Arthur Is Coming to Town

TFK chats with director Sarah Smith about the new animated film, Arthur Christmas

Nov 10, 2011 | By Vickie An
AARDMAN ANIMATIONS FOR SONY PICTURES ANIMATION

How does Santa deliver so many presents in just one night? All of jolly old Saint Nick’s secrets will be revealed in the Aardman Animations and Sony Pictures Animation film Arthur Christmas, in theaters November 23. These days, Santa has traded in his reindeer and sleigh for a more modern, high-tech aircraft. Supporting Santa on his Christmas Eve mission is his eldest son, Steve, and a team of quick-footed elves. But when one gift is accidentally left behind, Santa’s youngest son, Arthur—who works in the “Letters to Santa” department—must save the day the old-fashioned way.

TFK spoke to British director Sarah Smith about the movie, which is also playing in 3-D. Read on to find out which character she relates most to, and why so much math—yes, math—was involved in the making of the film.

TFK:

Where did the idea for Arthur Christmas come from?

SARAH SMITH:

I had rung up my friend Pete Baynham, and he said to me, “I just had one of the best ideas I’ve ever had.” He started to think about what it would take for Santa to do Christmas in one night, and came up with this idea that Santa had this huge, military-style operation. He also had the idea that there was a younger son of Santa, and that something went wrong and he had to make it right. It started as a basic idea, but I knew when I heard it that was fantastic. It was one of those ideas where you think, “Why has no one done this before?”

TFK:

The film was originally pitched as a live-action film. Why the switch to animation?

SMITH:

Pete had it in mind that it could be a live-action. But when you’re dealing with a great icon like Santa, if you cast a famous actor in the part, it almost makes it harder to believe in that world. One of the joyful things about animation is that it acts as part of your imagination. It enables you to believe in this parallel universe.

TFK:

We hear a lot of math went into writing this screenplay. Can you explain?

SMITH:

I’m a big stickler. I feel like you really need to do your homework to make a film properly believable. We read a bunch of books and did research about the math and physics that would relate to Santa’s operation. We started by asking: How many people are there in the world? How many people celebrate Christmas? What’s the average number of children per household? So I worked out the math for how many children Santa is trying to deliver to and how far he would have to travel around the world to do it. Obviously, you have to make some creative leaps along the way. But we based it all on real numbers. We ended up with this figure that Santa would need the help of one million elves. The one million elves would be split in 333,000 teams of three. Each team would have 18.5 seconds per household on average in order for Santa to deliver all of the presents around the world!

TFK:

All of the characters have their own wacky personalities. Are any based on people you know?

SMITH:

Yes, all of them. All believable characters are based on yourself as a writer and the people you know and love. You have to draw from truthful things. Grandsanta is based on my grandmother, really. She was fantastic fun to be with when I was a kid, and she drove my parents crazy. She liked to tell some slightly tall tales about her life.

TFK:

Which character is the most like you?

SMITH:

I think I’m in a little bit of all of them. It’s very important that you can get inside the skin of every character you write. You have to identify with all of them. Santa was like my mum and dad. I love Mrs. Santa. She doesn’t have a grand role in running everything, and yet, she’s one step ahead of all the men and manages to organize them eventually. Both Pete and I really relate to Arthur. I love him as an enthusiast. I love passion in people. That’s Arthur’s best quality really. And he’s so imaginative and a terrible worrier, which is also like the both of us.

TFK:

This is your first time directing an animated feature film. What prompted you to jump into the director’s chair for this one?

SMITH:

I’ve directed live action before, and I have to say, I went to Aardman strictly for six months. When Arthur Christmas came along, Pete and I started developing it together. It became our baby, really. I’ve never been one to develop something and hand it away. So, I said, I want to direct this. When you invest so much in creating the world, it’s almost impossible to give it to someone else.

TFK:

You became a mother during this process, too.

SMITH:

I did. I became a mother to the movie and an actual mother for the first time to a little one who was born in the middle of production. It’s been quite a ride!

TFK:

When you tell your daughter the story of Santa, will you tell her traditional story of Santa, or will you throw in elements of Arthur Christmas too?

SMITH:

That is a genius question. I don’t know. She’s only 2, so she’s just getting the idea of Santa. Her first word was “Apple,” and her second word was “Arthur.” Her entire upbringing has been around Arthur Christmas. She’s very aware of it. I’ll probably start by telling her the traditional Santa story. In a year or so, she’ll be old enough to see the film. Then I’ll let her decide which version she wants to believe.

TFK:

If you were Santa and running the operation, would you prefer to do it the high-tech way or the old-fashioned way?

SMITH:

We really didn’t want to say one is better than the other in the movie. Of course, the old sleigh has a glorious romance to it, but also, the modern way is fantastically exciting and cool. I want kids to look at their houses, and ask, “How will the elves get into my house? How will they get through the door?” Both versions have their own kind of appeal. I hope children will choose the version that is most exciting for them imaginatively. For me, if I were Santa, I think I’d quite like the big way!

TFK:

What’s the best gift you’ve ever received from Santa?

SMITH:

Goodness me. I’m totally stumped . . . I think I did have a bicycle, rather like the one that was left behind in the movie. There was a note from Santa saying that my gift was outside. That was exciting.