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Quick Chat: Screen Novelties’ stop-motion Buddy the Elf for NBC

’Tis the season for fun holiday television fare, and Elf: Buddy’s Musical Christmas doesn’t disappoint. Warner Bros. called on stop-motion specialists Screen Novelties, to produce and direct this one-hour offering, which aired on NBC.

The special, a sort of mash-up of the “newish” Christmas classic Elf, starring Will Ferrell, and the Broadway show Elf: The Musical, is a retelling of Buddy’s adorable story and enthusiasm but in a way that reminds audiences of the classic stop-motion animated Christmas specials (I’m looking at you Rudolf the Red Nosed Reindeer) of the past. In this new version, Buddy is still an innocent human elf looking for his dad, “unbearding” fake Santas and roaming the streets of New York while singing about the joys of Christmas, of course.

Screen Novelties co-founders Mark Caballero, Seamus Walsh and Chris Finnegan designed the cartoon-like world of Elf: Buddy’s Musical Christmas, including characters, sets and props. The Screen Novelties team, about 50 crew members at its peak, shot the show frame-by-frame over the course of four months.

2 Mark Caballero ELF-1 2 Seamus Walsh ELF

We reached out to Caballero (above, left) and Walsh (above, right) to find out more.

Why did Warner Bros. Animation decide to go with stop-motion for this new Elf special? 
Seamus Walsh: Warner Bros. liked what we did on the SpongeBob SquarePants Christmas special a couple years ago, and we’d been looking for a project to collaborate on.  Also, Christmas and stop-motion sort of go hand in hand, because of classics like Rudolph and Nightmare Before Christmas.

What were the benefits to the storyline of doing this new Elf in this format?
Walsh: We tried not to let the medium influence the story.  There may have been one or two instances where we asked to tone down the number of characters or set changes, but for the most part the writers were free to write as if it were 2D, CG or whatever.

What were the biggest challenges of doing Elf with stop-motion?
Walsh: Much of the show is set in New York City, so we had to have lots of buildings, cars and background characters.  The more elements you have in frame, the more work it is for a stop-motion crew.  So we decided to stylize the designs of the background puppets to lessen the workload. At the same time we think it actually helped the overall aesthetic, because the simplified extra characters sort of receded into the background, keeping the focus on our main cast.

What is your workflow like?
Mark Caballero: We start with 2D designs of our puppets and sets, working with some great designers like Craig Kellman, Dan Krall and Joseph Holt. Then we build our fabrication teams who translate the 2D designs into dimension.

For puppets, we create digital sculptures and print them out with 3D printers. We then take the 3D prints and modify them by hand to maintain an organic aesthetic. Once all the puppets and sets are built, we begin animation. That process involves dozens of animators, camera and lighting technicians, set dressers, etc. to produce about three minutes of stop-motion animation a week. As the stop-motion is wrapping up, our digital compositors get to work removing flying rigs and adding or adjusting any visual effects.

Finally, we go through a picture and audio editing process much like a live-action production. All throughout the show, we worked closely with the composers Matthew Sklar and Chris Guardino to make sure that our animation timing worked well with the musical numbers.

How did your stop-motion work intersect with the voice-over narration by the cast? 
Caballero: Because we had such a quick turnaround on the production, we weren’t able to cast the voices until after we had begun animation. So we would act the scenes out with our animators and work through the acting style and poses. Later, once we’d cast our actors (Jim Parsons voices Buddy), they were able to ADR the voices over our animation.

This isn’t the way we normally work, but we’re pretty happy with the result. Our animators put their stamp on the performances and the voice actors added their spin, so it was a real collaboration.

What do you think the future holds for the stop-motion animation industry?
Caballero: In the past, stop-motion was often used for realistic special effects, but now that CG animation has taken that over it has freed up stop-motion practitioners to explore more varied themes and styles.

We think we’ll continue to see more experimentation in stop-motion and also more combining of stop-motion with other techniques like puppetry, CG and live action.


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