Elves at Work

Inspired by classic holiday specials, Disney’s CG-animated Prep and Landing puts the spotlight on Santa’s efficient helpers!

When it comes to animated holiday TV specials, elves have practically established a sub-genre of their own. This year, a couple of talented CG-animated Disney elves find themselves the stars of a new ABC half-hour special called Prep and Landing‘which will premiere right after one of the most popular seasonal toons of all-time, A Charlie Brown Christmas on December 1. As most good things coming out of the Disney house these days, chief creative officer John Lasseter played a big part in making this charming toon come to life.

The idea for the special was originally hatched up by Bolt director Chris Williams for Disney’s new shorts program, but Lasseter, who is a huge fan of classic Christmas specials such as Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer and How the Grinch Stole Christmas, thought it would be a great idea to extend the short to a 22-minute TV special. Since Williams was busy helming Bolt, the task of leading the elves fell upon the talented team of Kevin Deters and Stevie Wermers-Skelton, who also directed the 2007 Annie-nominated Goofy short, How to Hook Up Your Home Theater.

‘We were quite lucky because we were able to expand the world introduced by Chris and make it our own,’ says Deters, a long-time Disney staffer. ‘Also working in our favor was that we were able to do everything here in house’the idea was to produce something that was feature-animation quality, and we were able to use most of the crew from Bolt’about a hundred people give or take with 15 to 20 animators.’

Skelton, who has worked in Disney Animation’s story department for almost two decades, points out that it was important for them to make the elves’ world relatable to today’s workplace. ‘Our hero, Wayne, has been on the job for 270 years’so we can understand why he might be upset about not getting a promotion,’ she says. ‘In a way, the special tries to highlight why it’s important not to lose perspective and to be able to find joy in what you do every day,’ adds Deters. ‘I used to work at the Disney studio in Florida, and I remember what it was like to have a rough day at work, then walk out to the park and witness all these families enjoying the characters, and kids hugging them’we drew deliberate inspiration from that.’

According to the directors, bringing the special down to 21 minutes and 30 seconds was the toughest part of the job. ‘We ended up having a lot of extra material,’ says Deters. ‘We had such fun exploring this world and the differences between the main characters [Wayne is partnered with Lanny, an eager young elf, fresh out of Kringle Academy]‘I think we put in a lot of entertainment bang for the buck.’ (Orson Welles fans’ trivia moment: These elves call Santa’s sleigh Rosebud!)

The overall look of the special was partly inspired by the timeless Rankin-Bass classics that delight us year after year around the holidays. Art director Andy Harkness (Open Season) contrasts the human world, which is monochromatic, with the elves’ universe in the North Pole, which is depicted in warm hues of red and green, and is influenced by Norwegian architecture.

Both Skelton and Deters give a lot of credit for their success to their regular interactions with Lasseter and Disney Animation president Ed Catmull. ‘Their influence on the studio has been absolutely palpable,’ notes Deters. ‘They brought with them a culture that promotes investing in people and their creative ideas, which is not common in businesses today. The shorts program itself is a great training ground, which gives story staffers who show promise the chance to develop and direct projects, which is what happened to us with the Goofy short.’

Another element working in the toon’s favor is its perfect original music composed by frequent Pixar collaborator Michael Giacchino (The Incredibles, Ratatouille) whose score for Up is said to be an Oscar favorite this year.

Overall, the directors are thrilled that they’ll be able to see the results of their hard work in a much shorter time than they would if they were working in features. ‘It’s really gratifying to see the ideas come to life in a year’s time,’ says Deters. ‘Truly, everyone who worked on this special helped us look good. The heart-felt work that they all put in is really reflected in the end product. I guess you can say that we’re cautiously optimistic that the show will resonate with audiences. We’re hoping it becomes the gift that families will want to unwrap during the holidays year after year.’

Disney’s Prep and Landing premieres on ABC on December 1 at 8:30 p.m.