It’s hard to imagine how an aged and chubby Santa can deliver two billion gifts without being seen, or getting winded from all that climbing up and down chimneys. According to the new animated family film Arthur Christmas, it’s all thanks to one million tiny little helpers and of course the S1, a huge, mile-wide, state-of-the-art sleigh with stealth cloaking technology. And if you ever wondered, what happens to all the milk and cookies left for Santa? Well, it’s turned into biofuel for the sleigh. The elves have exactly 18.14 seconds to get in and out of each house, and making sure they’re all keeping up to speed is Steve, Santa’s firstborn son, the next in line to wear the red suit. While Santa is still at the head of the organization he’s more of a figurehead on the verge of retiring after a 70-year career span.
When we first meet Arthur, Santa’s second child, we find him working in the Letters to Santa Department. He’s tried working at other departments but he’s simply not the most practical, unlike his older brother. When one last present fails to be delivered Arthur finds an ally in his grandfather, Grandsanta, who served as Santa for 136 years. The two embark on a mission to deliver the last present before Christmas morning.
Making her directorial debut with Arthur Christmas is Aardman Studios veteran Sarah Smith. After a group of journalists were given a sneak-peek at the film’s first half hour, Smith talked about working with co-writer Peter Baynham, the pains and joys of creating a 3D world, and her hopes for Arthur Christmas to be a timeless film.
Q: There's something interesting in the footage we saw that sort of jumps outside the normal story format. There's no straightforward villain and there's not really a romantic interest.
Smith: Oh no! We forgot! [Laughs] Peter [Baynham] 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."
Mostly I felt that you need to write something that feels true to you. 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 crappiness of things not happening for good reasons. That's the worst thing that happens all around us and that's what Steve embodies.
Q: 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. 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. In the end, 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. He's quite odd looking. We wanted to give him a terrible Christmas sweater and Christmas slippers. He's obviously a mess and wears sort of terrible sweatpants with baggy knees and stuff like that.
Q: The movie is being released in 3D. What were some of the challenges of going that route?
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.
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 sense 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.
Q: Aardman has a lot of familiar characters. Are there any Easter eggs that fans should be on the lookout for in Arthur Christmas?
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.
Q: 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. A few days into the story development we discussed the idea of featuring time zones. If they're chasing night, Santa could suddenly have not just 10 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 time zones 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.
Q: Some Christmas movies become timeless and get watched every year. Was there anything that you added or removed to the story to make sure that it could become “timeless”?
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 10 years’ time.
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. 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.
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