of that from the first three films?

JS: In “Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End,” there’s a scene on an island with multiple Jacks working together. That was a wonderful setup for a level within Lego Pirates of the Caribbean because it has a distinctive and instantly recognizable look to it and is full of surprise and surreal fun. It also fit very well with our Lego sensibility, where we like to set puzzles for different characters with different abilities to solve together.

MW: What do you think has been the key to the success of the Lego games?

JS: There’s more than one key. There’s a bulging, heavy, rustling keychain with many keys on it. Amongst those keys is humor. We should never underestimate how refreshing it can be to laugh within a video game. Another key is authenticity to source material that people love. A third key is that we make games for everybody. They are accessible without obstacles to the youngest players, but they have depth fit for hard-core players. And the final key I’ll mention is that we’re always introducing new features and new technology to tell stories in new ways. I think that has sustained the interest from fans, and we’re very grateful that they have stayed with us now for over many years.

—Mike Winder


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