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Deters & Wermers-Skelton Talk 'Prep & Landing'

The directors of Walt Disney Animation Studios' first TV special discuss their first CG-animated experience.

The directors added a touch of Mission: Impossible to Prep & Landing. All images courtesy of ABC.

The Annie-nominated Prep & Landing bows on ABC tomorrow night (8:30/7:30c), marking the first TV special produced by Walt Disney Animation Studios. The CG-animated work reveals the never-before-told tale of an elite unit of Elves known as Prep & Landing. And with one particular veteran Elf named Wayne (Dave Foley) upset about being passed over for a promotion, the Christmas Eve mission is put in jeopardy when he is paired with newbie Lanny (Derek Richardson) and lacks the usual holiday spirit. Directors Kevin Deters & Stevie Wermers-Skelton (How to Hook Up Your Home Theater) discuss pulling off Prep & Landing.

Bill Desowitz: How much did you have to work with from the original pitch by Chris Williams?

Stevie Wermers-Skelton:

He put together a short on reels and storyboards [before leaving for Boltand doing his own short, Glago's Guest].

Kevin Deters:

It wasn't produced.

SWS: That's the short that John Lasseter loved so much and wanted to turn into a half-hour Christmas special.

KD: It was a great basic idea that tapped a vein, if you will, of Christmas storytelling. I would equate it to an interesting house design drawn on a napkin or a loose idea and we were asked to find a place to build it and make it work. Ultimately, it had the same one-sentence description and Chris had named the characters Lanny and Wayne, and we really liked the names.

SWS: I think he named them after hockey players. Chris is from Canada.

KD: After Lanny McDonald and Wayne Gretzky. We took that as a great starting point and spent the next couple of weeks talking through what we'd like to see: develop the world and really expand upon it. We loved the idea that Prep & Landing was an occupation within the elf community, which was part of Chris' original pitch, and we wanted to give them really cool jobs, so we brought the Mission: Impossible spy element to it.

Lanny & Wayne evoke the spirit of Rankin/Bass with their Christmas hijinks.

BD: Was it always intended for 3D?

KD: Yes, we wanted to do it 3D. The idea too was that people would be finishing up Bolt and it would be an ideal opportunity to roll right onto another project while they were at the top of their game. And so there was no need to really ramp up.

BD: So, what were some of the main challenges for you?

KD: From a story standpoint, I think our toughest challenge was knowing that it was going to be 21 minutes and 30 seconds plus commercials.

SWS: This is much tighter than features when it doesn't matter if you're a minute or a frame over, so it was extremely challenging.

KD: As you know, we board things out with one reel several times over and screen them here and talk about them with fellow directors and John. So we were very conscious of staying within that time frame with each screening. We could layer things and condense things as the story got tighter and tighter, but the length issue was a new challenge.

Santa's North Pole headquarters was given a Norwegian touch.

SWS: For the first couple of months, we just thought out as much of the world as we could. And there were a lot of little things that we thought of to pepper the world. And it was kind of painful to have to chop some of that stuff out.

KD: From an artistic standpoint, too, we obviously knew that the whole idea of partnering with ABC here was something new and we were excited about having a new special with Walt Disney Animation Studios that would hopefully, eventually, stand alongside some of the hallowed classics. We'll see how it goes over, but Stevie and I really have a lot of reverence for A Charlie Brown Christmas and The Grinch and some of the great Rankin/Bass material, so we put a lot of pressure on ourselves to try and do something that would acknowledge those great pieces but also be something new and different.

BD: And talk about the look.

SWS: As we said before, we were trying to recall this Rankin/Bass, Charlie Brown look: larger heads, round shapes. Just something that looks familiar. So that's what we were going for [led by Art Director Andy Harkness and Character Designer Bill Schwab].

KD: We wanted a very relatable, natural world, evoking the Christmas of your youth. And it's all steeped in mid-Western Americana. Also, to ground the North Pole in some sense of reality that would fit that human world. So we had inspiration from the Norwegian architecture, lots of old wood, as opposed to magic castles and that sort of thing.

Coming from 2D, Stevie Wermers-Skelton was most knocked out by the final render and lighting.

BD: What proved to be most daunting?

KD: Beyond the story itself, we were pretty fortunate to have a really seasoned, enthusiastic crew that rolled right off of Bolt. And we were able to learn from their production experience on Bolt: things that could be improved and things to watch out for.

SWS: Well, we never worked in 3D before.

BD: And what was the biggest learning curve for that?

KD: I think for us as directors, realizing that the more you have thought out as far as location and characters up front, the better off you are. It's a little more difficult to implement those changes down the road, as opposed to 2D. We wanted to turn around really quickly a character that was designed, modeled and rigged and had the look development put on it, and then do a little test scene so we could react to all of the elements in context. As opposed to spending lots of iterations each step of the way. It was an interesting new way to trying out the development of the show. And it worked out quite nicely for us.

BD: Who came up with this approach?

KD: Our Visual Effects Supervisor, Scott Kersavage, and his group. And one thing too that I found really great about working in CG was the animatic phase. Rob Dressel (Transformers) was our head of layout and animatics, and it was great to get in there and feel how the movie was paced out with the camera moving before we got into the heat of production, and that was an efficient way of working.

Prep & Landing has received Annie noms for Best Animated Television Production, Writing, Character Animation, Character Design, Production Design and Storyboarding.

BD: What are you proudest of?

SWS: That it was all done. I have to say that just watching it go through every department, and, for me, just seeing the whole thing rendered and lit was amazing. You look at it from story sketch to that is such a huge different. I didn't know quite what to expect.

KD: We had our vision what we hoped it would look like and it was really gratifying and surpassed our expectations. For me, the most gratifying thing was we had such a really talent crew that clearly invested themselves in the project. I don't know if it had to do with it being a holiday special, but as directors, we fostered an atmosphere that allowed for a lot of deliberation and debate and I think it worked out pretty well.

Bill Desowitz is senior editor of AWN & VFXWorld.

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Bill Desowitz, former editor of VFXWorld, is currently the Crafts Editor of IndieWire.