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Annecy 2011: ‘Arthur Christmas’ & ‘Pirates’ Work In Progress Talk

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This presentation featured Bob Osher, president of Sony Pictures Digital productions and Peter lord who is, well he is Peter Lord, Aardman co-founder and UK animation king.

Principally this film talk was all about Arthur Christmas, Aardman’s latest feature that is due out in November.  I will admit I dislike Christmas-time at the cinemas, you usually get Vince Vaughn playing Santa’s grumpy cousin or some other rubbish all set in the same familiar snowy land were Santa rides a sleigh and delivers presents to all the good little boys and girls. Arthur Christmas looks completely different although we still get snow, Christmas trees and elves we also get some fantastic new takes on an idea which admittedly didn’t really excite me as much as Aardmans other offerings until I saw this presentation. The guys from Bristol have pulled the cat out of the bag creating an original take on the usually stale Christmas movie. Taking an original look at the age-old question ‘how can Santa go around the world in one night and deliver presents to 2 billion children?’

I instantly fell in love at the sight of an immense army of mission impossible style elves plummeting from an invisible 4 mile long spaceship in order to deliver presents to the world’s children armed to the teeth with an array of gadgets and gizmos to help them on their mission. Look out for hi-tech contraptions such as naughty and nice detectors, which deliver an amount of toys dependent on your percentage of niceness. We also got the chance to meet the cast of Clauses, from our hero ‘Arthur’ (James McAvoy) to his militaristic big brother ‘Steve’ (Hugh Laurie) who seems to run the operation with ruthless efficiency and his Dad Santa (Jim Broadbent) a bumbling old gent who seems to be letting the futuristic operation led by oldest son get the better of him. We also have granddad Christmas (voiced by Bill Nighy), a 138 year old Chelsea pensioner type who yearns for the glory days of old when he was father Christmas. From what I can tell the plot seems to be centered around Arthur and his granddad as they use the old sleigh to go on a family road trip around the world to deliver a single present left behind by all the technology and by the looks of things this act brings this family of nutters together. The cast of characters seem to be as hilarious as they are charming. Lord called them ‘The Royal family of Christmas, they are very dysfunctional! That’s not a statement on any other Royal family – I want to be a knight one day!’ he said to the amusement of the audience.

What you are always guaranteed with Aardman is DETAIL and in Arthur Christmas you get bundles of it.  It may be created in CGI but the world is just as populated by funny jokes and charming extras that you would find in ‘Wallace and Gromit’ or ‘Chicken Run’.  For example, Arthur’s fluffy reindeer slippers which have googly eyes seem to have a life of their own, and in a clip shown they demonstrated what depth you can achieve in animation with something as simple as a pair of slippers. Another would be the fact that all the elves working in the vast state of the art space craft all have cups of tea, ‘That’s how we do it back home’ Lord stated.

Both Osher and Lord seemed keen to discuss the relationship that they shared in the creation of these films and the partnership. When Sony started looking for creative partners in 2007 Aardman were at the very top of Sony pictures list and Lord called them ‘Great creative partners.’ Although Sony is a big American company and Aardman is British, the workforce over in America is 40% European and the creative aspects lie with Aardman as the films production starts in the UK before the bulk of the animation is completed in the US before being finished off back in blighty.

Although, not mentioned in the program Peter Lord then announced a special treat for everyone and that was a brief look at the next stop motion feature ‘Pirates’. As you can imagine after being blown away by Arthur Christmas it would have taken something pretty extra ordinary to beat that. And within seconds it did.

Pirates was first pitched back in the late 1990’s when DreamWorks signed a deal with Aardman but the Bristol boys were told that nobody would watch a movie about Pirates. This was long before Disney released ‘Pirates of the Caribbean’ and re-booted a swashbuckling genre. With 5 months left to shoot we were shown plenty of behind the scenes sketches as well as pictures of animators working on enormous sets which looked bigger and more impressive than anything I have ever seen on a stop motion set before, the animators had to literally walk on set in order to animate the puppets. These sets, featuring an eye watering amount of detail, made the audience burst into applause halfway through at the sight of a beautiful gigantic hand crafted galleon as well as sets such as theatres, ‘blood island’, some kind of room filled with gold and the mean streets of Victorian London.

We were then treated to a frantic few minutes of footage from the actual film were our hapless hero Pirate Captain (Hugh Grant) raids a series of other ships in search of treasure to prove his worth as a captain, each with unexpected and hilarious results. I don’t want to spoil it for you as I had so much fun watching it myself but listen out for classic lines such as ‘fire those big long things that go boom!’ as the Captain orders for the cannons to be fired and some snappy dialogue when the captain has trouble understanding a map. This is another film which detail is paramount as each model and character is crafted to the highest standards, look out for pirates with interchangeable hooks, cannons that are distributed like pool balls, a ‘crows nest’ and a blue peter badge!

Visually the two films look miles apart from each other and yet both are filled with the delightful touch that Aardman offer in everything they do from TV ads through to digital offerings and games which the company has recently been scooping awards in. For those seeking an explanation for this I think Pete Lord put it best when he said ‘We don’t have a house style – except in spirit’. With both offerings you can tell it is going to be an excellent year for Aardman as they show off their scope with two completely original, exciting and different films.

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