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A High-Tech, Dysfunctional Santa’s Coming to Town
How the wizards at Aardman joined forces with Sony Animation to deliver the poignant and funny CG-animated holiday adventure, Arthur Christmas.
Santa Claus and animation have enjoyed a long, mutually rewarding relationship over the years. From classic Rankin-Bass specials like Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer to Chuck Jones’ How Grinch Stole Christmas and the perennial holiday favorite A Charlie Brown Christmas, we have grown accustomed to enjoying the fruits of their partnerships though many decades. This year, thanks to the brilliant folks at Bristol-based Aardman Animations and the creative team at Sony Pictures, we all get to enjoy a new 3-D, CG-animated holiday treat—one that answers that nagging question, “How the heck does Santa manage to deliver all those presents to kids all around the world in one night?”
“Sometimes you hear an idea and you think, ‘why hasn’t anyone done something about it?’ because it seems obvious and yet completely original,” says Sarah Smith, the director and co-writer of the upcoming feature Arthur Christmas during an interview at Sony Imageworks’ studio in Culver City, Calif. “When my long-time friend and working partner Peter Baynham (Borat, Bruno) pitched the idea to me several years ago, I knew it was the right project for Aardman.”
Smith, a TV live-action and animation veteran, who began her association with Aardman as head of feature development in 2006, says she loved the notion that “we could make children believe it could all be done in one night and come up with an explanation that would extend their belief in Christmas.”
Smith and Baynham, who had worked together before on animated TV shows such Bob and Margaret and I Am Not an Animal, then fleshed out the story, adding more members to Santa’s family and zeroing in on Arthur, his youngest son (voiced by James McAvoy) who has a deep understanding of the true meaning of Christmas. “We then started to think about what happens if there’s one mistake in Santa’s gigantic operation…can they fix it? It’s the perfect set-up. That’s the thing about a great idea, in your mind, you can envision the whole film and understand this magical world—this alternative reality that we have seen in many children’s favorites, like Harry Potter. Your mind races with the possibilities of this new world.”
According to Baynham, once they started working out how Santa does what he does, the story got a life of its own.
“You start thinking, well, he’d have to start at the southern tip of New Zealand and then zigzag around the world to do it in 12 hours,” he explains. “We got into a big argument about time zones and whether Santa could fly into daylight and then back into darkness. The idea that the elves have exactly 18.14 seconds per household is based on real calculations we did!”
In the original story, Baynham had also come up with a villainous elf who butchered reindeer for their meat—but, thankfully, since that notion wasn’t really appropriate for a family, holiday movie, Smith nixed the idea! Instead, they really worked on the idea of a super modern tech-loaded sleigh that helped the distribution of the gifts and came up with Grandsanta, Arthur’s grandfather (voiced by Bill Nighy) who helps him with the central quest of the picture.
Since Arthur Christmas was Aardman’s first feature enterprise after its partnership with DreamWorks Animation fizzled upon the release of Flushed Away in 2006, Smith and Aardman founders Peter Lord and David Sproxton were looking for partners that would be mindful of their studio’s special brand of humor and storytelling, while taking the film to the heights of stereoscopic, CG animation.
“We knew that it was going to be CG-animated rather than stop-motion because the idea was to have the film explore a huge scale and high tech,” says Smith. “It was something that a huge American studio could probably do, but we also have this British underdog notion—we all love idiots and losers and our sense of humor is very well suited with the Aardman family.”
It was important for the producers to follow in the footsteps of other Aardman projects, but that didn’t mean that they wanted the CG animation to resemble the studio’s famous plasticine characters such as Wallace & Gromit and Shaun the Sheep. “I recall that Nick Park always said that if he had done Flushed Away, he wouldn’t have done it the plasticine way,” notes Smith. “Aardman does many different styles working in TV and commercials. I think ultimately your studio is about characters and the types of stories that you tell, not about the kind of animation you do. Our characters had to be quirky but not too cute—the design had to follow who they were, rather than a certain aesthetic. We wanted the world of the movie to have a lot of textural reality, so that it was something that children recognized immediately.”
Alan Short, senior supervising animator on the movie, tells us that the team made a conscious decision earlier on not to reference other animated movies, either in design or performance.
“We tried to sidestep any ‘off-the-shelf’ gestures or poses, and we talked endlessly about, OK, is that acting, or is that what you would believably do in this unbelievable situation?” he explains. “For inspiration, we looked at real-life families—ours, yours, everyone’s—and I’d be very surprised if the Claus family dynamic doesn’t strike a chord with the majority of audiences in some way!”
Having to work with an ambitious story with a million elves, a dysfunctional family and a race around the world against the clock provided Short and his team plenty of mind-boggling challenges, but he says the toughest part of the job was dealing with the intense emotional acting of the hero characters. “Bold close-ups, with the vfx, pacey action, comedy pratfalls or other mainstays of traditional animation techniques leave us pretty naked and vulnerable up there—with just our acting to see us through!”
Short also admits that the challenges led to some of the most rewarding aspects of the film as well. “It’s equally very rewarding though to think that we may have pulled it off, and actually delivered some complex and sophisticated acting,” says Short. “When audiences tell us they had a lump in their throats at certain moments, that’s easily as satisfying as getting a laugh from the gags! Not that we like to make people cry, of course. Well… OK, maybe we do a little. It’s an emotional ride!”
Dreaming of a VFX-y Christmas
The task of pushing the visual aspects of the film and harnessing the technology at Sony Imageworks fell upon vfx supervisor Doug Ikeler, whose numerous credits include 2D features such as The Prince of Egypt and Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron, CG-animated movies such as Open Season and vfx-driven features like The Matrix Revolutions. Smith says she felt they were in safe hands when they were introduced to Ikeler. “We kept the year and a half of development and creative work we had done in Bristol, and by the time we came to Sony Imageworks, we knew what kind of a film we were making.”
A big fan of Wallace & Gromit and Creature Comforts, Ikeler moved from Los Angeles to Bristol for a year and a half to prepare for the ambitious project.
“I think our biggest accomplishment on the project was reaching this high level of believability and the textural quality of the characters and the backgrounds,” he offers. “There were a lot of scale challenges as well. You have Santa’s sleigh, for example, that is a four mile wide spaceship. Then we had to build two massive cities in that scale. We tried to define ice about 20 times. We had cloud interactions, water and ships in the ocean, aurora borealis, trails of magic dust. But that old sleigh really kept us busy as well.”
Ikeler and his team mostly relied on Sony’s Maya-based proprietary pipeline to produce the film’s impressive effects. “What I brag about the most is our incredible lighting pipeline, which includes the Arnold ray-trace renderer,” says the supe. “We really explored all the benefits of the light bounding around on the sets, which is expensive, but the visual impact is worth the price. I am also very proud of our elves. They have their own race and own beginning, but they are recognizable as little humans. They do things their own way!”
Inspired by aerial photos of Earth taken from space, Ikeler and his crew also made sure each one of the film’s environments had its own unique look. “They are going around the world, from Africa to Cuba to Canada and the North Pole, so we looked at a lot of natural photos,” he recalls. “When you get high enough, the planet turns into geometric shapes, so we relied on that a lot.”
Both Ikeler and Smith zero in on Pixar’s Ratatouille as the one movie that they had in mind when figuring out the CG animation. “That movie offered the level of detail in a very stylish world,” says Ikeler. “We didn’t copy its look, but we were going for that sense of priority.”
Smith agrees. “I loved the look of Ratatouille: For me, it was when CG animation became as beautiful as old traditional 2D. The joke we heard about the movie was that the kitchen looked so sumptuous because that film was re-written half way through so they had a lot of time to burnish every pot and pan. That consistency of quality, shot by shot, is what we were aspiring to.”
The one thing that Smith is proudest of is the complexity of emotions depicted on the movie’s human faces.
“Towards the end of the film, we have this shot that lands on their faces for a long close-up. I had no idea what we were getting into when we were writing for human characters with complex emotional journeys. I came in and treated our animators as actors. The quality of animation simply asked for a lot of emotional subtlety and I believe we got that in the end.”
Sony/Aardman’s Arthur Christmas opens in theaters on November 23.