A chat with the creator
For a ten-year-old whippersnapper, NINJAGO® is quite the star. 160 episodes (and counting), over 250 different LEGO® sets and a blockbuster Hollywood movie. But the butt-kicking theme has also had an impact closer to home.
Indeed, one Concept Developer/Producer here at the LEGO Headquarters in Denmark revealed to us that, nowadays, “we are always chasing NINJAGO in terms of the next big LEGO home-grown property.”
As it so happens, (what are the chances, eh?), that Concept Developer is Tommy Andreasen – the co-creator of the NINJAGO TV series, for whom the last ten years has seen him go from a plucky ‘underdog’ success story, to his own standard-bearer on the LEGO themes he is currently developing.
But as the show approaches its decennial milestone, Tommy is far more preoccupied on an external effect of the show.
“A lot of fans are doing art, fan fiction and NINJAGO 10th anniversary projects. It’s really inspiring to see how they interpret it themselves.”
Tommy tells us he has received a massive NINJAGO fan-fiction novel of over 500 pages from a German mother and son and that one group of fans is even putting together a comprehensive NINJAGO documentary.
The growth of the NINJAGO fan community (and we presume you, dear reader, are among them) has undoubtedly been one of the most rewarding outcomes of the last 10 years, and Tommy has developed something of a reputation for engaging with the community’s many queries and theories.
“It started four years ago when I was returning home from Comicon,” recalls Tommy. “Some teenagers started asking me questions about the show. We were making a show for kids, but at that point I realized that NINJAGO had been around long enough for some of those kids to have grown up … and still love it. I thought that was interesting, so I started the Twitter profile as an experiment to see if there was any interest to engage. I’ve been doing it ever since.”
Tommy, the Uberfan
Tommy is perhaps the perfect creator for a show with such a devoted following, for two main reasons.
The first is a simple one.
“I love talking about it,” Tommy admits. “And I’ve always got at least 10% of my brain crunching the numbers on NINJAGO.” He even jokingly wonders aloud whether he has spent more time with the ninja than his own kids since the show’s launch in 2009!
Tommy is involved in basically every aspect of the NINJAGO franchise. He describes himself as “the courier between the [television] story team and the [product] design team”, encouraging maximum synergy between the two departments, massaging the ideas that are happening in the writing room into the playsets, and vice versa. “I think that’s why I’m still attached,” says Tommy of his level of involvement with the show’s various stakeholders. “NINJAGO has a tightly woven canon and logic, and the long-time fans are eagle-eyed and will nail us if we contradict anything. Besides, I can’t think of another show which can boast 10 years of uninterrupted continuity, a consistent style and voice cast. It’s one of the great joys of producing the show year after year!”
The second reason why Tommy is such a perfect figure for superfans… is because he is… something of a superfan himself.
Indeed, our pre-planned questions regarding Tommy’s cultural inspirations were rather hurriedly scribbled out after setting eyes upon his mightily impressive home office space. Memorabilia from what appears to be every single film from the 1980s adorns every square inch of the room. Ghostbusters™, E.T., Batman, Superman™… you name it. But there can be no doubt as to the dominant influence, as your eyes turn to the desk situated in a replica Death Star™, flanked by two life-size figures of a Stormtrooper™ and Darth Vader™.
This is a man who was prepared for The Great Video Conferencing Migration of 2020.
But when he first watched Star Wars™ on 21st April 1984 (duh – of course he can remember the day), it wasn’t as easy to dive headfirst into a franchise as today. “When I was a kid, I had one Star Wars T-shirt and a couple of action figures which I loved dearly… but that was it.”
Tommy doesn’t view that as a bad thing, however. “You really had to make up your own stories,” he explains. “That’s what we still do with NINJAGO. There’s the story we tell you, and then there’s the story that you can play out with the sets.”
Being a superfan makes Tommy adept at talking to superfans. He understands the negative connotations of playing to them in terms of storylines and is “very careful not to just pick up ideas” he might see trending on Twitter. Likewise, while he naturally avoids any spoilers, he has “been known to drop a few hints,” as Tommy puts it.
“It’s fun to give a little teaser that no one else can decipher at all until 7 months later.”
But what does Tommy think of the constant engagement itself?
“It’s what any entertainment provider wants, people engaging with it. It keeps things alive during the off-season. You do get a sense of the passion behind it. You know it means a lot to the people who respond to it. You feel like you have an obligation to do good. To take things seriously.”
As we said. The perfect creator.
Not ‘just’ child’s play
The point about taking things seriously ties into the enduring appeal of NINJAGO, beyond the show’s target age range. There is often a mistake with children-focused shows to ‘dumb down’ the content, but Tommy is guided by the examples set by some of his favorite childhood films, including E.T. (who is phoning home from many parts of Tommy’s fan-cave office.)
“That’s a children’s movie, but it takes its audience so seriously. It’s about isolation, divorce, death – it’s such an emotional ride, but you feel great at the end because you’ve gone through the entire spectrum. Kids can really accept stuff like that if you do it carefully. That’s the philosophy we have with NINJAGO.”
“When you’re a kid, you absorb so many impressions, and that becomes your foundation for the rest of your life,” Tommy explains. “We put a lot of moral and life lessons into NINJAGO. They may be hidden under a thick layer of action and entertainment, but they’re there, and it’s never preachy so the kids can take it to heart. And what I have learned over the last few years: NINJAGO has the same importance for some kids and teenagers as Star Wars™ had for me… and that’s baffling and humbling.”
Besides, Tommy knows the dangers of underestimating his audience, from his first involvement with NINJAGO, joining from the commercial branch of the LEGO agency. “Those kids can be brutal,” Tommy recalls of the early testing and research phases. “We were sitting behind this one-way mirror, watching these kids interact with the prototype NINJAGO sets or look at conceptual drawings, and asking “what kind of a moron put the colors on this one?” I guess that was me…”
Early on in the show’s development saw the arrival of Dan and Kevin Hageman, the original minds behind THE LEGO MOVIE™. “They were writers for cinema, so they also took it really seriously. They knew they weren’t ‘only’ writing a TV show for kids,” explains Tommy. “Before they arrived, we had the concept mostly down, but the characters’ motivations weren’t fully developed.”
It was the Hagemans who decided, for example, to introduce Nya, and to initially promote Kai to the position of lead character (despite being an entourage show).
As these conversations developed, there was a significant turning point when the show changed from being something exclusively for kids (with cool visuals and obviously awesome toys), into something that hit a little bit deeper.
A twist of fantasy
“When I joined the LEGO front-end team, they had been testing ninja as a theme for several years,” Tommy recalls. “But the problem was that the kids liked the ninja character with a black suit and sword. But they didn’t really need anything else because… well, they’re ninja!”
“So, we started exploring a fantasy angle, because otherwise we didn’t have a product.” And with the fantasy twist, Tommy found the kids more than happy to hop aboard that conceptual train.
“After the first year, a lot of the ideas that had been rejected started to work with the kids,” he explains. “For example, a ninja on a motorcycle was initially an absolute no-go, because that’s not what a ninja was seen to do. But once we’d done the first year with the skeletons, the dragons and the fantasy, and established that it wasn’t a typical ninja show, it made complete sense that the ninja had motorcycles. After all, the skeletons had a vehicle in the last season.”
“They really got on board with the fantasy elements at that point.”
This also encouraged the creation of the show’s lore, which Tommy identifies as “what the older kids latch onto.” So, while the visuals and humor are perhaps the most appealing aspect of the show for younger viewers, the golden weapons, the various opponents, motivations, prophecies and laws are what keep interests piqued for longest.
What’s that ancient saying? Come for the cool fire tornadoes, stay for the Ninja Lore.
Deep fan engagement
The show’s engagement with the fanbase, whether young or old, goes way beyond tweets.
For example, for the upcoming series, Tommy reveals there’s some graffiti that’s created by fans. “I asked if it would be cool to use it, because I think it will really resonate with the more grown-up audience – remembering something that happened on Twitter 16 months ago and seeing it there in the show.”
“We are careful with taking in ideas,” Tommy stresses, “but we like to do stuff that puts a smile on people’s faces.”
And no more so is this evident than when one of the voice actors in the series received a letter from a 16-year-old German girl who was terminally ill. “We decided to work her into the series as a character. We’ve done that kind of things several times, like forwarding unaired episodes to kids in American hospitals so that they get the opportunity to see it. It isn’t something we really advertise.”
Who’s cutting onions?
As we finalize our discussions on the show’s 10th anniversary, we ask Tommy as to whether he can imagine a 20th.
“If we go about it right,” he concludes. “It’s all about being able to reinvent yourself. We’re in this strange situation of making a television show for 7-9-year-olds while also trying to please 19-year-olds who grew up with the show because hey… we helped bring them up! And they love NINJAGO dearly, so we feel an obligation to not let them down. But if we get too heavily bogged down by backstory and lore, then we become inaccessible to newcomers, who we rely on to come in, understand the series, and allow it to become part of their foundation as well. It’s a balancing act.”
Tommy suggests that to reach the vicennial (Google it) anniversary, the show needs to reinvent itself (to some extent) every third year or so. “NINJAGO is a playground. Creativity and change are deeply embedded in the show’s DNA, so we embrace and celebrate that. Of course, if one of those reinventions is a total bust then it’s hard to see how we’ll come back from that.”
If that seems overly pessimistic, dear reader, that’s actually quite an optimistic outlook by Danish standards.
But Tommy expands, “the LEGO Group is always very reactive. So, if something goes wrong, or some tendency arises, you will need to shift, because you need to be with the times.”
Does that put a creative strain on Tommy?
“It’s an exercise of not falling in love with something too much. Because it may change. We could plan 5 years ahead, but if we did it in too great a detail, we would be sorely disappointed. But I know what the next few years are going to look like and they’re how I want them to look.”
In any case, many of the show’s most loved storylines and characteristics have been the result of brainstorming, rather than structured planning. The origin of the idea of Spinjitzu, for example, came from a desire to allow people to play out the combat scenes through the sets. Minifigures were attached to spinners, and their martial art was born. After that, there was a need for a countdown exclamation along the lines of “ready, steady, go”, and that’s how Ninja… GO! came into being.
“A lot of things just organically came together in great ways,” admits Tommy, “and that makes it super intuitive, which means people will probably like it.”
And Tommy’s team have overseen enough successful NINJAGO developments to be confident about the future – however the cards are dealt.
“Something I learned from the front-end guys is that you should trust the ideas you haven’t had yet. Don’t panic. We’ve been in this situation enough times where we know we always come up with great stuff. That confidence is there now. The great idea will be out there somewhere.”
“If only you could apply that to everything in life. It’s kind of like the Lebowski Philosophy…”
(There seems to be no better way for Tommy to conclude proceedings, surrounded by his museum of 80s references, than to quote a film from 1998.)
“‘The Dude abides’”