300 Years of Christmas: Aardman's Gavin Strange

"So we were naturally very, very cautious about setting things on fire!"

by Jamel D. Nelson , AdForum

Gavin Strange
Senior Designer & Director Aardman

Give us an overview of the campaign, what is The Masters of Merry about and what was your role in the creation?
It’s a celebration of Christmas and the lasting impact of the luxury British brand Fortnum & Mason. They’ve been around for over 300 years (how amazing is that!?) and while many, many things have changed in those three centuries, some things haven’t; like Christmas, and Fortnum’s role in celebrating it and being a staple of these festive times!

I’m proud to say I was Director on the spots, which consisted of one 45 second master film and then 3 additional 15 second ‘mini’ spots. The campaign was spearheaded by Fortnum’s creative agency Otherway, and we, at Aardman, worked with them both to bring the films to life!
Was the brief for this holiday campaign any different that than the usual? What challenges did that present?
The brief was different yes, and that’s all down to Fortnum’s and its history. To be around for so long, to see the world change so much in three hundred years. The challenge was showing so much history, in such a short time, whilst not becoming a history lesson. Another challenge was balance: balancing archive footage and stills, balancing the presentation of Fortnum & Mason through the ages, and yet making it festive and most importantly: merry!

Just choosing which pieces of epic history to show was a challenge in itself. If you think of how many incredible accomplishments or events there have been, picking what to focus on was something we spent a lot of time on. It was so nice to just get lost digging through stunning images and footage from days gone by. It was inspiring.
What inspired you to approach the campaign this way?
It came from working with Otherway and Fortnum & Mason, understanding what they wanted to get out of the campaign and what they wanted to say, and more importantly, for the viewers to feel. It was a real mixed-media affair too: there’s archive stills, archive footage, 2D animation, VFX enhancements and live-action, all mixed together!

That was a nice way to work, because we were working with such a huge span of time, the variety in even things like image formats and sizes through the ages meant that the whole film could reflect that variety and mixed media approach.
What’s a “behind the scenes” story that only you know about?
The Christmas pudding we set alight burned so intensely that it totally shattered the glass plate it was sitting on. Also, we shot that in the boardroom of gorgeous Fortnum’s store. So we were naturally very, very cautious about setting things on fire!
Are there any holiday ad tropes that you think should be retired by now?
My mum always said “if you can’t think of anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all”, so I’d never dare be so disparaging to a trope, especially when you never know when you might end up using one yourself!
What is your favorite holiday campaign of all time?
That’s a good question! The John Lewis ‘The Bear and The Hare’ was stunning wasn’t it, a sublime piece of animation. Sainsbury’s ‘1914’ ad was really beautiful too, the one about the Christmas truce. They’re the best campaigns, the ones that make you feel something, eliciting a real human response, something genuine.
What can we expect from your agency in 2019?
Lots! I love where I work! Aardman always has something new and exciting up its sleeve. Right now the studio is working on its next feature film, Shaun the Sheep Movie: Farmageddon. We just finished up our first large scale video game ’11-11: Memories Retold’, released on Xbox One, PS4 and PC, so expect more ambitious projects like that. Our Commercials and Short Form department is always busy too, there’s always new campaigns coming out and there’s one in particular, one that I can’t say anything about, but that it’s something brand new for us in a lot of different ways… watch this space!
What do you think the advertising industry's New Year’s resolution should be?
Aardman recently announced that it’s handing over 75% of its shares over to the employees, so we’re now ‘Employee Owned’, a move that was affectionately titled by a journalist as ‘compassionate capitalism’. I’d love to see more of that from the ad industry - using it’s skills to make compassionate, thoughtful and ethical bodies of work.