Blinkink director Elliot Dear and animator Andy Biddle take us behind the scenes on one of our favourite pieces of Christmas content
Traditionally, Christmas ads and idents tend to fall into two broad categories. There are your nostalgic tearjerkers and there’s the grim stress of the festive season. This year’s BBC Christmas spot manages to do something quite amazing – it’s both completely magical and totally real. It’s emotional without being sentimental. It’s grounded, not grim. And it’s a joy to watch.
It combines traditional stop motion model animation with CG to tell the tale of a father and daughter’s shared love of dancing. The story idea came from the brains at BBC Creative but it was Blink director Elliot Dear and a whole team of talented specialists and craftspeople who brought it to life. And though it may seem simple, it’s a nuanced film full of complicated but relatable emotion and incredible attention to detail.
Being a huge nerd for all things stop motion, LBB’s Laura Swinton spoke to Elliot and animator Andy Biddle to find out how they made this beautiful film. Plus there’s a great behind-the-scenes film that’s well worth a watch.
LBB> What was it about the story that really appealed to you when you saw it?
Elliot> The story appealed to me immediately because it was straightforward. The message was classic. It's storytelling for the sake of telling a story. Often when I receive a script, there is an ulterior motive, something needs to be sold or promoted – which is fine, but sometimes it feels weird when it's dressed up as something heart-warming or emotional.
There is a simple message at the heart of this script, and it feels honest.
LBB> And Andy, when you saw Elliot's treatment, what was your initial reaction?
Andy> Elliot and I have worked together a few times now and every single time it’s been an absolute pleasure. When I first heard about this job I knew I had, had, had to be involved. As always, Elliot’s treatment was full of beautiful character designs and great references so it was hard not to get excited.
LBB> Why did stop motion appeal to you as the best way to tell this story? And at what point did you decide to combine this stop motion with CG mapping?
Elliot> Stop motion appealed to me for a number of reasons on this project. Firstly, it's a technique that I understand and, although this is my first stop motion puppet project, I've been working in a similar way quite a lot over the years – especially with miniatures.
Stop motion has a lovely quality to it when it's done right. There's a texture and tangibility that's very difficult to simulate using CG. I like that you can see tiny imperfections in the models and the animation – evidence that humans have done things by hand. You don‘t get a super glossy finish with stop motion, and it has an authenticity to it. You can feel the work. This story is about a closeness between characters, and I felt that stop motion would represent that well – as it uses miniatures, there is a closeness about the technique as well.
I decided to use CG for the faces because of the detail. The film doesn't have any dialogue at all, so all the emotion needs to be conveyed through facial expressions – particularly focusing on the performance of the eyes. Watching movies like Moana or UP, you can see tiny nuances in the facial expressions, the detail in the performance. I wanted to be able to get this level of detail too, to give the characters depth – which is difficult to achieve with mechanised puppet heads and even 3D printed head replacement (which can expensive).
Andy> This is easy for me to answer. I am a stop motion geek and have always loved the medium above all other kinds of animation. I think people still relate very strongly to hand-crafted film as there is a kind of magic that doesn’t always come across in CG-only films. The idea that a physical inanimate character made out of silicone and fabric can bring a tear to your eye (going by what I have read on social media) is amazing!
The CG mapping was all based on an animation test a small team of us worked on to accompany Elliot’s treatment while we were still in the pitching stages. It was an idea Elliot had had and based on the test – we realised we could successfully track CG faces on to a stop motion head and create some kind of super hybrid of both mediums.
LBB> What are the challenges of combining these techniques? How did it work – did the puppets have markers on their faces?
Andy> You’ve pretty much answered your own question. The stop-motion puppets did have markers on their faces, which made tracking possible. Once each stop motion shot had been animated, there was a process that immediately followed of taking a 360-degree photo of the set. This would inform post production where each light source was in our set ups. That way they could recreate our stop motion world in a CG environment, lights and all, and create replica light sources to light the CG faces.
Check out the making of below:
LBB> The character design of the daughter and the father is lovely – they're such distinct characters but clearly relate to each other... what was your starting point for developing them and what were you trying to convey with them?
Elliot> I wanted to find a good balance between realistic characters and more stylised designs. The film relies a lot on recognition – the viewers seeing things that they can relate to. This meant that I wanted to keep the environments realistic.
I didn’t want to create a wonky, whacky world that felt like a cartoon. I wanted it to be just like the Britain we all know. So, by making the sets more realistic it meant that the characters needed to fit within that world too.
I’m not a big fan of overly caricatured designs anyway, but this was definitely a reason to be more restrained when thinking about the designs of the daughter and dad. With character design, you have to be careful that they don‘t end up too realistic either. It's easy to accidentally make them feel uncanny and creepy – which often makes viewers feel unsettled. I started by referencing real people – finding images of people that had endearing qualities, warmth and character. Details like the daughter's oversized coat and the dad's scuffed jeans all contribute to nice, layered characters.
The story seems simple, but it's actually pretty dense. There's a lot of detail to work in so that people can know exactly who's who and what's going on. Two minutes isn't a long time to get it all across, so I had to be very ruthless with the storytelling, cutting anything that wasn‘t absolutely necessary. I sat with a storyboard artist and an editor for weeks trying to get it from nearly three minutes down to two.
LBB> I think one thing that makes it feel so believable is that none of the outfits or settings are generic. They feel very, very real and very British – the 1970s single storey primary school, that royal blue colour for the school jumper, the High Street with its discount store selling things like buckets and stepladders… It's not some fantasy. How did you go about getting that side of it right?
Elliot> The reason that the environments feel so real and recognisable is just observation, really. It's а case of looking around and seeing patterns and things that we all have in common. Many of the sets are based on buildings in my area, or things I see on my way to work.
There are details that give the environments extra depth, like a boiler on the wall in the kitchen or the bin bags on the side of the street. If you layer all these things up you get a rich and detailed world.
The set designers and makers also had a lot to do with it, adding details and layers of story. It was important not to be too broad and generalise. We didn‘t want to water things down so that they felt safe and traditional – we opted for drizzle rather than powdery snow, and a single storey primary school rather than something Victorian, like Hogwarts. I wanted the public to be able to see a bit of their world in ours.
LBB> The really clever thing is that the story is emotional and authentic – and yet it doesn't lay it on super thick by making it maudlin or overly sentimental. I think that's what makes it feel more real… Anyway, how did you strike that balance?
Elliot> The way to balance an emotional story with sad bits is to keep things funny. Quite often, people don't want to be fed sad stories with no levity. I think it's a common mistake that to make people cry you need to go straight for the heart and show them the sadness. I think that it's all about the contrast, and if you can make people smile and love a character, they'll be rooting for them in the sad bits.
LBB> And following on from that, the emotions and storytelling are clear and yet so subtle, conveyed so well by the animation – how did you work with the animators to achieve that?
Elliot> The subtlety of the character movement comes from having such skilled and experienced animators – I’m lucky enough to work with some pretty seasoned professionals, who have worked in feature film.
But also we were using a lot of video reference. I would talk to the animators about the performance and what I wanted to convey in each shot, we would discuss how to achieve that and then film it on a phone and make sure that the performance could be done within the length of the shot. I think it helped the animators to have guide to work to, but it also added an element of realism that gives the film а lovely tone. It may have been too cartoony if we hadn‘t have had the references. We also had a choreographer and two professional dancers working with us for weeks to get the dance moves right. We had video footage of them too, which was very useful indeed.
LBB> And Andy, what are your thoughts on animating these subtle emotions?
Andy> Before starting each new shot, Elliot and I would often talk for 15 minutes or more about what should happen. It wasn’t just about the barebones of “she runs over here” or “he gets out of his seat” but also the emotions and thought processes of each character. We would often shoot video references for certain actions and bounce ideas back and forth to really flesh out the characters. It was always about trying to add as much detail as we could to a performance.
LBB> The dancing looks like it must have been tricky! Where did you get that choreography from, and was it tricky to convey that contemporary dancing style in the puppets?
Andy> I don’t know if he wants the world to know this… but Elliot loves dancing! In particular he is a huge Michael Jackson fan and it would not be unusual to see him moonwalking down the corridor. It was because of Elliot that we had such amazing reference. Both Elliot and a professional choreographer worked out the entire dance sequence and filmed it using two dancers, actually casting a girl and a man of similar statures to the characters (apparently this guy was an ex-Michael Jackson backing dancer).
Having this video reference was hugely important to the performance of the characters during the dance scenes. We were able to replicate all those little nuances and body bounces that ended up giving the dance scenes so much energy.
LBB> How did the Clean Bandit track come about? Was that always in the mix?
Elliot> The Clean Bandit track happened quite late on. I was working with another song for ages and eventually had to lock the edit to 124 bpm, and just hope that we found something that worked for everyone and fitted the edit and the dancing. It turned out very well in the end.
LBB> There are so many great scenes and moments – I love the escalator bit, and I think my favourite touch is when the Dad begs out of doing the cartwheel! What's your favourite moment from the film?
Elliot> I think my favourite moment in the film is the match cut as the daughter snaps her headphones on. It really throws you into the montage and I’m pleased with the job we did of getting that framing right. I also love the dad putting the packet back on the shelf in the supermarket. People don’t always see that one on the first viewing.
Andy> The first three shots of the film (which take place in the schoolyard) are some of my favourites. I feel like these shots really introduce us to the characters and what they are about from the get go in a very short amount of time. From frame one we get energy, dancing, a look at a loving father-daughter relationship, playfulness, etc., and all this happens in only seven seconds. I’m also very proud of the dance sequences. I think they turned out great.