Aardman Nathan Love has had a busy holiday season this year, especially when it comes to projects that evoke a stop-motion aesthetic.

One recent project, which is all-cg but with a distinctive stop motion look and feel, is a spot for Sprite Cranberry called ‘Thirstiest Time of the Year.’ It stars basketballer LeBron James who returns home for the holidays amid a slew of mini-disasters. Rapper D.R.A.M. also features.

Cartoon Brew asked Aardman Nathan Love founder and executive creative director Joe Burrascano, who helmed the spot, how it was pulled off in just seven weeks, how they rendered the likeness of James, and how the studio tapped into a stop motion aesthetic.

Telling a holiday tale, in CG

Agency Wieden+Kennedy was looking for a style of clay animation in the vein of classics such as Aardman’s Wallace and Gromit for the spot. Inspiration also came from the classic stop-mo Rankin/Bass holiday specials, but, said Burrascano, “with a contemporary take.” LeBron James was always imagined as being at the center of a world of family gathering-related disasters.

Designs for LeBron James' character.
Designs for LeBron James’ character.

“Besides turning in a compelling rendition of LeBron,” noted Burrascano, “I believe it was our story that really won the agency over. We were able to capture all of these disastrous holiday moments in a humorous and relatable way, which really paved the way for LeBron and Sprite Cranberry to save the day.”

But why go with cg when the brief was also to have a stop motion feel? Burrascano says “the question of stop motion versus cg was brought up early in our conversations with the agency. We put forward the idea of sending the project to the stop motion team in Bristol, but after talking through time constraints and practical implications of working with celebrity talent, we came to the conclusion that cg was the most practical way to go. Plus, our team of artists were really passionate about the project and uniquely suited for the challenge.”

Time pressures were indeed a major reason to go cg. The team only had seven weeks of production from start to finish, including design and story development. “On top of that, we had to feature two celebrities in the spot, one of which wasn’t selected until the third week of production,” said Burrascano. “Getting both of them to sign-off on their likenesses, as well as the story and their animation, required the type of flexibility that could only be afforded in cg.”

Going with cg probably turned out to be the right approach. Just one week before delivery, a main character had a complete wardrobe change, which meant Aardman Nathan Love had to rebuild the clothing and apply it to the existing animation, something that would have been far harder to turn around with a stop motion puppet.

Character designs and the making of LeBron James

Since James was key to the spot, the studio embarked on early designs for his character. Artists sculpted his likeness digitally, as well as building a real-life maquette. “We always look for real-world reference to inform our digital process,” said Burrascano. “In this case, creating a practical maquette of LeBron felt like the only way to faithfully understand and create the look we were after.”

The maquette was crafted out of clay. Details inherent in that process, such as paint strokes and tool marks, were then incorporated in the final cg sculpt. Of course, James was only one of 18 characters in the spot. After two weeks of story development, Aardman Nathan Love set about designing the characters in-house before splitting up design tasks among several artists, including external ones.

The maquette under construction.
The maquette under construction.

“The heads, for example, were all handled by one artist, remotely from Brazil,” said Burrascano. “The bodies were a bit more complex. Because of the tight timeline, we had a team in Spain build a complete set of previs-level characters, in order to keep the pipeline moving and give us base models to begin detailing. From there we had our team divide the remaining tasks even further – detailing sweaters, refining materials, and assembling each of the characters for a final level of quality control and consistency.”

Thank goodness for sweaters

An animatic and previsualization of the entire spot helped inform the final animation process. Character and set builds were also done concurrently, along with tons of designs for the house, Christmas decorations, and food. In animation, the stop motion aesthetic then governed the approach. Although they could do anything in cg, animators tried to remain within the spirit of what could be achieved with clay animation.

Character designs and sweater choices.
Character designs and sweater choices.

“The biggest challenge in emulating the stop-motion aesthetic in cg isn’t just working with a lower frame rate, using depth of field, or even adding the intentional imperfections,” said Burrascano. “To me, the biggest challenge is putting the same amount of craftsmanship, artistry, and attention to detail into our digital process as our practical peers put into theirs.”

“Some aspects that come inherent with the traditional process, such as fibers on clothing and cloth-based materials, or fingerprints and brushstrokes on a clay surface, require special consideration in ours,” added Burrascano.

CG set.
CG set.

“In this case, we were challenged and lucky to have so many characters wearing sweaters. This detail, done well, actually helps sell the tangible quality of the objects, and creates textural contrast with the pseudo hand-sculpted quality of the characters’ heads and hands.”

The spot began airing in November.

LeBron James in cg.
LeBron James in cg.

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