WHEN the late producer John Coates first suggested to Hilary Audus that she direct a sequel to The Snowman, her initial response was understandable: “I said thank you very much John. No pressure then…”
Her reticence was to be expected. She had worked as an animator on the Oscar-nominated original, which was also produced by Coates, and which remains one of the best-loved pieces of animation of all time. How on earth could you follow it?
For starters, with the permission of author and illustrator Raymond Briggs, who wrote The Snowman, the book on which the 26-minute film – which has become as much a part of Christmas as arguing over the last roast potato – was based. He agreed to the sequel, The Snowman and The Snowdog, which will be shown on Christmas Eve to mark 30 years since the original film was first broadcast.
In total, eight people involved in the 1982 film came on board for the sequel, so it was, says Audus, “in safe hands”. Joining her at the helm was art director Joanna Harrison who also worked as an animator on the first film, for which she and Audus had to expand on Briggs’ original story. Scenes including the party at the north pole with all the other snowmen were their idea.
“This was a hell of a challenge, but we didn’t feel it was untouchable because we’d touched it to begin with,” says Harrison, referencing the additions made to Briggs’ story. When The Snowman was created, a second film, about castles, was being made in their studio at the same time. All the male animators were dispatched to work on the castles project, leaving Audus and Harrison to work on The Snowman relatively unsupervised.
“It was very rare in animation to have women animators. It still is,” says Harrison. “When we worked on the first project we were ‘the girls’. It was a very male environment really. The directors and producers used to go out for lunch a lot and we were just left to get on with it so we had total freedom. No-one told us what to do. We just got on with it. Now on this film, we’re ‘the ladies’.”
They both laugh. The Snowman and The Snowdog also has two women producing it; Ruth Fielding and Camilla Deakin, both of whom were huge fans of the original. We are all meeting today in the small office of Lupus Films in Islington, where the magic happens.
Pencil sketches of The Snowman running and twirling are hastily tacked up on the wall. One large poster is entitled “concerning freckles” and gives precise instructions to ensure their placement is consistent in drawings.
The 200,000 hand drawings that make up the film are in the process of being categorised and packed away into boxes. There are folders and labels, shelves and spreadsheets, stickers, charts and boxes, all designed to keep track of them and keep them in order.
Each one is carefully finished using coloured pencil on paper and each one is seen by the viewer for just a fraction of a second, but as they’re being packed away, the animators handle them lovingly, setting aside a few special ones, which have been framed.
Others are more abstract looking, less showstopping, but many are remarked upon as they bring back memories of the year-long process of making the film. A dark, icy background image features footprints in the snow. A shot of a hallway has a portrait on the wall of one of the animators, all of whom feature in there somewhere, as do some family members.
At the centre of the story is a little boy called Billy who is based on Deakin’s son. Billy’s mother is based on Deakin herself. Similar references were made in the first film. The motorbike that featured in it was based on one belonging to Harrison’s boyfriend at the time, while the Scottish snowman, who wears a kilt and a Glengarry bonnet was her grandmother’s suggestion.
“I had a Scottish grandmother who lived in Elie, and with the first Snowman she said, ‘Can you put a Scottish snowman in there?’ So she’s responsible for the one with the kilt, who comes back in the second film by popular demand.” Her grandmother’s false teeth also made a cameo in the first film: “I had to ask her to take them out so I could draw them.”
The sequel has Billy living in the same house as James, the boy in the first film. He finds a box under the floorboards containing a photograph of James with the Snowman as well as his hat, scarf, nose and eyes. He decides to build another one, but this time makes a snowdog as well. They come to life and the trio go adventuring.
The Snowman was created using animation cel - a clear acetate sheet which is back-painted before the texture is scratched onto the front using wax crayons – while the follow-up uses coloured pencils on paper. Getting it hand drawn in Britain was one of the biggest challenges for the creators, since it would have been quicker and cheaper to either make it on a computer or outsource the hand drawing to animators abroad.
“We were always conscious of the legacy,” says Deakin. “We loved watching The Snowman when we were young and we know everybody loves it so we wanted to make sure that we made it in an animation style that was true to the original. We always felt that a new generation would love the fact that it was hand-drawn. When the Pixar movies came out they were a novelty, but now kids are so used to that that it’s just the norm, so for our film to come out hand-drawn, that’s a novelty.”
“You’ve got no middle man, adds Harrison. “You don’t have the computer in the middle doing its thing. It’s just such a pure way of drawing and animating, and all the little mistakes and the idiosyncratic bits and pieces makes it so much more charming. You can almost see how it’s done. You can see that it’s a series of drawings. A pencil mark or a little bit of dust…”
When they animated the first film, Audus and Harrison (who says she is sometimes known as “the Snowlady”) had no way of knowing what a phenomenon it would become, that it would be shown on Channel 4 each Christmas and that it would help to define Christmas for millions of children. Asked why they think it’s so well-loved they have a few theories.
“I think it was a very cynical time when it came out in the 1980s,” says Harrison, “and The Snowman was just this breath of innocence and truth, in a way. When Channel 4 started out they had a lot of controversial programming so they wanted something that was the complete opposite, which is one of the reasons they commissioned The Snowman, because it was so gentle and sweet. But with an edge to it.”
“It’s a very simple story,” adds Audus. “The look of it was totally different and the flying sequence was something no-one had seen before. It had a wonderful score and a very poignant story. People aren’t used to crying at the end of a story so I think it was a big shock that it had a really sad ending.”
Does the ending of The Snowman and The Snowdog mirror the touching conclusion the its predecessor? You’ll have to tune in on Christmas Eve to find out, but suffice to say, the new film will enchant children while making a few cheeky nods to the original for their parents; a Rubik cube in an old toy box, the same stool used to build the first snowman and that motorbike, now abandoned in the shed.
The opening credits also reflect the first film. It’s the same shot, but the landscape has changed in 30 years. In one scene a little girl is seem through a window playing with her stuffed toy Snowman, a reference to the popularity of the first film. However the weight of the original doesn’t bear down on the sequel. They are similar but separate and those who were charmed by the first will no doubt be charmed by the second.
Still, everyone involved knows just what they’ve taken on. “A lot of people loved ‘Snowman 1’ so much,” says Harrison. “They were brought up with it and brought their children up with it and it’s all part of Christmas. It’s really a hard act to follow. It’s a huge responsibility.”
• The Snowman And The Snowdog is on Channel 4 at 8pm on Christmas Eve. (The Snowman is on C4 At 6.25pm tomorrow)