How to create an 'Elf'
Will Ferrell and Jon Favreau team up for holiday cheer
By Stephanie Snipes
Will Ferrell and Jon Favreau on the set of "Elf."
ATLANTA, Georgia (CNN) -- As the statuesque and elegant elves ride into battle to save the forests of Middle-earth from the forces of evil ... wait, that's another movie.
The elves of "Elf" -- a new holiday classic wannabe -- aren't quite so refined. They have a fetish for syrup and sweets, love all things Christmas and top out at only three feet tall -- except one.
Standing out from the pack is the six-foot-four-inch Buddy, played by "Old School" star, and former "Saturday Night Live" cast member, Will Ferrell.
Buddy is actually human, raised in the North Pole by his adopted father, Papa Elf (Bob Newhart). Devastated to learn he's human, Buddy heads to New York City, yellow tights and all, to locate his long-lost family.
Buddy is Ferrell's first leading role. The comic actor says he approached the role seriously.
"It's important that this character is played real, or straight, the whole way through and not winking at the audience. It was approached from a dramatic side as much as a comedic side," says Ferrell.
Sticking with 'old-school techniques'
To turn the fish-out-of-water story into a Christmas classic, director Jon Favreau looked to cartoon specials from the '60s like "Frosty the Snowman" and "Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer" for inspiration.
Favreau used forced perspective to make Ferrell appear much taller than the elves -- some of which were played by adult actors.
"We wanted the North Pole to feel familiar, like a Christmas special we grew up with," says the director.
The cast also includes James Caan as Buddy's biological father, Mary Steenburgen as Caan's wife, Amy Sedaris as an exec at Caan's publishing company, Peter Dinklage as a children's book author, and Ed Asner as Santa Claus.
Ed Asner as Santa Claus?
"As we were thinking of Santa Claus we wanted someone who was sort of gruff, but has a heart and there's a familiarity with [Asner]," says Favreau.
Favreau is generally associated with independent films, including his script for -- and star turn in -- the cult favorite "Swingers." He tried to stay close to his low-budget roots for "Elf," a big-budget studio production. That meant little use of computer-driven special effects to help build the movie's warm tone.
"I wanted to use only the old-school techniques in the beginning. I didn't want digital compositing. I wanted to use stop-motion animation [and] forced perspective like they would have in the old days so that the movie felt old," he says.
For example, Favreau shot Ferrell in the foreground and Newhart in the background, which allowed cinematographers to convey the dramatic size difference between the characters.
But it also meant that Ferrell and Newhart couldn't make eye contact during filming.
"At the end of the movie I gave Bob Newhart a headshot of mine with tape over the eyes. So that he'd remember, and be fond of the tape," jokes Ferrell.
While Elf has slapstick moments (like Buddy eating a plate of spaghetti drenched in maple syrup), Favreau felt it was important to focus his attention on entertaining adults.
"You see movies like 'Finding Nemo' and 'Shrek' and you realize you can make a movie that's smart and that adults would dig, even though they are PG," says Favreau.
It's important that this character is played real, or straight, the whole way through and not winking at the audience.
-- Will Ferrell on Buddy the elf
"[We] wanted to accept the challenge and take the [film] ... and try to add a little something extra to make it distinct," the actor says.
Favreau couldn't resist a few pokes at other holiday films.
"I like to bury as much interesting details in there so that people are rewarded for watching carefully. There are little homages to 'It's a Wonderful Life' and 'Lord of the Rings.' Whatever's on my mind I like to put in the movie," says Favreau.
Cameos include Peter Billingsley, Ralphie of "A Christmas Story" fame, as an elf, and singer Leon Redbone, as a snowman.
But "Elf" is squarely in the tradition of warm holiday films. Indeed, Favreau's hope is for the film to become a holiday viewing tradition.
"The prospect of [airing on TV] was very enticing to us as we made this. So, as edgy and current as we wanted to make it, we didn't want to date it either," says Favreau.
Holiday films, after all, are something an entire family can enjoy, he adds.
"[They were] a big memory of my childhood. I remember the movies that my dad would laugh at and I would laugh at too, and you really feel that you share a wonderful experience."