Sarah Smith

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Alicia Malone talks to Sarah Smith about making the transition from fleshy human-packed fare to Aardman’s new animated treat, “Arthur Christmas”.

Q: I love Aardman’s films and TV shows. I remember watching Wallace and Gromit. How did you come on board to write the story and direct it?

SARAH: I was contacted by Aardman about five or six years ago because they wanted somebody to work developing a new full length film for them. I had a bit of contact with the company for years in the past and they remembered me and suggested I come and talk to them about it. It’s not really this sort of thing I had ever done before. I was working in live action as a director in comedy and comedy drama. I love Aardman and I really got along with him when I met him. So I went there saying, I’ll just come for six months because I don’t really want to end up just developing things. One of the projects I picked up was Arthur Christmas because it came from my very long term friend and collaborator Peter Baynham. He pitched the basic idea to me and I loved it very much. He and I started working on it together and by the end of it we were writing it together. I said to Aardman, “I love this. I want to do it.” [Laughs]. I think that Aardman have always believed the project should come from people with a passion for them and a voice. So they kind of asked me to see the film through.

Q: Coming from the live action background, do you think you were writing the script from a different perspective than someone who has worked in a lot of animation?

SARAH: We didn’t think of writing it as an animated movie. We just thought about writing it as a movie. I think a lot of what makes it work for animation comes a little later during storyboarding an animation when you add in more visuals and so on. We wrote the script as a movie maybe. I think one of the differences is that a lot of animation tends to get worked out more in storyboards. It’s worked out more as it goes along whereas we did a lot of our working out on paper on a script because that’s why I know. That’s my discipline. It’s the thing that I had the most experience of. We wrote several drafts of the script and tried to get it very tight before we started working. But then you still go through that process of storyboarding and having lots of visual people add but they were able to kind build on top of the bones of the story that we already had.

Q: With animation you can put a camera anywhere, but did you try to make it feel like a traditional movie?

SARAH: I had never been through a full movie storyboard, the process before because you don’t really in live action unless it’s a special effects sequence. So that was a new thing for me. I love the storyboarding process because you get to see what you’re doing as a movie. A script I think is a very valuable thing and often underrated but a storyboard actually turns that script into a movie and now you’ve got two things to judge what you’re trying to do. I love that process. I did try from a camera point of view. I did want to make it. I wanted to put a live action sensibility in it not because I’m from live action but because I wanted the idea as a movie for children to be, it could be true. For them to feel that it was an adventure happening in some version of their world. Not a totally photorealistic world but something that felt like their real world today but in a slightly kind of transformed into a slightly story book version of it.

For that reason, I didn’t want CG cameras moving around everywhere because I think that makes you know that you’re not in a real world. I wanted it to feel like if a character fell over they would hurt themselves. They wouldn’t just bounce so they were consequences and that there was something – therefore it helped your stakes to be high not just a bouncy magic world. So the cameras we definitely tried to place the cameras as though always thinking how would you shoot this if it was real? How would you shoot the sleigh if it was live? On the sleigh, for example, the old sleigh, we attached the cameras to the sleigh like camera mounts as if it was a car or road movie.

Q: I read a quote from your visual effects supervisor which said that you would take them out of your comfort zone because you weren’t as familiar with the limitations as they were. He said that you would ask for things that seemed undoable then they would sit and think about it and then they would find out that maybe they could do it after all.

SARAH: I was ignorant of knowing what was doable and what wasn’t doable. It’s almost the opposite of live action. Like in live action if you say, I want an army of a million characters, I mean, literally in the mission control there are 10,000 elf workstations in that set. But if you were to say to someone, I want 10,000 elves in live action, you’d just get laughed at.

In animation, if you’ve got one elf, you can have another elf. That’s easy. But on the other hand, I really wanted Arthur to have this big chunky ridiculous Christmas sweater and that nearly killed them because making that fabric look right and move right in CG was really hard. It’s changing all the time. It used to be that water was a huge challenge for CG, now they are just like, how big do you want your waves because they have done it before. It’s always like when you’re taking people into a new area that it becomes difficult.

But having said that I think the other big challenge that Doug was referring to is that there was just giant amounts of locations. The story ranged over such a big scope with many one offset pieces requiring big complex sets like the City of Toronto for example. You’re in that city for two minutes but you’re flying very fast through it so you’re going to see a lot of it. That’s an impossible thing for them to do because it’s a huge giant set build for two minutes and it’s never seen again. But they sat down and scratched their heads and went, what could we do and how could we do it? They came up with a way of making that city out of kind of modular blocks. It just got repeated everywhere and then detailing of it is on top. It’s things like that I think that he was referring to; challenges that they managed to solve in a cunning way.

Q: I love how the characters have that signature Aardman look. Was that hard to achieve in a computer because they like that bit of imperfection?

SARAH: Yeah. I’m very glad that you say you think they do feel like Aardman characters because that’s definitely what we tried to do. I think it’s exactly what you said, it’s the imperfection and the asymmetry and the sense that they are not trying to look cute or appealing. They are just trying to be completely themselves in a kind of warm and funny way. That’s what we try to do is capture the kind of comedy and the spirit of each character in the way they look. That in itself brought us all the way back to this slightly kind of squinty sort of hand made kind of asymmetrical thing which hopefully makes them feel like Aardman characters.

Q: Before you cast the voices did you know what the characters will look like?

SARAH: Yes we did. We wrote the characters in great detail by the time we cast. One of the things that Pete and I do, we would interview each other and all the other characters to make sure that we could talk in the voice of every character so that they were very distinctive. We didn’t want to be influenced by famous actors. We wanted the characters to stand up and be unique and original and then bring the actors to that. In terms of the look of them, we were a long way down the look of them. I think a lot of the times, the look of them is influenced by the voices mostly when they get to animation because their actual expressions follow the way that the characters, that the actors have performed and that gives them part of their look.

Q: There is nothing worse than being in an animated movie and just thinking the whole time, who is that voice? That kind of takes you out of the characters because you’re trying to think of who that famous person is.

SARAH: Yeah. I hope that none of our characters were kind of overcome by the very brilliant and celebrated actors that are doing them. I was very happy when we were previewing the movie and children were asked about the actors and the voices, did they understand the British theme etc. They said, they didn’t notice that they have accents. They said that’s how Santa would talk. I was very happy about that because that’s what you want really.

Q: Yeah. I could tell the first time I heard Hugh Laurie. I was like, “Oh, that’s Hugh Laurie” just because I know his English accent but a lot of Americans wouldn’t know that he is actually English.

SARAH: No they wouldn’t. As I say, I think he put himself into the character. He didn’t kind of take it over and make it a Hugh Laurie person. Do you know what I mean? He played Steve really beautifully for us.

Q: One thing I loved as well was when you saw a Shaun the Sheep toy at one point in the film. Are there a lot of those little nods to Aardman that people might not even notice?

SARAH: Yeah. There are lots and lots… there are a few little Aardman jokes but there are also many little side gags all the way through. If they are liked at all, children see them on DVD and you know what it’s like, children will watch the same thing 150 million times.{laughs}

Q: How big was your team that worked on this? Do you know an approximate number?

SARAH: I think the credits run to over 500 as I recall. I think probably the core, the main team was in the region of about 350. Not all the way through. It kind of comes and goes in different waves as the team that’s working mostly at the front end and the preproduction design and then additional 3D animation team. Obviously, postproduction sound or music. It kind of fluctuates across the core of that but I would say that probably about 350 people who are on it for more than six months for example.

Q: It always amazes me with these animated movies, how big the teams are and how much work it is. It’s kind of a painstaking process isn’t it?

SARAH: It is. You totally forget about doing it when you watch the finished product but if you look at any one frame and think every single thing you are looking at on that screen that there has had to be a decision about…particularly down to characters. When you hire a live action character, you put a costume on them and that’s what they look like. When you do animation there is this endless discussion about the shape of their cheeks, the translucency of their skin, the way that their hair lies, all sorts of things which are not like you send them back to hair and makeup and just trim their beard. It’s a big giant piece of work.

Q: And you can’t just always copy and paste.

SARAH: No!

Q: Just one last question about the 3D, does that slow down the process at all?

SARAH: No. It happened simultaneously with the 2D making, you know, the movie you have a 3D stereographer who was working alongside the camera department. Sitting in there stereo camera and we were like reviewing that as we went along. I didn’t ever try and make the movie a 3D movie or a 2D movie. We made the movie with all the choices of camera and cinematography just to tell the story. We have some fantastic sort of 3D assets in terms of things like a sleigh flying very fast and gigantic sets which needs detailing that you can look around. All of which are glorious in 3D but I didn’t try and go, “Here, let’s make this 3D and poke something out of the screen at people.” Do you know what I mean? We try to make it an immersive 3D world that you could step into and come along for the ride. Rather than a kind of 3D experience which you’re using 3D to kind of do things to you because I didn’t want anything that would jump you out of the story.