Upon its release in 2003, Jon Favreau’s film Elf was instantly given that most coveted of labels: modern classic.
A rare unicorn (or narwhal) of a film, Elf combines the sweetness of holiday gems like A Charlie Brown Christmas and Miracle on 34th Street with the hand-crafted magic of Rankin/Bass favourite Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer and a dash of outrageous innocence care of comedian Will Ferrell. The attention to detail is astounding and it’s what places the film squarely in its intended milieu. The background sets of Santa’s workshop and the elves’ homes are a pale grey, making the colourful costuming and props pop against it, the figures vibrant and cheerful. The North Pole is a true winter wonderland, surreal and dreamlike and full of toys and talking animals and men made of snow.
Elf is also literally bookended – as films often were, once upon a time – with a carefully crafted tome featuring illustrated elves on painted, glittery pages. Computer-generated snowflakes twirl and float past as stop-motion creatures cavort and contribute, painting signs and pulling in credits. Behind this charming introduction – and the stop-motion animation scenes in the film proper – are special effects artists and brothers Edward, Charles, and Stephen Chiodo. Known as the Chiodo Bros., the trio are responsible for such delights as Killer Klowns from Outer Space, the marionettes in Team America: World Police, and the critters in, well, Critters. For Elf, the Chiodo Bros. along with director Jon Favreau, visual effects supervisor Joe Bauer, and a large team of animators, capture the feeling of the classics. The film’s influences are present in every nook and cranny, every yellow stocking and waggling moustache, adding up to a warm fable worthy of its pedigree and earning Elf a place in the pantheon of cherished holiday films.
A discussion with Special Effects Artists CHARLES, EDWARD, and STEPHEN CHIODO of Chiodo Bros. Productions.
First, thanks so much for taking the time to speak with me! The last time we talked was about Dinner for Schmucks in 2011. What have you been up to in the last five years?
Stephen: Waiting for you to call us and talk about Elf! [laughs]
Edward: We’ve been doing a lot of practical effects, commercials, and a TV show we do, Dr. Colosso, for The Thundermans, a Nick show. And a lot of work for theme parks right now.
Stephen: We’ve been doing a variety of stop-motion projects. Not too much in the title realm, but we did a Simpsons couch gag that might be considered an opening title.
Charlie: We’ve been doing a lot of walkaround dinosaurs and baby puppet dinosaurs for traveling dinosaur venues. The venues that travel, bringing animatronic dinosaurs and dinosaur exhibits to different cities around the country.
The last time we talked, you mentioned that you were working on the sequel for Killer Klowns. Do you have an update on that?
Edward: We’re always workin’ on that! [laughs]
Charlie: We’ve kind of shifted our thinking more towards a television series given the success of The Walking Dead and all the comic book shows on Amazon and Netflix, to give it a little more legs and play around with some of the more outlandish ideas for the sequel to continue the story.
That would be perfect.
Edward: Yeah, so now we just need to get the right partner!
Charlie: With the Klowns publicity we were getting around Halloween, it seems natural that people would be very interested in a show about clowns.
Or, you know, terrified of it.
Charlie: Well, yeah! [laughs]
Let’s rewind back to 2003. You were heavily involved in the titles and stop-motion in Jon Favreau's holiday film Elf. How did this project come to you?
Stephen: We were contacted by Joe Bauer, the visual effects supervisor who was working with Jon Favreau on the movie. Joe had started working with us way back in the day of Land of the Lost, the Sid & Marty Krofft revival, the television series...
Edward: In the mid-'90s.
Stephen: So he was working with us on the stop-motion and visual effects that we were doing for that series, and then he went on to become a visual effects supervisor.
When Jon told him about his vision for the North Pole sequence – the North Pole creatures – Joe said, “I got the guys for you. They’re great guys, stop-motion experts, they love the Rankin/Bass style.” He arranged a meeting for us and Jon to talk about the sequences.
Charlie: Yeah, it was really great, our first conversation with Jon, he really wanted to embrace that holiday special that Rankin/Bass had produced, the Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer holiday special. So we were in tune with that and right out of the gate, we had a common ground.
Edward: Jon Favreau is a big stop-motion fan, we came to find out.
Charlie: He knew one of the key elements was capturing that magic of the Rankin/Bass specials, ‘cause it’s kind of not the holidays without Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, Santa Claus is Comin' to Town. Those shows are such a staple of the holiday tradition that he really wanted to capture that magic. So much so that even in the rest of the movie, they actually licensed that look so they could duplicate it.
Stephen: Yeah, the art direction and the costume design of the North Pole sequences was pretty much lifted from the Rankin/Bass specials.
Edward: It was an homage.
Hold on, they had to get the rights for that look?
Edward: Yes! [laughs]
Charlie: I don’t know if they had to, but they did. You know how legal is!
Stephen: They really lifted it. If you look at the elf costume in the Rudolph special, and you look at Will Ferrell’s costume, they are identical. The art direction of the interiors, the miniature sets were like a white-pale gray with colourful characters, and Jon used that same motif with his art direction. So it was very similar! I think they probably approached them rather than be sued in the end – they were proactive. They made it official.
So, were you first hired to do the stop-motion sequences for the film proper? Did the titles emerge from that?
Edward: It’s funny – while we were doing the project, Jon and Joe came to us one day and said that there was going to be a screening coming up. The first public screening of it. And the studio was a little nervous about how long the front of the movie was – the North Pole. They wanted to get Will’s character into New York City as quickly as possible, so there was talk of cutting the North Pole sequence way down, which would have eliminated all the stop-motion creatures.
Stephen: All the work that we did would’ve been cut out!
Edward: So, they wanted to rush the animation that we were producing to get it in the cut in time for this screening, ‘cause Jon knew that once the audiences saw it they’d respond to it and love it. He was really keen that it needed to set the tone of the movie. That was the linchpin – that was the hook! So we busted our asses and accelerated our schedule, did that long shot of Will Ferrell and Leon the Snowman walking. We did that in one take, in a marathon shoot. Teresa Drilling, the animator, just busted her butt off to do that.
And we made the deadline, made the screening, positive reviews, the stop-motion sequences tested through the roof, really popular, so they stayed in the movie! That gave Jon the power to go to step two. He was a huge fan of the storybook opening and closing—
Stephen: He even rented several Disney cartoons where the storybook was opened to introduce the show, to push for an animated opening.
He also did that in The Jungle Book, which just came out in 2016.
Stephen: Yes! In fact he talked to us about doing that, too. Originally he wanted to do a stop-motion thing but the opening changed – it had to be the CG transition that they did – beautifully, I might add!
Charlie: So though he had certain sequences planned for the opening – like the little cutaways to the elf, the trolls, the elves in the tree – all that was there, but the wraparound wasn’t originally gonna be stop-motion.
They brought us a little book and showed us how the elf story – how the Will Ferrell character actually wound up in the North Pole. To show how the elf community worked. It was a nice way to introduce the whimsical Santa’s village. And again, very reminiscent of something that people associate very favourably with the holidays, the stop-motion special.
You mentioned that the sequence with the snowman especially took a long time. How did you set up and shoot those sequences?
Stephen: I had to go up to Vancouver, where they were shooting the live action! The Santa’s workshop and all the North Pole sequences. It was in an ice rink! A tremendous, open facility. They built this huge exterior landscape of the North Pole, and what was really amazing, when Will Ferrell was walking on it, he looked like a little miniature puppet on a miniature set!
Charlie: And we made a walkaround suit of Leon, just a rough snowman that could walk alongside of him to get the timing in the track.
Stephen: Like a stand-in for the animation puppets and lighting.
Charlie: Up there, we did a motion control shot. We shot a background plate of Will Ferrell first walking with the stand-in, and then we would take the stand-in out and have Will repeat the scene that we would then composite our snowman onto. Jon wanted the snow rolling away in front of the animated character. We had to actually match the movement of the snow. The snow had to be animated!
Stephen: Then our DP Chris Warren had to match that live-action camera move – the motion control move – on our miniature motion control rig.
Stephen: So it was really involved! We shot the snowman against blue screen and on film. Then we did multiple passes, like Charlie said, of a ball moving through snow, pushing it away.
And the snowman looks a lot like the one in Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.
Stephen: That’s interesting. Jon [Favreau] was working in the character design realm. He wanted us to duplicate the Burl Ives snowman from the Rudolph show, but he wanted to update it! So he showed us a picture of Leon Redbone, and he said he wanted a Leon Redbone snowman.
So we took what was iconic for Leon, which was his sunglasses and his mustache and hat – and then Rusty, the production designer, whipped up a caricature of Leon as a snowman and we fabricated the puppet.
Charlie: ‘Cause Leon did the voice of Leon! And it had – just like the Rankin/Bass snowman – Leon had a moustache and to make him talk all we had to do was animate the moustache going up and down. We didn’t need to have articulated mouth replacements – we didn’t need a cycle of 30 mouths to make him talk.
Edward: What was really cool about this production was it really focused on the art. Jon Favreau – he’s an artist in his own right – he would do some sketches for us in terms of characters. There was so much attention to the art of the production! The colour, the character, the sculpture, and the movement – it was really a wonderful creative collaboration.
Stephen: Jon did the designs for the little arctic critters. You know the walrus, the polar bear, and the puffin. I was doin’ some more realistic stuff and he had a little drawing that was very reminiscent of the very simple design motifs that they used in the Rankin/Bass. And I went around the world and came back to Jon Favreau’s design. He had a hand – a very strong hand – in designing the look of the characters as well.
And who did the narwhal?
Stephen: Well, after going around the block with a bunch of different designs, we looked at Jon’s original sketch. He did a little quickie doodle of what he wanted the narwhal to look like and after Charlie brought caricatures of the narwhal, we went right back to what he did.
Stephen: The way he described it was, he wanted the appearance of the narwhal to be like the Chrysler Building, kind of breaking up out of the water. That’s the image he wanted. And that’s that horn piercing through the water.
Edward: It’s really kind of cool to look at what he drew as a 2D element and what we then fabricated as a three-dimensional puppet.
Charlie: And that sequence – where he was saying goodbye to everybody – as an homage to stop motion, Jon Favreau wanted Ray Harryhausen to do the voice of the narwhal.
Stephen: Yeah! We had a good relationship with Ray and he was in Los Angeles. I went down to where he was staying and got Ray to record: “Hey buddy, hope you find your dad!” And that’s Ray’s voice!
That’s such a great connection.
Stephen: It was! Actually Ray wanted to do a funny voice. He wanted to do Cary Grant! So I let him do the variations that he wanted to do, and then I said, “Look, Ray, why don’t you just try one in your voice? They really like your voice.” At the end, he did one in his voice, and that’s the one he used! [laughs]
Edward: The narwhal – just ‘cause of that line – it’s become a classic line now! That’s one of the most quoted lines from that movie! [imitates Ray Harryhausen’s voice] “Hey buddy, hope you find your dad!” It’s just a beautiful shot. That was animated by Musa Brooker.
Charlie: Another interesting aspect – what Jon wanted – with the puffin, that arctic bird – he wanted to see the two eyes on the side, on a profile. Very abstract. It was kind of a challenge, because how then do you make a three-dimensional character rotate left-to-right, if its two eyes are on one side? But we were able to work it out with different animation increments. It was a really unique approach.
Edward: Yeah, there’s a little pop! You know, when he turns from profile to front, the eyes just do a little pop! It was seamless and very whimsical.
Let’s talk about the illustrations. How did you make those, and the book?
Edward: The opening title sequence was definitely Charlie, he handled that. Charlie was working with Joe Bauer, creating the sets that the different titles would be set up against.
Charlie: Basically, we were trying to come up with images that represented the specific titles, utilizing the elves and the motifs of the North Pole, showing the elf community and how it operated. So Joe and I were storyboarding. It went through a lot of variations and then we had to finetune the specific titles – art director, production design, editor – and see if we could find something suggestive of each of those job titles.
Charlie: We discussed the gumdrop river, the candy cane mountains, elements that were referred to in the script, and I just illustrated them very roughly. We went through quite a few – 30 or 40. The scene with the troll that wears the diaper and stuff, I did some loose boards on those.
Stephen: And after that, you refined the actual illustration. And then we worked with a layout designer, Peter Ferk, who supervised all the actual artwork. We’d done titles before, where we’ve provided background images that they put a graphic of a title on, but because the titles were integrated into the artwork we had to do a bunch of camera tests for sizing. As you know, with DGA requirements, certain people have to be exactly the same size and percentage of the frame, all that business, the duration of it... There was a whole technical side of legal requirements that we had to incorporate into the design and timing.
Charlie: Each page was designed as an individual but many of the double-page spreads had to be designed together. It was a very complex camera move on the pages as they were turning. It was a choreographed—
Edward: It’s one shot! From beginning to end of the opening titles, it’s one camera move. As the book is opening, turning the pages, the camera moves from one position to the next page, to the next page. It’s quite involved.
Charlie: And then we incorporated the animated characters! The puffin appears several times through the animated sequence, dragging sleds in, getting caught, having a box fall on him, getting blown away in the wind, and that was additional stuff that had to be coordinated with the very complex camera moves and animation.
How big was the physical book, really?
Edward: That was a whole other thing! [laughs]
Charlie: To me, that was the most difficult part – making the book! The book was pretty big, I’d say it was almost 30 inches tall. It had to be stable enough to actually be photographed one frame at a time, yet it had to be able to move, so just building it was quite a task. We actually had to bring in a binder – a bookmaker!
Edward: A classic bookmaker – The Little Book Bindery.
Edward: The cover was real leather, tooled with the design, and painted, bound in the same exact way a real book was. I mean, it was a real book.
Charlie: And the pages! We had to do a bunch of tests to determine the weight of the paper that we would use to print on because we had to animate the pages, and they had to curl at the right scale. Through experimentation we decided to use vinyl instead of paper, ‘cause the vinyl had a nice sweep, a nice curve to it, it would hold its position as we arced it through the frame.
Edward: And the animator, Kent Burton, used monofilament, fishing wire, to move those pages.
Charlie: The book was a chore. In fact, the credits were still in flux until the night before we shot. It was undecided whether Jon was gonna get his “Film by” credit. If he didn’t get his “Film by” credit, he was gonna get a shared writing credit. Around 10:30 the night before we were shooting I got the call that it was agreed that Jon was gonna get a “Film by” credit, so we had to undo the book and put a new page in so it could be shot the next day.
What determined whether he would get that “Film by” credit?
Stephen: Negotiation, at that point. Whether the studio was happy with the job he did. They felt that he deserved that credit, which he certainly did!
Now – I have to ask because it’s so rare in title design – tell me about the typeface, Curlz.
Stephen: That was an art direction call. We took all the festive holiday fonts and I believe Joe Bauer and Jon had the final say in that.
Charlie: I mean, everybody has it on their computer! I thought it was absolutely perfect – it just captures that iconic holiday spirit.
Are there any other stories that you want to share about this?
Stephen: Well, I tell you, Edward mentioned that we had to rush the Leon Snowman cut with Will, because we had to make that screening? Well, Teresa Drilling was the animator who was gonna be doing that scene and we had like three days planned for it but we had to rush it in as short a time as we could. She started the shot and there was a camera malfunction.
Edward: That was funny – we didn’t even know it! With an animation shot, it’s usually only a couple of feet of film and you never send just a couple of feet of film through the lab, but we said let’s break the film tonight just to see – make sure everything’s going ok. Luckily we did! We found out we had lost the loop in the camera and the first portion of the shot was ruined. If we’d done the entire three-day shot it would’ve been three days lost.
Charlie: So we said, “Okay, Teresa, you’ve gotta do this in one long, long night.” She says, “Okay, just keep on giving me coffee from Starbucks—
Edward: —and get me a hotel room that I can crash in afterwards!”
Charlie: So, we gave her the Starbucks coffee and Teresa did a marathon – how long?
Edward: Twenty-seven hours.
Charlie: Twenty-seven hours and cranked that thing out! So it was still a three-day shot, but just consecutive.
Damn, that’s impressive.
Charlie: It was! It was beautiful. She did a fantastic job.
You guys grew up watching a lot of this kind of stuff, didn’t you?
Stephen: Oh yeah, it inspired us! 1960s, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, we went down into the basement designing stop-motion movies before we had a Super8 camera!
Charlie: We were designing holiday specials in our basement – it’s kind of funny! Snowmen and elves, we were animating.
Edward: A direct inspiration from the Rankin/Bass. I mean, it set us on a path!
What did it feel like to come full circle, to work on a childhood dream?
Stephen: I guess it’s just a big smile! I mean, we were pretty focused on what we wanted to do from early childhood. And then to follow that track through all the pits and obstacles and to actually realize that dream, it’s a wonderful feeling of accomplishment.
Edward: And show our parents that the things they did not understand about us while we were kids – but supported us undeniably – we were able to make a living and do stuff that people can watch and enjoy. Elf is a holiday classic now and it’s an honour to be a part of that.
Stephen: I think most important, too, is that we carried on the tradition, we put our little Chiodo Brothers spin on it, and did it. And we’d like to think that that work will inspire other artists, so this artform will continue.
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