(Photo: Sony Pictures Animation)
What happens when Santa Claus doesn't get along with his own clan?
That's the question asked by "Arthur Christmas," a computer animation film opening next week Wednesday, Nov. 23 nationwide. It stars James McAvoy ("X-Men: First Class," "The Conspirator") as the titular Arthur and St. Nick's son. Arthur's Christmas falls apart as his family – Santa, his brother Steve and his Grandsanta – bicker over the best way to deliver presents to the world's children. It's thus Arthur's mission to make his relatives realize that there's more to the holidays than gift quotas and time zone deadlines.
In an interview with The Christian Post, the “Arthur Christmas” co-producer Chris Juen explains how digital animation can convey that home is where the heart is.
CP: You have an extensive background in animation. What originally attracted you to the genre?
Juen: I started off in visual effects with Sony Pictures Imageworks and they eventually started an animation department. They made a movie called "The Polar Express" and I just fell in love with the process even though it was motion-capture animation. Coming off of what I learned there, I was hooked. Animation is large-scale and suited to the kinds of stories I gravitate towards.
CP: Animation technology has evolved over the years from cartoons to computer graphics. Given your work with digital production, how do these art forms differ from each other?
Juen: You can do almost anything with digital animation. It's a lot different doing something on a computer than working on a set. You're constrained by so many factors during a shoot.
What's evolving now for computer graphics is going back to real life. We look for seamless effects and aim for realistic motions in our characters.
CP: How should computer animators strive for realism in their human characters?
Juen: We give our animators a lot of reference videos and shoot our actors performing. For example, there's a scene in "Arthur Christmas" where an elf wraps a bike so we literally filmed wrapping a bike for our designers.
It requires a lot of attention to detail. The whole idea is keeping people immersed in it. You want to make sure people relate to what they're seeing and not feel distracted by it.
CP: Your latest movie "Arthur Christmas" fits into a long tradition of holiday films. Was it hard trying to make a Christmas movie when there's already been so many?
Juen: By the time I got involved in the story it was in really good shape. They didn't set out to make a Christmas movie but rather explore the idea of how Santa Claus could really reach everyone in one night given the size of the world today.
It's a tough mythology to enter into. The characters are very solid so that was a big help. Kids are so much smarter today that we really wanted to answer all the mind-boggling questions they have about Santa and Christmas.
CP: Santa Claus' son Arthur and his familial problems are a central plot point of "Arthur Christmas." Why is family so important?
Juen: Most of the great, classic Christmas movies deal with family. The fact this features generational characters made that easy for us to explore.
The family dynamic in this movie is something anyone can relate to. The characters are very diverse. There's an old-timer, the current generation and up-and-comers in the Claus family.
Grandsanta, for example, says many inappropriate things but people laugh and relate to him. We all have people like that in our families – someone you love and enjoy spending time while doing things you can't believe.
CP: Lots of families will see Arthur Christmas. How do you entertain both adults and children in the audience?
Juen: It's one of the hardest things we do. It's a family movie, but striking a balance is tough. If you go one way too far or the other, it's easy losing people.
This is most importantly a kid's films. Kids relate to physical humor like Arthur's character being clumsy. The key is to not dumb it down too much. You can't be inappropriate for the sake of the adults however. It's a constant discussion.
CP: What role should Christianity play in Christmas?
Juen: I'm a devout Christian so I focus on the birth of Jesus for Christmas. I think Christianity is Christmas.
We lose sight of that. The problem is that Christmas has been watered down so much that many children are growing up thinking of it as a holiday rather than something to believe in.
Raising children of my own, I try to make sure they understand its significance and we don't lose sight of Christ in the hustle and the bustle. It's so easy around this time to get wrapped in holiday traffic and to-do-lists that it's good stepping back and remembering what it's about.