With Aardman Animation’s Arthur Christmas hitting theaters on November 23, I headed to London last week and got to see the first thirty minutes and speak with director Sarah Smith. As a huge fan of Aardman and their previous works (Wallace and Gromit, Chicken Run) I figured the footage was going to wow me, and it did. In fact, the opening thirty minutes were fantastic because it was loaded with jokes for adults that had everyone laughing out loud. As the presentation ended, I wished we could have stayed and watched the entire movie.
For those that aren’t familiar with Arthur Christmas, it centers on Santa’s son Arthur and his quest to deliver the last Christmas present for a forgotten child on Christmas Eve. In addition, the film is going to answer the big question: “Just how does Santa manage to deliver all of his presents in just one night?” However, unlike Wallace and Gromit and Chicken Run which used stop-motion animation to tell their stories, Arthur Christmas is using CGI. In addition, the films loaded with an all-star voice cast made up of James McAvoy, Hugh Laurie, Jim Broadbent, Bill Nighy, Imelda Staunton, and Ashley Jensen. Hit the jump for more.
Before we go any further, if you haven’t seen the new trailer yet which reveals a lot more about the story, I’d watch that first:
While I know a lot of you would love to have a full recap of the opening thirty minutes, you’ll have to look elsewhere. I would hate to spoil any of the magic and the reason I laughed so hard in the theater is that I didn’t know what was coming. The most important thing to know is that if you have kids or younger members of your family, everyone is going to get something out of this film. Young kids will learn how Santa and his family manage to deliver all of the presents in one night and adults will be laughing at the interaction between the characters and their hilarious dialogue. Trust me, if you’re a fan of Aardman, this is going to be a welcome addition to their awesome resume.
Shortly after watching the thirty minutes of footage, I got to participate in a very small roundtable interview with director Sarah Smith. Since I know a lot of you like the highlights, here’s “7 Things to Know” About Aardman’s Arthur’s Christmas and the full interview is further down the page.
- The filmmakers consciously decided to avoid including a typical super villain “who is evil for the sake of being evil, opting instead to have a baddie whose evil comes from “just not getting it.”
- The film was envisioned as 3D from the beginning. The 3D choices came out of the world they had designed instead of changing things specifically for 3D. The spectacle of 3D in the film comes from how detailed and tactile the world is, not from things jumping out at the audience.
- Pre-production in Bristol took a year and a half, then the actual production/animation phase in L.A. lasted for another year and a half.
- They included Easter eggs from previous Aardman Animations projects in Arthur Christmas, including nods to Shaun the Sheep and Chop Socky.
- There were heated discussions over what differing time zones meant to their “before the sun comes up” deadline imposed in the plot of the film. The idea of kids being awake in Australia while it’s night in the United States was troubling. They ultimately decided that, for kids, Christmas is nighttime all over the world.
- The Blu-ray/DVD of the film won’t be released until Christmas 2012. They hope that the added time means they can include more features like short films.
- Smith decided to stray from the Wallace & Gromit/Flushed Away look of stop-frame animation look. The approach to character-design was to make them feel British and quirky, not air-brushed or appealing.
Here’s the full interview. You can listen to the audio by clicking here.
Question: There’s something interesting in the footage we saw that sort of jumps outside the normal story format. There’s not a straightforward villain and there’s not really a romantic interest.
Sarah Smith: Oh no! We forgot! (Laughs) Peter ran me up in the first year and said, “I think we need a villain! What if we have this evil elf?” He was going to be called General Antler and he wanted to make burgers out of the reindeer. He sent me something and it was like “The Killing Fields.” I said, “Pete? Is this really what you mean? I don’t think so.” But mostly I felt that you need to write something that feels true to you and the thing in the movie to me is that it isn’t really evil that’s wrong with the world today. It’s the evil of slightly kind of not getting it. Steve is sort of the baddie because he just doesn’t get it. He’s running Christmas, but it’s for all the wrong reasons. Later on, he storms in and finally says, “Alright! So I’m not good with children. Does that make me bad Santa?” There’s this sort of little silence. That’s the bigger problem in the world today. It’s not so much about evil things happening, it’s just the sort of crapness of things not happening for good reasons.That’s sort of the worst thing that happens all around us and that’s what Steve embodies.
Smith: We knew right from the beginning that it was going to be in 3D. There were some really, really hard choices. I’m not a 3D expert and had to learn a huge amount about what works and what doesn’t. Often what you would shoot for 3D is the opposite of the choice you would make for 2D. For the home elf invasion sequence, I always wanted to do a sort of Paul Greengrass handheld camera thing, which is really hard to do in animation anyway with very fast cuts and moving cameras and so on. That doesn’t lend itself to 3D, so there’s an immediate challenge with two different aesthetics. But it doesn’t kind of work for what kids think is cool in action. Having said that, there’s a huge amount in the movie that I think is spectacular in 3D. It all came out of the world we had designed rather than change things for 3D. We don’t have anyone poke you in the eye for example. One of the things that’s great for 3D, though, is how detailed and tactile the world is. If you see the sleigh barn sequence in 3D, it’s fantastic because you feel you’re walking in this gorgeous, detailed 3D world. Arthur’s office is the same. It’s full of little details that have some physicality in 3D, which is brilliant. The other choice we made early on is when they go out on the sleigh. I wanted it to be like a road movie. Rather than have big, sweeping camera movements, we actually attached them to the sleigh on mounts in the computer. That actually makes those scenes fantastic for 3D because, visually, you’re anchored to the sleigh and it feels like being in the car of a roller coaster. You’re on the ride because you’re inside the sleigh. The other thing that’s fabulous in 3D is Mission Control because it’s the biggest set you’ve ever seen and it has fantastic lines of perspective from the camera right into the distance. The background is a big 2D screen, which makes the perfect 3D design. There were some things where we had to make the decision about the 2D or the 3D and which was going to take the lead, but a lot of it has the 3D process opening it all up in a really brilliant way.
Smith: The pre-production, based on the approved script before storyboards, had about a year and a half in Bristol. We managed to do the whole kind of creative setup of it here, which was brilliant. We had a lot of time and space and secrecy to kind of work it out. We did design and storyboarding in Bristol for about a year and a half. Then we moved to Imageworks in LA and did about a year and a half in animation shot production. The animation is just ridiculous. There were times I wanted to run into the animators and go, “Do you know you can get actors and they can walk on their own!” (Laughs)
You had a co-director on this. Is there a certain technical aspect that one of you takes on over the other.
Smith: I basically directed it. I had a co-director for a period of time because I was pregnant and had a baby, but, in fact, the last two years I’ve done on my own. I mean, it’s fantastic to have support, especially early on in the process, but it had sort of been mine and Pete’s project at the very beginning and, in some ways, it’s a nightmare trying to do it on your own. It’s just such a giant amount of work and there’s so many people to interact with. But in other ways, it’s kind of easier. You carry the idea of it and you can make it coherent. You don’t have that difficulty. My relationship with Pete is really the strongest one in that we’ve known each other for 20 years. We argue about absolutely everything, but it’s from the standpoint of basically agreeing about everything. You’re arguing about the best way of doing it or the best detail. You can’t turn that relationship on. That comes from knowing someone for years and years and years. Pete’s been a good touchstone for me all the way through. I couldn’t really create that with a different director, because it’s such a hard thing reaching those different points of view. So once we went to America, I ran with the thing myself.
Smith: Yes, in Gwen’s bedroom, she has a “Shaun the Sheep” backpack and a “Chop Socky” poster as well, I think. There’s also a “Shaun the Sheep” squeaky toy that gets trodden on and there’s one in the bit you saw that’s a tiny homage to “The Wrong Trousers” where an elf is laying the some track for a railway track toy.
This seems like a film that embraces the international side of Christmas. Was there anything you came across as part of a country’s Christmas tradition that seemed a bit bizarre to the way American or British audiences know the holiday?
Smith: Yeah, that was really hard, actually. We did research Christmas traditions and you’re suddenly in front of an exhibitor from some country who goes, “But we celebrate Christmas on the fifth of December and we don’t get presents on that night!” So, to some extent, we had to put a slightly colonial view, which makes it universally the 25th of December. Santa comes the night before and that’s how it goes. It was the same argument we had earlier on — and I think it was the most heated row that Pete and I had — was a few days into the story development, where we discussed the idea of featuring time zones. If they’re chasing night, Santa could suddenly have not just ten hours to deliver presents, or whatever it is. It seemed so fantastic, but then we realized that gets so complicated. Also, for a Christmas movie with a countdown — where they’ve got to get this present there before dawn — it’s very important. Of course, in our world, no child wakes up for Christmas before dawn. Their deadline is that they’ve got to get this present in the last two hours before the sun comes up. If you were flying between timezones and suddenly landing in Africa with the sun up, it would completely ruin your jeopardy. We decided, okay, for kids, Christmas night is night. They don’t start thinking about the fact that, in Australia, some kid is already awake. We wanted to preserve the magic of that idea.
Smith: We didn’t particularly feature that, no. We had a bit, at the beginning, where there are already presents under the tree and there’s a bit of parents being awake. But in the movie, they go to so many different places. They end up in Africa and are singing silent night to the lions. After that opening of houses, there is one more house that gets visited, but they’re really already in this sort of big world trip. One of the things we wanted was to make sure we weren’t saying that the old ways or the new ways were bad. We didn’t want to say that the old sleigh, with the original reindeer was the answer, because, while you do love it and it’s gorgeous, you realize that it’s impractical. How could that deliver all those presents. The point is about why you do it and not how you do it.
Do already plan for the DVD or Blu-ray release as you’re in production?
Smith: We are, but it’s going to be for next Christmas. It’ll be released and then we’ll add some extras to it.
Smith: Yeah, I hope we will. There’s just no way we could have gotten it together before this Christmas as well. It’s been such a tricky deadline because delivering two weeks late on the movie means a next Christmas release.
Were there any scenes in particular that got pulled out that you liked?
Smith: Well, in animation, it’s so expensive that you don’t really have deleted scenes. That’s the whole point of the storyboarding. You see that early on and you end up having to commit. There were versions of scenes and little extra bits here and there that we trimmed, but not a huge amount. But there are deleted scenes and extra scenes in storyboards. Those might be included in the DVD version.
In terms of the character design, did you make a conscious effort to move away from the style of “Wallace & Grommit” and “Flushed Away”?
Smith: My aspiration for the character design was, yes, not going the “Flushed Away” route of trying to copy the stop-frame look. That was my choice. I think that Nick [Park] is one of the best character designers in the world. People don’t think of him like that, but I think he is. I think one of the things that makes his movies spectacular is his characters are fantastic. But, to me, they totally belong to Nick and they belong to stop-frame. So, in the end, I wanted them to still look like they could have only come from Aardman and that they belonged to the family. I think they do. I don’t think they look like CG human characters from other studios. We didn’t try to make any of them cute, particularly. They weren’t trying to look appealing. They are themselves. They have a slightly rough and ready look to them. For instance, for Grandsanta we looked at very early thing Pete Lord had done with an old man. It had that fantastic, slightly-crumpled old man look from plasticine. That was one of the inspirations for Grandsanta. Our characters are quite asymmetrical. They’re just really themselves. We started drawing how we felt about them as characters and then just developed them into a kind of shape language. In the end, when I look at them, I do feel they look like Aardman characters. Grandsanta, especially, has a sense of imperfection as well. They feel sort of British and quirky. They’re not airbrushed. For Arthur, I wanted him to appealing, but really not cute. I don’t think he is. When you look at him, facially, he’s quite odd looking. But I had the idea of giving him very soft hair that would make you want to pat it. Also, the slippers. We wanted to give a terrible Christmas sweater and Christmas slippers. We made the slippers really soft and furry and there’s something about him that makes you say, “Bless.” He’s obviously a mess and wears sort of terrible sweatpants with baggy knees and stuff like that.
There’s something about Christmas movies that’s great, sort of going with what you mention about the DVD, where they become timeless and something that gets watched every year. Was there anything that you added or removed to the story to make sure that it could fit in that timeless sense?
Smith: That’s really hard. The technology thing is really hard. Because it moves on so fast. We have the Ho-Ho 3000 and also the Ho-Pad that came about after the iPad was released. You’re very aware that that stuff changes and that it can potentially date you. But there’s nothing you can do. You place your graphics and your things in a slightly timeless place and hope that you don’t look dated in ten year’s time. But it’s really, really tough. Also, it’s kind of hard doing technology in animation. The last time I saw that was in Wall-E. They chose a very simplified look in their graphics and so on. We chose to go a little bit further and make them somewhere between that and Minority Report. We actually had even cooler graphics at one point, but I realized that you needed the kid element in it to make it funny. It’s the cool offset by the ridiculous. They’re taking so seriously slightly regular things. But who knows? Technology in five years time may have not even have computer terminals. We may just have glass screens. But I hope not because, as you say, the aspiration for a Christmas film is that it becomes something that lasts. That people will love beyond one year.