The Production Story Behind One of Our Favourite 2017 Christmas Ads
This gem for Danish supermarket føtex is one of LBB’s favourite Christmas ads for 2017 is. Directed by Nobody Cph’s Rune Milton via creative agency Wibroe, Duckert & Partners, the film tells the story of a young girl and her reindeer pal Rollo. Rollo isn’t playing ball as the girl tries to gee him into flying, until - whoosh - they take to the skies. But not all is at it seems – and you’ll have to find out why by checking out the film below.
For such a fantastical story, a lot of effort went into making the film feel raw, rough and real. From the muted colour palette and the timeless stylings to the judicious blend of physical and CG effects it feels believable and substantial. It’s captured the local audiences’ imagination to such an extent that some viewers even thought it was a trailer for a movie.
LBB’s Addison Capper sat down with Rune to find out about the chilly shoot in Lithuania, working with the adorable leading lady and the challenges of making flying reindeer look cinematic.
LBB> What was the initial script like and why was it something you were keen to get involved in?
RM> The initial script was more in line with traditional Christmas films. The story was structured around the interplay between the girl and her dog, with a series of everyday scenes that replaced the dog with a reindeer from the girl’s imagination and ultimately ended with the same scene we used in the film.
The one aspect of the original script that struck me most was its heart: a child’s imagination inventing a magical world around an ordinary moment. So I took the special, naive, childish insight in the original script and helped build the story around it. Only the structure needed to be changed in order to take the viewer on a journey with the girl, allowing them to experience the dramatic reveal. I wanted to make it super simple and honest, and be just about the moment. I also wanted to have a different approach than the usual ‘scene-by-scene’ formula we mostly see in Christmas films. Often I feel that someone has an idea they like, and then they construct the whole film to build up to that idea, with everything just leading up to the twist and payoff. But the cost is credibility… it becomes a commercial story rather than a human story, with actors acting in a commercial, rather than acting in a story. This is a long theoretical talk about commercials in general though.
On top of that, this was also quite an important and personal message for me. I am a bit worried that kids are losing more and more of their childhood and imagination because they are getting addicted to digital pacifiers. Most great ideas or the most imaginary games appeared from boredom. When kids don’t get the chance to use their imagination, I am afraid it slowly gets lost. I used to be bored and get ideas. Even in my teens I would have ideas and thoughts as I waited for a bus. Now people tend to look at their phones if they have to kill those five minutes, which kills a potential moment of thoughts and imagination. So, I raise my own daughter in a very offline way, and the most beautiful and inspirational thing in my life is to see her creating her imaginary worlds with only a few teddy bears and a lot of cardboard. It was really personal for me. I basically made this for my daughter… and to celebrate childhood, imagination and friendship.
LBB> It’s a very emotive film - something that I believe is quite rare from a Danish supermarket at Christmas? Is that true?
RM> I think someone tries every year, but no brand has succeeded in owning the Christmas tale. In Denmark, we don’t have the same level of competition between brands that you find in the UK. Usually a supermarket just wants to sell with a loud and funny message.
But we do have a strong tradition for ‘Christmas calendar’ TV shows which consist of 24 episodes. They’re a cultural event in Denmark, and they bring the family together in front of the TV every night.
This should be the basis for the emotional Christmas story, I thought, and the agency and client saw the potential. It payed off. The biggest reward for this project was really to see how people reacted to it. It’s not often you do a 90-second commercial and people ask for it to be and hour-and-a-half long. Many people thought it was the trailer for a new feature or TV show - which was exactly what we wanted to achieve.
LBB> Talk to us about hygge - what is it and how is it related to this film?
RM> Well, winter in Denmark is long, dark, cold, and depressing. But December is pure hygge with all of its light, decoration, and special atmosphere. People are friendlier and happier in December, and there are all these traditions that kids love. Children might find a small present from the Christmas elf in their stocking every morning, we sit and watch the Christmas calendar TV shows together, and we have dinners with our family and friends.
People are already in the mind-set of hygge during Christmas, which is why I made sure not to force hygge in the film. I think that would have made it too obvious. People tend to recoil when they sense that a brand is trying to exploit the emotion they’re already in. My references for the film were Bambi, Harry Potter and Interstellar… so I was more trying to create a sensational epic journey than build on an emotional foundation.
LBB> The girl is adorable - what was the casting process like?
RM> It was tricky. I wanted to base the film on this girl and not the other way around. We had to find a girl neither too young nor too old, an age where she’d have a credible and vivid imagination.
In casting, I wanted to spot natural talent who could improvise based on simple cues, naturally fall into a role with minimum self-awareness, and have the ability to create her own moment and stay within it. At the same time, we knew that the shoot would be tough for her, so she needed to be robust and have stamina.
So we were looking for a girl who would tick all these practical boxes and, more importantly, deliver on the performance. We teamed up with Jette Termann, who is a legend in the Danish film business. She has cast, tutored, and discovered essentially every child actor in every film production in Denmark since late ‘70s. Whenever you watch a feature film by a Danish director with a kid in it, Jette will have stood next to the director all the way through production.
Jette knew who was out there, and she actually gave us very few options and recommended the girl we ended up choosing. It gave me so much confidence to have her on board and freed up time and energy to make everything else work, which was good since it was a quite complex shoot.
It’s funny, because before we went into production I’d have sworn that casting would have been the biggest obstacle. But we had the cast quite early, so in this case it was finding the perfect forest location that would haunt us.
LBB> Tell us more about the location – the forest setting is gorgeous. Where did the shoot take place and how long was it?
RM> We shot on location in Lithuania with a demanding two-day shooting schedule. You lose some control when you choose a real location over studio, but nature provides details and texture that you can never create in post or in a studio. So it was always the plan to shoot on location.
Finding the right locations proved to be hard through, the most difficult part of the production. It wasn’t until very late in the process that we found the perfect spot that we had been looking for, maybe even two days before the shoot. So that was a huge relief to us, and of course also to the people that had to build the huge set!
LBB> Back to the girl – how was it working with her? What kind of conversations did you have?
RM> She was really great and performed every time we were shooting. It actually made me think of the famous saying ”90% of directing is casting”. That said, I’d rather tell myself that my direction made up for more than 10%!
Jette also joined us on set. She would be around the girl non-stop, like a best friend, so I could focus on prepping each scene and shot, which was good since we were always under the pressure of time. Then, when we shot, I could focus 110% on directing the girl. Not only was Jette there as a friend, she would also play the deer whenever we did close-ups of the girl. And most importantly, because she has so much experience with kids, she knew how far we could push the girl without ever loosing her. She knew exactly how her mind was working. She became our producer and director partner who would help us get everything we needed in the best possible way.
For the performance, it was important to get something real. So we cued the girl, asked her to do this, do that, say this or say that, say it in her own way, and so on. Ultimately the girl got in a state of mind where she forgot that we were actually shooting, as if we were playing a game together with her. And from this ‘game playing’ spontaneity would arise, and everything would feel genuine.
Then we would collect all the moments and dialogue bits we needed. Everything was planned. She would get the idea, run to the sleigh, rig it, try to take off, fail, push the deer, give it the pep talk. But how she would do it, and what she would say needed to come entirely from her. It had to feel real and spontaneous. Then as we started to get all the pieces for the puzzle, we moved into the more specific narrative shots and close-ups.
LBB> How did you achieve the flying scenes?
RM> Like everything else in the film, it’s a mix of practical tricks and VFX. For the part where the sleigh goes through the trees, we built two lanes of trees and mounted the sleigh on a crane track about three metres over the ground in between them. Then we added SFX snow, smoke, and wind. We shot from a 4x4 next to the setup, which gave us the impact of tree branches and allowed us to mount the camera on the sleigh tracks. So most of this is actually shot in camera with extra particles added in post.
For the ‘Spielberg shot’, as we called it (the sleigh passing the camera and then entering the frame again), we built the deer and sleigh in 3D. Same for the ultra wide shot. The shots ‘inside the storm’ were shot with the sleigh on green screen with lots of SFX snow and wind effects. A 3D deer was added in post, except for the close-up of the deer, which was done in camera.
The general approach was to show less and imagine more – both within each shot, but also from shot-to-shot. After you’ve shown one magical and epic shot, you can insinuate the universe with details that make you believe you’ve seen VFX shots when you actually haven't. When you work with a two-week deadline for VFX, this approach helps everyone.
LBB> Tell us a bit more about the reindeer – it was a mix of post and in-camera?
RM> Happy you ask. Almost everything is real. The shot where it enters the frame in a wide shot, and the take-off shot (the Spielberg one) is full CGI (girl, sleigh and deer) – only forest plates. The close-up of the legs in the sky, the POV in the opening, and the ultra-wide shot as they fly are also CGI. Everything else is shot in camera.
What I think is more crazy is that all of the shots of the deer running, except for that POV of the tree that they almost hit, is shot in a green forest. There was no snow added on location. But when we tested the snow, we ended up using a mix of frost, paper snow, and the natural moss layer in the forest. We found a look for the snow that we could mimic in post, and at the same time it was the snow look that we liked the most. We would be able to basically chroma key and tint the green in the forest into snow, as long as we weren’t too close. Of course, it wasn’t just as simple as that, but Mikael Balle, the VFX supervisor, came up with this trick. It worked really well.
LBB> What were you trying to achieve with the overall colour palette and aesthetic of the spot?
RM> I wanted to fight the cuteness of a Christmas film on every level. I mean, the story is cute, so no need to push cuteness anywhere else. We went for a more raw look.
For the camerawork and light, that meant going for a more moody and naturalistic look so things wouldn't feel too staged or constructed. In the main scene and the end scene, the camera feels organic and mimics the spontaneity a kid experiences when she plays. These organic shots are mixed with a few very precise sub-textual storytelling shots to mark important plot points and turning points, carrying the audience through the film.
The driving and flying shots were of course much more planned because they were so technical and had a lot of VFX. But still, we would make sure to shake it up and get some roughness into it. A deer pulling a sleigh looks kinda silly, and I’ve never seen one example of a flying deer that actually looks cinematic. In this case, I wanted it to feel like a heavy and brutal thing to do, and to get the feeling that the camera was fighting to get the right shot.
I have a great collaboration with my VFX supervisor Mikael Balle whose brain is basically in sync with mine. We’d go back and forward on shots until its ‘ugly’ enough that you feel it rather than merely seeing it. I’d tell Mikael, “In these shots we’re shooting an imaginary flying sleigh from an airplane travelling at 500 km per hour. The operator is fighting to get the sleigh in shot, but it’s really difficult. They’re flying though a crazy blizzard, and in a second they will create a worm hole.” Then Mikael presses a lot of buttons in his programs and creates something awesome.
The location was also extremely important to the aesthetic. We wanted an intimacy only the right location could bring. Something dreamy, yet realistic. We kept looking until the producer and I stood in the forest and felt as if it was whispering to us. When I then showed the location to Kasper (the DP), he quietly looked around and said, “Can you hear it? The choir… like a cathedral”, which was a pretty good sign that he liked it. And after that the location was called ‘The Cathedral’.
For the colour palette, we wanted to keep it contained and simple, mainly going for colours you already find in nature and mixing them with a few bold yet muted colours like red. The trickiest thing was actually the styling. It shouldn’t be explicitly fantasy, nor reality, nor a period piece, nor modern, nor a Christmas fairy tale. It should be something undefined; everything and nothing at the same time. We are inside a girl’s head, she doesn’t create the picture perfect Christmas portrait. We had a good stylist who understood what we were aiming for, and with some back and forth it slowly came together.
LBB> What were the trickiest factors and how did you overcome them?
RM> Time was the single most tricky factor on this shoot. We knew what we wanted to do and how to do it, and we somehow managed to put all the complicated elements in: kids, wild animals, heavy SFX, snow, heavy VFX, a low loader, technical setups, you name it. And then working with daylight in northern Europe close to winter… that was tricky.
After the shoot, we had some time challenges with post, but we overcame them by making a lot of right choices from the beginning. I actually owe a lot of credit to Niels, the producer. Not only is he a good producer who makes things work, but he is also a close creative partner who knows to ask the right questions. He keeps me on my feet. When things get tough, he will keep his head calm and get the best out of you, and in the end always supports the film’s creative.
LBB> What were most memorable moments from the shoot and why?
RM> How the cold took us all by surprise. Well, except the local crew who were packing in as if they were facing a nuclear winter. It was so insanely cold in that forest. When you think you might die and never see your loved ones after staying outside for fifteen minutes, the days feel kind of long. And the girl, she was so amazing. Such a fighter. She was truly the perfect cast on all levels.
A less memorable moment, but something to appreciate, is how some agencies and clients in Denmark work. If you have their trust they will really give you freedom and become close creative partners with you. Not at one point did the process of creating or shooting stop without reason or to discuss details no one cares about, it was always eyes on the ball (the story and emotions), which allowed us to make this film in only two days. This is what I love about shooting Danish jobs, and what makes it worth it – now that the budgets are so damn low!
Category: Retail and restaurants , Supermarkets
Genre: Storytelling , Strategy/Insight