The Art & Making of Arthur Christmas works on two levels; it contains over 300 photos, paintings and sketches made during the film’s production so it resembles an album the Claus family might have commissioned to mark a special occasion. The occasion is Santa’s impending retirement after 70 years in the job, where he is expected to hand over the reins to his eldest son Steve, or will he? You could leaf through the book with a young child without spoiling the magic of Christmas. On another level the text gives an insight to the care and creativity that went into the animation. Over 25 key members of the team were interviewed for the book and what they said tells the production story.
Arthur Christmas is a co-production between the British Aardman Animations and the USA Sony Pictures Animation. The book is told from a British perspective of developing the story, characters, props and settings, which mostly took place in the
UK. The CG side of things was done in LA, USA and although staff from Sony Pictures were interviewed for the book it does not go into the technical side of CG, nor does it have pictures of people sitting at computers or wire frame models of the characters. In some ways this is a plus because it would have spoiled the magic. We are told in the book that some staff from LA moved to Bristol in the UK for two years during pre-production and then Aardman moved key personnel to LA for the digital production.
In the preface to the book Peter Lord, Producer and Co-founder of Aardman, replies to the question ‘How do you set about making an animated movie?’ with; ‘Well we’ve made a few pictures here at Aardman, and the simple answer is: you start small – very small – with a tiny seed of an idea. Over the years you nurture that idea, you shape it, build on it and allow it to evolve. Gradually the idea becomes visible through drawing, design, lighting and performance. It’s always a heroic task and in the end it involves hundreds of people.’
The film’s director and writer, Sarah Smith, recalls the early days of the production when their walls were terrifyingly bare of the kind of pictures people point at when executives visit and ask the (literally) multimillion-dollar question, “So, what will it look like?” Sarah confides; ‘The first trailer we made for Arthur Christmas featured an anxious elf trying to divert the attention of a camera crew from Santa’s secret North Pole by pointing limply in the other direction and exclaiming desperately, ‘Polar bear! In a hat!” That was of course when they HAD a team. For the first eighteen months of development Sarah and her assistant Alice were the ‘team’. Since Aardman had not at that point signed with Sony, they had no budget or distributor.
‘The Aardman philosophy has always been to create working environments where directors can thrive, and empower the crew to do their best work’, says Producer, Steve Pegram. ‘Arthur Christmas is an original idea by Pete Baynham (Bornat and Bruno), brought to the studio and developed by Sarah Smith; they share a writing credit with Sarah directing. The two have worked together for many years and have an exciting creative bond. One big disadvantage when we started was that Pete lived in Los Angeles. He and Sarah had a fascinating working relationship. Sarah worked at Aardman in Bristol during the day and when she went home at night, when everyone else was going to sleep, she would start working with Pete via Skype.’
Head of story, Donnie Long, maintains that the Aardman sensibility is grounded in a quirkier character. He says; ‘The characters aren’t overacting or being overly broad but there’s a sincerity to them that makes them very appealing in a familiar way. You can always compare their characters to people you know, to people who’ve been in your life and that kind of quick accessibility makes their stories strong.’
The amazing attention to detail is brought out in a contribution by VFX supervisor Doug Ikeler who talks about the treatment of Arthur’s baggy sweater. Arthur is a skinny guy and his big wool sweater does not fit him. Doug describes the problem of making the sweater move when Arthur moves; ‘All of our simulations are reality based so it had to look real. But we didn’t have a big enough body underneath the sweater to fill it out. We wanted to maintain a bell shape around Arthur’s body but it was a battle not to have too many folds and bulk that would overwhelm the character. We couldn’t let the sweater just hang. We had a menagerie of cheats to get that sweater to look right.’
The first two sections of the book cover the development of the characters and story and the final part deals with the Santa’s journey around the world on Christmas Eve. I can thoroughly recommend this book as a souvenir of the film and as an insight into the working methods of Aardman Animations.