If you walked past the unassuming townhouse in Stockwell, London, you wouldn’t guess that it contained a small world recreating a slice of modern Britain. Behind a blue door a group of animators worked over the autumn to bring to life a Christmas story that would capture audiences across the nation.
The setting was Clapham Road Studios, and the project was BBC One’s Christmas ad. During the shoot the studio held miniature sets of a British home – complete with a tiny toaster and ironing board – a puppet dad and his daughter, and a woman mending the puppets’ clothes.
The result of those efforts, a two-minute stop-motion film called "The supporting act", debuted on 2 December and has already been met with widespread praise. It was directed by Blinkink’s Elliot Dear, who was behind another Christmas advertising classic, John Lewis’ "The bear and the hare" in 2013. It is also the first Christmas campaign by BBC Creative, the broadcaster’s in-house agency set up in 2016.
Entering the flurry of Christmas advertising – a season typically dominated by veterans like John Lewis – is a daunting task to begin with, but as the most-watched UK TV channel BBC One had to entertain a vast audience with a story that was universal.
"We were trying to find a story that was general enough and poignant enough that everyone feels emotionally invested," says Arvid Härnqvist, art director at BBC Creative. "We’re all sitting down to watch these programmes together."
Theme of togetherness
The Christmas campaign also had to build upon BBC One’s 2017 "Oneness" platform, which launched at the beginning of the year with idents created by photographer Martin Parr showcasing people’s shared interests. That theme of togetherness is even more relevant during the holidays.
Härnqvist and his creative partner Amar Marwaha landed on the truth that sometimes "life gets in the way of what’s important, especially at Christmas when there’s so much to do," Härnqvist says. "Everyone can recognise themselves in that, whether you’re young or old."
The ad tells the story of a 10-year-old girl who is preparing for the biggest dance performance of her life at a school talent show, while her dad seems busy and distracted as Christmas approaches. But when the curtain rises and the girl experiences stage fright, it turns out he had been paying attention all along. He knows all the steps and dances with her until she regains her confidence.
Härnqvist and Marwaha wrote the script knowing it could work as an animated or live-action film, but after enlisting Blinkink and Dear they decided to create a stop-motion ad. Dear says the technique fits the warmth of the story.
"[Stop motion] is a very intimate process, it’s handmade and you can feel the love that’s gone into it," he says. "Everything’s small, so it kept things small and close to you in a story that is about being close to another person."
The team was also determined that the ad depict a "real not magical interpretation of the UK," Marwaha says. This was a different take at Christmas time especially, with so many films showing romanticised worlds of glittering houses and snowy landscapes.
"We wanted to come at it from a very British perspective, not just with the storytelling and characters but also with the design," says Benjamin Lole, a producer at Blinkink.
They abandoned clichés of cobblestone streets, red phone boxes and Cockney accents, "a boiled down version that we don’t actually see living in Britain," Dear says. "We did not want to make something that feels like an advert, where lives are portrayed as quite lofty."
A film that would feel real, recognisable and understated: that could be challenging with stop motion, one of the most labour-intensive forms of animation. Another limitation of the technique is facial performance, and the ad’s characters needed to do a lot of that in a story without any dialogue.
So Blinkink came up with a new technique altogether, blending two types of animation: stop motion but with CGI used to create the facial expressions of the puppets.
"All the conversation needed to be done with looks and eye contact. CGI finely tuned the facial expressions so they felt warm and realistic," Dear says. "We came up with an essentially invisible technique, something where you don’t really know what you’re looking at. That makes it magical in its own right."
Blinkink had only four months for the production, but the team included masters in animation. The puppet makers were MacKinnon & Saunders in Manchester, which built puppets for Wes Anderson’s Fantastic Mr Fox and Tim Burton’s Corpse Bride and Frankenweenie. Lead animator Dan Gill and much of the crew previously worked on stop-motion films including Anderson’s forthcoming Isle of Dogs.
Stop-motion animation is a slow and meticulous process, and the BBC’s ad took five weeks to shoot. There were 50 shots plus four additional idents, and a three-second shot would take about a day and a half to complete. In that time the team would aim to animate 60 to 70 frames. One scene – the dance number with the dad and daughter – was particularly time-consuming and complex, running across five days including into the weekend.
You only get one take with stop motion because "it’s unlikely you’ve got time to do it again," Dear says. "You brief the animator and give them reference materials, then turn them off into a dark corner of the studio and hope they come back with something you like."
The crew worked with two sets of puppets. "They can only be in one place at one time, just like if you had an actor on set," Lole explains. "No one can go in and disturb the set and you can’t move things around. It’s like playing [the board game] Operation."
The little details
Every detail in the film, down to the furniture and kitchen utensils, recreated actual objects and places drawn from photographs and research. The team worked with a professional choreographer and dancers to plan the dad and daughter’s performance, and the soundtrack of Clean Bandit song Symphony was chosen because it is what the girl would have listened to, Härnqvist explains.
The appearance of the characters was also carefully thought out. The girl was meant to look young yet strong and independent. Early drafts had her wearing clothing in the style of hip-hop dance, but this "looked too broad," Dear says. Instead "we put her in a school uniform and an oversized coat as if the dad bought it to last a few years".
The dad’s character also changed. Initially, he was buff and in shape with a full head of hair, but they evolved his look to make him more endearing and his big reveal more surprising.
"It needed to be unexpected that he’s going to stand up and do something physical and brave. If we picked someone who doesn’t look like a dancer that would be a better way of hiding the fact that he would do that," Dear says.
Despite striving to create an accurate depiction of British family life, there is still a touch of magic at the heart of the film. When the dad joins his daughter’s performance, the real world falls away as they dance against a backdrop of colourful lights. For a moment it is just the two of them together.
"We want the UK to love this short film that we made and to feel good after watching it," Härnqvist says. "We want to give them a proper Christmas feeling."
No snow or fantasy was needed to achieve that – just an unrivalled level of craft.