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VFX Supervisor Joe Bauer on “Elf”

Visual effects supervisor Joe Bauer talks to VFXPro about director Jon Favreau’s old-fashioned Christmas movie, “Elf.”

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I just saw the movie — it was a lot of fun to watch!

It was a lot of fun to work on! I would easily say it is my favorite of the films I have worked on.

Why?

The feeling throughout pre-production, production and post — everyone was all about making the movie. Everybody was charmed by Will Ferrell and Jon Favreau and excited by the material. It tapped into things that we have loved since our childhood.

There is no mean spirit to it at all — I think it brought out the best in everybody. A lot of these kinds of films try to undercut the material — either wink at the audience, or work adult humor in where it might be inappropriate. I though this stayed true to its mission.

How did you get the job?

When the film started, I was still finishing “Final Destination II.” Another supervisor was originally hired, but he had to bow out for personal reasons. Lauren Ritchie, the head of visual effects at New Line, called and asked me if I wanted to do it. I said absolutely. That was last September.

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How many weeks were you in pre-, how many in production and how many in post?

We were in pre-production from October until the first week of December. The following three weeks we were in production shooting in New York City. Then we shot for January, February and into March of 2003 up in Vancouver. We were in post until September, including finishing the opening title sequence. We had about six weeks between finishing our work and the movie coming out.

What were you doing in pre-production?

We were doing the standard things — breaking down the script, etc., but we had some additional concerns because Jon really felt strongly about using analog techniques for everything in the North Pole. We were researching this forced perspective technique, and translating that into sets — building the sets at multiple scales. We were also working out the sleigh chase at the end, which was all digital. Rhythm + Hues did a lot of that work.

Why did he want to do the North Pole that way?

I think because of the good associations that come with it. We also did stop-motion animation. In the early part of the film, he did not want anything to feel high tech or modern. He wanted everything to feel like it had been done when we were kids.

In fact, except for the Snowman, the characters were animated in twos, just like

Rankin/Bass

animation. That means that there are twelve puppet position adjustments per second rather than 24. For each move you click off two frames instead of one. That gave it a certain amount of charming roughness.

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Can you talk about shooting in forced perspective?

Basically what we had to do was establish a scale for the elves — which was two thirds. The larger set was built a third larger than normal, and the elf-sized set, where Will and Ed Asner worked, was built a third smaller.

Then we had to line the sets up. First, we would go into the small set with cutouts and a normal-sized person and set up the shots as they were boarded. Then we measured everything out and took it over to the large set, where we applied the formula that Rusty Smith, the production designer, had come up with. That would show us how much we needed to increase the height of the camera, the height of objects in the room, the distance of everything to the walls, so that when we looked into the lens, the shot looked like one continuous set.

Did you do any compositing of those shots?

No — Jon was very adamant about that. All the departments worked together carefully to make sure that everything — down to the floorboards — was continuous when the sets were in proper alignment. It fell to Greg Gardner to light everything so that it matched, and the set painters were always busy continuing shadows of the foreground into the background. It was quite a big job to light so accurately.

How many sets did you need to make in two scales?

We had to do Santa’s workshop, Papa Elf’s house interior and Papa Elf’s workshop. Those three sets and all of the angles of coverage within them.

We also had fourteen different configurations of floors. We had them on hydraulics that we could raise and lower to get the large and small sets to line up.

We had close to forty setups. I would say about half of them got cut for time.

There is one setup per angle of coverage?

Yes. Jon let me sit with the storyboard artist and go through the script. We blocked out all of the angles of coverage.

I tried to free up the camera as much as possible for panning and tilting. We tried dollies, but ultimately any camera move beyond a pan or tilt gave away the gag.

What we ended up doing was dollying things in the foreground past the camera during our pan/tilt moves to give the effect of a dolly move. For example a post in the room, or a piece of furniture. If we did that during a pan, it felt like a dolly.

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How do you get Will Ferell looking huge sitting on Bob Newhart’s lap?

I was thinking of hard ways to do it, and then I remembered the old gag that you do when you are a kid — where you sit on someone’s lap and it looks like their legs are your legs.

We had Papa Elf’s chair built in two scales and the smaller scale, which was closer to camera, was just the seat and the legs. For the camera, the small seat exactly hid the larger seat of the real chair. We had an inclined platform for a little boy wearing the elf shoes and the yellow tights that matched Bob Newhart’s. He laid over so just his legs were over the front of the chair seat, touching the miniature floor. So his upper body disappeared off at an angle. Will Ferell actually sat on his lap, but they had metal guards on his legs to protect them from the weight. Bob Newhart was eight to ten feet further back on the set, and he would just react as if he were being sat on.

It is such a simple thing. We were not expecting the join to be so good between the little kids legs and coat and Bob Newhart in the distance. But when we looked at it through the camera and Greg got it all lit, Will was actually able to walk up to him and sit down with no digital help at all.

How long would it take to shoot one sequence like that?

It was sort of in two parts. We would come in on the weekend with a different crew and work out the relationships for everything and take photographs and make charts. Then on the day of the shoot, we would just re-create what we had done on the weekend.

We were pretty quick — probably 30-40 minutes — sometimes longer, but not frequently, because we had it all charted out. It depended how elaborate it was — how many set pieces we were trying to line up.

The most difficult setup was when Papa Elf was showing Buddy Santa’s sleigh for the first time, because the entire floor of the set and the incredibly heavy sleigh — it had to be nearly a ton — had to be raised up in relation to the background. There were a lot of posts and beams, and our miniature posts and beams had to exactly cover the posts and beams in the larger set so that it would look continuous.

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Were there two sleighs?

No there was one that was scaled for Will and Ed Asner as Santa. That one played in the smaller set. For the part where Bob Newhart crawls in the sleigh, they made a sleigh piece that was scaled larger.

Was it the same cinematographer throughout?

It was.

Can you talk about the stop-motion animation?

We generated those boards as well. Design became an issue because when push came to shove, we weren’t legally allowed to match the Rankin/Bass characters we were modeling our characters after — it was supposed to be a raccoon, a rabbit and a baby bear. Jon, with his very specific sense of humor, picked absurd animals, like the Narwhal (with the horn) and the Puffin. He is also a bit of a cartoonist, so he designed the skewed way they would be sculpted. Charlie Chiodo at Chiodo Brothers Productions refined those and we went to the maquette stage. Jon approved everything and then they built the characters out of hard and soft materials, ball-and-socket joints and hand-sculpted replacement mouths and eyes.

Does Chiodo Brothers specialize in stop-motion animation?

They do stop-motion and puppetry. There are houses that will do stop-motion, but these guys are consistently doing it, which is great because they already have a working shop. Everything is in-house.

They were the first company to hire me when I moved to Los Angeles thirteen years ago, and it was nice to be able to return the favor. They are super-talented and great to work with.

Generally, we would shoot the plate with a stand-in — we had a person in a very silly-looking snowman suit that approximated the size of Leon the Snowman who walked along with Will as he did his performance, and then we just split them out.

The most elaborate plate was a big crane move on Will as he walks and talks with Leon. We shot Will walking, with tennis balls laid out on the set as tracking markers. We post-tracked it and then set up the scene at a smaller scale, with a LEON puppet that was 10-12 inches high. With a motion control move, we matched the move that we had created on the set.

We also had a motion control mover on the bottom ball of the snowman to help him slide from side to side. Then we shot a separate pass for his snow displacement, so he could leave a trail. Ultimately his trail needed some cgi help, and while we were at it we added the gentle snowfall of perfectly formed, over-sized snowflakes. The studio loved that.

All of the mouth and the talking was replacement animation — different mouths for each frame.

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How do they do the mouth?

The mouth is part of the puppet. There is a hole in the face and maybe fifteen or twenty pre-sculpted mouth positions. Based on the phonetics in the soundtrack, they work it out on a graph — which mouths go on which frames.

Digital Dimension — the same company that did the CG snowballs for the Snowball fight — did the compositing as well as enhancing Leon’s snow trail and creating and tracking the snowflakes.

What did they do in the Snowball fight?

In that sequence, if you did not see a kid actually throw a snowball, the snowball was CGI. All of the hits are CGI, when they are running and getting hit with the snowballs, as well as the big throw at the end sequence when Will hits the kid way off in the distance.

Was that for safety reasons?

That, and also for convenience. We would have had to hire a hundred people to throw snowballs, and we were in Central Park. We had to be done at a certain time. It would have taken quite a bit longer to shoot if we’d had to try to wrangle all of that in one shot.

How did you do the Candy Cane Forest?

That was originally meant to be a three-layer glass painting, but the glass painting did not work out. So we ended up finessing a digital painting by another matte artist. He was working on the ‘Matrix’ trilogy, so he only got the painting to a certain point. I cleaned it up in Photoshop and did a lot of the atmoshpere work. Then a company called Amalgamated Pixel ended up doing the 2K version of that, with all of the compositing.

What were some of the other houses you worked with?

We had Pixel Liberation Front pre-visualize the sleigh chase. We had Rhythm+Hues do the final CG elements for the portions of the chase that were not shot on the bluescreen stage, i.e. closer shots where we had the full-sized sleigh on a motion base, photographed with motion control that duplicated our pre-viz. Digital Dimension handled most of those composites. Rhythm+Hues’ CGI work creating the photo-real sleigh and reindeer was phenomenal. I don’t know anyone who picked out the digital nature of the reindeer, though of course they had to be. A company called Fuzzy Logic did wire removal. We had General Lift for motion control.

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Eric Chauvin of Blackpool Studios did matte paintings for us. He is based in upstate Washington now, but he used to be at ILM. The Gimbel’s storefront is a complete fabrication. The bottom story is a building that we photographed, and the upper part is three or four other buildings, plus a lot of fabrication — all of the Christmas decorations were CGI.

How about the raccoon that attacks?

That was actually clever cutting and a couple of practical props that we had on set. The only thing we did was add the tale wiggle at the end.

What was the next big sequence?

The reappearance of Santa. Digital Dimension did all of the shots of Buddy (Ferrell) on the bridge — they created the digital snow for that. I thought those shots carried just the right emotional feel. Rhythm+Hues did the shots where Santa appears, with the sleigh and the reindeer.

The first hint of Santa’s approach was supposed to be a couple of bright flashes in the clouds before he comes through. But the CG cloud work was not coming together.

On other films with smaller budgets I had shot cotton clouds. So we ran to Michael’s hobby supply store and got some cotton fiber and sculpted that and lit it and did a few still passes on it. That ended up being our clouds.

Everything else was fully digital — Santa, the reindeer, etc. Gentle Giant was our cyberscanning company. We cyberscanned Ed Asner and Will in costume and one reindeer that was taxidermied, and then we animated them.

Rhythm+Hues built a beautiful model of the sleigh; I challenge anyone to pick out which was the motion control sleigh and which was the CG sleigh. The main thing that we worked on was making sure that the sleigh always looked really heavy. So, every time it hit, it hit really hard and kicked up a lot of digital snow.

The first three shots of the sleigh are fully digital. The shot looking straight up into the sky, where the sleigh flies past the moon and disappears into Central Park, is also a completely digital shot.

When it starts to take off, the side views of the sleigh are the motion control sleigh with Ed in it. Any shots of the reindeer running or moving are digital. We shot a lot of reference with the real reindeer when we had them. We videotaped them jumping over things, etc., so that we knew how they were supposed to move.

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The CG sleigh went over the fountain in Central Park in the shot where the engine gets knocked off. The CG sleigh is in the shot where it hits down in the upper level of the park and goes right past the camera. When it comes around the corner and bangs into a tree with the horses right behind it — that is also the CG sleigh.

Basically, the motion control sleigh was for the tight shots and for the shots of Will looking out the back after they break over the crowd. The 180-degree flyby when they are going over 6th Avenue and you see Santa and Buddy inside the sleigh is a combination of the digital sleigh and the motion control sleigh. On the physical sleigh, the motion base sometimes blocked the runners, so about halfway down we had to make it digital.

For the shot with the Empire State Building, we shot a dusk plate of the building, and added snow. The rest of the sky is a matte painting. The sleigh, reindeer and the guys in the sleigh are digital.

It was a little tricky getting the digital guys to look real. For some reason they kept popping out. They always seemed to be too bright or too colorful, their movements too big or too sudden. Almost every note I gave on that was to take the light off of them, blend them into the background, don’t move them so much, make them more subtle. I kept calling the Santa, ‘Norelco Santa.’

We took all of the lights off of the CG guys, and kept de-saturating the colors. Finally in the last week it started to look real.

Who did the opening titles for the film?

The opening titles came to us after all of the other work was done. Jon had always wanted a storybook opening, and the movie was testing so well that Toby Emmerich approved this elaborate stop-motion opening with characters and snowflakes.

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Joe Conmy, our visual effects producer, and I worked that out with the Chiodo Brothers. We storyboarded the whole thing and presented it to Jon, and he really liked it. So they ended up making a stop-motion animatable book that was 25-inches high — it probably weighed about 70 pounds.

There was a fairly elaborate stop-motion rig that held each page by a piece of monofilament. During the exposure, the animator would shake the page to give it just a little bit of blur, as it was supposed to be turning.

That was a really neat technique. The camera was motion-control operated, so it was moving, and the pages were animated. Then, in a separate pass, we animated the little stop-motion gags on greenscreen and composited those together.

Digital Dimension provided the digital snowflakes, which are the same ones that we used in the Leon the Snowman scene. I worked with the effects editor, Paul Wagner, who is always great, to figure out the choreography of the snowflakes, and then all of that was composited together by a company called MFX. They are in Burbank — their VFX producer is Steve Kullback They pulled some really long HOURS to turn that out for us.

The opening title sequence is one of my favorite parts of the movie — especially with John Debney’s music. I think he nailed exactly the feel of the movie, and it made everything work.

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