Lego Ninjago senior designer Michael Svane Knap on upcoming movie adaptation

Knap says the ideas he and his teams come up with go through many layers of creative progress before they become the toys we see in stores or the characters we see on screen

Senior designer Michael Svane Knap. Courtesy Michael Svane Knap / Lego
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Short of “being Luke Skywalker," Michael Svane Knap may well have the coolest job in the world.

As senior designer for the Lego Ninjago range of ninja-themed Lego, as well as the forthcoming Lego Ninjago movie and the existing TV show, he basically gets paid to play with Lego all day. That sounds like a lot of fun, so we asked Knap how we might go about getting paid to do the same.

“There is not really one route to becoming a LEGO designer,” he explains. “The design team is put together of many different people with different nationalities.

"We have fan builders, concept artists, engineers, industrial designers etc. What is important is that you have a passion for making toys and products for kids. By studying design and becoming an industrial designer, you can acquire the right set of skills to put you in a good position in becoming a LEGO designer.”

Knap’s own route took him from a heading up a small design company specialising in animation and CGI in his native Denmark to joining the Scandinavian building block behemoth in 2013, initially as a junior designer on the Legends of Chima range and TV show, before working his way through the ranks to his current role.

Unsurprisingly, Knap reveals that there is rather more to the job than playing with Lego.

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“You never know what the day is going to bring. Being a LEGO designer has always been an exciting thing for me,” he says.

“In a theme as Ninjago, we are very lucky to have a lot of freedom when it comes to developing the toys and the storyline. We have a close collaboration between the story writers and the producers of the TV show [and film]. Therefore, we can inspire each other both on a story and product level.”

Knap adds that the ideas he and his teams come up with go through many layers of creative progress before they become the toys we see in stores or the characters we see on screen.

“When we are designing models we go through many different design loops. this is to ensure the right aesthetic, functionality and stability,” he reveals. “One of my personal favourite designs is Lloyd’s (one of the lead ninjas) green dragon from the movie. This one went through many loops where we tried out different colours and functions. With it being the biggest dragon we have developed for Ninjago, it required significant testing to make sure the stability was at the correct level.”

The movie is the first to be based on an actual existing Lego property — previous movies have instead used Lego characters to either tell an original story (The Lego Movie, 2014) or adapt an existing one (Lego Batman, 2017).

Does this bring an extra level of pressure, both from fans and the company, because it is dealing with an existing, and popular, product?

“Ninjago has been living for many years now, which meant that when we had to develop the movie we had to take a lot of decisions of how we wanted the Ninjago property to be treated. We had to communicate the Ninjago values and develop these to ensure that they translated onto the big screen.”

All this talk of “Ninjago values” does have something of the Lego marketing department about it — a cynic might argue that the various Lego movies are little more than a 90-minute advert for the toys — but Knap insists that his prime focus is creative, not selling.

It’s always important to develop good characters that engage with the kids and encourage them to watch — this goes for the movies as well," he says. "The story that we have been telling from the beginning have been focused on family, collaboration and emotions and these are the keystone for telling a good Ninjago story.”

The success of the first movie took a lot of people by surprise. Its just under half a billion box office take could perhaps have been predicted due to Lego’s army of devoted fans, but the critical appraisal for what should, on paper, have perhaps been a novelty movie, was less expected — the movie currently holds a 96 per cent “fresh” rating on review aggregation site Rotten Tomatoes. How does Knap explain the previous movie’s success?

“Lego as a tool to tell a story has great potential. Parents have been growing up with these toys and their kids play with them as well. This, together with excellent story writing that kids find engaging, mixed with some humour that the older audience can appreciate is a very good formula.”

The Lego Ninjago Movie is in cinemas September 21