The Greatest Gift – Behind the scenes of Sainsbury’s ‘warm and magical’ Christmas advert

While most of us have spent 2016 debating Brexit and Donald Trump, the director behind this year’s Sainsbury’s Christmas advert has been working tirelessly to create a festive masterpiece.

When we were off enjoying our summer holidays, Sam Fell and his team of elves were designing and making hundreds of tiny characters, props and scenes to bring The Greatest Gift to life.

The advert uses the traditional technique of stop-motion, where physical objects are moved between frames – often 25 times per second – and the animation is captured frame by frame to create the illusion of movement.

Kew resident and Academy Award-nominated animator and director Sam said: “There’s something warm and magical about the handmade, and stop-motion is basically an inanimate object coming to life.

“This kind of magic is exactly what Christmas is all about.”

Sam is already a big name in the animation world as he was the mastermind behind children’s films Flushed Away and The Tale of Despereaux, and the award-winning ParaNorman in 2012.

But when he was approached earlier this year, Sam could see the unique opportunity of creating a Christmas advert.

He said: “We all knew this was very special, to create something everyone is going to see, so we crammed it full of detail and quality and worked extra hard to make it perfect.”


Packed full of festive spirit, the advert uses catchy lyrics written by Bret McKenzie to send out the message that the greatest gift you can give at Christmas is spending time with loved ones.

“I do identify with Dave, the character in the ad, because I didn’t get enough time to spend with my family this summer, as I was so busy working on the advert,” Sam said.

“But thankfully I’ll get a nice break over Christmas.”

While Christmas seemed like a distant memory for most of us, Sam began working on the advert around April.

“It was a collaborative effort with the advertising agency, and Bret,” he said.

“We spent maybe three or four months going back and forward – Bret would write bits of the song, and then I would make storyboards, and we would find out what did and didn’t work.”

Despite starting work early in the year, the intricate advert had so many different components that time was still tight.

“The key to working under pressure is making decisions as soon as you can, and having the courage to believe in those decisions,” he said.

Stop-motion takes a long time to come together but surprisingly Sam admits he’s not very patient.

He said: “The people shooting the food scenes for the second advert were in the studio next door, and I got a bit jealous because they did it all in about five days whereas we were shooting for eight weeks.”

While many might see stop-motion animation as antiquated and associated with old-fashioned children’s TV programmes like Wallace and Gromit and Bagpuss – stop-motion continues to innovate.

In the advert the team printed 800 different facial expressions for Dave using 3D printing.

They also combined the stop-motion with other elements – using a green screen for the wide shots in the film, and using map painting and visual effects to make the world feel bigger.

He said: “A lot of people thought stop-motion would die out, but I don’t think it ever will, as long as it keeps inventing.

“It has a certain charm that will continue to fascinate.”

Despite being an actor and presenter, James Corden was chosen to sing in the advert due to his fun persona.

“We did consider some other people, but we decided we wanted more of an actor than a singer – although James is a great singer too,” Sam explained.

“The story is about an everyman, and James is a very warm and personable character.

“He seems like the bloke next door so he was the perfect choice.”

James’ success on The Late Late Show in the USA means the advert has received some press coverage in the states, which is unusual for a British supermarket brand.

Although there is the obvious shadow of other big brands releasing their mini-film Christmas adverts – John Lewis and M&S also invest highly in their festive advertising – Sam said he was unaffected by this rivalry.

He said: “There is competition between the brands and advertising agencies, but for me, I just like making good films.”

“Seeing it all come together was a big relief,” Sam said.

“I’m really pleased.”

Featured image courtesy of Sainsbury’s via YouTube, with thanks

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