You can do a lot in five years, and Sarah Smith has spent them directing her first movie. Arthur Christmas puts Smith square in the very small pantheon of female animated feature directors—I believe there's just three—so it's no surprise that underneath the family drama of a four-pack of North Pole men squabbling over who gets to be Father Christmas, that the one person who has all the power is Mrs. Claus. But if the fellows are all related...where did Santa's bride come from? We ask. And Smith answers—sort of—and also gives us the scoop on why her movie needed pimples, Star Trek and multicultural elves.
This is a story about four men jockeying to be Santa. But your Mrs. Santa Claus has a few moments where we realize she's quietly doing all the work.
She's wisely looking at the men running around and competing and just waiting for them to sort themselves out. I don't know if that's exactly me—but it's certainly my mom.
By the way, where did Mrs. Santa come from? The men are all of a blood lineage, but she's the only other human at the North Pole?
Where did he meet her? That's a whole other movie right there. [Laughs] That's classified information in the Claus household. You have to be a discreet lady of a particular quality to be considered Santa's partner.
The family is spying on the daughters around the world to see if they grow up nice, not naughty.
Not quite that—that's a bit creepy.
You're credited as voicing an elf in the movie—which one?
I actually voiced about three or four elves. In fact, at the very end when there were a couple of new lines here and there, the easiest thing was for me to get up and be another elf. There wasn't any time for extras. I did a couple of heckler elves who say to Santa, "Is it true children aren't real, they're just anti-matter?" Hecklers in a crowd is my specialty.
Was it weird then hearing yourself over and over again in post?
Well, since it was pitched up a little bit, I didn't mind, actually. It's funny. I don't enjoy hearing myself, but I didn't mind that because it's been transformed into elf.
You worked on the film for five years-was that like living in a perpetual Christmas?
Fortunately, because there's a lot of action-adventure that goes on in the movie, it's not like you're swimming through tinsel and decorations for five years. There's a variety of material to work on in that time. I think one of the hardest things was making a movie that was largely set at night—you don't have a big range of weather and light when you're living within one time period for five years.
And the lighting is so key. When the sky starts brightening up as dawn approaches, everyone gets nervous because they know they're nearly out of time.
Exactly. It was one of the big challenges of the movie that we wanted there to be light and shade across the whole film—we didn't just want to be in black night—so we play night in lots of different ways across the film. But because it's also a ticking clock, you have to be careful that you don't feel like morning has come.
What was your attitude toward Christmas before you started the movie, and has it changed?
It has changed, partly because of the movie and partly personally. Working on it, you reconnect a little bit with what does it feel like for children to believe that Santa is coming? We tried to get in touch with that feeling and the incredible intensity. As adults, we get a little bit like the Santa family: you kind of forget what that actually means to a child. But it's maybe the one time in a child's year, maybe even their life, where a sense of wonder and magic, of something outside the ordinary—the television and the day-to-day-reaches out and touches them. It's an incredibly intense experience. There's some fantastic videos on YouTube of children trembling with excitement when the time comes to open their gift from Santa. We tried to get in touch with that feeling as we were writing the movie, and also my co-writer Peter [Baynham] and I both had babies over the course of making the movie. Not together, I must say. And I think that also brings it home to you, it also reconnects you to that feeling.
Which is an excitement that it's hard to remember once you become an adult and Christmas becomes about something else.
I think it is. And then you have children and you see it in your child. And you know that if it was your child who was 6-years-old and rushing downstairs on Christmas morning, the idea that Santa hadn't come would be just like the end of meaning for them.
Do you think that making a Christmas film for today is different than if you had made this film 15 years ago?
Maybe. I think the things that smart children ask themselves about Santa are very much the same as it's always been. Children start to worry about the logistics of Santa. I think it's just that today, children are very, very savvy about the complexities of the modern world. They get exposed to the world and the scale of the world—maybe they've flown in an airplane—and from the television and the internet, they know about different types of houses and the sizes of the cities and the technology there is in the world. So if you're going to answer their questions, you have to look for more comprehensive answers.
Which reminds me: I love that the elves were so diverse.
That was something that Sony suggested to us and we thought it was a really good idea. Rather than just make them "elves," the ethnicity all being "elf," we actually made elves of all nations. You want the world to look like the world that children know and experience—and they've grown up in a much more ethnically diverse world.
I hope this doesn't sound like a super American observation, but it was striking how British the film was, down to the lingo and the paper hats.
We always conceived the Santa family as being like the British royal family. And I think it really helped us that the movie The Queen came out a few years ago because the rest of the world has seen what the British royal family life might look like. So we were able to build on that understanding of that sort of Britishness—and also, they're like a presidential family, as well. But we did put little things in there that aren't universal like Christmas crackers and paper hats. If you don't use your own cultural traditions, then somehow something becomes a little bland. You need those kind of details to make it feel specific and rich. If there was something in there that really caused mass confusion, we would try and alter it.
Speaking of presidential, there's a couple of lines I have to ask about. "Mission accomplished," and in the trailer, "No child left behind."
Borrowing from the political landscape. Well, you know, Steve who runs the Christmas organization, like all corporate executives, he borrows from the phraseology of his time. He used to say, "Magic doesn't make the trains run on time!" as well, but I pulled it out at one point.
The S1—Santa's space ship—is pretty technically amazing. How did you design it?
We looked at real world technology like stealth bombers and so on, but I also used the Starship Enterprise as a reference because I always thought that was really clever in Star Trek that it looked like it had been built on earth rather than alien technology. And I wanted the same for the S1—that you believed it had been built in a dock somewhere on earth. Pete and I had already thought of the idea that it would take photographs of the sky and project them onto its hull. I knew that I wanted the silhouette to look like a giant, fabulous super sleigh. But there came a point when it became one of the few details in the movie—one of the very few—that I handed over to all the guys around me because I'm surrounded by fantastic, brilliant sci-fi geeks. I said to them, "Look, this giant, enormous space ship, I give it to you—this is your specialty."
What are the details in the animation that you love, but people might not notice until the second viewing?
The elves all have little badges on their shoulders saying what division they're in and what work they do. You have to look really hard because their shoulders are so small! But on them you can see whether they're an elf who works in Field Support or a Listening Elf, who listens to hear if a child is waking, or if they're an S1 Support Elf—and they all have their ranks. And Mrs. Santa's jewelry and brooch around her neck has holly leaves and other little things—she has lovely little details. Arthur himself, one of the things people don't notice is that Arthur has rather imperfect skin, which I thought was kind of important. I didn't want him to look too obviously cute.
That's almost edgy, seeing as how people always cute-ify cartoons.
He actually has a couple pimples in there. The other detail I like is that when Grandsanta puts on his old uniform, there's a dry cleaning label attached to the back of the collar that goes with him all through the movie. The fact that so many people go with you on this journey means that lots of little creative touches are being added.
When in that process did you come up with Arthur's fuzzy, obnoxious Christmas slippers, which become such a key visual in the film?
When I was thinking about Arthur's character design, we played with all sorts of versions of Arthur. We even tried the idea that he might be a bit large, rather than skinny. The skinny, gangly character is very much the way to go with the underdog and it did feel right for Arthur. I wanted him to feel tall and to feel awkward about being tall, about the space he occupies in the world, so he's always standing with hunched-up shoulders. But I didn't want the kind of skinny up-and-down silhouette, so we were looking at how we could give him a distinctive silhouette. We tried the idea of the horrible, terrible Christmas jumpers that he adores. At one point, we had fake antlers on his head. We tried all sorts of things including the idea that he would have these great big, fat, silly slippers. Once I saw them, I just thought they were so lovely and it gave him such a silhouette. I wanted him to be a bit awkward and geeky and wear terrible sweatpants with baggy knees and have slightly bad skin. But I wanted to give him something appealing and I just thought if he had this beautiful soft hair and these soft slippers, that they'd make you want to pat him. And once I saw that silhouette, I just thought we had to go with that through the whole movie because they were so beautiful, those great big soft feet. I didn't want him to take them off and put on his outdoor shoes. They became part of his whole journey.
When Arthur becomes Santa, will he have to pad his suit?
We did talk about that. At one point, Peter suggested we should have a scene of them force-feeding him on Christmas Eve. But in a way, that's why we didn't actually show Arthur one year on because I didn't want to put that in children's imaginations. The Santa that we have in our movie is really in many ways a very traditional Santa. I didn't want to present Arthur looking like Santa—or not looking like Santa—because I thought that was somehow confusing. I think children want to hold on to their own imaginary idea of what Santa looks like. So Arthur will metamorphize into that in their imaginations rather than onscreen.