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The Aardman / Sony Pictures Animation Collaboration

In taking on a project with the scope and scale of Arthur Christmas, Aardman – a company best-known for the clever humor and idiosyncratic designs of its signature stop-motion films – took on a great challenge: how to translate the characteristic Aardman sensibility to a 3D-animated form.

"At Aardman, we always say that the house style is in spirit more than anything else,” says Peter Lord, a producer of the film and a co-founder of Aardman. "We like to make different sorts of films. This one was radically different than anything we've done before – different because it's CG, of course, but also different in scope, different in design, and different in its style of writing. It's very skillfully detailed, verbal, witty, and clever. But we're happy with the ways it's different, because it still feels very much like an Aardman film at its heart.”

The project became a merging of the minds between the storytellers at Aardman, the creative animation team at Sony Pictures Animation, and the CG artists and technology at Sony Pictures Imageworks and Aardman. Bob Osher, president of Sony Pictures Digital Productions, says that the animation studio's unique expertise made it a perfect match for Aardman. "It was extremely important to all of us that every nuance and character trait that is unique to Aardman's style of animation be facilitated as the project moved into the digital pipeline. Imageworks, our digital production facility, has always tailored its resources to serve the look and style of each film, just as Sony Pictures Animation has never established a house look because we want each movie to determine its own visual style,” says Osher.

"This movie always had the scale and landscape – there was no question it would be a CG film. There was no way we were going to build a million elves as individual puppets!” says David Sproxton, a producer of the film and Aardman's co-founder. "We knew that the only way to do it was CG. It just made so much sense to partner with Sony Pictures Animation.”

The job began at Aardman's home studio in Bristol, England, where the filmmakers worked on the design of the characters, their world, and the story. Several key members of the Sony Pictures Animation and Imageworks teams took up residence in Bristol to work closely with the Aardman team and ensure a smooth transition into digital production. Among them was Sony Pictures Animation's Donnie Long, who moved to Bristol as the film's head of story. "The Clauses are a British family, so there was no better way to get some of the finer points of life – and some of the more unusual references – than to see it firsthand. I'm an enormous fan of many classic British comedies, from television to movies to standup to social commentators – not to mention Aardman's animation and their sensibility – so to be able to go there and work there was really a dream come true for me. It was a great experience to actually be in the UK, working on the story,” says Long.

team. "We shut the production down in Bristol on a Friday, and opened up in California the following Monday,” explains producer, Steve Pegram. "Sony Pictures Animation has a wealth of creative talent and a fantastic set of tools at Imageworks – it made sense for Aardman to come here and learn about CG films from people who have been doing it for many, many years.”

"Aardman had a great story concept – they just needed a place to make it,” says co-producer Chris Juen, a longtime Sony Pictures Imageworks producer whose credits include Spider-Man, Stuart Little, The Polar Express, Beowulf, and Sony Pictures Animation's Surf's Up and Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs. "I think they felt that we could do their story justice. I'm proud of the job we did – it's a large-scale and ambitious film, and frankly, I'm blown away by how good it looks.”

So, the primary question became: how to make this ambitious, CG project also a distinctively Aardman project. Character designer Tim Watts says that the goal of the design and animation teams was "to achieve a look that was Aardmanesque – retaining the simple shapes of Aardman designs – but also a little different, a little more grounded.”

"Early on in character design, we tried to figure out what makes an Aardman character,” says Juen. "Because they work in clay, there's an endearing imperfection to the characters. However, trying to make a computer image imperfect is a very complicated thing to do. We spent some time messing with the symmetry of the characters – as they become less perfect, I think people relate to them more. That was very important to Sarah, right from the beginning.”

The production designer, Evgeni Tomov, agrees: "We definitely wanted to integrate some of the British quirkiness, but the big challenge was to create a film that is recognizable as an Aardman look and yet different from the stop-motion aesthetic the company is known for. It had to be believable without being hyper-realistic.”

In a sense, because Smith and Baynham have a history in live action, they approached the project with a live-action sensibility. "I actually first envisioned the movie as a live-action movie – I had even pitched it that way – until Sarah convinced me it had to be done in animation,” says Peter Baynham. "And she was right. You know, sometimes I'll see a Christmas movie and think, ‘Well, that's a famous actor in a Santa suit,' but I see our movie and I think, ‘That's Santa.' A live-action movie could never portray Mission Control or the S-1 as animation can. I'm so happy we did it this way.”

There is no one way to write an animated movie, but because of their backgrounds, Smith and Baynham were able to avoid some of the clichés of the medium– avoiding fast-moving animation and focusing on the true emotion of the scenes. "Without realizing it, Pete and I set up a ridiculously big challenge for an animated movie – it depends on detailed emotional performances from human characters,” says Smith.

"We talked a lot about it,” says Alan Short, the film's senior supervising animator. "We tried to avoid the clichés wherever we could. How do people really behave? How would we do this if it was live action?”

Though animators work with their hands, the characters they create have to give performances that are as subtle and emotional as any actor's. Short says he is proud of the work done by his team, especially as the film reaches its conclusion. "We have full-face characters on screen, acting emotionally. It's sentimental, but not schmaltzy. We encouraged the animators to film themselves acting to give them a reference – not because they're the greatest actors in the world, but to give them a framework to work from, a grounding in the real world. Creating that really required the animators to put themselves out there – you feel naked when you create a performance like that. Those were the most exciting moments for me, during production – the animators would bring something to life, and even though I knew what was coming, I'd feel it, because suddenly it was real and alive. It was a tremendous challenge, and I'm proud of what they achieved.”

In a way, Smith's and Baynham's live-action approach dovetailed with Aardman's signature style: stop-motion is grounded in a similar reality. In CG animation, anything can be modeled in the computer, and the virtual "camera” can be placed anywhere in space and shoot at any angle. A stop-motion animator has to work with real modeling clay and a real camera, just as a live-action filmmaker has to work with real actors and equipment.

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