Holidays may be coming, but in Scotland there’s one soft drink brand that marks the beginning of Christmas and it isn’t, you know, that one. In 2006, a cheeky, hand drawn Snowman soared onto TV screens and into the nation’s (slightly twisted) hearts and now the ad is an annual treat. The original film is a subversive send-up of the classic Raymond Briggs story and sees a distinctly ginger young lad take flight across the country with his frozen friend, taking in some iconic Scottish landmarks before things start to go… well… a bit wrong.
Last week there was a blizzard of excitement when the brand released a much-anticipated sequel. Twelve years may have passed since the original hit screens, but the new spot reassembles the creative dream team. Creative agency Leith are at the helm, and director Robin Shaw (who has also worked on Raymond Briggs adaptations) has wrangled together many of the illustrators who worked on it first time round -including some who have retired.
This new story takes off immediately after the ending of the first spot. It’s a tale of vengeance that takes in some of Scotland’s newer monuments. Both the original and the sequel are a tribute to craft, collaboration and creative trust – these aren’t the kinds of campaigns that emerge from a focus group sausage factory. LBB’s Laura Swinton caught up with The Leith Agency’s deputy creative director Chris Watson.
LBB> When did the idea to do a sequel to the Irn-Bru ad come about? Has it been in the background since the first ad came out or was it a more recent development? And why was now the right time for the brand to revisit it?
Chris> The brief came in earlier this year. Originally it was to think of new locations we could add to the first film and then at the end there was the ‘what new stuff could you do?’ box. The first Snowman ad has been so well loved that we weren’t sure if they’d go for something new, but Irn-Bru are a brave client and we knew that if we could write something good enough they might just take the leap.
LBB> So, as a Scot I’m 100% there for Irn-Bru… but could you give our international readers a bit of context about that relationship and the brand's place in Scottish culture?
Chris> We’ve been lucky enough to have worked with Irn-Bru for a fair few years and together we have built its creative reputation with its work on the brand. Scots love the ads because they are full of cheeky Scottish humour. The work is not put through the mill of focus groups and research, it’s judged on strong briefs and planning and then what tickles the funny bone. Bru always sails quite close to the wind and the client wants the ads to be talked about and shared. Over the years, that’s been the case and from building yards to playgrounds you’ll often have folk here raving about the latest Bru ad.
LBB> So with the sequel, how did you develop the story, the revenge arc?
Chris> It was great fun to write. We were in a corner - the Snowman flies, the boy is stuck on the ground. He doesn’t have magic powers so we were thinking of ways that he could catch up with the Snowman and get his Bru back. We toyed with things like the boy running up a high-rise and jumping onto the snowman, but we thought that felt forced. Then we remembered there is quite a famous sea plane moored on the Clyde and we knew how the boy could start the chase.
LBB> The sequel includes a whole slew of new Scottish landmarks - the Victoria & Albert museum in Dundee, the new Forth Bridge, the magnificent Kelpies - how did you go about deciding which locations to incorporate into the new story?
Chris> The first ad was a lovely tour of Scotland. To feel like a Snowman film we knew this one needed to have a similar flow, although with a bit more of an action twist. We put a big list together of things we reckon showcase Scotland. The Hydro, V&A, the Kelpies, the new bridge all do that. We’d have loved to put in more, but sixty seconds meant we had to be selective. We were happy to get Ben Nevis and the Caledonian MacBrayne ferry to the islands in too and not just have landmarks close to the cities.
LBB> From a writing perspective, both the original and this new spot really capture a great subversive tone - a bit of a dark sense of humour without being super nasty or anything like that. How tricky is it to get that tone just right and strike the balance?
Chris> Yeah, it’s a balance you need to watch. A couple of our scripts went a bit too dark. They were funny but they didn’t feel quite right. The client and the agency team are all part of the process in keeping the tone in the right place. The Bru Snowman ads are for all the family and we wanted to respect the innocence of the Raymond Brigg’s original so while we wanted the cheeky Irn-Bru tone in there, we had to do it in the right way.
LBB> This ad features the big man himself, Santa! What was the process of developing an Irn-Bru world Santa like?
Chris> We wanted our Santa to have a Scottish feel. A wee bit rough around the edges, a bit cheeky, willing to steal an Irn-Bru from a wee boy. He had to have a kilt and the director Robin Shaw added the idea of his little Tam o’ Shanter hat.
LBB> The production pulled together a lot of people who worked on the original ad, including Robin the director. Why was it important to bring the A-Team back together?
Chris> We wouldn’t have done it if we couldn’t get Robin Shaw and his team involved. It had to have the hand-crafted feel of the original Snowman film. Very few people still do that hand-drawn style and you would have noticed if we’d gone down the CGI route. Luckily, Robin was up for it and he had to bring in some illustrators who had retired since the last ad to be able to achieve it.
LBB> And how did Robin, as a director, heighten the idea?
Chris> Robin was full of great ideas. He really wanted to make the plane swooping and buzzing after the Snowman as dynamic as possible. But knowing the Snowman world so well, he also knew how to keep the pace that is so distinctive to the Snowman films. Every frame he sent us was beautifully composed and he’s really made Scotland’s new landmarks look stunning. All the performance beats of the boy and Snowman are great and his design of Santa was top-class too.
LBB> This animation was created in a really traditional way. I hear the studio rustled with the sound of pencils scratching on paper. Why was it important to follow this approach?
Chris> It was important to do it this way because that is how the original Snowman film was made. You’d be able to tell if it was CG. We believe the love and care and traditional craft that Robin and his team have put into the film really comes across. It’s a sub-conscious thing but we do thing people respond to things that are created in this way.
LBB> And what are the challenges or considerations you need to take into account when working with a more analogue, hand-crafted approach?
Chris> We didn’t really think of it when we were writing. We just made sure that the story was as good as it could be. Once production got underway, we had to make sure the storyboard was delivering everything we wanted it too. Then, once that was signed off, it was over to Robin and his team to work their magic and there was no going back and tweaking things.
LBB> Twist at the end leaves open the possibility of a further sequel... do you think we might revisit the story in future years?
Chris> We’d love to do that. If Irn-Bru let us. From where we’ve left the story, it looks like Santa better keep looking over his shoulder.