BWW Interview: An Elf's Story: The Elf on the Shelf's Chad Eikhoff Talks Creating the Holiday Favorite
The director, writer, and producer of "An Elf's Story: The Elf on the Shelf," Chad Eikhoff, gives us a behind-the-scenes look at the making of the classic holiday film.
Tell us a bit about your background. How did you get into film and directing?
I've always loved drawing and cartoons. When I was a kid, I would draw on anything - cardboard boxes, church bulletins, our garage door (don't ask!), and for sure textbooks. By the time I was in sixth grade, I was submitting cartoon strips to syndicates. Once I learned that I could make drawings move with nothing but a pencil and paper, I was hooked! I'd animate by turning the corners of my textbooks into little flip-books with break dancing stick figures (yep, I was that cool - ha, ha!).
The joy I felt bringing characters to life was on par with the joy I felt building a sheet fort with friends - and honestly, to this day, that is the same joy I get when I create worlds and fill them with awesome characters. As a director, I am constantly seeking to capture and share that sense of open exploration, wonder, and joy with my audiences.
You're the director, writer, and producer of the holiday special, "An Elf's Story," how did you first come up with this idea?
To be clear, I did not create The Elf on the Shelf. It is a phenomenon that Christa, Chanda, and Carol created and is drawn from their own holiday traditions. What we had when we started "An Elf's Story" was just The Elf on the Shelf book, which does not have characters, a world, or a plot; and so, the development of The North Pole, the characters, and the story was my focus.
What was your favorite part about creating "An Elf's Story"?
My favorite part about creating "An Elf's Story" was the opportunity to immerse myself in a world of wonder and whimsy, and a chance to create a show in a way that families could enjoy year after year. That was the great opportunity. Within that opportunity, I was able to build a team of amazing talent and artists. Each day of the production was filled with joy and challenges, and I think you can feel that energy in the special.
Can you walk us through the creative process from pre-production to post-production of creating this special?
I am very much a world-builder and the first thing to tackle on "An Elf's Story" was just that - I focused on designing and building The North Pole in its entirety. The writing of "An Elf's Story" was very collaborative and similar to how Pixar approaches their development; we told the whole story in drawings first and then edited the whole thing until the story was just right.
From there, it's all about bringing the tale to life - from character animation, to identifying what Christmas Magic looks like. In "An Elf's Story," lighting and color theory were really important to me to create a specific ambiance; I spent a lot of time on that through to the final.
What is it that you love so much about creating content for children?
I read once that there is no such thing as grown-ups and that some of us are just better at pretending than others - I think there is some truth to that. Childhood is a time of open possibility and young minds are primed for wonder. I think, though, that adults and kids alike want to be filled with wonder - we all want to feel joy, curiosity, and the triumph of accomplishment.
As a medium, animation allows for a very free and a very all-encompassing embrace of all of those things - that joy, curiosity, and wonder. I believe that is why some animated classics really stand the test of time - when you combine great story-telling with great wonder, you get a beautiful work that becomes timeless. For example, Walt Disney's "Snow White" was released in 1938 and yet families still watch it today in 2019 - that is a truly beautiful thing!
Are there any specific challenges that come with creating content for children?
Anything's possible in animation! And when anything is possible, the hardest thing to do is decide what to focus on. With kids, many creators fall into 'talking to' the audience instead of letting them think for themselves. So, the challenge and opportunity when creating for younger audiences is to remain focused on creating and guiding them to wonder and curiosity in ways that allow the kids engaging with the content to explore for themselves and with their families.
Is there one person you'd love to collaborate with that you haven't had a chance to yet?
We built an amazing team in Atlanta, and we have a very inspirational atmosphere here. That said, given the opportunity, I'd love to jump in the sandbox to play and learn from Glen Keane. Glen's work on the Beast in "Beauty and the Beast" was one of my first inspirations that led me to pursue animation. Also, it is really awesome seeing Glen evolve to help pioneer and bring the magical power of the drawn line to virtual reality (VR) as well - Glen and I could make something pretty amazing together! :-)
When you're not working, what do you enjoy doing?
I am hanging out with my kids when I'm not working. Currently, I'm building a treehouse in our backyard with them.
Do you have any upcoming projects you can tell us about?
It has been an amazing journey with "An Elf's Story" and I'm excited to see it continue! I can't share the specific projects yet, however, over the past two years I have been developing a new approach to animation that will allow audiences to immerse themselves in the worlds we create and in the story in completely new ways. When I made "An Elf's Story," we were at the beginning of the mobile revolution. My upcoming projects will meet young audiences and families where they are at now and allow them to interact with the stories and characters in ways that they have not been able to previously.
Where can people watch "An Elf's Story: The Elf on the Shelf"?
"An Elf's Story" is available for download through Apple TV and in the iTunes store here: https://itunes.apple.com/us/tv-season/an-elfs-story/id485385263
PHOTOS COURTESY OF CHAD EIKHOFF