Director Steve Cope shares his experience and challenges of creating the new Smyths Toys Christmas spot. We also get to see some behind the scenes of this magical film...
How did you approach the idea of toys performing in the orchestra and as part of the audience? How much of this was done in-camera and how much was animated?
The idea was to create an amazing extravanganza of a show with toys singing and dancing on stage. For legal reasons (and personally for me morally) you can’t mislead children into believing a toy can do something it can’t. So, the challenge was to create an exciting and engaging film through bringing the toys to life without using CGI. We had to think outside the box and figure out ways to make the film entertaining whilst remaining authentic to the toys. The fun part was using fairly static shots of toys and getting them to interact with the animated hero character Oscar.
The only toys that were fully CGI are the LEGO characters, Wyldstyle and Emmet, it was ok for them to be animated as they are tied into the latest LEGO movie. I shot plates of a real environment and supplied lighting references for LEGO to recreate in CGI.
The toys featured in the film are great, singing Barbies (including one with a prosthetic leg), twerking Llama’s and Forkie! How did you choose which toys were included? Did you spend a lot of time researching and testing the toys?
Many of the toys were are iconic classics; Godzilla, Spiderman and Barbie, whilst some are brand new, having never been seen before. It was all about working with the client and agency to create a mix to show off the range from Smyths. I liked the juxtaposition of a big monster like Godzilla, next to a cute little toy. It was fun coming up with loads of different ideas, everyone particularly liked Forkie covering the eyes of Godzilla to spare him his blushes as Boppi the Llama twerks on the stage. Kids probably wouldn’t get the joke, so it’s one for the parents!
I loved the idea of the haphazard mix of toys coming to life when adults are asleep and then playing dead when they enter the room, which is something we’ve seen over the years in the Toy Story films, and even further back to Hans Christian Anderson. I think that fantasy exists in the minds of most children as they interact with their toys.
I spent a lot of time playing with all the toys in the 2AM office which looked a bit like a toy shop after all the samples turned up! Many hours were spent testing the products, learning how they function and how that could be used within the narrative of the film. For example, Woody & Buzz are voice activated and we discovered they fall over and play dead upon the command of “Quick! Someone’s coming!”. That inspired the ending of the film when Oscar alerts the toys to the Store Manager’s arrival. The office
Where did the inspiration for the auditorium come from? Was this one of the live action elements of the shoot or was it entirely built in post?
We were going to film in a real auditorium, somewhere like the London Palladium or the Royal Albert Hall, but I wanted to create a bespoke sumptuous environment, with red velvet furnishings and golden relief detailing. A mix between the intimacy of the London Palladium and the vast height of the Albert Hall. With this in mind we decided to build part of the stage in a studio and then build all the rest using CGI.
Also Using CGI meant we could design it from scratch, and have complete control. For example we could decide how many tiered balconies we wanted to in turn to resemble the shelves in the Symths Toystore at the end. There was talk early of making it more like a concert arena like the O2, which we could have done, but I’m pleased we kept it to smaller scale, to me it feels more magical.
You’ve got lots of experience combining live action with animation, what appeals to you about this type of work?
When I left art college, my first job was working as a Graphic Designer at the BBC designing title sequences and then directing BBC promos. I’ve always loved the challenge of achieving seamless post production and creating magic on screen. If it’s done well, you shouldn’t even notice it, but when it’s done badly, it’s the first thing that people complain about.
And finally, the song, Beyoncé’s ‘If I were a Boy’ has been re-interpreted to ‘If I were A Toy’, how was the recording session?
It was great fun as we cast a 10-year-old boy to sing the song. I liked him because there wasn’t anything professional about his voice, he belted it out totally un-pretentiously. We recorded the audio at Abbey Road Studios which was great, because it turned out the 10 year old was a big Beatles fan. He walked up to the piano and showed me how to play the opening bars of “Hey Bulldog”, probably on the same piano that Paul McCartney used 40 years before.