How The Snowman was built

The Snowman – the animation based on Raymond Briggs’s book – enchants audiences of all ages every Christmas. Here the animation’s executive producer, Iain Harvey, describes how the festive favourite was made.

Iain Harvey

The Snowman (1982)

The Snowman (1982)

The magic of The Snowman (1982) is its simplicity and innocence. It is a simplicity that allows anyone and everyone to claim it as their own. The innocence is a reminder of our childhood before life gets too complicated. Children love the magic, adults the purity of the emotion.

I first saw it as artwork, personally delivered to the publishing house where I then worked by Raymond Briggs – far too precious to trust to the mail. Each cellophane protected board seemed – indeed was – a work of art and I still remember the excitement and buzz amongst the editors for this new title. By this time (late 1970’s) Raymond was a bestselling writer/illustrator, with the iconic titles Father Christmas and Father Christmas Goes on Holiday as well as his unforgettable Fungus the Bogeyman, already proving to be worldwide publishing successes. The contrast could not have been more vivid. Indeed, Raymond said that part of his reasoning in “creating” the Snowman was as a form of artistic light relief from the very wordy Fungus. It is not always realised that his artwork is created at the same size as the final book – so each individual panel is a work of art in itself. As the pages of the book are turned, one can feel the release, moving from ten/twelve panels a page to one after another magical full-page spreads, as the (then) nameless boy and the Snowman take off for their adventure to the North Pole.

One irony was that sales of the book were initially very disappointing. Standing and observing in a bookshop (an obsession for all involved in publishing!) revealed one possible reason why: it was very easy to flick through the beautiful pages of artwork in a few moments and feel one had had ‘full value’ from that experience. Another possible reason was that, before the film, parents did not feel confident about ‘reading’ the book to their children at bedtime.

It was some two years later that producer John Coates rang the publishers (with 50,000 unsold copies sitting in the warehouse), expressing an interest in adapting the book for an animated film. We met at a Pizza Express – more than once! – and agreed terms. A year later, when his option was about to expire, I chased him. Another good lunch later, he persuaded me to allow a short extension to enable some development work to be completed.

The Snowman (1982)

The Snowman (1982)

Then a trip to the studio, conveniently next door to the newly formed Channel 4: one of those crazy British creations that, seemingly accidently, helped to transform the British production industry and especially – for 20 years at least – give creative inspiration, and opportunities, to the animation community. That visit was to change my life. What John presented was a short animatic, in this case basically only a cut up version of the book, with a few extra illustrations to flesh out the story. Adding to the magic was a piano track by Howard Blake, including the timeless theme now known as “Walking in the Air”, but at that point wordless.

I virtually ran back to the publishing house. I was lucky enough to get the full support of my managing director and the board (at that time Hamish Hamilton was a totally self-managed company within the Thompson group of companies). I confess I had little idea of how television commissions and television financing of programmes worked though by this time Channel 4 had commissioned the production to be broadcast around their first Christmas on air (1982): we simply followed an instinct and assumed other pre-sales would follow. The irony is that if we had understood the business more fully, we might not have been so gung-ho.

John then introduced me to Dianne Jackson, as the director, and Jimmy Murakami, a wonderfully vibrant Japanese-American with an Oscar nomination to his name, as supervising director. This was a typical example of John’s astuteness: Dianne had never previously directed more than a 30-second commercial and Jimmy was by way of assurance to investors that the production would be in good hands.

Addressing how to extend the picture book proved relatively easy, thanks to the imaginative enthusiasm of the creative team. One of the storyboard artists was a keen motorcyclist (if I recall correctly) and thus the motorbike sequence derived from that. It was at a crucial point in the film. Being wordless, it was vital to keep the action flowing after all the fun and comedy of the boy and the Snowman exploring the house and forming a friendship – and what could be better than a midnight run in a snowy landscape? Crucially, it did not take away from the highlight of the film: the flying sequence, when dreams really did come true. That sequence ends with the Snowman Ball and the meeting with Father Christmas – another obvious emotional highpoint and a great opportunity to introduce many fun variations of snowmen.

The Snowman (1982)

The Snowman (1982)

Whilst Raymond Briggs was kept fully informed of the developments from his book, he was a wonderfully relaxed author that did not try to interfere at all, just occasionally making helpful suggestions to keep us in line.

The flying sequence was also the point when John felt the music should include a song – a not unusual technique for many animated films, but having loved the purity of the wordless book, at first a step we hesitated on. Of course, the song later became a worldwide hit with Aled Jones, but (despite Channel 4 announcing more than once ‘now The Snowman and Aled Jones’), the version on the film was by a St Pauls’ chorister Peter Auty.

Actual production began with a live action shoot in the freezing Sussex countryside for the opening sequences of the film. It was decided (I don’t know why) that Raymond’s duffle coat was not suitable for these scenes, so I ended up without my anorak as Raymond wore it (I still have it). It was at that point that I decided working in animation was more appealing than live action, despite the bacon sarnies that the runner managed to conjure out of nowhere! Another memorable day was spent in the recording studio hearing the full score for the film being played for the first time: the professionalism of British musicians never ceases to amaze me.

The actual production process has long since disappeared with the advent of digital technology. For the record, it started with a pencil storyboard which, shot to length, was the guide-track for the composer. The animation was on paper with pencils, traced or photocopied onto cel. Normally the animators would have to follow the voice track, but in this case they followed the music score, already recorded. Each cel then had to be rendered by hand on the reverse – even now no computer can match the ‘roughness’ of this rendering, giving a much more natural and personal feel to the artwork. It was also necessary to ensure the rendering did not strobe, so the work proved excruciatingly slow. Then the backgrounds, overlaid with the appropriate cels, was shot on a rostrum camera. By ten am the next morning the film would have been processed and a few seconds of the programme viewed on the Steinbeck. Of course, whilst this literally hand-made production process had severe limitations, there was also something intangibly pure in the end result that would be difficult to duplicate in a digital world.

The rest, as they say, is history: despite going way over budget (the rendering by hand of every cell proved to be far more time consuming than anticipated), and bumping up to the last possible delivery date for the very trusting Channel 4, nobody ever lost faith in the production. There was one brief moment of panic when Jeremy Isaacs, head of Channel 4, was acute enough to notice, at a screening of the half-finished film, that the TV set only contained 3 buttons (these were the days when only 3 television channels were actually available in the UK – the clue is in the name of the Channel!)  A hasty re-working of the artwork was done.

The Snowman (1982)

The Snowman (1982)

Whilst we were proud beyond belief of the end result, I don’t think any of us anticipated the incredible newspaper coverage that The Snowman’s first broadcast achieved, helping to cement Channel 4 into the great British Christmas. From the New Year, the phones did not stop ringing and we began to realise the power of what had been created. The Bafta award and an Oscar nomination followed, as well as worldwide sales. As executive producer, I found myself handling, over the next twelve years, every possible combination of interest. One of the more imaginative ideas, which I retain fond memories of, was the agency for the Financial Times hitting upon a poster idea of ‘Noel ….No Comment’ illustrated with a copy of the FT tucked under the arm of the smiling Snowman, alongside the Snowman without a smile and the paper in question: simple, playing on their then advertising line (‘No FT, no comment’), yet beautifully discrete.

A year or so later, we had another piece of luck: the concept of sell-through videos (as they then were) was only first being recognised in the early 1980’s. Putting a mere 30-minute programme on a video did not seem appealing, but our timing proved perfect. There was one irony of the new opportunities being explored: because the video company (Palace Pictures) had no idea themselves of the likely sales, it was contractually insisted that Channel 4 could not broadcast the programme in the year of first release. Now, of course, video companies look to see what exposure will be given to the programme.

The one major market we could not crack was US television. In my ignorance of how TV worked there, I had thought looking up (at a library – no internet then) and then mailing the names and addresses of key US broadcasters would quickly lead to a meeting and/or sale. How wrong I was: programmes needed sponsors, and despite its relative publishing success, The Snowman was unknown.

But we had another piece of luck: whilst making The Snowman, we had also started developing When the Wind Blows with Jimmy Murakami. Through the good offices of Stephen Woolley and leading British producer Jeremy Thomas, we learnt that David Bowie might be interested in being involved on the soundtrack of that film (eventually David gave us the title track song, with Roger Waters composing the rest of the soundtrack). Boldly we asked if David Bowie would be happy to film an intro to The Snowman as a way of raising its profile for a possible US TV sale.

David was more than willing, proving to be a most able collaborator as well as a kind and considerate person: a true delight to work with and, in person, someone with real ‘presence’. The recording, in a simple studio just off Charlotte Street, London, went very smoothly and David was presented with one of the two scarves specially knitted for the occasion (now proudly owned by his son).

Despite David’s fame, we never succeeded in achieving a TV sale to a US major – but this did not stop some channels buying, and more commercially valuable ongoing video sales followed.

The Snowman (1982)

The Snowman (1982)

Of all countries outside the UK, it was Japan that was to take The Snowman most to heart. Somehow the Japanese recognised the simplicity and purity of the film as being very close to their culture. But again, a catalyst was needed to help achieve exposure, and this time it was the importance, for obvious reasons dealing as it did with nuclear war, of When the Wind Blows to the Japanese. The British soundtrack was re-dubbed into Japanese by the highly regarded Nagisa Oshima, who had already directed David Bowie in Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence. Wheels within wheels.

The release of When the Wind Blows lead to an explosion of sales of The Snowman in Japan and, even more commercially valuable, a fast-growing licensing and merchandising programme, ably handled then by The Copyrights Company. In some ways this was the most difficult aspect of managing the success of The Snowman as a commercial property. Just how far do you allow commercial possibilities to mix with such an idealistic and pure programme? Is it right, for example, to encourage children to buy sweets in association with the film? On balance, it seems allowable as it probably does not increase demand per se, but this is a debate with no easy answers.

Now, forty year on from the original publication of the book, The Snowman re-creates its magic every Christmas season. A successful stage adaptation fills the Peacock Theatre in London every year, the TV broadcast has almost as iconic position as the Queen’s Christmas message, and new developments such as ‘The Snowman Experience’ entice new audiences annually. It is a tribute to the very strength of Raymond’s creation that none of this commercial spin-off has seemingly done any harm to the perception of The Snowman as an iconic element of the Christmas season. Though he may melt away, breaking our hearts, such is his purity that he returns with the fresh snows of a new winter.

 

Read more

Further reading

Back to the top

See something different

Subscribe now for exclusive offers and the best of cinema.
Hand-picked.