The Magic Portal Click to regain menus

I seem to have a few unfamiliar faces passing through here so I'll just give you quick explanation as to what is The Magic Portal.

The Magic Portal is a short stop motion film that uses LEGOŽ, plasticene, cardboard and pixellated live action, made between the years of 1985 and 1989 on good ol' fashioned 16mm film. The story concerns the strange fate of a LEGO astronaut called L, who discovers the Magic Portal on board his giant spaceship. The Portal takes him to a strange and surreal LEGO world where he has a close encounter with a Monster and barely escapes with his life. His report to Captain Paranoia only gets him to trouble and his friend and shipmate P, doesn't believe him. However, the Portal has a mind of its own, and reappears to upset the cosy world of the giant spaceship and its crew to reveal weirder worlds more peculiar than the last...

The Magic Portal was prodcued while I was studying at Curtin University in Perth, Western Australia, for my Bachelor of Arts (English), majoring in Film and Television and Minoring in Media Design. While it looks and feels just like a student film, it was made entirely outside the curriculum with external funding. Truth be told, I was mainly studying just to get my grubby hands on some free equipment. I had extensive support from both the Film and Media Design schools, mainly with facilities and equipment.

It might be sixteen minutes long, but the film took four and a half years to make. Pre-production started in 1985, with me bright eyed and bushy tailed and fresh out of high school. My first step was to approach LEGOŽ Australia and see if they would at least give some support. Also, my wise old dad made sure I got a release from them before I ran off an did anything silly, like make a LEGO film. That fell through, despite a pat on the head and permission to use their product. I opted for government funding instead. Twelve months was spent storyboarding and applying for a Creative Development Fund (CDF) grant from the Australian Film Commission (AFC). I would commute from the northern suburbs in Perth down to the Film & Television Institute (FTI) in Fremantle where I'd work on my application with the AFC's Perth liaison at the time, Heather Williams. After some harrowing interviews and hoop jumping, the Magic Portal was bankrolled to the heady sum of $11, 745 and production was underway. Sufficient LEGO was acquired for the production by a tacky human interest story on page three of the local rag and a call for (free!) LEGO. Needless to say, some kind, generous people rallied to the cause and everything was finally underway.

It took somewhere between nine to twelve months to shoot in my parent's basement on homemade setups and borrowed equipment. I used an ancient wind up Bolex borrowed from Curtin Uni's Media Design Department to shoot everything with, lit it some old photographic lights inherited from my granddad, mounted it on old tables, crates, borrowed retort stands; held it together with Blu-Tac and smothered it with as many fans as I could find and fit in before the lamps melted all the plastic. Alot of the film is shot "on ones", or 24 separate moves per second, except where it was necessary to shoot "on twos", or 12 moves a second - usually when trying to walk LEGO characters around. A typical 100ft roll of film lasts about three minutes of screen time, and would take about three weeks of round the clock shooting. Round the clock shooting usually meant starting at 10am and finishing around midnight every day. I don't remember too many weekends.

Editing took place after hours at the Film Huts (six ancient demountables that housed classes, editing suites and equipment, long since demolished) that used to be part of the English Department (now the Department of Communication and Cultural Studies) with the permission of my film lecturer, Bill Constable. After many months of shredding my work prints with Steenbecks and Pic-Syncs resulted in a sixteen minute silent film. Ah, yes. Sound!

After many false starts, trying everything from composing my own music (a disaster) I was introduced by lecturer George Borzyskowski to a remarkable bloke called Thomas Kayser who basically built 90% of the sound effects and ambient noise. We started off on a long and fun journey into sound (although I think I slave drove Thomas a bit) that ranged from location recording through to some intense electronic sound generation. The LEGO spaceship's ambiance was due to a glorious gadget called a Prophet 5 analog synthesiser. Polyphonic sonic oscillation... wonderful stuff. We started off recording hours of material on Nagras and finally wound up a couple of years later generating a lot of material through sampling as synths were taking off in a big way. Despite all the advances in sound technology, I still had to transfer everything back to old steam age technology via the creaky old Film Hut Magnatechs. It took two and a half years of sound recording, generating, chopping, cutting and layering to finally culminate in a one day (mono) sound mix by Kim Lord at the ABCTV studios in Perth.

I started off as an amateur high school student and wound up as a film graduate, and the Portal was responsible for my three year full time degree becoming a four and a half year part time one. The titles were shot professionally by John Tollemach on a proper Oxberry animation stand. Four professional actors were hired to play the voice parts in a proper professional sound session. The film was graded and got to answer print stage, but never made release print. It was transferred to 1" broadcast video when it finally got aired on SBS's Eat Carpet. No less than six times: the royalties helped fund my post graduate Swinburne Animation degree.

At this stage the Magic Portal was being distributed by a small local distributor called Soundstage Australia, run by Hannah Downey. We were gearing up for a number of international film festivals, hoping to make a bit of a splash. Soundstage distributed and co-produced some fairly obscure animated series, ranging from Enid Blyton adaptions (I'm not sure if they ever got made) to some strange Hungarian show called Incredible Creatures(?). We felt it appropriate to contact LEGO first and see if they wanted to do anything with it. Initial responses were positive...

But subsequent ones got icier and progressive more legalistic. LEGOŽ has had a long and exhaustive history of beating down anything that vaguely plagarises or even hints at plagarising their product. Months slid past while we were in legal uncertainty. One festival after another disappeared. Finally, they broke the suspense by dropping a bomb on us: surrender all copies of the film and everything with it to us in seven days. Or else. Fortunately, the old release I'd received from LEGOŽ Australia right at the very beginning saved me. We disregarded the deadline, sent them a copy of it instead, and waited. A good month of complete silence passed before we received what was effectively a complete legal backdown. By that stage, I was well and truly over LEGO films. I'd done everything I'd set out to do, and then some. And we'd missed a lot of crucial film festivals so alas, it never went anywhere except to SBS, one or two local festivals, and the odd experimental or underground film festival where it usually became a bit of a hit. My postgrad year at Swinburne (1990) was imminent, and I just wanted to get it all finished and move on. At about this point Hannah Downey passed away, which did much for the sense of doom and gloom. My BA was finished and had dragged on forever; I was tired and not a little bit burnt out.

Apart from the sour legal note at the end, it was a very satisfying, if not exhausting time. Learnt heaps. Kickstarted animation and 3D VFX career. It keeps following me around, nearly fifteen years after I finished it, and surprising me from odd quarters. Finally after all this time I can sit down and watch The Portal again and not see a huge mess of mistakes, wobbles, missing ceilings, animator's hands and all its other problems. And bugger it, after all that angst from LEGOŽ I find the Internet's soggy with "brick films"?! Time to get off my arse and do something. Show these upstart whippersnappers who've got it too easy! bah humbug etc etc. Man - if I'd had access to an Internet in 1985...

So here we are at last! Would I do it all again? Um... sure, I guess! Stay tuned.

Last modified Sat, May 29 2004 by Lindsay Fleay