If You Give a Reindeer a Carrot...
December 12, 2018

If You Give a Reindeer a Carrot...

Framestore’s Christmas spirit is on full display in #ReindeerReady, a magical VFX-laden Christmas ad for McDonald’s. 

The 90-second film – written by Leo Burnett and directed by James Rouse through Outsider – follows Santa on Christmas Eve delivering presents and enjoying glasses of milk and mince pies-a-plenty en route. There is, however, a lack of carrots left out for Santa's reindeer, making for an increasingly forlorn principal reindeer and an increasingly apologetic Santa. Realizing that something must be done, Santa makes a pit-stop at a McDonald’s and grabs a sack full of carrots (packaged as “reindeer treats” for inclusion in Happy Meals) for his hard-working team of flying reindeer, finally turning the reindeer’s frown upside down.

Ben Cronin, VFX supervisor, and CG supervisors Ahmed Gharraph and Grant Walker had worked previously with James Rouse on Mog's Christmas Calamity (Britain's most-loved Christmas advert of 2015), and like that film, this also required the design and animation of a CG animal character that would look realistic and be able to emotionally engage an audience – a rare and specialist skill Framestore has become synonymous with. 

The tight production schedule included a seven-day shoot and a huge amount of work by Framestore creating and animating the reindeer entirely in CG, and also comp’ing in the backgrounds of the live action, which was shot mostly on greenscreen with minimal sets. But Framestore’s work on the project began in the great outdoors among a herd of reindeer....

“Early on in the production, we spent a day with real reindeer, gathering reference photography,” explains Gharraph. “We spent the day filming and photographing (and occasionally stroking and feeding) reindeer. As well as textural and fur reference images, we needed footage of them eating and also running, so we ended up having to chase them around a little bit as they stretched their legs in their huge, open paddocks, in order to get what we needed.”

Framestore's next task was to find the right balance between photorealism and caricature – the creative concept required the main reindeer to look increasingly sad but then delighted when Santa finally comes up with some carrots.

“Even though our reindeer doesn’t talk, it was important to give it intelligence,” says Ross Burgess, head of animation. “As much as we wanted to create a photorealistic animal, we equally wanted the audience to feel compassion for the reindeer, and we were able to achieve this by applying a certain amount of anthropomorphic expression and subtle head tilts to give it a relatable hint of humanity.”

Once the approach for the reindeer's face and the level of expression was approved, building all six of them in CG required no small amount of research into muscle development and also understanding how a reindeer’s fat layer sits on top of musculature so that the reindeer could be as biologically realistically as possible – with wobbles in all the right places. And some vital research into precisely the correct level of fuzz that a reindeer's antlers should sport. The treatment of the reindeer's fur was also created as biologically on point as possible using the latest CG techniques.

“Traditionally when you're shading something in CG, you paint up a texture map and then paint brown where you want it to be brown and gray where you want it to be gray, and so forth,” says Gharraph. “However, in this instance, through research and a better understanding of how hairs are shaded and fur reacts naturally, we achieved a much more realistic fur.”

Walker continues: “Fur and hair get their color from melanin, and this is actually an attribute available to us in CG – so we decided to drive our reindeer fur completely through this. So, rather than assign the fur a color, we gave it a melanin value. And we created nine different shaders, giving us nine different colors, and within each of those sets the melanin is varied and driven by scaler maps. This means that if we created a gray reindeer – it would have all kinds of variation, but we were also using four or five different types of fur (different lengths and widths of hair), which means that you get fur type variation on top of just the color variation. Having this level of variation available to us meant we were able to create six very individual reindeer – rather than simply create one and replicate it.”

While the bulk of Framestore's work was in the creation and animation of the CG reindeer, some of the shots feature a digi-double of Santa – created by scanning the actor in full costume but without his beard. “We wanted to be able to make his beard blow gently in the wind, so we created a dynamic CG beard for our digi-double,” says Cronin. He appears in five or six shots!” 

"Working with Framestore again on this project was both a pleasure and a privilege. Their level of expertise when it comes to VFX is second to none, and their attention to detail and deep understanding of character animation means that I can work with them closely to direct a CG animal's performance to the tiniest detail and achieve an astonishing level of both realism and emotional engagement. The sure sign of the quality of their work is that when it's done, you don't know where live action ends and VFX magic begins – you just believe it,” says James Rouse, director.

Framestore also created a 10-second teaser for the ad, directed by Cronin.