BEHIND THE SCENES
HOW DOES SANTA DO IT?
Imagine a city under a starlit sky. It’s Christmas Eve, and the children are nestled in their beds, dreaming of Santa on his sleigh pulled by eight beautiful reindeer. Suddenly, a shadow comes over the city. A million pinpricks of light. A million figures descend. The invasion has begun and there’s not a jingle bell to be heard…
…but don’t panic. This is how Santa gets the job done every Christmas: with a huge, mile-wide, state-of-the-art sleigh with stealth cloaking technology, and a million elves, working in precision teams of three, who have 18.14 seconds to get into each house, deliver the presents, and move on to the next one.
Santa Claus is coming to town, but this time, he’s not coming down the chimney.
"They have all the technology in the world and no expense is spared," says Sarah Smith, who directs and co-wrote Arthur Christmas, the new 3D, CG-animated film from Aardman for Columbia Pictures and Sony Pictures Animation. "This movie reveals what their equipment looks like and how they do it."
Arthur Christmas is Sony Pictures Animation’s first film collaboration with Aardman, the landmark animation company best-known for their award-winning and crowd-pleasing stop-motion films Chicken Run and Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit. The winners of over 400 international awards, including four Oscars® (three for Best Animated Short Film, and one for Best Animated Feature Film for Were-Rabbit), Aardman delivers their second CG-animated project with Arthur Christmas, and takes on an ambitious subject: the delivery of two billion presents in one night.
At the top of the organization is the man himself, Santa – but these days, he’s more of a figurehead facing the prospect of retirement. Arthur Christmas has a second incredible secret to reveal: the Clauses are a dynasty, a long line of Santas stretching back over 1,000 years! Running the day-to-day is Santa’s firstborn son, Steve – an alpha male, the next in line to wear the red suit. Santa’s own dad, Grandsanta, used to wear that suit – and he’ll grumble to anyone that he wore it best – but he’s long since been put out to pasture, along with his lovely old sleigh, "Eve." Mrs. Santa, the North Pole’s highly capable First Lady, keeps the home fires burning – in between opening elf hospitals, negotiating treaties with Greenland, completing online degrees, and stirring the Christmas Day gravy.
And then there’s Arthur, Santa’s youngest son.
"Arthur believes in Christmas, and not just because he’s been born into the family business," says James McAvoy, who voices Arthur. "He believes it in his soul – there’s nobody else in the world who cares about Christmas more than Arthur."
However, love of the holiday only counts for so much. Not the most practical Claus in history, Arthur’s struggled in just about every job his father’s placed him in – even ordinary tasks, from wrapping to maintenance. Yet, as the story begins, he’s finally in a position he loves: in the Letters to Santa Department, where he revels in the hope of countless children – not just asking for presents, but sending gifts and drawings and asking questions about how it’s all done.
Arthur is the unlikeliest hero—that is, until he discovers a single child’s present wasn’t delivered and he takes the reins to deliver the one last present the old-fashioned way
Arthur finds an ally in his grandfather, Grandsanta, who has his own reasons for wanting to go on the mission. "Grandsanta is cranky and a nuisance, but he and Arthur share something: an uncomplicated, deep, and profound commitment and enthusiasm for the idea of Christmas," says Bill Nighy, who voices the role. "He’s the only one who can truly help Arthur."
Grandsanta isn’t interested in saving Christmas just because it’s the right thing to do – it’s also a chance for the crotchety old codger to show his family that the old way of doing things is truly best by using the old sleigh. But even Grandsanta has a chance to come around: "I like that he starts one way and finishes another. All of his impulses in the early part of the movie are unattractive, but he is rehabilitated by events," says Nighy.
Hugh Laurie joins the cast as Steve. "Hugh is marvelous as Steve," says Smith. "The character is incredibly cool and slightly in love with himself – the kind of character that just doesn’t quite get it. But Hugh completely gets it, and gave us a beautiful and funny performance."
"Steve isn’t the head of the operation. As part of the Claus family, he plays a subordinate Claus," says Laurie. "But that is a terrible joke, unforgiveable, and if you use that, I will sue."
The film is directed by Sarah Smith and written by Peter Baynham & Sarah Smith. "Pete is one of my oldest friends and collaborators," says Smith. Not long after Smith started work at Aardman developing a new slate of films, "He rang me up and said, ‘I think I’ve had one of the best ideas I’ve ever had – and he pitched me the idea for Arthur Christmas. I loved it from the beginning. It’s a big, emotional, funny story – my favorite."
"I’d started to wonder how Santa actually does it," says Baynham, whose many credits (including co-writing Borat) have earned him a BAFTA TV Award and an Oscar® nomination. "What does he get around in? Presumably something bigger than a sleigh pulled by eight reindeer. How come, with all our radar and satellites, we don’t see him? This felt like a very exciting world for a movie. But I’m always drawn to comedy; so then came the notion of what if Santa had a son as utterly impractical as me, massively into the magic of Christmas, but who you don’t really want pressing any buttons, especially in such a high-tech operation."
For producer Peter Lord, one of the founders of Aardman, the idea hit home immediately. "You get a thousand ideas a year, and you’re waiting for the one that means something to you – the one that really works," he says. "This was that idea."
"When Aardman first pitched the story, we always saw it as such a big idea," recalls Bob Osher, president of Sony Pictures Digital Productions, who, as the senior animation executive at the studio, was a frequent visitor to Aardman's Bristol base. "This was something that had the potential to bring the wonderful Aardman appeal to a wide audience."
"It really appealed to us at Aardman because it was that big, simple idea, with broad appeal – but what we loved about it was the humor and the characters," says Carla Shelley, a producer of the film. "It felt very Aardman – the characters are slightly flawed, not quite perfect."
"The movie is really funny and very clever – in just the way that all Aardman material is," McAvoy continues. "It’s ingenious, inventive, irreverent, different, and funny – I suppose that’s what drew all of us to do it."
For Smith and Baynham, half the fun of writing the screenplay was working out the math of Santa’s operation – and of Arthur’s heroic mission. "Once you start working out how Santa does what he does, it’s madness," says Baynham. "You start thinking, well, he’d have to start at the southern tip of New Zealand and then zigzag around the world to do it in twelve hours. We got into a big argument about time zones and whether Santa could fly into daylight and then back into darkness. The idea that the elves have exactly 18.14 seconds per household is based on calculations we did."
"We had to figure out how many children there are in the world, how many presents they’d get, how long it would take to travel," Smith continues. "Then we researched the distance between all of the places that Arthur and Grandsanta fly to. We worked out how fast the sleigh would need to fly with eight reindeer for Grandsanta to get around the world back in the day. Then what happens if they lose a reindeer – now how fast do they fly?"
"They did all of this research for the logistics of the story, and we found little ways to incorporate it," says Alan Short, senior supervising animator. "We made a timeline, a chart, of what happens throughout the film and when. Whenever you see a clock in the movie, we figured out what time should be on that clock, so it all fits together chronologically."
But don’t worry – there won’t be a quiz. Smith and Baynham crunched the numbers so you don’t have to. Instead, they hope that the audience focuses on what really matters: the heart of the story. "The biggest principle Pete and I worked by when we were writing the movie was that we wanted to feel the emotion ourselves, the truthfulness of it," says Smith. "It was important to us not to borrow the emotion, but to have it come from a real place. And because the movie has our genuine emotions in it, the final result is a film that is very special to us."
"We start by asking: ‘How does Santa do it?’" adds Baynham. "But as the story progresses, the issue isn’t so much how, but why."
ABOUT THE CHARACTERS
Arthur (James McAvoy)
"Santa’s my dad!" Despite living in a world devoted year-round to the business of Christmas, Arthur LOVES everything to do with the season. He is especially passionate about what Santa – who he adores as both dad and figurehead – means to children, whose identities sometimes get lost in the huge logistics of the operation. Trouble is, in the ultra-efficient, high-tech delivery operation of Christmas, Santa’s youngest son is a spare part. Allergic to snow and suffering from a fear of heights, reindeer, and high-speed travel, Arthur isn’t exactly a natural Claus. The family loves him – but has never quite known what to do with him. And although Arthur’s office in the Letters Department is a chaotic mess of snow globes and pictures of Santa, it’s a magical little corner where Arthur alone revels in the joy of it all. In Santa he believes.
"Arthur reads every single letter that comes to the North Pole, because he believes that every child deserves to receive a present at Christmastime," says James McAvoy, who voices the role. "You know, he’s relegated to the mailroom, because he’s caused a lot of accidents at the North Pole, but it’s just perfect for him – he gets to read these letters about the importance and the essence of Christmas, every second of every day."
"Arthur cannot bear the idea of a kid waking up on Christmas morning and finding out that Santa didn’t come," says Smith. "Arthur sees the world through that kid’s eyes – it would be the end of the world."
"Arthur is a fanboy and a workhorse for Christmas," McAvoy continues. "He wouldn’t want to do anything else – he lives for Christmas. It’s exciting to play somebody that fulfilled because you get to keep increasing the energy, as the character tries to maintain that fulfillment."
Steve (Hugh Laurie)
"Christmas isn’t a time for emotion." Santa’s oldest son Steve is the hereditary heir to the Claus reign. He’s extremely qualified for the job, having introduced high-tech efficiency, military-style precision and the S-1: a mile-wide, invisible sleighship. Steve has dreamed of being Santa all his life; he’s even redesigned the Santa suit into something more akin to Versace than Saint Nick. But Steve might still have a little catching up to do in the heart department.
"For Steve, running Christmas is the biggest challenge he could ask for," says Smith. "It’s like he’s running FedEx, UPS, and an army, all at once. But he’s frustrated, because he can’t take what he sees as his rightful place as Santa Claus."
"Steve takes himself a bit too seriously – he’s sort of laughable at times, because he gets it so wrong," says Laurie, "But we all do that from time to time. He’s a very confident fellow who has plans for modernizing and updating the operation – he’s looking to run a state-of-the-art Christmas and he’s impatient with the softer, fluffier sides of the holiday. He’s driven to maximize the gift-giving. He might not have all the social skills you’d want in a boss, but he’s just doing things the way he thinks they ought to be done."
Grandsanta (Bill Nighy)
"I could still do it now! And I wouldn’t need a trillion elves in bleepy hats." Santa’s father but also the previous Santa Claus, Grandsanta, now 136, is the archetypal old codger who complains constantly that "Things were better in my day," when he used to go out in a lovely red sleigh pulled by eight beautiful reindeer. Frail old Grandsanta may have been put out to pasture, but he’s still a proud man who has never fully adjusted to retirement. Arthur’s mission just might be the thing to pull him back in for one more go.
"Arthur and Grandsanta share something special," says Bill Nighy, "an uncomplicated, and undamaged enthusiasm, a deep, profound commitment and enthusiasm for the idea of Christmas. It’s a tender relationship, and, ultimately, a successful and important one for them both."
Grandsanta is stuck in his ways, but Nighy says that he sees the character’s point of view. "Gransanta doesn’t reject the ‘new, improved’ Christmas out of nostalgia – it’s because he quite properly considers it to be an inferior way of going about things. He doesn’t consider what’s happened to Christmas, technologically speaking, to be a progression of any kind."
Santa (Jim Broadbent)
Ever think your dad works long hours? Spare a thought for Santa. A big, jolly, white-bearded man in a red suit, Santa Claus (the 20th in the line) is every inch the hero of children’s Christmas dreams. However, in recent years, as the operation has grown more complicated, he’s become more of a figurehead. He still delivers the presents as the General of his vast army of elves, but it’s Steve who coordinates it all, even if dad seems a little oblivious to that fact.
"Santa has been running the show for the past 70 years – he is Santa as we know and love him," says Jim Broadbent. "It’s a great honor to be asked to play him. I didn’t feel worthy of the responsibility, but I took it on with humility and excitement."
"Santa loves being Santa," says Smith. "He’s the most adored man in the world – he’s spent years and years being utterly beloved by children." At the same time, he is a man of conflicting emotions. "He’s very tired. He’s been Santa for a long time, his every move is monitored by Mission Control. But he’s terrified of retiring – he’s been Santa for so long, what would he do if he wasn’t Santa anymore?"
Finding the character’s voice, Broadbent says, began with seeing a drawing of the character. "You get the image, and then you find the voice from the image," he explains. "It was quite easy to imagine a voice to fit such a detailed and inspiring model."
Mrs. Santa (Imelda Staunton)
Like the wives of most world leaders, Mrs. Santa is a highly intelligent, capable, caring woman forced to exist in her husband’s shadow while quietly running a huge amount behind the scenes. But when it comes to the crucial moment when Santa has to step up and go back out into the world in order to do the right thing, it’s Mrs. Santa who takes charge, using knowledge gleaned from decades of reading, studying, and taking internet classes in everything from global navigation to flying a microlight aircraft.
Smith says, "Mrs. Santa is a bit like the First Lady. She has to let the men run it – but behind the scenes, she keeps a lot of things in good running order. She’s the power behind the throne."
"Mrs. Santa is the one who keeps everyone together and keeps everyone organized," says Imelda Staunton, who voices the role. "She is like most women – not seeming to run everything, but in fact running everything."
Santa is getting to that age where he’s thinking about retirement – an idea that Mrs. Santa fully supports. "What she’d really love is for Father Christmas to be at home a couple of Christmases, which is rather sweet," says Staunton.
Staunton previously teamed with Aardman on their first feature film, Chicken Run, and takes on a third role in their next film, The Pirates! Band of Misfits. Not only that, but Staunton was the inspiration for the character of Mrs. Santa in Arthur Christmas, even before she was cast in the role. Of course, the admiration is mutual. "When it’s anything to do with Aardman, whether it’s one word or 10,000, you say yes," she says. "Who isn’t a fan of theirs? I feel lucky to be a part of it."
Bryony (Ashley Jensen)
Bryony Shelfley, Wrapping Operative Grade Three, is an elf, a lowly member of Santa’s Giftwrap Battalion. A loyal if somewhat manic footsoldier, she is utterly obsessed with her job and can list every one of the 118 types of ribbon bow. But all elves live for the chance to go out in the world in the service of children, and Bryony is no exception. So when the opportunity arises for Bryony to join Arthur and Grandsanta’s rogue mission to deliver the last present, there’s no holding her back.
"She’s a feisty little worker – she loves rules and a little bit of order," says Ashley Jensen, best known for her award-winning work on "Extras" and "Ugly Betty." "She is very excited to be part of Arthur’s mission to deliver the final present. She’s like a good, well-behaved child; she obeys and does what she’s told, and if there’s any deviation from routine, she goes into a bit of a panic."
For her inspiration for the role, Jensen didn’t have to look too far. "We knew that because she’s an elf, she’d have a small voice – like a small child," she says. "I often look at my child and go, ‘Here, listen to this tiny voice box.’ I think my son really did influence this character. It’s like having my own wee elf in the house."
ABOUT THE PRODUCTION
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.
When they were ready to begin animation in earnest, the core Aardman crew moved to Culver City, California, where they integrated with the Sony Pictures Animation 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.
On the other hand, maybe it’s not such a difference after all, says Sproxton. "Everything has to be made in the computer in the same way that every prop in stop-frame has to be made and crafted out of wood or resin. Sure, you may be able to hit ‘copy and paste’ in a way – but everything has to be handcrafted in the same way. That runs through every film we do; that craftedness, that attention to detail. The crew throws themselves into it and the love and care that goes into the movies is definitely there on the screen, I think."
The visual effects supervisor, Doug Ikeler, says that approach freed the animators to open themselves up to new possibilities. "Sarah took us out of our comfort zone," he says. "Because she wasn’t as familiar with the limitations as we were, she’d ask for things that seemed undoable – and we’d stop and think about it, and find that, y’know, maybe we could do it after all."
Christmas Stars: The Character Design
The design of Arthur Christmas began with the characters. "For us, it’s all about character," says producer Steve Pegram. "We never say that we want the film to look a certain way – we find the personality of the characters, and the look follows."
Tomov agrees: "Once the characters are created – when we know how stylized or realistic they are – we can start creating an environment for them to live in."
For the character designs, the filmmakers first turned to Peter de Sève, a well-known illustrator and animator, for a first pass at what the characters might look like. From these early sketches, character designer Tim Watts translated the inspiration into a full-fledged character that could be animated in three dimensions.
"We always start with drawings," he explains. "When we had a drawing Sarah liked, we’d take it to the sculpt stage, to explore how those proportions would work in three dimensions." On many CG-animated films, this modeling is done directly in the computer, but for Arthur Christmas, Watts did it the old-fashioned way: with clay.
"Sarah was very involved," says Watts. "I remember having a model of Grandsanta and I’d be sculpting in front of her, adding a bit more on here, cutting away there, as we spoke. It was quite interactive."
Of course, the lead character is Arthur. "He doesn’t realize how he appears to everyone else," says Watts. "Everything he wears is unhip – he has his horrible Christmas sweater. We made him skinny, so the sweater just didn’t fight right."
For the big man himself, Watts says that he created a Santa with "an archetypical look, but also a wide-eyed, deer-in-the-headlights gaze – he just doesn’t quite know how these new-fangled ways took over the operation."
When a model is approved, it is scanned into the computer and cleaned up. "We remove the lumps and bumps, and it gives the animators a solid shape to work with," says Watts.
About the Production Design
Much of the early development work on Arthur Christmas took place at Aardman’s home base in Bristol, England. "We had sixty or seventy people working there, including several artists from Sony Pictures Animation and Sony Pictures Imageworks," says Pegram. When the production moved to Sony Pictures Animation in Culver City, California, "we brought 15 or 20 people with us," Pegram continues. "Aardman’s a very individualistic company – it works in a certain way – so there was a little nervousness about how the relationship would work. But Sony Pictures Animation welcomed the Aardman team, both groups showed great creativity, and it came together very, very successfully."
Tomov and his team of 25 artists were charged with creating the film’s production design. "This film is very ambitious," he says. "The locations vary from the North Pole to Mexico to Toronto to Africa to Europe. All of those locations had to fit stylistically in the same world, and it needed a lot of research.
"Some of the places we visit in the film are only on screen for a few minutes or even a few seconds, and they have to convey the essence of that place without a caption at the bottom of the screen telling the audience where it is. We’d ask ourselves, what makes Africa Africa?" Tomov says. "On the other hand, there are other locations that are intended to be a surprise and get revealed as the film goes on; that was also a challenge."
Much of the film is about the clash between Steve’s and Grandsanta’s different approaches – one ultramodern and high-tech; the other, warmer, but belonging to a world that is slipping away. "It’s a challenge to make these two different worlds look like part of the same film," says Tomov. "Steve’s world is very contemporary, while Grandsanta’s world carries the soul and warmth that everyone associates with Christmas. Much of the movie is about the conflict of those two worlds, and, of course, at the resolution of the film, the story confirms that they don’t necessarily have to be in conflict."
Arthur’s office at the North Pole is in the Letters to Santa department. "His office had to be the beating, warm heart of Christmas," says Tomov. "We tried to make it a slightly chaotic environment – the letters are piled up in a very spontaneous way. But it was the lighting that really helped – we were able to give the office a warmth and a special, golden glow that was a good juxtaposition to the surrounding cold, icy corridors."
"His office is just loaded with Santa paraphernalia," says Doug Ikeler, the visual effects supervisor. "Every country, every age group, every little Santa tchotchke you can think of is in there. I’m really proud of the work that went into that – the Sony Pictures Imageworks modelers, texture artists, lighters really did some knock-out work that I hope the audience never notices – I hope it just seems like a real location."
For the animators, creating Steve’s high-tech world offered a wealth of creative possibility. "Everybody wants to animate science fiction at some point in their career," says Short. "The elves are pretty well-organized – there’s the sergeant, who’s the commanding officer of the group, and a delivery elf, who needs a special backpack to deliver the gift, and the gadget elf, with specialized bits of equipment to help overcome any obstacles, from alarms to unruly pets to squeaky floorboards. The gadgetry was a lot of fun for us – it plays out as comedy."
But perhaps the greatest challenge was to wrap the final present – a bike – as Arthur is riding it, using only three pieces of tape. Is such a thing even possible?
"We got a bike and gave it to one of our superstar animators for research," says Alan Short, the senior supervising animator. "Well, the next time I saw him, he was in the corridor, trying to wrap a child’s bicycle using only three pieces of tape. Later, the supervising animator on that sequence, Alan Hawkins, planned it out meticulously – he could tell you the path the bike takes and how much of the bike is wrapped at any given time."
Ikeler adds, "We had a little competition amongst the crew – wrap the most exotic thing you can think of. And I’m just saying, if you need to wrap something with three pieces of sticky tape, you can do it. You can absolutely do it."
Along with Steve at the helm, and the one million elves, the S-1 is THE answer to the big question, how does Santa do it?
It takes a very special aircraft to circle the globe and make its deliveries all in one night. When the mystery of how Santa can possibly deliver all those presents in one night is revealed, it is Santa’s new sleigh that stands out as a feat of engineering – and design.
The S-1 is enormous: large enough to cover a city while the three-elf teams descend into homes and leave presents for the children. And fast: it travels at 10,368 km/h or 0.92 million miles per hour, 8.4 times faster than the speed of sound.
The S-1 travels at equipped with camouflage "skin" that allows it to project any image to help camouflage the ship. It’s very chameleon-like in the way it can reflect the image that is below it and then the look as if the S1 had disappeared.