Beginner's Luck for Sarah Smith

44 FEA Awards Arthur Christmas H
Courtesy Aardman Animation for Sony Pictures Animation

Santa (center) and his sons Arthur (left) and Steve.

How a newbie directed "Arthur Christmas" for the "terrifying" Amy Pascal and got the top Rotten Tomatoes score in the animation race.

Sarah Smith, best known as a British TV director, says her utter inexperience in animation ideally prepared her to spend five years directing the CG film Arthur Christmas. The first production from Aardman Animation's partnership with Sony Pictures Animation, it got a 92 percent Rotten Tomatoes rating -- higher than all its probable Oscar rivals, or best picture front-runner The Descendants. "I felt like I was the person with the least skills because everyone around me can draw and model and paint," says Smith. "And they said, 'We need what you can bring: story and character and script and knowing why we're going to do any of these things.' "

What troubled Smith was directing the film in both 3D and 2D versions. "It's almost the opposite choices in terms of shots and edits. I wanted an action sequence [of Santa's paramilitary elves delivering presents] at the beginning because by age 9, children want to see The Bourne Identity more than animation," says Smith. "But that fast jump-cut camera style is very much a cool 2D style. 3D prefers longer developing shots, not that kind of busyness and messiness. So you just back off the 3D a little. But Santa's Mission Control room is a 3D dream. You've got gigantic scale, and lines of perspective to the far distance." 3D was also perfect for Santa's sleigh. "You feel like you're located in the sleigh and the world is whizzing past you on a roller coaster," she says. Smith wanted "real physics," not CG fantasy. "In the whole movie, there's probably six shots that could only be done with a CG camera."

Smith recommends the roller coaster thrill of working with Sony co-chair Amy Pascal. "She's kind of terrifying. She terrified me to start because I didn't really understand her and I'm a complete first-timer having opinions, which is obviously a bit presumptuous. But in fact she's been a fantastic support and we were given the best part of the year in Bristol [England] to storyboard the entire movie. I wasn't under pressure to show sections of it. That must make me one of the luckiest people ever to have made an animated movie. Her biggest thing was, she really pushed us to develop the background family story. Santa's family is a bit like the British royals. We had the politics of the family as the background to Arthur's quest. And she suggested upping the stakes by stirring up the elves," who fear if Arthur fails to deliver one present on time, Santa's operation will collapse in disgrace.

"My aspiration is not about box office, world domination or Oscars," says Smith. "I say this without humility. The Oscars are a weird industry world. We're rubbishly uncommercial. If we made a movie that lasted from Christmas to Christmas and that kids remembered as one of the movies they loved growing up, that is what I would like to do more than anything else. We made a movie we loved. Sometimes that can serve you well."