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Hey, boys and girls, Englandís Aardman animation studios has produced some of the wittiest, most memorable characters to grace both large and small screens, including Wallace and Gromit, Feathers McGraw, Shaun the Sheep and the fabulous fowl from Chicken Run.  Weíve been fanatics for eons and eons.  We were overjoyed to meet Sarah Smith, the first female director of an Aardman feature and have an exclusive chat about the excellent Arthur Christmas.

Dig it!

 

Arthur Christmas

Director Sarah Smith

 

 

The Lady Miz Diva:  What is it like to be part of the Aardman family and how did that relationship begin?

Sarah Smith:  I joined Aardman about five or six years ago when they were looking to build a new slate of movies, and I come from a live action comedy background, but Iíd had some contact with Aardman, because I am, like everyone in Britain, a huge fan.  I had talked to them a few years before about doing some work on film scripts for them and they contacted me and asked me if I would be interested in taking on this development role, which is not really something that I do.  I was directing comedy/drama at the time, but I said, well, you know, Iíll do it for six months, thinking maybe Iíll come up with a project they like and leave them with something.  Then I got completely sucked in because I got on board at a very fascinating time with an opportunity to take a whole fresh path and look at what they wanted to do as a company.  I was lucky enough to be able to be part of that and actually start picking up projects.  I picked up the Pirates film which Pete Lord is making; I bought the rights to those books, and then the Arthur Christmas idea came in.  So I was working across four or five films for a slate, but Arthur, because it came from Pete {Baynham, co-writer} became very personal to me because heís one of my best friends and weíd worked together many times before and really, by the time we started developing it, we were kind of into co-writing it and I just wanted to stay with Arthur.  So, six years later, here I am!  I feel very honoured to be a part of the Aardman family and I also feel like itís a bit like moving to certain countries; youíd think it would take you twenty years to really be part of the family.  I donít really feel like I have earned my stripes yet.  {Laughs} I know Iíve made an animated movie, but many people like Nick {Park}, theyíve been animating since they were teenagers, and Pete Lord as well, so you feel a little unworthy of joining that company.

 

LMD:  Aardman co-founder Peter Lord is one of the producers on Arthur Christmas and you mentioned Nick Park, who directed the Wallace and Gromit films and Chicken Run.  Did they or the other established hands at Aardman help with suggestions about the film or the animation challenges?

SS:  The glorious thing about Aardman and the great thing that Pete and Dave {Sproxton, co-founder} have done there is theyíve made it a place where people with a passion for something that they trust, have a very safe and sheltered environment to try and grow their idea and make their movie.  Pete, of course, was there in the early days when we were developing the story and Pete Baynham and I would pitch where we were at and we would get feedback from everybody, but they also gave us an enormous amount of trust and space and protection to work out our own problems, so that we would pitch the movie and people would give us reactions and we would then go away and figure it out ourselves.  And thatís a really lovely thing about Aardman, itís an umbrella; Pete decided that he would give me this opportunity and trust me with it and he did.

 

LMD:  Thereís a different vibe to an Aardman film compared to other animation companies that people all over the world respond to.  What makes Aardman films so special?

SS:   I think maybe because the company is tucked away in Bristol. I mean, it can be a dangerous thing, not having a global view, because you have to remember how your movieís gonna be seen.  You know, the audience are gonna see them worldwide.  But on the other hand, it also helps to reinforce the ethos of pursuing the thing you love yourself, and I think that, to me, all the best projects, all the best movies that there are in any medium have voice.  They come from an individual or individuals and they know what they are and they have a particular tone.  What Nick does, what Pete does, it has that in spades.  And I think that because we had their protection Ė Pete {Baynham} and I stayed on this movie from the beginning to the end Ė thatís quite unusual in animation.  Many animated movies have multiple, multiple, multiple writers and often multiple directors.  I always used to say Iím the first director, thinking the odds donít seem high that Iíll make it to the end without being replaced. {Laughs} I think that having that kind of support and protection helps to get through your problems rather than actually them saying, ĎLetís try somebody different.í  Itís one of the things that enables the movies to keep their own voice.

 

LMD:  Arthur Christmas features a great voice cast for its main characters like James McAvoy, Bill Nighy, Ashley Jensen and Hugh Laurie, but there are some surprise cameos from Robbie Coltrane, Jane Horrocks, Joan Cusack and others.  How did you get these stars on board in such small bits?

SS:  Well, they thought it was fun.  We wanted the elves to have a lot of range of character.  We didnít want them all to sound the same and the best way you can do that is by getting really great actors.  We approached them they love Aardman, most of these people, and they liked the idea of being an elf. {Laughs}  An elf in a Christmas movie, and a Christmas movie that maybe will last and give pleasure in other Christmases.  You know, itís a fun thing to do.  They came in for an hour into studios in different parts of the world and they gave each gave me an elf, which was fantastic.

 

LMD:  I adore Bryony, the hard-working, gift-wrapping elf, but I wonder if there was any concern about her design being so gender-neutral?

SS:  No, I mean my idea about the elves was that they should look like an army of GIís, you know?  And if you look at armies, girls donít look like girls, do they?  That sounds like a negative thing, I didnít mean it like that, but you know what I mean, they have regulation kind of haircuts and they look like little professionals, and that was what she was meant to look like.  Sheís like a little GI as far as Iím concerned.

 

LMD:  So Bryonyís not a gay elf?

SS:  There wasnít a particular decision to try and make any point about that other than to make her look like a little female soldier.  I suppose the important thing is that she looks like a little female solider who can do the job, rather than try to make her look girly.  Why shouldnít she be a nice, little feisty character who is good at what she does?

 

LMD:  I wondered about the decision to not show Santaís workshop.  Thereís a line where Arthur is showing off his new Christmas slippers and exclaims, ďTheyíre from China!Ē  Do elves no longer make toys in the North Pole?  Have they been outsourced?

SS:  Well, this is one of the tricky things, because Santaís workshop generally shows elves making wooden soldiers and trains.  That isnít what children get for Christmas.  So, if you are trying to say to children this could be true, and what theyíve asked for is a Sony Playstation, or an off-road bike, itís a tricky thing to say, and also if those toys from Santa have brands on them and theyíve seen them in the shops.  We didnít want to show something that would fight with the reality of that, so we just kind of slightly skimmed over exactly where the toys come from.

 

LMD:  Youíve put so much logical thought into this film.  Besides what youíve just said, I read the timing of Santaís gift drops was very carefully calculated, as well.

SS:  {Laughs} I think you have to work {that} out.  If youíre trying to present an alternative world, but that world is supposed to be our world and youíre trying to make kids believe in that, you have to think it out in ridiculous depth, even if they only get a glimpse of it for two minutes.  It needs to have that depth in order for them to believe in the credibility of it, because theyíve very smart and they can see if it adds up or not.

 

LMD:  In the middle of the movie, thereís a line from Steve, ďChristmas isnít a time for emotion.Ē  I wonder if that wasnít the basis for the entire film?

SS:  Itís completely a Steve line.  Itís clearly meant to be satirising Steve, itís that heís managed to think himself into a position.  We used to have him saying ďArthur, magic doesnít make the trains run on time.Ē {Laughs} Heís kind of thought himself into a totally logical situation, which he absolutely is committed to getting those presents out to those children in the most fantastic and efficient way possible.  But I think our idea about Steve was that he would always be slightly frustrated that emotion and sentiment around him clouded the issue of getting the children their presents, which surely is what matters.  Itís that kind of slightly corporate mentality that has somehow fundamentally missed the point, and yet itís hard to argue with the logic of it.

 

LMD:  I think for many people, Christmas has become all about getting the gifts and putting it under the tree and they miss out on the heart or sentiment that the holiday is meant to have and Arthur Christmas puts that message across wonderfully.

SS:  One of the things that I really wanted to put across in the movie was the idea that for almost all of us Christmas becomes this incredible piece of busyness where we have a giant to-do list.  You know, the decorations and the food and the presents and the gift wrap and the parties and the clothes and everything; but really, when you draw up those to-do lists, what youíre trying to do is to set the scene somehow for a moment of magic that you hope will come in the middle of it all.  I donít think anybody does those things just for their own sake.  Theyíre trying to get everything ready and everything exactly what it needs to be for the magic to come, and yet sometimes you can get so busy that there isnít any room for the magic.  In fact, you get so frustrated with things not being exactly right that people get themselves in a terrible state at Christmas and itís the opposite of that magical moment, and we wanted to show that story in Santaís life, as well.  I mean, after all, Santa is the man with the biggest to-do list in the world.

 

~ The Lady Miz Diva

November 14th, 2011

 

 

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Photos

Exclusive photos by LMD

Film Stills courtesy of Sony Pictures

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