Finding a new take on the familiar Santa Claus adventures is a formidable task, but writer-director Sarah Smith and co-writer Peter Baynham were up for the challenge with the new animated film ARTHUR CHRISTMAS.
A CGI co-production between Aardman Animation and Sony Pictures Animation, the story follows wayward Santa Claus offspring Arthur – a well-to-do nebbish who believes in the true spirit of Christmas, but will sadly never be next in line for the Santa job with his much more together older brother Steve – who has completely streamlined the Santa operation for dear old Santa dad with a state-of-the-art sleigh, GPS and computer technology making sure no child’s gift is left behind.
When one child is missed by a technical error, Arthur and the mischievous Grandsanta embark on an adventure to save Christmas for this little girl.
In this exclusive interview, Smith speaks with ASSIGNMENT X about the detail that went into bringing ARTHUR CHRISTMAS to life and what she thinks about a potential sequel to her new film.
ASSIGNMENT X: The thing that’s impressive is the amount of detail that went into ARTHUR CHRISTMAS. It’s just not the stuff in the foreground, but all the little things going on in the background. Many animation movies outside of Pixar don’t usually go this deep.
SARAH SMITH: I think there are various reasons for this. Pete Baynham and I, who wrote this, are very obsessive and we felt it was very important to work the world out in great detail. If you’re trying to say to kids that this could be true, this is how it really is, they need to see something that has a deep logic. And so we wanted the world to be filled with deep logic. And we had ridiculously far too many ideas to put into the movie – so there are a bank of things we start with.
The other joy about animation is it takes so much time, you have so many other creative people who join you who add ideas, so the art department and the animation team and everybody have an opportunity to keep enriching your world. As long as the world knows what it is and everything is keeping, then that’s just a bonus.
AX: The Christmas/Santa genre had felt a bit depleted, but you managed to find a fresh take on it – what was the process for coming up with this film?
SMITH: We didn’t go, “let’s do a Christmas movie, what should it be?” It was literally Pete started kicking about the idea of what it would take to deliver two billion presents in the modern world in one night. That was the kind of concept that starts your imagination and you’re quickly creating an alternative reality of a giant military style operation. Then suddenly you’re making a Christmas film. It was not “how shall we reinvent the Christmas movie?” All this came from a sideways place where one spark sets you off. We already had a fresh way in with the world of Christmas and the second part of that was “how has Santa changed with the times?” Then you have the Santa dynasty and the family.
AX: Were you a fan of the old stop motion Rankin/Bass Christmas specials?
SMITH: They haven’t traveled so much to the U.K. I love stop motion, but that’s not something we were particularly aware of. The only Christmas animation that was very much in my consciousness was this beautiful 2D thing called THE SNOWMAN [from 1982] that came out in the U.K. about a little boy flying over the world on Christmas night. That was a beautiful haunting thing that could have stayed in your imagination as a kid and I wanted to capture a little of that in this movie.
AX: Do you have a favorite character from ARTHUR CHRISTMAS?
SMITH: You have to be in love with all your characters and have to enjoy it. One of the things Pete and I used to do was interview each other as each of the characters to make sure we could talk on any subject as any character. Pete and I take different bits of different characters. He wrote a lot of the hilarious Grandsanta funny language and I wrote more of the emotional stuff. I tended to do Mrs. Santa. We mixed and matched between us really. I guess we both enjoy Grandsanta because he’s just naughty.
AX: I felt the 3D was used rather well in this movie – it added a much more immersive quality than you normally get nowadays in 3D films.
SMITH: I don’t particularly enjoy 3D when someone tries to give me a 3D experience, by having people fly out at the screen at me and so on. I find that bumps me out of the story. What I hope the 3D gives people in ARTHUR CHRISTMAS, like you said, an immersive experience. It’s where you feel you’re inside a world that is so rich and so full of detail – and textures and so on, that you really feel you’re inside something real and on the journey with them.
AX: Is it ironic that Peter wrote both the ARTHUR remake and ARTHUR CHRISTMAS? Was there ever a thought to change the title of ARTHUR CHRISTMAS because of that?
SMITH: You have to remember ARTHUR CHRISTMAS started a long time before Peter was offered the ARTHUR screenplay. It was already around. We have been doing this for five years. We wrote the screenplay four years ago, and then he was offered the gig on ARTHUR. He said, “look, I’m going to accept that I’m this year’s Arthur writer. Any characters called Arthur come to me.”
AX: There isn’t a lot of traditional Christmas music in the film– I find that an interesting choice for a Christmas movie.
SMITH: There isn’t very much Christmas music because the main part of the movie is a sort of action-adventure/road movie that takes place around the world on Christmas night. There’s a slight Christmasy feel when the mission is completed at the beginning and they sing “We Wish You A Merry Christmas” to Santa. There’s a moment where they sing “Silent Night” to the lions, which bring those little moments of Christmas along this crazy adventure. And when Arthur is going through the snowy village towards Gwen’s house, we used Christmas instrumentation like bells to give that glory feeling. Apart from that, the music is really serving the adventure or the emotion of the story.
AX: The film has a British sensibility, but it doesn’t feel 100 percent British – were there ever discussions about Americanizing it a little bit more?
SMITH: There were some occasional word choices like where we use the word “stabilizer” for a child’s bike, and [we were told] maybe it should be “training wheel.” Sony suggested we make the elf force feel very international, which we thought was a very good idea. We were touching on the customs on many countries around the world. We wanted it to feel global and not just British or American. I think the thing that makes it British is that the hero is a naughty old man and an idiot – and we just love the lovable fools in England. I hope this kind of thing makes it relatively universal.
AX: Is there potential for future movies – would you be interested in doing a follow-up?
SMITH: It really wasn’t designed as a franchise thing. It is very much singular one-off story. Neither Peter or I would want to go there again, unless we felt we had another singular story that was as strong. We have talked about a Grandsanta prequel because that feels like a fun world to be in and everyone loves Grandsanta. To me, it’s a bit like saying, “well, let’s not just say ‘let’s make a Christmas movie,’”, it’s “let’s just not make an ARTHUR CHRISTMAS sequel.”
(additional reporting by A.C. Ferrante)
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Article: Exclusive Interview with ARTHUR CHRISTMAS director Sarah Smith