Inside BBC One’s Christmas spot: the CGI/stop-motion success for the Beeb’s in-house creatives

BBC One’s thoroughly British Christmas trail for 2017 has not only impressed (most of) the nation in the festive spot stakes but also proven the creative prowess of the corporation’s in-house agency.

‘The Supporting Act’ tells the story of a young girl vying for her dad’s attention as she practises a dance routine in the lead-up to her school’s Christmas talent contest. He appears preoccupied with work throughout most of the film, however when a bout of stage fright gets the better of his daughter on the big day, he reveals he’s learnt the entire routine when he helps her recall the steps from the back of the hall.

Devised by BBC Creative, the two-minute trail’s truly human story and on-brand spirit of ‘oneness’ has seen it garner praise from the public. The positive reception is no doubt a relief for the BBC, given that it's the first year its in-house shop has taken up the festive mantle from Rainey Kelly Campbell Roalfe/Y&R (now Y&R London).

Following the footsteps of the heritage creative agency wasn’t a task the trailer’s creative team, led by Amar Marwaha and Arvid Härnqvist, took lightly.

“It was a chance to start afresh, a chance for BBC Creative to put a flag in the ground,” said Härnqvist. “The fact it’s done this well makes us proud to work for BBC Creative. It’s the first really big thing out of the blocks and it’s just the starting point of the journey that we’re on.”

Marwaha and Härnqvist, the former AMV BBDO duo who won the internal open brief for the project, brought in production house Blinkink to augment the touching but clear-cut plotline with animated emotion. For a film that was “always going to be an animation”, they took a risk in commissioning an innovative hybrid of stop-motion film mixed with CGI-enhanced facial imagery.

“I decided to use computer graphics for the faces because of the detail,” explained director Elliot Dear, whose previous Christmas reel includes John Lewis’s The Bear and the Hare. “The film doesn't have any dialogue at all, so all the emotion needs to be conveyed through facial expressions, particularly focusing on the performance of the eyes.

“If you watch movies like Moana or Up, you can see tiny nuances in the facial expressions, the detail in the performance. I wanted to be able to get this level of detail too, to give the characters depth, which is difficult to achieve with mechanised puppet heads and even 3D printed head replacements.”

Dear worked closely with choreographer Supple Nam on the project, particularly the ad’s phantasmagorical, climatic routine, in order to animate a real-life dance as realistically as possible.

“He cast two brilliant dancers that matched the proportions of our characters, so that we'd have good reference for weight and speed and so on,” said Dear. “Together we all worked on coming up with a sequence of moves that felt recognisable and current and cool, but also something that a ten year old girl could conceivably have picked up from YouTube or TV. The animators had the live action reference in the corner of their monitors while they were working.”

Disney Pixar’s mastery of its audience’s emotions was also an inspiration for the film’s soundtrack. Steve Mac reworked of his own production – Symphony by Clean Bandit feat Zara Larsson – to massage further sentiment out of crucial plot points, omitting notes and adding crescendos where needed to enhance the story.

Marwaha and Härnqvist set out to create a picture of modern Britain at Christmas in this trail, an ideal evidenced in the plimsoll scuff marks on the school hall floor and the plastic buckets on sale at the local high street’s discount store. Since Härnqvist grew up in Sweden, it was Mawaha’s festive memories and experiences that were recreated, and as such, the dad and daughter are Asian.

“I am Asian myself, my parents weren’t born here and I was born in Scotland, and we’ve always celebrated Christmas,” he said. “The experience of Christmas that we channelled into this ad was my own.

“So it wasn’t necessarily a decision – it was always going to be an Asian family.”

Proving that certain members of the public can manage to get angry over the colour of a lifeless puppet, the dad and daughter’s Asian skin tone has caused derision. This backlash, however small, is a source of frustration to Dear, who was initially “disappointed to see just how many people felt the need to complain about the ethnicity of the characters”.

“It's a shame that their prejudice could get in the way of their enjoyment of a sweet family story,” he said. “Unfortunately, these are always the first people to log in to YouTube and tell everyone how they feel, but it was heartening to see how many people were ready to step up and set them straight by defending the film and challenging their views.”

And despite the bile, most feedback has been positive. The film may have picked up a whopping 29m views on Facebook alone in its first week, but to Härnqvist, “what’s really key is when you read tweets from normal people that say, ‘I cried at this’ or ‘I can see my daughter in that’”.

Indeed, someone liked the trail so much that they bought Dear a drink last week.

“It was very flattering,” the director said. “I'm glad most of the people who have seen it have enjoyed it.”