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Throughout Netflix’s big holiday sequel The Christmas Chronicles 2, there are plenty of impressive sights to see when Kurt Russell’s Santa and Goldie Hawn’s Mrs. Claus make their way through another holiday of mishaps and mayhem. Part of those wondrous visions are thanks to the work of the special effects masters at Weta Digital, a studio that’s helped many visionary directors bring worlds to life in films like The Lord of The Rings franchise, James Cameron’s Avatar movies, and Robert Rodriguez’s Alita: Battle Angel. But rather than keep things 100% digital in director Chris Columbus’s sequel to The Christmas Chronicles, there was an insistence that practical elements also be used on set so as to aid the performances of the actors all the better.
On behalf of CinemaBlend, and in celebration of the release of The Christmas Chronicles 2, I was given the honor to speak with not only with Visual Effects Supervisor Martin Hill, but also with the actor who played the mischievous villain Belsnickel, Julian Dennison. Through our conversation, I learned a lot about several aspects to last year’s follow-up to The Christmas Chronicles 2, and the outrageous set-pieces employed to one-up its predecessor. After hearing the following story from Hill about one of the most outrageous cases of CGI and practical reference colliding on this project, I have to admit that the effects used to bring Jola, the Yule Cat to life sounded the most impressive. Said the filmmaker,
I think it’s really fun, with CG effects, as much as possible to use real physical interaction. It really helps with the integration. So the shots we had, when Jola comes up and gives [Julian] a big lick we had a puppeteer with a massive Jola head; and I said to them, ‘Give him a decent shove. You know, this cat’s like 10 foot tall, it’s going to shove him quite far.’ ... And then he twisted it around, and we had a wet sponge on the other side, that kind of did a lick on his face. It was just great.
Of course Julian Dennison’s Belsnickel is an actor that definitely has the skills to pretend to be licked by a 10 foot tall Yule Cat. It’s almost par for the course, with his resume also including huge effects-driven movies like Deadpool 2and Godzilla vs. Kong. However, when there’s care taken to give an actor as much physical reference as possible, that makes the job all the easier to do. And this is one of the many instances where actual on-set references helped things along, which also included everything from physical rigs that simulated the stirring of hot chocolate by the many CGI elves Santa employed, to a set of gimbals that let Dennison and Kurt Russell look like they were bumping sleighs in a race to see who could control Christmas.
Jola’s lick was another important touch of reality to be included in the filmmaking process, and that lick was almost a bit slimier. Martin Hill had intended to use a mixture that would have been uber sticky for Jola’s sign of affection. That approach was nixed, however, because by time Julian Dennison was filming this moment it was the last shot of the last shooting day. Clean-up time and resetting in-between shots would have taken way too long, so according to Martin Hill the simple approach of using a wet sponge was enacted. It certainly worked for Dennison, as his acting process benefited from those techniques. Said the actor,
I feel like, as an actor, when you work with puppeteers, and characters of CGI, or they’re completely not real… I feel like when you watch some movies, it can seem fake because the actor or the actress doesn’t really try to play it off as real, because they find it hard. I think [WETA] with the puppeteers, made it really easy to do that. As the actor, as the talent, that really helps you kind of see what it was really gonna look like, and it helps you, and your craft. So I just really appreciate it.
Now you might be wondering just why The Christmas Chronicles 2 is coming up at this particular point in time. While it’s true the film was released in time for the holiday season we celebrated at the end of 2020, there’s been a bit of a late breaking story attached to the Kurt Russell/Goldie Hawn film. Recently, franchise producer/sequel director Chris Columbus shared some news in reference to just how well The Christmas Chronicles 2 did on Netflix. More specifically, the following Instagram announcement pertains to the first four weeks of the film’s release last fall, which pegs the viewership at a pretty impressive rate:
Part of that great success came from the effects work that Martin Hill and the folks at WETA Digital did, thanks to practical solutions and computer generated magic that married the practical with the digital. Those imaginative scenarios allowed Julian Dennison’s performance as Belsnickel to shine, no matter what form his character would eventually take in the finished product. And considering The Christmas Chronicles 2 had some wildly different concepts envisioning what his adversarial presence would look and act like, having these tools available only helped imagine the nebulous concept of this major CGI character.
There was still quite a bit of imagination required on Dennison’s part, as even with those references, Jola the Yule Cat was a character that could only be realized by computer aided wizardry. All told, Julian Dennison’s experience was a positive one, as he had the following remarks to offer summing up The Christmas Chronicles 2’s process:
I only really saw his eyes, so I really had to kind of make it up in my head what [he] would actually be like. And the size they could reel in any time they like. … Working with Jola it was difficult because there was nothing there. But they had these giant heads that were super creepy, and you could rip their ears off. So it was like kind of a bald cat, with like a mashed up face. So I could act to that, or just like someone, like the first AD, standing behind the camera. … I had a good experience, he turned out sick. He looks really cool in the movie.
With two entries in the can and a ton of ideas still on the table, there’s still a question of when we’ll be given a confirmation of if and when we should expect The Christmas Chronicles 3 to head to Netflix. Should that very possibility be confirmed, it can almost be certain that Weta Digital will be on hand to keep the action moving, and Julian Dennison’s Belsnickel will get to shine once again. Sixty-one million true believer families can’t be wrong when they support a movie such as this, and Netflix has been good at recognizing that super quickly.