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INTERVIEW: Screen Novelties on “Elf: Buddy’s Musical Christmas”

INTERVIEW: Screen Novelties on "Elf: Buddy's Musical Christmas"

Tomorrow night (Tuesday December 16th) NBC will present a new stop-motion Christmas special Elf: Buddy’s Musical Christmas, produced by Warner Bros. Animation and animated by stop-motion specialists Screen Novelties. It has all the makings of a classic – based on a hit movie-turned-Broadway musical, with an all-star cast including Jim Parsons (as Buddy), Ed Asner, Mark Hamill, Fred Armisen, Kate Micucci, and Gilbert Gottfried. 

I spoke with Screen Novelties toppers Seamus Walsh and Mark
Caballero about their latest (and longest) production. 

Tell us about this animated “Elf”
and how the project got started.

Seamus:  It’s a
streamlined retelling of the original movie story. We pulled the songs from the
musical “Elf”, reworked them a little bit, squashed them.

Sam Register and Peter Girardi approached us about a year
ago (maybe two) with the possibility  of
doing Elf in stop motion – we were jazzed and came up with a pitch. The
greenlight came last January. They had a script from the writers of the
original play and then writers Aaron Horvath and Michael Jelenic (Teen Titans Go!)  at Warner Bros. added their nice touches to
it. We did a once over to add some Screen Novelties magic to it. We knew our
deadline was this year and it was going to be 45 minutes of stop motion – so we
started boarding, designing and fabricating all at the same time – so it got a
little “nuts” in the early phase. But it was also pretty cool because it was a unique

We started the animation in late June and wrapped in late
October – handing in the whole thing the day before Thanksgiving. It was a
pretty fast schedule.

Mark: We made a pact early on that we weren’t going to
stress out about the schedule. We wanted to make sure a light atmosphere and the
proper “whimsy” was there for the show. We had a lot of fun trying stuff out… 

Seamus: We have a particular way that we like to animate
stop motion which incorporates 2D timing, posing and staging. It’s difficult to
do when you have a tight schedule, but everybody rose to the occasion and had
fun with it.

Our main visual inspiration for this show was a combination
of Jay Ward and Don Martin. You might see some Don Martin (“Mad’s Maddest
”) and Jay Ward (Bullwinkle) poses throughout. When we got together with
Craig Kellman, who did character designs, he connected that Jay Ward style was
the perfect way to go.  

I note a Rankin-Bass

Mark: Well that’s an influence whether it was conscious or not.
 They are our heroes.

Seamus: Rudolph is the first thing that got me interested in stop

Mark: They were masters of charm and design in stop motion.

Tell us about working
with the legendary Ed Asner.

Mark: I had worked with Ed a long time ago – and at that time
gave me some career advice that led me to quit my job to pursue animation (with
MTV Celebrity Death Match).  He didn’t
really remember meeting me – but I reminded him of  his advice to this young man. His response,
“Well, I’m glad I didn’t screw up.” (he didn’t say “screw” up).

Seamus:Most of the voices came in on the last third of
production – we were working with a detailed scratch track for months while
casting went on.  Because the schedule
was so compacted to make the holiday deadline, our production crew read the
lines so we could move forward. We did get to animate to the final cast voices
in the last month or so. Jim Parsons has a real affinity for voice work and he
was a particular joy to work with.

Mark: The songs were recorded by the composer (Matthew Sklar)
and we had to re-record the actors later on to the exact beat. Jim Parsons, Ed
Asner. Mark Hammil, Kate Micucci all nailed it.

Seamus: All the actors had some animation before, but there’s
something about an animated Christmas special, there’s something about
stop-motion … everyone knows you just don’t do stop motion just for the heck of
it. It’s such a crazy process that you just save it for projects that are
special. The cast knew this and, unlike other animated show they’ve worked on,
they could actually see the footage we had already shot. They got a kick out of
that and really poured their heart and soul into it.

How many people on your
staff for a production like this?

Seamus: On a project like this we usually start with six to ten
people during the design and boarding process – then when we start building we
might have 20 people on staff. When we start animating – at the peak we have
about 50 people working on it for several months. When we’re shooting its like
a miniature live action shoot. You’ve got grips and lighting crew, set dressers
and painters…

How many seconds of
footage do you get a day?

Mark: We have about eight animators and ten stages going at one
time at the height of things. The goal is about five seconds a day, maybe
getting 45 seconds a day depending on the complexity of each shot. We really
tried to establish a particular animation style, especially with the main
character Buddy, we went more rubber-hose on this show. Everyone put out more
effort – and as far as we are concerned the whole film came out perfect. Just
what we wanted.

Seamus: This was a challenge – 45 minutes is the longest piece
we’ve done to date.  For nine months no
one saw us as we locked ourselves in the studio to get it done. We also
animated on it ourselves  – which is our
great pleasure on a job like this.

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