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  • Writer's pictureStand-Up Comedy Historian

An Interview with James Cawood, a Lego Video Master and Filmmaker

Updated: Feb 25

Today's interview is with the final Youtube creator on my top five list of the best Inside videos, the wonderfully talented James Cawood.

While researching the most creative and entertaining items related to Bo's masterpiece, I came across a fantastic teaser featuring my favorite comic in Lego form. So cute!

After that, I saw that the creator had uploaded his version of Bo's ode to Amazon's former CEO, and the details were just perfect. He's even got the ceiling fan running!

James followed up that clip with an even more detailed version of Goodbye as a way of marking the end of his Lego video career, and I knew I needed to talk to him about these eye-catching interpretations of Bo's songs.

Luckily, James was up for discussing his YouTube career (he started when he was a literal child!), what inspired him to recreate Inside in toy block format, and what he's working on currently.

Here is my interview with James, which has been edited and condensed for clarity purposes.

Stand-Up Comedy Historian: Hey, James! Sorry this has taken so long—last year was pretty crazy as you know.

Thanks for chatting with me about your Lego Inside videos and how you've translated that skill into professional filmmaking. Incredible!

James: No problem!

SUCH: Awesome. So let's get started. Can you tell my readers a bit about your background?

James: Sure.

My name is James Cawood, and I’m a 20-year-old South African filmmaker.

I graduated high school two years ago and, in terms of other education, I am debating whether or not to pursue further studies.

SUCH: Great! So your farewell video includes you saying that you've been on YouTube for 10 years. How young were you when you started exactly, and what compelled you to post your Lego videos online?

James: I was 9 when I started posting my videos to YouTube, but I had been making films for much longer than that.

I’ve been doing something creative from as far back as I can remember, but in terms of video, I’d say it mostly started on my Mum’s BlackBerry because you could record videos on those I remember. I don’t remember when that was, but it was at least a couple of years prior to posting on YouTube [Ed. note: It was probably in the late aughts as I had bought my BlackBerry in 2008 when it was at its most popular for business use].

And I started doing that in the first place, because of everything else creative I was seeing on the platform. I think YouTube just used to be a very exciting platform to me, especially in terms of the potential for virality, and sharing. The promise that something I had made would be seen by others at all was insane to me at 9 years old. As it probably would be to anyone of any age at the time, even if the excitement of all that’s worn off a little now.

SUCH: Nine years old is CRAZY to me since I have kids around that age. They do adore YouTube though!

What software/tools do you use for editing?

James: For general filmmaking purposes, I use a Canon Legria 4K camcorder, but I used to use a Canon EOS 100D for everything. It’s also the camera I’d still use for my stop-motions.

When it comes to editing, I’ve only ever used free softwares, and currently I use Hitfilm Express for VFX work, and DaVinci Resolve as a general editor and for colour grading as well as sound work.

SUCH: Yeah, free software is certainly a terrific resource for young creatives like yourself.

So when did you first discover Bo and his works? Are you a longtime fan or a newer one because of Inside? And how many times did you watch Bo's masterpiece in order to match all the small items and tiny gestures?

James: I first discovered Bo Burnham through Eighth Grade, I believe, when it came out. It is such a wonderful film, and I greatly admire Bo’s naturalistic approach and desire to portray those young teen anxieties in the way he did.

Bo directing his feature film debut

I don’t know where that places me, but I suppose it would make me a newer fan. I then explored the rest of his work and similarly enjoyed the further exploration of themes around performing for an audience that he was so meta about in his comedy specials.

I even worked on a film in early 2021, in an animating capacity, which was inspired by the Left Brain, Right Brain song from his 2013 special. Inside then came out, and of course, that was another really exciting piece from him. It really hit me emotionally the first time I saw it, so I didn’t want to revisit it for a while after that. It was only because of my friend who was so obsessed with the film and its soundtrack that I decided to rewatch it, and it was then that I really fell in love with every aspect of it and appreciated its technicalities.

I watched it once more when I began working on my recreation in 2022, but in total I’ve only seen the film three times. I have however seen the Bezos I and Goodbye segments multiple times, too many to count.

SUCH: That makes sense that you've watched those segments repeatedly—you absolutely nailed the visuals and Bo's gestures!

I first got into Bo through Eighth Grade too haha. Such an incredible film!

So what is your process for making videos? And how long do they typically take to make from concept to the final product?

James: My process for making videos has changed dramatically over the years. I used to think for a long time and build a fully realised picture and concept for a video, and only then work very intensively on it production-wise.

On average, I didn’t like to spend more than a month on production and post, as I’d often have a couple weeks' break after completing a film before launching into the next thing. If I spent any longer on that side of things, I would’ve felt like I was getting nothing done. As I have transitioned toward live action, however, I have found myself filming a lot more so as to stockpile footage. That way I can always be kept busy from one project to another, and I don’t know why I felt like I needed to do that, because it’s resulted in me being completely burnt out and completely scatterbrained!

I find I have less time to think up ideas, and I lock into a muscle memory recall of how to make films these days because I’ve done so many. I would honestly tell you I don’t know what I’m doing anymore, at least not in the same way I did before, and I feel less creative.

SUCH: Oh geez, I would say you are doing some of your best work now (like your music video for the Beach House song!). And don't beat yourself up about your progress—just work at a speed that meets your mental capacity currently.

While I had seen your Bezos I and Goodbye videos initially, I had no idea you did rock music videos as well. Why did you focus on Cage the Elephant? Are they your favorite band, or was it just a popular song that you wanted to work with? I like how you tied it in to mental health awareness!

James: Nearly all of the music videos I’ve made have been fan projects and because I really enjoy the artist’s music. I’ve always been fascinated by the relationship that exists between visuals and music, especially because I’m not at all musically talented. I was 13 when I first started making LEGO music videos, and because of that age I didn’t have any friends who made music, and if they did, they certainly weren’t going to ask me to make a music video for them.

And so Cage the Elephant was among the bands I latched on to and decided to make my own video interpretations for. I really liked them at the time, and so that was definitely a factor in my choice, but I was also always constantly chasing an opportunity for my work to be more widely seen. I did a Gorillaz music video for the release of their new album and planned a release for it on the same day. The same approach was applied with my Cage the Elephant video, as the accompanying Social Cues album to the song I did the video for came out in April of 2019.

I'd planned to work on the music video immediately and release it soon enough for the interest around the album from fans and the band to still be palpable—the only hitch being the video ended up taking me 14 months!!

SUCH: Wow, well all the time you devoted to it paid off, I'd say.

One of your more popular videos is Wonderwall by Oasis. What made you want to recreate that song in particular?

And I saw a note that the original director (Nigel Dick) of the famous music video enjoyed your Lego interpretation as well. That is so cool, and I hope you were proud of yourself!

James: The high school I went to has a talent show year every year, and although since 2018 there has been a small increase in film and non-musical acts presented, when I decided I was going to enter with my filmmaking, I felt as though I had to do something musically intertwined to be accepted. Hence a music video.

And on top of my obvious love I had for the band Oasis at the time, I chose to recreate Wonderwall in LEGO because it was such a simple music video. A very minimalist set design, a black-and-white colour palette, and little in the way of any complicated action. It was the easy way out with my limited set of skills and procrastinatory habits!

SUCH: And your most popular video by far is Joji with 1M views! Damn...that's crazy. How was it to reach that milestone?

Did you feel like you HAD to make more videos like that one to please your new fans and the algorithm? Ever feel pigeonholed?

James: It was really exciting!! But numbers like that in the years since have become arbitrary. I’ve only really ever cared for the fact of whether there were people watching my stuff at all. If that was a dedicated audience of five people, or thousands, it didn’t really matter. 

There’s something quite cool that happens when a video has a lot of views like that though. People stop addressing their comments to the creator as they would when it’s a video with fewer hits, and suddenly begin addressing their comments to other viewers—often trying to get top comment and whatnot, everyone making the same type of joke just in different ways.

It’s something you see all across YouTube and social media, but I only fully realised just how competitive people can make a YouTube comments section when everyone was doing it in my own. 

With regards to actually hitting milestones like that though, it’s mattered to me with regards to the potential of it getting me closer to being able to do this as a career and actually make a living off of filmmaking online. I suppose that’s the first bit of overwhelming success I felt as a creator beyond just managing to finish a video at all.

But it definitely did lead me to feeling a bit pigeonholed, only because I wanted to retain all of these new viewers. I had other projects and personal things going on, but whenever I had a free moment I would sneak in work for another Joji-related video, even if I didn’t feel all that strongly about making them, because I thought that was all anyone would’ve wanted to see.

I never finished any of them though, which is also why I think I felt moved to create a music video for Joji’s Die for You at the end of last year. It was another full length music video, but one I actually managed to finish. I also worried for many years that people wouldn’t care for anything live action I did as much as LEGO or animation, and so being able to do this newer music video in live action felt empowering too.

SUCH: Yes, many of the creators I've spoken to over the past few years have confessed that they felt pigeonholed when a particular type of video went viral. It seems to be a common downside to making it big on YouTube!

Speaking of which, let's dive into your Bo Burnham Lego videos.

So for Bezos I, why did you decide to make that in Legos? Did it get the audience response you were hoping for? I absolutely loved it and listed it as my fifth best Inside video in 2022. I particularly like the attention to detail like Bo's water bottle and the ceiling fan.

James: I originally made Goodbye in LEGO first, a month before Bezos I in LEGO. I decided to recreate the latter to build upon supposedly what was to be planned as my final LEGO film.

Bezos I being a really simple visual as well compared to a lot of the other sequences in Bo’s Inside special was enticing enough. I mean really I was just being lazy, or trying to work smarter not harder, as they say. Even then, I made the majority of that video in about 7 hours, because the Brickfilm Day annual festival which I help organise, was happening simultaneously that day, and I wanted to get an entry in—but of course I had to help prep the festival, which took up a lot of time on top of all my other personal commitments.

The reception it received from the brickfilming community meant a lot to me, as despite having been involved in organising almost all of the BFD events, I’ve never been able to enter a notably finished film into the event, and this felt like something at least close to that which I was proud to share with my peers!

SUCH: Seven HOURS?! Wow, you really are very talented to create such a fun and accurate video recreation in that amount of time!

You made a trailer set to Content for Bezos I as well—with a quick flash (heh) of naked Bo in Goodbye.

Do you always make trailers, or was this just in preparation for your next video, the official farewell to your Lego channel?

James: I enjoy making teasers probably more than I do full length films. I just love music’s relation to visuals, and any opportunity or excuse to edit something like that, I’m taking! But definitely I was hoping to make the release of these Inside videos a more notable event. And then as well to put my own spin on what, as a recreation, is otherwise me redoing someone else’s work.

SUCH: So for Goodbye, you had incorporated clips of your previous works. What made you want to shift your focus? Are you just not into Legos as much as you used to be?

James: The way I created that teaser by changing that Inside scene of Bo looking back at his past work to a LEGO Bo looking back at my past work, was a way for me to more directly address the move forward into the next stage of my creative pursuits and say goodbye to everything I’ve done so far. Of course I then double downed on this visual gimmick in the full Goodbye video, though at the time, this was not what I was planning to do.

I just don’t think the general public takes LEGO as a medium—or animation for that matter—all that seriously. Perhaps it’s also because I was in my teen years making a lot of these LEGO films, but people seemed very focused on the aspect of it being LEGO in the film rather than what I was trying to depict conceptually. And furthermore, after lockdown, I was so tired of spending so much time in my room, alone, with curtains closed, animating LEGO figures.

I wanted desperately to spend my time filmmaking with other people where they would be physically there. Brickfilming will always hold a special place in my heart, and I’ll probably always be doing something with it in some capacity in the future, but certainly I’ve explored everything I feel I can with it on a major scale!!

SUCH: You also made a lovely comparison video of Bo's original version to your version of Goodbye.

Did this get the response you had anticipated? I think it's terribly underrated personally...I love how you perfectly matched up the shots, and the staring-at-the-camera part is even more unnerving when a Lego face is looking at you!

And now it seems you've moved on from Legos to films.

Some behind-the-scene shots of James working on his projects

Did you always have an interest in cinematography? I must say that your shots in all of your videos are beautifully composed.

James: Thank you! I can’t say I’ve ever had a particular interest in cinematography specifically, but I’ve been working with cameras since I was 5 or 6 probably—or I don’t even know, whenever my Mum got her Blackberry honestly.

I feel that a lot is excusable in an otherwise bad film for me, so long as it’s interestingly shot. And so I always strive to have that as the bare minimum, when I can remember to, because sometimes I’m so focused on just trying to get something filmed at all. I’ve definitely put less focus on how it looks more and more over the years and thus relied more on other cinematographers and my friends to make it look good! Bless them.

SUCH: Let's talk about the hard drive you discuss in when you lose everything (a video you have since removed).

It broke my heart to hear you had lost all that footage you'd worked so hard on for your now-defunct film as well as personal photos. I'm glad that you've come up with a way to get something out of it, but this must have been personally devastating along with your grief and other hardships. How have you been working to be more optimistic?

This and the next video with your original music (in time all worldly things too will end) appear to be your Inside in a way, and they are both brilliant (and filmed gorgeously)—plus the music is so emotive and visceral! Just stunning and engaging work that will hopefully inspire people to get the help they need. 

James: The honest answer is that I have no idea. I have just been doing things and hoping they make me feel better, and a lot of the time they have not made me feel better, but we keep going and we keep trying.

Ultimately things do get better with time, and thankfully I look back now and all of the really distressing things feel a fair bit smaller. But still I’m in shock over how all of it happened, and why it all happened. I feel like I’ve created a whirlwind of grief for myself, and I’ve yet to emerge the other side, but I hope to soon enough. More than anything I just want time to think, and for everything to stop.

But things manage to stay busy. The greatest substitute for a lack of self-worth has shown itself to me as kindness. When someone is really kind to you, and they don’t need to be, but they are, it’s reason enough to keep getting through whatever you’re going through.

SUCH: Yes, I can definitely agree with that. What seems emotionally devastating currently will fade over time, and being kind to people is one way to make life better. But I do have trouble with being optimistic after being such a pessimist for 40 years! I imagine it will be a lifelong struggle.

I saw one of your newer videos set to a Beach House song. You really capture a relaxed vibe well. Why did you decide to make that music video? Are you getting the feedback you desire from these non-Lego videos? I always say it's best to do what YOU are passionate about and not cater to a fickle audience.

James: This was a video I had been wanting to make for a while before eventually getting to film it back in March of last year. It was a very healing film, and mostly because it’s much slower paced, simpler and relaxing than what I would usually make.

It’s a music video that makes me really sad to watch back, and it captures a lot of the hurt I was feeling at the time in a way I could have never put into words. And in that respect, I’m not terribly concerned with what the feedback is, because these films are incredibly self serving haha, and you’re quite right it’s best to do what one is passionate about.

But of course, it melts my heart to receive well-worded or sincere comments from viewers. Especially when it seemingly strikes a chord with someone emotionally. That’s all I really want to achieve with the videos I make.

SUCH: Well, I can tell you I very much enjoyed watching it—and the visuals made me want to hang out at the beach pronto (too bad it's winter still!).

What’s your favorite thing to edit? Least favorite? Have you made any videos you now regret or, alternatively, are there any subjects you wanted to focus on but it just didn't work out for whatever reason?

James: My favourite thing to edit is definitely a music video for reasons aforementioned, and my least favourite thing to edit would have to be anything documentary related because I always seem to have an excess of footage and there’s about a million and one directions to go in with regards to constructing an edit for them. It’s really draining and takes too long for my liking.

I’ve never really made anything I regret because I feel like everything is reflective of where I was at—there’s definitely videos I cringe at a little, but that’s normal, I feel, as I’ve progressed (hopefully). I worry that I might regret these super vulnerable films I’ve created and shared recently, but we’ll see with time.

There’s a lot of films and concepts I’ve had to previously scrap due to a lack of time I’ve had to spend on them, but I like to think these concepts have found themselves in other parts of the things I’ve made. I really would like to make more films exploring queer identity, and the internal crisis that stems from being a creative, but even then I feel like I’m already currently looking at both of those to different extents.

SUCH: A queer film would be amazing! As a bisexual woman myself, I know I would be interested in seeing your take on the topic.

Back to Bo Burnham. Have you ever seen him perform live or met him in person?

James: I have never seen Bo in any capacity! So it goes with being a South African though, not many people travel all the way down there to perform typically.

SUCH: Yes, that does make sense. Bo has been to lots of places, but I don't believe he's ever traveled to Africa before. Maybe some day!

What's your favorite Bo song? Special? Feel free to name more than one.

James: My favourite Bo song would really have to be Goodbye, which might be an obvious answer—but I love the melodrama, I love the humour, and I love its epic finish. It ties up the whole Inside special really well, and I think embodies its core themes the best, making it one of Bo’s most vulnerable moments sonically and conceptually if not second to That Funny Feeling!

SUCH: I agree with you there, but That Funny Feeling holds a special place in my heart.

Please tell me one fun fact about yourself that most people don’t know about. Do you have any special hobbies or interests?

James: I think something I don’t speak about often is that I was born in England and lived there for a large part of my childhood, and it’s been on my mind a lot as I’ve gone back and visited properly for the first time since I moved to South Africa over a decade ago.

So yeah, I’m secretly British! And to be honest I don’t have any hobbies or interests that haven’t pretty much become what I’m currently doing full time!! So if it isn’t super boring to say, I really love nature, and try to spend as much of my time out in a quiet, uninhabited, and untouched area with animals or just no people. I love people, but I also just love being alone in a big wide open space. Going for long walks, or on trips to aforementioned empty places is certainly something I try to do often.

SUCH: Yes, I'm a highly sensitive introvert, so I also enjoy just sitting in nature sometimes. I get overstimulated very easily, but I find walking helps calm my mind down. Not a boring response at all!

What's up next for you? Any future projects in the works?

James: I’m taking some time off, and living in the UK for the next little while to hopefully process everything that’s happened away from where it all happened in South Africa. I hope to see some new things, experience a different lifestyle, and figure out what I want to do from there, because I’m exhausted!

I’m continuing to work on a feature film that is essentially my solution to the film I lost on my crashed hard drive, and I’ve been working with a few musicians here in the UK on visuals for their work, so no doubt I will still be producing lots, though I’m trying my best to stay out of that—as much I can!

SUCH: That sounds awesome! And I see that you've recently posted a new update on YouTube to coincide with your 20th birthday. Congrats on finishing The Holes You Try To Hide, and I can't wait to see the final result!

[Ed. note: it's up now on YouTube, and it's stunning as usual!]

How can people best support your work? Do you have any social media you'd like to plug?

James: My Instagram (@pjlegomotion) is definitely the best place to see everything I do, as I post about everything regularly regardless of whose platform it's for. I also have a page set up for the aforementioned feature film I’ve been creating for the last two years, which will likely be done by the end of 2024. That’s @matricdoco.

SUCH: Awesome!

I truly appreciate you taking the time to answer my questions, and I'm glad we were able to connect over your incredible videos. Good luck with whatever you decide to do next!

James: Thank you so much for the opportunity to share my work and talk about what I do :)


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