Elf Brings Touch of Rankin & Bass

New Line’s Will Ferrell comedy vehicle Elf arrives in theaters across North America today, bringing not only an early shot of holiday spirit but also an homage to classic holiday specials like Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.

In the film, Ferrell plays Buddy, a young man who grew up in Santa Claus’ magical North Pole believing he was an elf. Having grown several times larger than his peers, Buddy learns of his true pedigree and sets out to establish a relationship with his biological father, played by James Caan, in New York City.

Elf is directed by actor-turned-helmer John Favreau, who wanted as little CG effects work as possible, but insisted on capturing a bit of the stop-motion animation magic that Arthur Rankin and Jules Bass brought to their holiday favorites.

Effects supervisor Joe Bauer contacted Stephen, Charlie and Edward Chiodo, who run creature and animation shop Chiodo Bros. Prods. In Burbank, Calif. The team, including animators Teresa Drilling, Musa Brooker and Kent Burton, produced a handful of stop-motion shots involving a snowman narrator (a la Rudolph) and several other arctic critters.

For a scene where Ferrell as Buddy has a conversation with the stop-motion snowman, the effects crew had to get creative without relying on computers. Because the live-action plate was shot on slightly hilly terrain, the approximate topography had to be cut out of foam in miniature with a hot wire cutter. The composited snowman’s movements could then match Ferrell’s as he walked up and down the hills.

Favreau also wanted a snow plow effect in front of the snowman, so Bauer devised a conveyer belt system that they could put the model snowman on and let the snow pile up around his base as he moved forward. This was captured as a separate element, as was the furrow left behind the snowman, and everything was composited together to make up the finished shot. Shooting on 35mm film, EFX cinematographer Chris Warren tracked the snowman into the scene without the use of motion tracking hardware or software.

During production, the set was visited by legendary stop-motion animator Ray Harryhausen. Stephen Chiodo remarks, "Ray gets invited to effects studios all the time but he really got a kick out of seeing us shooting 35mm on a tabletop set, the way he used to do it." Favreau even recruited Harryhausen to provide the voice of one of the stop-motion arctic critters, but you’ll have to listen very closely.

Rhythm & Hues also provided some digital effects work to capture reindeer pulling Santa’s sleigh into the air and other various shots.

Read more about the Chiodo Bros.’ stop-motion work on Elf in the December issue of Animation Magazine, now available.