Aardman releases a new Christmas film with Netflix featuring a mischievous little robin raised by burglar mice
The well-known stop motion animation studio gets into the festive spirit with Robin Robin, and a brand identity made in collaboration with Skew Studio. Here, It’s Nice That gets an exclusive look behind the scenes of the project.
- Dalia Al-Dujaili
- 24 November 2021
“Once upon a time,” narrates director Mikey Please, “about eight years ago, late one evening, two animators came up with the key story beats for a Christmas Special.” He refers to the storyline for Aardman’s newest film, which by then was only an idea: “A robin is raised by burglar mice and goes on an adventure with a materialistic Magpie to steal a Christmas star.” The director and the team spent the next four years trying to tell that story in full, whenever they could, to friends and family around Christmas. “When we finally managed to get to the end of the story without our friends and family glazing over or walking away, we knew the pitch was ready!” says Please.
Please and co-director Dan Ojari worked with artist Briony May Smith “on some fabulous concept art, made a very rough storybook and took it to Annecy International Animation Festival where we bumped into Sarah Cox.” Cox, an executive creative director at Aardman, was as excited as Please and Ojari were, the directors remember, “as were Netflix a few weeks later, and we all lived happily ever after.” The creative team at Aardman also worked alongside Skew Studio’s Oliver Dyer and Sara Bignardi, who worked on the title treatment and branding of the final film.
Dan Ojari thinks the style of the film – which is classically Aardman but still delivers a novelty – is “probably down to a culmination of all the fantastic contributing artists. We were lucky enough to get to work with this experienced and enthusiastic team, including legends such as Dave Alex Riddett, the DOP of Wallace & Gromit: The Wrong Trousers and many other Aardman classics.” Ojari explains that making Robin Robin felt “part of the cannon,” which was “undoubtedly helped by the fact Dan and I grew up watching Aardman’s films, so those flavours and sensibilities are innately part of our creative make up.”
Design-wise, says the director, Aardman’s films always start with a strong foundation in illustration, “where we like to build compositions to camera, keeping the shapes and silhouettes graphic and simple, as opposed to building a 3D space and moving the camera about it,” he continues. With illustrator Matthew Forsythe as production designer, the film features bold yet simple character design rendered with deep, tactile textures. “Translating those designs into the 3D world of stop motion was challenging but paid off, in that it gave the film a look we hadn’t seen before and were very excited by,” expands Ojari.
Because the central characters of the film, like the robin and mice, are rendered in needle felt, challenges arose, as Please explains, “stop motion puppets need to be stretchy and felt doesn’t stretch, so there were lots of workarounds such as making Robin’s head sit in her body like an egg in an egg cup.” The team also wanted the atmospherics and effects – the snow, rain, fire, and smoke – to be rendered in felt so they filmed each snowflake, flame and raindrop using felt on traditional multi-plane sheets of glass. The artists then had the challenge of integrating those effects, “where there was the danger they could feel like a pasted layer over the top.” In order to ease the process of integration, the VFX supervisor Jon Biggins thought of filming a lot of the film in stereoscopic. “By shooting the stop motion from the left and right eye position,” explains Please, “we were able to get depth information that allowed us to integrate these practical elements into a simulated 3D space. So rain could pass behind blades of grass and trees could disappear into the mist without the need to green-screen or painful rotoscopinging. Clever Jon!”
Interestingly, Renaissance paintings acted as references for the design team when looking at lighting. In these paintings, the light is always from behind the subject, and the production team used this technique to give their “fuzzy felt protagonists an appropriate seasonal glow.” With Ojari and Please having very young families, they were able to act out some “very cheap audience testing” throughout production. “But it wasn’t until fairly recently,” he goes on, “at the London Film Festival, that we were able to properly test that goal with a cinema full of families and thankfully Robin got a fantastic response.”
For the branding of the film on Netflix, Skew Studio’s founder Dyer says that a nuanced, natural, illustrative brand needs to perform on all of the platforms that Netflix is available on alongside shows that are visual colour bombs.” The process of taking something “already loved” and making it new for a different audience meant “gaining the trust of the directors by working sympathetically to the way they work and hand crafting everything,” explains Dyer. “A temptation in children’s media is to force a logo to convey everything about production design, the characters and 90 minutes of narrative in a single icon. It’s not possible or desirable.” Therefore, Skew helped Aardman strip the film back, and back again, to arrive at a simple branding for the film which could work within a streaming service’s environment.
At the heart of the film, the directors hope there lies a message about inclusion “and the idea that by embracing the things that make us different, it will ultimately make us stronger.” Robin Robin launches on Netflix today.
Aardman: VFX breakdowns (Copyright © Aardman, 2021)
About the Author
Dalia is a freelance writer, producer and editor based in London. She’s currently the digital editor of Azeema, and the editor-in-chief of The Road to Nowhere Magazine. Previously, she was news writer at It’s Nice That, after graduating in English Literature from The University of Edinburgh.