'Arthur Christmas': The Best of Both Worlds

Bill Desowitz talks with Aardman and Sony about their first joint venture together.

The core story of Arthur Christmas is universal, but the heart is very British. © 2011 CTMG, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Arthur Christmas truly benefitted from the best of both worlds in Bristol and Culver as the first collaboration between Aardman and Sony Pictures Animation. Aardman's wacky design and subversive sensibility married brilliantly with Sony's rich rendering of characters and environments.

In fact, it went a lot smoother than trying to deliver two billion presents in one night to all the children of the world.

"It's the first movie we've produced in our relationship with Sony, and therefore it's a testing ground of sorts for how that relationship is going to work," suggests Aardman co-founder and Arthur Christmas producer Peter Lord. Brilliantly is the short answer. They've given us the creative independence that we thrive on, and they've provided us with the highest quality people and pipeline to make our movie. Secondly, it's a film by a new director, Sarah Smith. It pleases me very much that she's come to us with all her creative talents and instincts already formed, but that she's produced what seems to me a very quintessentially Aardman film. Meaning what? Meaning very good-hearted in the world it creates and celebrates; very real and true because it's based on real characters behaving honestly and genuinely; very funny -- because we love to make people laugh; based on great performance both in animation and in the voice; beautiful to look at; and very British."

Santa gets a modern make-over.

Indeed, Smith, who first came to Aardman to oversee development but wound up directing Arthur, found it an invaluable experience. "We never thought of it as a recipe," she says. "In a way, it entirely comes from the original concept of how could you really get the job done in today's world and what would it take? And then you come up with this brilliant and amazing high-tech operation: the idea that things have changed with the times. And in a funny way, it just seems incredibly obvious. And you think: Of course, why would Santa still be the Victorian [image]? He's moved as times change. But in the middle of that, when the high-tech operation fails, the only way to do it is the old way. It's not an either or and it's not a kind of formula to try and please the audience, particularly with the logic of the story, which is, when the big machine breaks down and all you've got is the sleigh in the shed to do it with. And the whole point of the movie is not that one way is good and the other is bad; it's that why of it all, really."

Aardman's senior animation supervisor, Alan Short, who has done CG commercials in Bristol for several years, adds that it was important to let the characters be flawed. "We let them have imperfections because they were flawed emotionally with the family dynamic. We wanted to reflect that in the design, so Arthur got a couple of zits, his ears are a bit wonky, he's got an odd smile, and it's a great way of giving them a family resemblance, although they all look different."

The story takes its characters on a worldwide adventure.

Doug Ikeler, visual effects supervisor for Sony Pictures Imageworks, which collaborates with SPA on the animated features, admits this was their biggest undertaking to date. "It has such scope and appetite traveling over the world. There are so many sets, so many characters, so much hair, so much cloth and so many effects," he says.

There were more than 30 unique, epic-size sets from around the world as well as Mission Control at the North Pole, which was the most ambitious. It's a Christmas tree environment with a profile that's all carved in ice. The whole translation step from 2D to 3D was greatly reduced because they were designing in 3D. It was all very organic with no simple geometry or flat surfaces. But rendering in Arnold, the in-house ray tracer, turned out to be a godsend. "It's been used in live action and on Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, but that was a much simpler movie," Ikeler suggests. "It's a very expensive renderer because you want to figure out all light contribution. But we love the output and it's perfect for ice because you get to cast rays through the ice and off the ice."

Moving forward with CG is important to Aardman. "We absolutely believe in our traditional stronghold of stop-motion animation," concludes Lord. We love it and hope always to practice it. But we believe even more strongly in the need to tell great stories and make great movies. Those two principles are one and two on my list of importance. Animation and the style are totally subservient to these first two. So if you've got a great story and a great director, then we ask ourselves the question: which technique is most appropriate? And for Arthur Christmas, the clear answer -- without any question -- was CG. Now we don't have a feature-film sized CG pipeline here in Bristol. That means that we need to partner up with an existing CG set-up and for Arthur Christmas, the Sony team was the obvious and best choice. Will we ever produce CG movies here at base in Bristol? No plans to do so at present, but nothing's impossible!"

Bill Desowitz is former senior editor of AWN and editor of VFXWorld. He has a new blog, Immersed in Movies (www.billdesowitz.com), and is currently writing a book about the evolution of James Bond from Connery to Craig, scheduled for publication next year, which is the 50th anniversary of the franchise.