Behind the Work in association withThe Immortal Awards

Your Shot: Putting Christmas into Orbit with Macy's

London, UK
BBDO, Soundtree and Blacksmith on the festive magic behind their spacefaring holiday miracle
Macy’s and BBDO New York boldly went where no holiday ad had gone before - into  orbit  to tell the familiar story of family separation at Christmas in a fresh new way. Through a series of moving scenes, the distance between mother and family is made clear. Thankfully her daughter, Mia, has given her mum Sunny – a hand-made snowy friend. As the spot unfolds, we see the magic of the holiday season come to life through Mia’s ingenious plan.

LBB’s Addison Capper caught up with Danilo Boer and Marcos Kotlhar, executive creative directors at BBDO New York, the team at Soundtree Music and Daniel Morris, VFX supervisor at Blacksmith to get a 360-degree insight on how it all came together.

LBB> What kind of brief did Macy's present you with and what were your first thoughts when you saw it?

Danilo and Marcos> Christmas is an incredibly important time of year at Macy’s, so we knew that we needed something that would not only break through the clutter during this insanely crowded season, but also elevate and reclaim the emotional high ground with their consumers. We had to do two things: we had to hit people in the feels and had to do it in a big and unexpected way. 

LBB> What inspired the idea to focus on family separation?

Danilo and Marcos> Macy’s wanted to share the wonder that the perfect gift can create, in a story that would resonate with everyone. Being away from our loved ones, either due to physical separation or simply as a consequence of the craziness of modern life, is something that we can all relate to – especially during the holidays when we long to be close and to connect with our loved ones. This is a time when we can all be inspired to believe in the wonder of giving.

LBB> And then how about the space station as an extension of that? You don't get much further than space!

Danilo and Marcos> Yes! Space became a way to push our separation as far as possible. The same way all great sci-fi movies are not really about the future but are actually an excuse to talk about a great human truth, we transformed space into a heightened analogy of separation and longing. One of our favourite parts of the spot is when the astronaut looks down on earth and says, “Mommy can see you from up here, Mia,” as her space station flies over America. This relationship of being close enough that you can see your city, but at the same time, being far away in the vacuum of space, added a layer of poetry to the story we could only get by going to space.

LBB> I love the addition of Sunny... what was the thought process behind their introduction?

Danilo and Marcos> We needed something that could not only connect the mother emotionally to home but would also enhance the sense of loneliness in space. The idea that our astronaut’s daughter crafted Sunny to keep her mom company during her time away is beautiful proof of the love and the strong bond that exists between them. 

Narratively, Sunny allowed us to create a misdirect where the daughter seems to be more interested in her over her mom. This helps to build a nice tension that we then pay off with our big reveal that connects mom and daughter together, even though they are miles apart. It also became an opportunity to extend the film beyond the screen. Sunny is a huge part of Macy’s holiday campaign – from a balloon in Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade to their Holiday Windows at Herald Square and even a special plush toy sold in Macy’s stores.

LBB> How did you achieve the grainy video link scenes?

Danilo and Marcos> We actually shot through a real Skype session on set.

LBB> How important was casting for this? What was the process like?

Danilo and Marcos> Casting is crucial when you are telling an emotional story and Macy’s always looks for people their customers can relate to – even when they’re astronauts! For Jane, the mom, we needed someone who could come across as a loving mother and a badass astronaut at the same time. This film had the added element of the technical challenges that simulating zero gravity on camera brings. So we had to cast someone who could not only deliver heart melting performance, but who could also withstand being hung from wires for 12 hours a day. We were blessed to have found our lead who is not only an amazing actress, but also a stunt double on big feature films.

LBB> Once you had the script, how did you decide on who'd be best director to tell the story? And why Martin de Thurah?

Danilo and Marcos> Martin is probably the most talented commercial director today. He’s not only an incredible storyteller, but he also has impeccable visual sensibilities. Like we’ve mentioned, we needed to make something that felt fresh and we knew Martin would push to make something that was totally original. We just didn’t anticipate how far and how obsessively he would push! He would literally challenge every framing, every production decision, every VFX shot… If it felt remotely common, he would scrap it. It was amazing to see him do his thing.

LBB> What were the trickiest components and how did you overcome them?

Danilo and Marcos> It was all extremely hard. One aspect that we really cared about was to make the set and the actions as real as possible. We didn’t want it to feel like a futurist made up space story. So to do that we researched so much, we bought all the real manuals for all the different space shuttles, rockets and the official manual guide for the International Space Station. Checked all the routines astronauts go through and how they do the basic things like sleeping and brushing their teeth. But we have to say that the hardest was shooting in zero gravity. We had hundreds of sick bags delivered daily to video village.

LBB> On the music front, what kind of brief did you receive and what were your initial thoughts when you saw it? 

Soundtree> We have been fortunate in working with Danilo and Marcos at BBDO NY a few times now and we are always really excited to collaborate with them. Their work is always interesting and there’s a real desire to do something beautiful and memorable.

The brief on this film was to really understand and musically narrate the emotional narrative of the mother being so far away from her daughter and her family. We didn’t want to shy away from the authentic emotional depths of our story. We also explored different types of temp music - from classical to score and more, would this be real instruments or a more ’spacey’ sonic world or a blend of the two?

We knew that with director Martin de Thurah on board and Danilo and Marcos the film would be excellent and we were really blown away even with the early edits. The performances were there and it was a matter of scoring the best soundtrack to their story.

LBB> One thing that struck me with this film was that the music was different to what you expect from something set in space! How did you find that challenge? 

Soundtree> First and foremost, we wanted to establish the emotional connection between the mother and daughter.  We wanted a nod to the sadness of the story but also a yearning quality in the music: a yearning to connect and to be connected to loved ones, no matter the distance or the setting.  

LBB> What was your starting point when developing the composition? 

Soundtree> We focused on really developing piano pieces that could stand by themselves against the picture, the melody had to be true to their experiences and we hope that this piece has succeeded.

LBB> Why were strings and woodwind the right approach, as opposed to something electronic?

Soundtree> We wanted to make something elegant and classic sounding, so naturally were drawn to a traditional orchestral palette.  

The story and images have a beauty, intimacy and softness to them that we felt would be mirrored well with a softer choice of orchestral instrumentation, so not a full orchestral sound. We also wanted the music to have a humanity to it hence the choice of real instruments as opposed to more electronic sounds.

LBB> Can you describe any other elements of the music and the inspiration behind it?

Soundtree> We talked about the idea of the melody being played by different instruments to highlight the different moments in the story.  It was important for an element of subtlety so we landed on the flute taking the melody for a bit, before rejoining the accompaniment.

Another important element was for the music to ebb and flow, to rise and fall like 
the story and images.  We addressed this by playing to the movie, forgetting about a fixed tempo and trying to play what felt right when doing the initial piano sketch. The orchestration and recording of orchestral sounds came later and followed this free time in the performance of the piano.

LBB> What were the trickiest components and how did you overcome them? 

Soundtree> The trickiest aspect was dealing with the free time of the piece.  It was a bit more of a challenge to create the logistics and mechanics of working with an orchestra – for example, the right tempo map and click tracks for the musicians to record to. 

Danilo and Marcos were very involved throughout the whole process so they were able to be a great barometer for how much and how little music to have at certain points of the film.

LBB> Are there any particular trends that you've seen among Christmas ads this year? Either in the US or abroad? 

Soundtree> The re-record or re-imaging of existing music is obviously still a very popular route to take. 

LBB> Do you have any favourites?

Soundtree> We really loved the Iceland piece and were sad to hear that it was banned.  These messages need to be heard.

LBB> Any parting thoughts?

Soundtree> We felt a real connection to the story and movie right from the get go as many of us here have children so we could relate and draw on plenty of experiences of being away from the ones you love.

We've also enjoyed another really collaborative relationship with Danilo and Marcos at BBDO NY and love how the finished film looks and sounds. 

We're proud to be a part of this story through our music.

LBB> Daniel, how much was captured in camera and what needed to be added in post?

Daniel> For this four-day shoot we built the interior of the spaceship and one small exterior section. The set was designed on a rotating gimbal with movable wall and roof panels. This enabled us to move sections so our techno crane with 360-degree head could move in and out for shooting. The roof panels could also be removed so we could lower our talent in on wires to simulate zero gravity. 
The small exterior section was built so our talent could hang out to the side of the spaceship. All the rest was added in post. The entire exterior space station and earth were CG and matte painting. There was extensive rig removal and set extension in the interior spaceship. A CG roof was built with added wires. CG objects were added to scenes to simulate zero gravity.

We simulated an entire CG polystyrene/snow sequence for when our talent opens her Christmas present. 

LBB> From a VFX point of view, how much and what kind of research did you have to undertake for this project?

Daniel> We researched space documentaries and space photography for the look of Earth and the different ways to shoot it: for example, time-lapse, rotating, sun-set. These documentaries also gave us ideas for new abstract angles and camera moves to show space from outside the station. 

The daily life of an astronaut was also something we researched, such as how they brush teeth, exercise, and sleep. This heavily influenced what was designed on the set and what kinds of shots we wanted. Rigs were then designed to simulate certain objects to move like there is zero gravity. The orange luggage being passed between astronauts is a good example for an in-camera rig. We added other objects in CG. 

The simulation of polystyrene/snow in zero gravity while interacting with our talent was challenging. We watched real life documentaries to study how people and objects move in zero G.

LBB> All of the space shots are CG - what challenges does working with space create for you in post production? 

Daniel> The challenging part was coming up with a different look, angle or camera move that we haven't seen before. We ended up choosing a good mixture of fully CG space shots: for example, super wide shots showing the scale and loneliness of space; fast rotating Earth seen as if it's from a camera attached to the spaceship; looking through a window to watch the capsule leaving for Earth; a sunset bringing our space station into shadow; a POV shot reaching out at Earth and a long lens making Earth seem close to the spaceship so you can see real cloud detail.

LBB> How does the lack of gravity in space affect your approach to the VFX and CGI? 

Daniel> Every human and object had to move as if in zero gravity so designing rigs to simulate this was challenging. Then removing the rigs and replacing the areas of the spaceship that were removed to accommodate those rigs.

Other objects that would too tricky to rig in camera were animated in CG. The simulation of the polystyrene snow as particularly challenging. Houdini was used to simulate the snow and interact with our talent. 

LBB> Space is such an unknown place for most of us but also, thanks to endless film interpretations, so familiar at the same time. What challenges does that add? How do you keep the surroundings fresh yet familiar? 

Daniel> Yes, space has been done many times so we did extensive research through documentaries. We also researched movies such as Gravity, Interstellar, Apollo 13 to 2001 Space Odyssey. We wanted to bring the style and design from the old movies into the sophisticated shots from Gravity and Interstellar

LBB> What are your favourite moments of the film?

Daniel> My favourite moments are when the astronaut is leaving the space shuttle. There is a nice sequence passing the luggage out. A little '80s monitor showing the capsule docking out followed by watching it leave through window. I also like shot where she is looking out the window. A CG Sonny ('The Macy's Snowman') was also created for floating around the ship at night when she sleeps. The dream sequence is pretty interesting also. 

LBB> What were the trickiest components and how did you overcome them?

Daniel> Creating different looking Earths was challenging. There was a nice combination of 3D Earth and clouds and matte painting. 

Simulating polystyrene snow for the end sequence was also tricky. Getting the right balance between the amount of snow and the interaction with the astronaut took time, and of course perfecting the nice snow globe shot at the end.

LBB> Are there any particular trends that you've seen among Christmas ads this year? Either in the US or abroad? 

Daniel> Nostalgia.

LBB> Do you have any favourites?

Daniel> John Lewis one was good with Elton John. My good mate Daff produced it though so I'm a little biased. And my Mum liked it.
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