Sainsburys are known for their sumptuous, brilliantly produced Christmas commercials, but few would have suspected that this year's offering would be a joke-laden, Dickens/St Nick origin story.

Utilising all of the benefits a big-budget execution like this offers, Pulse director Ninian Doff and Stitch editor Leo King set about injecting every frame with comedic touches and visual flair, adding to the already-rich story Wieden+Kennedy's creative team had created.

We caught up with both Doff and King to chat about how they added an anarchic edge to traditional festive fluffy fare.

Sainsbury's – Nicholas The Sweep

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Ninian Doff, Director - Pulse Films

When did you first get involved in the Sainsbury’s campaign?

I got the script back in July from Wieden+Kennedy London. I know this sounds like PR waffle but genuinely it was one of the best scripts I've read. It was so ambitious and funny and smart. I got very, very excited and immediately set off to assassinate all the other directors pitching on it.

Is this your first big Christmas work? Did you feel the pressure?

The Christmas Advert window is both amazing and difficult. It's amazing because there's now this unique area in commercials in which brands are actively wanting creative, large scale storytelling. Christmas ads are rarely about flogging a specific product but instead about making you feel something, often in the form of a good story. So, it's an amazing and unique area in which it's the client pushing for big, bold, cinematic ideas and execution. 

But yeah, the difficult side of it is that obviously there's so many eyes on it and so much expectation which ups the pressure. 

It is mad that all the big mainstream newspapers now even write articles about the Christmas ads.

It is mad that all the big mainstream newspapers now even write articles about the Christmas ads, it's become a total part of culture and I feel sorry for ad agencies every year having to keep trying to deliver to that expectation! 

Having said that, though obviously it wasn't a total breeze from start to finish (there where some late nights in the edit for sure) the whole thing was such a good experience for me. 

I felt totally aligned creatively with the agency, everyone was on the same page, which made all parts of the process really enjoyable. There was a lot of trust and encouragement for me to do my thing even though it was such a mega job.

Above: Doff on set.

How full-on was the prep? The production design looks really intricate, so we can imagine it must have taken a lot of work.

This was crewed more like a movie than a commercial. Jon Henson came on board as production design who, as well as lots of commercials, has done tons of big films. 

We found a backlot in Romania which was a curious mix of ye olde England, the wild west and Boston in the Victorian era! But Jon was amazing at knowing exactly what needed to be built and changed to bring it all into Victorian London. He built the whole shop into it, added pavements and lamp posts - as well as all the bespoke props we needed. He was also really good at reminding people how muddy Victorian London was, so it was a funny day when literally tons of mud arrived on set and got poured all over the beautiful space! But he was totally right, it immediately made it a real living space, not a false movie backlot. 

It turns out tons of mud is the secret.

I wanted the policeman to have a different whistle for every crime, so his whole coat is covered with tons of different whistles on chains.

Selina Wong did costume for us and was brilliant. I love costume and getting into details there too. She made an amazing outfit for the policeman. I wanted him to have a different whistle for every crime, so his whole coat is covered with tons of different whistles on chains. 

Details like that no one really notices, but I do really believe you also subliminally feel it when they're not there. It's so good getting life and character into all areas of the story, you feel that richness.

Finally, in ultimate movie crews Jon Mathieson came on as our DP. His IMDB is so insane it'll make you laugh. Having a double Oscar nominated DP on board was pretty mind blowing and again his experience in how to shoot that back-lot space, so it felt real, and tell the story, was invaluable. 

Also, the challenge of making mid 30-degree summery days feel like winter!

How much input did you have in the spot’s content? Did you have to convince the client to accept some of the cheekier elements, or was that up to the agency?

It was a really good collaboration. Firstly though, it was all there in the script already. When I first read it, you could feel how much attention and thought had gone into it. It was so well thought out structurally and the story telling was all there. 

What was amazing though was the creatives (Tom Bender, Tom Corcoran, Tomas Coleman and Mat Kramer) as well as the Creative Directors (Dan Norris and Ray Shaughnessy) didn't treat this script as some perfect holy entity that couldn't be messed with. Everyone was very keen and encouraging to add, chop and change if it served the story. So, I streamlined some scenes to get it shorter and added lots of visual touches like the Gotcha Stick the Jail master uses, the Sleigh Jail Nick is put in, the bonkers Clementine bite from the work master and the snow forming the Santa hat. 

But the characters, the drama, great jokes like the "give him a fair trial" and moments like the witch where all in the original script already. 

In terms of the client I think everyone wanted the mega Christmas feels mixed with surprising, and even irreverent, touches. I think it was really smart - even the public is now wise to the clichés of a saccharine Christmas advert, so I think it treats the audience with a bit more respect to push it and play with it, but then still be unashamedly Christmassy! 

How was the shoot? Any hurdles to overcome?

The shoot was in Romania in peak summer. I think it was like 35 degrees one day and everyone is in winter coats! We actually had special ice vests the cast could wear under their clothes to help them not burst into flames. It was a great shoot though, very ambitious - it was all shot in four days - but we made it and I was delighted with the performances and how it looked (shout out to Pulse Films, Producer George Saunders, PM Ben Burdock and Rob Blishen's scheduling magic in making this shoot actually somehow work!). 

At the heart of it is a nine-year-old boy who has to be really good on the day, and Chris who we cast had pretty much never done any film/tv/commercials before! So, I wouldn't call it a hurdle, but I was aware the whole thing collapses if he isn't good. 

I just love shooting stuff like this. I'm basically giddy the whole time. I know it's corny but every minute, every shot, is a joy for me. 

Thankfully, he smashed it out the park, total pro and a very smart kid. He was very interested in talking about "film acting vs theatre acting" and amazingly understood the difference and could do small nuanced moments which is so hard for child actors. I was really impressed.

What was your favourite moment on set?

I just love shooting stuff like this. I'm basically giddy the whole time. I know it's corny but every minute, every shot, is a joy for me. 

A favourite moment though might actually be shot one, on day one. We started the whole shoot on the opening wide - camera cranes down on the busy square with horses and carts and tons of extras and our amazing work master and sweeps coming out the alley. 

As I saw that unfold for the first time on my monitor I had a real "holy shit, we're actually doing this, and it looks really good!" moment.

How long was the post-production process? How much was captured in-camera and how much was augmented?

The beauty of the backlot was we did have a 360 physical space to shoot in which was a gift, but that's not to say this doesn't have A LOT of post magic and love added to it! Time Based Arts did the post and their work is always top top top notch and once again here they did such amazing work. 

In the city scenes they extended roads and buildings, brought in distant mountains, added snow and cold breath and tons of other detail. Then of course out in the wilderness we physically built a few trees in the snow in a studio, but everything else you see is entirely created by TBA. Including a Victorian "London" that has a ye olde Shard and London Eye in it! 

We start bleaker and greyer which means that lovely sharp winter light at the end is really refreshing and well earned. 

Big shout out to TBA and also Leo King at Stitch who did great on the edit.

The film has very distinct uses of colour. Did it take a while to balance that properly, so it would achieve the desired result?

The fun of something like this is you're basically making a feature length movie that only lasts a couple of minutes (or even just 90 seconds for the TV version). So, one of the ways of feeling that scale and journey is definitely through colour. We start bleaker and greyer which means that lovely sharp winter light at the end is really refreshing and well earned. 

The look was set with John Mathieson, and then Lewis Crossfield at TBA did the beautiful grade.

What's your favourite moment from the film?

I just love the cast. Everyone felt like my daydreams manifested into reality! Just perfect. Shout out to Kharmel Cochrane Casting. I think though if I was going to turn anyone into an action figure it'd be the jail master. Adil Akram played him so well, and the whistles and chain laden costume, the bespoke Gotcha Stick and that massive hat with hand-sewn logo on it is just one of those moments where as a director you really feel like you got to the place you wanted with an idea. 

So, weirdly, in a spot filled with so much fun and wonder, the simple shot of Adil looking down saying "ho ho ho" might be my favourite bit.

Now you’d made the origin story for Father Christmas, which other mystical figure would you like to prequelise?

Boris Johnson. And it's a horror film. 

What are you after for Christmas?


Leo King, editor - Stitch Editing

When do you start working on a big, Christmas production like this? Do you get involved at any point in pre-production or is it only after the film’s been shot?

As soon as Ninian was confirmed on the job, a couple of months ago, we started talking about his ideas. He then got the whole thing roughly storyboarded and he cut together a test animatic.

We then went through all of this together as it was coming out at about 4 minutes to see if we could tighten it up! We also discussed how to cover off scenes to make them as efficient and funny as possible!

What’s the starting point on a project like this? Do you work towards the 2:30 version, then consider cut-downs later or is it a case of building each cut up separately?

It was only ever meant to be a 90” and our first proper polished edit was 3 minutes long. We presented it to the agency who loved it, but then we started the hard task of making the whole story fit into 90 seconds. This is where we spent a lot of our efforts as we wanted to retain the comedy and charm from the longer length, plus there’s a lot of narrative beats we needed to hit. 

Once everyone was happy with the 90” we revisited the 3 minute edit, as it was feeling a little indulgent and applied some of the shavings and tightenings we’d learnt form cutting the shorter lengths and got it to 2 min 30”. 

The end film is actually 2 mins 32” as once all the post was done we gave a couple of shots a few extra frames so the shot could be properly enjoyed.

Despite the longer running time, the film crams a lot of plot in its duration. How do you balance between pushing the story forward and focusing on the luscious production design and shot choices?

The way my process works, is the first cut I put together has all the jokes, all the narrative beats and every shot is held to enjoy it all... then you look at the time length! 

For me the story is absolutely key, so there’s certain narrative beats you have to hit no matter what time length you need to get it down to.

Once you start tightening up the scenes and the jokes, they generally get better, so when you look back at your first edit it always feels a bit indulgent. 

For me the story is absolutely key, so there’s certain narrative beats you have to hit no matter what time length you need to get it down to.

What's your favourite moment from the film?

I think it has to be Mr fair trial man…. I loved this from the moment Ninian acted it out in his video treatment!

You’ve worked with Ninian in the past - how important is it to have a good relationship between director and editor? What works with you and Ninian?

I always enjoy working with Ninian. As he has a post background, he always shoots with the edit in mind, so everything feels very considered. He has a great ability to inject humour into every scene where possible and I always love the little irreverent and often weird touches! 

I think the editor, director relationship is so important in making a film be the best it can be. It’s often about both of you discovering the correct tone of the film and then following that through in every way possible. 

You have to trust each other and constantly bounce ideas off each other.

What are you after for Christmas?

I’m off Northern light spotting in Iceland in February with the wife (and no kids!) so I need extra warm hats, gloves and Christmas socks!