Noah Harris explains his dark and purposely uncute stop frame Christmas ad for WWF
Working with Fantastic Mr Fox and Isle of Dogs character designer Felicie Haymoz and modelmaker Andy Gent, and looking to Wes Anderson and Laika films for their distinct lack of saccharine, Noah has struck just the right tone for the Adopt a Better Future campaign.
- Jenny Brewer
- 28 November 2019
In the Christmas ad landscape we don’t blink an eye at nostalgic Raymond Briggs-style animations and adorable CGI reindeer, but this year, one campaign cuts through the noise for its distinct uncuteness. Adopt a Better Future, WWF’s advert created by agency Uncommon, directed by Noah Harris, and produced by Agile sees a brave young girl protecting a wild jaguar as the rainforest around them burns, rallying a crowd to stand up to a bulldozer threatening to destroy the creature’s home. Using cerebral powers, she dismantles the machine into pieces, before we see the girl back in her own bedroom – a call to action for all types of activists, those who stand in front of bulldozers, and those who adopt animals by way of supporting the wildlife charity.
All this is created in stop frame, with 2D character designs by Felicie Haymoz, character designer for Isle of Dogs and Fantastic Mr Fox, which were then sculpted and modelled by Andy Gent and his team at Arch Model Studio – also Wes Anderson animation alumni, as well as model makers for Corpse Bride and Coraline.
“Stop frame felt like the right approach to the film for a few reasons,” Noah tells It’s Nice That. “We wanted to create something that would resonate with children and adults and I think seriously well-crafted characters and animation can do that very effectively. It was very important there was nothing cute about the film. If you think about Laika or Wes Anderson’s stop frame films, they stand out from the general feel of blockbuster kid’s films. They generally don’t have saccharine characters with irritating voices. They also have a unique look – the physicality is key.”
“The mood of the film is pretty dark,” he continues. “This is to act as an urgent wake-up call. I wanted to really feel the jaguar in danger, and the bravery of the girl.” Conversely, while the animation isn’t cute, Noah says, “there is obviously a charm to stop frame that offsets the darkness of the story”. Animation as a medium also takes the viewers’ minds to somewhere childlike, comments Uncommon’s Nils Leonard, “to really land the idea that the generations after us will be the ones that have to face up to our decisions, or lack of them”.
As can be expected on a charity campaign, the budget was very tight and – being WWF – it needed to be an environmentally friendly production too. So a combination of stop frame, live action and VFX were used to ensure the impact of the story – or as Noah puts it, "creative solutions to problems that might usually be solved by chucking money at it". One vital aspect was the fire, a technical nightmare on a model set. As such, the fire burning through the paper screen at the beginning was filmed in camera, whereas flickers of flame around the forest were actually programmed lights that were then augmented to become fire in post production. “Initially we looked at shooting the fire elements on set but we ran into scale issues,” Noah explains. “Small fires don’t feel as threatening as raging big ones.”
Smoke and haze were also shot in camera, for the animation to be comped into, helping build a scene that feels physical and real, and consequently a sense of drama and urgency across the film. “This was always about using what is deemed to be a childlike style but treating it with an adult, dramatic, almost horror genre approach to music, colour and storytelling,” Nils says.
The film concludes with the girl breaking the bulldozer into pieces with her powers, a scene which transitions between the rainforest and the girl’s bedroom. This was an important message for the campaign to reach as wide an audience as possible, and of personal meaning to Noah.
“Having the central character as a young girl is important,” he says. “I have three daughters and we know that historically, these young female voices haven’t had much strength in our world, but my daughters see people like Malala and Greta as great role models. This story centres around a girl with great power and that’s a hugely important part of the film to me.”
One poignant finer detail that might go unnoticed to most viewers is a poster in the background of the girl’s bedroom, created using charcoal waste salvaged from trees destroyed in a recent rainforest fire. This, and other elements made using the same technique, tie the message and its medium together. “It’s powerful, to create the film from the waste of the very thing we’re trying to save,” Nils concludes. “The poster, and others like it will be used to draw more attention to the cause at hand, like the fight for the WWF and others to halt destruction.”