When first-time feature director Sarah Smith set out to make Arthur Christmas, she instinctively followed that esteemed tradition of British humor where bumbling fools reign. Indeed, Arthur Christmas, is a thrilling ride about the logistics of Christmas (how on earth does Santa deliver so many presents in just one day?), but it stars “an idiot and a naughty old man.”
“The heart of British comedy is that we love idiots and underdogs and losers and fools,” said Smith, who grew up in London. “We have a passion for the person who makes a mess of things.”
The film, which came out on Wednesday, is the first release in a new partnership between Aardman Animation, of Wallace and Gromit fame, and Sony Pictures Animation.
In this Claus family, a clueless Santa (Jim Broadbent) goes through the motions as dictated to him by his technologically savvy and extremely capable but arrogant oldest son, Steve (Hugh Laurie). An international army of nerdy elves help navigate the massive 21st-century Santa spaceship (sans reindeer) across the world.
Meantime, the clumsy and awkward youngest son, Arthur (James McAvoy), is left with menial tasks such as answering letters from children, and Grandsanta, voiced by a deliciously cantankerous Bill Nighy, stews in his over-stuffed chair wondering why efficiency and technology have taken over something that should be done with heart and cloaked in tradition. Needless to say, Arthur and Grandsanta team up to cause a lot of mischief and restore the meaning of Christmas to the Claus family.
The fast paced CG animated film is a big departure for Aardman, best known for their stop-motion classics starring meek plasticine sheep and a very clever dog. After the unsuccessful union between Aardman and DreamWorks Animation ended in late 2006, Aardman retreated to its home in Bristol to restructure. They hired Smith, mainly known for her work in British television on such series as I Am Not an Animal, to lead the way.
“It was a very fascinating time,” said Smith. “Aardman was reinventing what they wanted to do and who they wanted to be. And what sort of partners they were looking for. I had a huge amount of space to work with.”
One of Smith’s goals was making sure the film’s aesthetic kept up with the times. She thought that many animated films had fallen into a sort of relic category.
“I was very aware that by the age of 10 my nephews didn’t want me to take them to see animation anymore,” she said. “They wanted to see The Bourne Ultimatum.”
One of the first calls she made was to her friend and past collaborator Peter Baynham, whose bawdy sense of humor is reflected in his work on Borat and Bruno.
“I have a sense of humor that encompasses the edgy and the dark and profane but also the big-hearted thing,” he said. “I love big, fun family films. I have a 3-year-old daughter so I have to try to stop swearing when she is in the room. She has not seen Borat yet. We are saving that for her fourth birthday.”
Baynham told Smith he had perhaps the best idea he would ever have for a clean family film—how exactly did Santa pull off the delivery of at least 2 billion gifts to children around the world in only 12 hours?
“Christmas is something of great magic, but it also must be the most intensely practical operation,” he said. “You need practical people running that, and so it is an interesting collision between the practical people and the people with the heart.”
Arthur is a boy after Baynham’s own heart.
“I was in the Merchant Navy at 16, which is inexplicable to me to this day—I am a wimp, really,” he said. “Most people were nice to me because they thought, ‘Poor guy, why has he done this?’ I nearly crashed a tanker into a ferry. Arthur is very much that underdog fool.”
As Smith and Baynham delved deeper into the story, Smith found she could not hand it off to another director. Nearly six years later, after figuring out what traveling at 500 miles an hour looked like or what would happen if a hamster bit an elf during the gift drop and calculating exactly how many seconds Santa had to leave the presents and eat the cookies in each child’s home, Arthur Christmas was born.
In between, Smith had her first human child, Grace, who is now 2.
“Her second word was ‘Arthur,’” said Smith. “Her first steps walking were outside of the edit suite.”
Indeed, Grace was present in utero during the entire preproduction phase. Smith’s pregnancy was not easy, and she was bedridden for two months. That didn’t slow the production. They brought an Ikea bed into the editing suite where she would point to storyboards and continue directing. Work continued in the delivery room.
“In the hospital, the crew would come in and say, ‘How are you doing? How is the baby?’ and then ask, ‘By the way, could you look at these maquettes?’” said Smith.
The team of 60 animators, many from the Culver City based Sony Imageworks, took on the massive challenge of making CG Animation look like live action. In live action, a director has several cameras to work with a variety of shots that are then put together into a sequence in the editing room. But in animation, a movie is planned shot by shot through storyboards.
The opening sequence of the film, in which the audience sees a fast-moving, highly detailed, spaceship-like Santa vehicle depositing hundreds of elves and Santa into various locales around the world with only 18.14 seconds per household, took three days to film. One of the last scenes in the film, in which a bicycle is gift wrapped by a fast-talking and talented elfette named Bryony, sent the animators into a tizzy.
“That was a very tricky sequence because wrapping is something that exercises people in the animation world,” said Smith. “The computer doesn’t know where one surface ends and another one begins. When anything touches in CG animation they shiver.”
And yet, Smith discovered that one of the oldest Hollywood adages is true: What matters most is the story.
“Animation directors usually come up from the ranks, so I felt ridiculously unskilled,” she said. “But the team here was very generous. They said, ‘Don’t worry, we can do this and we can help you through that, but we need to know why we need to make that choice or this choice and how this fits into the story.’”
Smith said the folks at Aardman knew their very English sense of humor might not resonate in the U.S. But they found a good partner in Sony. Instead of trying to convert Aardman into a studio with American sensibilities, Sony saw the Bristol-based studio as a European animation company with a distinct voice that could produce successful films for a worldwide audience—not just the domestic box office.
“We look at the film business as a global business so we are internationally focused rather than just the domestic box office,” said Bob Osher, president of Sony Pictures Digital Productions. “With a really good film, it doesn’t matter where it’s made.”
What they found in test screenings was that children are keenly unaware of global boundaries. (And the film will be dubbed into a variety of languages overseas with actors particular to those countries.)
“In the U.S., the children didn’t think that the characters had accents,” Smith said. “Children now live in the global community, and they think of characters as characters rather than as having a particular ethnicity. One child said, ‘I think Mrs. Santa may be British,' which, given that she sounds like the queen, I thought it was hilarious.”
After moving six times in two years with Grace, Smith said she is planning to take some time with her daughter and settle in London. For the time being, she is content with watching her animated first born leave the nest.
“Grace is my next project for the moment. She needs to know she is more important than Arthur Christmas,” she said. “It feels like Arthur is my other child who has gone off into the world and you hope that everyone will treat him OK.”