It was a special treat to speak to Chris Juen of this week’s release, “Arthur Christmas,” because he also worked on one of my favorite animated films of the past few years, Surf’s Up, as well as the delightful Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs.
What brought you to this project?
Sony and Ardman had a partnership and I could not pass up a chance to work with Ardman. The story reel was super charming and you could tell right away the story was really solid.
The actors in this film are superb, especially Hugh Laurie as Santa’s super-efficient techno-wizard son, Steve. How did you think about voice casting?
Casting is tricky. So-and-so’s a great actor and then you put him next to a character and it doesn’t quite work. We get a group of people we think will work and test them out against scratch models to get rouch performances to see if we can imagine that voice coming from that character. When we find one we really like, we show them the test. Hugh has such a distinct, great voice and it helps to get actors that Ardman is so beloved.
How did Justin Bieber get involved?
Justin Bieber is a late add, but with his Christmas album the timing was a great boost for the film and a great opportunity to show his video.
What is your role on the film?
I’m the co-producer so I worked for Sony pictures and am kind of the day to day operations guy. I have about 15 years with Sony so I am pretty good at knowing how to build the digital pipeline, how to make a movie inside a computer. We had a crew of about 450 to manage.
What makes Ardman (the people behind “Wallace & Gromit”) different?
They’re not afraid of having flawed characters. They love very humanistic flaws. People aren’t perfect. We were trying to figure out how to get that Ardman quality into a CG film. A lot of time in CG you make a perfect character. A lot of time was spent making our characters imperfect. So one side was offset a little bit or one side bigger than the other. It doesn’t feel like it’s clay, but it feels real. I think they do that not only in design but in character. The characters in this movie are very rich.
I loved Mrs. Santa because she kept surprising you.
I wish she had more screen time! She’s the magic behind the magic.
What was the most difficult technical challenge you had on this film?
I think it was the elves. The director wanted a lot of diversity and a lot of options to make it look large scale, millions of elves. There was a logic to it, with the different kinds of elves, their costumes and assignments. It’s what we call a variation pipeline and it was unbelievable.
You have a real commitment to family movies. Where does that come from?
I was lucky enough to work on “The Polar Express” when I was working in visual effects and it was my first chance to work on a whole story. I just loved that process. It’s a more creative process than just visual effects. And it’s amazing what having your own children will do. I want to make films I can take my daughters to see and be proud and have them get something out of them.
What should parents know about this film?
It’s a family movie about families, about characters people will relate to because they’re in they’re own families. And a reminder not to get too wrapped up –
(laughs), that’s right, not get too wrapped up literally or otherwise in the hustle and bustle of the holidays, just do what’s right and spend time with family.