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How M&S Brought Percy Pig to Life this Christmas



The team behind M&S Food’s Christmas ad - MPC, Outsider, Grey and the M&S head of creative, food - all speak to LBB’s Nisna Mahtani about Percy’s creation

How M&S Brought Percy Pig to Life this Christmas

The moment we saw fairy Dawn French drop her wand on Percy wrapping paper, we knew all of our Percy Pig dreams were coming true. The new M&S Food Christmas campaign brings the iconic pink pig sweet to life, giving him the voice of Tom Holland and bringing with it all the charm of Christmas. 

As Percy comes to life, he discovers the range of M&S food that will line the British supermarket’s shelves this Christmas. Percy’s guide is a very realistically animated Dawn French, who plays a motherly fairy that introduces him to all the wonders he hasn’t yet seen in his ‘23 seconds of life’. The spot is built on a captivating script, with funny quips from the two actors as they go back and forth. Eventually, we’re left with the iconic line that covers it all: ‘This is not just Christmas food, this is M&S Christmas food.’

Bringing Percy to life was a task taken on by a crack team that included Rich Robinson, head of creative, M&S Food, MPC’s David Bryan, animation director and Matthieu Toullet, creative director of colour, as well as Outsider’s animation and live-action directors DOM&NIC and Grey’s copywriter and art director, Sam Haynes and John Gibson. There were dozens more talented people involved, of course, but LBB’s Nisna Mahtani caught up with those seven to get insight into the whole process, from ideation to finalisation.

LBB> What was the brief for the campaign this year and what was the feeling you wanted to create?

Rich> The heart of the brief is what’s always at the heart of an M&S Food brief – the food. More than any other time of the year, people love to see our foody offering. This year we wanted to create more of a narrative structure while keeping the food front and centre. Everyone loves a heart-warming story at Christmas time.

LBB> What were the findings that informed your decision regarding the direction of the M&S Food campaign?

Rich> Percy was as much of a ‘no-brainer’ as any I’ve had in my career. The idea ticks so many boxes – it’s set in one of our stores, it features a unique M&S property and the lovely narrative revolves around the discovery of our food. It was a decision encouraged by both head and heart.

LBB> We’d love to hear your take on the brief, what were your first thoughts as a creative team?

Sam & John> We first got the brief almost two years ago. We inherited it from a team who were moving on from Grey and the idea of bringing Percy to life was already on the table, amongst others. Of course, that was the route we were truly excited by – giving an iconic, much-loved character a voice for the first time, and finding the best way to do that.

LBB> Tom Holland and Dawn French are the perfect voices for this ad, how did you go about choosing them for the Christmas campaign?

Rich> Tom and Dawn were top of our shortlist and luckily for us, they were both up for it – despite landing your first choices being like hen’s teeth. Dawn’s contagious enthusiasm is perfect for Fairy, and Tom delivers a perfect child-like excitement for Percy, who is actually almost 30 years old but is perceived as a little more youthful. We drafted some brilliant creatives, Sam & John from Grey London, who helped us with the scripts and nailed the tone of voice - Percy has never spoken to date so we had to get it bang on.

LBB> The dialogue fits both Tom and Dawn perfectly. How did you go about creating the script and did you keep their voices in mind?

Sam & John> The first drafts of these scripts were written before we had any confirmation of the talent, so we had to start with basic archetypes. Percy is like a kid at Christmas, naïve, excitable, and totally joyful. Fairy is his foil, the warm-hearted, but slightly exasperated mother figure. Once we had the talent locked, we were able to go through them all again with Tom and Dawn in mind, and work with them in the recording session to make it undeniably Tom and Dawn.  

LBB> Phrases such as Dawn’s ‘Oh Baubles!’ and Tom’s ‘It’s not ringing any bells’ are so memorable. How many times did the script evolve from original creation to final product?

Sam & John> We came to the recording sessions armed with a lot of alternative lines for both characters. Tom and Dawn both brought so much to the roles, and sometimes you only know what’s the funniest line when the talent deliver it. There was a lot of ad-libbing too, which has made it into the final scripts. When you’ve got actors and comedians of this calibre in the recording booth, you’d be crazy not to let them have a play and see what happens. 

LBB> DOM&NIC, as directors, when it comes to animated characters, what’s one thing you have to get right and can you tell us how you achieved this with Percy’s character?

DOM&NIC> There should be something special and unique to an animated character, something you haven’t seen before. But the character must also feel alive on screen with a genuine human connection to the audience. That requires creating emotions as well as technical craft details. Percy is an over-excitable child, he’s the classic kid in a sweet shop character but he also has a child's wondrous view of the world, it’s all new to him and he sees magic. That’s a great emotional connection to create with the audience - everyone can enjoy the sense of wonder at a child seeing magic - and the gorgeous M&S food of course!

Fairy goes on a journey from apprehension and surprise at the start to having lots of fun and being really playful with Percy. That journey is interesting and the playfulness is something all audiences respond to - we all love playing don’t we?

These two characters continue to develop with more films coming soon over the festive period, building up to New Year. We really get to enjoy Percy’s wonder at discovering new festive delights, fairy creating bigger and more spectacular magic and a genuine emotional bond being created between them.

LBB> The fairy looks so similar to Dawn French, how did you go about creating such a realistic animation and can you talk us through the process?

DOM&NIC> On the performance side, the fairy’s character was always written as a motherly role to Percy, the unexpected, extremely excitable and slightly errant child. We really wanted to avoid the fairy being too twee and cliché so she almost swears when she has the mishap accidentally dropping her wand on the box and bringing Percy to life. She’s a real-world fairy for today, not at all a classic Disney-style fairy. She’s forced out of her fairy comfort zone by Percy’s antics which creates the comedy dynamic but she loves creating magic for Percy too.

Dawn brought a huge amount of humour and character to that role, slowly building up that motherly affection towards Percy and being a perfect comedy foil to Percy’s unintentional jokes or sweetly naive comments. We used Dawn’s performance for the facial expressions, which was great, but we also created a flying style that allowed the fairy to move quickly but also to pause and hover on the spot to help punctuate her dialogue responses and emotions. She is much smaller than Percy but on screen, they always feel really connected together in the scene, despite Tom and Dawn recording their dialogue at completely different times without seeing one another at all. 

LBB> Which were your favourite parts to animate and why?

DOM&NIC> It’s been a dream job to collaborate and work on throughout and there are more films to come of course. Fairy’s character has been particularly fun to develop and explore with Grey's creative teams, MPC and of course Dawn’s performance. 

LBB> The setting is an M&S store, but oh so elevated. How did you go about creating a setting that evokes such a Christmas spirit?

Sam & John> We wanted the films to feel authentic and so we were thrilled to be able to shoot in the M&S Stratford store. It’s a new store and so already looked incredible, so we didn’t have to do much beyond adding the Christmassy magic! 

LBB> David, can you tell us what your vision as animation director was for the final ad?

David> With Percy Pig being such a popular mascot amongst the UK public, it was a huge privilege to bring him to life this Christmas. We wanted to be sure that our representation of him would be a character that is brimming with appeal and emotion, but also that our animation approach would provide Percy with the best platform for unforgettable storytelling.

Ultimately our storytelling is only as good as our ability to express character, and with strong poses, we were able to communicate this, even in a single frame. For Percy, it was incredibly important to have poses that are appealing as it allows the audience to easily understand what he is feeling and can become the gateway to understanding his emotions.

Percy in his more familiar 2D illustrated form is a very simplified character, however, when recreating him in 3D we did not consider character complexity as a restriction when planning towards generating character appeal. Sometimes the simplest characters are the most appealing. Take Gromit (Wallace & Gromit) for example who has no mouth, but he is easily understandable from his appeal. We can understand exactly what he is expressing even without talking. 


LBB> We’d love to hear about your favourite animated aspect of the piece and why you think it works particularly well?

David> Bringing the Christmas tree fairy to life in the form of Dawn French (another national icon) was massively enjoyable and challenging equally. The vision from the directors, DOM&NIC was that she should always appear as a real-life object and that her movement ought to stay respectful to the materials from which she is made. With this brief, our animated approach was to always be as efficient as possible with her movements. For example, if her legs were not required to move or would provide any storytelling advances we would simply not move them. Her upper and lower body was also made up of one solid piece of plastic. These factors ought to inevitably result in a very stiff and unappealing performance, however with just a few simple character techniques we were able to keep her movements feeling fluid and a character performance that was convincing and appealing.
For her locomotion, we referenced a similar movement to that of a hummingbird or a dragonfly. To keep her from feeling stiff as she zips precisely from position to position, we used a single aerodynamic pose to give the appearance of fluid movement and added drag and overlaps to her body as a single piece.
To keep her performance convincing, we gave the fairy some gesture-based movements using only her head and her wand holding the arm in the same way that we sometimes use our hands to tell a story when we speak to people. We also enhanced the lip-read by using small, sweepy progressions as she speaks, paying attention to the voiceover and applying the biggest movements and the strongest poses to the audio peaks with each line. This was a valuable lip-sync lesson I learned from The Muppets. They have simple open and closed mouth positions, but we all buy the lip-read because the puppets are progressing forwards while they speak!

LBB> Is there anything else you’d like to share about the animation of this campaign?

David> Another challenging aspect with this campaign was making sure that we were able to understand what Percy was thinking and what emotions he was feeling. We had fantastic video footage of Tom Holland recording the voice for Percy and with that, we were able to pick out key details in his performance that made it clear when Percy was talking to himself and thinking about something compared to when he was talking more directly to Fairy. Quite often we used introverted poses for the moments where Percy was questioning his new Christmas world and extroverted poses when he was at his most excited!


LBB> Matthieu, can you talk to us about the colour grade of the piece and how it helps set the festive mood?

Matthieu> I would really like to thank Stephen Keith Roach, the director of photography who had the wonderful idea of ​​lighting this film with only the existing lighting of the M&S supermarket. This allowed me to highlight essential parts of the frame and magnify them. The naturally dim lighting of the supermarket helped to create the festive atmosphere of sparkling Christmas lights on a dark night. Without forgetting to mention the marvellous work of the MPC team who raised the bar to make this film as magical as possible. 

LBB> We want to know, will we be seeing more of Percy in action?

Rich> Watch this space! 


LBB> The response so far has been fantastic, what do you put this down to?

Rich> We are all pretty chuffed with the positive response we’ve had from the industry and the public and we have four more new TV executions to still come (with a tear-jerker at the end). Personally, I think the popularity comes from the combined magic which our characters and narrative bring, combined with the fantastic products – what more do you need at Christmas?! 

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Genres: Animation

LBB Editorial, Mon, 22 Nov 2021 15:24:00 GMT