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‘A story in 3 minutes’: the magic and mechanics behind Disney’s Christmas ad

Disney’s Christmas charming Christmas ad is inspired by the themes of traditions and family togetherness in a year that has upended both. Exploring the relationship between a Gran and her Granddaughter, the animation is certain to tug at the heartstrings. The entertainment giant’s brand and creative marketing director for EMEA, explains its year-long creative and production process.

Disney is the latest brand to have launched a Christmas ad, unveiling a three-minute animated short film which tells the story of a grandmother, her granddaughter and the family traditions that connect them through the years.

Running across 26 markets in Europe, as well as Australia, New Zealand, North America and parts of Asia, ‘From Our Family To Yours’ holds the same production values as any Pixar movie would.

Based on insight from consumers that traditions, family and nostalgia were the most important things to them in the run up to this Christmas, the short sees the introduction of two characters – a grandmother, Lola, and her granddaughter.

The story centres around Lola’s much-loved Mickey Mouse toy, which we see being gifted to her as a young child by her father in 1940. With each passing year, Mickey comes to symbolise Lola’s childhood and a present day connection to her granddaughter, ultimately inspiring a festive surprise on Christmas morning.

Disney’s in-house team started working on the ad last December, explains Angela Affinita, brand and creative marketing director at Disney Consumer Products, Games and Publishing in EMEA.

“We knew having a story that placed tradition and togetherness at its heart would make it feel relevant and relatable to people all over the world,” she says, pointing to the fact that amid the pandemic a focus on these was “more crucial than ever” for the brand.

If you’ve watched Float, Bao or any other saccharine Disney short Pixar, you’ll recognize that ‘From Our Family to Yours’ bears the same hallmarks – convincing animation, impeccable attention to detail and a compelling narrative arc that takes viewers on a journey of ups and downs with the characters.

“We approached this in a similar way we would a Disney short,” says Affinita. “We only had three minutes to tell the story and we had to place the characters at its core.”

Early creative testing with focus groups showed the brand that this story was one that “definitely had universal appeal,” she explains.

The ad closes off a year which has seen the monolith close its flagship parks and stores, dock cruise ships, take a hit on sporting events via ESPN, and shutter blockbuster productions amid social distancing restrictions. However, the House of Mouse has still been generating revenue gains owing to its in-home entertainment offering, with revenue in the most recent quarter clocking in at $18bn, up 21% year-on-year. Subscriptions to its freshly-launched Disney+ service also hit 60 million in August.

The brand will be hoping its Christmas effort keeps it top of mind for those under a ‘stay-at-home’ order in the run up to the festive season and beyond.

A ‘labour of love’ and artistry

Production for the Christmas ad kicked off in April, with Disney working alongside specialist New Zealand-based animation studio Flux to develop the story.

The animators used a standard 3D pipeline as used in feature length productions. The team also did a “huge amount” of research, from reviewing archive imagery to using personal experience.

One example of this is Lola’s living room, where viewers are transported into something familiar, full of treasured possessions and family photos – this was drawn on research conducted by the designers with their own grandmothers about how they’d build up their photo and trinket collections over the years. Affinita also drew on her own experiences growing up with her Filipina grandmother

For the past six months, specialist animators across the world have been working on all the shots featured in the ad, developing versions of Lola and her granddaughter from through the ages, as well as their little dog.

Since the project spanned the globe, collaborating amid lockdowns and pandemic restrictions didn’t present too many challenges in the end, says Affinita. “Due to time differences [the artists in New Zealand could share updates at their end of day, we could review and then feedback, so it became a seamless operation.”

She adds: “The level of detail they have put into this has blown me away. It’s been a real labour of love for the artists involved, from the development of background to the characters.”

The ad is also dialogue-free because the brand wanted it to “resonate across Europe regardless of the local language.” The score, ‘Love is a Compass’, was specially recorded by UK artist and Ivor Novello Rising Star nominee, Griff. Sales of the single will be donated to longtime Disney charity partner, Make-A-Wish.

Hidden ‘Easter Eggs’ for Disney fans

The Disney team even placed references around the spot as a “treat” for big Disney fans – including a clip of its upcoming ‘Once Upon a Snowman’ short; a snow globe with Disneyland Paris in its centre; a collection of Marvel, Star Wars and Disney DVDs; and a stack of National Geographic magazines tucked away on Lola’s shelf.

“Hidden Mickeys” are also scattered throughout – something Affinita says was borrowed from the Disneyland park designers (or “imagineers”) who ”love hiding them” in Disney’s parks.

“We chose these for several reasons, says Affinita. “The first is that Lola’s love of Disney begins from the moment she receives her first Mickey Mouse soft toy in the opening scenes, so it is likely that she would have several of these possessions which have accumulated over the years.

“The second supports the animator’s vision of a grandmother’s house being filled with trinkets and personal mementos.”

Finally, she adds, part of Disney’s strategy for its marketing campaigns is to support a range of products across all its franchises, “so this was also a great opportunity to do that.”

“The ad for me is such a great reflection of the bonds between families. We all have unique traditions, especially at Christmas, so being able to draw on my own experience with my Filipina grandmother and the making of star lanterns to bring a level of authentic creativity is pretty special.

“One of my favourite moments is when Lola hangs the finished lantern in the window, which recalls some wonderful memories for me.”

To celebrate the theme of festive family traditions, Disney is encouraging fans to head to Facebook, Instagram or Twitter to share their own past and present festive memories using #LoveFromDisney. For each special memory shared, Disney will donate $1 to Make-A-Wish, up to the sum of $100,000.

You can watch the ad in full below.