Stop motion in Christmas ads: timeless craft or cliche?

Technique has been used in almost every set of Christmas ads since John Lewis in 2013.

Christmas has plenty of clichés, from tinsel and carols to snow-covered landscapes. And Christmas ads, the peak season in many marketers' calendars, have followed suit. 

As Jeremy Lee wrote in Campaign in 2017, the festive formula usually goes: "Cutesy child, merchandisable brand character, low-key version of a classic track, [and] schmaltzy seasonal sentimentality". 

Another trope is the use of stop-motion animation.

Forever associated with Christmas through Tim Burton classic The Nightmare Before Christmas, the painstaking craft of stop motion has popped up in almost every crop of Christmas ads since John Lewis’ "The bear and the hare" in 2013. 

In 2016, Sainsbury’s stop-motion epic "The greatest gift" was voted YouTube’s top Christmas ad. The following year, the BBC’s "The supporting act" won numerous accolades for its heart-warming tale of a girl and her dad learning a dance routine. This year saw stop-motion efforts from clothing brand Loewe and the WWF, among others. 

So what makes stop-motion animation so appealing to brands telling Christmas stories?

Stop motion dates back to the turn of the century. While no-one can pinpoint the exact invention of the technique, the first commercially released film is credited to J Stuart Blackton and Albert E Smith for Vitagraph’s The Humpty Dumpty Circus, released in 1898. Throughout the past century, filmmakers have continued to use the technique for a range of effects in their work – from the surrealist films of Czech animator Jan Svankmajer to the Star Wars and Wallace & Gromit series.

When Pixar almost perfected CGI animation in the mid-2000s, some people questioned whether stop motion would become redundant. But the opposite has happened, with more stop-motion films and ads than ever before. 

Nina Gantz, director of Loewe’s Christmas ad this year, said: "It's timeless. Maybe it makes you think of how things were made before, makes you a bit nostalgic."

Speaking to Campaign earlier this year, Andy Biddle, an animator who has worked on Wes Anderson films and stop-motion Christmas ads for Sainsbury's and the BBC, said: "With stop frame, it feels like more of a magic trick. I found it fascinating that you could take an inanimate object and give it character. I’ve always loved building a world. Essentially we’re playing with toys, but creating stories from that."

So it is likely that stop-motion animation will remain a favourite among creatives and filmmakers alike, especially at Christmastime. 

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