This holiday season, viewers of Disney+ have been treated to the festive film, Dashing Through the Snow. Cinesite Montréal team delivered 150 VFX to this magical tale.
“Ludacris” stars as Eddie Garrick, a good-hearted man who has turned his back on Christmas. Faced with the wrath of local politician Conrad, Eddie and his daughter meet a mysterious, red suited man named Nick (Lil Rel Howery). Together, while escaping the bad guys, they are taken on a magical adventure which restores Eddie’s faith in Christmas.
In a sequence towards the end of the movie, Eddie and Nick are cornered by Conrad and his gang. Eddie summons Nick’s reindeer to help them with his reindeer caller. Looking towards the night sky a faint, aurora-like glow appears, increasing in intensity until we see a set of bright tracks snaking through the clouds. This is followed by a sleigh driven by a team of leaping, flying reindeer. The tracks shine up into the dark sky, glowing and sparkling as they lead the sleigh down to the ground. The reindeer team proceeds to take out the team of baddies in a hilarious, slapstick sequence. Cinesite team delivered visual effects for this sequence, along with several others.
CG Supervisor Candice Arzic contends, “These shots were probably our greatest challenge. It’s the viewer’s first glimpse of magic, where we first see the light through the clouds and reindeer for the very first time, so it needed to be perfect.”
The lights which herald the reindeers’ approach have two themes and drew upon two different references. The first was the warm peach and blues of sunsets. The second was the aurora borealis, which always appears directly in front of the reindeer. The more subtle sunset colours are seen first, intensifying into the pinks and greens of the aurora as the reindeer near. The clouds were added in multiple layers, with God rays emitting through thinner areas, and denser areas glowing gently. The team needed to carefully consider how the aurora might impact the clouds, since the phenomenon is usually seen at great distance. There needed to be a careful balance between realism and magic at all times.
The glitter emitting from the rails of light as they travel beside the sleigh was also carefully conceived, with the team establishing its duration, how quickly and far it would travel vertically, and how it would behave when disturbed by the flying reindeer.
The complex reindeer asset was built like a real animal, complete with skeleton, muscles, fat, skin and fur. The team adapted eight different reindeer from one central asset, complete with variations of form and texture. Details established during the research phase were added, including the characteristic lolling tongue when the creatures are running. Rigging and animation worked closely together on these finer details.
Once the sleigh has landed, the performance of the reindeer in the fight scene was another important challenge, requiring them to perform hilarious feats which would be unnatural for real creatures. The movement of horses, cows and even bulls was drawn upon to achieve this behaviour. It was also necessary to develop a look for how the reindeer might gallop, or fly through the sky, whilst achieving a convincing sense of weight for what are essentially very large animals.
The reindeer are seen extremely close-up in several shots, so the fur needed to stand up to close scrutiny. Reindeer fur clumps in a characteristic way, with a gradient and texture change from root to tip. The longer hair along the creatures’ necks and flanks also needed to part and move convincingly. This was achieved through rigorous testing in pipeline and groom development.
Details like the reindeers’ eyes were also faithfully rendered. Candice imparts, “During our research we were fascinated to discover that their eyes change colour in the cold season. Throughout Summer they are golden but in Winter develop a deep blue glint, a feature that we had great fun in reproducing.” The team also added breath effects from the reindeers’ noses, to enhance realism or add comedy to their performance at key moments during the fight. These were achieved as 2D effects in compositing.
Snow features throughout the visual effects, both on the ground and falling from the sky. “With our studio being based in Montréal, one thing we know well is snow!” notes Candice. “We started working on the snow in December when it had not started falling. But by January when it was thick, on every outing we were looking closely at it, in all its forms and qualities. For example, when you see snow falling through streetlights it seems to have a kind of halo. Also, it looks as though the snow is falling more heavily in the beams from the lights. These are all details that we added. Finally, we often added a slight shimmer effect to the snow, a little glitter to make it stand out and fit with the magical mood.”
Dashing through the snow was released on Disney+ on 17th November 2023. VFX Supervision was by Dusan Struger and Jaideep Mohan, and VFX Producer was Natasha Pereiro. The film was directed by Tim Story.