Comfortably the best Christmas movie in years, Arthur Christmas arrives in cinemas this weekend. It’s also Aardman’s first movie in half a decade, and marks the directorial debut of Sarah Smith.
Here, we chat to her, and co-writer Peter Baynham, about the last five years of their life…
You walk quite a tight cultural line with Arthur Christmas. My understanding is that you conceived, wrote and mapped the film out at Aardman in Bristol, and then shipped it out to Sony ImageWorks in America for the animation.
You presumably have to hammer down the cultural elements quite tightly before you take the animating of the film to America?
Sarah: We wrote completely for ourselves, and we wrote the movie that we wanted to make. There were very few shifts that we were asked to consider for cultural reasons. There were ideas and story notes, but not really culturally. Sony loved the idea that the Santas were like the British royal family, and that’s so much a key part of it. They asked us to make the elves a multi-national force, which we thought was a good idea. But we were very lucky to have a protected period of time at Aardman where we just had a lot of space to work things out for ourselves in detail.
Pete and I spent actually a year conceiving it, a year writing. Then I had another year and a half with storyboarding and design before we moved to the States.
So what changed in that first year?
Sarah: In that first two or three years! It changes a lot during storyboarding as well, because one of the great joys of animation is that you get to see the movie, as a movie, early on. Albeit in black and white drawings. I think that for us as writers, that’s a huge privilege. Usually your script gets shot, and when you see it edited, you think, hmmm. You actually pre-edit your movie here before you even make it.
So it gives us a chance to watch it and go that’s a bit long, that doesn’t play as we think it would. And you can make those revisions during the storyboard process. We were still making revisions all the way through, until the last shot was finished.
Peter: I think in terms of story changes, as we became more and more familiar with the world we were creating. We started with this rule, which was theoretically crazy but so much fun, in that it had to be possible. If Santa can do it, how can he do it. That created all those insane elf gadgets, the mile-wide sleigh with a million elves on it. It’s all come from that place where it’s true, so how is it possible.
So we became more familiar with that, and all the rules of the world. And at the same time, we wanted this lovely, funny, family at the heart of it. This family grappling with all this stuff. And so we became more and more familiar with all of these characters. It’s a global road movie in a way. So you’ve got the whole world, and one of the big issues early on is where do they go?
Sarah: Limiting yourselves is hard.
In terms of development, we always had the basic structure: this amazing mission, one thing goes wrong, the rookie goes out, the family come together. And we always knew all of that, and that never changed. What changed was, as Pete said, what made the road movie fun, and where do you go with that. And the other thing was is the true thing that Andrew Stanton says about story: you keep digging up. You keep excavating. You think you’ve found the skeleton, then you dig a bit more and find a different bone, and it’s a different animal from what you thought. You had to dig deeper for the family relationships.
From a narrative standpoint, you talk about the family relationship. Was the board game sequence that you put in the film your ‘eureka’ moment?
Sarah: Yes! It was! Because we actually had an enormous amount of the dialogue of that scene in a previous scene, where they just were having dinner and arguing. And at some point we came up with the idea of the board game, and I think I sort of sat and ripped apart all the dialogue we had, and through it into a board game thing. Which is basically the way that my family argue over. Mixing the two things up suddenly brought it all to life.
Peter: It was a little bit of a eureka moment, because it made you think of this family at Christmas. Like all families, stuck playing a game. I hate that point: I don’t like board games!
Sarah: Suddenly, you find the device which all your dialogue is trying to do. Which is they’re all having an ego competition, and suddenly they’re all arguing about who gets to play Santa. And you’re going, ta-dah!
Christmas movies have a really horrible habit of being twee and sugar coated. I think back to something like The Grinch, where every good thing it does it throws away by falling into mawkishness.
How hard do you have to balance that? You get away with it here, through humour mainly. Appreciating you have to have your emotional touchpoints, you seem to place little dabs of comedy in the right places to offset it.
Peter: When we first started working on this, we came to it, genuinely, because we were genuinely excited about the idea. We didn’t think, let’s write a Christmas film! You have this idea, and you go, that’s going to be fun! And then one person said, you realise you’re going to be developing a Christmas movie, in the middle of summer, for several years. Have you thought about that? And we hadn’t.
Also, three or four years ago in Bristol, me and Sarah were developing this, we sat down and watched a few Christmas films on DVD. It was like, oh.
So many Christmas films either are twee, or try and go super edgy, then stick on something Christmassy at the end of the movie. We wanted it to feel big-hearted, and funny, and to have a bit of edge. But to have that feeling of it running right through the middle of it. It wasn’t just have your cake and eat it. We just wanted to make a fun movie.
Sarah: I think the key to it is that you have to put your real, own emotional experience into the film. You don’t do twee and sentimental, and you don’t add on a bit of Christmas feeling. We created characters that we cared about, and we put them through hard places and experiences based on things that we feel. If you don’t put something in a movie that isn’t very personally true to you, that you feel, that makes you cry a bit, then nobody will feel it either.
Your antagonist here is a clock, if anything…!
Sarah: Maybe a clock! But also, Steve in a way is the antagonist. But it’s the badness of not quite getting it. I think it’s the root of all evil. It’s not really bad evil. There are very few really evil people in the world. But that’s an awful lot of slightly corporate kind of people, who forget the point of all of it.
I liked Steve’s bookshelf. The book on Thatcher, on reindeer hunting.
Sarah: [Laughs] Yeah! Managing People You Don’t Like, too.
Peter: A nice thing, and a challenge, is that you can’t just have Steve being this antagonist, and then, like so many baddies, they get booted out at the end of the movie. He’s part of the family.
It’s a long time since I’ve seen an animated movie that’s blasted out of the blocks quite as quickly as Arthur Christmas. Staggeringly quickly, really.
The speed and scale of the opening ten to 20 minutes was incredible. It’s a layman’s question, but how do you arrive at that? What was your thinking behind that level of pace?
Sarah: It was fantastically ambitious, and hard, and difficult. I don’t know how hard any of this it. You talk about how you want it to be like this, and like that, without realising how technically difficult it is in animation.
My aspiration was to make in animation a movie that was cool for kids. I think kids kind of decide that they’ve grown out of animation sadly young these days. They decide they want to go and see The Bourne Identity. So I wanted it to have the genre of The Bourne Identity right in there. I think live action filmmaking has become so sophisticated: jump cuts, crossing the line, and maybe animation doesn’t always try and do that. And I wanted to do that. I wanted to make it feel contemporary in film making style, because our kids get that, and they like it.
That is crazy hard in animation. The whole thing about animation is that you have not a frame to waste. It’s like a million dollars a minute. You can’t, therefore, do what you do in live action, which is shoot loads of coverage and then cut it together. So you have to find a way of generating that coverage, which we did with a lot of previsualisation.
That [opening] sequence was the very last one that went through production because it took so long to work through it, and to create it. And the mission control sequence as well, because you have hundreds of screens with motion graphics, and ten thousand elf workstations. And big moving camera moves, on a set that is so huge, that you cannot imagine what it’s going to be like when you move a camera through it.
Some of the best action sequences of the year have come in animated films. There’s Tintin, which I think they’ve half-decided is animation now, Rango, and there’s yours. Does the freedom of the camera help you there, and being able to slightly cheat with gravity?
Sarah: I tried to make the camera very real world, and very live action. I only allowed there to be about four or five CG camera moves in the whole movie. Because even in live action movies, people use CG cameras now for special shots. I had about four or five shots in the film that deliberately couldn’t be done by a real camera. Everything else, I tried to go, where’s the camera, how it’s being operated? To try and make it feel like you were operating in a real world.
Do you find that the Aardman name works a double edged sword? I get the sense that a few lessons have been learned from Flushed Away, a film I really liked, but people bracketed it in a ‘that’s not proper Aardman’ kind of way.
How did that work for you? How much ‘Aardman’ cultural pressure did you feel?
Sarah: Pete and I love Aardman, and we come from a very British comedy heritage. So to some extent it travels with us, it’s our baggage.
I don’t want to criticise Flushed Away, because it was a great achievement in itself. I do think that it was made a lot more from the beginning outside the Aardman fold, and therefore it was more of a creative hybrid effort from the very beginning. I think one of the difficulties with some animated films is that because they take so long to make, there tend to be a lot of changes in directors, and writers, and it’s hard for things to hold on to their own voice.
I think we were very lucky in that we had this idea, and we managed to cling on to this all the way through from beginning to end. It started with me and Pete, and it came all the way through like that.
Peter: When I first went to Sarah with this, I’d already had conversations about doing this as live action. I’ve known and worked with Sarah, and she’s been my friend for a very long time, and she said, don’t be ridiculous. I’m at Aardman, just be sensible. So firstly she said if it’s live action, it’s going to be a famous actor in a beard. And it might be a very expensive star that you recognise. Whereas we have is what we feel is Santa, and Santa’s family.
I think this could only ever have been the style that it is. I don’t think it could have been stop frame. It would have been delightful, but I don’t think it would have worked. It’s exactly the medium it should be in.
Sarah: I hope that the world feels glad that it was Aardman that did the Santa family. It’s like, the Santas are safe in that warm British family!
You have an enormous spaceship as well. It’s as good a spacecraft as I’ve seen on the big screen in some time.
Sarah: I will absolutely say that the general design of all of that is the thing that I was least closely involved with. I was surrounded by a brilliant team of boy sci-fi geeks.
Don’t knock ‘em.
Sarah: [Laughs] I was like, boys, over to you! You are so much better at this stuff than me!
Peter: I remember early on having conversations where we were saying, imagine the spaceship in Independence Day, but with it full of elves. We want to make that film! There was an early piece of concept art done when it was basically that. This is where CG is so wonderful: the ship is a mile wide, and it looks a mile wide.
Sarah: But then also, what people might have to go back to the film a few times to see, it’s also stuffed with comedy detail. I didn’t want it to be sci-fi.
You got a Star Trek noise in there…
Sarah: And do you know what? I think that the Enterprise is a genius piece of design, because you believe that that ship was built on Earth. It doesn’t look alien, even though it’s huge.
See? You’re a sci-fi nerd really.
Sarah: [Laughs] Exactly! I said that S-1 [the name of the spaceship] needs to look like it was built on Earth. It shouldn’t be sci-fi. What would that ship need to be? We looked at designed of stealth and cloaking bombers, and we tried to reference that.
Inside the S-1, there were all sorts of details. There were cup holders for mugs of cocoa. My personal favourite is that beside each hatch, there are hand sanitisers for the elves. So between each present they drop, they can sanitise their hands!
Are you going to resist the urge to do more cinematic adventures for Arthur Christmas?
Sarah: Well, Pete and I are quite purist. We wouldn’t do it unless we’ve got as good a story idea for the second one. Not just to roll out the character again. I don’t know that we’re convinced we do have the perfect story yet. We have talked about the prequel, the Grand-Santa story.
We’ve talked about what would happen if you have Arthur and a team of elves, and they get stuck somewhere. A whole movie with one team lost in the world. But there was something of a very classic, pure story shape to this that makes it feel like a one-off. Unless we have a similar idea, I wouldn’t want to go back.
Appreciating I have absolutely no power in the world, a sequel would be a thing to resist at all costs. I think Christmas movies particularly, and you’ve made a really strong, contained one, I think they lose something if they go on and generate sequels. We talk about The Muppet Christmas Carol, and that works because it’s a one-off, three-act contained story.
Peter: So if you see a poster in three or four years, saying Arthur Christmas Too, spelt t, double-o…
Sarah: Grand Santa at wartime. That would be okay!
Peter: It could always be a spin-off!
I think I’ve got one more question, so it makes sense to find out what you’re up to next. Because people who don’t look too deeply at what the pair of you have done before would suggest that Arthur Christmas is a really unpredictable move for you. But then you look at the film, and it’s effectively a family comedy.
So what next? Do you have the thirst for more animation?
Peter: I’d definitely do it again, but then I didn’t have to sit there and give over my entire existence for five years! I could just come in and go, that’s too big!
Sarah: I only finished this movie two weeks ago, and I’ve been on it for five years!
I think, in a way, I kind have fallen in love with animation, because it’s an amazing, perfectable art, much more so than live action. You have at your disposal the artistry of unbelievable numbers of genius people. That is a fantastic thing. And I’ve learned so much that it would feel a bit crazy not to do it again. On the other hand, it is the most gigantic marathon, run at the rate of a sprint.
I think Pete and I will write another movie. Probably in live action, maybe in animation, I’m not sure. I’d certainly like to do more dark, adult comedy again at some point. We’ve worked together on many projects with many great people, and I think the reason why we’ve worked together as collaborators is because we’ve always had a taste for big, emotional stories. We’ve always shared that. And that’s why we’ve ended up doing this one.
Sarah and Peter, thank you very much!
Arthur Christmas is on general release in the UK now. It is ace.