CG Helps Santa's Reindeer Take Flight
December 13, 2018

CG Helps Santa's Reindeer Take Flight

Netflix’s original feature “The Christmas Chronicles” takes audiences on a whimsical and modern-day adventure with Santa Claus.

Directed by Clay Kaytis, and starring Kurt Russell as Santa, the comedy follows a pair of siblings that team up with the not-so-jolly hero to save Christmas. From photoreal reindeer taking flight through a Northern Lights night sky to a sprightly cast of CG elves, Method Studios Vancouver helped realize the fanciful holiday tale, with artists led by Method VFX Supervisor Hamish Schumacher.

To create a photoreal team of CG reindeer, Method artists captured extensive still and video footage of live reindeer for reference on look and movement. Method artists first designed Comet and Donner, paying close attention to scale in comparison to the actors and meticulously matching antler and body measurements to the on-set riding rigs. 

Once the assets for Comet and Donner were finalized, the team created textural and color variations, and adjusted the groom for the other six reindeer on Santa’s team. During filming, Method supervisors served as reindeer stand-ins, helping lay the foundation for close interaction between the actors and CG characters. For enhanced believability, the technical animation team fine-tuned each reindeer’s motions, adding subtle nuances from the way the reindeer’s muscles fired up for flight to subtle twitches and movements during close-ups.

“The scene when Katie meets Comet is very intimate – she’s stroking his muzzle and feeding him a candy cane while explaining what happened to Santa. Her connection with him is what motivates the herd to help out and move the story along, so it was crucial that the bond feel authentic,” said Schumacher. “Clay has such an incredible animation pedigree; he set a high bar for us and our animators went above and beyond to bring something extra to each shot.”  

For the six main elf characters, facial expressions and mannerisms were paramount to conveying emotions since they do not speak English. To ensure that the full CG elves moved as fluidly as possible, Method artists ran detailed motion tests to view character run cycles and leg movements based on body proportion and personality. The elves appear throughout the movie, including one scene where upwards of 40 elves attack a gang of villains. 

On set, the actors were captured running around and jumping up and down chaotically. After matchmoving the sequence, Method populated the footage with CG elves, using the live-action footage to guide the animation. For a big crowd sequence at the North Pole, Method created 20 fully animated mid-ground elves and 250 diverse background elves – in addition to the six hero elves in the foreground.

Method artists also crafted the sleigh flight sequences, using psychedelic imagery and vibrant color to convey travel time and distance as Santa circumnavigates the globe. With the push of a button, Santa enters a wormhole and speeds past a montage of iconic landmarks including the Statue of Liberty and Eiffel Tower, with the dancing lights of the Aurora Borealis tying the sequence together. Additional effects work includes Santa’s transformation when he travels down and out of rooftop chimneys.

“The Christmas Chronicles” is now streaming on Netflix.