How Elf built a winter wonderland out of paper and department store goods
The best way to spread Christmas cheer is singing loud for all to hear.
But the second-best way to spread Christmas cheer is to really go to town on the decorations. In the big-screen holiday comedy Elf, which celebrates its 15th anniversary Wednesday, Buddy the Elf (Will Ferrell) is quite the skilled decorator, turning multiple locations into glittering Yuletide wonderlands.
Most memorably, in the course of a single night, Buddy transforms Gimbels department store from a run-of-the-mill Santa’s workshop photo op into an over-the-top display of decorations crafted from various items in the store, including paper, pillows, Legos, Lite-Brites, Etch A Sketches, and more. “We wanted it to feel homemade, and it had to feel improvised,” production designer Rusty Smith tells EW. “It had to be he would use everything that was in the store.”
The overall design of Elf, from sets to costumes, was inspired by the 1964 Rankin/Bass stop-motion TV special Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. Smith says he took cues from the special’s modular white backdrops, as well as from Nordic architecture, to establish a baseline for his designs. “It gave us a background for the world that was based on something that was kind of real, but fantastical in its own way,” he explains.
But the sequence in the department store had to feel different. “It had to feel handmade. It had to feel like Buddy actually did it,” Smith says. He remembers scouting with director Jon Favreau and the art department to determine which items Buddy might construct in the decorating montage. “We were all spitballing,” he recalls. “Jon came up with the Lite-Brite thing. It was nostalgic toys and stuff like that.”
Below, in honor of Elf’s crystal anniversary, Smith takes EW through each of Buddy’s unique Christmas creations and reveals just what it took from to bring his winter wonderland to life. (Hint: An affinity for elf culture is a good start.)
Let it snow
Buddy tears the stuffing from a stack of pillows and turns it into snow, which he nails to the roof of Santa’s house to lend it that extra air of authenticity. Smith says the cotton batting they used was one of the easiest pieces to source. “He goes through and he decimates the department store,” Smith says. “The thing we wanted with that was to make sure we saw him being meticulous. It couldn’t just be a staple gun; it had to be a hammer and nails. It had to be very particular because Buddy would be a perfectionist.”
Walkin’ in a winter wonderland
Buddy covers nearly every inch of available space in paper decorations of his own making: snowflakes and paper chains and more. Smith says this was the art department’s greatest challenge, simply because it required so much individual work: “Basically the set decoration department started right away making stuff homemade, so while people would be on the phone, they’d be sitting at the desk cutting up paper, cutting out little dolls, cutting out little curlicues to make snowflakes. It took weeks and weeks for that alone.”
When it came time to shoot the scene, the department had cut and crafted hundreds of paper decorations, all of which had an individual feel. “The mantra was that it had to be ludicrous,” Smith says. “When you come in the next morning, it has to be like ‘Holy crap, he did this?!’ In order to make it that fantastical, it took a lot of hands.”
One of Favreau’s guiding principles for the team was doing as much as they could with practical effects and camera tricks. The director was heavily inspired by Darby O’Gill and the Little People (1959), which used forced perspective in innovative ways to depict leprechauns, and he shot Elf’s North Pole scenes in a similar manner. Eschewing CGI was part of the aesthetic. “We didn’t want any of the stuff that [Buddy] did in any part of the movie to feel digitized or fake, so it had to look like he was really doing it, but also be witty,“ Smith says. “Like when he’s cutting up the snowflakes and it’s blowing all the paper cutting past him — that was a tricky bit to coordinate with a blower and with special effects.”
Christmastime in the city
Buddy’s most astonishing creation is the scale model of New York City’s skyline that he builds entirely out of Legos. The idea for that particular set piece came quite late in the process. “We had Legos, and [Favreau] said, ‘How about a whole city made of Legos and then they destroy it?’ I was like ‘Yes! That is so brilliant,’ but then I turned and looked at my art director and he was ashen.”
The Lego skyline required five sculptors to build the structures over the course of two weeks. Because the buildings needed to be to scale and stand at 5 or 6 feet tall to really register on screen, the team had to build the designs from scratch rather than relying on prepackaged Lego sets.
With only 15 days from conception to shooting, Smith and his team had to source Legos from around North America to ensure they had enough of the colors they needed. “I wanted them to feel like actual skyscrapers and be the right colors of the Empire State Building or the Chrysler Building or whatever,” Smiths recalls. “It was very mathematical. I didn’t fully appreciate the complexity of it at the time. We took an elevation of each one of these very specific, iconic New York buildings, and we drafted it. We had to draw it up because we needed to know how tall each Lego was, and we needed to figure out how many Legos we would need per building.” Smith cites this set piece as his favorite in the film because of the ingenuity involved and the fact that it allowed them to incorporate a timeless children’s toy in the narrative.
Help to make the season Brite
Buddy turns to a colorful piece of nostalgia to create his cheery “Welcome Santa” sign: the Lite-Brite. Using the illuminated pegs, Buddy spells out a snow-covered welcome sign in huge blue and red letters. This design presented a similar challenge as the Legos. “A Lite-Brite comes with a certain number of colors. You have to get extra things in order to peg it in there to fill up the void to make it a consistent background. We needed extra parts for that as well,” Smith says. “Each one takes a person. Somebody’s got to be on Lite-Brite assignment. And we have to show them packaged, so it was complex because they had to be ready to sell and then we had to also prep them ahead of time for what the aftermath was.”
For kids from 1 to 92
Another classic toy that gets a lot of play in Elf is the Etch A Sketch. We see the elves making them in Santa’s workshop at the start of the film, and later Buddy uses them in his decorating, drawing a replica of the Mona Lisa on one he hangs on a department store Christmas tree. The original plan was to use sped-up animation to show Buddy actually creating the sketch, but it didn’t make the final cut. The final shot of the Mona Lisa in the film was created from a graphic manufactured to read as an Etch A Sketch screen when placed onto the actual toy and captured on camera.
Dressed in holiday style
Though they’re not part of Buddy’s decorations, Smith says he’s particularly proud of the Gimbels front windows, which Walter (James Caan) passes on his way to work and where he sees Buddy fast asleep. It was another case of very short turn-around. While filming on location in New York, Favreau paid a visit to Macy’s and told Smith he wanted their windows to look as grand as the famous department store’s festive Christmas facade. Smith sketched out a model in his hotel room, which required sourcing antique dolls and building a replica fireplace. “We only had a very limited amount of time to shoot it,” he recalls. “That was on the side street of the Empire State Building. That room was actually in the Empire State Building, not in our Gimbels location, and we had to go around the corner and pop it off as quickly as we possibly could. I love that moment.”
A decade and a half later, Elf has become a perennial favorite — a Christmas movie that families watch again and again alongside the likes of White Christmas, Miracle on 34th Street, and yes, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. “From day one, [Favreau] wanted to make something that would be a Christmas classic,” Smith says of the movie’s enduring appeal. “He had a vision very clearly of a holiday classic. It had to be grounded in heartfelt honesty, but still in a weird, fantastical situation. He was very good at guiding this film down that path and crafting that. No matter what, once a year, people get to see it, and it’s pretty exciting to be a part of.”