Holiday Traditions and World Building: Chad Eikhoff talks Elf on the Shelf
It’s that time of year again, and everyone is buying presents and baking ginger bread cookies with their friends and family as the holidays draw close and the snows fall outside if it’s cold enough. Whatever your background and views on holiday spirit, traditions—especially this time of the year—bring us together across generational and, sometimes, cultural boundaries. Watching movies and television shows — participating in storytelling, really — are among the most popular forms of coming together during the holidays.
It’s with this in mind that I present a recent interview with Chad Eikhoff, the director, writer, and producer of CBS’s acclaimed holiday television movie An Elf’s Story: The Elf on the Shelf.
Since the early 2000s Chad has been telling stories and building beautiful virtual worlds with a focus on more interactive animation and 3D. In our interview below he shares all about his experiences bringing An Elf’s Story to life, world-building, holiday traditions, the future of creativity, and more.
Andrew: Could you share a little bit about who you are and what you do?
Chad: Yeah, absolutely. So really I’m a creator at heart. Creating worlds and world building is pretty much at the core of everything I do. Part of what that means is starting any kind of story or concept with the environment and the thoughts of the kind of story and the character that could live inside of it.
For me, building beauty inside of those worlds is really the key of what I do and what we’re talking about today… An Elf’s Story: The Elf on the Shelf.
Andrew: Yeah. And, your medium primarily is film, correct?
Chad: Really, I’m kind of medium agnostic. I definitely work primarily with a 3D animation and a 3D environment, but, where those get utilized for television or film or virtual experiences are all possible.
Andrew: How has working with more interactive forms of cinema, like 3D and even VR, influenced the stories you tell?
Chad: It’s really at the core of it. That’s a great question because that is really the heart of where I start all my stories. I definitely create first in a 3D environment, which is essentially like the real world, but they’re built into the computer and you have all the power that animation provides that you can then create more wonder in a whimsical environment than would be possible with just a physical build-out.
So that’s really my initial start with any kind of a narrative expression. It’s really starting with the world. And what kind of stories? I think a great example would be when we were first starting An Elf’s Story: The Elf on the Shelf we were designing the North Pole and getting everybody’s input on, you know, what do you think the North Pole is?
And a pretty universal example was the North Pole from Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer Christmas special or the movie Elf. So I went to those and I was like, yeah, those are super colorful. And we went and looked them up the background for their North Pole is flat gray, 100% medium gray and there’s no color at all in the background. But they put color on the characters, and then we mentally sort of paint on the world ourselves. So that was a really fascinating TV kind of trick that happened in Rudolph and then was mimicked with Elf.
But when you’re building out the whole world, as in 3D, that trick’s not going to hold up. I’ve got to focus on the actual details and colors and the way light plays off of those. So that was really the key of the beginning of storytelling was building that world in a believable way that still holds the magic and ambience beyond that. I’m trying to capture that which really was only in people’s mind before.
Andrew: I noticed when watching An Elf’s Story, there were lots of aerial shots, snow funnels in, there are elves and reindeer flying about in the sky, and it’s bringing the story more to life using that more dimensional technique. But the, you know, the 3D animation doesn’t seem to be necessarily dictating the plot-line directly, or drastically changing it so much as it’s kind of shifting how you present the ideas or the scene and just the atmosphere itself.
Chad: Yeah. I mean, atmosphere was a key key focus for me. I believe when I was coming into it, one of the great opportunities was to try to create a Christmas tradition with watching the special. And so looking at the ones that had come before, from the classics from the 60's like Rudolph or The Grinch or A Charlie Brown Christmas special, none of them are excelling in their technique.
They weren’t creating the most pristine form of animation. They weren’t bad, they were just unique. But what they all had in common was a sense, an ambience or sort of a spirit about them that really became a focus of mine of how do we, with the medium, we’re leveraging, capture that same spirit.
Andrew: How do you think An Elf’s Story: The Elf on the Shelf fits into this holiday movie tradition that you’ve mentioned or show tradition or even broadly how it exists within the tradition of the holiday season itself?
Chad: Well, the goal was to try and do what those holiday specials from the 60s had done and really become something that became a family tradition that people would want to gather and watch together.
One of the big challenges was in the 60's there were like three TV stations and no way to record what you watched or stream later. So you really had like three options, two competitive options against your time slot. So for a while those became standards for a generation because there weren’t that many other options.
For us to be trying to get into that pantheon at a time where there are millions of options was a huge hurdle to try and figure out how to overcome. Now, The Elf on the Shelf was its own phenomenon and its own tradition, which gave us a little bit of a leg up. I think really where it fits in and hopefully will continue to is that it ties into something that’s a little bit more than a TV show.
A Christmas special, or any kind of holiday special gets to live in the same kind of atmosphere as a holiday itself, which is something that makes us all kind of stop and take a minute and take a breath and want to just be with friends and family and enjoy that time as opposed to something that’s kind of running in the current mainstream. One of my great joys is when people share how they are cuddled up on their couch watching it with their kids.
Andrew: Yeah, yeah. And it, it’s the experience that translates out. With children’s stories, I mean, generally speaking, they’re presenting a message more directly. There’s a, there’s something that children are meant to take away.
That’s not to say that a film for older people, or a show like Mad Men doesn’t have a message to it… But it’s not necessarily as direct as with children’s media. With that in mind, how do you as a writer and as a director, bring that message for children’s shows into focus and make that meaning appealing, readily available, and also relevant to children and also to adults.
Chad: I feel like it’s the greatest opportunity in family content right now. The way I really approach it I think is fairly different than a lot of content that gets made for kids and for families, and that is having an openness to listen as opposed to feeling you have to talk at or preach to the viewer. Thus giving them their own ability to come to their own conclusions.
So really it’s treating the viewer with respect and also just approaching it with a sense of wonder. I think kids in particular, they come to everything with a sense of wonder. Everything is a new mystery to unfold. And for adults we tend to come to things feeling like we have some of the answers the least. When you’re open to listening to a viewpoint that is also open to wonder, you’re going to find yourself just telling a different kind of story.
Really one of the elements that comes out of that that we’ve just been seeing recently is to kind of reflect on the success An Elf’s Story: The Elf on the Shelf has had. Because timelessness is timely. We’re trying to make something that is very timely and resonant in and of this moment, and that has to happen today and it has to happen tomorrow and ongoing. So that was the challenge and I think that one of the main ways I approached trying to do that, was through respect.
Andrew: The painter Kandinsky in one of his essays on form talks about for art to be timeless or to fit in with the time period, it has to reflect the time period that it’s made in. So if you make something that’s terribly anachronistic or just doesn’t fit in with the spirit of the age so to speak, you know, which is very, which is very diverse now, then, if not that, then I think it can perhaps fall flat. It’s knowing your audience, too, just how in marketing you know your target audience that you’re trying to reach or your demographics, whatever.
Chad: There is an element in art in particular that’s a little different than just straight entertainment and that is leaving some open barriers for you to find your own meaning in it and create the world, or create a feeling and a context for you to derive emotion from.
And I think that that definitely was part of the goal was to treat the world of the North Pole and the world of holiday tradition as something that we all come to with different spirits, different traditions, different religions… and how do you bring the commonality of that together so that there is a common spirit of certain elements of humanity that I think stay pretty consistent throughout time. And so that’s the main thing I was trying to tap into.
Andrew: Yeah, and it’s interesting how sometimes there’s something that you want to say through your art, but it’s almost in order to say it you have to leave a lot out that you think might be relevant. Or there’s some description that you’re like, “Oh, I really want to describe it in this way…” but if you maybe choose the right words, or the right scene presentation, depending on your media, then it comes through without needing to say the thing directly. And because there’s that space, the viewer, the person experiencing it, they fill that space with their own impressions and their own memories and it becomes meaningful for them.
Chad: 100%. One of the key lines in An Elf’s Story is when the main character Chippey is very distraught about trying to make Taylor believe and he is not successful in it. And then in that moment the answer is like, “You can’t make somebody believe. All you can do is be there.” And I think what you’re referencing is exactly that. Even in the content itself you can’t force a message on somebody. You can create the world in which they can come to their own conclusions.
Andrew: What was it like translating Elf on the Shelf from the book form into the show while remaining faithful to the original but also kind of bringing something new to it?
Chad: So one of the interesting things with The Elf on the Shelf is it’s a tradition and the book itself doesn’t really have characters, doesn’t really have a storyline, like a specific plot, and it doesn’t really paint out the world. So we were coming to it with pretty fresh canvas.
The book embraces the traditions of Christmas and of the North Pole and it showcases how the elves and Santa work together in that season but there are no specific characters. So that was one of my great opportunities and things that I focused on was first developing the world, as I mentioned. It is key to me. And then, making sure that everybody involved was really focused on telling stories that made sense in that world. One of the hurdles for us to get over in An Elf’s Story was telling the story of how everybody can adopt their own elf.
In storytelling, traditionally it’s easier to tell a story of somebody who overcomes their challenges and hurdles on their own and they become sort of the main best success story. And it was important to showcase that at the North Pole, like, Chippey is our main character and we’re telling his story. But every elf else there has an amazing story and we’re just thinking out that one. One key way of elevating the other elves was to surround Chippey with amazing friends that became part of his problem-solving and part of his journey on a regular basis. I think you learn as much about Zart, and Snowflake, and Wordsworth in An Elf’s Story even though you’re following Chippey’s specific journey.
Andrew: Yeah. And then when Chippey loses his magic his friends fly over just in time to swoop down and rescue him. And so in that sense, they’re very directly involved with his own progression.
Chad: Yeah, absolutely. I think it’s oftentimes not the focus for what may be talked about with the special, but friendship and community and leaning on each other in that kind of way is a huge part of it.
Andrew: And one thing I thought was an interesting turn in the story was when Chippey has lost his magic and he’s back in the North Pole and he’s in the elf hospital and he’s in the bed.
Chad: It’s fun just talking about it, right? The elf hospital!
Andrew: I know right! But um, Chippey’s in the elf hospital and he’s lost his magic or he’s recovering and his friends are saying, you know, it’s time to go, let’s go back and out there and encourage the children or just be there as their elves… But then he [Chippey] doesn’t really want to, he doesn’t want to return yet, and his friends they don’t force him. They just say, okay. And they let him be where he is.
And I really liked that it was very subtle, but I liked that there wasn’t that judgment or like, Oh, you have to do this good thing or you have to like rise up. They let him just kind of be in the elf hospital and rest and recover or whatever he was going through. And then in course he does eventually go on his way and back to his family.
Chad: In a lot of ways he had to hear that message and see it portrayed for him to sort of act it out himself for Taylor, [the boy he was helping to believe in Santa], because his friends were doing exactly that with him. Yeah. No thank you for calling that out, that’s a wonderful observation and is a really important part to me because you can sense in the pacing of the storytelling itself—it builds up and up to a big crescendo with the “Rise up, Rise up!” And then all of that was to really frame the fact that Chippey can’t, he’s not there yet. And his friends aren’t judging him.
Andrew: I think those are the types of messages that children can really derive, either subconsciously or directly. Bringing things in like that where you’re not even directly saying, in that moment, this is what’s happening, this what you should take away from it… I like that.
So to transition, just a little bit, could you describe the interplay between the discipline of writing and directing? Because I know with this project you were involved with both and with other projects too.
Chad: Yeah, absolutely. Well as I mentioned world is very important to me. As I was writing the world was already kind of played out in my head that I’m able to set up the scenes in. And there were co-writers on this project as well. So other having people’s ideas and then incorporating them into that gave An Elf’s Story a good framework. I was the one actually typing the screenplay up and as other ideas would come in world was hugely important.
Knowing that I was going to be directing it, there’s a unique vision that would be in my head actually like a visual of how a scene’s going to play out… and that could include the actual character expressions through to the pacing of the edit to how the lighting is going to look. I think that other people who are just focused on writing may not be bringing all of those elements into the writing portion.
And then from there, the writing portion is clearly going to affect not just plot. For me I really prioritize world first and characters second and plot third in terms of animated storytelling. Just writing the plot-line itself is one of the least important things. If you have a great plot, but you don’t have good character or good world, it’s going to fall flat. But if you can build a great world with great characters, even a mediocre plot can succeed. Hopefully our plot’s not mediocre! I mean, I do want a great plot too, but it’s sort of the sequence by what you build things. Being both in a writer position and a director position, you’re able to go back and forth to try and keep those things in equilibrium.
Andrew: Yeah, absolutely. Well, is there anything else you’d like to add?
Chad: Um, yeah, I’d love to talk just a minute branching off on that. This has been an amazing journey watching us take a stab at creating a Christmas special. Of all the things I’ve done I’ve put more of my voice into this project than anything else and it’s been wonderful to watch it gain success. But I do think it’s probably the last if not one of the last things we can refer to as a TV classic. Because, you know, reviewership of kids in particular and adults as well is heavily moving away from TV and certainly into the streaming through multiple different platforms… and also in interactive mediums.
What’s unique about animation and the world building that I’m doing is the new forms of animation that are being developed and that we’re starting to leverage and create ourselves. When I create that world to tell a story and for a TV show or a movie, I can then open it for fans and viewers to go into that world through an interactive experience and actually affect the world.
This idea of taking what we’ve done in the North Pole and what we’re doing with creating other world is a really exciting time for both animation and for just new kinds of content in general. So I’m very excited for that.
Andrew: There’s a version of Frankenstein that came out several years ago by Inkle Studios. It was an ebook-style app. So you go through, you know, you “open up the book” by tapping the screen, and then you’re reading a little bit and suddenly you get to a point where you have to make a conscious decision in order to advance the story.
For example, Victor and the narrator are walking home and the reader has to choose if they’re going to take the scenic route or the quick way home. And throughout the whole story you’re making decisions like this to influence what happens. Comparing with other people who read the same story in the same format, a lot of the details and some somewhat significant plot elements would have changed based off of your input.
That was the first time that I’d really encountered a book, especially a classic book that was being brought back to life through this new technology, that was consciously changing based off of your input.
For example the monster in some versions had no name. In some the monster is a he and in another a she… whole aspects of the reader experience would change. I’m sure at some point, too, you would bar entry to other aspects of that world just based off of your own decisions. I’m curious to see what interactivity like that looks like for cinema or something moving where you may have a VR headset on or you’re clicking on things and then it’s changing the story that’s unfolding.
Chad: I’m really excited for a shared world between viewers and creators. With 3D that means they don’t have to be simultaneous… I can make a show in that 3D world and however the viewers have affected the world will be represented in the show, but the world itself will be ever present.
I love the idea of using traditional television and film-making narrative styles and utilizing what they’re amazing at and tell character stories in those worlds and inspire people through the stories that exist there. But then use interactive for what it’s amazing at and put people in that world so they can start to impact it as well. And then… maybe find opportunities to interact with those characters in different ways. But we’re on the very front end of that and I’m really excited about bringing down the future.
Andrew: With interactive, too, now so many people are not just consuming something in isolation. Experience with media permeates out into discussion forums or into comment sections or, and actually specifically with Elf on the Shelf, there were a fair amount of memes going around… and with a meme people are changing the caption or they’re using a different image, etc. And then that itself is a form of interactivity or just creativity where people are changing the meaning of something or adding their own aspects to the broad world of an idea.
Chad: Absolutely. I think all of those interact and intersect. It’s an exciting time to take the learnings of things that are truly kind of timeless and resonate with topics that are really positive focused and really focused on building beauty. But we’re kind of standing on the front end of a shore of this new digital forefront where so much is going to be built. So many worlds are going to be filled and we’re going to be able to engage with them in so many different ways…. and really focusing on taking that as an opportunity to build positive, beautiful things and not, taking some of the easy routes, which I think some entertainment might take and kind of muddy the water there. So that’s what we’ll be doing.
Andrew: It’s really exciting stuff. I appreciate all of your input on this and it’s been a pleasure talking.
Chad: Yeah, you as well. Thank you so much.
Enjoy this interview and want to read more? Check out my interview with a sketch artist and cartoonist here.