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Issue: December 1, 2005

COVER STORY: 'THE HAPPY ELF'

By: By Christine Bunish

TORONTO - Move over Rudolph, Frosty, Grinch. Eubie, The Happy Elf, took his place in the pantheon of Christmas icons with the December 2 debut of his eponymous CG-animated family holiday special on NBC. DVD release followed on December 6.

Based on an original song from Harry Connick, Jr.'s paltinum "Harry for the Holidays" album, the show was produced by IDT Entertainment in association with HC Productions. An animated Connick is the narrator of the tale, which tells the story of an overly enthusiastic Santaâ??s helper whose rosy view of the holidays is put to the test. He sets out to get the kids in the sad town of Bluesville off the Naughty list and onto the Nice list so they can celebrate Christmas.

Eubieâ??s backstory began two years ago when Connick approached IDT with the idea of using his song as a springboard for a holiday special. â??We developed a script with Scott Fishman, found the right director [John Rice, director of The Simpsons, King of the Hill] and built a design team around him,â?? says Scott Greenberg, COO of IDTâ??s Film Roman. â??This was the first collaboration of IDT in LA and IDT Entertainment Animation in Toronto, which did all the animation for the show.â??

The characters had to be funny and fun to look at with great, rich colors, reports Greenberg. â??Eubie had many iterations. Heâ??s like an annoying kid with a good heart. We wanted to make him cute and lovable. And we had to get Harry right. Ultimately, we decided to have Harry look like himself but cartoonish; the character has Harryâ??s personality.

THE LOOK

The Happy Elf has â??a style of its ownâ?? with richly colored and textured characters and starkly contrasting North Pole and Bluesville locales. The North Pole is vividly hued with inviting streets and buildings, including Santaâ??s workshop: a clean, loft-style space with wood floors and a modern assembly line. Bluesville is surrounded by towering cliffs, which the sun can only penetrate for a few seconds a day. Itâ??s a virtually monochromatic world inhabited by drab structures and unsmiling residents.

â??Whatâ??s great about CG is that you can design more textures into the buildings, backgrounds and charactersâ?? faces, and you can do feature-style camera moves,â?? Greenberg notes. â??We have a number of action sequences, including a dance sequence that would have been difficult to achieve in 2D. CG [allowed them] to give more of a theatrical feeling to the animation.â??

IDT Entertainment assembled an â??incredibleâ?? voice cast, under the direction of Charlie Adler: Mickey Rooney as Santa; Lewis Black as Norbert, Eubieâ??s angry boss; Carol Kane as Eubieâ??s love interest; Kevin Michael Richardson as the mayor of Bluesville; and veteran voice actor Rob Paulsen as Eubie. â??We recorded them with [Digidesign] Pro Tools, taping the actors as they worked so the storyboards could reflect them acting the characters,â?? says Greenberg.

THE TOOLS

IDT Entertainment Animation Toronto created a â??very stylized, very textural and painterlyâ?? look for the show with â??skin treatment for the characters and soft and felty clothâ?? for their costumes, reports animation director Michael Fabris. The company tapped Alias Maya for animation and rendering and Appleâ??s Shake for compositing.

In addition, they employed an array of proprietary software, including an animation tool for facial and key posing that allows animation and poses to be ported onto multiple characters, and a muscle system, with hundreds of controls, for face shapes. â??The main cast was all done with this set-up,â?? says Fabris. â??There was also a secondary set-up for background characters.â?? The tools enabled Toronto to create a library of facial shapes and key poses, which were available to every animatorâ??s personal library and to a studio-wide library.

Some Maya particle effects were used for charactersâ?? snow interaction and the elf magic that allows Eubie to appear and disappear in a twinkle. Next Limitâ??s RealFlow fluid-simulation tool created the custardy, creamy pie filling for a fight sequence.

â??We have a solid pipeline here so we were able to crank out the animations in a short time with a fairly small crew while maintaining high quality,â?? says Fabris. â??We built a special pipeline to handle big scenes, like the North Pole set, with our proprietary asset-loading system that enables us to bring in proxy models and high-rez models on the fly.â??

Animation was done in HD, which gave the animators more information and detail to work with. While storyboards were 16x9, great care was taken to ensure the staging worked in 4x3 as well. The SD version of the show aired on NBC with an HD version archived for future broadcast.

Animations were streamed on an FTP site for review and approval. A video conferencing system linked LA and Toronto, where Kyran Kelly was art director, for production meetings. IDT did a rough edit of the show with Final Cut Pro in its LA office. Final online assembly was performed by FotoKem. Audio engineers from Mission Post, working at Larson Sound in Hollywood, teamed with John Rice and Michael Fabris on sound effects and Connick on the music mix.