Behind the Work in association withThe Immortal Awards

Taming Santa’s Reindeer for McDonald’s Magical Christmas Spot

London, UK
Leo Burnett creatives, director James Rouse and the Framestore team unwrap one of the year’s most compelling Christmas campaigns
When Leo Burnett creatives Andrew Long and James Millers took on the responsibility of making McDonald’s 2018 UK Christmas ad, they made the first of big decisions. Last year’s festive offering from the fast food brand had already focused on the importance of leaving out carrots for Santa’s furry workmates. Should they go back to the same concept or fashion something afresh? They knew there was more mileage in the idea, particularly at a time like Christmas when familiarity is so important. “Really, the start of the idea WAS the decision to continue the #ReindeerReady platform established last Christmas,” they say. “It demonstrates a clear role for the brand but still allows for the kind of magic people really buy into at this time of year.”

That key decision made, Andrew and James settled on telling the story of Christmas Eve from the perspective of the big man himself, spinning a disheartening tale of the reindeer missing out on the carrots they deserve because children haven’t left any out for them. “The temptation for a lot of brands at Christmas has been to shy away from these beloved characters and create their own,” say the team. “We spent a lot of time looking at what people had to say about last year’s offerings and it occurred to us there was genuine desire for the kind of story that reminds you of those magical Christmas films we all grew up with.”

Crucially, they wanted to make sure the story felt fresh, so a key element was to ensure it took place in a contemporary setting. “I think the choice to really ground these very magical characters in a more modern world filled with high rises and air ducts linked the brand to the story in a credible way,” say Andrew and James.

“The same principles went into this that go into every McDonald’s story we tell,” they say. “It’s all about relatability and honest emotion. Even though we’re talking about Santa and his reindeer, we’re still looking for those relationships and character traits we can all understand as people.”

Leo Burnett turned to Outsider director James Rouse for the second year running to bring the script to life. Last year’s film focused on a father-daughter relationship and this time James knew the characters’ chemistry was something the film needed to focus on. “It was all about getting the relationship between Santa and his reindeer just right, feeling a depth and love in their relationship,” he says. “Santa isn’t the ‘Hohoho’ cut-out we’re used to seeing, he’s a worker having a tough night. He’s real and identifiable. He gets a bit grumpy, like we all do on occasion.”
“Undoubtedly, the biggest challenge was the VFX elements throughout the entire film,” say Andrew and James. Bringing the reindeer to life in a way that was so loveable people would connect with them was going to need some serious expertise. James knew this too, so turned to the creature-creating talents of Framestore. “My first thoughts were simply to use exactly the same, utterly fabulous team I used on [Sainsbury’s 2015 Christmas ad] Mog’s Christmas Calamity. They’re quite brilliant, creating the creatures, then bringing them to life and giving them personalities. We hung out together a great deal, getting the performances pitch perfect. On a job like this they become my actors.”

“Flying reindeer are always going to be a challenge,” says James. It was a preoccupation of his throughout the process of making the ad. “We spent a long time working on what their ‘rules’ were,” he says. “How did they fly? How does it all work? In the end we settled on them flying as if their feet touched a ground that we humans can’t see. This allowed them to be stationary and ‘float’ when necessary, and it defined their take off and flying speeds.”

Framestore VFX supervisor / creative director Ben Cronin was with James trying to crack this, and is thankful for the relationship they already had at the start. “Trust and admiration from both sides makes such a big difference because it's so easy for a director or client to lose confidence in some parts of the VFX process,” he says. “It’s invariably complicated and slow at times and very much comes together near the end of the schedule. So trust and belief in your artists are essential. James knows how passionate we are and I imagine that's one of the reasons he came back to us for this film.”

Together they had to take on a number of big technical questions before the team got anywhere near a camera. “We had to establish from the very beginning what the type of animation James wanted,” says Ben. “Would we need to push the boundaries of what is physically possible for a photo-real Reindeer face – or should we just rely on the limited muscle movement they have naturally?”

Framestore found and presented James with various ideas to answer this. A concept artist ‘photobashed’ some choice moments from the boards for the lead reindeer so that everyone could agree with the level of emotive expression we were aiming for. 

CG supervisor Ahmed Gharraph talked a lot of this through with James. “We watched through and referenced lots of performance pieces which Framestore had created to try and understand where we wanted to go with the reindeer, in the scale between realism and anthropomorphic caricature,” he says. “The information gathered then helped steer our 2D concept designs. This was a very important stage as it helped us quickly determine what our reindeer would look like and how far we could push their emotions while still retaining realism.”

Framestore’s animation lead Gez Wright knows how difficult this can be: “There's a fine line between successfully realising emotion in an animal and veering off into the realms of the uncanny valley. More often than not, animals won't physically have the muscles necessary to pull a human expression. A lot of time was spent looking at reference, trying to find an image or video clip that showed a reindeer with an expression that suggested a human emotion. This could be achieved by something so subtle as a head tilt or a small drop of the ears. To then ramp those emotions up again, we worked closely with the modelling and rigging team to push certain areas whilst also being wary not to take them to far. Anthropomorphism is such a fine balance.”

The team also needed to decide on precisely how many reindeer would be drawing Santa’s sleigh. “Too many and they physically wouldn't fit on the roofs and they wouldn't frame the scene so well. Too few and people would feel shortchanged,” says Ben.

Suzanne Jandu, head of 2D, joined the team in August just before the VFX team headed out to shoot the commercial. Armed with James mood boards and descriptions of the shots they could see the kind of imagery and feeling the director was after. “He was going for a London Christmas feel - but also something dark, moody and realistic,” she says. “The reindeer were to be a cross between realistic and an animal you’d instantly connect with on an emotional level.”

To make the beasts look real enough, the Framestore team had an excuse for a bit of a field trip to see some real reindeer and take as many reference photos as possible. “We captured tonnes of footage of them running, eating and doing general reindeer type things. This reference material was crucial to being able to create life-like reindeer in CG,” says Ahmed.

Grant Walker, CG supervisor, has made it his business to know about fur. “In nature, fur and hair get their colour from melanin and this is actually an attribute that we are able to emulate realistically in CG,” he says. “So we decided to drive our reindeer fur completely through this. Rather than assign the fur a colour, we gave it a melanin value. And we created nine different shaders giving us nine different colours and within each of those sets the melanin is varied and driven by scaler maps. This means that if we created a grey reindeer – it would have all kinds of variation but we were also using four or five different types of fur (different lengths and widths of hair) which means that you get fur type variation on top of just the colour variation. Having this level of variation meant we were able to create six very individual reindeer – rather than simply create one and replicate it.”

The life-like / emotional balance was the enduring challenge for the Framestore team, but through careful study and a lot of experimentation they got there. “You would be surprised what emotional heights you can pull out of a reindeer's natural expressions when you have a small team of talented animators,” says Ben “They tend to have a bony, expressionless, solid head (not the animators.... the reindeer....) but the eyes, ears and mouth have enough to do the job, we rarely had to push things more than that. The head position and angle were also important along with subtle body language. Less is more and ‘tone it down’ was a well-worn phrase.

The devil is in the detail, and Framestore knew the little touches would be vital to making the reindeer live. “The compositing team were able to bring out the sparkle in the eyes,” says Suzanne “Whilst the lookdev team spent time moistening the area just under the sclera [the white part of an eyeball]. Our FX team even added cold breath to help show emotion as the animals breathed out in frustration.”

“Towards the end of the project, James felt like they were hitting the right emotional tone with the reindeer’s expression but didn’t quite believe the animal,” says Ben. “So our final touches included building in more asymmetry to the facial movements and tiny residual movements in the ears to ultimately make the reindeer seem more real.

“I have a handful of favourite shots, but my favourite detail is the reindeer's wobbly lip on the last farmhouse shot where she’s at her saddest. Also, the end shot in the 10 second teaser film I directed blew me away. When I saw the CG and Comp come together I couldn't believe how good it looked.”

Suzanne’s got a favourite moment in the finished film too: “The reflection shot of Bobbi (the head reindeer) looking at Santa about to eat a mince pie. She is so full of sad frustration that you really connect with the adorable Christmas creature. Building this shot was a lot of fun because of the technical elements of it. Figuring out where to place the camera where we’d see Bobbi’s reflection, creating the glass in between Santa and Bobbi, and colour grading it all so it fitted together – this was a really fun technical challenge and I think the entire team were super happy with the results.”

The Leo Burnett team reflect on one moment that will stick with them from this job: “Tucking into vegetable lasagne in the Black Islands Studios canteen, with Santa Claus sat right next to us. The kind of surreal that you only get in this line of work!”

For all the technical challenges the CG posed, James’ enduring memory of the project was more human: “David, our wonderful Santa, got a mince pie stuck in his beard. This sounds impossible, but it wasn’t. It was half chewed and, after one take, seemed to have glued itself into the middle of the single, very expensive fake beard we’d had made up. We had to stop filming for 30 minutes whilst mincepieinbeardgate got sorted.”

When you know the extremes of craft that went into it, watching Santa and his reindeer go through the hardest-working night of their year without thanks is all the more enthralling, but James stresses that there’s something much more important to remember in this public service announcement: “This year, could everyone please leave out carrots for the reindeer? Please.”
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