Sainsbury's Christmas ad 2016

How the Sainsbury’s Christmas ad was made

The new Sainsbury’s Christmas ad took seven months to make, involved over 180 people and 1,500 puppet faces. We talk to the spot’s director, Sam Fell of Passion Pictures, about how it was done.

The new Sainsbury’s ad is a charming animated film, telling the story of Dave, an everyday guy struggling to manage the demands of work and family at Christmastime. His tale is told through a song specially composed for the ad by Bret McKenzie of Flight of the Conchords fame, and performed by James Corden, and the stunning animation and song come together to create a feel-good piece of work, that emphasises the importance of family at Christmas.

To create it, production company Passion Pictures worked with ad agency AMV BBDO for seven months, spending four months on prep, two months’ shooting and one month in post. It was an epic production, involving the use of new animation techniques such as the use of rapid prototyping to create the faces of the puppets, as well as traditional stop motion techniques. The attention to detail in the spot is astounding, from the intricacy of the characters’ clothes to the painstaking care in the shoot, with some shots taking as long as 40 hours to achieve. All in all, it is clearly a labour of love.

Sainsbury's Christmas ad 2016
Above, below and top: designs for the character of Dave
Sainsbury's Christmas ad 2016
Sainsbury's Christmas ad 2016

When Sam Fell (who has previously directed features including Flushed Away and ParaNorman) and Passion Pictures began working on the project, the idea of basing the ad on a song was fixed and some aspects were already composed. “Rich [McGrann] and Andy [Clough, AMV BBDO creatives] wanted to tell their story through a song,” says Fell. “They already had some lyrics and the main story worked through and really wanted to see the main character Dave, his family and the world he lived in fleshed out into a unique, handmade stop frame world. It had to feel British but also a little heightened and fantastical.

“During the pitch process we tried out four different character designers and drew over 100 versions of Dave,” he continues. “We invited Rich and Andy in several times and worked through many iterations to find a Dave that felt both original, unique but also real and recognisable. The final Dave was by Margaux Zinser and the rest of his family by Meg Park.”

Sainsbury's Christmas ad 2016
Sketches and concept art for the ad
Sainsbury's Christmas ad 2016
Sainsbury's Christmas ad 2016

The characters are created as traditional stop frame puppets, using steel armatures, silicon bodies and handmade costumes. To create their expressions, however, Fell and the team used CG to draw the different faces and then used 3D printing to render them. In total, over 1,500 faces were created.

“Andy and Rich were fans of the colour printed faces we used on ParaNorman and I wanted to deliver that,” says Fell. “It was probably a bit of a crazy decision given that it was such a completely untested technique over here. Through sheer hard work and determination, the CG team at Passion in London, the puppet makers at McKinnons in Manchester, and the rapid prototype guys at 3D Print Bureau in Stoke on Trent pulled the whole thing together. They went from R&D right through to creating 1,500 full colour perfectly registered faces on 26 characters in a matter of three months. Respect!”

Sainsbury's Christmas ad 2016
Images from the shoot at Passion Pictures
Sainsbury's Christmas ad 2016

Fell worked closely with Bret McKenzie throughout the making of the ad, going back and forth to get the story right. “Bret is the coolest guy,” he says. “Incredibly talented and experienced but utterly down to earth and workmanlike. We never actually met in person but were on the phone constantly for several months.

“I had never told a story through a song before and that was a real learning curve for me – trying to pace a film and tell a subtle story within a rhyming verse/chorus structure has unique challenges. Basically Bret did a version – I would storyboard to that – then we would look at it with Rich and Andy and show it to the client, pull it apart and go back to Bret with a list of problems. He would rewrite and recompose and send it back to me and I would start boarding again. We went round this loop many times right up to the week before shooting.”

Sainsburys Chrismas ad 2016
Stills of the finished ad
Sainsburys Chrismas ad 2016
Sainsburys Chrismas ad 2016

While this process might sounds challenging in itself, Fell cites the shoot in many ways as being harder than making a movie. “In some ways this was harder than making a movie like ParaNorman,” he says. “We had to conjure up a whole stop frame pipeline from freelancers, shops and bought and hired kit. At Laika [the studio behind ParaNorman] there was already a studio in place that had just made Coraline so we were building on a proven pipeline.

“On this project we had to create 26 characters and 15 locations and develop from scratch a 3D rapid prototype facial animation and printing system. That amount of sets and characters would pretty much cover half of a movie but in a movie you get months of shooting out of a few characters in a location. In this we were constantly setting up beautiful, meticulously dressed sets and characters then shooting five seconds, throwing them away and moving onto the next set up. It was exhausting!”

Credits for the ad:
Agency: AMV BBDO
Creative directors: Toby Allen, Jim Hilson
Creatives: Richard McGrann, Andy Clough
Production company: Passion Pictures
Director: Sam Fell
Puppet makers: Mackinnon & Saunders
Production designer: Andy Farago, Clockwork Frog

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