Turning a two decade old concept of a musical fantasy into a reality is a tall order, but production designer Gavin Bocquet was up for the challenge. Inspired by films such as Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, director and writer David E. Talbert sought to create a new holiday classic, one made to help ignite the imaginations of a new generation the same way his had been as a kid. The result was Jingle Jangle, Netflix’s acclaimed Christmas movie that is both classic in sentiment and modern in nature, existing in a world of its own.
The Emmy winner is no stranger to turning the mystical into reality though, having production designed films such as Star Wars Episode I, II, and III, Jack and the Giant Slayer, Kafka, and more. Still, every project is new and for the acclaimed designer, a movie musical was the final frontier. “I have to give thanks to David for trusting me even though I hadn’t done a musical. In your career, you get a bit pigeon-holed, but from a personal point of view, you always want to push your boundaries a bit. And this was different!” He laughs. “It was an extra learning curve—one that made the job even more challenging and exciting.”
Told through a buoyant score and brimming with heart, Jingle Jangle follows a down-on-his-luck toy maker on a journey to reclaim his sense of hope and possibility with the help of his granddaughter.
World building is no easy feat, especially when that world needs to feel immediately recognizable but also completely new. To begin, Bocquet started in reality, finding inspiration in the north of England “David wanted it to be grounded architecturally and physically in something real. We knew the costumes and the hair could be a little more fantastical but we wanted to keep our architecture and our interiors in some sort of Victorian/Edwardian period so it didn’t look like a massive jumble of excitement and color.”
"We had to find a location that we were going for more of the expanded shots that didn’t include dancing. Until we found that location, we couldn’t detail the exact architecture of our town square. I had shot Jack and the Giant Slayer in a cathedral in Norwich a few years ago, and I knew they had this one street: Elm Street. It’s an historic street and really hasn’t been touched since it was built, probably. It hadn’t really changed. It had a few old, little shops, and the nice thing about it is that in that part of England, they tended to paint their buildings in quite soft colors—blues and greens and reds and pinks—so that was really our key.”
With a source location, Bocquet utilized the many tools in his arsenal to imagine the film’s environments, using research, concept artists, card models, and 3D technology to explore what the world of Jingle Jangle could be.
“[On screen], you see film as a flat 2D medium, but we are moving and shooting in a three dimensional environment. Being able to go into these virtual sets to explore space is huge,” Bocquet explains, noting the advancements in movie development and creation. “But in a funny sort of away, I don’t think the job has changed. The tools you have to make it have changed, which gives you more freedom, but still, what you have to do as a designer is stay true to that story and the characters.”
And if creating an awe-inspiring experience was Bocquet’s goal, he succeeded.
“The first time that we bought [Talbert] into the room, when he put the virtual glasses on and he started to walk around the shop, he actually got [emotional] He said he spent years waiting to make this movie, and suddenly he was in there.”
But still, turning designs into the concrete world is a completely different skill set, one with its own set of demands: bringing Christmas to a soundstage, creating sets that are cohesive with the real-world location, and most importantly, making the location habitable for the vast number of actors and dancers to populate.
“You look at problem and you think: what is the best way of solving it visually, and what is the best way of solving it financially? If you can shoot things in camera and they work, it’s a lot cheaper and more effective,” Bocquet shares, explaining the decision to shoot much of the film without a green screen.
And very much like the theatre, creating a world onstage was especially important for the musical numbers of the film. The village needed to feel quaint in appearance but then burst with vibrant energy from the ensemble of performers bringing it to life, creating an immersive town feeling for the audience. While using digital technology to bring those shots to life wasn’t the solution, building a four-sided set was too expensive.
The answer: creating one side of the town square with a 90 foot backdrop, a visual slight-of-hand as movie magic met the tricks of the stage. “We photographed a lot of the buildings in Norwich individually and literally Photoshopped them into this 90 foot backing. It’s one of these classic things!” he laughs. “It’s sort of a thankless job. People only notice if it didn’t work!”
Though the town square is rooted in reality, most of the film's astonishing elements come from the Jingle Jangle’s center piece: Jeronicus’ toy shop, "Jangles and Things." Jeronicus’ shop needed to be introduced as a grandiose and eye-popping wonderland but then, in a matter of days, be transformed by production staff into the decrepit pawnbroker shop for the main events of the film.
"The prop master and the concept artist were brilliant. We gave everybody free reign to come up with ideas for a while, and David would throw in his ideas. We had three levels: foreground, midground, and background. So we knew the background would be a little looser just to have a little bit of movement. The ones in the foreground what would be doing more things. And if you look in the shop, a lot of those toys aren’t doing very much. They’re either spinning around or going up and down.
“Because the idea originated as a stage musical, we tried to make sure the shop and the town square felt like you were looking at it from the audience," Bocquet shares, a technique to curate the viewers experience in the energetic world of the movie. "Where as a lot of musical [films] have been quite cutty, when you see some of the dancing in the shop, you’re quite static. Not for long periods, but you definitely get the feeling that you could be the in the audience looking at a proscenium arch."
It’s a marvel to listen to Bocquet talk about his work. For as much wonder as he inspired, he seems to also have been moved by the experience of working on the film and what he was able to create. “We all think it is a bit of miracle any time [film making] works. Everybody can do brilliant work on a project, but if that magic dust isn’t sprinkled on it, it won’t work. That little magic: you have to give it to David.”
The world of a film is not complete until it is inhabited, and Jingle Jangle is notably illed with an all-Black principal cast and a multiracial ensemble, a far departure from the homogeneous portraits of Christmas that have characterized period films in the past.
Especially during a year marked by racial unrest, Bocquet notes the diversity’s significance but is perplexed by the fact that having an all-Black cast in a classic setting is groundbreaking. “There were people of color in the Victorian age. David said in an interview ‘It’s only that some of the people [in our film] have more melanin in their skin.’ That’s the only difference [when compared to other holiday films].”
Still, it is rare to see a winter wonderland erupt in an afro-beat dance number, Black actors in Victorian settings, and Black joy shared on a massive, commercial scale. But despite the revolutionary nature of the film, the story of Jingle Jangle feels timeless.
In the end, with the help of Bocquet’s work, a new Christmas classic has been added to the film canon. But could it evolve into a stage musical too? “If it does, well, I think the real musical version will probably appear at some point,” he theorizes with a glimmer in his eye.
But just as the film states, “if you believe, it’s all possible.”