Sarah Smith interview: Arthur Christmas, animation and America

The director of Arthur Christmas, out on disc now, looks back at the film, the stop-motion glass ceiling, and Aardman in America…

A film that’s set to be a Christmas favourite for many years to come is the delightful Arthur Christmas, from Aardman. As it arrives on DVD and Blu-ray in the UK, director Sarah Smith chatted to us about the movie, why it didn’t quite take off in America, and the stop motion glass ceiling…

Going back to when Arthur Christmas was first released, we had a very brief chat about script pacing. Because I understand you looked at the likes of scripts to Paul Greengrass movies when putting the film together?

To be honest, the scripts weren’t about pacing. There were two things that I took from Paul Greengrass films. One was wanting the film to feel like it had a verite, we were in the middle of the action feeling. And then how he turns that into a crafted version of the same thing in the Bourne films.

We look at that, in terms of editing too, because it’s a very, very difficult thing to create in animation. So much of that is the accident of what happens on set, and the editor’s craft, whereas you don’t have any of that accident, and you don’t have the ability to edit in that way in animation. Planning for something that looks like an energetic, haphazard series of cuts is really difficult.

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The accident of editing is something that really interests me. I heard Gore Verbinski talking about it in relation to Rango as well, and he was saying was that animation is unbelievably hard. That so much of what you end up with in live action is partly what you planned for when you go out and shoot, and partly what happens in front of you, in terms of performance, camera, the way the camera responds to the way the actor is moving. A whole series of things that interact. In animation, you have to pre-plan that. So how do you then make it feel alive and instantaneous and in the moment?

Paul Greengrass, on the Bourne films and Green Zone, went back and did significant reshoots too, if memory serves.

Yeah. And you can’t do that in animation. Instead, I did some pre-viz so I did some rough animation, to block the action. And then we used one of these motion control cameras on the shoulder, so you look in the viewfinder and see the action from whatever angle you’re standing in. It’s like having a real camera on your animated characters. Once you’ve got that piece of animation, you can do 20 takes, it’s just a bloke in the room with a camera. That way, you create material to edit with, and that’s how I did the opening sequence in Arthur Christmas. We created a load of shots, and then we cut with it so we got that energy of a real room, and moving around the action. When we came to real animation, we used those camera moves as layout.

The only difficulty then is that you’re having to tell the animator that they’re having to match the rough blocking animation pretty close, otherwise you lose your spontaneity. And what of course happens in animation is that they immediately try and make every shot cut together perfectly, whereas what you’ve done in the edit is you’ve muffed it up, because you have coverage. You jump, or you repeat frames. You do all the things you do in live action, and the animator gets it and goes “that doesn’t look right”. You have to then persuade them to do something that feels inexact, but actually works in the cut. 

So it’s a quest for deliberate accidents, then?

Exactly, yeah. It’s also trying to capture the energy of how editing in live action works. You do either jump frames or repeat frames. It’s always entertained me that when editors cut that sort of sexy, down and dirty Paul Greengrass style, they’re always looking for the bits where the camera went a bit wrong, a bit wobbly, or when it moves at the end of a shot. That’s what gives it the energy.

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Also, just the human interaction of camera and human. The thing with animation is that it’s perfect, whereas no cameraman knows what’s going to happen. The camera is just behind the action, and that makes it feel as if someone’s there in the moment, capturing it. You can’t plan those in storyboard and layout, you need reference to work with. Amusingly, it becomes an even more long winded planning process to make it look spontaneous!

You mentioned Gore Verbinski. With Rango, of course, he took the actors away for 10-20 days, and didn’t record them all in traditional voice booths away from each other.

He did, and he had cameramen filming it. And I bet that one of the things he did was to use the live camera reference to say make the camera do that. It’s still difficult to match in layout. I didn’t do motion control acting, but I did do motion control camerawork to try and get that.

I went around Aardman while The Pirates! was being made, and every animator seemed to have director Peter Lord acting like a loon on a screen next to them. Is there a collection of video of you doing the same for Arthur Christmas?

There is a certain amount! [Laughs] A lot of animators do it for themselves, and I didn’t do it as much as Nick [Park] and Peter. I did act it out for the animators, but I didn’t record myself doing it! To be honest, when we did do it, it’d be useful. I’d get the animation supervisors round to my house of an evening an we would act it out and record it between us. 

So when you sat down in your house for Christmas dinner last year, and you’re sat there with tinsel all around you, someone wants to play a board game. Was there just a little bit of you, having had this film dominate around half a decade of your life, that wanted Christmas to go away?

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Nooooo! It was great! The best thing was because we had the Regent Street lights, I felt like someone had decorated London to be my own personal Christmas tree! All these characters that you’ve loved and lived with, and there they are being the city’s decorations! It’s fantastic! It was my first Christmas off in about five years as well.

It’s incredible for a first time director in particular to have that. You walked down Oxford Street in London last year, and it was full of Arthur Christmas.

Do you know, that was the best thing of the entire experience. It was such a lovely and delightful thing. Your film goes into cinemas, and you know that it does. But that’s a very theoretical thing. You’ve sat in one or two yourself for premieres, but the idea that people are going to your film.

I had in mind that when it came out, I would go and watch it in a few random cinemas. But I didn’t, because you always have a slight worry watching a film with an audience, you worry whether they’re going to laugh. So you don’t really sense the idea that people are seeing the work that you’ve done. But, of course, walking down Oxford Street, there it is. All these characters that are terribly personal are suddenly out there in the world.

Your film also has the finest computer generated jumpers I’ve ever seen.

That was a huge piece of R&D. It was very difficult when we were designing the character of Arthur. You automatically come up with that he’s going to be a skinny, lanky bloke who’s a bit too big, who stoops because he feels awkward. I kept saying that we’ve had too many skinny underdogs. Pete did his best, bless him. He did a whole round of drawings of Arthur as a big bloke, or overweight. We kept looking at it and going yes, it’s different, but it doesn’t feel like him. I didn’t want him to have that relentlessly skinny silhouette, so we came up with the idea that he would wear terrible, big Christmas jumpers. 

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They were brilliant jumpers.

We modelled them. I actually used a live action costume designer, and we bought a series of jumpers. He put them on the skinniest members of our CG team, and I can tell you that CG artists are often very skinny!

It’s very difficult, technically, to make the thick fabric of a jumper work. To make knitwear hang. It nearly killed them trying to do that.

The two Aardman films that have been released in the past 12 months, Arthur Christmas and The Pirates!, both did well in Britain. But do you have any thoughts of why neither of them carried to America in the same way?

I do have a lot of thoughts about that. It’s an interesting learning curve, and there are many elements to it.

Obviously in the UK, Aardman is a trusted brand, so if you say Aardman is going to do a Christmas film, people are very comfortable with that. In the US, Aardman is just not a known brand. They haven’t produced films at a rate that has got them in the American consciousness. And when you’re taking children to films – with an adult, you’ll take a certain amount of risk.

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When you take children, and I say this now I have a three-year old myself, you don’t want to be walking out after ten minutes having paid for the tickets, because they hate it. Then you don’t want it, in any way, to freak them out and upset them. And, in the case of Arthur Christmas, to ruin their idea of what Santa is.

So I think the question is how do you get the trust of the audience for films they are taking young children to. One way is to say ‘from the makers of’, which Aardman can’t do, as their films have been over such a long period of time. And therefore, it’s a question of the film itself telling the audience what it is.

Arthur Christmas in particular came out against The Muppets and Happy Feet Too, and they’re already brands that people are comfortable with. And I do think that safety factor is what people go with when they choose a Christmas film for their four or five year olds. If we’d have been the only ones in the market, they’d have gone and seen us. But against The Muppets?

I also think that Sony as a distributor didn’t have a huge long track record in marketing animation. DreamWorks knows how to do that, and Pixar, and Disney. They’re routinely taking over half a billion at the box office, because they’ve worked over many years, very exclusively in the field of marketing animation. Their entire marketing effort is devoted to one or two films a year, and they start selling them in a year before. A lot of animated films work on children’s word of mouth: they have to have a sense of it as a movie coming months and months before it comes.

Sony hadn’t quite yet have their own animation brand fully going, although they probably have now with the success of Hotel Transylvania.  

I can say this and you probably can’t, but I’ll go for it anyway. The day that Puss In Boots got an Oscar nomination for Best Animated Feature, and Arthur Christmas didn’t, was outrageous.

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No, I can say that [laughs]. I know! I did think you have to be kidding me. I think it’s the same thing, though, with having a profile in the US. A lot of people who voted didn’t see it.

I know your Aardman role is broader than directing one film. With The Pirates!, we’ve seen stop motion this year hit what appears to be a box office glass ceiling.

I think that’s true. I’m not at Aardman anymore, but I love The Pirates! I originally bought the rights to Aardman. I think it’s difficult if you actually look at how the market is working. I think it’s affecting all stop motion films. Frankenweenie is a great example. ParaNorman is a really nicely made movie. But they got slammed by their CG competition. It’s been a statement of US distributors for a while that CG is what people want to see, and not stop-frame. Tragically, the box office is confirming that at the moment.

It’s really sad. And it’s difficult to know what you do from there and how you turn that around.

It seems to have been quite a fast decline as well. Coraline took $75m at the US box office a couple of years back, and that’s a tremendous film too.

But Coraline, overall, was still less than $200m worldwide, which is probably where Frankenweenie and things will end up. I think the reason why there’s a decline is the number of animated films each year is not going up that steeply. Now there are seven or eight films where there used to be four or five, and it use to be a CG animated film was more of an event, if it had promotion and good distribution behind it. Whereas now, they have to compete on their own terms, and again, people have a caution about stop frame. I find it hard to understand.

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To be fair, Frankenweenie and ParaNorman were both slightly scary as films for small children too.

I’m a parent though, and I love the fact that there’s a film that my children can watch in Frankenweenie that deals with subjects such as death and loss in such an open, accessible way. That’s just the kind of film, for me, that should be going into the family market.

Yeah. It’s good that you say that, but again, I think people are quite risk averse if they don’t already have a trust or enthusiasm for the brand.

Sarah Smith, thank you very much!

Arthur Christmas is on DVD and Blu-ray in the UK now.

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