Partners build 'Christmas' presence for 2011

In 11 months, Sony will release Aardman Animation’s next feature, “Arthur Christmas.”

That’s not much time for the Bristol, U.K.-based outfit behind the Wallace and Gromit characters to put the finishing touches on its most ambitious project yet, but it also has a powerful new ally in Sony. And Sony has something to prove.

When a major animation studio finds a financing and distribution partner, it rarely has reason to change. Be it Pixar and Disney or Blue Sky and Fox, it’s easier to pick a partner and stick with it than to shop around with each individual project, the way rival stop-motion house Laika must, post-”Coraline.”

So it was with no small amount of hesitation that Aardman’s overseers set out to find a new American backer after their split with DreamWorks in 2007 — the end of a decade-long run that resulted in three features — “Chicken Run,” “Wallace and Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit” and “Flushed Away” — and an Academy Award for “Wallace” as top animated feature of 2005.

Aardman co-founder David Sproxton is proud of those films, but says, “When DreamWorks went public, their business plan changed.”

If the studio was seeking films that could earn $300 million in the U.S., Aardman wasn’t the right partner.

“I think what we’ve learned over the years is that every nation tells its stories in its own way, and that we in Bristol find it quite hard to make a classic Hollywood blockbuster that would play to middle America,” Sproxton says.

After shopping around for a compatible fit, Aardman landed with Sony Pictures Animation. An outgrowth of Sony Imageworks, the studio’s vfx division, the fledgling toon group had released “Open Season” and was putting finishing touches on its second feature, “Surf’s Up.” That pic grossed less than $60 million Stateside, marking a setback for the studio and leading to a shuffle of execs (Columbia chief Bob Osher and Amy Pascal protege Hannah Minghella took over for Yair Landau) and a reappraisal of films in development.

The studio desperately needed fresh content.

“The conversation started with a phone call from … Howard Stringer, who had heard that we were looking for another Hollywood partner, and he said, ‘Why don’t you come talk to us?’?” Sproxton recalls.

So Aardman brass met with Sony co-chairs Michael Lynton and Pascal, who not only “got” what the eccentric British team needed but also offered a cutting-edge visual-effects pipeline.

“The great thing that Michael and Amy said to Aardman is they would be happy to make smaller-scale films that would be primarily for a European market,” explains “Arthur Christmas” director Sarah Smith. “I think that’s primarily what they expected Aardman to offer, but when they heard (our pitch for ‘Arthur Christmas’), they went, ‘Wait a minute, this is a big idea. This is going to work ’round the whole world!’?”

According to Osher, “It was a good fit for both sides. We were attracted to Aardman’s creativity, and being connected with a studio makes sense to them.” Adds Sproxton, “They’re a bigger company overall. Animation’s not the only string to their bow.”

The relationship began with a three-year development contract — which Sproxton calls “a prenuptial agreement” — and was renewed earlier this year.

It’s been a happy marriage so far, with two films being put into production. In addition to the all-CG “Arthur Christmas,” Sony greenlit the Bristol-based “Pirates!” a mixed-media pic inspired by a series of books by Gideon Defoe.

Going in, Aardman was determined to learn from the disappointing experience of its first CG feature, “Flushed Away,” which had earned just $64 million on a budget of nearly $150 million.

“We were in the process of making (the stop-motion) ‘Were-Rabbit’ at the time, and the idea that we could handle two films at once was an issue,” reflects Carla Shelley, head of feature production for Aardman. “Though we sent Sam Fell, whose idea (‘Flushed Away’) was, over to DreamWorks to direct that film, we didn’t support him in the same way.”

With Sony, the Aardman team vowed to do things differently.

The process began in Bristol, where Smith had been hired to cook up a new slate, starting with “Arthur Christmas” — a story aimed at answering all the questions that make kids start to doubt the existence of Santa, including how he manages to deliver two billion presents in one night (answer: by using a state-of-the-art sleigh and an army of elves).

“It’s huge, epic scale,” says Smith, who co-wrote with longtime collaborator Peter Baynham. “Stop-frame movies work best with intimate settings and stories, and this called for the whole world and a million elves. So it had to be CG, because that would be too many puppets.”

So, even though the company had been looking for permission to make small, eccentric releases, Aardman execs were excited at the possibility of taking on something more ambition: “Funnily enough, I think it’s something that we in Britain don’t do enough,” Sproxton says. “Since the demise of David Lean, we don’t go for big scale.”

Unlike on “Flushed Away,” the Aardman team insisted on doing 18 months of pre-production on the story and designs in the U.K. before relocating to Sony’s Culver City studios — aka “Aardman West” — for another 18 months of production.

“Some of the key players from the Sony Digital team (such as producer Chris Juen) came and spent anywhere from a month to a year with us in Bristol, so this time, we felt we were able to keep what we wanted of the Aardman identity, while also having Sony’s involvement right from the beginning,” says Smith, who was closely involved in selecting the U.S.-based animation team.

But Smith’s most significant departure from earlier Aardman projects was an aesthetic one. Though “Arthur Christmas” features British voice actors and the typically absurd Aardman sensibility, “It doesn’t really look like anybody else’s CG,” she insists. “I wanted the film to feel like the characters could only have come from Aardman, and to me, that was not about reproducing the look of stop-frame. If you look at the characters in ‘Chicken Run,’ none of them are cute. They’re all hilariously ugly, but they’re kind of charming because they just are who they are, which is losers and underdogs — and Arthur is the same.”

With a background in live-action, Smith pushed for a look that wouldn’t be possible via stop-motion.

“I wanted it to be cool,” she says, “so at the beginning, when we show the military operation (of Santa delivering presents), we’re doing it in that Paul Greengrass, ‘Bourne Identity’ style. We’re running live with the camera — it’s like ‘Black Hawk Down.’?”

Fortunately, Sony had innovated a handheld virtual camera rig for “Surf’s Up,” which Smith was able to use on “Arthur Christmas.”

“The hilarious thing is there are things in the movie that are so ambitious to create and render that we don’t even know whether we’ll be able to do them, but what we’ve seen so far is just fantastic,” she says.

Back in Bristol, Sproxton is excited by innovations to Aardman’s style.

“We’re known for ‘Wallace and Gromit,’ but if you look at the TV commercials we do, the looks are many and various,” he says. “When you have a toolbox as powerful as CG is, you’d be foolish not to use it.”

That philosophy extends to the 2012-targeted “Pirates!” Though the film was conceived as a modest CG undertaking, that changed when the Bristol team built a miniature set and showed it to Lynton and Pascal.

According to Shelley, “As soon as they saw it, that was it. It had to be a stop-frame film.”

With Sony’s support, they assembled a huge inhouse visual-effects team to handle the water, set extensions and stereo 3D considerations (a first for the studio). “?’Pirates!” is by far the biggest stop-frame film we’ve ever made,” Shelley says.

As custodians of the Aardman relationship, Osher and Minghella traveled to Bristol five or six times a year to check in on operations. With Minghella’s recent promotion to president of production at Columbia, Osher tapped former Miramax colleague (and Minghella’s old mentor) Michelle Raimo-Kouyate to help develop Sony’s slate of inhouse toons, which include “Hotel Transylvania” and “Rollercoaster Tycoon.”

At this point, story reels for “Arthur Christmas” have been locked for two months, and the team has less than a year to get the film out for its Nov. 11 U.K. release date.

According to Osher, “It’s nice to have a fresh set of eyes (on) things, but I need her focused in an intense way on the next wave of films.”

From the Aardman perspective, such executive changes are no cause for alarm (after all, Sproxton’s conversations with Sony began while Landau was still heading the studio’s toon division). If anything, the fact that Minghella moved up and Pascal just renewed her contract through 2015 is reason to breathe easy.

“Animated films take about 4 1/2 to 5 years to make,” Sproxton says. “In the live-action world, that’s half a lifetime. As often happens, the people you start these conversations with are not the ones you end up with.”

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