The Christmas ad wars: bringing Paddington to life for Marks & Spencer
With the holiday season fast upon us, this year’s wave of Christmas ads have hit TVs across Britain. Commercials from retailers as diverse as festive campaign veterans John Lewis and relative newcomers Aldi and Lidl have been released—but one of our favourites comes from High Street mainstay Marks & Spencer (M&S).
This year’s M&S ad brought a marmalade-loving bear to the small screen, timed with the release of Paddington 2 in cinemas. Foundry Trends spoke to the people behind both: creative studio Framestore.
Foundry Trends (FT): How did Framestore come to work on the Paddington films, and how have you maintained that relationship into your work on the M&S commercial?
Pablo Grillo (PG), Animation Director, Film at Framestore: We had a history working with David Heyman (founder of Heyday Films) through Gravity and the Harry Potter films, and from that came a trust that we could deliver quality visuals—as well as the sort of sensitivity to performance that this character required.
The making of the first film was very much a learning process as we sought to develop an intimate understanding of how to handle Paddington as a character. We established a visual grammar in his design and look, and learned about his persona and mannerisms by putting him through his paces and bringing him into a cinematic context.
A definite set of rules emerged from that process, and by the time the second film arrived we could draw from that knowledge base from the get-go and focus on the new situations that Paddington would encounter. With that, I think that we were able to find more depth and dimension to his character than we’d seen before.
With the M&S commercial we were also able to apply the visual and technical guidelines we’d established on the films, to make sure we stayed consistent with the character across platforms.
FT: Paddington’s humour is famously derived from physical comedy. What unique challenges did you face in animating a character of this nature?
PG: Paddington combines the most challenging aspects of character animation: photorealism, sensitive performance, a high degree of physicality and, of course, comedy.
Comedy is extremely demanding. It seems effortless yet is extremely iterative, and requires a great deal of exploration to find that perfect setup, gag or timing. We workshopped the jokes a lot with a clown called Javier Marzan, who provided a reference for a lot of the physical comedy routines.
In the end, the power of animation is to be able to iterate and meticulously craft timings and gestures in a way that can ultimately deliver heart-warming and comical results, that feel natural and effortless.
FT: How did your approach to the M&S commercial differ from your approach to the films?
Jordi Barés Dominguez (JBD), Creative Director, Integrated Advertising at Framestore: We actually used exactly the same tools and protocols, and indeed the same bear asset.
We did so on purpose, in order to force ourselves to take the exact same route as our artists on the film side, as we believed the quality of the final ad had to match the quality expectations set by the movie.
FT: What’s driven the trend of big-budget, CGI-enhanced Christmas ads?
JBD: Christmas campaigns are evolving into a combined marketing package, with TV as the spearhead and digital, experiential and in-store branding driving sales. From my point of view, it may be the most effective way to convert advertising into sales—hence the investment we see.
Furthermore, with the tight competition in online shopping, it’s critical to differentiate your brand—and given Christmas is the strongest shopping period, it’s no wonder more and more are piling up.
FT: When did you first notice the major VFX studios, like yourselves, beginning to get involved in the yearly Christmas ads war?
JBD: I started to see over the last three years a race to outdo each other. Clearly, with the M&S commercial playing at the same time as the film, we’ve helped create a further push—which to me makes it the clear winner this year.
FT: Do you find you’re more closely involved in ideation than you used to be? For example, will M&S consult Framestore early on in the creative process, whereas a few years ago you’d have been brought in primarily from an executional standpoint?
JBD: It depends—the most forward-looking companies do try to engage with us early so we can bring the best to their campaigns, whether in technology or ideas to new delivery mechanisms. But in my humble opinion we could be a lot closer, and bring even more value to these campaigns through various novel offerings.
With regards to M&S and Paddington, this may be a special case due to the importance of Paddington as a character—and yes, in this case there were many conversations to make sure we got it right, and that the output was a coherent version of the film’s character, in style, narrative, story, finish quality, and so on.
FT: Do you consider how they can live on beyond the initial ad when creating new characters?
JBD: We account for it, and normally design with the consideration as to how we might extend the character’s capabilities so that, when required, we are ready to do it.
I do wish it was a more prolonged effort, to truly bring the best of the character to the campaign—particularly because modern marketing goes far beyond TV, and experiential experiences can be such a game-changer.
Want to find out how Framestore brought Paddington to life for the first film? Watch the video here.