The Mill ECD Mike Chapman unwraps the production and post challenges of shooting Christmas in summer
What comes to mind when you think of Christmas? Festive lights against the night sky, blankets of snow, and keeping warm with a wooly hat and a mulled wine perhaps. It’s an exciting time of year that sees many of us beginning our countdowns (and Christmas shopping for the organised among us) before Halloween even hits.
But for brands and marketers, the festive season needs to be conjured up in summer in order for those much anticipated Christmas ads to be ready for their big release - quite the challenge when you’re actually in the middle of a heatwave. From making 30°C look like -3°C, sunshine look like snow, or removing lush green leaves from trees - how do advertisers make this possible?
LBB speaks with Mike Chapman - or ‘Chappers’ as he is better known - executive creative director at The Mill and the talent behind John Lewis’ Man On The Moon and Heathrow’s Teddy Bears to unwrap the production and post challenges faced when shooting Christmas in summer.
Does It Look A Lot Like Christmas?
When choosing a location to film your Christmas spot, it seems obvious to try and pick a location where it’s already cold and snowy, right? But this may not be the most feasible option when you consider costs, crew and landscape.
As The Mill ECD Chappers explains, “Usually, the first consideration is whether we can actually go shoot somewhere snowy. I’ve seen people dressed in Santa suits at Cannes to advertise shooting in Chile for your festive campaigns. But there are a number of reasons why this may not be appropriate.”
“Sense of place is one of the most important factors when it comes to shooting Christmas in summer so you must consider the look of the landscape and architecture as well as the logistics of having to fly everyone over,” he says. “You don’t want palm trees and holiday homes in the background or you won’t get that authentic festive feel that the Northern hemisphere market associates with Christmas. As always, our aim is to bring authenticity to the narrative, making sure these often heart-felt tales really land with audiences.”
“Another thing we try to avoid is picking somewhere with too many deciduous trees, because it can become quite a big job to replace them in CG and make them look bare,” he continues. “Then there’s the question of how important the precise geography of the shoot is to the story. Does it need to be set in Peckham, or is it located in some nondescript wood or mountain location?
Deck The Set
Once you’ve chosen the location, the next thing to do is make it look as much like Christmas on set as possible - or the creatives in post will have an even tougher job than they already do.
“There are lots of little tricks and tools you can employ but it is normally a combination of techniques needed, both practical and digital, to get the desired look,” Chappers states. “The special effects team is important for adding practical snow and fog as well as dressing the sets in hand with the art department, and one of the most simple tricks is to lay out white fabric as a base for building on in post.”
“You can also lay down special foam that helps recreate a snow effect and there are also things like ‘snow candles’ that produce ash as the burn, giving off the look of falling snow. Prop houses also have Christmas decorations ready for use. I’d use these techniques for foreground elements and for any parts of the scene you have your protagonists interacting with. In saying that, there are some specialist crews who focus on doing larger scale snow scenes when you need large areas to be dressed with fake snow on the ground and in the air.”
And as far as lighting and time of day goes, Chappers says that it depends on the final look you want to achieve but that “winter can still be bright, sunny and clear, so if you want a daylight look then shoot outside, even if it’s totally the wrong temperature.”
But whether hot or cold, when shooting in any extreme conditions, you need to ensure your cast and crew are well looked after. “Use your common sense. You may be filming in fake snow, but you’ll need to provide lots of sun cream, cover and water on hot, bright sunny days. And do make sure your cast are only in full wardrobe when needed - you don't want someone sweating in a Santa suit all day if they don't need to be.”
“As far as acting cold, that’s down to the talent of the actor. But you can use hair and makeup to make them appear colder than they are to help the believability of the scene, such as adding icicles or snow to their hair and faces. But for some things like adding condensation to people’s breath, we normally look to do that in VFX rather than using anything practical.”
Let It CG Snow
Next, it’s the turn of post production to add the final festive flair to the scenes. “They get to work adding falling CG snow to the air and ground, and creating CG trees with no leaves to make it look like the right time of year,” says Chappers. “Finally, for wider scenes and deep background we use matte paintings that can often be used across a number of shots in the same environment.”
“Matte painting plays a huge part in transforming the scene,” Chappers elaborates. “We also have a library of CG models that we have built in the past that we can draw from if things need to be added in post. If there is a big deciduous tree in the way of something important that you know we are going to see when the leaves are removed, the on set supervisor will go and take photos or videos of what's behind it, so we can add it back in once we have put our wintery tree in there.”
“It’s often easier to add things rather than take them away so we will also look to see what big elements we could add to hide any unwanted bits of scenery we have captured in camera. In some cases we might use a second unit or stock to acquire footage from a snowy location to add into your hero location.”
Countdown To Christmas
So how long does all of this take? Do we really need to shoot Christmas so far in advance?
“As far as time scales go it's totally dependent on the scale of what you are changing, if you are predominantly using matte painting and 2D techniques to change the backgrounds across a 60 sec ad, then you are probably looking at a minimum of four weeks after edit lock for the final spot,” Chappers highlights. “Whereas, if you shoot in an already snowy location, it might just be a week or two of cleanup and grade.”
“If we are getting into a more involved CG environment, then we might be looking at more like six to eight weeks - it’s totally dependent on how much and how complex the scenes are, so it’s best to be as prepared as possible ahead of the busy festive period.”
“Each job we do has its own unique set of challenges,” he concludes. “It’s about using the most appropriate techniques, in some cases inventing some new ones, whatever it takes to best serve the narrative being told.”