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The Behind-the-Scenes Visual Trickery That Brought ‘Elf’ to Life

Before helming some of the biggest shows and movies in Hollywood, Jon Favreau directed the 2003 Christmas film “Elf,” and it was an immediate hit. In order to bring to the film’s trademark Christmas spirit on a very limited budget, the movie’s crew had to get really creative during production.

To start, the New York City scenes were all filmed guerilla. This means that instead of closing down entire sections of one of the world’s biggest cities, only to pay to pack it full with extras again, the filmmakers just sent Will Ferrell running around town in an elf costume with a cameraman in tow, reminiscent of other comedies of the time.

Once the New York City scenes were shot, the production packed up and flew to Canada. Vancouver is a very popular filming location for two main reasons: it’s much cheaper to film there than other urban centers like Chicago or New York City, and it is nondescript enough to pass as whatever city the filmmakers need it to be. In order to film the expansive Santa’s Village, the crew shied away from traditional soundstages, and instead built the town on an ice hockey rink.

One major effect used throughout “Elf” is forced perspective. Used heavily in films like the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy, forced perspective will use clever camera angles and positioning of actors, set pieces, and props in order to make them seem larger or smaller than they actually are. For example, Ian McKellan’s Gandalf isn’t actually twice the size of Frodo Baggins, he just stood a lot closer to camera. This effect was used throughout, and in incredibly complex scenes. This led to a bustling set 24/7, where the night crew would spend all night setting up a couple shots for the main crew to film the next day.

For a 2003 movie, especially with such a limited budget, “Elf” is really well made. All the experimentation with visual effects also likely played into Favreau’s later career, whether it be photorealistic remakes of “Jungle Book” and “The Lion King,” or the new technology used on “The Mandalorian.”

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