Santa Goes High Tech In 'Arthur Christmas'
January 12, 2012

Santa Goes High Tech In 'Arthur Christmas'

Arthur Christmas debuted during the holidays in theaters, and while it found some big-movie competition in the US, the animated film did especially well in the UK, not doubt due to its Aardman/UK roots.
Nevertheless, Arthur Christmas is still receiving post-holiday presents in the form of industry award nominations. The release has earned six Annie Awards nominations honoring excellence in animation and two Visual Effects Society Awards nominations recognizing outstanding visual effects artistry. It is also in the running for a Broadcast Film Critics Association Award (winners announced January 12) and a Golden Globe (winners announced January 15). It has been submitted for an Academy Award, but the animated features nominees had not been released as of this posting. Recently it received the Golden Tomato Award for the Best Reviewed Animated Film of the Year, garnering the highest score of any animated feature in 2011 on the popular movie destination web site

Did you ever wonder just how Santa is able to deliver presents to households around the world all in a single night? Theories have been abound for generations. Does Santa enter some type of time warp? Does he feed the reindeer magical food? 

In the 3D computer animated film Arthur Christmas, audiences get a glimpse into the jolly guy’s ultra-high-tech operation that enables him to deliver gifts with ultra-precision. To get the job done, Santa uses a huge, mile-wide, state-of-the-art sleigh with stealth-cloaking technology, while a million elves, working in precision teams of three, have 18.14 seconds to get into each house, deliver the presents, and move on to the next one.  

“They have all the technology in the world, and no expense is spared,” says Sarah Smith, who directs and co-wrote Arthur Christmas, the new 3D, CG-animated film from Aardman for Columbia Pictures and Sony Pictures Animation. “This movie reveals what their equipment looks like and how they do it.”
Arthur Christmas is Sony Pictures Animation’s first film collaboration with Aardman, the landmark animation company best known for its award-winning and crowd-pleasing stop-motion films Chicken Run and Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit. The winners of over 400 international awards, including four Oscars (three for Best Animated Short Film, and one for Best Animated Feature Film for Were-Rabbit), Aardman delivers its second CG-animated project with Arthur Christmas, and takes on an ambitious subject: the delivery of two billion presents in one night. It also delves into a dysfunctional family, the Clauses.

Situated at Mission Control and assisting Santa is his oldest son, Steve, who is the heir-apparent in the long line of Clauses as Santa considers retirement. Santa’s youngest son, Arthur, has worked in less technical and less mission-critical jobs within the family business. That’s because Arthur has a way of, well, getting in the way. Nevertheless, his heart is in the right place, and he truly cares about the holiday.

Despite Santa’s sophisticated gear, an error occurs (thanks to Arthur’s antics) and a gift falls off the sleigh unnoticed. Steve doesn’t see this as a big deal; Santa is perplexed as to how to fix the problem. Arthur teams up with his retired grandfather, Grandsanta, who resents the modernization of the operation, and together they use old-fashioned methods to get that present delivered. And this is where their adventure begins, as they get lost, lose reindeer, and set off an international military incident. Even though Arthur seems less competent than his brother, Steve’s lack of compassion becomes a far bigger hurdle, making Arthur the better replacement for Santa. 

“When Aardman first pitched the story, we always saw it as such a big idea,” recalls Bob Osher, president of Sony Pictures Digital Productions, who, as the senior animation executive at the studio, was a frequent visitor to Aardman's Bristol base.  “This was something that had the potential to bring the wonderful Aardman appeal to a wide audience.” The family comedy debuted in theaters in time for the 2011 holiday season. 

Editor’s Note: Don’t miss the exclusive Q&A with VFX supervisor Doug Ikeler to see how the VFX “elves” got the enormous job on the film done! CLICK HERE!

Changing Genres

In taking on a project with the scope and scale of Arthur Christmas, Aardman—a company best known for the clever humor and idiosyncratic designs of its signature stop-motion films—presented a great challenge: how to translate the characteristic Aardman sensibility to a 3D-animated form.

“At Aardman, we always say that the house style is in spirit more than anything else,” says Peter Lord, a producer of the film and a co-founder of Aardman. “We like to make different sorts of films. This one was radically different than anything we’ve done before—different because it’s CG, of course, but also different in scope, different in design, and different in its style of writing. It’s very skillfully detailed, verbal, witty, and clever. But we’re happy with the ways it’s different because it still feels very much like an Aardman film at its heart.”

The project became a merging of the minds between the storytellers at Aardman, the creative animation team at Sony Pictures Animation, and the CG artists and technology at Sony Pictures Imageworks and Aardman. Bob Osher, president of Sony Pictures Digital Productions, says that the animation studio’s unique expertise made it a perfect match for Aardman. “It was extremely important to all of us that every nuance and character trait that is unique to Aardman’s style of animation be facilitated as the project moved into the digital pipeline. Imageworks, our digital production facility, has always tailored its resources to serve the look and style of each film, just as Sony Pictures Animation has never established a house look because we want each movie to determine its own visual style,” he says.

“This movie always had the scale and landscape—there was no question it would be a CG film. There was no way we were going to build a million elves as individual puppets!” says David Sproxton, a producer of the film and Aardman’s co-founder.  “We knew that the only way to do it was using CGI.  It just made so much sense to partner with Sony Pictures Animation.”

The job began at Aardman’s home studio in Bristol, England, where the filmmakers worked on the design of the characters, their world, and the story. Several key members of the Sony Pictures Animation and Imageworks teams took up residence in Bristol to work closely with the Aardman team and ensure a smooth transition into digital production. Among them was Sony Pictures Animation’s Donnie Long, who moved to Bristol as the film’s head of story. “The Clauses are a British family, so there was no better way to get some of the finer points of life—and some of the more unusual references—than to see it firsthand,” says Long.   

When they were ready to begin animation in earnest, the core Aardman crew moved to Culver City, California, where they integrated with the Sony Pictures Animation team. “We shut the production down in Bristol on a Friday, and opened up in California the following Monday,” explains producer Steve Pegram. “Sony Pictures Animation has a wealth of creative talent and a fantastic set of tools at Imageworks—it made sense for Aardman to come here and learn about CG films from people who have been doing it for many, many years.”

“Aardman had a great story concept – they just needed a place to make it,” says co-producer Chris Juen, a longtime Sony Pictures Imageworks producer whose credits include Spider-Man, Stuart Little, The Polar Express, Beowulf, and Sony Pictures Animation’s Surf’s Up and Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs.  “I think they felt that we could do their story justice.  I’m proud of the job we did—it’s a large-scale and ambitious film, and frankly, I’m blown away by how good it looks.”

So, the primary question became, how to make this ambitious, CG project also a distinctively Aardman project. Character designer Tim Watts says that the goal of the design and animation teams was “to achieve a look that was Aardman-esque, retaining the simple shapes of Aardman designs, but also a little different, a little more grounded.”

“Early on in character design, we tried to figure out what makes an Aardman character,” says Juen. “Because they work in clay, there’s an endearing imperfection to the characters. However, trying to make a computer image imperfect is a very complicated thing to do. We spent some time messing with the symmetry of the characters—as they become less perfect, I think people relate to them more. That was very important to Sarah, right from the beginning.”

The production designer, Evgeni Tomov, agrees: “We definitely wanted to integrate some of the British quirkiness, but the big challenge was to create a film that is recognizable as an Aardman look and yet different from the stop-motion aesthetic the company is known for. It had to be believable without being hyper-realistic.”

In a sense, because director Sarah Smith and co-executive producer Peter Baynham have a history in live action, they approached the project with a live-action sensibility. “I actually first envisioned the movie as a live-action movie—I had even pitched it that way—until Sarah convinced me it had to be done in animation,” says Baynham, who along with Smith wrote the movie. “And she was right. You know, sometimes I’ll see a Christmas movie and think, ‘Well, that’s a famous actor in a Santa suit,’ but I see our movie and I think, ‘That’s Santa.’ A live-action movie could never portray Mission Control or the S-1 [sleigh] as animation can. I’m so happy we did it this way.”

There is no one way to write an animated movie, but because of their backgrounds, Smith and Baynham were able to avoid some of the clichés of the medium—avoiding fast-moving animation and focusing on the true emotion of the scenes.  “Without realizing it, Pete and I set up a ridiculously big challenge for an animated movie; it depends on detailed emotional performances from human characters,” says Smith.  

“We talked a lot about it,” says Alan Short, the film’s senior supervising animator.  “We tried to avoid the clichés wherever we could.  How do people really behave?  How would we do this if it was live action?”

In a way, Smith and Baynham’s live-action approach dovetailed with Aardman’s signature style: Stop-motion is grounded in a similar reality. In CG animation, anything can be modeled in the computer, and the virtual “camera” can be placed anywhere in space and shoot at any angle. A stop-motion animator has to work with real modeling clay and a real camera, just as a live-action filmmaker has to work with real actors and equipment. 

On the other hand, maybe it’s not such a difference after all, says Sproxton.  “Everything has to be made in the computer in the same way that every prop in stop-frame has to be made and crafted out of wood or resin. Sure, you may be able to hit ‘copy and paste’ in a way, but everything has to be handcrafted in the same way. That runs through every film we do; that craftedness, that attention to detail.  The crew throws themselves into it and the love and care that goes into the movies is definitely there on the screen.”

Visual effects supervisor Doug Ikeler says that approach freed the animators to open themselves up to new possibilities. “Sarah took us out of our comfort zone,” he says.  “Because she wasn’t as familiar with the limitations as we were, she’d ask for things that seemed undoable—and we’d stop and think about it, and find that, you know, maybe we could do it after all.”

Christmas Stars: The Character Design

The design of Arthur Christmas began with the characters.  “For us, it’s all about character,” says producer Steve Pegram.  “We never say that we want the film to look a certain way—we find the personality of the characters, and the look follows.”

Tomov agrees: “Once the characters are created—when we know how stylized or realistic they are—we can start creating an environment for them to live in.”

For the character designs, the filmmakers first turned to Peter de Sève, a well-known illustrator and animator, for a first pass at what the characters might look like. From these early sketches, character designer Tim Watts translated the inspiration into a full-fledged character that could be animated in three dimensions.  

“We always start with drawings,” de Sève explains. “When we had a drawing Sarah liked, we’d take it to the sculpt stage, to explore how those proportions would work in three dimensions.” On many CG-animated films, this modeling is done directly in the computer, but for Arthur Christmas, Watts did it the old-fashioned way: with clay.  

Of course, the lead character is Arthur.  “He doesn’t realize how he appears to everyone else,” says Watts. “Everything he wears is unhip; he has his horrible Christmas sweater. We made him skinny, so the sweater just didn’t fight right.”

For the big man himself, Watts says that he created a Santa with “an archetypical look, but also a wide-eyed, deer-in-the-headlights gaze--he just doesn’t quite know how these new-fangled ways took over the operation.”

When a model is approved, it is scanned into the computer and cleaned up.  “We remove the lumps and bumps, and it gives the animators a solid shape to work with,” says Watts.

About the Production Design 

Tomov and his team of 25 artists were charged with creating the film’s production design. “This film is very ambitious,” he says. “The locations vary from the North Pole, to Mexico, to Toronto, to Africa, to Europe. All of those locations had to fit stylistically in the same world, and it needed a lot of research.  
“Some of the places we visit in the film are only on screen for a few minutes or even a few seconds, and they have to convey the essence of that place without a caption at the bottom of the screen telling the audience where it is. We’d ask ourselves, what makes Africa Africa?” Tomov says. “On the other hand, there are other locations that are intended to be a surprise and get revealed as the film goes on; that was also a challenge.”

Much of the film is about the clash between Steve’s and Grandsanta’s different approaches: one ultra-modern and high-tech; the other, warmer but belonging to a world that is slipping away. “It’s a challenge to make these two different worlds look like part of the same film,” says Tomov.  “Steve’s world is very contemporary, while Grandsanta’s world carries the soul and warmth that everyone associates with Christmas. Much of the movie is about the conflict of those two worlds, and, of course, at the resolution of the film, the story confirms that they don’t necessarily have to be in conflict.”

Arthur’s office at the North Pole is in the Letters to Santa department. “His office had to be the beating, warm heart of Christmas,” says Tomov.  “We tried to make it a slightly chaotic environment—the letters are piled up in a very spontaneous way.  But it was the lighting that really helped. We were able to give the office a warmth and a special, golden glow that was a good juxtaposition to the surrounding cold, icy corridors.”

“His office is just loaded with Santa paraphernalia,” says Doug Ikeler, the visual effects supervisor. “Every country, every age group, every little Santa tchotchke you can think of is in there. The Sony Pictures Imageworks modelers, texture artists, lighters really did some knockout work that I hope the audience never notices. I hope it just seems like a real location.”

For the animators, creating Steve’s high-tech world offered a wealth of creative possibility. But perhaps the greatest challenge was to wrap the final present, a bike, as Arthur is riding it, using only three pieces of tape. Is such a thing even possible?

“We got a bike and gave it to one of our superstar animators for research,” says Alan Short, senior supervising animator. “Well, the next time I saw him, he was in the corridor, trying to wrap a child’s bicycle using only three pieces of tape. Later, the supervising animator on that sequence, Alan Hawkins, planned it out meticulously—he could tell you the path the bike takes and how much of the bike is wrapped at any given time.”

Ikeler adds, “We had a little competition amongst the crew—wrap the most exotic thing you can think of. And I’m just saying, if you need to wrap something with three pieces of sticky tape, you can do it. You can absolutely do it.”

Along with Steve at the helm, and the one million elves, the S-1 is the answer to the big question, how does Santa do it? 
It takes a very special aircraft to circle the globe and make its deliveries all in one night. When the mystery of how Santa can possibly deliver all those presents in one night is revealed, it is Santa’s new sleigh that stands out as a feat of engineering—and design. The S-1 is enormous: At 1.16 miles wide and 2.08 miles long, it is large enough to cover a city while the three-elf teams descend into homes and leave presents for the children. And fast: It travels at nearly one million miles per hour, about 8.5 times faster than the speed of sound. It is powered at 15.22 trillion watts PR (reindeer power). It’s propulsion system is strictly classified except to Clauses and elves about Level 12. The S-1 further contains a L-Melion X 1000 video “skin” that allows it to project any image to help camouflage the ship, rendering the craft totally invisible. It’s very chameleon-like in the way it can reflect the image that is below it and then the look as if the S-1 had disappeared. When it comes time to wash the sleigh, it requires 3876 elf hours to complete the task.

More impressive facts about the S-1: It can carry five Clauses and more than one million elves; the hold area has room for two trillion presents and 121 million metric tons of stocking filler (chocolate coins, candy canes, small toys, oranges). For travel comforts, it contains 62-plus bathrooms, a coffee machine, rear-window defogger, a USB port with smartphone connectivity, and more.