How Hudson’s Bay assembles its amazing, animated Christmas windows
Seven years ago, at its flagship store in Toronto’s financial district, Hudson’s Bay debuted its Santa-themed Christmas windows along Queen Street. The intention was to display them for a few years, then ship the sets east for use in the downtown Montreal store, but the response from Torontonians has been so strong that Santa is here to stay. The company does get the odd email from someone asking, “Is this the same as last year?” Regardless, HBC creative national director Ana Fernandes says, “I would be more worried about what would happen if we didn’t bring Santa back.”
This year, the display lit up on November 1, and it will stay up until the first week of 2015. And even though this is the eighth year Santa’s story has been told in window-display form, assembling the giant diorama is still a major undertaking. We asked Fernandes to tell us about the quirks of building the five windows. Here’s how it’s done.
It takes a week for a team of five to 10 people, made up of the store’s visual team and a contracted lighting company, to put the windows together. There’s only one entrance to the five interconnected windows, so the team must build its way out, starting with scene one, Santa’s workshop, which is located at the eastern end of the display. Each scene, or set, has a trap door to enable staff to get in, should something need fixing. In the fifth window, Santa’s home, “a little elf,” Fernandes says, has to crawl in through the fireplace.
With creative direction from the HBC team, New York-based Spaeth Design devised and built the sets. The company, also responsible for the Miracle on 34th Street holiday windows at Macy’s in Manhattan, has been designing displays for six decades and is experienced at creating intricate sets for buildings that sit on top of subway lines. Even so, vibrations from Queen station can take their toll on the window displays. “Every morning, our window team tours the windows to see if something’s moved or shifted,” Fernandes says.
Each scene has three to five sets of animated characters or objects. “We tried to give it as much life as possible,” Fernandes says. All the parts are powered by electric motors.
The motors in the animated pieces, which run 24 hours a day for two months, can have a life of their own. In the fifth window, which depicts a celebratory dinner for a job well done at Santa’s home, elves sit around a table waiting for dinner with cutlery in their hands. Some move their arms up and down, banging the table. “One time one was pounding it so hard we actually had a dent in the table,” Fernandes says. “So we’re like, ‘okay, this guy needs a little adjustment.’”
In the first window, which tells the story of Santa prepping for deliveries on Christmas Eve, the sleigh is the centrepiece. The trickiest part of building this scene, though, is ensuring that the snow looks freshly fallen. Three different types of loose snow are used. “One is a larger flake,” says Fernandes. “One is a styrofoam kind of flake or balls, and the last step is almost like an iridescent sugary snow that would glisten on top of all that. Snow that looks like you could crunch into it.” The key is preventing any footsteps from leaving imprints in the snow. Installers have to tread carefully.
Santa’s workshop is in the second window. It’s an elaborate display with dozens of miniature toys lining shelves and filling the worktable. A keen eye will also spot details like sawdust. The team uses a series of photos as reference while installing all the “little touches,” Fernandes explains. “It’s very tedious work.”
This set, a village street scene on Christmas Eve that shows both street life and what’s happening inside shops, combines the challenges of the two previous windows: stock-filled shelves inside stores and freshly fallen snow outside. It’s all hand-placed by two members of HBC’s visual team.
“A fan favourite,” Fernandes says, this window depicts a family at home waiting for Santa’s arrival. The big draw is the cutaway in the floor, which shows a family of mice living under the house and mimicking the scene played out by the humans upstairs. The mouse childrens’ chests rise and fall as they sleep. Staff have to keep an eye on the motors to make sure this tiny detail runs throughout the two-month display.
The last scene, Santa’s triumphant return home, is again made up of tiny pieces—stockings above the fireplace, dishes of food on the table, plates hanging on the wall—that are all placed by hand and then left at the mercy of vibrations from the street and subway below.
In January, when the windows come down, the team will operate in reverse, working their way eastward as they pack things up. Motors on the animated pieces are tested before being stored, and packing boxes for each scene are labelled and numbered. “It’s like an Ikea set; you have all these labelled pieces,” Fernandes says. Allen key not included.