Behind the Scenes of Elf: How Forced Perspective Turned a Low Budget Film Into a Christmas Classic

Elf is undoubtedly a Christmas classic, but the 2003 film was low budget, and the idea of creating a lot of the visual effects in-camera had many senior people worried it couldn't work.

Given Will Ferrell is such a global name these days, I hadn't realized how low budget (in commercial terms) Elf had been. In this video, you can quickly see just how difficult some of the shots were to get, and that is largely due to the decision to make the film without using digital effects, so as not to age it. I can imagine it's rather hard to resist the most modern digital effects as they're always impressive at the time they're cutting edge, but they will indeed age a film like nothing else. Whereas, using physical tricks — like forced perspective — can last the test of time, as we've seen with films like Lord of the Rings.

One common thread I have noticed with films using difficult techniques is how it often requires one strong vision and that person to remain steadfast under pressure. For Elf, that seemed to be Director of Photography, Greg Gardener. After they spent full days building up scenes and then shooting them using forced perspective, only to find that at the end of the day they didn't get anything usable, Gardener came under pressure from the studio. Never the less, he knew what he was capable of and stuck to his guns, and the results speak for themselves. Elf grossed $220,000,000 and became a beloved Christmas classic, guaranteeing it a surge of seasonal revenue each year.

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29 Comments

Andrew Meyers's picture

im curious about how they got release statements from all of those real people walking in the streets. Did a crew scramble around with them after the shots?

Andrew Meyers's picture

im curious about how they got release statements from all of those real people walking in the streets. Did a crew scramble around with them after the shots?

Warped Trekker's picture

People in public don't need release statements. Just like I can take photos of anyone I like in public.

Jan Holler's picture

How can an educated person even watch such crap films. When was the last time a Christmas film came out of the US that didn't drown in every cheap and cheesy stereotype imaginable? The voices alone in the video above are almost unbearable. No, every Christmas we are showered with the same unbearable stupor from the USA. Stop it!

P K's picture

You do realise that you're not being forced to watch this, that you can watch something else, right?

If others get joy out of this and you can choose something else instead it's rather selfish to try to stop that joy, don't you think? That seems to go very much against the whole "spirit of Christmas" thing in my opinion.

Also, an educated person would have used a question mark to end their first sentence.

Jan Holler's picture

I am not forced as you are not forced to comment or even read my posting. Some of my money, I am forced to pay for television if I watch it or not, is used to buy this crap. So, yes, I have the right to express what I think.
"Spirit of Christmas"? It is all about money, don't fool yourself!

P K's picture

Your comments are rather negative and suggest you may be deeply unhappy in life. You have my pity.

Good day to you.

Jan Holler's picture

What a disrespectful and manipulative answer! Mind of your own business!

Tim Ericsson's picture

You’re not forced to buy television. “Educated” people read books anyway: I would suggest starting with “A Christmas Carol.” I’m sure you’ll find the protagonist quite relatable: up until the last few pages, that is.

Happy holidays, you insufferable killjoy!

Jan Holler's picture

Yes, regrettably I am. As in most countries of Europe. For us it is about $400 a year. I've read Christmas Carol, but it is quite some time ago.

Tim Ericsson's picture

So how much of that $400 goes to to the rights to play an American Christmas comedy from 2003 once or twice a year? 12 cents? Probably less. Just trying to place a number on your whining.

And if that still bothers you, file a complaint with your state-sanctioned broadcast system, or petition the government to stop paying for the rights to air reruns of old American films. Bitching on a photography forum online won’t solve your horrific dilemma.

Unless, of course, the purpose of your post was to stroke your own ego by attempting to make you seem superior to others while simultaneously revealing your own bitterness and negativity. In that case, brava! You’ve succeeded.

If that wasn’t your intent, then you should definitely reread “A Christmas Carol.” Take the message to heart and be a little less grouchy.

Jan Holler's picture

OMG, calm down! Do not be so sensitive! I am talking about movies and you guys get personal? What is wrong with you?

Tim Ericsson's picture

LOL you feign outrage about things getting personal only to ask “what’s wrong with you?” in literally the next sentence.

What an adorable attempt to backtrack, ignore, and gaslight others’ statements. “Educated” indeed. You must have graduated from the Prepubescent Rager School of Internet Trolldom.

Jan Holler's picture

Well, now you are playing the nationalist card and getting even more personal?

Tim Ericsson's picture

Are you asking a question, or is this hollow, tepid response all you’ve got to say?

Crawl away, troll. Ba humbug!

Jan Holler's picture

You have now lost your contenance. Who do you think you are, that you could chase others away?

Tim Ericsson's picture

You’ve lost your continence; you continue to dribble excrement onto your keyboard and hit “post.”

And who do you think YOU are, judging other people’s merriment? I’ll answer that for you: you’re an insecure, miserable pompous ass.

Jan Holler's picture

Nah, I was just saying that most Christmas movies from the US are bad. The one above is one of the worst. Your insults fall on yourself.

Tim Ericsson's picture

Good: I see you've starting crawling away (at least linguistically, if not physically yet) because all you can do is backpedal and add a grade-school level retort akin to "I know you are but what am I."

Apologies, I'll add cowardly and simple-minded to my list of descriptors of you. Damn, I don't even like this movie: but I really don't like people like you.

E S's picture

Dude I's a COMEDY. If you want a serious Christmas movie, Die Hard is available too. :D

Never forget NAKATOMI PLAZA 1988.

What happened at Nakatomi Plaza?
On Christmas Eve, 1988, a group of terrorists led by Hans Gruber took the Nakatomi employees hostage during their Christmas party.

Tim Ericsson's picture

Best. Christmas. Movie. Ever!

Lee Christiansen's picture

Yes but we're forced to scroll past your diatribe, and it's wearing out my trackpad.

Benoit Pigeon's picture

I liked the behind the scene video. The movie not so much. There are a few funny scenes, but watching it once when my kids were younger was more than plenty.

Lee Christiansen's picture

Because sometimes, films are just fun - not designed to answer the meaning of life. Lighten up - life is more enjoyable that way.

Dan Ostergren's picture

What a delightfully condescending comment.

Richard King's picture

Learnt a lot there. Thanks

Francis Drake's picture

Does this 'forced perspective' also require the use of a split focus front element?

Lee Christiansen's picture

Interesting question. My gut reaction is to say no, but the depth of field would need to be greater than usual to ensure all elements were captured suitably sharply. I'd imagine aligning a split focus element may prove tricky - particularly in the case of Lord of the Rings where forced perspective was cleverly combined with camera movements:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QWMFpxkGO_s