Parts of the Process — Benjamin Lole explains how he produced BBC One’s Christmas film ‘The Supporting Act’

Posted 20 December 2017 Written by Indi Davies

On a par with Superbowl ads in the US, the release of the year’s Christmas commercials has become a hotly anticipated event (and unofficial competition) in the advertising and broadcasting calendars. With regular contenders including major retailers John Lewis and Sainsbury’s, no one was expecting a broadcaster to join the race. But in early December, BBC One released ‘The Supporting Act’, a lovable and emotive short film capturing “oneness” – BBC One’s theme of 2017. 

Dreamt up by BBC One’s in-house creatives Amar Marwaha and Arvid Härnqvist, London-based animation production company Blinkink were brought on board to bring their vision to life. Directed by Elliot Dear, the film uses groundbreaking CG and stop-motion techniques. We spoke to Blinkink producer Benjamin Lole to find out how the whole thing came together. 

Client

BBC One

Duration

June – November 2017

Team

Agency: BBC Creative
Creative Directors: Aidan McClure, Laurent Simon
Creatives: Arvid Härnqvist & Amar Marwaha
Agency Producer: Ken Rodrigues
Project Manager: Astrid Reiner
Production Manager: Jenny Broad
Head of Production: James Woods
Portfolio Head of Marketing: Kerry Moss
Marketing Manager: Harriet Gunning
Marketing Executive: Claire Grainger

Production Company: Blinkink
Director: Elliot Dear
Executive Producer: Bart Yates
Producer: Benjamin Lole
Production Manager: Alex Holberton
1st AD: Kevin Harwood 
DOP: Toby Howell
1st Assistant Camera: Ollie Craig
Additional Camera Assistant: Toby McKay
Gaffer: Aldo Camilleri
Electricians: Caspar Jones
Animation Rigger: Robin Jackson
Moco Op: Max Halstead
Lead Stop Mo Animator: Andy Biddle
Lead Stop Mo Animator: Dan Gill
Stop Mo Animator: Luke George, Anthony Farquar Smith
Production Designer: Andy Farago 
Set build: Clockwork Frog
Art Director & Concept Art: Stephen McNally
Shoot Art Director: Gordon Allen
Art Dept: Kat Simpson & Collette Pidgeon
Puppet Maintenance: Josie Corben
Runner/Production Assistant: Honey Cairns & Lara Baxter
Puppet build: Mackinnon and Saunders
Character Design: Sas Milledge, Daniel Lambert, Elliot Dear
Character development: James Castillo, Mansoureh Kamari
Storyboard artist: Yohann Arroux, Dean Roberts
Dance Reference Choreographer: Supple Nam
Assistant Choreographer: Stefan Puxon
Reference Dancers: Lois Ellington, Patrick Alan 
V/O Artists: Kayvan Novak, Sienna Banger
Editor: Joseph Giffard Tutt
Grade: Denny Cooper at Rushes
Sound design and Mix: Simon Harris at Offset Audio
Making-of: Sam Davies + Sam Tipton

Post Production: Blinkink Studio
VFX Supervisor/Lead: Stephen McNally
Graphic Design: James Papper
Post Production Coordinator: Joseph Eckworth
Compositors: Rob Ward, Alasdair Brotherston, Simone Ghilardotti, Stephen McNally, Elliot Dear

CG Facial animation and Compositing: Storyline Oslo
CG Producer: Torgeir Busch
Lead CG animators: Rune Spaans, Daniel Røsnes
Lighting & Rendering: Mariusz Kołodziejczak
CG compositing: Kai Bortne, Steven Higton

Music: ‘Symphony’ by Clean Bandit ft Zara Larsson
Specially re-arranged by Producer Steve Mac

Brief

Produce the animation for BBC One’s Christmas film, allocating a director and crew.

Background

In June 2017, Blinkink were approached by Amar Marwaha and Arvid Härnqvist, in-house creatives on the BBC Creative team lead by creative directors Aidan and Laurent (formerly at Adam&EveDDB and the minds behind ‘The Bear and the Hare’). Having come up with the concept for the film, Amar and Arvid were looking for suggestions for directors. 

At that point they only had a script, which they had been developing since the beginning of the year. They’d written a great story, come up with a really good idea, and knew they wanted to make something that was British, unique and using animation. It was quite an open brief apart from that.

Christmas provides an opportunity to tell a story. These ads serve more as short films, and this one especially. Even though ads like this one will be a bit more complicated and take more energy to create, it doesn’t feel like more pressure – it’s extra motivation that you know so many people are going to see it.

Elliot Dear’s ‘Make Them Giants’ for O2, 2015

As with most commercial projects, we then had to pitch against two or three other companies, to try and win the job. Because the script was so strong, we wanted to do everything we could to win. One of the first things we needed to decide on was the director. In this case we had discussed Elliot Dear, as we felt his experience with projects like the ‘The Bear and the Hare’ and O2’s ‘Make Them Giants’ (which we worked on together) was so relevant. The pitch was then geared around how Elliot wanted to treat the script and job.

As a producer, my priority is being involved creatively on a project. So on top of the standard parts of the job – like budgets, dealing with client relationships, hiring the crew and scheduling – I’ll also be part of the writing, development and technical problem-solving process. Along with the director, I’ll be one of the only people on the project from the beginning to the very end; making sure that everything runs on time, can be done and is affordable.

Elliot Dear’s ‘The Bear and the Hare’ for John Lewis, 2012

The Pitch

In animation, you can’t just show people references of other people’s work, especially if nobody has really done what you want to do. So we have to do tests, start pre-production, design characters, create concept art, and explain how the world will look and feel.

We started by developing the characters. For example, the character designer drew a design for Isla, the girl, with a big coat on. It was a nice detail, like she's bought a coat that’s too big so she’ll grow into it.

Early character design

Early character design

Concept art as part of the pitch stage

When we pitched the idea of using stop-motion to the BBC Creative team, they were initially concerned that it would look too handmade and lo-fi. Stop-motion animation is often shot with stills cameras, creating a staccato effect, as there is no motion blur on it, but we wanted to make it feel as smooth and real as possible. We did an early test with Andy Biddle – our feature-film level animator – including the motion blur, and it actually felt like we were filming a person with a mask on, he did such a good job with it.

We also wanted to try out an idea for a CG face to give it more personality and enable facial expressions. For this, we borrowed a puppet from [Manchester-based character design and puppet studio] Mackinnon and Saunders, and in a day or so, I got together a small crew. We talked with Rune Spaans [a Blink animation director base in Oslo], who has a lot of CG knowledge, who digitally built the face of a puppet to create an example test.

An early test using CG

Pre-production

We were awarded the job in July, and until September we were in pre-production, which included all design and build. On something like a Christmas ad, normally you have about six or seven months for production, but with this one we had four months, so we had some limitations. 

We first brought the BBC Creative team in to sit with some other directors to discuss the story, and we continued to develop the characters and script at the same time as working on the animatic (this phase will often involve rewriting). We revisited the design of the dad and decided to change his size and shape, to make it more of a surprise that he pulls out all the dance moves.

Then we needed to start the design and the story boarding. The animatic basically becomes the full film in 2D animation, and serves as a guide for the rest of the process – so everybody needs to agree on that before we get to a shoot.

“The animatic basically becomes the full film in 2D animation – so everybody needs to agree on that before we get to a shoot.”

The animatic

In a production role it’s really important to communicate clearly and be nice to everybody, because it’s the best way of motivating people and building relationships. So the most important tools for my job are my phone and laptop with access to email, plus Excel and Google Docs. 

Some animation mediums are a lot easier to manage than others, but with mixed media, it’s a bit like trying to control smoke. Things change rapidly and you need to try to be as agile as possible; it’s a lot of problem solving. When it comes to creating a schedule, once you’ve locked in a shoot date, it’s harder to change anything, as you’ll have booked a lot of people to be there on a certain day.

The schedule

The shoot schedule was looked after by stop-motion 1st AD Kev Harwood (who also worked on Fantastic Mr Fox and The Boxtrolls)

The shoot schedule was looked after by stop-motion 1st AD Kev Harwood (who also worked on Fantastic Mr Fox and The Boxtrolls)

The shoot schedule was looked after by stop-motion 1st AD Kev Harwood (who also worked on Fantastic Mr Fox and The Boxtrolls)

The shoot schedule was looked after by stop-motion 1st AD Kev Harwood (who also worked on Fantastic Mr Fox and The Boxtrolls)

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Building a Team

As part of the pitch, we were already talking to a potential team, so it was just about confirming people. The stop-motion animation community is quite a small one and everyone’s an expert in their field, so we get to work with people who we’ve got strong relationships with.

A fundamental part of my my job is to resource the director’s vision with the best people I can get, including designers and character designers. It was kind of easy with this one, because we brought back a lot of the people we worked with on the John Lewis ad, since it was a similar set build. I also had a production manager, Alex, on the job, who brought in additional connections. 

I recommended Clockwork Frog, a Manchester-based set and prop making studio, for making the sets (they worked on a big Sainsbury’s commercial the year before). It made sense that both the set and puppet makers (Mackinnon and Saunders) were in Manchester, to make it easy to visit them together.

“The stop-motion animation community is quite a small one and everyone's an expert in their field.”

Character designs in development

Creating the puppets

Creating the puppets

Creating the puppets

Building the set

Building the set

Building the set

Production

Once the puppets were built, we were able to start modelling and rigging them, and the shoots began in September, lasting four to five weeks. We first used choreographers and two dancers for movement reference, for the animators to make the dance work.

For the shoot, we hired the full space at Clapham Road Studios. Elizabeth and Matt – who we have a great relationship with – helped us with so many of our projects, and I really couldn’t have done what I have over the years without their help. Since stop-motion animation is so time consuming, we ended up over-running by a week and used a small set in a basement for filming the dancing scene in the kitchen.

While we were shooting, we started the CG work using a tracking process. Rune Spaans wasn’t able to do it all on his own in his house, so he worked from a post-production house called Storyline in Norway. When a shot was finished, we would send it them, and they would work on it as we shot the rest of the animation. They tracked the faces, helped with the animation, lighting and rendering, which all took around twelve weeks. 

Choreography for the film was filmed with dancers, as a reference for the animators

CG work created by Rune Spaans and a team in Norway

CG work created by Rune Spaans and a team in Norway

With animation, at every key stage there are points of no return – as starting from scratch is never an option. This meant making sure we were as collaborative as possible to get feedback throughout the process. 

We kept a very strong creative relationship with the BBC creatives, and creative sign-off sat with them. Then internally, they have their marketing department, and some approvals went all the way up the chain to Charlotte Moore, the BBC’s director of content. They also have their own internal music licensing company, so they took care of the track used on the film. 

Animating on set

On set

Animating on set

On set

On set

The behind-the-scenes film

Delivery

I can’t believe how well the final work has gone down. No-one was expecting this film, and it’s really resonated and made a huge impact – far beyond what I expected. I’m very, very proud of it. In terms of the animation quality, it was a massive achievement.

I think you learn a lot of the process, and there are all sorts of things I’d do differently to make the process smoother. But, as hard as it was, everybody did an amazing job. The film couldn’t have turned out any better!

The final film

Examples of BBC One’s idents using the film

Posted 20 December 2017 Written by Indi Davies
Collection: Parts of the Process
Disciplines: Animation, Advertising, Film
Mentions: Elliot Dear, Blinkink, BBC, BBC Creative
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